This Day in Jewish History / Death of Zigzagging Soviet-Jewish Writer Ilya Ehrenburg

Opinion divided on whether Ehrenburg was a dissident or suck-up – or both – as he survived the Stalin era.

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Ilya Ehrenburg's plot at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. The portrait of him was done by his friend Pablo Picasso.
Ilya Ehrenburg's plot at the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. The portrait of him was done by his friend Pablo Picasso.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On August 31, 1967, Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet-Jewish writer who through much of his career straddled a line dividing political dissident and political toady, and in so doing, survived the reign of Stalin and beyond, died at the age of 76.

Ehrenburg produced some 100 books, including works of poetry, fiction, political commentary and history. So emotionally powerful was his journalism during World War II that Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov commented that Ehrenburg was “worth several divisions.” And following the war, he courageously participated in organizing the first compilation of documentary material on the Soviet-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, although Stalin ended up prohibiting its publication.

Ehrenburg was born January 27, 1891, in Kiev, then part of the Russian empire. Both of his parents were Jewish, but the family was not religiously observant, and Ehrenburg learned neither Hebrew nor Yiddish growing up. His father was an engineer, and when he got a job as director of a Moscow brewery, in 1895, the family moved to that city.

After the 1905 revolution, Ehrenburg, a student at the First Moscow Gymnasium, became involved with the Bolsheviks, together with his friend and classmate Nikolai Bukharin, a future political leader and theorist – and purge victim. In 1908, Ehrenburg was held for five months by czarist police for subversive activity, before being released on condition that he emigrate. His city of choice was Paris.

Ehrenburg’s life was marked by ambivalence and zigzags. At heart, he was not a Bolshevik, but his willingness to serve the communist regime not only protected him, but at times put him in a position to help friends and fellow artists who had run afoul of it.

When Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939, Ehrenburg was so distressed that for eight months he could swallow no solid food. Yet when, in June 1941, Germany went to war with the U.S.S.R., Ehrenburg became a correspondent for the army’s Red Star newspaper, taking on the role of maintaining morale at the front. In his 1942 poem “Kill,” he wrote, “Do not count the days; do not count miles. Count only the number of Germans you have killed.”

He also joined other Jewish intellectuals and artists on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which promoted the Soviet Union’s good name abroad during the war, but, unlike most of its other members (such as the beloved Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels), was not murdered when Stalin disbanded the committee. He said no (three times) when he was asked to sign a petition condemning the Jewish physicians framed in the so-called Doctors’ Plot, in 1952, and even wrote to Stalin warning him that punishing the Jews on a wholesale basis would cause a public-relations disaster internationally.

Fortunately for Ehrenburg, Stalin died in March 1953, and both he and most of the accused Jewish doctors were spared. The following year, it was Ehrenburg who dared to publish “The Thaw,” an allegorical work about the abuses and oppression of Stalin’s regime, and he again survived.

Together with writer and journalist Vasily Grossman, as early as 1943 Ehrenburg led a team in compiling “The Black Book,” a record of Nazi crimes against the Jews in towns newly liberated from the Germans. But under Stalin, it was forbidden to speak of the victims as Jews, and the book was not published in the U.S.S.R. until 1980. He also treaded a thin line by expressing support for the new State of Israel, in 1948, though he reminded his fellow Jews that their home was in the Soviet Union.

If all of that isn’t enough to make one unsure what to think about Ehrenburg, in his six-volume set of memoirs he actually admitted that he had been aware of many of the crimes being carried out by the regime in the 1930s, and acknowledged having been party to a “conspiracy of silence.”

Ilya Ehrenburg died of cancer in Moscow on this day in 1967. He left his papers to Yad Vashem.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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