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.

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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.

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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.

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