Stories from the Gulag

SHORT STORIES (W THE LONG DEATH, by Yechezkel Pulerevitch. 293 pp (published in Israel by former Prisoners of Zion from the USSR).

AN AMERICAN IN THE GULAG, by Alexander Dolgun. 370 pages (Collins/Harvill) 370pp £4.50.

Yechezkel Pulerevitch was a member of Betar, the youth group of Herut, when the Red Army invaded Lithuania in 1940. Like thousands of other Zionists, he was swallowed up and transported to the islands of the Gulag Archipelago.


Seventeen years later, he emerged from the camps and began to fight for the right to emigrate to Israel. In 1965 he and his family left the USSR.

In Israel, Pulerevitch began to publish poetry in Hebrew and Yiddish about his camp experiences which were widely acclaimed. In 1968 tragedy struck once more when his only son, a volunteer medical officer in the Israeli army, went down in the submarine, Dakar.

Pulerevitch wrote his way out of sorrow with more stories and poems. This book is the English translation of a work that he wrote in 1969.

Pulerevitch tells of the misery of Jewish prisoners during the Second World War; how they died like flies without hope and were forgotten until comparatively recently. His intense national spirit kept him alive throughout all those black years. He even wrote to Stalin from his camp asking to be allowed to organise a Jewish army against Hitler.

He tells the story of the Polish Communist, Mikhail Gershevich, who found his way to Zion; the singing of patriotic songs about Israel by young Komsomol members; the engineer, Mikhail Masonik, charged as a Zionist just because he had read Feuchtwanger’s “War of the Jews”.

The few who survived until 1948, when the State of Israel was established, were given new hope by that event. They felt they had something to live for.

Although the English translation could be improved, Pulerevitch’s style shows through strongly. He is a gentle and soft-spoken man in spite of the tragedies that have interrupted his life. He is currently chairman of the organisation in Israel of former prisoners of Zion from the USSR. His spirit and righteousness create a very moving book.

Alexander Dolgun’s story is also emotionally exhausting, but in a different fashion. If Pulerevitch affects the sensibilities through his poetic descriptions, then Dolgun dishes out the facts American-style, measure for measure.

Alexander’s father was an American engineer who went to work in the Moscow Automotive Works in 1933. When Hitler invaded the USSR, he found himself forcibly drafted and unable to return to New York. Alex, an American citizen, had therefore spent some of his childhood years in the USSR when he began to work as a clerk in the American Embassy shortly after the War.

In 1948, the 22-year-old Alex was stopped in the street by a stranger. Major Kharritonov. The Ministry of State Security, had found Alexander Dolgun.

His voyage through the prisons and camps makes compelling reading. The psychological and physical tortures of the sadistic interrogators are described in terrifying detail.

Dolgun, however, was tough. Solzhenitsyn, who wrote about him in the first volume of the “Gulag Archipelago was particularly interested because Dolgun was the only person whom he had been able to find in his researches who has passed through the hell of the infamous Sukhanovka prison and survived.

In the camps, Dolgun was adept enough in learning an important profession. As a medical assistant and later as an unqualified doctor, he occupied a privileged position in the Gulag hierarchy which enabled him to pull through. Seven and a half years later, he was swept back to civilisation in the post-Stalin thaw.

His mother had spent four years in a mental asylum. His father had lost five years of his life for saying that Soviet cars were inferior to American cars. His parents were totally alienated from each other after their experiences and separated.

For the next 15 years, brother and sister, tried, from both ends, to secure an exit visa for Alex. The Dolguns are particularly scathing about the silence of the US State Department on the matter. Indeed it was only when Stella began a fully-fledged campaign at the end of the 1960s that the US Government moved off its diplomatic pedestal.

One day in January 1972 Alexander Dolgun stepped onto the tarmac of Kennedy Airport in New York. The long journey was over.

It had taken him just over 38 years to return to the land of his birth.

Jewish Observer July 1976

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