Sent to Siberia
Readers who, like me, grew up in the West during the Cold War remember our fear
that the Russians were coming to get us. The 1966 movie, a comedy, The Russians
Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, about a Soviet submarine running aground in
my native New England, was funny because it resonated with our genuine worries.
Back in Colchester, Connecticut, we had scary school bombing drills for
which we had to crouch under desks. I still recall the helpless feeling I had as
a young teen, working as a junior lifeguard at a lakeside day camp, when a plane
swooped low over us. I immediately assumed this civilian plane was the Russians
coming, and I couldn't protect the guppy-level swimmers in the water from
By the end of high school, I was marching for Soviet Jewry at the
State Capital in Hartford. I never connected the Russians we wanted to help
leave with those we feared would come.
Today, youngsters have no idea of
the Let My People Go protests, of the twinning of bar mitzva ceremonies, the
Matza of Freedom and empty seats at our Seder tables. Nor do they know of the
courageous Russian Jewish side. In a recent post on his Facebook page, Beit Avi
Chai Foundation head David Rozenson wrote that a reference to the Refusenik
movement brought blank stares from young members of the visiting General
Assembly delegation. They simply didn't know about the men and women who
withstood the faceless, ruthless Soviet regime to secure freedom for themselves
and those who came after them.
The freeing of Soviet Jewry still thrills
me. Even my recent displeasure at having to consult three different technicians
to reinstate my Jerusalem cable and Internet service was ameliorated because the
Hebrew-speaking techies were called Yevgeney, Alex and Kostia.
followed with pleasure and interest the photos and reports on Facebook of the
recent International Book Fair in Siberia, which included a large booth with
rows of books on Jewish themes. Even back in Colchester, we knew that "being
sent to Siberia" was the penultimate Soviet punishment (next to being shot). Now
Jewish books are being sent to the freezing hinterlands, shipping paid for by
the Russian government and private donors. Who would have believed it? Siberia
means "Sleeping Land" in Tatar, and "The End" in Ostyak, a local language. The
strategy of exiling war prisoners and political opponents there goes back to the
17th century. By the end of the 19th century, some 34,000 Jews lived in Siberia.
The number leapt up to 50,000 with the opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway in
1904. Twentieth- century exiles included Zionist activists, and the Siberian
communities were hubs of political discussion. Jews escaping Hitler also found
their way to the isolated land where the Nazi boot sank in the deep snow.
Novosibirsk is the largest city in Siberia, and the third largest in Russia.
But the book fair was in a smaller city called Krasnoyarsk, one of the towns set
up in the 18th century to take advantage of the mineral resources that are so
abundant in the frozen land. Krasnoyarsk became a Jewish center for exiles and
merchants, particularly in the fur trade.
Today, about 2,000 Jews live
there. A characteristic crack from the cold marks local car windshields.
Business was brisk at the fair, said Rozenson and Sveta Busygina, senior
coordinator of Beit Avi Chai projects in the former Soviet Union. The flight
from her Moscow office to Israel is shorter than her flight to Krasnoyarsk,
which takes six to eight hours, and is six time zones away from Moscow.
Seventy years of Communism eroded Jewish knowledge and observance in Siberia, as
it did throughout the Soviet Union. The literary treasures of the Jewish people
were unavailable – not basic sources like the Bible and Talmud, and not Yiddish
classics by Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz.
To bring Judaism back to the
boondocks, the Moscow-based Knizhniki Book Publishers is energetically
translating juvenile and adult books that reveal various aspects of modern and
past Jewish life.
"People are already waiting for us when we open our
stand," says Busygina.
"A book is often shared by friends and neighbors,
and readers will want more by the same author." Customers include Jews, non-Jews
and "Russians," who more than once have revealed that they have Jewish
Prayer books, Bibles, medieval Jewish commentary – exactly
the books that had to be smuggled into the Soviet Union share space with volumes
of Jewish history, classics and modern Israeli novels.
catalogue (available online at www.knizhniki.ru) offers a prose series which
includes European classics, Americans Cynthia Ozick and Arthur Miller, Israelis
David Grossman and Etgar Keret. Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Slave is a popular
choice, and so is everything by Meir Shalev, though The Blue Mountain – called A
Russian Novel in Hebrew – is the Shalev top-seller. The Family Carnovsky, by
Bashevis Singer's brother Israel Joshua Singer, is popular, and readers are
stunned by the 1948 masterpiece The Family Mashber, by Soviet Yiddish writer Der
Nister (Pinhas Kahanovitz), the plot of which revolves around the meltdown of a
prosperous Jewish family.
Modern readers are amazed that Der Nister could
write with humor and resilience of terrible events, with writings that are
relevant and of interest to contemporary Russian readers – who often identify
and are motivated to explore Jewish heritage further, Busygina explains.
A collection of stories by Israeli-Russian writers is complemented by a
collection of Jewish stories by Russian writers. "Books on Jewish themes have
become popular," says Busygina. "Even in their small apartments, former Soviet
Jews are building libraries on Jewish tradition and history."
began four years ago, and has now been moved from a drafty auditorium to a large
modern civic hall. Posters of sunny Eilat stand out against the chilly
"Fifteen years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russian
Jews were puzzled by the paucity of pro-Israel books," says Rozenson. Given this
need, together with a team of publishers, marketing experts, authors from Israel
and Russia, Rozenson and a group of donors launched Knizhniki in 2005. He and
Busygina sit on the committee that recommends which books should be translated,
and the committee reads constantly to find fiction and non-fiction in which
Judaism is highlighted and Israel is positively portrayed. "Via this effort, our
goal is to display the richness and value of Jewish life, and to make Russian
readers aware and proud of their Jewish heritage and the State of Israel."
An encouraging sign is the popularity of children's books. They sell out
first. There are holiday and Bible stories, of course. Joseph Had a Little
Overcoat by Simms Taback is a predicable hit.
But who would have guessed
the title of this year's bestseller in Siberia? An Israeli kids' book: And God
Created… Ice Cream.