Julius Margolin’s Journey

Review of Julius Margolin’s Journey to the Land of the Zeks and Back: A Memoir of the Gulag translated by Stefani Hoffman, published by Oxford University Press, pp.640

You have to touch death to know what life is”, Julius Margolin wrote in Tel Aviv in 1946, after seven years in Stalin’s Gulag. His was one of the very first books to be published about the parallel, unseen Soviet Union. Multitudes perished, but Margolin, a Polish-Jewish intellectual, survived thanks to sheer luck, his proficiency in languages, his friendship with doctors – and his belief in “the power of words” to argue his corner. After more than seventy years, this is the first time that an account of his harrowing sojourn in the land of the “zeks”, the universe of Gulag prisoners, has been published in English translation.

In 1936, Margolin and his family emigrated from Poland to Palestine under the British Mandate, but he had to borrow £1,000 to pay for the visas. He subsequently returned to Poland to work off the debt by managing a textile plant in Łódź. He was due to return to his family on September 3, 1939 – two days after Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, Stalin devoured the eastern half of Poland. The unhelpful British Consulate in Moscow now received an order not to issue any more visas. The Rumanians refused entry to Jews. Margolin’s Tel Aviv identity card, issued by the British adminis- tration, did not protect him – the Soviets labelled him “the Englishman”. Margolin was sentenced to five years for passport violations because he was a citizen of a country, Poland, that no longer existed.

After several weeks in the “wandering coffin” of his train, Margolin arrived at his camp when the day began at five in the morning with the felling of trees in winter temperatures of -30°C. Margolin describes in absorbing detail the minutiae of the process through which human beings were gradually reduced to hungry beasts, “labouring machines” for their bosses. Many arrivals were unused to such arduous labour, whether they were the wives of Polish aristocrats or Hasidic Jews from Złoczów – and died like flies. Devout Russian Christians, “the little Christs”, refused to work on Sundays – and were shot. Camp women became prostitutes to survive. If they became pregnant, their babies were taken from them after birth. Only the “urki”, Russian criminals, fared well – no one dared to oppose them when they stole at will.

This is a book that demands to be read. The celebrated historian Timothy Snyder comments in his introduction that “memory is empty without witnesses”. Fifty years after his death, Julius Margolin is finally testifying to the English-speaking world.

Times Literary Supplement 5 February 2021

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