A Vis­it to Moscow

Anna Olswanger, adapt­ed from a sto­ry by Rab­bi Rafael Gross­man, Yev­ge­nia Nay­berg (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – May 23, 2022

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 TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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