Earlier this week, author Paul Goldberg wrote about the popularity of King Lear in midcentury Moscow and Yiddish theater. With the release of his novel The Yid, Paul is guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.
As a journalist, I separate fact from fable. As a novelist, I go through the same process, but keep the fable. You need facts to ground a story; you need fables make it soar.
The Yid is a continuation of my dialogue with my grandfather. His name was Moisey Semyonovich Rabinovich. He served in the Red Army during the civil war and was a pharmacist at field hospitals during World War II.
He was an accomplished professional and a heroic character in his own right, but for my entertainment, he made up stories of fighting Nazis in the woods of Belarus and marching to Berlin, even blasting through the walls of Hitler’s bunker. These tales were all fictional, but all these years later I remember them better than his true stories.
My grandfather turned me into a collector of legends, and I thank him in The Yid by making him into a fictional character. He is the fierce Rabinovich, the Bundist who is not through with combat — the sort of guy you want on your side.
I was born in 1959, six years after Stalin’s death. To make this story real, I needed to create the set for the novel. I started with my parents’ apartment, a communal cold-water flat in central Moscow. My principal character, Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, set up residence in what was once our room — the single compartment that housed all three of us.
Levinson’s sidekick, Kogan, resides not far from Levinson, in a building overlooking my school. The dacha that my conspirators use to dump bodies actually belonged to my grandmother. I used real addresses. In the tightly-braided world that is Moscow, Shmuel Halkin — the poet who translated King Lear into Yiddish — lived across the street from my grandmother. Several of Halkin’s plays, and indeed Halkin himself, figure in The Yid, and as I write this an autographed copy of his book lies in front of me.
Visually, the streets of Moscow of my childhood haven’t changed much since 1953. In The Yid, I wanted to speak about that time and my city in an entirely different way. The biggest challenge was to keep the novel from sounding like homage to Bulgakov, who so brilliantly captured the soul of Moscow and, for that matter, Stalinism. In addition to strangling my inner Bulgakov, I refrained from reading writers who explored the same world. I wanted The Yid to be different.
My grandfather’s stories laid down the foundation of the book. His friends expanded this narrative. These were old Jews, mostly Bolsheviks who had been through the twentieth century’s biggest bonfires. They sat on benches at the Bauman Garden in central Moscow, telling stories of heroism in World War II. Most of them carried rolled up copies of the Red Star, Krasnaya Zvezda, the newspaper of the Soviet military.
I listened. I don’t remember their names, but their stories feed the narrative I wrote. We don’t get to choose our material, and this is mine:
Since childhood, I knew that in 1953 Stalin was preparing to deport all Jews to settlements and prison camps, and that residential offices were preparing lists of Jews for deportation. By extension, this meant that the names of everyone I knew — including my parents and grandparents — were on these lists.
I also knew that there was once a Yiddish theater in Moscow. I asked my aunt, Ulyana Dobrushina, to tell me about going to performances there, about spending the war years with the Yiddish theater as it waited out the war in Uzbekistan, about Solomon Mikhoels, and about her uncle, Eliel Dobrushin, a playwright at the theater and a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. I also spoke with Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a longtime human rights activist, and benefitted tremendously from understanding her intellectual journey, which begins in Moscow of the 1930s.
One of the characters, Dr. Kogan, the surgeon, starts to feel a spiritual connection with the body parts he sees floating in formaldehyde, waiting to be dissected by medical students. He had seen many a corpse and was a few steps removed from becoming a cadaver. I could never have made this story up. I heard it from my friend Janusz Bardach, a former Soviet political prisoner, who became a world-renowned maxillofacial surgeon, ultimately at the University of Iowa. He and I became friends after I reviewed his memoir in The New York Times. As I wrote The Yid, I imagined this medical luminary cursing, bickering, and, above all, hurting.
Janusz thought my plan to write a novel about Stalin’s death was insane and the early pages he saw scared him.
“You are writing a comedy about tragic events,” he objected.
Yet, Janusz, who is now gone, would have been a perfect recruit into the band of conspirators in The Yid—and, in a way, he is in it, fighting tyranny shoulder-to-shoulder with my heroic grandfather and his Red Star-toting Bolshevik friends.
Paul Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an exposé of the American healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.