Once upon a time there was a Yiddish language newspaper in New York called Forverts (in English, The Forward). Founded in 1897 by the Jewish Socialist Press Federation, the newspaper was devoted to Jewish trade unionism and democratic socialism.
Like the Ukrainian gazette Svoboda in its early years, Forverts also offered English lessons to its readers, as well as civic advice regarding life in America. Under the leadership of Abraham Cahan, editor from 1903 to 1951, Forverts attained a readership of some 200,000 by World War I.
Early in February and March of 1932, Mendel Osherowitch, a Jewish Ukrainian working at Forverts, was sent to Ukraine on assignment to learn about life in Soviet Ukraine. He was to go to theaters, marketplaces, cabarets, shops, Jewish houses of learning and to speak with Jews and non-Jews.
Osherowitch, who was born in Ukraine and spoke fluent Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish, was perfect for the task. He arrived in Ukraine on the eve of the Holodomor. Demographers estimate that the excess death rate at the time had already reached 600 people per day. By late March 1933, it was 9,000 people per day.
Osherowitch observed, recorded and published a chronicle in Yiddish of his travels titled “How People Live in Soviet Russia: Impressions from a Journey.” In his introduction, Osherowitch wrote: “It has become fashionable to brand anyone an ‘enemy of Russia’ who doesn’t conceal the truth about how life there is now very difficult … Only foreigners can indulge in the pleasure of claiming Soviet Russia is a great laboratory where an ‘interesting experiment’ is being conducted on 160 million individuals.”
“And so I went,” he wrote. “Went with the best of intentions, with the best of wishes … It was clear to me that life in Soviet Russia couldn’t, as yet, be a paradise … The reality I saw in the few weeks I travelled across Soviet Russia, that grey, hard and sad reality, far exceeded anything I had imagined beforehand.” Osherowitch was not really a foreigner. Nor did he conceal the truth.
Unfortunately, his opus was published in Yiddish, read by a limited, often critical audience. Prof. Lubomyr Luciuk, who edited the English version of Osherowitch’s monograph, wrote that finding someone to translate Yiddish into English in 2018 was no easy task. “This chore was ably accomplished by Sharon Power, whose work was made possible thanks to the generosity, goodwill and encouragement of Karen and Russ Chelak.” The book was published by Kashtan Press in 2021.
So, what do we learn from Osherowitch’s travels during Holodomor eve? Quite a bit. His first stop was Moscow, where he observed that from “everyone emanates a greyness, a rustic hardness.” In one of the communal houses, he met a 13-year-old girl who, upon learning he was an American, declared that he was to be greatly pitied. Asked why, she replied: “Because it is so bad in America, of course!” Nothing Osherowitch said could convince her otherwise. He soon discovered that the “things are bad in America” refrain was repeated by young people throughout his visit.
When Osherowitch met with a certain lady to whom he was to pass along a greeting from her relatives in America, the sentiment was quite different, however. Looking all around, she said with a deep sigh: “This is not a life, only a nightmare, an evil dream … We’re drowning, we’re going under, lost in a sea of beautiful phrases.” That sentiment was also repeated many times during his travels.
Before he left Moscow for Ukraine, Osherowitch mentioned his plans to people he met. One of them told him to take bread. “People there are dying from hunger. I couldn’t understand this,” he wrote. “Had Ukraine not always been the breadbasket for all of Russia? What did this mean, having to take bread with you to Ukraine?” Osherowitch found out soon enough. By the time he reached Ukraine, the words he heard spoken over and over again were, “I am hungry, give me bread.”
Osherowitch’s home town of Trostianets was especially depressing. His mother, of course, was delighted, ecstatic to see him after his many years of absence, but that was about the only joy he experienced.
Trostianets had once been a lively commercial center with a sugar factory that employed hundreds and provided a living for local farmers who brought wagon loads of sugar beets to sell. Now it was different. Now only a small section of the factory functioned, producing what was always plentiful. Vodka.
“There is nothing left in the town that does not bear the stamp of the new regime,” Osherowitch wrote in his travel log, “including the destruction, the squalor and the terribly oppressive nature of life.
Osherowitch leaves his readers with many other impressions of his two-month sojourn. Young people were optimistic. “We are building a glorious future.” Older people were generally fearful. “Whom must we guard against? Our own children!”
As measured by who rode in first class rail cars, the engineers, the military and the secret police, life was pretty good compared to the general population. The former were the future. The latter the past. They were expendable.
Overall, the book is an easy read, written comprehensively in journalistic style. As with all honest accounts of Soviet life, it can be very depressing at times.
So, given the horrendous events that followed his visit, and the denials which appeared in the American press, why didn’t the author publish his monograph in English? Prof. Luciuk, the editor, offers possible answers in the beginning of Osherowitch’s discourse. That alone is worth the price of the book.
Ukrainians interested in the Soviet-orchestrated Holodomor calamity from a socialist, Jewish American perspective are urged to read this book. It is available from Kashtan Press, 849 Wartman Ave., Kingston, ON, Canada, K7M 2Y6 for $50 (including shipping and handling). Go for it. Don’t wait!
Myron Kuropas’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.