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Solomon (Shloyme) Mikhoels (real surname - Vovsi), Yiddish: שלמה מיכאָעלס; Russian: Соломон Михайлович Михоэлс (Вовси) (16 March [O.S. 4 March] 1890 - January 12/13, 1948) was a Soviet Jewish actor and director in Yiddish theater and the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.



Born Shloyme Vovsi in Dvinsk (now Daugavpils), Latvia, Mikhoels studied law in Saint Petersburg, but left school in 1918 to join Alexander Granovsky's Jewish Theater Workshop, which was attempting to create a national Jewish theater in Russia based on the Yiddish language. Two years later, in 1920, the workshop moved to Moscow, where it established the Moscow State Jewish Theater. This was in keeping with Lenin's policy on nationalities, which encouraged them to pursue and develop their own cultures under the aegis of the Soviet state. Mikhoels, who showed outstanding talent, was the company's leading actor and, as of 1928, its director. He played in several memorable roles, including Tevye in an adaptation of Sholom Aleichem's comic short stories about Tevye the Milkman (which were adapted for an American audience as Fiddler on the Roof) as well as in many original works, such as Bar Kochba, and translations.

As King Lear
As King Lear

Perhaps his most noted role was as King Lear in a Yiddish translation of the play by William Shakespeare. These plays were ostensibly supportive of the Soviet state, however, closer readings suggest that they actually contained veiled critiques of Stalin's regime. It is noteworthy that two of the Shakespearean plays put on by the theater company were King Lear and Richard III, both studies in tyranny. It is now believed that the Ukrainian director Les Kurbas contributed to the original King Lear production after he was ousted from his Berezil theater in 1934. He seems to have had a lasting influence on Mikhoel's directing style.

By the mid-1930s, Mikhoels' career was threatened because of his association with other leading intelligentsia, who were victims of Stalin's purges, notably author Isaac Babel. Mikhoels actively supported Stalin against Hitler, and in 1942, he was made chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. In this capacity, he travelled around the world, meeting with Jewish communities to encourage them to support the Soviet Union in its war against Nazi Germany.

Mikhoels and Einstein in 1943
Mikhoels and Einstein in 1943

While this was useful to Stalin during World War II, after the war, Stalin opposed contacts between Soviet Jews and Jewish communities in non-Communist countries, which he deemed as "bourgeoisie." The Jewish State Theater was closed and the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested - all except for two were eventually executed in the purges shortly before Stalin's death.

January 1948. One of the last photographs
January 1948. One of the last photographs

Mikhoels was the most visible of the intellectual Jewish leadership, and a show trial would have cast aspersions on Stalin's rule. Such claims lead most people to a suggestion that Stalin had him assassinated in Minsk in January of 1948 masking his death as a car crash, and Mikhoels received a state funeral. According to documents unearthed by the historian Gennady Kostyrchenko, the organizers of the assassination were L.M. Tsanava and S. Ogoltsov, and the "direct" murderers were Lebedev, Kruglov and Shubnikov [1].

Mikhoels' cousin Miron Vovsi was Stalin's personal physician. He was arrested during the Doctors' plot affair but released after Stalin's death in 1953, as was his son-in-law, the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg.

Mikhoels at a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Rally.
Mikhoels at a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Rally.

 

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