Title: A Visit to Moscow
By Anna Olswanger
West Margin Press
In 1965, a group of rabbis met clandestinely and decided, at the height of the Cold War, and in the shadow of the Kremlin, to make a trip to the Soviet Union. They knew they’d be followed, their luggage searched, and the possibility of being imprisoned for one false step always loomed. Who knew what would happen? Congressmen wouldn’t risk stepping foot into that oppressive regime, and now these rabbis would take this dangerous trip? But the rumors coming out of Russia were true – Jews being exiled or jailed or “disappeared” for teaching Torah or expressing any signs of Jewishness – and the souls of three million Jews were in the balance. They had to come.
Ma pitom the Kremlin would allow such a visit? Stalin had died, and the Kremlin was attempting a makeover, to rehabilitate its image on the world stage. The idea was to take the rabbis on a carefully curated tour, in which every sign of government oppression of Jews would be airbrushed out of existence. That was the plan.
Rabbi Rafael Grossman, rabbi of the Baron Hirsch synagogue, was part of this delegation. He also had an additional mission. One of his congregants, a Holocaust survivor, had sent a letter to her brother in Communist Russia over ten years ago. The letter had been returned unopened. Did he ever get the letter, the sister wondered. Was he even alive? Rabbi Grossman promised her he’d find out.
All he had to go one was an address scribbled on the back of a ragged envelope. Feigning a headache, Rabbi Grossman evaded the tour guide, managed to slip away from the group and grab a taxi to some forsaken place.
Haunting dream-like illustrations, dialogue that crackles with tension, spare writing, all conspire to make you feel not ‘as if’ you’re there, but that you really are there, as the rabbi stands in a bleak Soviet hallway, trying to get the voice behind the door to open it, allow him in, so the rabbi can ascertain if this man is his congregant’s long-lost brother. With great suspicion the man admits him, and what the rabbi discovers there behind a curtain stuns him: the man’s young son, Zev, eight or nine years old, who has never stepped foot out of the apartment. This, both to protect Zev against Soviet antisemitism and to assure him of a Jewish education. Rabbi Grossman, commenting later, said, “I wondered if he were the victim of both antisemitism and religious fanaticism. But when I saw how deeply his parents loved him, I came to believe that the entire family had a strength beyond my understanding.” The reader will make his or her own judgment about this.
A Visit to Moscow captures a mood of dread and yearning. The bleakness of a Russian winter surrounds you, and so does the Yiddish cheyn of the characters. The tour guide seems approachable and slightly kooky with her outrageous beehive hair-do, until you realize a tape-recorder is embedded in that nest, the better to monitor the rabbis’ every conversation, and then the creepiness thickens. Nothing and no one can be trusted. Even a silly hair-do is suspect.
Rabbi Grossman’s son, Hillel writes when his father returned, he wouldn’t stop talking about what he saw at every shul, and to every politician he could. “In retrospect, it is remarkable how his talking and that of other intrepid individuals stirred a movement into being… My father and others talked the Soviet Union into oblivion.”
Anna Olswanger is the magnificent custodian of this story. She has found a way to dramatize it and make it accessible to young and old, Jew and non-Jew. The reader senses the story is deeply felt by the writer, and held closely. The result is a tour de force.