In 1965, an American rabbi, Rafael Grossman, made a visit to the Soviet Union, where he learned a truth he had only suspected: Jews were subjected to harsh discrimination and unjust imprisonment. They were also forbidden to emigrate, to Israel or anywhere else. Anna Olswanger and Yevgenia Nayberg have created a graphic novel based on Rabbi Grossman’s experiences, related both in public speeches and in notes. With starkly dramatic text and haunting images, author and illustrator convey the devastating oppression of Soviet Jewish life, and the commitment of one Jew to bring their horrifying reality into the light.
When Rabbi Grossman arrives in Russia, he separates himself from the official tour group in order to fulfill a mission. With courage and a few rubles for bribes, he answers the request of a Holocaust survivor, a woman who had lost touch with her brother after the war. Rabbi Grossman’s initial exchanges with the man are fraught with mistrust, a response that pervades every aspect of daily life for Russia’s Jews. When Rabbi Grossman speaks Yiddish to the man, he learns that even the use of their common language does not guarantee safety, as even the KGB employs Yiddish speakers. The need to avoid danger has corrupted all Jewish culture and religious practice; total compliance or total secrecy are the only possible ways to survive.
Olswanger’s approach is minimalist, reflecting the guarded use of language and revelation of facts that confront the well-meaning rabbi. Rabbi Grossman learns that the spare apartment he is visiting is not only the home to one man, but to a family struggling to raise their son as a Jew. The rabbi slowly elicits the truth through a series of questions, each one receiving a guarded answer. Rather than narrating a history of terror, Olswanger allows her characters to reveal the truth slowly. Each word has an impact. Watching the man’s wife, the rabbi cautiously observes, “As she lit the glass burner, I thought I saw a ripple in the heavy curtain next to her.” The hidden son emerges from the thick fabric into the light’s glow.
The man’s recital of how he has carefully constructed an alternative reality for his son is powerful in its simplicity: “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.” The accretion of insults on this list is more degrading than each one alone.
Nayberg’s illustrations are also weighted with meaning. Angular backgrounds, rounded faces, and elongated bodies express the family’s contradictions. Dark and gray tones contrast with bright touches of color, as with the wife’s green dress and the ocher glaze of a Sabbath challah. A snowy view of Moscow shows the city’s beauty untouched by politics, while a later light-filled image of the Jerusalem skyline emphasizes the refuge that Israel represented to Russia’s Jews. Whether readers are familiar with the harrowing subject matter or learning about it for the first time, Rabbi Grossman’s story will immerse them in a harsh world and in the persistent truth-telling needed to bring about change.
A Visit to Moscow is highly recommended and includes an afterword by Rabbi Grosman’s son, Hillel Grossman, a selection from Rabbi Grossman’s work, and explanatory notes by the author and illustrator.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.