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Posted on 12/07/2001 10:15:51 PM PST by madrussian
Many of the Jewish immigrants who reached the United States during the great immigration of 1881-1914 were believers in socialism, and ardent supporters of trade unions and other pro-labor organizations. The Russian Revolution in 1917 strengthened their communist fervor: Quite a few were convinced that the "days of the messiah" had come and a just society would soon arise in the Soviet Union where Jews could fulfil their duty as Soviet citizens.
And yet hardly any of them went so far as to return to their land of birth. Most preferred to continue their pursuit of the American dream, according to which every immigrant laborer could get ahead, establish himself financially, and give his American-born children an education that would enable them to be president of the United States one day. For the majority, the dream of financial prosperity vanished within a decade, as the Great Depression left tens of thousands of people dying of hunger and created unemployment on a scale unknown since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
This was the atmosphere in which Mary Leder's parents decided to return to the Soviet Union and try their luck in the Jewish autonomous republic of Birobidzhan. The Leders were devoted communists, and their daughter, Mary, born in the United States, joined the American communist movement at the age of 15, after the family moved from the East Coast to California in search of employment.
In October 1929, more than a year before the Wall Street stock market crash, the Leders were already feeling the pinch. The father, a builder by profession, was finding it difficult to sell houses. By 1931, it was clear that the move to California was not a success. Mary's parents envisaged a brighter future in the Jewish socialist homeland Josef Stalin was anxious to establish in the eastern republic of Birobidzhan.
Mary's reaction was one of shock: What connection did she have with a faraway country whose language she did not speak? As a girl who had grown up without any formal ties to Judaism, what interest could she possibly have in any kind of Jewish homeland, even a socialist one? Although she was a supporter of the Soviet Union and communism, Mary, who had dreamed of going to college and becoming a journalist, was devastated. Realizing that she could not remain alone in the United States, the teenager informed her parents that she would accompany them, but not for long. When she turned 18, she said, she would go back to America.
This book is a kind of diary kept by Mary Leder from the day she set sail for Japan in the company of her parents, en route to Soviet Russia, until her return to the United States 30 years later. After several weeks with her family, she decided that Birobidzhan was not for her. She asked to stay with relatives in Moscow, hoping to learn a profession there. Not wanting to be a burden to her aunt and uncle, she ended up joining a commune of young people, with whom she lived and worked for several years.
Meanwhile, her parents in Birobidzhan decided to wind up the Soviet chapter of their lives and go back to the United States.
Mary, now 18, chose to stay behind and become a Soviet citizen as a first step toward finding employment. Hoping that Mary would soon rejoin them, her parents and younger siblings departed for America. Towards the end of the 1930s, Mary went to work for a foreign language publishing house, where the Soviet authorities took advantage of her skills and those of other foreign citizens residing in the Soviet Union. Later, she even received spy training, but the project through which she was being sent to America was cancelled at the last minute.
After returning to her former job, Mary married Abraham, a Jew from Rostov, and gave birth to a daughter. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Mary and Abraham fled to a small town in the Volga region together with many other families. During that time, their young daughter became ill and died. When the couple eventually moved back to the capital, they encountered blatant anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism that began to affect their personal and professional lives. These trends intensified in the 1950s, although Stalin died in 1953.
When Abraham succumbed to a serious illness in 1959, Mary applied for an exit visa: The time had come to reunite with her parents in the United States. It took several years before her dream came true. In 1965, at the age of 45, Mary returned to the land of her birth, where she lives until today.
Leder's book is built on contradictions and dissonance. The equation is supposed to balance out in the end, but it doesn't. Right from the beginning, we have the family's high hopes with respect to the communist world, where everyone is equal and has the same opportunities, regardless of religion or class. But the author is soon disappointed with Stalin's "Jewish republic," and before long, her parents are, too.
Next, the author decides that by joining a commune in Moscow, she will be able to move ahead in the Soviet system. Again, she sobers up quickly, her hopes for collectivism soon dashed. At spy school, as Leder dreams of using her fluent English to aid her new homeland, up pops an officer and advises her that when she gets to the United States as a Soviet agent, she should defect. Go live with your parents, he says. You aren't cut out to be a spy, and anyway, life in America is so much easier.
During World War II, Leder is fired by the hope that the Soviet nation is fighting fascism. In reality, she finds that Soviet society has turned its back on her due to anti-Semitism. Finally, she believes that she will be cared for by the communist system, that citizens will be provided with everything they need in the way of food, medical care and education. The truth is that she cannot even obtain the simple drugs that might have saved her husband's life.
Mary Leder's story is both fascinating and sad. It is written in a flowing style, without the abundance of detail that often makes memoirs hard to read. Reading this book, one cannot help reflecting on the courage of this girl, who embarks on the adventure of living apart from her parents in a foreign country and makes no special effort to join them when they pack up and go home. On the one hand, we gasp at the temerity of a 16-year-old who joins a commune in an unfamiliar land where she doesn't speak the language.
On the other, it is hard to accept her passivity with respect to returning to the bosom of her family. She does make several attempts to leave the Soviet Union, but one can certainly think of some channels she hasn't tried, and the same goes for her family. Is she harboring a secret anger at having to accompany her parents to the Soviet Union in the first place? Has she become swept up in an adventure that is more than she bargained for?
In a country where parents equip their kids trekking to the Far East with international cell phones and beg them to drop into an Internet cafe at least once a week to "touch base," the story of a family that moves from the United States to the Soviet Union and sends a 16-year-old daughter alone to the capital, ultimately saying goodbye for close to three decades - that is certainly a story worth reading and thinking about.
Let's hope that nowadays she writes books only.
How did you know that? Bought a book already?
That's what it says on the front flap:
"For much of the time she was an idealistic supporter of Soviet socialism and a dedicated member of the Young Communist League".
The number of Jews who returned to the Soviet Union in the 1930's is dwarfed by the number who left the Soviet Union before 1990 and returned to Russia after the fall of communism.
Just wondering what happened to poor Abraham. If I can read Mary's "idealistic" mind, she probably left him dying in the Soviet Union to go back to the country that she despised, good ol' USA.
Also, she must have joined the spy agency on her own, ready to spy on us. The citizens of the Soviet Union were not compelled to join the KGB or any other intelligence gathering organization. It was their own choice. What a scum.
You are confused, pogroms happened in isolated parts of the Russian Empire, like Ukraine. This story goes against the usual "Stalin was an anti-semite and Jews were victims in the Soviet Union" revisionist mantra.
Because that is where the Jews lived. Duh.
When the Russian revolution occurred in Moscow, there were almost no Jews living in Moscow.
Perhaps you are trying to blame Russians for the pogroms that didn't happen in Russia? LOL! You know they would have happened in Russia if the Jews had lived there, right?
When the Russian revolution occurred in Moscow, there were almost no Jews living in Moscow.
Not as many as in Ukraine, that's for sure. The February revolution removed the pale and made Jews free, and they repaid with overthrowing Provisional government.
I didn't blame the Russians for any pogroms on this thread.
The February revolution removed the pale and made Jews free, and they repaid with overthrowing Provisional government.
So between Feburary and October 1917, the Jews moved enmasse to Moscow, raised an army and overthrew the Kerensky government? Do you really believe something so absurd?
The fact is that most Jews (or at least, the small number who had any interest in Russian politics at all) supported the Kerensky government.
Or perhaps Thaddeus "Ted" Kascynski.