Soviet Yiddish writer Itsik Fefer, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, and the legendary Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Soviet Consulate, 1943. (via Milken Archive)
The American concert singer and actor Paul Robeson met Feffer on July 8, 1943 in New York during a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee event chaired by Albert Einstein, one of the largest pro-Soviet rallies ever held in the United States. After the rally, Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda Robeson, befriended Feffer and Mikhoels.
“In America, the question ‘What happened to Itzhak Feffer?’ entered the currency of political debate. There was talk in intellectual circles that Jews were being killed in a new Soviet purge and that Feffer was one of them. It was to quell such rumors that Robeson asked to see his old friend, but he was told by Soviet officials that he would have to wait. Eventually, he was informed that the poet was vacationing in the Crimea and would see him as soon as he returned. The reality was that Feffer had already been in prison for three years, and his Soviet captors did not want to bring him to Robeson immediately because he had become emaciated for lack of food. While Robeson waited in Moscow, Stalin’s police brought Feffer out of prison, put him the care of doctors, and began fattening him up for the interview. When he looked sufficiently healthy, he was brought to Moscow. The two men met in a room that was under secret surveillance. Feffer knew he could not speak freely. When Robeson asked how he was, he drew his finger nervously across his throat and motioned with his eyes and lips to his American comrade. They’re going to kill us, he said. When you return to America you must speak out and save us.”
During his concert in Tchaikovsky Hall on June 14 - which was broadcast across the entire country - Robeson publicly paid tribute to Feffer and the late Mikhoels, singing the Vilna Partisan song “Zog Nit Keynmol” in both Russian and Yiddish. Recordings of the concert survived but Robeson’s spoken words are lost.
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