Haunting photographs sum up 100 years of Russian Jewish history

A Century of Ambivalence, The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present, by Zvi Gitelman. New York: Schocken. 336 pp. $39.95. For nearly 20 years, Soviet Jews have rallied to leave a country that does not allow them to preserve their cultural or religious traditions. And they have achieved tangible success, gaining exit visas for more than 270,000.

But the Jewish emigration movement should not be regarded as a momentary episode in Soviet history. As ``A Century of Ambivalence'' vividly demonstrates, it is one more attempt in a long, often tragic history to resolve the fate of a unique community.

Based on resources of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, which includes nearly 10,000 photographs on Russian and Soviet Jewish history, Prof. Zvi Gitelman has put together a haunting collection of photographs evoking relentless pain and lost possibilities. There are images of Jewish tradesmen in poor and remote shtetls, the family of composer Aaron Copland on the eve of their departure for America, Yiddish and Hebrew poets, schools and synagogues, images from czarist pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust, and photographs of well-known Yiddish writers who were executed under Stalin. Many of the photographs are rare, but there is never a hint of nostalgia for the life most American Jewish families left behind when they arrived here.

``A Century of Ambivalence'' accompanies an ambitious exhibition of photographs that recently opened in New York's Jewish Museum, where it will run through June 19. The text of this catalog, as prepared by Gitelman, provides a useful summary of Russian Jewish history, reflecting a sound judgment of what needs to be highlighted in this complex historical drama. He leads us from the first sizable communities to fall within the Russian empire in the 18th century, to efforts of several czars to persecute Jews and limit their presence within Russian society. With Nicholas II's abdication and the successful Bolshevik takeover in 1917, Jews faced an even more troubling period of secularization and repression.

The issues and dilemmas aroused in recent years - whether Soviet Jews should quietly conform, work to reform society, or leave altogether - have been fundamental questions for at least 100 years, when Jews first entered secular professions and revolutionary ferment began to challenge the autocracy. As Gitelman makes clear, changes in the broader community were made more complex by developments within the Jewish ghettos, particularly the Haskalah movement, which encouraged Jews to adopt modern customs and learn the language of their respective countries, and the Zionist movement, which mobilized Jews throughout the Russian empire to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Gitelman does not avoid difficult issues. Jewish Communists like Moishe Litvakov, who had studied Yiddish and Hebrew, led efforts in the 1920s to eradicate Jewish religious life, outlaw the Hebrew language, and create a thoroughly secular, pro-Communist, Yiddish culture. This material, for many Western readers, will be the hardest to fathom, but it is to Gitelman's credit that he fully explains how ideological fervor and personal ambition spurred on such morally dubious activity among Jews themselves.

I have only two reservations about his historical account. In discussing the notorious ``Doctors' Plot'' of 1953, when Stalin accused Jewish physicians of trying to poison Kremlin officials, Gitelman mentions a letter circulated among Jewish cultural figures, asking Stalin to save the country's Jews by exiling them to Central Asia and Siberia. Gitelman wonders if this letter really existed. But several participants have verified the episode, and the father of Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, who worked at a Leningrad newspaper, saw a typeset copy with the names of numerous prominent Jews underneath, including that of the writer Ilya Ehrenburg, who had twice refused to sign. (His name was included without his permission.) Only Stalin's death in March 1953 prevented the letter's publication and the mass deportation of Jews to barracks that had already been prepared for them.

In addition, when Gitelman discusses the revival of Jewish national feeling after the Six-Day War in June 1967, he neglects to mention the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia the following year. But this event, above all others, convinced numerous assimilated Jewish dissidents that it was useless to try to reform Soviet society. Their ensuing alliance with more traditional Jews in Georgia and the Baltic republics helped to sustain the Jewish emigration movement in its initial years.

It is appropriate to wonder how much longer Jewish history will continue in the Soviet Union. Near the turn of the century, the czarist adviser Konstantin Pobedonostsev is said to have predicted the demise of Russian Jewry: One-third would be killed, one-third would convert to Christianity, and one-third made to leave forever. There were then 5 million Jews in the Russian empire, making it the largest Jewish community in the world. There are only 2 million left today, facing equally relentless pressures to assimilate.

What is tragically ironic is that Jews have always responded favorably to Russian culture and, given the opportunity, have made genuine contributions to art, literature, and music. The painters Isaac Levitan and Marc Chagall, the writers Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya - some remained and flourished, others emigrated; Babel and Mandelstam perished under Stalin.

``What can one do,'' asked the Russian Jew Lev Levanda 100 years ago, ``if those with whom one wants to so merge shun the merger ... with crowbars and clubs in their hands?''

Joshua Rubenstein is Northeast regional director of Amnesty International USA and author of ``Soviet Dissidents, Their Struggle for Human Rights.''

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