Jeff Veidlinger on The Last of the Shtetl Jews

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A Look Beyond the Curtain

Professor Jeff Veidlinger: Jews in Ukraine and Russia

On a recent weekend, Professor Jeff Veidlinger of Indiana University provided a unique look into the past and present of Jews in the former Soviet Union—the living memories of Jews in Ukrainian shtetls on Friday night and a retrospective look at the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in the Soviet Union on Shabbat afternoon.

Shtetl Memories Survive in the Ukraine

For several years, Veidlinger and his associates have been visiting Jews in small towns in Ukraine and gathering video interviews. Some of these shtetls (the Russian and Yiddish word means small towns or villages) were so small they evaded Stalin’s radar as he sought to eradicate religion including Judaism. These Jews who survived World War II and returned to or stayed in these towns have memories of pre-war Jewish life that provide rare insights into the world of many of our grand and great-grandparents. Veidlinger and his team visited and, speaking in Yiddish, asked about holiday celebrations, weddings, schooling, language and literary figures. So far, this project and a companion project in Lithuania, have compiled about 700 interviews, each about 2 hours.

Even today, there are about 400,000 Jews in Ukraine, the 5th largest Jewish population in the world after the U.S., Israel, France and Russia. The area Veidlinger visited used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, then Poland, and is near the Galician province of Lvov. “The popular notion of Galitzianers is that they were the poorer Jews, but that is only if you were coming from the West, for example, Vienna” Veidlinger noted. “but for those East of there, they were the wealthy.”

When Veidlinger and his crew arrived in a town, traveling in what to the townspeople were impressive looking cars, the mayors automatically told them where the Jews lived. The Spielberg project and others had been in some of these places and no one ever came to interview anyone else. (Veidlinger’s project differed from Spielberg’s Holocaust project in that he spoke to people about their lives BEFORE the war.)

Part of this territory was Poland and taken over by the USSR in 1939. Today there is no indication about what was Polish or Soviet territory, but if you interview people on the side of the line that was Polish before that date, they can answer questions about Jewish prayer and beliefs and the people on the other side have forgotten.

One myth Veidlinger and his crew debunked is the memory of many American immigrants that Jewish houses in these towns weren’t painted since the Jews felt their residence was impermanent. What he found was the opposite. The Jewish houses were painted, usually in blue and white. The reason? The Jewish houses were also stores. All Jews had a shop in their house, at least in the market square and most of the Jews lived in that area. If you wanted to find the Jews, you went to the marketplace. The houses also tended to be more solid.

One woman interviewed remembered going to synagogue in the 30s, despite the widespread belief the Soviets obliterated the synagogues. Veidlinger said these shtetls were so out of the way, no one arrived to do the obliterating.

Another man remembered going to cheder in the morning and Soviet school after that. In one he learned that religion was bad, in the other the opposite. To him it seemed natural. It also seemed natural that the Soviet school in the Jewish area, nonetheless, was closed on Shabbos.

Another woman came from a family in which one side was Jewish and the other communist. For her, there was no contradiction. It was similar to intermarriage today.

Many people lived such lives and found no inherent contradiction in them.

In one video clip, we saw a man, who after hours of being interviewed, began to sing Had Gadya out of a haggadah in the same melody some of us have heard from older relatives.

Another, the only Jew left in his town, remembered Purim plays and Jewish itinerant artists. These died out by the 1920s, when they were still done in Chasidic areas.

The Jews enjoyed marching under the Soviet flag as did other residents. They took part in the Victory Day parades. This has led to some animosity towards them, as the Ukrainians view the Soviets as their oppressors.

State Yiddish Theater in the Soviet Union

On January 12, 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, whose name was nearly synonymous with the Soviet Yiddish theater, was hit by a car driven by the KGB. His murder is usually seen as a turning point of Stalin against the Jews. Before that, they suffered as everyone else did—after that, they were targeted for persecution. Within a year, the other leaders of the Jewish community had been killed as well. In August 1952, all the leading writers and poets were arrested, forced to undergo a trial and confess to being Zionist agents, then killed.

Why was Solmon Mikhoels the first to be killed? Two weeks before, he’d made a statement about a play he’d produced. He said “In this play, we were shown the path to the state of Israel.” The UN partition vote had just been held. Within days, Stalin ordered his execution.

Mikhoels was the single most prominent Jew of the time. The fact that the most prominent Jew was a theater director gives an idea, noted Veidlinger, of the role of the theater in the Soviet Union.

As one indication of how important he was, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and Stalin realized he needed the help of America, he also realized he needed the help of American Jews to help save the Jews of Russia. He sent Mikhoels and others to the US to give a series of talks and raise money for the Soviet war effort. By making this appointment, he essentially anointed him as leader. And when he wanted to scare the Jews, he knew that killing him would scare all the Jews in the USSR.

Origins in St. Petersburg

Jewish theater began in St. Petersburg in 1918 as leftist theater designed to present traditional Jewish literature, such as the works of Sholem Aleichem, in a modernist theater.

The originators wanted to combine Russian traits with Jewish traits. In a photo, Veidlinger showed how their symbol incorporated a menorah and stage curtains.

The theater was formally established in 1919. Alexander Granovsky, an assimilated Jew born in Riga, was the first director. Granovsky had studied theater in Berlin with Max Reinhardt. He didn’t know Yiddish, but wanted to bring Yiddish theater to the Jewish masses.

When the Soviet government learned of the venture, they thought they could use it for their own purposes—that it would be a good way to reach the masses with Soviet ideology. So they invited Granovsky to move to Moscow.

Here the young artist Marc Chagall created modernist sets and make-up to present Sholem Aleichem in a modernist framework. Part of the idea of the make-up was that it hid the individual performers. In the socialist world, individuals didn’t matter—only types. Chagall was only affiliated with the theater for a year, but his influence stayed on and sometimes the theater is referred to as “Chagall’s theater.”

Plays Anti-Capitalist

Through photos, Veidlinger showed us a play called “Ages”. The actors were insurance salesmen, trying to sell each other. They transformed it into a critique of the entire capitalist system, showing how everyone sells “garbage” to everyone else.

In addition to the modernist sets and make-up, they used a biomechanical acting technique to show the symbolism of machines. In the modern Soviet world, everyone will become like machines, and thereby be part of the productive force of Soviet society.

In another photo, we saw sets that used a constructivist technique, reminiscent of Escher. The point, said Veidlinger, was to show that traditional Judaism is going nowhere. Since part of the Soviet ideology was to attack Judaism, stairs leading to darkness led to Judaism, to light, to communism.

Eventually, the company created and trained road companies, which were sent out to the entire pale of Jewish settlement, creating a whole network of Yiddish theaters.

In other photos we saw a play from 1923, called “The Sorceress” with stairways and ladders going nowhere. A play from the 1870s about someone who wants to steal the family’s inheritance was another attack on money and the effects of the capitalist system. In another, a man won 200,000 rubles in the lottery, gambled it in stocks and loses it the next day, showing how money was useless and didn’t solve problems.

Various other conventions were used, for example, showing rich people as fat and getting fatter, then getting thinner when they lose money. Thin people are free and light. We literally see a fiddler on the roof—literally a man in the air. The idea was that people who buy and sell and don’t produce live on air.

Stalin Supported

Throughout the 1920s the theater was very popular, but losing money because of the position of the country. At one point, close to closing, they appealed to Stalin, asking what will the press in America and Poland say if it is closed. From Stalin’s point of view, giving the theater money to stay open allowed them to say they weren’t anti-Semitic. The theater had propaganda value, turning people away from religion to become good communist citizens.

In 1926, Granovsky made a silent movie called “Jewish Luck” about the Sholem Aleichem character who won the lottery. There is a dream sequence where America is out of brides. They load women by crane onto a boat to take to America. They were always mocking the Jewish treatment of women, the way Jewish women are treated in a marriage brokerage.

Many such ideas were very progressive, said Veidlinger.

The titles in the movie were written by Isaac Babel, which showed the prestige of the venture. You didn’t actually need such a skilled writer to write things like “meanwhile, at the wedding…”, but he leant his credibility.

In one play we learned of the travels of Benjamin the 3rd, who set off in search of the lost tribes of Israel. This is an anti-Zionist spin in 1927. In another play, the characters go around in circles trying to get to Israel. In another, there was a dream about what Israel was like, showing unicorns and making fun of the simplistic ideas Jews had of Israel.

These plays were good plays and funny. Their social criticism, as they poked fun at the Zionists, was skilled. Yet in the late 20s, when the theater went on a tour of Europe, people in Berlin said the play about Benjamin reminded them of the Zionist dream.

Even though the play was propaganda, it could be viewed in two ways. In fact, this was the play that Mikhoels spoke about in 1947. He spoke of a play where Benjamin showed us the way to Israel, and now the Soviet government has fostered that by voting for partition.

Stalin voted for partition to get Britain out of Palestine. The actual vote was to end the mandate. And there was hope that Israel might ally with the Communists. In fact, for the first four years of Israel’s existence, the answer was not known.

Viewed in Two Ways

Veidlinger said that his research led him to believe that Mikhoels and the others involved in the theater knew their productions could be viewed in two ways, including reports of the Berlin performances.

In 1927, when the theater began, they were ordered to do more propagandistic plays about the revolution and the civil war, not just those by Sholem Aleichem or subtle satire. So they did a series in 1927 that were simply bad plays.

One, however, was interesting, Veidlinger said. It was called “Two Hundred Children’s Homes” about orphanages. In the play, a character went to the shtetle to collect money for the orphanages, urging Jews to sell their phylacteries to raise money. In a plot twist, it turned out that the guy was smuggling diamonds in the tfillim, thereby making fun of religious paraphernalia.

After the play was approved by the censors, however, the title was changed to “137 Children’s Homes”, and every reference to 200 crossed out and 137 written in.

Veidlinger said that he thinks that the 137 is a reference to Psalm 137 (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…) about musicians captive in Babylon asking “how can we sing our song?” Veidlinger thought that this a secret message, an allusion to the members of the theater asking how they could sing their song while they were told to do Soviet plays.

Promoting this theory, said Veidlinger, was the fact that during this tour, Alexander Granovsky defected to Europe. That was when Solomon Mikhoels became the director.

In another photo, we saw a scene from a play about an inarticulate mill worker. Oppressed, he eventually leads a worker revolt against the evil owners of the mill. Yet throughout the play, he only says 32 words and has his left hand over his head to symbolize the frustration of the worker wiping the sweat off his brow.

Veidlinger noted this was still playing on the Psalm 137 “Let my right hand forget her cunning…let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth…”

Also in this play, the deaf character had a daughter who was taken in and raped by the mill owner. The daughter becomes pregnant, mimicking the biblical book of Esther brought into the castle of the overlord. In the play, it is the daughter who alerts the mill workers when to revolt.

So what seemed like a strict revolutionary play about mill workers revolting had biblical themes, which the censors didn’t know about.

Spy Visas

Veidlinger noted that part of Mikhoels duties was to apply for the visas for the KGB agents following him. He would use this to make it difficult to be followed, sometimes getting visas that came late, so that the agents arrived in the place the theater had already been.

One of the things the KGB did uncover was that Chaim Weizman came to one of the performances and met with Mikhoels. Mikhoels said in his memoirs that Weizman invited him to come to Palestine. Veidlinger said we know there was some kind of illicit correspondence. So the theater was not as anti-Zionist as it seemed.

King Lear

The theater’s most famous play was a production of King Lear in 1935. Veidlinger showed us a picture of Mikhoels as King Lear. They did this play at a time when it was increasingly dangerous to play with Jewish motifs. So they retreated for a while into translations of European classics. Lear was produced at a time of a major theater conference and people commented on how good this production was.

Yet, what Lear is about is a show trial. And that is exactly what was going on in the USSR at that time. Stalin was assembling the old Bolsheviks as Lear assembled his daughters. And the cult of personality was the same as the cult around King Lear. The play is about flattery, as was Stalin, and how you shouldn’t just blindly flatter. Said Veidlinger, the parallels were probably apparent at the time as well.

Mikhoels’s Yiddish

The Yiddish used in Lear, the actor’s Yiddish, was different from the Yiddish in different regions. This Yiddish became known as Mikhoels’s Yiddish—the Yiddish of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.

Lear established Mikhoels and Benjamin Zuskin, who played the jester, as the stars of the theater. Zuskin was also killed with the poets.

Ethnic Renaissance

In many ways, the theater reached its apogee in the 30s, during the massive Stalinist purges and the rise of Nazism.

By 1937 and 1938, Soviet culture saw a return of the ethnic. At that point, the Yiddish theater could return to Sholem Aleichem and Tevye the Dairyman. Stalin, preparing for war, thought it was okay to allow ethnic pride as he thought it would help people to fight.

After Tevye, the theater returned to their most overtly Zionistic plays. Veidlinger showed us a photo of a play called “Bar Kochba”. The mere fact that they were able to do a play called Bar Kochba showed the change in the political climate. The same play had led to the Czar banning Yiddish theater in 1883.

Bar Kochba brought Jews back to the halcyon days of Jewish existence. They said he was not a nationalist hero, but an internationalist hero, leading the fight against Rome.

The thing is, though, said Veidlinger, the play mocked the whole idea. When they went to fight the Roman overlords, they went in a style of Chasidic dance. The rest of the music in the play was what they felt would be the music of Roman times. But when they went to battle, they went as Jews. Bar Kochba becomes Moses leading the Jewish people. That was what they said to be allowed to mount the play.

In another play, called “Shulamis”, fun was made of the idea of vows and marriage vows. You need two witnesses to make a vow, so the play used a well and a weasel. It turns out the vow was a false promise. A child gets eaten by the weasel and falls down the well. This could be an allusion to a vow taken by the people of Israel that is broken. There is also a talking dog and a cat. At one point, the hero says he is going to Jerusalem to get salt and the dog says he is going to Jerusalem, just follow me. Having this stated by a dog wasn’t quite as provocative, nonetheless, saying these words on stage was radical.

Mikhoels in the US

Soon after this play, Mikhoels was called to go to the US to raise money for the war effort. He met with Einstein and Charlie Chaplin.

There were two things about this trip, said Veidlinger, that convinced him that Mikhoels was using the trip to promote Judaism and Jewish motifs.

Mikhoels’ daughter told Veidlinger that her father was a Zionist. He had to go to 14 countries to get to the US and when the plane stopped in Israel, he wrote something to a relative saying he wished he could get out of the plane and kiss the ground. Veidlinger said he thought the daughter was not being truthful, until he found, in the British Archives, a note authorizing his plane to land at Lod.

At that point, Veidlinger realized that Mikhoels always said he stopped in 14 countries, but only listed 13. The unmentioned was Palestine. Suddenly, Veidlinger said, he saw Mikhoels in a different light, as trying to promote some Zionism in this theater that was supposedly anti-Zionist and Communist.

In the United States, Mikhoels broke his leg.. They took him to a hospital in New York. Throughout the trip, in photographs, we see Itzhak Fefer, a poet whom everyone knew was an agent of the KGB. When Mikhoels was in the hospital, however, away from Fefer, he was smuggled out of the hospital to meet with Weitzman, and then back again. He reported to a friend that he pretended to be drunk to “cover” what he said.

When he returned to the Soviet Union after the War, the theater continued to function for 3 years, although the Jewish community was decimated by anti-Semitism. They did one play about the Holocaust in 1946-7—the first acknowledgement of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.

Archives Yield Additional Insight

Over the past few years, Mikhoels’s archives have been opened. There are hundreds of letters of ordinary Jews writing “I want to go to Palestine”, “Where can I donate money?” or “My brother was lost in the war, can you help me find him?”.

So, while on the surface he was part of the Soviet government, somehow everyone knew that he was the person to write.

Mikhoels grew up in a Chasidic environment and always quoted sayings. Somehow, people knew he was acting, that he was actually an advocate of Jewish causes in the Soviet Union.

In 1947, he said that the path to the land of Israel had been found. When it was played back later he knew that his death sentence was written. He said goodbye to his friends, and two weeks later, he was killed.

For 30 years, however, under Stalin, he was still able to insert traditions in places, as, every night, 500 Yiddish speaking people came together to celebrate.

Veidlinger noted that the Moscow theater could get away with things that smaller theaters couldn’t.

His daughter, who was among the first immigrants to leave the Soviet Union in 1972, remembered her father telling her to remember that she was Jewish, that material in the plays wasn’t true.

Mikhoels was also the first, in 1943, to bring information about what the Nazi’s were doing, to America. There was more information in the Soviet Union about what was going on than in the US. He was the first to hold up a bar of soap. He published a black book of Nazi crimes and took personal narratives, that were subsequently published in New York. He was one of the first to talk of Babi Yar.

Veidlinger’s book “The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage” is available on Amazon.