Solomon Mikhailovich Mikhoels presiding over a reading at the Moscow Yiddish Theater, ca. 1930s. Photograph by D. Sholomovich, Press Photoagency. (YIVO)

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Mikhoels, Solomon Mikhailovich

(1890–1948), Yiddish actor, director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (Gosudarstvennyi Evreiskii Teatr; GOSET), and chair of the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Solomon Mikhoels (Shloyme Vovsi) was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Dvinsk. After receiving a heder education, he studied at a Realschule in Riga, the Kiev Commerce Institute, and, from 1915, at the law faculty of Petrograd University. In 1918, he enrolled in Aleksandr Granovskii’s Jewish chamber theater, which later became the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.

Solomon Mikhoels (center) and other actors in Yidishe glikn (Jewish Luck), directed by Aleksandr Granovskii, USSR, 1925. (YIVO)

In the theater’s 1921 Moscow debut of Sholem Aleykhem ovnt (An Evening of Sholem Aleichem), Mikhoels played two lead roles—Menakhem Mendl in Agentn (Agents), and Reb Alter in Mazl-Tov. During the theater’s first decade, he achieved fame as a comedic actor and gifted singer in his portrayals of Hotsmakh in Avrom Goldfadn’s Di kishef-makherin (The Sorceress; 1922), Shimele Soroker in Sholem Aleichem’s Tsvey hundert toyznt (Two Hundred Thousand; 1923), and Binyomin in Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s Masoes Binyomin hashlishi (Travels of Benjamin III; 1927). The New York Times reviewer C. Hooper Trask called Mikhoels’s performance as Binyomin “one of the most stirring performances of my theatre-going career” (24 June 1928).

Mikhoels also starred in tragic roles, such as the main character in Uriel Akosta (Uriel Acosta; 1922) and as First Badkhn (jester) in Bay nakht oyfn altn mark (Night in the Old Marketplace; 1925). In addition, he starred as Menakhem Mendl in the 1925 film Yidishe glikn (Jewish Luck), based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem. However, while working under Granovskii’s strict ensemble technique and behind the grotesque makeup favored by the director, Mikhoels was rarely given the opportunity to develop realistic characters.

Zrelishscha (Entertainment), no. 89 (June 1924). The cover of this Moscow journal features a montage by I. Makhlis celebrating the GOSET (Moscow State Yiddish Theater), with Aleksandr Granovskii as the locomotive that pulls the train and actor Solomon Mikhoels as the conductor atop the engine. (YIVO)

In 1928, while the theater was on a European tour, Granovskii defected. The following year Mikhoels was appointed artistic director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. He used his position to balance the theater’s mission as a Jewish theater with the ideological constraints of Soviet socialist realism. Accordingly, he directed and starred in a series of productions on revolutionary themes written by contemporary Soviet Yiddish playwrights, such as Dovid Bergelson’s Der toyber (The Deaf; 1930) and Mides hadin (A Measure of Strictness; 1933), Perets Markish’s Nit gedayget (Do Not Worry; 1931), and M. Daniel’s Fir teg (Four Days; 1931). He also began teaching at the State Yiddish Theater School in Moscow.

The new realism of the late 1930s allowed Mikhoels to explore more psychological roles. His portrayal of Shakespeare’s King Lear in the theater’s 1935 production was the most critically acclaimed performance of his career. Gordon Craig, who saw Mikhoels in Moscow, wrote “I do not recall a performance that stirred me as profoundly, to the core, as Mikhoels’ performance of Lear” (“Tri razgovora s Gordonom Kregom,” Sovetskoe iskusstvo, 5 April 1935). Mikhoels was also widely praised for his popular performances of Zayvl Ovadis in Perets Markish’s epic Mishpokhe Ovadis (Family Ovadis; 1937) and as Tevye in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye der milkhiker (Tevye the Dairyman; 1938). Mikhoels had a cameo role in the popular musical film Tsirk (Circus) in 1936. In 1939, he was awarded the prestigious Order of Lenin and was named a People’s Artist of the USSR.

In December 1941, six months after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Mikhoels was appointed chair of the newly formed Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC). The JAC, which included leading Jewish luminaries in the USSR, was intended as a propaganda tool to raise awareness of the Soviet war effort abroad and to solicit material donations to the Soviet Union. In this capacity, Mikhoels traveled to the United States, Britain, Mexico, and Canada in 1943 to deliver public lectures and meet with Jewish and non-Jewish officials to discuss the Soviet war effort. His position as chair expanded his public persona, prompting many to regard him as a Jewish representative to the Soviet government. 

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)

After the war, Soviet citizens appealed to Mikhoels for aid and assistance, while international organizations regularly invited him to conferences abroad, none of which he was allowed to attend. Mikhoels also continued his work in the theater. His most memorable postwar production was Zalman Shneer-Okun’s Freylekhs (Joy; 1945), which was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946.

On 13 January 1948, while traveling in Minsk on official theater business, Mikhoels was murdered by agents of the Ministry of State Security. Although his death was initially portrayed as a truck accident, the involvement of the government and of Stalin himself has since been confirmed. Mikhoels was initially eulogized extensively and the Moscow State Yiddish Theater was renamed in his honor. Beginning in 1952, however, he was falsely accused of having been engaged in anti-Soviet activity in collaboration with foreign governments.

The murder of Mikhoels is usually considered to be a major turning point in the history of Soviet Jewry, marking the transition to a policy of official antisemitism. His death was followed by the arrest of numerous leading Jewish public figures and the closure of most Jewish institutions in the Soviet Union, including the JAC and the Moscow State Yiddish Theater.

Suggested Reading

Matvei Geizer, Solomon Mikhoels (Moscow, 1990); Solomon Mikhoels, Mikhoels: Stat’i, besedy, rechi (Moscow, 1965); Jeffrey Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage (Bloomington, Ind., 2000).