The Argaman Quintet: The Flaming Sword, A Little Oil & Root, The Chronicle of the Kingdom of Alphalia, The Hourglass, Going to the Wall.
From the stetls of Eastern Europe, through resistance to the Nazi Holocaust and the birth of modern Israel, to the plight of Eastern European Jewry under Communism, five novels which explore the moral complexities of being Jewish in an anti-Semitic world.
Going To The Wall
Max Jacob has long been plagued with guilt that he remained in England when his best friend and fellow-exile Bernhard Aaronsohn went back to Europe to fight in the resistance in France and later Poland. Learning of the calamity that has befallen the Jews of the Soviet Union, and particularly the "Refuseniks" - those who had applied for visas to leave Russia, but been rejected, and then persecuted - he becomes an activist. Through letters to her daughter Miriam, now in Israel, and his own research, he recounts the heroic tale of one "Refusenik", Dora Zhabrinskaya, incarcerated in a psychiatric prison for refusing to take "no" for an answer, and through her the tale of oppression of both Jews and non-Jews through the seventy years of the Communist catastrophe.
"What follows is only superficially a novel about the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union, only by appearance the brutal experience of Communism itself. Oppression, injustice, persecution, totalitarian bullying are universal, capable of taking place in any country, any family, any institution. This is a novel about human beings who stand up to oppression, who refuse to collaborate in their own victimhood. Change Dora’s name, or David Kanter’s, or Osip Mandelstam’s, or Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s; translate the novel into Burmese, Zimbabwean, Iranian, Syrian, and it would require only a few small alterations for the tale to fit - indeed, I based the murder of David Kanter on that of Steve Biko; this entire novel could have been a black story in South Africa.
"'You took away all the oceans and all the space,' declared Osip Mandelstam in one of his poems written in Siberian exile. "You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it. Where did it get you? You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.'
"The heroism of utterance! This novel is dedicated to all who shape words, even in silence, in the name of truth, justice, and human dignity."
Kiryat Kanter, October 1997
Dear Professor Jacob,
You ask about Yoram. This is a subject very difficult for me to speak about, and perhaps it isn't relevant. Yes, you're right, it is - it was - the same Yoram Avital whom you spoke to on the telephone in 1980. At least, I knew he was telephoning Jews in England, and they were telephoning him.
"I've spoken to someone from the 35 group. He's going to pass our names on."
Was that you? I read recently that someone from the 35 group has been honoured by your government. It was in the Jerusalem Post, as well as in the Russian papers. At the time I never thought that it would help, but for Yoram it was a lifeline. You could penetrate the wall, of silence as well as all that bureaucratic repression, just by picking up a telephone and dialing England.
"Hello, this is Yoram Avital. I'm telephoning from Moscow."
It was as much as you had time to say before the line went dead.
So you rang again.
"Hello, Avital. Please pass my name on as a refusenik."
"Hello, Avital. Also Miriam Zhabrinskaya. Her mother…"
And yet again.
But three times was all you dared, until you had another telephone, at someone else's risk.
"Hello, Avital. Dora Zhabrinskaya is being held at the Osbladin Hospital in Kishinev."
And yet again.
"Her daughter Miriam has gone on hunger strike to demand her immediate release. Please can you pass…"
"Hello, Avital. Dr Leon Zhabrinsky…"
He kept ringing every day for fourteen days, passing on every piece of information he could gather, on my family, on a dozen other families.
"Someone has to take the baton from Scharansky. Someone has to tell the people in the West, so they can help us."
I told him, Yoram, the people in the West knew what was happening at Auschwitz, and still they didn't act.
"We have to act."
Only by then I was in the hospital in Krasnya Presnya, trying to starve myself to death, pregnant though I didn't know it. At the time I told myself it was a gesture of support for my mother, a political action. Of course, I was really trying to kill myself because of what had happened to me under house arrest. But it took me many years to realise. What is the most remarkable is that Leah survived. All those weeks in which they had to feed me intravenously, tied to a bed with leather thongs to stop me pulling out the tubes, the foetus should have aborted itself for lack of nutrients. Why does a society that goes to such trouble to prevent you living, also go to so much trouble stopping you from dying? I know the answer to that one too. They told me many times.
"Your mother knows what you are doing, Comrade Zhabrinskaya. We have told her, and she has begged us to keep you alive. She understands that her confession and your life are bound to one another. We can arrange for her to be released, to come to visit you. But first you must give up this hunger strike."
So my mother was being difficult too, I understood. Because they wouldn't use her against me if they weren't also using me against her.
"Hello, Avital. Miriam Zhabrinskaya is now in her third week of hunger strike. They are…"
"Hello, Avital. They're force-feeding her. Her mother is still held at the…"
"Hello, Avital. Dora Zhabrinskaya is still held at the Osbladin."
Was it you, then, who answered all his phone-calls? Or only some of them? The coincidence would be too great, but I can see that it must have been you, and I suppose that this is why you chose to tell her story.