On the first day of the Jewish month Adar, the Talmud enjoins us to “increase happiness.” It is, after all, the month that holds Purim, when we express our gratitude to G-d for delivering the Jews in ancient Persia from their enemies, and when we give alms to the poor and gifts of food to one another.
In 2003, the first day of Adar brought us an early Purim present. It wasn’t food, but rather food for thought.
The previous day had been the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Iosef Vissarionovich Dzugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin. A new book on the Soviet dictator and mass murderer, “Stalin’s Last Crime,” was about to be published, and The New York Times ran a lengthy article that day about the book, including its suggestion that Stalin may have been poisoned. The Soviet leader had collapsed after an all-night dinner with four members of his Politburo at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha, and he languished for several days before dying. If indeed he was done in, as the book’s authors suspect, the likely culprit, they say, was Lavrenti P. Beria, the chief of the Soviet secret police.
The book also recounts the story of the infamous “Doctors’ Plot,” a fabricated collusion by Kremlin doctors to kill top Communist leaders.
“By the time Stalin disclosed the plot to a stunned Soviet populace in January 1953,” the article noted, “he had spun it into a vast conspiracy, led by Jews under the United States’ secret direction, to kill him and destroy the Soviet Union itself.”
The article went on to relate something less widely known. “That February,” it states, “the Kremlin ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north, apparently in preparation for a second great terror – this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent.”
That terror, however, thankfully never unfolded. Two weeks after the camps were ordered built, Stalin attended the Blizhnaya dinner and, four days later, was dead at the age of 73.
The gift that Adar in 2003 brought was the knowledge of that theretofore unrecognized salvation, of what the killer of millions of his countrymen had apparently planned for the Jews under his control but which never came to pass. That Stalin met his fate (however that may have happened) just as he was poised to launch a post-Holocaust holocaust of his own, is something we might well add to our thoughts of gratitude at our own Purim celebrations today, more than a half century later.
And we might note something else as well, especially during this season of meaningful ironies, when G-d’s hand is evident “between the lines” of history to all who are sufficiently sensitive to see it.
During the feast at which Stalin collapsed, according to his successor Nikita Khrushchev, who was present, the dictator had become thoroughly drunk. And the party, he testified, ended in the early hours of March 1.
Which, in 1953, corresponded to the 14th day of Adar, otherwise known as Purim.
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