A body broken, but free
Forty years after his death, philosopher and author Julius Margolin is getting the recognition he was denied in life, thanks to the recent unabridged publication of his magnum opus, documenting five grueling years in the Siberian gulag.
"This book will not have fulfilled its purpose unless it conveys the actual sense of the reality of the camps that exist today, as they existed yesterday and five years ago. These camps are the most important event of our reality, and we will not be able to understand the era that we are living in if we go on living without knowing how and why they appeared, grew and spread throughout the world," Julius Margolin wrote in the final chapter of his book Voyage au pays des Ze-Ka (Journey to the Land of the Ze-Ka), thus providing readers with the key to understanding the tragic story of his life.
Margolin died in Tel Aviv in January 1971. In the extended Margolin-Spektor family, "Uncle Yuli" was always spoken of with respect – a philosopher and a great writer, who had been imprisoned for five years in the Siberian gulag. In the homes of the other family members, an old photograph of this man with white hair, graying mustache and round spectacles with thick frames, was accorded a place of honor. Most of his books, essays and articles were in Russian, however, so the younger members of the family, who do not speak the language, were unable to appreciate them fully.
I came into this family, through marriage, about a year after Margolin died. I paid numerous visits to the apartment on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv, where his widow Eva had lived since they moved to Palestine in 1936. It was a modest place, bursting with bookshelves that held hundreds of volumes of the best that world literature, poetry and philosophy had to offer in Russian, German, French, Hebrew and English.
Now, 40 years after his death and 65 years after he completed Journey to the Land of the Ze-Ka, his crowning work, Julius Margolin is getting the respect he deserves. Not in Israel, to which he immigrated as a Zionist, but in France. The monumental work, which runs to 800 closely printed pages, came out two months ago for the first time in an unabridged version, thanks to a scholar named Luba Jurgenson, a professor of Russian literature at the Sorbonne in Paris.
"Like [Primo] Levi and [Varlam] Shalamov, Margolin demonstrates that no book is more powerful, pure and even stirring than a big story about the camps," the daily French paper Liberation wrote in a feature about the new edition. The literary supplement of Le Monde called the book "one of the most profound sociological analyses of the gulag." The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut devoted a radio show to Margolin, and the Jewish museum in Paris is holding an evening in his memory. The first print run has already sold out, and the publisher is currently printing a second run of 8,000 copies to meet earlier orders from libraries, bookstores and commercial Internet sites. The reissue is the handiwork of Le Bruit du temps – a relatively new press that specializes in valuable books that have disappeared from the marketplace or have been forgotten.
Journey to the Land of the Ze-ka tells the story of Margolin's survival in Stalinist labor camps. He described that nightmarish period, from 1940 to 1945, with power and with the precision of a scientist.
Margolin was born in 1900 in the Russian city of Pinsk (now in Belarus ), and was educated in the Russian language and culture, although he also spoke Yiddish and Polish. For high school he attended a Realschule in Ekaterinoslav, and went on to study philosophy in Berlin. There he married Eva Spektor, who herself had earned a doctorate in philosophy, in 1926. That same year their son Ephraim was born. Margolin received his doctorate in philosophy in 1929.
The family then moved to Lodz, Poland, where Margolin met Ze'ev Jabotinsky and joined the Betar movement. As a keen Zionist, who recognized the dangers of the spreading Nazism, Margolin moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1936 with his family. In the summer of 1939, however, he went back to Lodz to finalize some matters, traveling on a certificate of a Palestine resident and Polish citizen. When World War II broke out in September, Margolin found himself trapped between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which divvied up Poland under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. On June 19, 1940, after wandering for nine months in the eastern part of Poland, by then under Soviet occupation, Margolin was arrested in Pinsk.
As a "Western Jew" from Poland, he had to choose between taking Soviet citizenship and moving to the area occupied by the Germans. He decided not to accept the Soviet passport, but as a Jew who held Polish citizenship and a Mandatory certificate, he was doubly suspect in Russian eyes, and was sentenced to five years in a Siberian labor camp.
"All of a sudden, in the middle of the woods, there were buildings made of thick logs," he wrote in his book. "We sensed that in this forest, in the remote region, they were out of the ordinary. Although we had been journeying for a long time, we had yet to come across a train station, a welcoming signpost, any sign of life. Suddenly, while stopped, we saw an old Uzbek with white hair and the shriveled face of a Mongol. Where did this Uzbek come from in the middle of the woods? 'Grandpa,' we called to him from the entrance to the car. 'What is the name of this town?' The Uzbek turned his head and looked at us with deadened eyes. 'What town you want?' he said sadly. 'You think you come town? You come camp!"
"Ze-Ka" or "Z/K" was the term for a gulag prisoner - an abbreviation of the Russian word zakliuchyonnyi (inmate). For five years Z/K Margolin wandered between Siberian camps - between the notorious 48th Kvadrat camp on the northern bank of Lake Onega, and the Kotlas and Kroglice camps. These were "forbidden" places, not marked on any map; frozen and anonymous places where prisoners were turned into numbers, ghosts, broken slaves of the Stalinist empire.
In minus-25 degrees, in snow-covered woods, the doctor of philosophy with the thick glasses combated the cruel guards and the dangerous criminals imprisoned in the camps, who, it was said, would slash fellow inmates' throats for 50 grams of bread. Seven days a week, even before the sun came up, the Ze-Kas were marched dozens of kilometers in the snow, deep into the forest, where they would chop down trees with primitive tools for 12 hours straight, under threats and curses.
With their waning strength, the prisoners were then dragged back to camp and stood for hours, humiliated and shaking, to receive a cup of murky soup and a serving of bread, according to the amount of work they had performed that day. The doctor of philosophy usually managed to fill only 30 percent of the required quota and so suffered from constant malnutrition. An obsession with food became his steadfast partner throughout his five years in the gulag.
Margolin survived, perhaps thanks to people who evinced compassion in a place where it is not expected. His struggle to preserve a semblance of humanity also saved him.
"We Westerners," he wrote, "are more immune to the process of depersonification. We continue to call each other 'doctor' or 'professor,' stand on ceremony and preserve ridiculous forms of politeness, even though each of us is nothing but a felled tree, whose roots continue to dream about the treetop that is no more. To address as 'doctor' a ragged scarecrow that is pushing a wheelbarrow full of soil and sleeps at night in his clothes on a bed of exposed planks - that was our stubborn way of protesting what was going on around us."
In the summer of 1945, after five years, and one day after his term of incarceration was scheduled to end, Margolin was freed. At the time of his arrest he weighed 80 kilos; now he was a mere 45.
"This day in the month of June was beautiful and filled with sunshine. Five years earlier the prison gates closed behind me. Today my hair is white, my body is broken, I walked along the train tracks of Kotlas; the knapsack heavy on my shoulder. I was free; the burden lay not on my back, but rather on my heart, and relief was still a long way off," Margolin wrote at the end of his book.
The story of his long journey home is not recounted here, but details of his roundabout route have been collected from articles and family testimony. After his release from the gulag, Margolin was obligated under Soviet law to remain in the USSR another year. As he did not know a soul in the country, he went to a village in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia, where, the camp doctor had told him, bread and milk were to be found in abundant and cheap supply
In 1946 he was granted permission to return to Lodz. In that devastated city, all remnants of whose Jews had been erased, Margolin saw his old apartment in ruins, abandoned courtyards where Jewish children used to play, and an empty lot where the city's synagogue had stood. He wandered the streets, exhausted and in a daze, more conscious than ever of having been absent from the world for five years.
Margolin traveled from Warsaw via Paris to Marseilles, where the French bureaucracy prevented him, by one pretext or another, from boarding a ship to Palestine. He was forced to remain in Marseilles for months, hungry and penniless. Eventually he made it onto a ship called the Heliopolis, which embarked for Haifa. During the crossing he told his story to a Jew from Palestine, who warned him that nobody there would want to hear it.
This awakened in Margolin an immediate need to document what he had gone through, and when he came to Tel Aviv he spent 10 months – from December 1946 to October 1947 – recording his testimony in what came to be Journey to the Land of the Ze-Ka.
Margolin had already written three works while in the gulag: "The Theory of Lies," "The Doctrine of Hatred" and "Concerning Freedom," but the manuscripts were seized by the guards and destroyed. Later, in Israel, Margolin reconstructed the destroyed material and felt it his duty not only to tell the truth about Stalin's camps, but also to commemorate in writing his friends who did not survive: Jewish intellectuals, musicians, literary critics, and ordinary folks from Poland and Belarus who were buried in the snow.
All his attempts to get his book published in Israel failed. The Soviet Union was esteemed in the then-nascent state, thanks to the Red Army's victory over the Nazis. In February 1946 Margolin wrote to Russian-born politicians such as Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Moshe Sharett, Yosef Sprinzak and Meir Grabovsky, drawing their attention to the fate of their Jewish brethren in the camps. Mainly he appealed for help for his friend the doctor, Benjamin Berger, who saved his life in the camp and was left behind. He didn't receive a single response to his pleas.
An abridged version of Margolin's book came out in France in 1949, with the aid of Boris Suvarin, a former activist in the French Communist Party and a staunch opponent of Stalin. The book was translated from Russian by author Nina Berberova, but did not include the early chapters on the suffering of the Jews from Eastern Poland.
Arthur Koestler tried to get British and American publishers interested in it, but without success. Another abridged version, in Russian, came out in New York only in 1952, at the initiative of anti-communist Belarusians in exile. That version left out the "Jewish" chapters as well as chapters portraying "too-human" Soviets.
Luba Jurgenson, editor of the new edition, who also wrote a postscript for it, discussed the book's publication history in a telephone conversation from Paris.
"I was not familiar with it before. I began working on the French text from 1949, and compared it with the version that was published in New York. I discovered that segments were left out of both versions. Later I realized that they amounted to about a third of the book. After painstaking work, I managed to reassemble another 200 missing pages. Incidentally, on the basis of the New York version, a number of chapters were translated into Hebrew as well, in 1976 and 1997, under the Maoz imprint, thanks to new immigrants from the Soviet Union who recognized the importance of Margolin's work and his campaign on their behalf," she explained.
In December 1950, Margolin was invited to testify in Paris at the much-covered libel trial pursued by David Rousset – a former Trotskyite, political prisoner, Buchenwald survivor and author of the book L'univers concentrationnaire. In November 1949, Rousset had published an open letter in the newspaper Le Figaro appealing to survivors of Nazi concentration camps to advocate for an international commission to investigate the forced labor camps in the USSR. The French Communist Party, through its journal, accused him of spreading lies, and Rousset sued the organ for libel.
After reading Margolin's book with appreciation when it appeared in French, Rousset invited him to testify on his behalf in court. The testimony by Margolin – who bravely endured the attacks of the defense lawyers for the Communist Party – served as a vehement indictment of Stalin's gulag. When he got back to Israel, Margolin wrote up a report and asked to read it at a meeting of a socialist association. To his disappointment, he spoke before an audience of just 10. Around the same time, the first conference of organizations of Soviet camp survivors was held at The Hague. Margolin tried to interest Israeli political circles in his testimony, but this appeal likewise went unanswered. His friends, survivors of gulags and members still of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, also declined to join the struggle. A few were afraid of harming relatives back in the USSR, or did not want to anger the party; others simply preferred to forget.
"This book was written in the face of the silent but clear objection of those around me, and were it not for the personal experience and power of persuasion I acquired over the course of five years in the camp, I might have succumbed to the general hypnosis, like those other collaborators with the conspiracy of silence," Margolin complained in the afterword in his book.
According to Jurgenson, "like Shalamov, Primo Levi and Solzhenitsyn, Margolin demonstrates that documentation of reality can be a pure and riveting book. Literature becomes a necessary tool when the events it documents appear unrealistic."
Margolin was an intellectual who acknowledged the existence of law, global public opinion and democracy. He wrote in Russian, but was not Russian like Dostoyevsky, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, and in contrast to other foreigners who experienced the gulag – such as Margarete Buber-Neumann or Gustav Herling – he was raised in Russian culture.
Margolin felt like a citizen of the West, but understood well the origins of the disaster surrounding him. "This people," he wrote about the Russians, "lack the wisdom and humility of the Indians and the Chinese, and also the honor and self-pride of the French and the Anglo-Americans. Forever dissatisfied, it suffers and causes suffering to those living in its vicinity."
Says Jurgenson: "Before his imprisonment Margolin lived in a free country. He did not internalize the ideological pressure and constant fear ingrained in Soviet society ... [and thus] his testimony took on an anthropological dimension of an observer from the side, and his book sometimes seems like a travel guide."
Jurgenson adds: "His point of view is interesting and unique also from the perspective of documenting the Soviet policy of transferring the Polish Jews from the territories of Belarus and Ukraine deep into the Soviet Union, even before the war broke out. The Russians perceived the Jews as a genuine threat of the formation of a fifth column. Tens of thousands were exiled to remote areas or locked up in camps. Margolin's descriptions demonstrate the Soviet hostility toward them."
While her husband was imprisoned, his wife, Dr. Hava Margolin, struggled to make a living in Tel Aviv. She became a businesswoman of sorts (a rather unsuccessful one, according to her family ) and a patron of literary figures who had come from Poland and Russia. She set up in her apartment a "duplication institute" – a bombastic name for a printing facility with tubes of paint, typewriters and paper.
With the help of the proceeds from her institute, she founded a small children's press, Paz Books. She published Leah Goldberg's Post Office – an adaptation of the story by Samuel Marshak; The Story of the Girl Milik by Miriam Wilensky-Stekelis (later Yalan-Stekelis ); Passover Eve Dreamby Yaakov Horgin; and other books.
In 1946, when Julius Margolin returned to Palestine, the publishing house closed, after just three years in operation. The family's apartment continued to serve as a kind of literary salon and meeting place for revisionist activists such as Menachem Begin (who lived with the Margolins after immigrating), Abba Ahimeir and Yosef Paamoni, the founder of Metzudat Zeev (today the headquarters of the Likud party). Writers and poets sat around a circular table arguing, reading their works aloud, singing and drumming on the tabletop, drinking copious amounts of tea.
Margolin worked as a freelance journalist and scurried between newspaper offices, mainly the Russian-language ones. Many of his articles were published in the Russian press abroad, mainly in the United States. After her husband died, Hava Margolin, together with her sister-in-law, poet Bella Spektor, and Israeli writers of Russian origin, carried on working on the manuscripts he left behind and tried to get them published, but to no avail.
The interest generated by the appearance of the unabridged book in France led Jurgenson to conclude that there is an urgent need for a sequel: about Margolin's return to Palestine.
"A few details do appear in the afterword," she says, "but his great struggle to rouse public opinion in the world to the fate of the Jews imprisoned in the camps has yet to be told."