Luda Shuster's parents in the Soviet Union, ca. 1950
Luda Shuster's parents in the Soviet Union, ca. 1950

A lifetime of anti-Jewish propaganda — from Stalinist Russia to Kanye West

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By 1952, seven years after Hitler’s defeat, Stalin was consolidating his own version of a final solution to the Jewish problem. According to him, class struggle was becoming more brutal, and Soviet society needed to vigilantly fight class enemies. That year, the lens of class justice focused on a new villain.

“Rootless Cosmopolitans,” a euphemism for Jews, became a boogeyman in the media. Professionals with Jewish names lost their jobs. There were rumors about expelling all Jews to the Jewish autonomous republic in the Far East. Jews with a good grasp of reality were gathering warm clothes and suitcases.

In the meantime, my parents, a Jewish couple living in the city of Gomel, did not listen to these rumors. My father fought in the Great Patriotic War, Russia’s name for World War II, from 1941 to 1945. He was wounded twice and awarded medals for courage.

In 1941, my mom was trapped in the city of Leningrad, surrounded by German forces. Subsisting on 125 grams (4.4 ounces) of bread a day, she clung to life, and not only survived the siege herself, but saved her girlfriend from certain death.

My parents’ world was black and white. Hitler and fascists were the enemies. The Soviet Union was the only country where real justice existed. They ignored the whispers of their Jewish neighbors. They had good jobs: My father was a general counsel for the glass manufacturing plant, my mother was an assistant district attorney for the city of Gomel.

Thus, it came as a shock when one day, in the fall of 1952, my mother was summoned by her boss and ordered to resign. When she refused, her boss threatened with gathering compromising material (“compromat” in the vernacular of those years). My mom didn’t budge, she firmly believed in her innocence and the rule of law.

As it happened, no compromat was needed. Instead, my mother was ordered to go work in another city, 200 miles away from Gomel, leaving her husband and two small children behind. She refused to go, and was fired.

Losing one’s job wasn’t the worst thing that year. In August, 13 members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were tried in secret for espionage and executed. But my parents didn’t know that.

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They decided to fight for justice by appealing to the official rule of law. A long letter was sent to Moscow, to the chief prosecutor, Stalin’s right hand in administering justice. A month later, my mother was summoned to Moscow for an audience with his assistant. Very often, such audiences ended in a jail sentence, a term in a camp or even “10 years without correspondence,” a euphemism for a death sentence. The assistant listened to my mom, asked for additional documentation and promised to call her back. Documentation was prepared and mailed later that fall, and the waiting began.

Meanwhile, the antisemitic campaign was gaining speed. The culmination came on Jan. 13, 1953. An article titled “Duplicitous Spies and Murderers Disguised as Professors-Doctors” appeared in the two major newspapers. Millions of readers learned that nine doctors had been arrested, six of them Jewish. They were charged with poisoning prominent government figures and spying for the U.S. and Great Britain. The physician who turned them in received a state medal.

This started an avalanche of letters to the newspapers calling for the punishment of treacherous spies. Public discourse was getting increasingly shrill, the swirling rumors more chilling. People were talking about Siberian exile and public executions. Official court cases were to start in March.

In the USSR, all religions were practically banished, so not many Jews knew that Purim, the Jewish holiday of miraculous salvation, fell on March 1 that year, the month when the sword of Soviet justice was set to fall on the country’s Jews.

But on March 1, Stalin was found unresponsive in his dacha. Four days later, he breathed his last. His death brought a halt to the antisemitic campaign. In April the accused doctors were released. A Soviet-style “final solution” didn’t come to pass.

Soon afterward, my mom found a job as a defense attorney. Slowly my parents learned about the grim history of Stalin’s years. They continued to practice law, to bring a measure of justice in the world they lived in.

Throughout my childhood, there was a steady stream of visitors to our house in the evenings. Family, friends and acquaintances came for legal advice, given generously and freely.

In the 1970s, when emigration from the USSR became possible, our family came to the United States. The run-in with Stalin’s justice receded into the past.

In November 2022, 70 years later, I heard about Kanye West’s anti-Jewish rhetoric. Initially I just shrugged. This rapper was not known for his rational behavior. As the scandal grew, I decided to check for myself.

Pictures of the Goyim Defense League banners supporting Kanye West's comments about Jews went viral after they were captured in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 2022. (Screenshot from Twitter)
Pictures of Goyim Defense League banners supporting Kanye West’s comments about Jews went viral after they were captured in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 2022. (Screenshot from Twitter)

I found the clip on YouTube that had more than a million views. Not only did Kanye accuse his Jewish physician of designs on his life; in the same breath, he blamed Jews for the death of millions of black children at Planned Parenthood clinics. In an act of macabre irony, he called it his Holocaust.

Granted, Kanye didn’t get a medal. On the contrary, he lost money from canceled contracts. And most media outlets condemned his rants.

But his message reached millions of followers. And those banners saying “Kanye is right about the Jews” reminded me of letters to the editor written by Soviet citizens in the early 1950s.

No, I’m not comparing Stalin’s mid-20th century Russia with America today. And yet, I wonder how many people listened to the century-old antisemitic slander in the privacy of their own homes and nodded in agreement, just like many Russians did 70 years ago.

My parents were destined to live in tumultuous, violent times, and yet they kept their faith in justice and stubbornly fought for it.

It’s hard to keep that faith, with so many outbursts of hate around us lately. Antisemitism is just one of many.

But when things look gloomy, I remind myself: Sometimes evil wins, yet at the end it will be defeated. Like in that horrific winter of 1952-53 when all seemed lost.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Luda Shuster
Luda Shuster

Luda Shuster emigrated to the U.S. from the former USSR. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband and enjoys writing short stories and plays.