This week in Jewish history | Six Jewish doctors arrested, jumpstarting ‘Doctors Plot’ - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | Six Jewish doctors arrested, jumpstarting ‘Doctors Plot’

This week in Jewish history | Six Jewish doctors arrested, jumpstarting ‘Doctors Plot’

On 13 January 1953, the USSR-based newspapers Pravda and Izvestiya reported that Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin had arrested nine doctors, six of whom were Jewish, for conspiring to assassinate the country’s political leadership.  The “killer doctors,” as they were referred to, were accused of being members of the U.S. and British intelligence services and of serving the interests of international Jewry.  

Stalin utilized the longstanding libel against Jews as “poisoners” to conclude his campaign of antisemitic acts by which he hoped to eradicate Jewish life.  

The innocent men were arrested at Stalin's personal instruction and tortured. The trial was intended to initiate the transport of almost all of the Soviet Union's two million Jews — the majority of whom were survivors of the Holocaust — to gulags. 

Following the publication of the article, antisemitic rhetoric across the Soviet Union intensified, with articles accusing Jewish citizens of being responsible for a string of robberies and other crimes. At first, the newspapers did not explicitly note the suspects’ Jewish heritage, instead choosing to use euphemisms such as “rootless cosmopolitans,” bourgeois, and Zionist agents. 

Fortunately for the defendants, on 5 March 1953 — shortly before the start of the trials —Stalin passed away.  The government soon after admitted that there was not sufficient evidence to continue with the trial, and later conceded that the case had been completely fabricated. 

The month after, in April, Pravda announced that the doctors were innocent and that they (except for two who had died during the course of the investigation) had been exonerated.   

In February 1956, Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev delivered an address to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, where he blamed Stalin for the whole incident and claimed that it was intended to serve as the opening shot in a major political purge.    

According to Jennifer Patai and Raphael Patai, authors of The Myth of the Jewish Race, Stalin's Doctor’s plot was “clearly aimed at the total liquidation of Jewish cultural life.” While Stalin’s death was a relief for Soviet Jews, antisemitism remained a threat, leading to a wave of Soviet aliyah in the 1960s and 1970s.