I collect stories of reading in extremis, of people who find, smuggle or copy books in circumstances where they are otherwise scarce or forbidden. I’ve written of Eric Hoffer discovering Montaigne’s essays while he was a migrant farm worker, and of Andrei Sinyavsky’s account of prisoners in a Soviet labor camp secretly transcribing scripture. The poet Israel Emiot contributes a similar story in The Birobidzhan Affair: A Yiddish Writer in Siberia (trans. Max Rosenfeld, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981).
Emiot (a pseudonym; his given name was Melekh Yanovsky) was born near Warsaw to a Hasidic family in 1909. He was largely self-educated, wrote for Orthodox Jewish journals in Poland, and fled to the Soviet Union after the Nazi invasion in 1939. His mother was murdered by the Nazis. He worked as a journalist and was sent by the Soviet Joint Anti-Fascist Committee to Birobidjhan. In 1944, near the start of Stalin’s purge of Jewish artists and intellectuals, Emiot was given a ten-year sentence for “internationalism” (that is, being a Jew) and sent to a camp in the Siberian Gulag. He served seven years and was released after Khrushchev came to power. Emiot emigrated to the U.S. in 1958, settled in Rochester, N.Y., and died there in 1978.
Emiot’s memoir, written in Yiddish, was serialized in the New York Jewish Daily Forward in 1959. Late in the book he describes the Artists’ Brigade, inmates from neighboring camps who were musicians and actors, and were permitted to perform for their fellow prisoners. Among them was a Latvian violinist who had been sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor for listening to Voice of Israel broadcasts: “He told us that through all his years in captivity he had continued his studies. He read his books diligently on the train while they were travelling from place to place. He begged us to lend him whatever important books we had among our belongings.” A professor gives the violinist three “philosophical works,” and he is so moved by the gift he makes a speech:
“My dear fellow Jews, I have not yet told you about the most precious possession I brought with me, a small book printed in Yiddish. I would find it extremely painful to part with this book. It is Sholom Aleichem’s beautiful story, Shir Ha-shirim (Song of Songs), printed by the Moscow State Publishing House before the recent pogrom of Yiddish literature. I’ve read it more than a dozen times. Whenever I don’t have the time to sit and read it through from beginning to end, I turn the pages for the pleasure of looking at the Yiddish letters. Many Jews in the camps have begged me for the opportunity to look at this book. I cannot even think of parting with it, but I will gladly lend it to you so you can copy it over, and the next time I come here you can return it to me.”
Emiot says the prisoners assign the “sacred task” of copying the book to two men with “clear, graceful handwriting.” The job was “risky business,” so it was done late at night, “hidden from prying eyes.” The result was jubilation among the prisoners: “The joy this manuscript brought to the Jews in the camp is indescribable. It was the first Yiddish book we had seen in years. . . . Enslaved Jews read Sholom Aleichem’s words and laughed through their tears.” Emiot concludes his chapter by describing the Latvian violinist as one of the “unsung heroes in the struggle for modern Jewish culture.”
[I was reminded of Chekhov’s generous dealings with Sholom Aleichem.]