The Gates of November

The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak family (Secker and Warburg) by Chaim Potok

Ten years ago, the telephone rang in the Moscow apartment of Vladimir and Masha Slepak, veterans of the refusenik movement. They had finally been granted permission to emigrate to Israel.

It was the end of 17 years of harassment, imprisonment, exile and simply waiting. Their release was symbolic of the new mood of glasnost and perestroika and followed Natan Sharansky’s long walk to freedom a few months earlier.

Potok gently retells the struggle of the Jewish movement in Moscow as soon through the sufferings of one family – the hunger strikes, the countless meetings, with  foreigners and the 15 day stretches for ‘petty hooliganism’.

When the Slepaks draped a sheet over their balcony in central Moscow, thousands gathered below to read the slogan ‘Let us go to our son in Israel’. The crowd yelled: ‘call the executioners.’ The KGB responded by smashing both the apartment and the bedroom doors with axes in a frenzy of indignation.

Vladimir Slepak earned five years’ exile in the land of the Buryat nomads, who had probably never seen a Jew before.

What makes this book different from other “Soviet Jewry accounts, apart from Potok’s exquisite imagery, is the background history of the Slepak family — and particularly the relationship between Solomon, the father and leading Bolshevik, and Vladimir, the son and leading Zionist.

Every generation is made by the time in which it lives and the events which it experiences — and how much more so for Jews in the 20th century.

The grandfather was a melamed in Dubrovno in Belarus. His son rejected communal passivity and the acceptance of poverty and discrimination. He ran away, emigrated to the United States, became heavily Involved in trade union activity, returned to Russia in 1917 and ended up commanding an army of 10,000 in the service of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Known to his men as ‘Sam’, Solomon Slepak was ruthless in defence of the revolution, suppressing the Cossacks, slaughtering the Whites and murdering rivals who dated to criticise Trotsky and the political direction of the Bolsheviks.

He emerged from the blood-letting a stalwart of the new order served in Japan and China. The metamorphosis was complete when Solomon Izrailevitch became Semion Ignatievich. He named his children Vladimir (after Lenin) and Rosa (after Rosa Luxemburg).

By 1937, it had become apparent that this utopia was not meant for all. While Solomon Slepak ran International Tass, fellow old Bolsheviks were being rewarded with a bullet in the head or starvation in the Gulag.

For -some inexplicable reason, Slepak survived all this and brought up his son to believe in the correctness of the Soviet myths, the Molotov-Rilibentrop pact, the murder of Solomon Milhoels, even his own dismissal as a contributor to Pravda and lzvestia during Stalin’s last hate-filled years of state anti-Semitism.

The Doctors’ Plot proved to be the point of no return for the son when Solomon in a heated argument, quoted an old Russian- proverb, ‘Whenever you cut trees; chips will fly in all directions.’ When it was rumoured that Jews were being listed for possible deportation, Solomon later admitted to Vladimir that he had seen his own name on such a list. Yet he never uttered a word of protest or warned his family. No wonder so many of the succeeding generation became refuseniks and dissidents.

This is very much a human story rather than a political history, which Chaim Potok tells with respect for the facts and a writer’s desire to tell an important story of decent, caring Jews who have been violently tossed by the turbulent tides of this century.

Jewish Chronicle 19 December 1997

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