All Soviet Constitutions declared the freedom to develop ethnic cultures and equal rights for any language. However, secret directives of the Party's organs forbid certain forms of ethnic culture, entire branches of science end even languages. One of the first repressed sciences was Judaic studies and Hebrew was one of the first repressed languages. Already in 1923, when a censor reviewed the collection Gaash, published in Kiev with three poems by Sh. Novak, he noted that "the publishing of literature in Hebrew is a question of principle". He appealed to Moscow for an explanation. According to the political editor (censor), The Tale of The October poem was appropriate for publication in Palestine, where it could be used as propaganda, "for many workers speak Hebrew there". Then, the censor wrote that in Soviet Russia the poem is available for the "cleric-bourgeois part of Jewish society only".
Nevertheless, The Kiev collection was published. But later, the authorities' attitude toward Hebrew became more severe. In the spring of 1927, the union of Leningrad Hebrew writers ("Gruppa Gebreyskikh Pisateley"), was allowed to organize a literary evening in Hebrew. However, the evening did not take place. The Militia (Soviet police) locked the door and did not let the public enter. The writers appealed to the authorities and the investigating prosecutor had to conduct an inquiry. The results of his inquiry no doubt satisfied him: permission was canceled by order of the Secretariat of the Provincial Committee of the VKP(B). There can be no law higher than a Party directive! The writers appealed to a higher instance, even to the Chairman of VTsIK, M.I. Kalinin. They cited prohibitions not only on Hebrew gatherings but also Hebrew literary collections. The reply was exhaustive: representative of the Press Department of the Provincial Committee told them that Hebrew, as well as Church Slavonic, had no place in the House of Press.
It was then declared that there was no union of Hebrew writers; rather, a group was said to exist and the leaders of that group were arrested. In the opinion of the ideological bosses, both Hebrew and Church Slavonic were "vehicles of religious obscurantism". Hebrew, moreover, was the language of Zionists, who were already targets of repression. Party organs issued instructions; other organs (the secret police) had already busied themselves with the writers by that time. It became impossible to publish collections or to organize literary gatherings in Hebrew in the USSR. Some Leningrad Hebrew writers, after brief imprisonment, managed to leave for Palestine. The fate of those who stayed in USSR was tragic; they perished in the GULAG.
Khaim Lensky was one of the most talented in that group. He was born in 1905 (or 1906) in Byelorussia. After the divorce of his parents, he was brought up by his grandfather. He was brought up in Jewish traditions. Since 1921, Lensky studied at the Jewish Teachers' Seminary in Vilnius. In 1924, he illegally crossed the Lithuanian-Soviet border. He was arrested and then deported to Samara. For two years, he moved from one city to another seeking a job; at last, he came to Leningrad, he where worked in the Amal cooperative workers association. At the age of 12, he began writing verses in Hebrew and Yiddish; later, he chose Hebrew as the language of his writing. In Leningrad, he joined the EIEO and became friends with the Jewish scientists S.L. Tsinberg and I.I. Ravbere. In 1934, Kh. Lensky was arrested together with the other members of the Hebrew circle.
He was sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment in the camps with a ban on residence in big cities for 5 years after his imprisonment. When Lensky was freed, he settled in Malaya Vishera and often came to Leningrad to see his wife and daughter. He continued writing verses in Hebrew both during his imprisonment and deportation. His wife managed to smuggle some of the verses to Palestine where they were published. Lensky translated Russian classics into Hebrew, in particular, "The Bronze Horseman" by Pushkin. His last poem, "On a Snowy Day", was dedicated to D. Ioffe, Academician in microbiology and connoisseur of Hebrew. Kh. Lensky was arrested again in July, 1941, in Malaya Vishera. At the time of his arrest, a watch, 20 rubles, notebooks and pads with verses and prayer accessories (tfilin) were found on him. By resolution of the KGB Sergeant who arrested him, the tfilin were burned. Kh. Lensky died of exhaustion in a camp in Krasnoyarsk Region in March, 1943.
Another outstanding Hebraist, Yekhel Ravrebe, also suffered a tragic fate. In 1908, when he was 24 years old, Ravrebe entered the Higher Courses of Oriental Studies founded by D. Gunzburg. After finishing the courses in 1913, he remained at the courses as a teacher. Ravrebe also taught language, Jewish history and the history of literature at the Jewish university. When he was already a recognized expert, in 1919, he entered the Faculty Oriental Studies at Petrograd University. In 1922, he went into research while continuing to teach and running the archive of the EIEO. In those years, he published some articles on Jewish linguistics and literature. However, by 1927, all Jewish scholarly institutions were closed in Leningrad and Ravrebe moved to Minsk.
In Minsk, Ravrebe headed the Chair of Semitic studies at the Byelorussian State University, but in two years, the chair was abolished and Ravrebe returned to Leningrad. In 1931, he took the position of librarian in the Department of Manuscripts at the State Public Library, which contained a rich collection of Jewish manuscripts. For four years, Ravrebe conducted extensive research on Ugarit ancient inscriptions, Jewish poetry of the 12th century, and other subjects. The board of the library offered him an honorary doctorate. Academicians V.V. Struve and I.G. Frank-Kamenetsky supported this offer. Everything seemed to be in his favor. However, in November, 1937, Ravrebe was arrested. On the basis of hearsay, the NKVD was preparing a trial of participants in a "Zionist and Fascist plot" and Ravrebe was to be a key figure in that "plot". The exact date of his death is unknown. Most probably, he did not survive the torture which accompanied interrogation.
Some news of the arrest of Ravrebe made its way abroad. There is some information that his colleague at the Higher Courses of Oriental Studies, Sh. Rubashov (Shazar) and the poet Kh. Byalik received permission from Britain officials for Ravrebe to go to Palestine and that they sent to Moscow evidence of that permission together with a petition for his release. It is known for certain that in April, 1938, the board of the Public Library informed the Higher Attestation Commission that, as Ravrebe had been dismissed from the Library, the board asked the Commission to consider their petition for a doctorate invalid. Among the repressed Leningrad Hebraists were A. Zarchin, R. Levin, B. Rayze and others. Those who miraculously avoided arrest were forced either to leave Judaic studies or to abandon any hope of seeing their research published. Academic Judaic studies was not declared illegal officially, but the loss of so many distinguished scholars halted its development for many years.
Illuminated Jewish manuscript. Fragment