To die in one’s bed “is not a small thing for a Russian of [that] generation”, Joseph Brodsky once wrote about the Soviet writers of the ’30’s.
Indeed, the previous century’s Russian writers tended to die in other, less comfortable, settings: prison cells, labor camp courtyards, anonymous basements.
I’ve spent many a childhood afternoon listening to elders offer vague stories about the disappearance of a certain great-great-grandfather, Ilya Tzudekovich Kaganov: a writer - a journalist with a law degree, in fact - an amateur violinist, a father of two and a Kharkov intellectual who mingled in the salons of the Jewish intelligentsia.
After returning from a reporting assignment to Birbodizhan in 1937, Kaganov was arrested by the NKVD, charged as an enemy of the state, “on account of Zionist activities”, and allegedly sent to the gulag. (“A journalist and a Zionist,” my great-grandfather says to me when I visit him last week. “Perhaps it’s genetic?” he winks. I laugh and then shudder; somehow the fates of Zionist journalists are not too promising.)
Kaganov’s family spent years sending letters to their husband and father, with no response; his wife Polina crossed Russia, traveling from camp to camp searching for him, until she was notified of his death in 1953. (“Malaria,” the state notice had explained). It was only in 2007, with the opening of the Russian archives, that we discovered that Kaganov had never been sent to Siberia at all. A mere several days after his 1937 arrest, he had been executed in an unmarked location. The family’s letters had been postmarked to no-one.
Kaganov was the first of his circle of friends to disappear. Many Jewish writers who survived Stalin’s Great Purge, and then the war, found themselves arrested soon afterwards. In 1948-1949, fifteen Soviet Jews - all loyal Party members - were arrested for treason and espionage; five of the defendants were celebrated Soviet-Yiddish writers and all were members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Sixty-one years ago, on August 12, 1952, after several years of torture and isolation, 13 of the defendants were executed by firing squad in Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison in what later became known as the ‘Night of the Murdered Poets’.
Since then, quite a few modern writers have found the tragedy of the poets especially compelling; Nathan Englander alludes to the Night of the Murdered Poets in his short story ‘The Twenty-Seventh Man’, while Elie Wiesel combines several poets’ biographies in his lyrical 1999 novel The Testament. (Commemorating those victims who were not writers, however, has proven to be problematic in the West, Joshua Rubenstein notes in his essay on the event; the non-writers had been first and foremost Communist activists, while the writers’ Communist activities are somehow easier to forgive in light of their art.)
Of the thirteen killed that night, it was Leib Kvitko who my great-great-grandfather had been closest to -- Kvitko, the well-known children’s poet who lived in Kharkov for some time. Though Kvitko had written some satirical writings mocking some of his Communist Jewish comrades, and had even left the Soviet Union for Germany for some years, his name was redeemed when Kornei Chukovsky, star of Soviet children’s literature and the Russian equivalent of Dr. Seuss, praised him publicly in 1933. Instantly, Kvitko’s first name was changed from ‘Leib’ to the more Russian ‘Lev’, and his books began to sell by the millions.
Some of Kvitko’s poems were featured in Russian-language primers. Translated from the original Yiddish texts, the poems are simple and cheerful, playful and picturesque -- fully in keeping with the dictates of Socialist Realism, in all of its kittens and horse-sleds, red apples and violins and little girls carrying buckets of water on village roads. My great-grandmother often reminisced about Kvitko’s visits to the family flat on Klochkovskaya Street; it was a point of pride that, as a young girl, she sat on Kvitko’s knees as he read her his own poetry, as if she was one of his very first readers.
Like that classic Soviet patriotic song, “What does a homeland start with? With the pictures in your primer...”, it may have been this sort of reasoning which led Joseph Stalin to include the name of a children’s writer in the list of August 12th’s accused. If a homeland starts with pictures in one’s primer, then loyalty to the State starts with the verses in one’s primer, and perhaps the thought of children’s books sprouting from a Yiddish poet with questionable loyalties was too dangerous. And so, Kvitko was included with the other Yiddish writers to be executed that night - alongside the poets Peretz Markish, David Hofstein and Itzik Fefer, and the novelist David Bergelson.
Today, Russian children’s books continue to include Kvitko’s poetry, but his name and face have nearly disappeared since the night of August 12th. The legacy of Kvitko, and that of his fellow writers, resembles the unforgettable opening scene of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: a character is erased from a photograph after being executed for anti-State activities, and all that remains of him in the photograph is his fur hat. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” Kundera wrote of the disappearing face. The tragedy of Night of the Murdered Poets and its aftermath is an eerie and uncomfortable reminder that in a place where forgetting wins over memory, and power over man, anything is possible - it’s a place where letters are suddenly postmarked to no one, where amateur violinists disappear into basements and where children’s poets become criminals.
Leib Kvitko’s last poem, written in his last months, has now been translated into English. By 1952, Kvitko’s kittens and red apples had faded from his verses. His final words were no longer intended for children, but if one looks closely, one can still find the young Kvitko himself. Perhaps he wrote it for the child inside.
Prison Romance, 1952
No, my dear friend,
We are not destined to meet -
The cold has gripped my door’s corners
And it is difficult to break free, believe me, believe me...
And you -- do not appear today, my friend!
Silence and oblivion visit me,
And in my heart, bitter premonitions frighten me.
We will meet tomorrow...or perhaps later,
When the dew sparkles on the leaves,
When the tranquil day shines in the window,
And the sun peeks in the eye.
You will come and dispel heavy thoughts,
And the door will burst open into an awakened garden
And my voice will be joyous and young,
And my glance will radiate tenderness.
No, my dear friend,
Do not appear right now -
A fierce cold has chained the door...