Paul Robeson – Russia
Itzik Feffer meeting and concert in Tchaikovsky Hall (June 1949)
In June 1949, during the 150th anniversary celebration of the birth of Alexander Pushkin, Robeson visited the Soviet Union on a major tour including a concert at Tchaikovsky Hall. Concerned about the welfare of Jewish artists, Robeson insisted to Soviet officials that he meet with Itzik Feffer a few days earlier. Robeson had first met Feffer on July 8, 1943, at the largest pro-Soviet rally ever held in the United States, an event organized by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and chaired by Albert Einstein. Robeson then also got to know Solomon Mikhoels, the popular actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Mikhoels also headed the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union with Feffer as his second. After the rally, Robeson and his wife Essie had entertained Feffer and Mikhoels.
According to an account by Paul Robeson Jr told to Robeson biographer Martin Duberman, in the 1980s, Robeson was disturbed as to why he could not find his many Jewish friends when he returned to the U.S.S.R. in June 1949. After several inquires, Feffer was brought to Robeson’s hotel room by the State Police. He and Feffer were forced to communicate through hand gestures and notes because the room was bugged. Feffer indicated that Mikhoels had been murdered in 1948 by the secret police and intimated that he also was going to be killed. Feffer in fact was executed along with 14 other Jewish intellectuals three years later. After the talk with Feffer Robeson would ask his friend Pete Blackman to “stick around” him during their stay in Moscow, he would also caution Blackman to “watch what he said” around party officials.
Accounts of the meeting
There were no eyewitnesses who went on record, so the meeting of Paul Robeson and Itzik Feffer in Moscow has been given several varying interpretations. In recent years, Paul Robeson, Jr. has been quoted as saying that his father “tried to contact Soviet officials to see if anything could be done to release Feffer and other Jewish intellectuals.” This conflicts somewhat with his first account to Martin Duberman, which stated that his father did not act to speak out on Feffer’s behalf to Soviet officials. Solomon Mikhoels‘ daughter published an account that is nearly identical to that of Paul Robeson Jr., with Robeson specifically requesting to see Feffer except that places the meeting in 1951 which would not have been possible, given that Robeson was without his passport. A second and more angry account by composer Dimitri Shostakovich denounces Robeson for “staying silent”, claiming the meeting was in a restaurant with Feffer accompanied by police agents. In The Long Journey by Slavic anthropologist Esther Markish, the author writes that Feffer, following orders from the Soviet secret police, carefully said nothing to Robeson about the purges.
Robeson’s speaks publicly of Feffer
Robeson spoke during his concert in Tchaikovsky Hall on June 14, about his close friendship with Feffer and the recently deceased actor Solomon Mikhoels prior to singing the Vilna Partisan song “Zog Nit Keynmol” in both Russian and Yiddish. The concert was being broadcast across the entire Soviet Union. Historian and Robeson biographer Martin Duberman writes:
“Asking the audience for silence he announced that there would be only one encore for that evening. He then spoke of his deep cultural ties between the Jewish peoples of the Soviet Union and the United States, and of how that tradition was being continued by the present generation of Russian-Jewish writers and actors. He then referred to his own friendship with Mikhoels and Feffer, and spoke of his great joy in having just come from meeting with Fefffer again. Robeson then sang in Yiddish, to a hushed hall, “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song, first reciting the words in Russian:
“‘Never say that you have reached the very end
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend;
For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive
And our marching steps will thunder: ‘we survive’.
After a moment’s silence, the stunned audience, Great Russians and Jews alike responded with a burst of emotion, people with tears in their eyes coming up to the stage, calling out “Pavel Vaslyevich,” reaching out to touch him. Having made that public gesture in behalf of Feffer and other victims of Stalin’s policies-all that could have been done without directly threatening Feffers’s life-Robeson clammed up on returning to the United States.”
Robeson’s spontaneous translation of the Yiddish text of the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising into Russian and his personal tribute to Mikhoels and Feffer were censored from the tapes of the 1949 broadcast. .
Four years after the fall of Hitler, the tune would be used as a form of resistance against another 20th century tyrant. Paul Robeson traveled to Moscow in June of 1949 to give a performance to an audience that included many Communist Party elites, as well as what little remained of the Jewish intelligentsia after Stalin’s purges. At the end of the concert, Robeson stunned the audience with a surprise rendition of the Partisan Hymn. His introductory remarks contained references to the Yiddish language, the deep and enduring cultural ties between the US and Russian Jewish communities, as well as to leading Jewish intellectuals who had been “disappeared” by the regime.
The remarks, the spontaneous translation of the song to the shocked audience, and thunderous applause that followed were cut from the recording by Stalin’s censors, but the chaos is evident in the mixture of applause and jeers that follows the actual performance.
I learnt from the presentation that the Partisan Song is a resistance song that was sung by the Jews in the Warsasw Ghetto Upsrising and in the concentration camps. It was adopted by many Jewish Partisan groups as a motto that future generations will always continue to exist. This song gave the Jews hope that there would be freedom and that the camps would eventually be liberated.
It is significant because it became the symbol of resistance against Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust. The importance of the Partisan Song is that we never forget the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany and the atrocities of the concentration camps.
Ryan Lanesman – attended Eli Rabinowitz’s presentation at King David Linksfield on 7 February 2017.
I found the links, I sat in front of my laptop and sobbed watching them. It’s beautiful to see the kids carrying on the tradition and not just because they have to, they did it with a force!
Sharon Mintz, San Diego, CA
Please don’t get excited by my email, I have nothing to contribute, I just wanted to say that I love what you are doing and hope to be able to follow it. My great uncle, Itzchak Mintz, was a partisan from Dywin, Belarus. kI believe he was involved in Betar before the war, I’m not sure who he fought with. He died towards the end of the war. I’m working now to learn more about him but to even hear songs that he sang or heard as he showed such unbelievable strength would be an amazing experience. Thank you.
Sharon Mintz, San Diego, CA
I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada and attended the I.L. Peretz School (a Yiddish Day School) from kindergarten through grade 7. I was a member of the choir. We sang Zog Nit Kayn Mohl As Du Gayst Dem Letsten Veg yearly. We would follow the song immediately with the Palmach Song. I remember it as if it were yesterday.
I have lived in Skokie, Illinois since 1992. Skokie had a very large population of Holocaust survivors (and hence the KKK decided to march in Skokie in the 70s leading up to the movie with Danny Kaye). The shul that I belong to still hosts the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day although the numbers attending have drastically dwindled. Zog Nit Kayn Mohl is still sung, and I still cry, now more than ever.
I don’t have any video recordings of choirs singing this song. I just wanted to share my experience. Thanks for listening.
Michele Zell Kanter
Good morning from New York City, Eli!
The “Partisanen Lid” was part of every Workmen’s Circle seder when I was growing up; I can still hear my bubbe’s voice in my mind’s ear on the last two lines.
Here is a version by the legendary Paul Robeson. My mother had the honor of sharing a stage with him at Madison Square Garden in 1947, at the celebration of Israel’s impending statehood. She says that after he kissed her cheek, she didn’t wash it for a week.
I have sung this in Yiddish in both concert and, as Hazzan in my synagogue. I never liked the English translation. I am certain, from the way the prosody works, that this song was written in Yiddish and never sung in Russian. Good luck in your endeavor.
Rabbi Richard Allen, PhD.
Rochester, NY 14625
История одной песни: “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” / “Никогда не говори никогда” / “Гимн еврейских партизан”
Это пример еще одной антинацистской песни, приобретшей международную известность. Одно из наиболее известных исполнений – аутентичный текст на идиш, поет…
История одной песни: “Zog Nit Keyn Mol” / “Гимн еврейских партизан” (продолжение)
Начало см. здесь: http://naiwen.livejournal.com/1460215.h tml Разберемся с историей мелодии песни еврейских партизан. В 1937 году в СССР появился документальный фильм «Сыны трудового…
Thanks to Janet Furba
Thanks to Mikhail Matusov
מסע מן הכורסא: בעקבות ‘שיר הפרטיזנים’
אחד השירים המזוהים ביותר עם זיכרון השואה והגבורה הוא ‘שיר הפרטיזנים’ , (מוכר גם במילות הפתיחה: ‘אל נא תאמר הנה דרכי האחרונה’). השיר חו…
Thanks to Chaim Rubinstein