The Arty Semite

Sygmunt Stein: A Spaniard in the Works

By Benjamin Ivry

Sygmunt Stein, a humble Paris button-maker of Polish-Jewish origin, left a compelling account of his volunteer service fighting Fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Stein (1899-1968) first published his recollections in 1950s articles in the Yiddish “Forverts,” as prepared for publication by the paper’s then-Paris correspondent, Avrom (Abraham) Shulman, better known by the pen name “Avromtshe.”

In 1961, publication in book form followed, as “der Birger-ḳrig in Shpanye.” One reader, author and bund worker Nahum Khanin (1885-1965) lauded Stein’s story as a “terrifying human document.” This text has finally been translated into French in an edition supervised by Stein’s daughter Odette. “My Spanish War: Ending the Myth of the International Brigades” was published by Les éditions du Seuil. Translated by Marina Alexeeva-Antipov, “My Spanish War” recounts in a tartly ironic prose style Stein’s political disillusionment with Stalinism.

At first, although repelled by Soviet purges and show trials, Stein believed, as did other Jewish volunteers, that by personally combatting Fascism in Spain, he would hasten the establishment of a Jewish state. Much aware of The Spanish Expulsion and the Inquisition, Stein experienced “mystical trembling” at the thought that “450 years before, Spanish reactionaries hounded Jewish dwellers from this land. Now, centuries later, a small group of great-grandchildren of these Jews returned to settle a score with their former torturers.” Asked to produce a Yiddish newsletter for Jewish troops, Stein soon discovered that since the Inquisition, no printing press with Hebrew characters could be found in all of Spain.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sygmunt Stein, Spanish Civil War, Stalinism

Isaac Babel's Last Days in Lubyanka

By Sarah Kessler

Isaac Babel, NKVD Photo, May 1939.

During a script reading at the Jewish Museum London on October 24, two writers with mortality on their minds came face to face: the bushy-eyebrowed 83-year-old East End poet and kitchen sink dramatist Bernard Kops, and the eternally 45-year-old journalist and playwright Isaac Babel.

“Some things grab you; you know what makes a play,” explained Kops on the phone the next day, reflecting on the public debut of his new work “Whatever Happened to Isaac Babel.”

Babel, a one-time protégé of the activist and publisher Maxim Gorky, was a writer held in high esteem among the Russian literary elite, widely translated as he moved between languages and lovers in Moscow and Paris. But during the 1930s, his depictions of corruption in Soviet life (not to mention an affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD), came to a head during Stalin’s Great Purge. Babel was arrested in 1939 for so-called anti-Soviet activities.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Red Cavalry, Polish-Soviet War, NKVD, Maxim Gorky, Lubyanka, London, Josef Stalin, Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, Jewish Museum London, Isaac Babel, East End, Bernard Kops, Benya Krik, Russia, Russian Literature, Stalinism, The Odessa Tales, Theater, Whitechapel Gallery

A Conflicted Conductor Under Stalinism

By Benjamin Ivry

Some Soviet Jews, whether or not they were true believers in Communism, were forced to express gratitude to Stalin simply for not being Hitler. That is one conclusion to be drawn from “Kirill Kondrashin: His Life in Music” a recent biography of the great Russian Jewish conductor by journalist Gregor Tassie (The Scarecrow Press).

According to Tassie, Kondrashin’s repeated claims that he was “proud to call himself a Stalinist” were motivated by the fact that his family was allowed to survive in an era when Europe’s Jews were largely exterminated. Yet the question remains of how genuine such declarations of allegiance could be under a murderous dictatorship. One Ukrainian-born colleague of Kondrashin’s, Dmitry Paperno, defines him as “another victim of a regime that he deeply despised yet had no choice but to serve, and thus to promote.”

Kondrashin was born in Moscow to violinist parents who worked with both the post-Revolutionary conductor-less orchestra Persimfans, and the Moscow State Jewish Theater of Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, who would eventually be murdered by Stalin.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Persimfans, Solomon Mikhoels, Stalinism, Gregor Tassie, Kirill Kondrashin




Find us on Facebook!
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.