Review of “A Visit to Moscow” by Anna Olswanger

As this absorbing graphic novel recounts, in the summer of 1965, Rabbi Rafael Grossman from Long Branch, New Jersey joined a delegation of rabbis from America to visit the Soviet Union and assess the conditions there for Jewry. They were to meet with Soviet Jews, and ascertain if it were true that “Jews lived in fear of being reported to the KGB for public acts of Judaism. That they were watched. Followed. That some Jews were even arrested.”

The visit was to be carefully scripted and monitored by the Soviets, but Rabbi Grossman managed to escape the group as well as his minders by feigning illness one day. His goal was to locate a Jewish man the author has given the name of Meyer Gurwitz. Meyer’s sister Bela contacted Rabbi Grossman when she learned he was going to the USSR and asked him to try to find Meyer; she hadn’t heard from her brother in over ten years.

At first, the man the Rabbi found at the address Bela gave him refused to talk to him, even when Rabbi Grossman spoke to him in Yiddish and quoted from the scriptures. The man countered, “I know Jews who work for the KGB and speak Yiddish.” The Rabbi pleaded, “Please, let me come in. Your sister only wants to know if you have a bed to sleep in and food to eat.”

Finally, after more negotiating, Meyer let the Rabbi in, and they began to talk. The Rabbi discovered there was also a wife and a young boy, Zev, living with Meyer in their one-room apartment. Zev had never been outside in the entire ten years of his life! In their apartment, Meyer explained, Zev could remain a Jew. He could practice his faith without harassment or danger:

“No one yanks his yarmulke from his head. No one teach­es him arith­metic in the Russ­ian lan­guage on the Jew­ish Sab­bath, or feeds him milk with meat from a state school lunch. No one laughs at him because he prays to God.”

The Rabbi promised he would speak to American congressmen and senators and try to help get Meyer’s family out of the Soviet Union. In an Afterword, Rabbi Grossman’s son Hillel wrote that he heard his father talk over and over about the child and his parents who lived a single room. Their plight was, for his father, Hillel writes, “the story of devotion, sacrifice, and the never-ending challenge of living a just and meaningful life amidst the harshness of human cruelty.”

The book ends showing Zev on a plane ride from Moscow to Tel Aviv, having his own wife and children, and spending the rest of his life in Israel.

A Postscript explains that Rabbi Grossman had enlisted the help of Congressmen James Howard and Emanual Celler, along with Senator Clifford Chase, to help the family get permission to emigrate.

The author, Anna Olswanger, began collaborating with Rabbi Grossman in the early 1980s on a story about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. During that period, Rabbi Grossman told her the story about the memorable family he met on a trip to the USSR and they decided to include the incident in the book. They didn’t complete it however before Rabbi Grossman died in 2018.

Olswanger was never able to substantiate the details of the story; the Rabbi needed to protect the identity of the man and his family and was loathe to provide specific identifying information. She felt the story was worth telling, however, although it could only be told as historical fiction. But certainly the story is plausible from what we know about life for Jews in the Soviet Union.

As is well documented, Soviet Jews were expected to conform to “Russian” norms and culture, to give up their religious practices, to cease speaking Yiddish, and to avoid participating in any groups supporting Jewish self-determination or expressing Zionist ideologies.

At the same time, the Soviet government for the most part denied Jews the opportunity to leave the country. Furthermore, thousands of Jews were imprisoned for “anti-Soviet” propaganda and activities, a broadly defined crime which included any expression of Zionist ideology or any written or verbal interaction with non-Soviet citizens. Many Jews were arrested for having interactions with visiting Israeli delegates, or participating in Israeli celebrations.

The Brezhnev-Kosygin era began granting some exit visas to Soviet Jews, although primarily in response to Western political pressure. This is the time during which the Gurwitz family allegedly was released.

Activists in Los Angeles march for Soviet Jewry at a 1969 Simchat Torah rally in the documentary “Refusenik.”
Credit…Foundation for Documentary Projects

[In 1971, the Soviets lifted their ban on Jewish emigration entirely. More than 150,000 Soviet Jews emigrated during this period, motivated variously by religious or ideological aspiration, economic opportunity, and a desire to escape anti-Semitic discrimination. With the more liberal government of Mikhail Gorbachev (the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991) and subsequent fall of the USSR, Jews left en masse. Between 1989 and 2006, about 1.6 million Soviet Jews and their non-Jewish spouses and their relatives, as defined by the Law of Return, left the former Soviet Union.]

In the back matter, there is a photo of Rabbi Grossman from his 1965 trip to the Soviet Union, standing in front of the Peterhof Palace.

Award-winning illustrator Yevgenia Nayberg, originally from Kiev, depicts most of the story with a limited palette in what is no doubt a reflection of the restricted life of the Gurwitz’s in their one room apartment. Israel, on the other hand, a land of hope and freedom for them, is shown in blues, greens, and gold. The book contains an addendum titled “From the Illustrator’s Sketchbook,” in which Nayberg gives glimpses of the reasoning and processes behind her art. Her work strongly reminds me of the Italian and Jewish artist Amedeo Modigliani.

Evaluation: This powerful and well-told story aptly captures the fear that circumscribed the lives of most Jews before the breakup of the Soviet Union. While Olswanger is obliged to label this book “historical fiction” it rings absolutely true with respect to accounts from that period. It is also an important look at life under authoritarianism, especially authoritarian regimes that are antisemitic (as, alas, they all seem to be).

Rating: 5/5

Published by WestMargin Press, 2022

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1 Response to Review of “A Visit to Moscow” by Anna Olswanger

  1. Harvee Lau says:

    How amazing that this story was told in a graphic form.

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