A Soviet Jewish delegation to America experiences the John F. Kennedy assassination

From November 14 to December 3, 1963, a Soviet Jewish delegation came to the United States for a multi-city tour that took them to New York, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, with many side trips to historic sites and universities. Their schedule was full with interviews, public lectures, radio appearances and press conferences, and visits to fraternal societies and friendship circles hospitable to the visitors, some of these clearly led by sympathetic current or past CPUSA members.

Leading the group was the Soviet Yiddish poet Aron Vergelis (1918-99), who was editor of Sovetish Heymland (Soviet Homeland), the primary literary magazine in Yiddish founded in 1961. In that position he was regarded as a spokesperson for Soviet Jewry. He faced a barrage of questions and criticism over the condition of Jews in the USSR. Did they have synagogues? Could they gather freely? Could they study Hebrew? Could they emigrate? Was there discrimination? Were there quotas? Could they publish articles and books?

Many of the hostile critics were simply ignorant of Soviet realities, and Vergelis tried to set the record straight, as he saw it, frequently using his manifest intelligence and wit to disarm his opponents. Others were intentionally provocative, coming from a Cold War perspective that demonized the USSR and socialism itself, and trying to align Jewish sentiment in the West against the Soviets. At those gatherings with groups and individuals who sought peaceful coexistence between the world’s two great superpowers, he found a more sympathetic audience for his appeals for negotiation, agreement, exchange.

The visit took place eleven years after the fateful days of August 1952 when a dozen or so Yiddish writers and communal leaders, former members of the wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, were arrested, hauled before a kangaroo court, sentenced, and executed for treason. This tragic event occurred during the last months of Joseph Stalin’s life. Stalin then proceeded to accuse his “Jewish doctors” of plotting to kill him, but before he could achieve the same results that he had scored with the poets, he suddenly died, in March 1953. These victims of Stalin’s terror were subsequently “rehabilitated” and their good names cleared.

Soviet Yiddish author Aron Vergelis.

It is not true that Yiddish culture in the USSR died in August 1952. Those fervent anti-Communists who made that claim did not, after all, read or appreciate the Soviet writers when they were alive, and their political motives were suspect. After 1956, the Soviets admitted their criminal mistake, and Yiddish theater, publishing, choral groups, etc., came back to life. Sovetish Heymland nurtured a new generation of writers, some of whom, later in exile, became the leading Yiddish writers and editors in the West.

It is nevertheless true, however, that in the USSR, as in other nations, including the U.S. and Israel, Yiddish was in decline. Almost all the Jews slaughtered in the Nazi Holocaust were Yiddish speakers. And as communities dispersed and new generations were born, Yiddish became the preserve of either the ultra-religious or the secular left. Neither group was prepared to give up their legacy language just because the new State of Israel was aggressively promoting Hebrew as the Jewish language.

Vergelis kept a detailed diary of his forays into the West. His book On the Jewish Street: Travel Notes recounts his day-to-day experiences in the U.S. (“Twenty Days in America”) and continues with two subsequent, shorter chapters on France and Poland.

It’s a fascinating document, with many names of Jewish community leaders sprinkled throughout, and a host of questions from the press and Jewish communal leaders posed and addressed. The FBI could have no better source for tracking down Soviet sympathizers in America than Vergelis’s journal! And it’s an in-depth examination of American and Jewish values, admittedly by a tourist, in contrast to what Vergelis was familiar with in his homeland.

Quite by chance—obviously—the Yiddish delegation happened to coincide with the ominous days of November 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Some of their scheduled appointments were canceled, but there was still plenty to report on. Excerpts from “Twenty Days in America” that touch on this tragic moment in America are published below on the 60th anniversary of that event. The reader will notice the writer’s occasional use of poetic metaphor—well, he’s a poet!

A technical note: Where Vergelis uses ellipses (…) for dramatic effect, I have substituted a period or a dash so that the reader does not think I have edited words out. Ellipses are used only to indicate missing passages. I have kept the translator’s original spellings (mostly Britishisms) and mistakes.

Friday, Nov. 22

[The delegation has concluded its first days in New York and is now in Chicago.]

12:40 p.m.

About seven hours have passed since I closed my diary. I purposely note the time, it is important! An unbelievable terrible thing has happened. A radio broadcast announces that President Kennedy was shot at ten minutes ago in Dallas, Texas.

What happened later that day and what I did I shall write down afterward. At present I am in the centre of “Jewish Chicago,” the district called Albany Park; I am sitting in a car that seems to be reclining against a bookstore on Lawrence Avenue and am listening to a broadcast. Rain patters on the roof of the car. Jack Kling tersely translates the announcements.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy is still alive. His wife, Jacqueline, who sat next to him in the car, has not been hurt. The Governor of the state of Texas, Connelly [sic], is wounded. All this took place during the President’s visit to the city of Dallas. The murderer shot from a sixth-storey window of a book depository. A rifle—an Italian “Carcano” 1891-1940, three cartridges and empty Coca-Cola bottles were found there.

1:50 p.m.

Kennedy is dead.

We hurry to call up the Hamilton Hotel to get in touch with our group. On the corner, near a school building, a young woman in uniform is helping little children across the street. She is sobbing audibly. The children look at her with fright. The street is empty.

An announcement from the Parkland Hospital in Dallas says that the first bullet hit the President in the head, the second entered his neck and lodged in the chest.

Jack Kling and I exchange a few short sentences.

The first issue of ‘Sovetish Heymland,’ 1961

“What do you make of this?” asks Jack, intent on the broadcast.

“You mean, whose work it is?”


Qui prodest—who profits? Look for the guilty one among those who will profit from this crime.”

In Jack’s home the table is set, waiting for us. The mistress of the house showers us with questions and implores us to eat at least something. I pour myself some whisky and soda, Jack drinks nothing. Again we call the hotel. None of the Russians have returned.

I remember: in the morning several members of the delegation invited me to go with them to Springfield (200 miles from Chicago); they intended to place flowers on the grave of Abraham Lincoln, the American President who had been assassinated on the fourteenth of April, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth, a scoundrel hired and incited by the Southern slaveowners. And it might well have happened that at the very moment when the group of Soviet people were standing with bowed heads by the grave of Lincoln another hired assassin was shooting at President Kennedy.

I could not go to Abraham Lincoln’s grave in the morning, since my program was made out beforehand. Directly after breakfast Jack Kling accompanied me to the working class suburbs of Chicago, and later to Albany Park, the Jewish district. Here between Kedzie Street and Lawrence Avenue, is the centre of Chicago’s progressive Jewish movement. We visited the local office of the Morning Freiheit, and spent about fifteen minutes in Kieser’s Jewish Book Store.

Here everyone plied us with questions—the owner, customers, clerks. The establishment is not only a bookstore. I was shown other goods, made mainly in Israel—timepieces decorated in “biblical” style, toys, objects for the performance of religious rites, and also books, mainly in English, for Jewish people. But since the sign over the entrance says Kieser’s Jewish Book Store I asked them to show me a book in Yiddish. The clerk somewhat shamefacedly explained that the Yiddish book department was downstairs in the cellar. “You see,” he assured me, “American Jews are not interested for the most part in books in Yiddish. That’s why Jewish literature is published in English…”

“Why, then,” I queried, “is there such heat about the publication of books in Yiddish in the Soviet Union?”

“Such heat—why, because the war is a cold one!”

And I, in approved American manner, smacked the young man over the back and exclaimed: “You’re a clever fellow, all right!”

1933 Soviet postage stamp in the series of “Nations of the USSR,” featuring “Jews” (Yevrei) and the Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan

2:10 р.m.

A fresh report. Half an hour ago a man by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested in a moving picture house in Dallas. He is 24 years old, served in the Navy, went to live in the Soviet Union, got married there, in Minsk, and then returned to the USA. Oswald is called a “Marxist,” and was recently associated with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

Jack rings up the local WBBC [sic: Undoubtedly he meant WBBM] broadcasting station where I was scheduled to give an interview today, at four o’clock in the afternoon, and speaks to Price, the political commentator. He asks them to postpone the interview for another day. They answer that this is out of the question: “What Mr. Kling considers to be a weighty argument in favour of postponing the interview is, quite the opposite, an argument in favour of its taking place precisely today.”

However, the last word is, after all, mine, and I must decide immediately whether to go or not. Troubled thoughts race through my mind. In the swing of the sudden events, in a tangled, obscure, and very grave situation, the outcome of which is absolutely impossible to predict I find myself here, far from my native land, and even separated from the small group of my countrymen with whom I have come to this foreign city. Here, in the land of the assassinated President I shall perhaps be the first Soviet citizen to voice his opinion of this tragic event before Americans, before the wrought-up Chicagoans.

Caution whispers: cancel your interview with Price. But I cannot refuse. I understand: my refusal might be misinterpreted.

While we were driving to the WBBC studios it rained. The streets were almost empty of people. Chicago resembled a traveller who had paused a while on the shore of Lake Michigan to wrap his wet raincoat still closer about him.

10 p.m.

Today I saw a deep wrinkle furrow the face of the United States.

The evil forces are free here, and on the rampage. They have removed from their way the President who signed the Moscow treaty on banning nuclear tests, who tended to draw certain conclusions from the “Negro revolution,” as the recent powerful demonstrations against racial customs are termed here.

Today, answering the questions of Mr. Price, commentator for the Chicago radio broadcasting company, I spoke of what Soviet people think of John Kennedy, of his life and his death.

When we were already sitting in the studio and talking, something like twenty people crowded into the operator’s room, divided from the studio by a glass wall. These were WBBC employees and participants in subsequent programs. They listened intently to our dialogue.

Price, after a short talk concerning the President’s death, before even shedding the piously sorrowful expression on his face, hurried to ask me the following:

“I should be very grateful if you would tell me why the Soviet Union engages in anti-Jewish actions under the pretext of combating economic crimes….”

In the evening our whole group got together in the hotel. We decided to cancel all public talks and official meetings that had been planned for us for the next few days, as befitted this time of mourning. Thus, three important engagements were cancelled. They were speeches to be given at a banquet for 500 and at a meeting of prominent Jews at the Conrad Hilton Hotel, and also a visit to a local Jewish organization, the Bernard Horwitz Jewish Community Center.

We made another decision. The owner of the Hamilton Hotel where we were staying had rented out his hotel for a meeting of two hundred and fifty fascists from different cities on Sunday. Naturally, we don’t want to be in such company, so tomorrow we are moving to the Morrison Hotel.

Before going to bed I look at the TV broadcast. The shooting of President Kennedy is shown again and again. Off-screen, an announcer’s voice is heard saying that Lee Oswald had ordered his rifle from a shop in Chicago by mail. In Dallas, the day before the arrival of the President, extremist groups had promenaded the streets shouting “Kennedy will get his just deserts!” One of the Dallas newspapers had printed an announcement about Kennedy’s anticipated arrival in a black frame.

This oracular, or rather provocative black frame in the Dallas newspaper directly before Kennedy was due to arrive—and the black frames in all the American newspapers after his assassination in the streets of Dallas—

My thoughts abruptly terminated. I even jumped in my seat in sheer astonishment. The TV was again running the film shots where John Kennedy, driving in an open car, seems suddenly to stagger in his seat and then slump and fall, like a sleepy child, in the lap of his wife Jacqueline—and then the scene faded and another voice, in the same reserved, respectful tone used to describe the Kennedy tragedy, read an advertisement of an organization combating noise in the streets of the large American cities. The commercial had evidently been given for the past two days and mechanically included in today’s programs. The announcement explained that this organization was sponsoring a national anti-noise week.

Mikhail Yakovlev, Moscow Choral Synagogue on Spasoglinischevsky side street (Free Art License)

And again the caterwauling of a police car is heard in the night on the streets of Chicago….

Sunday, Nov. 24

On the way back from the museum we listen to a radio broadcast. Another shooting in Dallas. It happened in the cellar of the police station when Lee Oswald was to be moved from one prison to another. The owner of a night club, a gangster and purveyor of prostitutes, Jack Ruby (whose real name is Rubinstein) turned up in this cellar and killed Oswald.

And here you have a pair—a “Marxist” and a Jew. How obtuse are the reactionaries, how impoverished is their imagination.

Monday, Nov. 25

On the way Professor Mostovetz told me a bit about Cyrus Eaton. In the industrialized Middle West of the USA this man has created something like an empire with a capital of four thousand million dollars: it includes mines and industrial plants, railways, banks, steel manufacturing companies, and many other things.

While a capitalist in every sense of the word Cyrus Eaton at the same time is a zealous fighter for peaceful co-existence, for friendship with the Soviet Union. He has been awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize….

In the evening, our hosts have a party for us: the Eatons, our entire group and a Russian professor, long resident in the United States, Naum Kaminsky, Eaton’s “political adviser,” an assimilated Jew and most likable person. Robert Rozhdestvensky and I recite our poems. There is much talk about Kennedy. The professor describes the funeral ceremony at Arlington Cemetery in Washington.

Today the United States is already living a “normal” life. The evening papers are again full of advertisements and new murders. And Cyrus Eaton, looking sadly at us, says that now, after the sentimental hubbub, a mysterious inquisitional silence will surround the Kennedy tragedy.

Tuesday, Nov. 26

We were roused at five o’clock in the morning, country fashion. At breakfast somebody mentioned Dallas, the city where President Kennedy was assassinated.

“Dallas,” Cyrus Eaton explains, “is a sort of upstart with newly acquired riches, a parvenu with provincial manners. The fat flows down his beard and soils his dinner-jacket. Everything in Dallas is out of proportion: the largest hotel in the world (with its private airdrome); a bank with a gold-tiled ceiling; a man who is the richest person on our planet, Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, pockets two hundred thousand dollars of clear profit every single day. There is a club in Dallas called the Citizen’s Council. It admits only people who do not have to stop to think before saying “yes” when they are asked for a hundred thousand dollars.

“It has been written somewhere,” continues Eaton, “that it was the Texas climate that killed Kennedy. Yes, yes, my dear people, Texas, the place where a gun costs less than a pair of shoes.”

After a short pause our host continues:

“It seems to me that the tragic death of the President of the United States will teach Americans a lesson: in just such a senseless manner may mankind as a whole be wiped out if timely measures to prevent such a catastrophe are not taken.”

2001 Russian stamp featuring the Grand Choral Synagogue of Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), constructed 1883-93

Thursday, Nov. 28

[The mission is now in San Francisco.]

Before going to bed, when I had already put down all the events of the day, Nikolai Vladimirovich Mostovetz called me and asked me to come to his room for a minute. He handed me a leaflet with a text in green letters on it. Evidently, someone who had just come from Chicago had left it on the table where Mostovetz sat at supper.

The text went like this: A Jewish Marxist has shot your President! Support our party, the American Nazi Party. We have long been attempting to alert our brother Americans against the Jewish traitors. The assassin bought his rifle from a Jew, here in Chicago. And the signature: Lincoln Rockwell, commander of the American Nazi Party, 1928 North Randolph Street, Arlington, Virginia.

Friday, Nov. 29

Albert Kahn, the prominent American author, dropped in at our hotel in the evening.

At a table in the restaurant we speak about the latest events in the United States. Kahn is greatly troubled. “The assassination of the President is no incidental affair.” Kahn pushes away plates and glasses, as if he were going to map out his thoughts on the tablecloth, and continues in this vein: the United States has not been healthy since the war. Beginning with 1945 link upon link has been added to the chain of disappointments: the hopes of those who returned from the war were not realized. And then another shock: the patience of the Negro was exhausted. Both these circumstances are not of a class nature. The vast masses of the USA are at present deficient in class consciousness, but such consciousness may appear.

Sunday, Dec. 1

[The mission is now in Los Angeles. A “friendship meeting” with the progressive Jewish community of L.A. had been organized that afternoon in a theater. Questions to Mr. Vergelis were written out and handed to him to answer after the formal remarks. One comment read:]

“So what do you think about this little America? In our birthplace, in Russia, during the time of Nikolka [Czar Nicholas], the killing of a police officer was immediately followed by hangings and exile to Siberia. But here they liquidate a President—and all is hushed up.”

Tuesday, Dec. 3

I did not get to see everything, and I may not always have been right in my opinions, but one thing I may permit myself to be positive about: all events are described as they actually happened, I neither invented nor embellished anything.

Aron Vergelis
On the Jewish Street: Travel Notes
Translated from Yiddish by Mariam Katz
Moscow: Novosti Press Agency Publishing House, 1971
208 pp.
Out of print, but copies can be found online

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.