How People Live In Soviet Russia
Reviewed by MARTIN ZEILIG
In February and March 1932 Mendel Osherowitch visited the Soviet Union on assignment for the Yiddish-language newspaper, Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward). With a daily circulation of 275,000, this influential New York City-based newspaper was “socialist in content but not Bolshevik in form,” notes Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, in the introduction to How People Live In Soviet Russia.
The book, which was published in Yiddish in 1933, has only just been translated into English. It provides a profound, oft times poignant, and honest look at the harsh realities of life in Soviet Russia, in particular Ukraine, at that time. It is a clear-eyed testament to truth telling. More than just an essential eye-witness historical document, this book has obvious lessons for us today too.
Osherowitch was born on January 14, 1888 in the Ukrainian town of Trostianets, says a brief bio of him in the book. He emigrated to the USA in 1910 where he began writing for various Yiddish periodicals before joining the staff of Forverts in 1914, a position he held until retiring in January 1945. Osherowitch was a Yiddish translator, a playwright, and the author of a number of novels and other books. Osherowitch helped organize the Federation of Ukrainian Jews, served as president of the I.L. Peretz Yiddish Writers’ Union and was a prominent member of the Yiddish PEN Club.
He died on 16 April 1965 in New York City, survived by his wife, Sofia and their daughter, Edith Fayer (later Rosenberg).
Osherowitch’s assignment in Ukraine was to “visit the theatres, cabarets, taverns and marketplaces, the Soviet shops and Jewish houses of study, to speak with common people in the streets, Jews and non-Jews.”
He was fluent in Yiddish, Ukrainian, and Russian. This made Osherowitch able to “converse more intimately” with people than most Western visitors.
During his trip Osherowitch collects many personal stories, “many shared in confidence,” allowing him to record accurately the features of a Bolshevik system he regarded as very dysfunctional, “sometimes criminal.”
He writes about “the pervasive fear” of the GPU secret police, recounts how parents were scared their own children might be informing against them, and tells of great hordes of peasants clambering onto trains trying to escape into the cities, “in an anguished search for bread.”
“Ukraine was already experiencing an appalling famine,” Osherowitch writes. “Millions of people had been driven to the greatest desperation, to a life sometimes even worse than death. Plagues circulated in villages and in the towns. People died because they could no longer endure their terrible hunger. On many roads, covered with snow, lay dead horses, withered away from hunger. At the train stations, thousands and thousands of peasants wandered around, covered in bodily filth and dirt, waiting for trains they hoped would take them into the cities, where they could perhaps sell something, maybe get bread. The dreadful misery of these people, this harrowing state of affairs, tore at one’s heart. Everywhere I was told conditions had already been like this for a few months and that since the Five Year Plan began, emphasizing heavy over light industry, the situation in the country had gotten worse.”
He was witnessing firsthand the early days of the Holodomor— “the man-made famine that convulsed the Soviet republic of Ukraine from 1932 to 1933, peaking in the late spring of 1933,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica online.
“It was part of a broader Soviet famine (1931–34) that also caused mass starvation in the grain-growing regions of Soviet Russia and Kazakhstan. The Ukrainian famine, however, was made deadlier by a series of political decrees and decisions that were aimed mostly or only at Ukraine.”
Osherowitch also provides moving accounts of visiting his hometown of Trostianets, where he reunited with his old mother and siblings whom he hadn’t seen since moving to the U.S. over 20 years before.
He describes visiting the Trostianets’ pogrom memorial.
“It has already been 13 years since the great pogrom happened in Trostianets,” Osherowitch writes. “It has gone down in history as one of the most terrible and bloody pogroms in Ukraine. “It is difficult to find a Jewish family in Trostainets that did not suffer in the great pogrom, which Petliura’s gangs carried out in the town during their ‘uprising’ against the Bolsheviks. In total around 500 Jews were murdered at that time. The misfortunate ones were driven together into a large building next to the industrial plant (in Goldenberg’s house) where they were slaughtered like sheep. Old and young alike— no one was spared. Afterwards, all 500 murder victims were buried in one large grave.”
Osherowitch’s powers of observation are acute. His commentary is decisive.
“I find it quite impossible to just forget the great tragedy that is the life of a human being in Soviet Russia today,” Osherwitch reflects, while in Warsaw, Poland getting ready to travel onward to Berlin, then Paris.
“You just can’t, not if you have a heart and a soul. I tried to think of the good side of what I’d seen in Soviet Russia. I thought about the many idealists I met, people who truly are sacrificing their lives because they believe in a better future to come. I thought about great Soviet achievements in the domains of industry and culture and in other fields, accomplishments certainly worthy of praise. Then, I remembered what a woman who once active in the revolutionary cause, who had always been ready to sacrifice her life for the Revolution said to me in Moscow: ‘Now we are all rotting under the banner of a beautiful ideal.”
Let others sing of the hungry pain of love,
Let others sing of the hungry pain of life,
I will sing of the hungry pain of hunger.
Excerpt from The Hungry Pain of Hunger— a poem by Moishe Nadir (translated from the Yiddish by Philip Rahv), New Masses, Vll, February 7, 1933, p.18 (reprinted in the English language version of How People Live In Soviet Russia)
How People Live In Soviet Russia: Impressions From A Journey
By Mendel Osherowitch
Published by Kashtan Press in association with the
Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto
Translated by Sharon Power
Edited by Lubomyr Y. Luciuk
314 pg. $40.00