There were times when the Jewish population of the Crimean peninsula exceeded 65,000. Now it”s around 10,000 out of 2 million, but it suddenly looks like this number has a chance to increase dramatically.
The tumultuous events around Crimea slipping out of Ukraine’s control divided the Ukrainian Jewish community. From the very first days, Crimean Jews threw their lot with Russia. “In Crimea, some Jews feel safer after Russian intervention,” reported Jewish Telegraphic Agency on March 4, 2014, less then a week after Russian ‘little green men’ put Russian flag in Sevastopol. “While many Ukrainian Jews have strongly condemned the Russian military incursion into Crimea,” JTA continued, “others see the intervention as restoring order in the wake of violent revolution that overthrew the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych.”
Since then, Crimean Jews en masse exchanged their Ukrainian passports for Russian ones, and to the chagrin of their co-religionists elsewhere in Ukraine, asked the West and to put an end to the ‘unjust’ sanctions imposed on Russia over Crimea.
International Business Times reported in the beginning of July that Russian president Vladimir Putin was urged to allow as many as 40,000 Jewish people who left Crimea during the reign of the Soviet Union to return to the now Russian-held peninsula and to ease the complex procedures that come with being repatriated to Russia in hopes of revitalizing Crimea. This initiative was led by Leonid Grach, the chairman of the regional public organization “Crimean Forum For the Defense of the Constitutional Rights of the Citizens.”
According Mr. Grach, “the overwhelming majority among these people are high-skilled specialists, engineers and representatives of the intelligentsia that Crimea needs today.”
Mr. Grach has a partner in Israel – Alexander Redko, leader of the pro-Russian Progressive Liberal-Democratic party. “Many people left Crimea after they lost what they felt was their motherland,” he said. “Today we ask Putin to grant them easy access to Russian citizenship” that would allow them to return to Crimea.
It’s not going to be a fast road for Jews who had been leaving Ukrainian Crimea during the decades of turmoil but their road to Crimea had never been easy in the first place.
A long time ago, when for the Jewish people Israel as a homeland seemed as reachable as a mirage, some Jews had high hopes for Crimea as a home for all the Jewish people of the world. The story was enfolded in tragedy and, of course, conspiracy, and it started with the Jewish Committee back in the days of World War II.
By the end of 1941, during the most dramatic period of the war, with the German army in the suburbs of Moscow, Stalin’s attention was drawn to a curious new proposal: to establish an International anti-Hitler Jewish Committee whose members were to be influential foreign – mostly American – Jews. This idea was received from two Jewish prisoners through the channels of the NKVD, Stalin’s fearsome secret police. The purpose of the Jewish Committee was obvious – to help the Red Army fight the Nazis by raising awareness in the West about terrible atrocities committed by Nazis against the Jews.
The idea belonged to two Polish Jews – Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter, prominent representatives of the Polish branch of the Jewish Bund, influential figures within the international Jewish community with access to the hearts of its famous and pockets of its rich. In 1939, both had fled into Soviet territory from Poland in the first days after the war broke out. To their bad luck, the Bund leaders were recognized by the vigilant Jewish communist at the railroad station at Brest-Litovsk, arrested, sent to the dreadful Butyrskaya prison in Moscow and sentenced to death.
To Stalin, the idea seemed worth trying.
The prisoners were immediately released, placed at the luxurious Moscow Metropol Hotel and apologized to for the “injustice” on behalf of the Soviet state, they were given good food and told to put their idea in writing.
Thus was born the project of an International Jewish Anti-Hitler Committee, and Stalin quickly approved it – but not without adjustments. From Stalin’s perspective, the main goal of the Jewish organization should have been reduced to attracting Jewish capital into the war economy of the USSR. Solomon Lozovsky pointed out the simple math of Erlich and Alter’s idea: ”We can get millions of dollars from the West for just a little bit of work”.
Jewish organizations around the world, most of which were from the US, donated about $45 million to the Soviet Union during WWII.
Grasping the proposed idea, Stalin, however, modified it to his own liking. First, he ordered the re-arrest of the former leaders of the Bund. Second, the organization had to become a Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Third, it had to be ‘reinforced’ with proven Jewish Stalinists who had been tested by long-term cooperation with the NKVD. Stalin’s right-hand man Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD, personally cherry-picked some of the most suitable candidates for the Jewish Committee.
Solomon Lozovsky, former General Secretary of the International of the Trade Unions, international spying branch of the NKVD, was appointed the real, behind-the-scenes head of the Jewish Committee.
Of course, some of the future members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) would have to be appointed from among the representatives of the Jewish intelligentsia – actors, writers and scientists. Using Lenin’s phrase, they would have to play the role of the “useful idiots” necessary to ensure the desired image of the new organization in the eyes of the influential American Jewish financial groups.
Messrs. Erlich and Alter became ‘Prisoner #41’ and ‘Prisoner #42′ in the inner prison of the city of Kuibyshev, where after two years of hell the first one hung himself in his cell and the second was shot. When concerned representatives of international Jewish organizations inquired about the fate of the leaders of the Polish Bund, , Stalin just shrugged his shoulders.
Talented head of the Moscow Jewish Theater, Solomon Mikhoels, was appointed to the position of the official Chairman of the JAC – as a front for the real head of the organization Solomon Lozovsky.
In the summer of 1943, developing further on the proposal put forward by Solomon Lozovsky, Stalin sent Solomon Mikhoels and the poet Isaak Fefer, Mikhoels’ assistant at JAC and the NKVD stooge, on an important mission to the United States, giving them the task to lobby the American Jewish organizations for financial assistance to the Soviet Union in its fight against Hitler’s army. With the purpose to open hearts and wallets of the American Jews, the Moscow envoys had to work hard to open the eyes of American Jews to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis against European Jewry.
On the US side, the trip had been organized by the American Ben Zion Goldberg, the son-in-law of the genius Jewish writer Shalom Aleichem.
The visit to America, which lasted the whole second half of 1943, was a great success. Upon their arrival to the US, Fefer, who was charged with to ‘monitoring’ Mikhoels, immediately made contact with the head of the NKVD rezidentura in the United States, General Zarubin and later thoroughly informed him about all the contacts that took place – both his own and Mikhoels’.
They visited more than a dozen US cities and took part in hundreds of meetings in support of the Soviet fight against the Nazis. In New York, almost fifty thousand people came to welcome the envoys of the Soviet Union – a meeting held at the Madison Square Garden. Mikhoels and Fefer met with Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Theodore Dreiser, Paul Robeson and other celebrities, but also with the leaders of powerful American Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Congress.
During their meetings with the US Jewish leaders, such as Louise Levine, J.N. Rosenberg and B.Z. Goldberg, a very strange idea “suddenly” popped-up – the idea of a Jewish republic on the peninsula of the Russian Crimea, which was to become, according to the proposal by the Americans, the home for not only the Jews of the USSR, but also a homeland for all European Jews, humiliated, persecuted and slaughtered all around the continent. Rosenberg introduced Mikhoels and Fefer to the leadership of Joint that discussed with the Soviet representatives the potential of Crimea for the resettlement of the Jews after the war.
Later, the theme of the Crimea as a possible homeland for the Jews was even discussed in the correspondence between the Joint leaders and Soviet diplomats in the United States.
The idea was not new. Starting in the 1920s, it was lobbied in the Kremlin by a number of high-placed Jewish Communists, including Yuri Larin (Mikhail Lurie), the father-in-law of Lenin’s darling Nikolai Bukharin, who was the Chairman of the Public Committee For the Settlement of the Jewish Workers that was fighting within the Soviet Government for the plan of ‘uniting’ all Jews of all countries for resettlement to the Crimea. In 1932, after the death of ‘comrade’ Larin/Lurie, two villages in the Crimea were renamed Larindorf and Larino as a sign of gratitude from Jewish colonists.
Although Stalin just shrugged the idea off at the time and instead gave the Soviet Jews their autonomous republic—in the Soviet Far East, on the border with China—as a result of these efforts, 65,000 Jews had lived in Crimea before the war – or 8% of the urban and 3% of the rural population of the peninsula. During the Holocaust, all the Crimean Jews who didn’t leave, around 40,000 people, were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators – at Simferopol (14,000), at Kerch (7,000), at Sevastopol (4,500).
Stalin was delighted with the results of the American mission of his envoys. Jewish organizations around the world, most of which were from the US, donated about $45 million to the Soviet Union during WWII. In February, 1944, two months after their return to Moscow, the leaders of Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee decided to start a push at the top level of the Soviet leadership for the practical implementation a Jewish Soviet Socialist Republic on the Crimean peninsular.
Crimea was not liberated from Nazi occupiers yet; the Red Army’s assault against them started only two months later. One of the leaders of the JAC explained the need for the rush in these words – “There will never be another chance” for the Jewish homeland. Arguing the case for the Jewish republic, another leader stated that “anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union often causes more concerns than the destruction of more than four million Jews by the Germans.”(The exact numbers of the Holocaust victims were not known at the time).
Jewish organizations around the world, most of which were from the US, donated about $45 million to the Soviet Union during WWII.
Together, they wrote a draft of the letter to Stalin, in which the theme of salvation of the Soviet Jews from the Soviet anti-Semitism in the Crimean Jewish Soviet republic was reflected. But first, they wanted to ensure the support of prominent Stalin adviser Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, whose Jewish wife Polina (Perla) was a personal friend of Mikhoels’, a member of JAC and a big supporter of the project of Jewish Crimean Republic. “She is a good daughter of the Jewish people”, said Mikhoels about her. Unfortunately for both Mikhoels and Molotov’s wife, he did this in the presence of Fefer, the NKVD eyes and ears at the JAC.
The five-page letter, addressed to Stalin, and signed by Solomon Mikhaels, Isaak Fefer and journalist Shakhno Epstein, had two practical points: to declare on the territory of Crimea the Jewish Soviet Republic without delay before the liberation of the peninsula, and to organize in advance the State Commission for the development of all necessary arrangements.
The members of JAC were so excited by their Crimean project and so confident in its prospects that they spent endless hours discussing the candidacies of the future ministers of the republic.
However, their high hopes were destroyed by the negative attitude by Stalin to the project, who said to Molotov after reading the letter, “Only the poets could come up with such a plan.” He simply forgot about it for the time being.
Later, when the Cold War broke out and the state of Israel was about to be declared, the “Crimean project” of the Jewish “poets” started to be seen by Stalin as a dangerous plot by the Zionists to create within the USSR a springboard to undermine the Soviet Union from within – if not a bridgehead for direct military aggression by the imperialists. In the beginning of 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was mysteriously murdered in the night on a street in Minsk, dying just four months shy of the declaration of the state of Israel. In 1949, Stalin forced Molotov to divorce his Jewish wife, who was arrested and sent to exile to Kazakhstan still wearing her squirrel-fur overcoat.
All the members of the JAC involved into the project of Jewish Republic in Crimea – 125 people – were arrested in 1948, and 23 of them were shot in 1952, the rest were sent to the GULAGs.
In 1953 Stalin died and one year later the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, previously the head of Ukraine for eleven years, with a stroke of his pen gave Crimea as a gift to his homeland as a pledge of ‘eternal friendship’ between Russia and Ukraine on the 300th anniversary of their unification, turning more than a million people, including 20,000 Jews, into ‘Ukrainians’ overnight.
Twenty years later, Mikhoels’ two daughters were among the first Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel.
The Crimean project of the Jewish home seemed all but forgotten and the number of Jews living there never exceeded the prewar levels.
Maybe this is once again about to change.