5: Documentary excerpt and song, Paul Robeson’s 1949 trip to Moscow, meeting with Itsik Fefer, and singing of the partisan hymn.
In 1943, Solomon Mikhoels and Itsik Fefer went on a rare trip as official representatives of the Soviet Union to the United States and the United Kingdom. They went to rally international support, especially international Jewish support, for the Soviet war effort against the Nazis. They met with many famous people, Jews and “fellow travellers,” including the African American singer and political activist, Paul Robeson. In 1949, Robeson in turn traveled to the USSR. By that time, the JAFC members were already under arrest and rumors were circulating. Robeson was the only international visitor allowed to see any of those under arrest. (The government was not openly acknowledging that the group was arrested; it told other international visitors that JAFC members were on vacation or ill.) There were many rumors about what Fefer did or did not tell Robeson, but Robeson understood at the very least that something was wrong. In his final concert in Moscow, he mentioned Itsik Fefer by name, discussed the important relationship between American and Soviet Jews, and chose to sing as his final encore the Yiddish song, “Zog nit keynmol” (“Never Say”), known as the song of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the hymn of the Jewish partisans. It is a powerful show of solidarity with the Yiddish writers, and yet when Robeson returned to the United States, he did not do anything publicly to try and aid the JAFC members, likely because he feared these efforts would feed into anti-Soviet and anti-Communist sentiment at home.
Suggested Activity: Have students watch the documentary from 1:11:10 - 1:15:20 and then have them listen to the recording of Robeson singing “Zog nit keynmol.” Let them know that Robeson sang several Jewish songs throughout his career, in addition to many African American spirituals based on biblical stories about the enslavement of the Israelites. Ask students: What points of shared struggle between Jews and African Americans does Robeson draw on? Have students consider the pressures of McCarthyism in the United States in relation to Stalinism in the Soviet Union: can they be compared? What pressures did a political activist like Paul Robeson face, as an African American and a leftist? Are those pressures comparable to those faced by Yiddish cultural activists?
Sources: Blind Spot: Inclusivity, “Paul Robeson: Here I Stand Documentary” YouTube video, 4:20, August 16, 2014, https://youtu.be/BUki-v-NvoE?t=1h11m6s
"Zog Nit Keynmol (Song of the Warsaw Ghetto)" by Paul Robeson from the recording entitled The Collector's Paul Robeson, MON61580, courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. (c). Used by permission.