Mother's Day!

In celebration of Mother’s Day, we present photographs of our heroic veterans as children, safe and warm in their mothers' arms. These photographs were collected by the Archive as part of its Veteran Oral History Project. With love and gratitude to Mom!

"Heroic Measures"

Vassili Schedrin
Department of History, Queens University

A note from Solomon Mikhoels to Solomon Zil’berblat, 1930. Mikhoels, whose leg was not fully recovered from trauma, is asking Zil’berblat to fill in for him onstage. Handwritten and signed by Mikhoels on November 29, 1930. 

“Because the condition of my leg does not allow me to move it to the full extent, I am asking, if it is possible, that you perform again tonight,” wrote Mikhoels to Zil’berblat in 1930. Otherwise, he continued,  “heroic measures will have to be taken to save the show.”

Once asked about the relationship between his real life and his life onstage, Mikhoels replied that when on stage, playing a role, he “extracts” an image from himself, and that image “lives onstage.” In Mikhoels’s words, “The force of life onstage is unbelievably great and, obviously, has not been studied enough. Once, when performing in Sholem Aleichem’s 200,000 I fell, severely injuring my leg. However, my role required intense dancing, singing, and jumping. I performed all four acts. I felt severe pain during the intermissions, but no pain at all while performing onstage.” Mikhoels also recalled another episode, when his eye was accidentally burnt by another actor’s cigarette on stage. Feeling a “wild pain” he nevertheless continued to perform. Mikhoels  explained, “I was focused, so I was able to set aside real physical feeling and continue living my onstage life.”

In 1943, Mikhoels and the Soviet Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer visited the United States as representatives of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to seek support for the USSR war effort. At a rally in Chicago, the enthusiastic crowd climbed on the podium where Mikhoels was speaking to cheer him and show their support. As a result, the podium collapsed and Mikhoels broke his leg. Upon his return to Moscow in January 1944, Mikhoels played King Lear at GOSET. After this performance he decided to take a break from acting, because, according to his daughter Nataliia Vovsi-Mikhoels, he did not want to appear “lame onstage.”

In 1945, more and more “heroic measures” had to be taken by Mikhoels in order to perform.  Suffering from exhaustion, he commented: “Crossing the threshold of the stage takes more effort, has become harder. I reluctantly remind myself of the moment when I have to go onstage. Once I’m onstage, I feel a relief, but before that moment it is extremely hard to make this transition. I am in an extremely bad mood. I do not like to perform anymore.”

SOLOMON ZIL'BERBLAT'S LETTER OF TOUR ASSIGNMENT, 1941

Vassili Schedrin
Department of History, Queens University

Komandirovochnoe udostoverenie (letter of performance tour assignment) issued by GOSET on May 4, 1941 to S.Ia. Zil’berblat to certify that he is assigned to join GOSET’s tour in Leningrad and Kharkiv from May 5 to June 25, 1941. Sealed and signed by GOSET’s administrator Kanter. On the theater’s official stationary.

In spring 1941, when the theatrical season ended, GOSET (Moscow State Yiddish Theater), like many other Moscow theaters, set on tour to Russian provinces. The troupe and staff members were issued letters of performance tour assignment, such as the one received by Solomon Zil’berblat, and packed their bags, while stage workers prepared props. For two decades it had been GOSET’s routine. However, the 1941 tour was different.

The tour repertoire included classics of Yiddish literature: stage adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s novel “Wandering Stars,” and a comedy “Two Kuni-Lemls” by Abraham Goldfaden, legendary father of Yiddish theater. “Wandering Stars,” directed by Solomon Mikhoels, premiered in Leningrad in May, 1941. Both public audience and critics received the show with great enthusiasm. According to one reviewer, Mikhoels, who presented the love story of two young Yiddish actors as an optimistic take on a tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, not just adapted Sholem Aleichem for stage, but created new original script.

On June 22, 1941, in Kharkiv, GOSET had two shows: a matinee, “Two Kuni-Lemls,” and evening performance of “Wandering Stars” at the local Red Army House. Moisei Belen’kii, head of GOSET’s school of acting and close friend of Mikhoels remembered that at noon, when the matinee was well underway, they learned about the German invasion of  USSR from a radio announcement and rushed to the theater. Mikhoels interrupted the show and delivered a short and passionate oration, calling to “smash Nazi reptile.” After performing “Wandering Stars” in the afternoon, GOSET left for Moscow.

Chaos caused by the catastrophic beginning of the war, made the theater’s journey from Kharkiv to Moscow long and difficult. Moisei Belen’kii recalled that troupe members tried to cheer up one another, desperately hoping that invasion would be stopped by the time they were to reach Moscow. Instead, Germans reached both tour destinations shortly—Leningrad was sieged on September 8, Kharkiv was taken on October 24. The war continued for the next four years and, in the words of historian Jeffrey Veidlinger, the vast majority of the audience attending the last performance of 1941 tour, “which was mostly composed of soldiers and officers, would be killed, along with an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens.”

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.