In the winter of 1932, Mendel Osherowitch went on assignment to the USSR for Forverts, a New York City-based Yiddish newspaper boasting a daily circulation of 275,000. Osherowitch had been born in Trostianets, in Ukraine, before the Great War, and spoke Yiddish, Ukrainian and Russian like the native he was. Over several months, he astutely recorded life under Communist rule and found it markedly dysfunctional – sometimes criminal. Hordes of peasants could be seen clambering onto trains, escaping into the cities in an anguished search for bread. Stories circulated about rural uprisings, brutally suppressed. Parents were haunted by worries that their children would betray them to the GPU, the dreaded secret police. Tensions were growing between the beneficiaries of Bolshevik rule and those for whom it was an enervating nightmare. Meanwhile, Western journalists, self-sequestered in Moscow, weren’t reporting on any of it.
What puzzled Osherowitch most, however, was how his beloved Ukraine, once Europe’s breadbasket, was being undone: “Ukraine was already experiencing an appalling famine,” he wrote in his 1933 book, How People Live in Soviet Russia – which was translated from the original Yiddish into English for the first time this year. “Millions of people had been driven to the greatest desperation, to a life sometimes even worse than death. Plagues circulated in villages and in the towns. People died because they could no longer endure their terrible hunger… This harrowing state of affairs tore at one’s heart.”
It got worse. Demographers estimate the excess death rate in February and March of 1932 was around 600 people daily. A year or so later, it had metastasized to 9,000 souls a day. By late spring of 1933, more than four million Ukrainians had perished, making the Great Famine, or Holodomor – the victims of which are mourned on the fourth Saturday of November – one of the worst genocides to befoul the 20th century.
Osherowitch wrote of suffering almost complete mental exhaustion from listening to tales of woe from his Jewish interlocutors, who implored him to alert overseas relatives of their plight and begged for aid. Only younger Jews boasted of the Revolution’s achievements, went on about how the Soviet Union was overtaking and would soon surpass the United States, insisted an even better future would come. What separated them from those left-leaning Jews and fellow travellers in North America who rejected Osherowitch’s portrayal of Soviet realities was that those in the “old country” could not deny their circumstances were harsh – after all, Osherowitch was right there among them, could see what their existence was like for himself. Yet they swore their sacrifices were necessary for the messianic chore of “building socialism.”
Portentous omens were appearing. The rural Jewish community was shrinking through migration to the big cities. Osherowitch’s younger brother, Buzi, left to join the GPU. Another brother, Daniel, stayed home and became an armed enforcer of collectivization – one of the thugs taking grain from starving peasants at Moscow’s command. While everyone in the countryside suffered, the primary victims were Ukrainians, some of whom had begun questioning whose side their Jewish neighbours were on. In the town of Haisyn, Osherowitch heard that Ukrainians had called upon local Jews to join them in breaking down a government granary’s gates. If they refused, they were warned, their choice would not be forgotten and would someday be avenged.
Despite writing about how many Jews benefitted from the Revolution – pogroms had been suppressed, and there was almost unrestricted social mobility, including opportunities for joining the Communist Party – Osherowitch’s book received a mixed reception, for he insisted these erstwhile gains came at a great price. Jewish religious and cultural institutions were sapped, the Yiddish press and arts reduced to little more than tools for propagating Soviet ideology.
So, for almost nine decades, his Yiddish-language book was forgotten. Even the Ukrainian-American diaspora never learned of the horrors he saw.
Osherowitch returned to New York “changed … more politically aware.” He continued working for Forverts and wrote his book, yet never tried to alert a wider English-language audience to what was happening in Soviet Ukraine, never went beyond telling kith and kin. And since more than a few of the latter chose to stay ignorant, indifferent or even hostile to his cri de coeur, Osherowitch’s words were like the seeds Jesus spoke of in the New Testament parable: Sown onto rocky ground, they withered; cast among thorns, they choked.
Others tried to get the story out. Malcolm Muggeridge, Canadian reporter Rhea Clyman and Gareth Jones, an intrepid young Welsh journalist, all wrote about the famine, recognizing it as a Stalinist crime against humanity. Yet influential forces dismissed their reportage as “fake news” – nothing more than exaggerated, anti-Soviet propaganda. Walter Duranty of The New York Times was the leading obfuscator. Adroitly and mendaciously, he entombed truth.
Why did Osherowitch not speak up? Did he fall into shocked silence after being denounced by his brothers? Was he hushed after learning family members had been repressed, fearing they would fare worse if he gave public witness? We’ll never know. All that’s certain is that he did not. Though living in New York and working for a socialist newspaper, he remained conspicuously silent even as Duranty contested Jones’s stories about the famine in the pages of The Times. We don’t know why. Nor can we judge him today for not doing more then.
Only now, with the English translation of How People Live in Soviet Russia – ably translated by Sharon Power – has his jeremiad been shared.
Osherowitch’s account of the mounting misery facing Jews and Gentiles, non-Ukrainians and Ukrainians, penned on the very eve of a politically engineered famine that would consume millions of lives, and whose consequences would overwhelm many survivors – perpetrators, victims and bystanders alike – was given only to a chosen few. Finally, it has reached a wider audience. Lamentably, too many decades too late.
Professor Lubomyr Luciuk teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada. He edited the first English-language edition of Mendel Osherowitch’s How People Live in Soviet Russia (Kashtan Press, 2020), translated from Yiddish by Sharon Power.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.