Research Unit Politics

The Murdered Poets: A Collective Biography

»The Murdered Poets: A Collective Biography« is a problem-oriented biography of the five Yiddish writers – Dovid Bergelson, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko, Perets Markish, and Itsik Fefer – executed on what has become known as the »Night of the Murdered Poets« on 12 August 1952. Despite the tremendous differences in their lives and works, all met a common end.

Rather than trace five individual lives, the collective biography returns to important times and places when their five lives intersected. Its settings include Kiev, where all five writers lived and wrote during the Revolution and Civil War; Berlin, which served as a literary capital for émigré culture during the early 1920s, when four of the five writers spent time in emigration; Moscow during the 1930s when all had returned to the USSR and either consciously or unconsciously became ensconced – to an inescapable degree – in the Soviet literary system. Finally, it looks at their experiences working in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during and after the War, when the tension between the national and the universal, between modernism and socialist realism, and between Yiddish and Soviet became the most pronounced and were ultimately used against the five defendants in their trial.

The research project is concerned with the intersecting self-conceptions of all five writers as both Soviet and Yiddish. It investigates how they themselves navigated the complex historical, political, and sociocultural pressures of a Soviet regime which encouraged the seemingly contradictory values of both communist universalism and ethnic nationalism. Using the arrests, trials, and execution which brought them together as a starting point, the project asks how these five writers became the most significant in Soviet Yiddish literature, and what it was about their lives and works which needed destroying to mark (at least symbolically) the end of the short life of Soviet Yiddish literature.