Invitation to the 75th birthday of Solomon Mikhoels

Vassili Schedrin
Department of History, Queens University

This invitation is a vivid material testimony to Eli Wiesel’s account of his 1965 visit to Moscow: “Tens of thousands of Jews [in USSR] convicted of ‘Jewish nationalism’ and sentenced to prison have been released. It is no longer dangerous to be known as a Yiddish writer; now and again one hears of whole evening devoted to Yiddish songs and public readings of Yiddish works. The legendary figure of Solomon Mikhoels has been revived” (Elie Wiesel, Jews of Silence). The 1965 celebration of Mikhoels’s 75th anniversary was not the first public event commemorating the beloved star of Soviet Yiddish theater. In 1960, major soviet celebrities, such as the Bolshoi's opera tenor Ivan Kozlovskii, renowned theater critic Pavel Markov, literary critic Iraklii Andronikov, and many others gathered at the same prestigious venue, Moscow Actor’s House, to celebrate Mikhoels’s 70th birthday. They remembered Mikhoels as a great actor, important public figure, and dear friend. The 1960 event was also attended by Mikhoels’s family, including his widow biologist Anastasia Pototskaia, and his daughters Natalia and Nina, and by his GOSET colleagues and friends, such as artist Aleksandr Tyshler.

The full event was recorded (view here). Selected speeches and memoirs about Mikhoels were published as part of the very first collection of Mikhoels’s oeuvre (Moscow, 1965). This bold celebration of Yiddish culture became possible thanks to the “thaw,” policy of de-Stalinization and overall liberalization of social life inaugurated by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In 1965, after Khrushchev’s dismissal, it was still possible to organize the event at Moscow Actor’s House well attended by celebrities as well as by ordinary Moscow Jews. According to Pototskaia, the atmosphere was so emotional, that one of the speakers, actress Faina Ranevskaia, Mikhoels’s close friend, was unable to speak and left. Next morning she called Pototskaia, saying: “My memories about Mikhoels were so vivid in my mind. I’ve been so agitated, I’ve been afraid of having heart attack on stage… I simply cannot speak” (Matvei Geizer, Mikhoels: zhizn’ i smert’).

In this atmosphere, back in 1965, many Soviet Jews were enthusiastic about revival of Yiddish culture and optimistic about Jewish future in USSR. Eli Wiesel observed, “Should a Yiddish theater be established again in Moscow, there would be no difficulty filling the auditorium. Of that I am sure” (Eli Wiesel, Jews of Silence). However, history proved the opposite. The next public commemoration of Solomon Mikhoels happened only in 1989.