Solomon Mikhoels (1890-1948), the great Jewish actor, was born in what is now Latvia, became famous in Moscow, and died at the hands of Joseph Stalin’s henchmen in Minsk, Belorussia (now called Belarus). For some reason he is one of the souls whose presence I especially feel in Moscow. There is no good reason for that, although a handful of experiences have brought me quite close to him in a way. One was a few years back in New York City. I was there with Kama Ginkas and we had a free morning to spend. I had heard there was an exhibit devoted to Mikhoels showing at the Jewish Museum and Kama said he’d love to go. So we walked across Central Park from the west side to the east side and bought our tickets. It was a small but effective exhibit – there were photos, paintings, videos, posters, programs and some artifacts. Kama was pleased to have seen it and was especially taken with the video clips of Mikhoels as an actor. (Earlier he had used a video clip of Mikhoels in his production of Dreams of Exile in Moscow – the dancing actor was projected on a white sheet that was set fire from beneath before disintegrating into flame and air.) I appreciated everything we saw but can’t truly say I was moved until I was on my way out. The final exhibit was a tiny little thing on a pedestal under glass. It was Mikhoels’ famous round wire rim glasses – the rims bent, the glass broken. These, a small text informed me, were the glasses Mikhoels was wearing when NKVD agents purposefully ran him over in a car to kill him. The glasses were thrown to the roadside where someone retrieved them, making it possible – and necessary – for me to see them over 60 years later in New York. I stood before the crumpled little exhibit and wondered at the world – its cruelty, its villainy, its hatred and the fragility and defenselessness of the individual human being when something or someone in that world chooses to do him or her evil.
This slightly ugly plaque of Mikhoels hangs on the wall of Moscow’s Malaya Bronnaya Theater. When Mikhoels was alive and worked here, it was the State Jewish Theater, often known by its acronym of GOSET. As the inscription reads, the actor worked here from 1922 until his death in 1948. But these are all readily available facts. And I said above that a few incidents have brought me close to Mikhoels, so let me move on to the second, which occurred in this very building. My wife Oksana Mysina and I were showing a couple of members of the American Double Edge Theatre company around Moscow. The founder of Double Edge, Stacy Klein, has a deep interest in things Jewish and has made several productions over the decades that incorporate the Jewish experience. So Oksana called an actor friend in the company of the Malaya Bronnaya Theater and asked if he would take us up to the dressing rooms. One of them bears a small plaque stating that this is the place where the great Mikhoels prepared to the take the stage each night. It looked like the typical museum room – desk and sofa in place, even a robe hanging on the back of the door. However, we were told, there is a strong legend in the theater that this is not Mikhoels’ actual dressing room – the real one is up one flight of stairs and isn’t nearly as impressive. So we trudged up there and looked at a blank door in a nondescript corridor which everybody at the theater believes was actually the real place. Why the switch? Apparently the people in charge of making the dressing room into a memorial thought the real room upstairs, far from the stage, was unfitting of a great actor. Surely, they considered, the great actor should have been able to stand up from his comfortable sofa in front of his large dressing table mirror and step out the door and onto the stage. Even if he never did. After all, when you kill a man and call him a hero fallen tragically in an accident, you can do anything you want with him, can’t you? Of course you can. And so they did. But the best was still to come. As we were coming back down the stair the actor acting as our guide told us that numerous actors over the years have sworn that they have encountered Mikhoels’ ghost as they hurried down the stairs to make their own entrances. Yes? No? Ghosts? Stairwells? Murder? Perfidy? Who am I to question what several generations of actors at the Malaya Bronnaya Theater, the former State Jewish Theater, have experienced? All I can say is that Oksana, Double Edge actors Carlos Uriona and Matthew Glassman and I all understood what our guide was saying about the stairwell. It was a place where you could meet someone unexpected. Whether that would be the ghost of Solomon Mikhoels or not, I can’t say. I also can’t say that Stacy shared our experience. But she was amused. And I have never walked by, or walked into, that theater since without thinking about that stairwell – or about those glasses I saw in New York.