Jewish cultural figures who would become members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee signing an appeal to world Jewry to support the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany, Moscow, 1941. (Front row, left to right) Dovid Bergelson, Solomon Mikhoels, and Ilya Ehrenburg; (second row) David Oistrakh, Yitskhok Nusinov, Yakov Zak, Boris Iofan, Benjamin Zuskin, Aleksandr Tyshler, Shmuel Halkin. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Martin Smith)

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Ehrenburg, Ilya Grigor’evich

(1891–1967), writer, journalist, and poet. Ilya Ehrenburg was born in Kiev. In 1895, his family was permitted to move to Moscow, where his father managed a brewery. Inspired by his older high school comrade Nikolai Bukharin, Ehrenburg was drawn as a teenager to the Bolshevik underground. Arrested in 1908, Ehrenburg spent five months in a tsarist jail before being released and permitted to travel to France.

Although he met with Lenin in Paris and intended to resume his revolutionary activities in Russia, Ehrenburg soon grew disillusioned with the Bolsheviks and devoted himself instead to art and literature. His second collection of verse, Ia zhivu (I Am Alive; 1911), contained the explicitly Zionist poem “Evreiskomu narodu” (To the Jewish People), in which he concluded that Jews had no place in Europe and should return to the Land of Israel. With the outbreak of World War I, Ehrenburg covered the Western front for Russian newspapers, writing with deep passion about art, culture, and politics. Ehrenburg returned to Russia in July 1917, five months after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. During the civil war that broke out after the Bolshevik takeover in November, Ehrenburg wrote poems and articles attacking the Bolsheviks. He also documented the pogroms in Ukraine, where tens of thousands of Jews were killed. “If Jewish blood could cure,” he bitterly observed in September 1919, “then Russia would be a flourishing country.”

Shifs karta (Ship Pass), illustration from Shest’ poviestei o legkikh kontsakh (Six Stories with Easy Endings) by Ilya Ehrenburg. El Lissitzky, 1922. Collage. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem (© The Israel Museum / The Bridgeman Art Library / © 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Ehrenburg often returned to this theme. Immediately upon his return to Western Europe in 1921, he wrote his first novel, Neobychainye pokhozhdeniia Khulio Khurenito i ego uchenikov (The Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples), which includes a chapter describing the Jews of Europe being consumed by bonfires as European leaders watch from nearby bleachers. The theme of Jewish suffering appears again in Burnaia zhizn’ Lazika Roitshvanetsa (The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz; 1929), the only one of Ehrenburg’s novels to focus entirely on Jewish subjects. It tells the story of Lasik, a poor, misunderstood tailor who cannot find a place for himself in either Communist Moscow or bourgeois Paris. Imprisoned and exiled, he ends his life in Palestine.

Faced with the growing threat of fascism in Europe, Ehrenburg reconciled his misgivings about the Soviet regime and became the Paris correspondent for Izvestiia in 1932. He covered the fighting in Vienna in 1934 and the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. However, when the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed in August 1939, Ehrenburg grew distraught over the Kremlin’s betrayal of the antifascist cause. With the Soviet Union allied with Nazi Germany, Ehrenburg suffered an emotional and psychological crisis: he lost the ability to swallow solid food for eight months and was reportedly near suicide. He remained in Paris even as the Germans broke through French defenses, and watched as Nazi troops occupied the French capital in June 1940. Only then did he finally return to Moscow by train through Berlin.

Within days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Ehrenburg was offered a regular column in Krasnaia zvezda (Red Star), the newspaper of the Red Army. He quickly became one of the most prominent journalists in Soviet society. Over the next four years, the Soviet press published more than 2,000 of his articles, many of which highlighted Jewish heroism and suffering. Writing in Pravda in December 1944, Ehrenburg declared that the Nazis’ greatest crime was the destruction of 6 million Jews.

Ehrenburg’s most significant response to the Holocaust came in 1943, when he began to compile material for Chernaia kniga (The Black Book), intending to document the full scope of the massacres on German-occupied Soviet territory. Under the auspices of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Ehrenburg, working with the frontline journalist Vasilii Grossman, put together a team of two dozen Jewish and non-Jewish journalists who gathered documents and firsthand testimony in newly liberated cities and towns. Ehrenburg wanted Chernaia kniga to appear first and foremost in the Soviet Union, but the book was banned by Stalin and was not published until 1980. 

From Ilya Ehrenburg in the USSR to [Lazar?] Yerusalimski in (?), 22 September 1944, about Ehrenburg's project, The Black Book, a collection of eyewitness accounts, letters, and other materials documenting the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish population. He asks Yerusalimsky to please send him any information he might have, especially anything relating to anti-Nazi resistance and instances in which non-Jews expressed solidarity with or helped Jewish victims. Russian. Typed. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO. Published with permission.)

The years 1946 to 1953 witnessed a systematic campaign against Jews and Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. The establishment of Israel in 1948 created particular pressures on Soviet Jewry. When Israel sent Golda Meir to Moscow in September, Jews greeted her on several occasions with large and enthusiastic demonstrations, including on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ehrenburg feared that his fellow Jews were forgetting where they were living. At the urging of two Politburo members, Lazar Kaganovich and Georgii Malenkov, he published a still-controversial article in Pravda on 21 September 1948, in which he asserted that the Jews have a moral and political right to a state of their own and condemned antisemitism. At the same time, he reminded his fellow Jews that their fate was bound up with the Soviet Union and that they should not expect to make aliyah to Israel.

Ehrenburg remained cautious in his contacts with the Israeli mission. He knew these diplomats were under tight surveillance. Even when he met Golda Meir that fall at a reception, he appeared to be drunk and argued with her over her inability to speak Russian. Ehrenburg made sure that no report to Stalin would impugn his loyalty.

Other Jews were not so fortunate. Beginning in the fall of 1948, the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was disbanded; hundreds of Jewish cultural figures were arrested, and many were executed or confined to labor camps. Ehrenburg, however, seemed to thrive in the postwar period: he continued publishing books, traveled to Europe, and even made his only visit to the United States in 1946. In 1949, he was elected to the Supreme Soviet. But Ehrenburg was under pressure as well. In February 1953, the final month of Stalin’s life, Ehrenburg courageously refused to sign a collective appeal condemning the Doctors’ Plot, an alleged conspiracy of mostly Jewish doctors to poison Soviet leaders; moreover, he wrote a letter to Stalin explaining his opposition to any purported plans against the Jews. 

After Stalin’s death in March 1953, Ehrenburg’s reputation was often clouded by rumors that he had survived the Stalin era because he had betrayed other people—members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee or perhaps other writers. But the archival record that has become available since the fall of the Soviet Union has not substantiated such collaboration.

Under Nikita Khrushchev, Ehrenburg wrote often about antisemitism. His novel Ottepel’ (The Thaw; 1954) was the first work of literature to make direct references to the Doctors’ Plot. In 1960, Ehrenburg was responsible for the Moscow publication of The Diary of Anne Frank. His collection of memoirs, Liudi, gody, zhizn’ (People, Years, Life; 1961), contains many passages about antisemitism and the Holocaust, and helped to revive Jewish national feeling in the years before the war of June 1967. As Ehrenburg declared in a speech on his seventieth birthday, “I am a Russian writer. But as long as a single antisemite remains on earth, I will answer the question of nationality with pride: a Jew.”

Suggested Reading

Victor Erlich, “The Metamorphoses of Ilya Ehrenburg,” Problems of Communism (July–August 1965): 15–24; Victor Erlich, “Ilya Ehrenburg Takes a Bow,” Problems of Communism (September–October 1965): 72–74; Joshua Rubenstein, Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1999); Efraim Sicher, Jews in Russian Literature after the October Revolution: Writers and Artists between Hope and Apostasy (Cambridge and New York, 1995).