Monday, 13 May 2013

Biography focus: Solomon Mikhoels

This is a post in contrast to my focuses on specific works, for today I am writing about a specific person: Solomon Mikhoels. In a nutshell, he was a highly prolific actor and director, notable for his active role within Jewish culture of the Soviet Union. He was also Weinberg's father-in-law from his first marriage. Mikhoels' direct influence on Weinberg is difficult to establish, though he possibly encouraged his interests of Jewish music and culture. Mikhoels' prominent position in Jewish culture proved a dangerous one, creating ramifications that would affect not only Weinberg's safety and that of his family, but the entire Jewish population of the Soviet Union.

Solomon Mikhoels, portrait by Nathan Altman, 1927.


Mikhoels was born Sholyme Vovsi in Dvinsk on 16th March, 1890 (old-style date, 4th March). He studied law in St. Petersburg, but left to join the Jewish Theatre Workshop in 1918. By 1920, the group relocated to Moscow and established the Moscow State Jewish Theatre, with a strong focus on the Yiddish language. Mikhoels displayed phenomenal talent from the outset, and rose to become director of the company by 1928. 
   With the company, Mikhoels created many famous productions and roles (including 'Tevye the Milkman' - the story that would be adapted for American audiences as 'The fiddler on the roof'). Perhaps his most famous role was King Lear in the famous all-Yiddish production (see an excerpt in the video below).

   Such great successes were threatened by the looming force of Stalin's purges. Mikhoels had strong links to the cultural intelligentsia, and many of his friends and associates were victims. By the time of the Second World War, Mikhoels had risen to fame as a spokesperson of a community against Hitler - this led to his appointment as the head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in 1942. 
The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
A few words about this organisation. At the outbreak of WWII, Stalin wished to unite the peoples of the Soviet Union in a single front against the German forces. But the Soviet Union consisted of a huge variety of ethnic groups and racial backgrounds. As a result, Stalin encouraged groups that rallied communities together in the name of the war effort. However, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee had a double-role. In addition to uniting disassociated peoples in the name of the war effort, the group was also founded to win support for the Soviet war effort amongst the international community - particularly in the West. As a result, delegates from the group regularly visited Western countries, especially America. In this manner, Mikhoels became an international face of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. On their travels, they were instructed to convince Jewish communities of the benefits of emigrating to the USSR, as well as raising funds for the Soviet war effort (Over $30 million was raised in total). In the US, the committee also urged the American nation to join the war effort. Mikhoels touring took him to the US, Canada, Mexico and Britain. He met many notable figures of Jewish life in these countries, including Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin.

(L-R) Itsek Fefer, Albert Einstein and Solomon Mikhoels - pictured in 1943.

Mikhoels and Weinberg
Weinberg met Mikhoels in Tashkent, where he had fled following the Nazi advance into Russia. Weinberg married Mikhoels' daughter Natalya Vovsi-Mikhoels, and they had a daughter, Victoria. The family were very close, and for several years, Weinberg and Natalya lived with her parents in the same building in Tashkent, and they continued to take meals together after they were married. Weinberg's first sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 12, is dedicated to Mikhoels. It has been claimed that Weinberg's Sinfonietta No. 1, Op. 41, bore a text by Mikhoels as its foreword – but it was hastily removed, for reasons unknown. The Sinfonietta itself was praised at its premiere as indicative of the happy life of Jews in the Soviet Union. But Mikhoels' fate would cast a dark shadow.
   After WWII, Mikhoels continued to be a vocal supporter for Jewish communities in the USSR, but Stalin cut off contacts with Western countries, which were deemed 'Bourgeoisie'. As a result, the Jewish State Theatre was closed down and the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested (this later became known as the 'anti-cosmopolitan' campaign - something that would mutate into the 'Doctor's Plot' by 1953). Mikhoels was the public figure of the group, and a result, a show-trial would have an adverse effect. Instead, Mikhoels was kidnapped and shot on Stalin's orders. His body was dumped at a roadside in Minsk and run over with a truck.
  Since he was such a celebrated member of the Jewish community, Mikhoels was granted a full state funeral - thousands of mourners lined the streets. (A potentially spurious story details that his body was displayed open-casket with the tongue removed - a sign about the place of Yiddish-speakers in the Soviet Union. Most probably, I suspect that this tale is a myth whose origins are lost). 

   Weinberg's relations to Mikhoels proved perilous, even after Mikhoels death, as Weinberg himself was arrested and imprisoned for three months in 1953. 

Mikhoels' legacy
Solomon Mikhoels' grave, New Donsky Cemetery, Moscow.
Mikhoels is now remembered as the leading figure of a golden age in Jewish-Soviet culture. The Solomon Mikhoels International Cultural Centre was founded in his memory in 1989. His influence on Weinberg shaped the composer's interest on Jewish and Yiddish themes, as well as being an extremely close friendship between father and son-in-law. Mikhoels' legacy in Soviet cinema and art is slowly being documented. 

P.S. An interesting musical sidenote - an opera of Mikhoels' life was written by Bruce Adolphe in 1982, called 'Mikhoels the wise'. See this video for an interview about the work.

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