The incident was related to the work of the “Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee” (EKA in its Russian abbreviation). The committee was established in 1942, amidst the Soviet Union’s growing desperation in the face of the German invasion. Stalin's regime, seeking to obtain material, moral, and ideological support from other parts of the world, formed five committees: a women’s committee, a teenagers’ committee, a scientists’ committee, a Slavic committee, and a Jewish committee. Each committee was supposed to appeal to a different sector of the Western public. The head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was the acclaimed theater personality Solomon Mikhoels, one of the most prominent figures in Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. Mikhoels was joined by Yiddish writers and poets, and the Committee quickly began to produce thousands of articles and notices for the international press, successfully conveying the Soviet regime's message in the Western media. Two of the Committee’s members, Solomon Mikhoels and Itzik Feffer, went on a seven-month long speaking tour of the United States and other countries. Efforts by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee raised more than 30 million dollars. One particular public appearance by a Committee representative in New York attracted an audience of no less than 50,000 people.
In time, however, as the truth about the horrors Jews were suffering at the hands of the Nazis emerged, Jews across the Soviet Union, many of whom had fled from German-occupied territories, began approaching the Committee. The Committee began to turn to the Soviet authorities on behalf of these Jews, a fact that did not escape Stalin. So long as the war was being fought, the dictator chose to overlook the development of this ad hoc leadership of Soviet Jewry. However, when the war ended and Stalin turned to tightening his grasp on all sectors of society, he would no longer countenance the existence of such a body. Moreover, the Committee’s heads were identified with Yiddish culture and their empowerment indicated the Jews’ intention of cultivating a separate culture with its own unique language. To Stalin, this was intolerable, as was the fact that the Committee members had, in documenting the terrors of the Holocaust, begun creating a version of the events which did not serve the needs of the Soviet government. Though the Committee members were loyal communists, some even revolutionary veterans with impeccable communist credentials, they did not withhold mention of the local population's cooperation with the Nazis, and the harm inflicted on Jews who attempted to return to Ukraine after surviving the war, as they documented the horrors that took place in Ukraine and in other territories under Soviet rule. Stalin perceived this as a threat to the “official version of the story” that he intended be disseminated throughout the Soviet empire.
The situation was further complicated by new political circumstances that emerged after 1945. The State of Israel, founded in 1948, quickly disappointed Stalin, who had expected it to become a socialist ally. Meanwhile, the Cold War was developing between Russia and the United States, and Stalin was convinced that the Jews’ loyalty would ultimately lie with Israel, Zionism, the West, and the United States.
The aging dictator made a quick decision: the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was to be dismantled and its members executed. In January of 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was murdered in a staged car accident. In the months that followed, the majority of the Committee members were arrested. As was often the case with Stalin’s persecutions, in order to confirm the existence of a plot against the regime and the revolution, the net was cast wide. As a result, prominent Jews who had no connection to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were accused and arrested as well. Stalin sought to take advantage of the destruction of the Committee in order to crack down on the Jews for anti-Soviet activities, espionage against the Soviet Union, and nationalistic intentions including the creation of an autonomous Jewish state on the Crimean Peninsula – the first stage in the West's attempt to fracture the Soviet Union.
The arrests made between 1948 and 1949 did not immediately lead to trials or convictions. The investigations went awry, the investigators’ priorities changed, and even officials in the Soviet judicial system began to have doubts. A rigorous and violent interrogation of most of the accused did not yield any substantial, non-circumstantial evidence regarding a plot against the Soviet Union. The violent investigation and blatant anti-Semitic rhetoric often had the undesired effect of making several of the accused retract confessions that had previously been extracted by force. In the meanwhile, there were those who died in prison
The trial began on May 8, 1952 and the verdicts were delivered on July 18. Despite Stalin’s original plans to showcase the trial, arguments were held behind closed doors, with no public presence. Three military judges presided and there were no prosecutors or defense attorneys. Nevertheless, accurate and detailed protocols were recorded. Ultimately, on the night of August 12-13, 1952, thirteen of the accused were executed. Solomon Bregman, one of the accused, fell into a coma during the trial and died in prison a few months later. The only one not sentenced to death was scientist Lina Stern, who was exiled instead.
The families of those executed did not learn of their relatives’ fate until after Stalin’s death. In 1956, after almost four years of uncertainty and countless rumors, and after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes, the families received official notification that their relatives were no longer alive. Gradually, the victims were acquitted of the alleged crimes, and their names were cleared by the Soviet government.
A memorial was erected in memory of the martyrs in Jerusalem's Rasko neighborhood. Controversy surrounded the memorial, since many of those executed by Stalin were not only not Zionists, but even prominent Communist and Soviet loyalists. Eventually the disagreement was settled and the memorial cites the names of the executed – Jewish cultural figures and leaders from the Soviet Union who were victims of Stalin’s brutality. Today, in retrospect, what is commonly referred to as “Stalin’s secret pogrom” is believed to have not only wiped out the leaders of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union after the Holocaust, but also to have dealt a fatal blow to the last vestiges of Yiddish culture in the Soviet world.
The National Library houses many books by the writers who were executed on August 12, 1952. These include works in Yiddish and Russian, and in Hebrew and English translation. Additional manuscripts by some of the writers can be found in the Schwadron Collection. The Music Department Archive has recordings of songs written by several of the murdered poets. The National Library also has numerous books and research articles on this incident and on Stalin’s treatment of the Jews. The Library also features a book containing the protocols of the trial, which was published in 1994, over forty years after what has come to be known as “Night of the Murdered Poets” or the night of the murdered martyrs in the Soviet Union.