A playwright examines writer who fought Soviet system

The persecution of Ukrainian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel under Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s — also known as the “Great Terror” — is the subject of a new play, “Isaac Babel and the Black Sea,” by Tim McNeil, who also directs. The show is a workshop production of the Stella Adler Lab Theatre Company in Hollywood and runs through Sept. 13.

Babel is described by McNeil as “a pioneer of the short story.” Among his most celebrated works are “The Story of My Dovecot,” which deals with a 1905 pogrom and its effect on his family; “Red Cavalry,” based on his experiences as a journalist embedded with the 1st Cavalry Army in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War. In the latter, he reveals the brutalities perpetrated by both sides, particularly in the disputed area of Galicia, between Poland and Ukraine. There is also “The Odessa Tales,” a group of stories about a ghetto in Odessa and a Jewish gangster named Benya Krik.

Babel is depicted in the new play as being passionate to learn about everything, and McNeil says he originally was a supporter of the Russian Revolution.

“I think a lot of Jews at that particular moment in time saw communism as a way out of their second-class citizenship, and also a sort of utopian ideal that made sense to them,” McNeil said.

“But I think that Galicia and what he saw with the Cossack army sort of broke the idealism in him — the destruction of the shtetls and Jewish life in Galicia during the Polish-Soviet War, by the Russian army in general and the Polish army.”

Galicia has particular meaning for McNeil, who is not Jewish but has been married for 24 years to a Jewish woman whose family came from the area. 

“I love my wife, and I love her culture. And I just find it so different from my Presbyterian upbringing in the desire to learn, and the desire to understand, and the questions,” McNeil said. “I guess delving into Babel’s life and work represents a desire to learn more, too, for me personally, to learn more about that particular experience and specifically my wife’s heritage.”

In learning about Babel, McNeil had a limited amount of original material to use as reference. “There are some sources,” he said. “For instance, Antonina Pirozhkova [Babel’s common-law wife] wrote an autobiography about her life and her time with Babel. Plus, he had a diary that was published. Other than that, [there was] not that much.”

So, he said, “I took all of this information that I had, and then I decided to create a piece of imagination, trying to understand exactly who he is.”

As McNeils’s play begins, it is 1939, and Babel (Chervine Namani) is being interrogated by two investigators (Teo Celigo and Stephen Sitkowski)) of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Interspersed with the interrogation scenes — in which Babel is alternately cajoled and beaten by the officers — are passages from the author’s past, created by the playwright but based on items in Babel’s works. 

During his interrogation, he is accused of such crimes as being a terrorist in support of Stalin’s rival, Leon Trotsky, and of spying for France. The charges are obviously trumped up, but it doesn’t help that Babel is actually having an affair with the woman married to the head of the NKVD.

However, McNeil contends that, beyond the affair — which was historically real — Babel was criticized because he became relatively silent as a writer. In the 1930s, he was condemned for low productivity. He was reacting to Stalin’s restrictions, under which all artists had to glorify the working class and the Soviet system. As a result, Babel was not free to write about the flaws and
abuses he saw in that system, including the persecution of the more successful peasants in Ukraine under the collectivization
of farms.

“I believe he felt compromised that way,” McNeil said.

His relative silence was damning in Stalin’s eyes, McNeil believes, as was a public appearance at the Soviet Writers Congress. 

“There’s a speech that I have in the play that … was a powerful indictment — but subtle — of the system. He talks about, ‘We are denied one privilege: the ability to write badly,’ which got a lot of laughter from the audience,” McNeil said. 

“He was quite out front in a way that it was probably very difficult for him when he got home.”

The difficulties led to his ultimate execution, in secret, which is where the play ends. Historically, Babel then became a virtual non-person in the Soviet Union; his books were no longer available, and his name erased from all other publications. 

He was “rehabilitated” and cleared of all charges in the 1950s, when Nikita Khrushchev was in power. But it wasn’t until Glasnost and the breakup of the Soviet Union that the entire truth of his execution — followed by cremation and the burial of his ashes in a mass grave — was revealed.

As for the play, McNeil hopes that audiences leave with an appreciation for Babel as a seeker. 

“I think that’s a huge thing for us to take away from it,” McNeil said, “but also that he resisted, that he was, actually, in his own particular way, in his own mad way, he was a fighter against tyranny.” 

For tickets or information about “Isaac Babel and the Black Sea” at the Stella Adler Theatre, visit here.

Families reading together: Two summer novels for children

When was the last time your fifth grader read a book written in free verse? How about a children’s version of life in Stalinist Russia?  These two very unusual novels for young people from two Los Angeles children’s authors make excellent summer reads and particularly good discussion starters for families to read together.

Looking For Me… in This Great Big Family

by Betsy R. Rosenthal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, NY. $15.99)  Grades 4 – 7.

It’s not so easy to get children to read a book of poems. But there is a particular genre of children’s literature called free-verse novels that has been very successful in doing exactly that. These books offer up a succession of individual poems that tell an entire story. They contain fine characterization, tense plots, gripping conclusions, and very few words per page. They are considered perfect for reluctant readers, but also for literature lovers who like to linger on a good turn of phrase. Often these free verse novels have won the highest awards of children’s literature (see Karen Hesse’s, “Out of the Dust” or Margarita Engle’s “Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba”). Now Betsey Rosenthal, A Los Angeles author of delightful picture books, has hit the mark with her first novel, which she based on anecdotes from her mother’s poignant childhood in depression-era Baltimore.

The book is short, and each page is graced with a poem, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not—more often not. Each poem is titled and captures the distinct voice of 11-year-old Edith Paul, Rosenthal’s mother and the fourth of 12 siblings. “In my overcrowded family/ I’m just another face./ I’m just plain Edith/of no special place.”  As the young girl searches for her individual identity within her large and boisterous Jewish family, she also wonders about the type of person she can become. Rosenthal relies on extensive interviews with her mother, along with the many stories she was told as a child to recreate what life was like in the tumultuous depression years of 1936-37. This young girl sees herself only as she imagines others see her: as a “good little mother ” to her younger siblings, or a child worker in her gruff and distant father’s diner. When a caring teacher finds that spark within her that lights her way to imagining herself as the first of her family to go to college, she is able to break out of her musings about her invisibility and see into the future, knowing she is on her way “to being so much more/than just plain Edith/who’s number four.”

The Judaism practiced by Edith’s family will intrigue today’s children. Edith sincerely describes her struggles to fit in. She is pleased her family changed its name from Polansky to Paul and astonished to discover that a “dumb neighbor” thinks Jews have horns. She is also embarrassed at having to refuse a ham sandwich at a friend’s house, but then eats crab cakes with her sisters on a paper plate at home (“sometimes we cheat”). At Rosh Hashanah services, she wonders whether God is listening to her prayers (“Even though I don’t understand a word of it,/I like hearing the sounds—it’s like a visit with an old friend.”), and empathetically recounts the difficult choices made by her immigrant grandmother on the day she had to leave Russia for America.

Readers will particularly appreciate Rosenthal’s inclusion of an author’s note at the end of the book, including a black-and-white photo of young Edith Paul, along with a glossary of the Yiddish terms she has seamlessly woven within the text.

This beautifully written short poetic novel is a great choice for a young person to share with parents. Each poem is a little gem and readers will admire the author’s ability to be able to create entire characters out of just over 100 individual poems. Pair this one with Sydney Taylor’s classic, “All of a Kind Family,” for a take on what it was like to grow up in a Jewish family in the first half of the 20th century.

“Breaking Stalin’s Nose”

by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt and Co. 2011. $15.99) Grades 5 – 8

Artist Eugene Yelchin never imagined his first novel would win a Newbery honor medal, the highest award in children’s literature in the United States. Previously known as a fine artist before emigrating from the Soviet Union, Yelchin began illustrating for the Boston Globe and other magazines, and then moved on to picture book illustration. He illustrates his intriguing Kafkaesque novel for kids with engaging black-and-white graphite drawings that add immeasurably to the book’s disturbing atmosphere of Soviet life in the Stalinist era.

The story revolves around ten-year-old Sasha, who idolizes his father, a staunch communist, until events occur that make young Sasha question his own beliefs in the goodness of his perfect society. In fact, Yelchin dedicates the book to his own father, “who survived the Great Terror”.

In literature, a “dystopia” is defined as “an imaginary place in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.”  In fact, children’s literature is so full of novels describing horrific dystopian future societies, (see: “The Hunger Games” and practically every other popular YA novel) that it is astonishing that up until now, no one has yet tried to tackle this subject for children: a real life dystopic society that actually existed not so long ago. Yelchin’s short novel remarkably achieves that goal while at the same time it is deceiving in its simplicity. It begins: “My dad is a hero and a Communist and, more than anything, I want to be like him. I can never be like Comrade Stalin, of course. He’s our great Leader and Teacher.”

It must be hard for an American child who has never heard of the Soviet Union to understand just what happened there. Did children really inform on their parents? Did millions of people really revere their leader like a god? Did this beloved leader really kill his people ruthlessly while they blindly declared allegiance to him? It seems that it shouldn’t be a topic for a children’s book, but the way the author tackles the subject is appropriate and compelling and will leave young readers asking the right kind of questions about the past.

Yelchin’s narrative takes place over a two day period during the 1930’s; a period that condenses the entire Stalinist regime of terror into the experience of a young boy. The “large, happy family” life of young Sasha who lives together with 48 “hardworking, honest Soviet citizens” (who share a single communal kitchen and toilet) is shattered the day his father is arrested. He has been reported on by a neighbor who covets the extra space that will be gained when father and boy are removed. Sasha’s father’s final words to him as he is dragged away by guards are, “It’s more important to join the Pioneers than to have a father.”  The creepiness factor begins as the illustrations appear more ominous and Sasha now becomes a ward of the state. The boy must fend for himself in a place where informing on your friends and neighbors seems to be society’s highest objective. With a nod to the great Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, Yelchin narrates the various antics that ensue when Sasha accidentally knocks the nose off a plaster statue of Stalin while proudly swinging the patriotic banner of his beloved Pioneer movement.

By the end of the novel, Sasha’s eyes have been opened to reality and he begins to rethink his place not only within the Pioneer movement, but within the only world he knows.

The anti-Semitism Yelchin experienced as a child is relived through the experiences of Sasha’s young friend, “Four-Eyes Finkelstein”  who justifiably disobeys a teacher but is sent to the principal after a “democratic” vote by his classmates. The author explains in his afterword that “fear was passed on from generation to generation. It has been passed on to me, as well. This book is my attempt to expose and confront that fear. My family shared a communal apartment. My father was a devoted Communist. And like my main character, I, too, had to make a choice. My choice was about whether to leave the country of my birth.”

This serious book is so gripping that it will not leave your mind for quite a while. Children with no knowledge of the Stalinist regime will wonder about it (and maybe check online to find out more) while others will simply see it for the cautionary tale that it is. Either way, Yelchin’s award winner will serve as a “1984” for the grade school set and will be an important conversation starter that teaches the nature of innocence in a time of great evil.

Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.