Besides being a gifted singer and actor and a tireless and eloquent advocate for the civil rights of African Americans during the Jim Crow era, Paul Robeson was also a committed Communist of the Stalinist variety. Even after the Soviet purges began in the 1930s, and as he became aware that all was not well in the workers’ paradise, Robeson continued to defend the regime in public and to toe the party line. His interactions with leading Soviet Jewish figures—he was deeply connected with Jewish circles and often performed Hebrew and Yiddish songs—illustrate much about his attitudes. Describing these relationships in a longer discussion of Robeson’s Communism, Ron Radosh writes:
Despite Robeson’s constant cheerleading [for the USSR], he was privately dismayed by Soviet repression of the Jews. During his 1949 Soviet concert tour, Robeson asked to meet his friends [the Yiddish poet] Itzik Feffer and [the great Yiddish actor] Solomon Mikhoels, . . . whom he had first met in 1943 when Stalin sent them to tour the United States on behalf of the “Jewish Anti-Fascist League.” Little did Robeson know that Mikhoels had since been murdered on Stalin’s orders, on January 13, 1948, in what was disguised as a hit-and-run car crash. Feffer, meanwhile, was being held at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, having been arrested by the NKVD in December 1948.
The authorities made [Feffer] presentable for the occasion and brought him to meet Robeson in his hotel room. Feffer signaled that the room was bugged, and that they should only make pleasantries but communicate with hand gestures and written notes. Feffer told Robeson about the growing anti-Semitism, and the prominent Jewish cultural figures who were under arrest. Then Feffer put his hand across his throat, indicating that he expected that his days would be short. He was shot to death a few years later.
Robeson was shaken, and to his credit told the audience at his concert in Moscow that night that he was friends with Feffer and Mikhoels and had just met with Feffer. He then sang in Yiddish the Warsaw Ghetto resistance song written by Hersh Glick, a Jewish poet and fighter, Zog Nit Keynmol. It was indeed a bold gesture. By singing this song and mentioning his friendship with Feffer, he signaled his disapproval without having to say anything publicly against Stalin.
Yet when Robeson returned to the United States, he told the waiting press that he had seen Feffer in Russia and saw no traces of anti-Semitism there. . . . Robeson’s denial of Soviet anti-Semitism was the one always [cited] by American defenders of the Stalinist regime.
Nonetheless, writes Radosh, Robeson “was devastated” in the 1950s when he learned of the deaths of Feffer and Mikhoels. Radosh credits this revelation, along with others, as causing Robeson’s 1961 suicide attempt and his eventual, if never complete, disillusionment with the Soviet cause.