Uncommon Comrades

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Uncommon Comrades, performed on June 3, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The history of European Jewry is frequently written according to a narrative that suggests an inexorable logic leading to a tragic destiny. The persistence of anti-Semitism over centuries throughout Eastern and Western Europe is often understood to suggest the inevitability of the Holocaust and the imperative of Zionism particularly in its incarnation as a political movement dating from the early twentieth century. Whatever merits such an account may have, it tends to obscure those dimensions of European Jewish life that do not fit neatly into such a perspective. This comment is not a criticism, for few enterprises in modern history were so efficient and overwhelming as Hitler’s effort to exterminate the Jews, particularly in Eastern Europe. The community from which Mieczyslaw Weinberg came—that of Polish Jews—numbered over three million, of whom about ten percent survived. Of the six million Jews who died during the Second World War, the vast majority of the victims were Eastern European Jews. Unarmed, non-combatant civilians, they were murdered in concentration camps, or, like many of Weinberg’s relatives, in the ghettos created by the German occupation. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, composed in 1962, deals with a third manner of mass murder: the shooting of civilians over open graves. On September 29-30, 1941, as many as 33,771 Jews were shot at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev in the Ukraine, one of the great urban centers of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish life.

The not-very-hidden secret of the Holocaust’s effectiveness is that, while the impetus came clearly from German Nazism, the campaign would not have been so successful had not local populations from France to Russia cooperated. The Catholic majority of Poland during the war may have been fiercely patriotic, courageous, and steadfastly anti-German, but on the issue of the persecution and extermination of the Jews, they largely either turned the proverbial blind eye or at worst, actively assisted. As Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem makes explicit, Ukrainian and Russian collaboration in the extermination of the Jews was equally prominent and essential.

Along with unimaginable masses of victims, a vital and variegated dimension of European culture was obliterated. The popular image of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before 1939 has been inadvertently simplified. To a limited extent, the image of the shtetl Jew, the devoutly religious inhabitant of small villages and towns, is accurate. Indeed, contrary to the perversely persistent logic of anti-Semitism, the vast majority of the Jews who died were in fact poor. But the cultural characteristics within the worlds that were destroyed were actually much broader than that. In large cities such as Warsaw, Vilnius, Budapest, and Kiev, a Jewish life flourished that was middle-class and acculturated (if not assimilated) into the dominant national and linguistic cultures as much as anti-Semitism would permit with or without conversion.

The Warsaw in which Weinberg grew up had many examples of this form of Jewish life. This was effectively depicted in Wladyslaw Szpilmann’s memoirs The Pianist, the basis of Roman Polanksi’s recent film. We recall this accommodation between Jewish identity and so-called mainstream European civilization most often in the case of Germany, but it flourished as well in Eastern Europe. More significantly, particularly in Eastern Europe, in pre-war Poland, and in Soviet Russia, there were forms of Jewish life grounded not in Zionism, in Hebrew, or even in religion. A vibrant Jewish culture centered on the Yiddish language helped to define Eastern European Jewry. Within that culture there was a strong socialist streak with its own form of utopianism. New Yorkers have perhaps a better opportunity to remember this Yiddish and socialist heritage, since so many of the Jewish immigrants to New York from the late nineteenth century on carried those traditions with them to the new world.

Today’s concert can be seen in a way as an homage to this dimension of European Jewish history. Weinberg’s Warsaw in the decades immediately preceding his birth was an urban center in the farthest western region of the Russian empire. An independent Poland came into existence only one year before he was born. After the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin and the invasion of Poland in 1939, Weinberg made a decision that would save his life. He fled eastward, ultimately to find himself in Tashkent, where he met Dmitri Shostakovich.

Weinberg’s father had been a musician in the Yiddish theater, and Yiddish was to him and clearly to many of his fellow Jews the central language, the language of identity, of the home and of social intercourse with other Jews. Yiddish was the lingua franca of Central and Eastern Europe for Jews both in its quotidian and literary form. Weinberg married the daughter of Solomon Mikhoels (1890-1948), the legendary Yiddish actor and director who maintained his own lifelong allegiance to socialism.

For the Jews in Soviet Russia who survived the German invasion, the euphoria of the German defeat was short-lived. It is easy to lump Hitler and Stalin together in light of their terrifying similarities. Stalin’s impact on Soviet ideology and practice was in part to lend it a pronounced nationalist quality, and in so doing, he gave ample room to anti-Semitism. In theory, communism was designed both to eliminate nationalisms and render residual ethnic identities equal. Being a Jew in Soviet Russia was accorded the official status of a nationality, presumably in the context of multi-ethnic equality. In reality, this was not the case. Stalin’s anti-Semitism stemmed in part from his rivalry with and resentment of colleagues of Jewish origin from the Bolshevik Revolution—Leon Trotsky most prominently. It is a startling and tragic fact that not long after the end of the war Stalin sought to take up where Hitler had left off. Mikhoels used his prominence as an actor and visible representative of the Jews to assist survivors and those returning to their homes. But on January 13, 1948, Stalin had Mikhoels killed in a staged car accident in Minsk. The great Yiddish actor’s death marked the beginning of a process of suppression of Jewish cultural institutions and Jewish life, including whole scale removal of town populations into the Gulag. In Stalin’s final years, his obsession with anti-Semitism took the shape of the notorious Doctors’ Plot, the allegation of a conspiracy of Jewish doctors, among whom was an uncle of Weinberg’s wife, a physician attached to the Kremlin. In February 1953 Weinberg was arrested and jailed because of his connection to the Mikhoels family. It was his luck that a month later Stalin died. Weinberg was released after three months, and it is his release that holds the key to the connection between him and Shostakovich.

Shostakovich remained all his life a loyal citizen of Soviet Russia, a hero of the State and an “official” composer. That he believed in the ideals and premises of the Soviet system there can be little doubt. At the same time, through his music he gave voice to an undercurrent of expression in response to the suffering that the repressive regime generated. This dual function in his music lends it its intensity, sardonic wit, and irony. Although steadfastly loyal, he suffered humiliation at the hands of the Party twice, first in the 1930s and then in 1948. Toward the end of his life Shostakovich distanced himself from the dissidents of the Brezhnev era, much to the dismay of many of his admirers. Shostakovich seemed perpetually frightened for himself, his career, and his family, and was disinclined to put himself at risk.

There was, however, one exception, and that exception is itself powerful and striking. Anti-Semitism among Russian writers, artists, composers, and intellectuals was commonplace. It spans the eras of Gogol and Dostoevsky to Stravinsky. The absence of anti-Semitism in Shostakovich’s life and work is therefore remarkable. He became friendly with Weinberg during the war. Weinberg remained close to Shostakovich, performing and recording with him. When Weinberg was arrested, Shostakovich did something highly improbable. In the full knowledge that his every action private and public was being watched, he not only offered to help Weinberg’s family, but he wrote to the head of the secret police, Lavrenty Beriya, pleading for Weinberg’s release. When it came to resisting anti-Semitism and assisting his Jewish colleagues, Shostakovich displayed uncommon (and, one might judge, foolhardy) courage. He believed rightly that Mikhoels and Weinberg, like so many of his other colleagues of Jewish origin steeped in the Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe, were genuine patriots and citizens deserving of equality in the Soviet state.

1948, the year of Mikhoels’s assassination, was also an unpleasant one for Shostakovich and Weinberg as composers. It was the year of the famous Zhdanov resolution, condemning once again formalism and modernism. In 1948, albeit briefly, Shostakovich found himself shunned and ostracized. Weinberg too was out of favor as an ideologically rigid construct of true Soviet music was promulgated. It was in this period that Shostakovich wrote his famous song cycle On Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79. Although not published or performed until 1955, its composition was an eloquent act of artistic and ethical resistance.

By 1962, when Shostakovich wrote his Thirteenth Symphony, much had changed in the Soviet Union. Stalin had died, Khrushchev was in power, and there was an air of optimism in the wake of de-Stalinizaiton. But that apparent liberalism did not extend to telling the truth about the role of the Russian people and the Soviet state with respect to anti-Semitism and the facts of the extermination of the Jews. One of the most visible figures of the early 1960s was the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko who wrote a poem commemorating the killings at Babi Yar, an historical event that was suppressed by Soviet authorities. The poem came to Shostakovich’s attention through his friend Isaak Glikman (himself a Jew). Shostakovich immediately set the poem to music and began to work with the poet.

But because Soviet liberalization was only skin-deep, the authorities were none too pleased and put pressure on Shostakovich and Yevtushenko. It took considerable courage for the original performers to present this work, and in the end Yevtushenko, as Laurel Fay recounts, caved in and changed some lines—changes Shostakovich never accepted. Nevertheless, in December of 1962, despite official pressure, the work was premiered. But for years thereafter its performance was discouraged. The authorities could not intimidate Shostakovich, but the incident surrounding the poem and Symphony marked the end of the most liberal moment of Khrushchev’s tenure. Khrushchev is reported to have quipped that in matters of art he remained a “Stalinist.” Although the swarm of party officials had persuaded Yevtushenko to rewrite the poem to give the impression that Jews were not the only victims, that Russians and Ukrainians died at Babi Yar as well (which was not the fact), to place the Jewish plight more in the background, and to give way to expressions of gratitude to Russia’s war against fascism, Shostakovich would have none of it.

Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony exemplifies the composer’s ironic use of the musical attributes of marching songs, dance, humor, and macabre tone-painting in a manner designed to mock the official aesthetics of the Soviet state. As the last movement of the Symphony makes plain, there is also a dimension of self-mockery, of an almost cloying confessional. Shostakovich exploited Yevtushenko’s highly sentimentalized example of Galileo as a means by which to express his hope that despite the necessity to compromise, recant, and submit oneself to a repressive political authority, in the end “the truth in one’s art,” just like the truth of Galileo’s science, will prevail. The final section considers the price one must pay to continue to work. In his own engaging and populist manner, Shostakovich unabashedly seeks forgiveness through an ironic exercise at self-justification, mitigating his lifelong collaboration and abnegation before the authorities with the suggestion that he nevertheless was able to speak the truth. What better medium could there have been for this moment of self-revelation than Yevtushenko’s unmasking of the plight of Russian Jewry at the hands not only of the Nazis but of their fellow Soviet citizens?

The Thirteenth Symphony offered Shostakovich the opportunity to express a lifelong conviction that the fate of the Jew mirrored the fate of artists. Artists risked being branded as outsiders and destroyers of public order, as challengers to convention and uniformity. For Shostakovich, belief in the power of art even as a covert instrument of expression and the necessity for the individual artist to retain integrity and autonomy at least to some degree required the capacity within a society to accept Jews as Jews and as equals. The proverbial Jewish attribute audible in Weinberg’s music and central to the character of the Yiddish language of “laughter through tears,” was closely linked in Shostakovich’s mind to the function of art in a society without freedom.

Weinberg outlived Shostakovich for more than twenty years. His output was enormous, and the quality of his music, as evidenced by this Symphony and Concerto, has yet to be discovered fully by American audiences. In the shadow of Shostakovich are several powerful and important composers who worked in twentieth-century Russia, including Weinberg, Prokofiev’s friend Nicolai Miaskovsky, and Gavriil Popov. But in this concert, we celebrate something we take for granted but rarely understand fully: the perseverance of friendship as an act in defiance of repression. If being a friend is merely convenient and puts us at little risk, we can enjoy it just as an ornamental component of life. But loyalty and personal relations can become a matter of life and death, particularly in a society characterized by terror, surveillance, and lack of freedom. Today we hear the music of two friends who took risks to remain friends. They worked, as it were, in tandem. Weinberg’s Sixth Symphony would have been unthinkable without Shostakovich’s Thirteenth, particularly in Weinberg’s use of material from Jewish life and culture. Shostakovich had broken the taboo that lasted well after the Stalinist state anti-Semitism in 1948. In their separate and distinct ways, the works on today’s program help remind us not only of the richness and vitality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe—as well as its acute tragedies, particularly during the Soviet era—but also of the value of the genuine absence of prejudice and the commitment to friendship.