January 13, 1948, is the day that the Russian Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels was murdered by Joseph Stalin’s secret police, in an incident that was meant to resemble a road accident. Mikhoels, who was artistic director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, was more than a beloved artistic figure – he was also perceived as a leader of what was an extremely insecure Jewish community in the early decades of Soviet communism. As Stalin became increasingly paranoid and turned much of his fury on the Jews, Mikhoels death became inevitable.
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Mikhoels was born Shloyme Vovsi on March 16, 1890 in Dvinsk, today Daugavpils, Latvia. He began law studies in St. Petersburg but gave them up in 1918 when he joined the Yiddish chamber theater of Alexander Granovsky. In the early years of the Soviet Union, different nationalities were encouraged to develop their own cultures. Yiddish was declared the official language of the Jews, and a completely secular Yiddish culture was allowed to thrive in schools, literature, journalism and the theater – even as any expression of Jewish religious life was suppressed.
In 1919, Granovsky’s company moved to Moscow, where it became the State Yiddish Theater (also known by the Russian acronym Goset), and put on productions of stories by Sholem Aleichem (for example, “Tevye the Milkman”), Mendele Moykher Seforim (“The Travels of Benjamin III") and Avraham Goldfaden (“Bar Kochba”). The foyer of the company’s building, as well as the sets and costumes for its first season of plays in 1921 were created by a young Marc Chagall.
During a European tour of the company, in 1928, Granovsky defected, and Mikhoels was named its artistic director. He strived for a combination of traditional Yiddish works with more politically revolutionary plays by contemporary writers such as Dovid Bergelson and Peretz Markish. He starred in what may have been Goset’s most acclaimed work, a Yiddish version of “King Lear.” In 1939, Mikhoels was named a People’s Artist of the USSR and received the Order of Lenin.
After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin’s government established the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, whose members, all highly respected Jewish artists and intellectuals, were given the task of soliciting sympathy – and material assistance – abroad for the Soviet war effort. In that capacity, Mikhoels traveled to the United States and Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom, where he met with officials and lectured to Jewish communities. Members of the committee also made weekly radio broadcasts for foreign audiences, in which they talked, among other things, about the German oppression of the Jews and about acts of Jewish resistance.
What had been helpful to the Soviet cause during World War II, the connection with Jewish communities around the world, became a “bourgeois” threat in Stalin’s eye following the war, especially as the effort to create a Jewish state in Palestine picked up steam. In the following years, the Yiddish State Theater was closed, the teaching of Yiddish in schools was outlawed, and many of the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested and tried for treason.
The first task in Stalin’s campaign against the Jews was getting Mikhoels out of the way. But putting a beloved figure such as Solomon Mikhoels on trial would have been too risky. Instead, on the personal orders of Stalin, and the direct supervision of the deputy minister of state security, Sergei Ogolstov, Mikhoels was lured to a state residence in Minsk where he was arrested and killed. His body was then placed on a highway and run over by a truck so as to present his death as a tragic accident. He was subsequently given a state funeral and the Yiddish State Theater was even renamed in his memory, though the company would be shut down within the year.
Even dead, the revered Mikhoels was a symbolic threat, from Stalin's point of view, enough so that within a few years, his reputation was attacked, and charges of being a “bourgeois nationalist” were leveled against him, as well as being implicated in the so-called Doctors Plot, in which a number of Jewish intellectuals were accused, and executed for, alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Soviet leaders.
Only with the death of Joseph Stalin, in 1953, did the campaign to purge Jews from public life cease and it became possible to rehabilitate Mikhoels' reputation.