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January 15th 2009 print

Michael Connor

When Paul Robeson’s voice was silent

The fate of working class Americans who migrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s is recounted in a new book which also documents the silence and cowardice of the western Left who, though aware of the reality behind the Stalinist façade, never spoke out against the horror.

The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis (Little, Brown) is an account of working class Americans who migrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s. They were feted, then imprisoned and killed. Theirs is an unusual and moving history which Tzouliadis tells with great sympathy.

One Tzouliadis story is about Paul Robeson who, on a triumphant visit to the Soviet Union, asked to see several friends he had previously made. After the usual excuses one was produced for him.

… Yitzhak Pfeffer arrived at the Hotel Moskva alone and dressed in a suit, although obviously in great distress. Knowing their hotel room was bugged, Pfeffer resorted to sign language and handwritten notes in an attempt to answer Robeson’s questions. The actor Solomon Mikhoels, Pfeffer explained, had been murdered “on Stalin’s order”, and Pfeffer was himself imprisoned in the Lubyanka. When Robeson asked what would happen to him, the Jewish poet was unequivocal: “They’re going to kill us. When you return to America you must speak out and save us.”

But Robeson refused Pfeffer’s request to speak out publicly upon his return to the United States. Instead the American singer rejected as anti-Soviet propaganda the rumours of mass arrests, and refused to denounce Stalin’s methods although he had met the victims personally.

Here is the material for a real drama about those on the Left who knew (know) what was taking place and did not speak out.

Well worth seeking out for your mid-summer reading.