On the night of August 12, 1952, a group of Yiddish writers was executed on Joseph Stalin’s orders for the crime of writing while Jewish. The executions, remembered as the Night of the Murdered Poets, were the tragic culmination of the grand romance between Jewish intellectuals and Marxism. Author Nathan Englander now has a new play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, based on a short story he wrote about the murders. He imagines the 27 imprisoned writers in a Russian prison cell, caught between the Marxist promise of a brotherhood of workers, liberating the oppressed to create a bright new world, and the reality of Soviet Communism. In Englander, the murdered writers have found their bard.
In Marxist theory, national identity is a shallow, ephemeral phenomenon. Nation-states, a modern invention created by self-interested capitalists and politicians to manipulate the masses, will evanesce with the coming of the Marxist utopia. In reality, Lenin and others in the Socialist International exploited the Tsarist empire’s national liberation movements, which were, struggling for self-determination, in order to bring about the revolution.
When the revolution came in 1917, the victorious Bolsheviks announced that each of the peoples oppressed by the Tsars would have a sovereign nation-state; these states would form a union of equals building the Marxist future—a Soviet Union. Each liberated nation would have the right to its own schools, newspapers, and even national theaters in its own language. The catch was that all these cultural institutions would have to be “national in form, socialist in content.” And the structures of self-government were hollow: in reality, all power was held by the Communist Party Central Committee.
Nevertheless, the 1920s saw the flourishing of a remarkable Jewish cultural nation within the Soviet Union. Jewish schools taught Marxist doctrine in Yiddish—but not Hebrew or Jewish texts. There were government-supported Yiddish newspapers, publishing houses, even a Yiddish National Theater—but all the stories they told were correctly Marxist. To the extent that Jewishness is defined as having a positive relationship with God, Torah, Jewish tradition, or Israel, Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nationalism was intensely anti-Jewish.
The dedicated Jewish Marxists of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, carried out an aggressive secularization campaign. Breadcrumbs were added to town water supplies at Passover. Stores were opened and synagogues closed on the Sabbath. These and other anti-religious measures were sometimes enforced by thugs, sometimes by such legal techniques as requisitioning a synagogue for use as a worker’s committee room. There were campaigns of intimidation against parents who might have tried to teach their children Hebrew and Torah.
Yet, until 1928, Jewish prayer and practice were, technically, legal. Some observers—even some secular Yiddishists—looked at the Potemkin village of a flourishing, Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nation and thought it real. Thus, the Yiddish poet Dovid Hofshteyn returned from Palestine to Russia in 1926, and a number of Marxist intellectuals returned from other countries. The last of the well-known returnees was novelist and poet Dovid Bergelson, who went home to Russia in 1934. He is undoubtedly part of the inspiration for Englander’s character Moishe Bretzky, compellingly played by Daniel Oreskes, who has some of the play’s sharpest and funniest lines. Bretsky must account to himself for having so loved the Yiddish-speaking Jewish world of Russia that he returned to it even though he knew Communism for the fraud that it had become.
By 1928, Russia had become a totalitarian state controlled by Joseph Stalin, who, though born a Georgian, was dedicated to the imposition of Russian culture on the entire Soviet empire. Englander ratchets up the pressure on his Yiddish writers by putting an important proposition into the mouth of a Stalinist functionary, chillingly played by Byron Jennings as a man who is simply doing his job. Part of that job is believing the anti-Semitic lies he is required to tell. In order for a lie to have power, he explains, it has to be believed.
The Yiddish writers murdered by Stalin were not dissidents or anti-Communist activists. Some were men like Vasily Korinsky, persuasively played by Chip Zein, who worked to build the Marxist dream, and, at some point, began to lie to himself about Marxist reality. Yet, at the point when it became necessary for good Russian Communists to believe in a nefarious international Jewish conspiracy, it also became necessary for Jewish Marxists to confront the truth about the world they had helped create. Englander has written both Korinsky and Bretsky so well that playgoers may squirm with the uncomfortable self-recognition.
The 27th man of the play’s title, played by Noah Robbins, captures hearts as a youth so filled with ideas that he can hardly write fast enough to get them all down. But at the heart of the story is the character of Yevgeny Zunser—acted by Ron Rifkin, who doesn’t so much play an aging Yiddish writer as inhabit one. Here is a man who once watched an entire Jewish civilization go up in the smoke of a burnt offering to the anti-Semitic ideology of Nazism; now he is slated to become a victim of Stalin’s decision to annihilate the world’s largest surviving Jewish community. Knowing this, he behaves with humanity, moral intelligence, and unshakable dignity.
By 1928, Stalin had enough control so that he could end the pretense of Communist support for the self-determination of peoples within the Soviet Union. This was a Russian empire, and Stalin was determined that its peoples of would become Russian or be extinguished. He intended to deport the Jews to an empty patch of ground along the trans-Siberian railway, a plan stopped only by his death in 1952.
The play’s staging and set are starkly perfect and, in the final scene, achieve a fearsome power. This is compelling theater, and was especially on a night when another intensely anti-Jewish government was shooting at Jews. But, unlike the Yiddish writers, Israel’s Jews are not helpless victims of a totalitarian regime; they live in a democracy and defend themselves with a citizen army.