The Courage of Friendship: The Composer as Jew in the Soviet Union

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Hollow Victory, which will be performed on January 28, 2018 at Carnegie Hall.

The historical thread running through this concert program is the presence and persecution of the Jews of Poland and Soviet Russia in the mid-twentieth century. The nearly total annihilation of the Jews that began in 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland and proceeded with increased intensity after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 had an unexpected and grim epilogue. In 1948 Stalin launched his post-war campaign against the surviving Jewish population in the Soviet Union. Each of the three composers on this program struggled to come to terms with this extended period of unparalleled brutality in the history of anti-Semitism.

Veniamin Fleishman, at age 23, began to study with Dmitri Shostakovich. Fleishman was both Jewish and a Soviet patriot. He volunteered to join in the defense of Leningrad in 1941 and was killed early on in the siege of the city. The protracted and savage Nazi attempt to eradicate Leningrad deeply affected Shostakovich. He was evacuated to safety in the East but wrote what quickly became internationally his most famous symphony, the Seventh. Its popularity inspired Bartók to quote it sardonically in the 1945 Concerto for Orchestra. Shostakovich’s Seventh was written in response to the siege, the suffering of its inhabitants and the heroism of the city’s defenders.

While in exile during the war, Shostakovich also went to great lengths to get hold of Fleishman’s incomplete manuscript of a one-act opera based on Anton Chekhov’s short story “Rothschild’s Violin.” He completed and orchestrated the work in 1944. It was a labor of love and admiration. But the persistence if not increase in anti-Semitism after the war made any performance of the work impossible despite Shostakovich’s advocacy. Only four years after the 1956 start of de-Stalinization and the “thaw” in communist Russia, a concert performance was arranged in 1960. The first staged performance occurred in 1968 at the Leningrad Conservatory, the place where Fleishman had been a student and Shostakovich his teacher.

Shostakovich’s relationship to the Soviet regime, both under Stalin and after, until his death, has remained a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. To what extent was he an “official” voice of the regime? Is there a subtext of dissent beneath the frequently affirmative aesthetic surface of his works? Amidst the controversy, one salient fact remains beyond dispute. Shostakovich was free of anti-Semitism. And that was apparent in his devotion to Fleishman’s memory, and in his steadfast friendship with Mieczysław Weinberg, the Warsaw-born Jewish composer who fled east into the Soviet Union after the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Shostakovich met Weinberg during the war. He persuaded Weinberg to move to Moscow and remain in the Soviet Union. Weinberg became Shostakovich’s closest musical colleague and a dear friend for the rest of his life. When Weinberg was arrested in 1953 during the height of Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign, Shostakovich showed extraordinary courage. He intervened with Lavrenti Beria, the head of the KGB, to seek Weinberg’s release, but to no avail. He pledged to place Weinberg’s daughter under his personal protection, thereby putting himself at risk. Only Stalin’s death in March 1953 secured Weinberg’s release and restoration to professional life. From then on, throughout the subsequent two decades, Shostakovich encouraged and promoted Weinberg’s work as a composer.

It would be hard to imagine a biography that reveals the complexities and contradictions associated with being Jewish and an artist in interwar Poland and in Soviet Russia before, during, and after the Nazi defeat in 1945 more vividly and subtly than that of Weinberg. Weinberg’s parents were professionals in the Yiddish theatre: his father was a musician and his mother an actress. They fled to Warsaw from Kishinev (in the province of Bessarabia) in response to the massacre of Jews in 1903 and 1905. The Kishinev pogrom became notorious throughout the world. It was marked both by its startling violence and the thinly veiled, tacit consent of the Czarist regime. It spurred mass emigration on the part of Jews and was easily exploited on behalf of the Zionist cause. The pogrom helped justify the idea that a Jewish state in Palestine was the only solution to the precarious position of Jews in Europe; it also lent credence to those Zionists who argued that Jews in the meantime should form paramilitary organizations to defend themselves.

But Weinberg’s parents were not Zionists. They mirrored the views of the majority of Russian Jews. They did not dream of a Jewish state in Palestine and their daily language was not a rapidly evolving Hebrew. They were Yiddish speakers and ardent defenders of Yiddish as the national language of the Jewish people. They were determined to remain in Eastern Europe and were sympathetic to socialist organizations that saw a different path from that of Zionism to overcome anti-Semitism in Europe. The solution lay not in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, but in a socialist revolution at home after which neither religion nor national identity would remain a cause of discrimination and oppression.

The sympathies of Weinberg’s parents also represented the view of most Jews in interwar Poland in the years in which the young Weinberg grew up. In the Polish Census of 1931—completed when Weinberg was 14 years old—out of nearly 32 million Poles, roughly 10 per cent were Jews. Out of these 3.1 million Jews, 2.5 million identified their primary language as Yiddish; only 250,000 claimed Hebrew as their main language. The large Jewish community in Warsaw, where Weinberg came of age, represented 30 percent of the city’s population. Weinberg’s parents chose to settle in Warsaw (then part of the Russian Empire) because it was the single largest Jewish urban center in Europe, and second in size only to New York. On the eve of World War II, in 1939, the year Weinberg graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory (where he displayed brilliance as both pianist and composer), there were 350,000 Jews in Warsaw. The Warsaw Jewish community was exceptionally diverse, and contained everything from fully assimilated and well-to-do, Polish-speaking, Jewish inhabitants to a large Yiddish-speaking, poor, working-class population, a vocal group of Zionists and devout orthodox adherents to religion.

The sheer size of the Warsaw community made it possible for it to support a thriving Yiddish theatre world, Yiddish newspapers and journals, and publishing houses. Weinberg began to work as a musician in the Yiddish theatre at age 10. But this vital Jewish community met its tragic end at the hands of the Nazis. Weinberg’s parents and sister perished. But Weinberg, as a vigorous 20-year-old, understood that staying behind was not a promising option. Furthermore, like many non-Zionist, Yiddish-oriented Jews, he admired socialism and the Soviet Union.

Indeed for many Jews the Soviet Union during the 1920s and even the 1930s seemed a potential paradise, a place—whatever its faults—that was built on an ideology that promised a better future, a world of equality, free of superstitious religion prejudice. The Soviet Union after 1921 offered a contrast to a Catholic and conservative, authoritarian, independent Poland, where anti-Semitism flourished. Fleeing Poland was not merely a concession born out of necessity. Weinberg survived the war in Soviet Russia, and no matter how poor the treatment he received in the post-war years was, or how extreme the danger from anti-Semitism he lived under, he remained loyal to the ideals of the regime and the promise of socialism.

Early on, the new Soviet regime defined Jews as a nation equivalent to the many other legally recognized national and ethnic groups in the Soviet Union. Yiddish was deemed the language of the Jewish nation. The state supported Yiddish publishing houses, theatres, and Yiddish culture and even sponsored a revision in Yiddish orthography. Yiddish culture flourished under Soviet rule until the mid-1930s, and once again during the war and briefly thereafter. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948, which the Soviets legally recognized, however, offered Stalin the chance to pursue a dream he had harbored for years: to pick up where Hitler had left off. One of his first acts was to have Weinberg’s father-in-law, the great Yiddish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, a prominent and popular figure, assassinated. Weinberg would later be arrested as a subversive “bourgeois Jewish nationalist” who supposedly supported the creation of a Jewish state within the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, after his release Weinberg remained optimistic, prolific, and courageous. A large part of his compositional output dealt directly with Jewish themes, particularly its folk heritage, its Yiddish culture, and, of course, the suffering Jews endured. His last symphony, his No. 26, was a memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto. And he wrote an opera based on a Sholom Aleichem story. Yet Weinberg’s range was astonishing. He wrote for the movies, the radio, the circus, the theater, and the concert stage. He set texts by the Polish poet Julian Tuwim (also a Jew), Nikolai Gogol, G.B Shaw, and Mikhail Lermontov. The ASO has performed several of his works, including the trumpet and cello concertos, and the 1963 Sixth Symphony that calls for a children’s chorus singing Yiddish songs. In the current Weinberg revival, long overdue and welcome, the 1968 opera The Passenger, which deals with the Holocaust, has become Weinberg’s most visible work. Weinberg’s 1985 opera The Idiot, based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, deserves the same recognition.

Weinberg’s reputation has ironically also suffered a bit by too close a connection to Shostakovich. He is quickly set aside as an imitator who was too enthralled by his patron’s aesthetic. But the influence went both ways. No doubt Weinberg was in awe of Shostakovich and deeply grateful for the role he played in his career. But in the immense catalogue Weinberg produced are works that mark Weinberg’s individual style. These range from the film music for The Cranes are Flying from 1957; the 1949 Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, a work made possible by Weinberg’s childhood memories of the music from the region from which his parents came; and the Fifth Symphony of 1962, inspired by the 1961 revival of Shostakovich’s once suppressed modernist and ambitious Fourth Symphony, composed in the mid-1930s.

The music on this concert is therefore a tribute to friendship: Shostakovich’s capacity for loyalty and his absence of prejudice, and the rich legacy of Weinberg’s music, which stands as a validation of that friendship. The concert also puts into sharp relief the constraints and possibilities surrounding the making of art for all composers in a regime where music was controlled through the monopoly of the state. Through the prism of two pieces by Weinberg—one tied to the Soviet preference for folk-based affirmative music writing, and the other a novel exploration of symphonic form, a “formalist” work that risked condemnation as heterodox and contrary to state ideology—one encounters conflicting strands in the life and work of a composer under Soviet rule. The final irony in the life of this remarkable composer, whose life was dominated by both his Jewish heritage and his belief in the potential of the Soviet Union, was that before his death, crippled by Crohn’s disease, Weinberg converted from Judaism to the Russian Orthodox faith. Fleishman’s death and Weinberg’s conversion poignantly underscore the tension, terror, tragedy, and triumph that relentlessly accompanied survival as a Jew in Poland and Russia during the mid-twentieth century.