Sent to Siberia

The Human Spirit.

siberian market 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
siberian market 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
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 attack.
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.
Hence I 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 grandmothers.
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.
Knizhniki’s book catalogue (available online at 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.”
The fair 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 background.
“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.