The Beginning by David Markish

When the Soviets finally allowed some Jewish emigration from the USSR, they also ensured the expulsion of some of their greatest literary talents, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Although there is now a considerable wealth of contemporary Russian language writers in thewest, very little is heard of specifically Jewish writers from the USSR.

David Markish’s book is perhaps one of the first works from ex-Soviet Jews in Israel to reach the English speaking world. Apart from Ephraim Savela and Sylva Darel, no one has characterised the heritage of Soviet Jewry in fictionalised form.

Yet the amount of writing taking place in Israel at present by Soviet Jews is phenomenal. Last summer in Israel, in nearly every home of a soviet Jew that I visited, I found someone writing his memoirs or a fictionalised version.

Under the indirect guiding influence of Solzhenitsyn, there is obviously a great desire in Israel to tell the outside world about the tragedy of Soviet Jewry. Solzhenitsyn and the others have written about the general sufferings in the Gulag Archipelago; now the son of a famous Yiddish writer, has written specifically about the Jewish catastrophe.

His book is a thinly disguised account of his own odyssey .the plot is set in 1952 as the growing persecution of the Jews was reaching its crescendo under Stalin. The principal character is Simon Ashkenazy, a 15-year-old Jewish boy whose father had been arrested as an enemy of the people in 1949. The family is exiled to Djety-Su, a backwater beyond nowhere Central Asia.

Markish reveals his real ability as a writer in unravelling the complex society in Djety-Su, the wise fatherly figure; the Greeks and the Koreans; the Jewish woman lawyer; the stupid and corrupt head of the local secret police; the fiercely nationalistic Chechens. Together they form a microcosm of the frustrations of Soviet citizens during the black years.

Markish vividly expresses the fear of the Jews at the growing tide of anti-Semitism of the Doctors Plot and the rumours about the mass deportation of the Jews come just another page in the history books. Markish, however, is able to convey to the reader the feeling of the ordinary Jew during that frightening time without being over-sentimental or hysterical.

Indeed, by deliberately underplaying the emotional aspect of the Jewish issue, he transmits the essence of the problem of anti-Semitism. In particular, he cleverly employs the flashback technique. He depicts other 15-year-old Simons in different epochs of history such as the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the Inquisition.

Whether as an angry observer of the Roman triumph or as a silent Marrano, the message of survival of the Jewish people and bearing witness comes through clearly.

Markish wants to show that the USSR of 1953 was just a page in the log-book of persecution of the Jews. Perhaps he does this too simplistically, for at times there seems to be little difference between the Jews of ancient Jerusalem and those of modern Petticoat lane.

Simon Ashkenazy’s identification as a Jew helps him to survive in the multi-national jungle of Djety-Su. He is inspired by his idealistic dream of returning to the re-established Jewish state thousands of miles away. Markish is best at writing about Simon’s coming of age and his adaptation to Djety-Su and its inhabitants.


The author does not suffer from the heaviness of attention to detail of Solzhenitsyn on subject of the Stalinist labour camps. This perhaps creates the illusion of too light an approach to such a serious subject, yet the book will certainly appeal to the wider Jewish community.

This is the first of a trilogy, based on his own life. After an enthralling beginning, I await the second book with great enthusiasm.

Jewish Observer 28 May 1976

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