The fight of Torah true Russian Jews against the Yevsektsiya – the Jewish section of the Communist Party – ranks among the most courageous struggles in Jewish history.
The Yevsektsiya was the collective name of the Jewish sections of Communist Russia’s Information and Propaganda Department that terrorized Jews between 5678/1918 and 5690/1930. The Soviets had created this organization partly to avoid being labeled as anti-Semitic.
It is important to realize that the vast majority of Jews including even nonobservant Jews were antagonistic to the Yevsektsiya. A huge proportion of Jews were shomrei mitzvos and even those who were not, observed many traditional mitzvos and regarded themselves as “traditional.” For most Jews the Yevsektsiya was an aberration. This is why the Yevsektsiya paid so much attention to the Jews’ most vulnerable sector, the young generation, encouraging kids to join the Young Communist League (Komsomol) and rebel against their parents’ traditions.
Even Yevsektsiya members sometimes felt uncomfortable about their bizarre role and invented knotty rationales to justify their crimes. Here is the ridiculous answer the notorious Esther Frumkin gave her colleagues when they were urging her to be less extreme:
“You do not understand the danger Jews face,” she told them. “If the Russian people begin to think that we are partial to the Jews it will be harmful to Jews. It is for the sake of Jews that we are completely objective in our dealing with the clergy, Jew and non-Jew alike. The danger is that the masses may think that Judaism is exempt from anti-religious propaganda. Therefore, Jewish Communists must be even more ruthless with rabbis than non-Jewish Communists are with priests.”
It never occurred to her that instead of alleviating the fury of religious non- Jews by persecuting Jews, she might do better to cease persecuting religion altogether.
The ideology these people had taken on board was that of Lenin and his cohorts who had invented the new religion of Communism, the religion of homogeneity. Its goal was to destroy the Jews as a nation and incorporate them into the ant heap of proletarian (lower class) workers. Judaism was especially hated by the Communist religion as it isolated its members from the masses in opposition to the Communist dream of an amorphous, atheist, proletarian mass. As the Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1952) puts it:
“The exploiting elements among the Jews strove to maintain and develop the national isolation of the Jews. Religion was the tool in their hands. Until the middle of the 19th century, the Kahal organization grouped around the synagogues and the rabbis… made up the organs of local self-government. By means of the Kahal the Jewish bourgeoisie [business class] and the clergy cruelly exploited the working people. The Kahal headed by the rabbi played an extremely reactionary [anti-socialist] role with respect to the workers artifi cially creating a distinction between them and the workers of other nationalities….”
The battle against Jews began with the “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia” of November 5677/1917 that abolished the privileges of all religions and resulted in the transfer of every shul, cheder and yeshiva building to the government. Rabbis were later declared lishantsy (deprived of civic rights) and not entitled to housing, medical aid or food.
Then came the Yevsektsiya, set up by Simon Dimanstein, who joined the Bolsheviks in 5664/1904. Local Jewish cells (Yevsektsii) were set up throughout Russia.
At its first meeting in Moscow in October 1918, the Yevsektsiya’s avowed goal was stated – the “systematic destruction” of Zionist and bourgeois religious institutions. These included kehillos, chadarim, Hebrew schools and Zionist parties.
Local sections seized the assets and buildings of all civic and charity organizations such as hospitals, orphanages, and asylums. The valiance of these persecuted Jews is evident from records of the show trials held at that time. Torah true Jews put up such biting arguments in their defense that the Communists had to resort to the use of fake witnesses.
In Kiev, a show trial was deliberately set up on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 1921 in the same hall where the Beillis Trial had taken place ten years earlier. It was conducted in Yiddish.
The fi rst defendant was an old woman who had committed the crime of sending her children to cheder and yeshiva where “their consciousness was darkened by the study of religious and other counterrevolutionary subjects.”
“Why don’t you send your children to Communist schools where they would be educated in the Communist spirit and would be freed from religious prejudices and superstitions?” the judge challenged her.
Clearly and logically, she replied that she had grown up among religious Jews and did not want to poison her children with Communist teachings.
Now a “rabbi” was presented garbed in rabbinical clothes. Asked why he was poisoning the youth, he answered, “I’m doing this deliberately in order to keep the masses of the people in ignorance and in bondage to the bourgeoisie…”
Afterwards a fake Capitalist took the stand, his fingers studded with diamonds, to testify that the Jewish bourgeoisie deliberately cultivates religion to oppress the masses under the yoke of Capitalism.
The only people impressed by this nonsense were the already converted. One local teacher, Moshe Rosenblatt, had the courage to stand up and speak the truth:
“You red judges have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing,” he burst out. “Ten years ago in this courtroom the Black Hundreds put Mendel Beilis in that dock on the charge of the calumny of ritual bloodshed. The Black Hundred judges tried to cast a slur on the Jewish religion, the Torah, the Talmud, everything precious to Jews. Today you, like real anti-Semites and haters of Jews, are repeating the same calumnies on the Jewish religion and Jewish spiritual values.”
After a storm of protest, Rosenblatt was arrested, and to mention the judge’s verdict is superfl uous.
Earlier that year, a similar cheder trial in Vitebsk had been planned when about 5,000 Jewish protesters threatened to seize the Rekord Cinema where the trial was to convene, forcing the trial to be delayed.
Realizing that resistance would ultimately prove futile, many roshei yeshiva uprooted themselves and moved to Poland. Even the Novardok yeshivos which had been aggressively fighting to preserve yeshiva life in Russia changed their tactics in 5682/1922 and began smuggling bochurim over the border to Polish yeshivos, establishing over seventy yeshivos in Poland and Latvia between the two world wars. By the next year, the Der Emes newspaper claimed that no more than one or two remote yeshivos existed in the whole of Russia.
But that was a lie. Many Jews were fi ercely fi ghting to preserve Jewish education although their efforts became increasingly ineffectual towards the 1930s. This incredible battle deserves an article of its own.
SHULS FIGHT BACK
After widespread destruction of cheders and yeshivos, the Yevsektsiya turned its attention to shuls in 5683/1923, appropriating many of them for school buildings as part of the “struggle against illiteracy.” The tides of destruction rolled over shuls of venerable communities including Minsk, Gomel, Kiev, and Kharkov.
In Vitebsk, the Yevsektsiya claimed that there were too few buildings for Soviet Yiddish schools and that Jews must vacate a group of shuls in a certain courtyard. In response, Jews began occupying the shuls day and night, holding demonstrations in the courtyard, and beating back Communists with mud and stones. The standoff went on until a cavalry unit was called in to end the battle.
The destruction of the Moscow Central Shul of Maroseika Street was only averted by a desperate last minute appeal of the community that this contravened the guaranteed freedom of religion and that the request of eighty people to use the venerable building as a club would result in thousands of people losing their house of prayer. In many towns and cities, local Jews unsuccessfully tried to stop the closures with their bare fists.
After Rav Shimon Glazer of New York visited Russia in 1924 and reported back that shuls were being turned into clubs and batei kevaros into parks, thirty rabbis and Jews were arrested on the charge of instigating him to anti-Soviet propaganda.
A LUDICROUS TACTIC
Some of the more ludicrous efforts of the Yevsektsiya were crude attempts to create an ersatz Judaism devoid of any content. For example, they attempted to establish “Living Synagogues” where people sat in a mixed crowd under a portrait of Lenin and listened to Communist lectures. Grotesque “Red Haggadas” related the story of deliverance from Capitalism. Challos were baked in the shape of the hammer and sickle.
Few people were influenced by such nonsense.
More dangerous were “Yom Kippurnik” parades in Vitebsk and Minsk in which Jewish workers marched off to work with musical accompaniment on Yom Kippur, while Communist youths burst into shuls.
Throughout the twenties, the Yevsektsiya continued its nefarious activities, sometimes more actively and sometimes less depending on fluctuating government policy. By the 1930s their work was mostly done, and the Jewish sections of the Yevsektsiya were gradually eliminated. In return for his services, the organization’s founder, Simon Dimanstein, was liquidated during the Great Purges of Stalin shortly before World War II.
(Sources: Jewish Encyclopedia, “Russian Jewry 1917-1967.” Thomas Yosseloff: Cranbury, New Jersey, 1969. Jews and Jewish Life in Russia and the Soviet Union. Yaakov Ro’i, ed., Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1995. Levin, Nora. The Jews in the Soviet Union Since 1917. New York University Press, New York: 1988.)