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A Passage to Israel

A new graphic memoir recalls the story of a rabbi who traveled to the Soviet Union in 1965 to investigate the country’s treatment of Jews, and ended up helping one family escape

by
Carol Ungar
May 24, 2022
West Margin Press
From ‘A Visit to Moscow,’ written by Anna Olswanger and based on a story by Rabbi Rafael Grossman, illustrated by Yevgenia NaybergWest Margin Press
West Margin Press
From ‘A Visit to Moscow,’ written by Anna Olswanger and based on a story by Rabbi Rafael Grossman, illustrated by Yevgenia NaybergWest Margin Press

In the summer of 1965, nine Orthodox rabbis traveled to the former Soviet Union. They weren’t ordinary tourists. They had been sent by the Rabbinical Council of America with a mission: to investigate the murmurs that had begun reaching the West about Soviet mistreatment of Jews.

In those years, peering behind the Iron Curtain meant being escorted by a government guide who also worked for the KGB, and sleeping in a bugged hotel room. As one would imagine, only a small minority of intrepid tourists dared to make this trip. The rabbis’ journey proved such a novelty that The New York Times reported on it.

There were no lazy days wandering around Moscow, no independent explorations; to go off on one’s own was to risk expulsion, beating, or both. Yet one day, feigning illness, Rabbi Rafael Grossman—then the rabbi of a synagogue in Long Branch, New Jersey—left the group. He had his own private agenda: to locate a congregant’s long-lost brother. Lacking fluency in the Russian language or a sense of Moscow’s geography, and relying only on an address scrawled on the back of a 10-year-old envelope and the efficacy of his own prayers, he succeeded.

“My father had a lot of chutzpah,” recalled Grossman’s son Hillel, a New York psychiatrist. “My father also cared a great deal about the individual.”

At first, the congregant’s brother’s family wouldn’t open the door; they feared that the rabbi was a KGB dupe. Speaking in fluent Yiddish, which at that time was still Ashkenazi Jewry’s lingua franca, the rabbi eventually won their trust.

Inside their apartment, Grossman discovered another surprise: the man’s young son, whom the man and his wife had been raising inside the confines of the apartment, home-schooling him, never allowing him to play with his peers—all this to escape the sting of Soviet antisemitism. Initially, the rabbi was shocked—situations like this usually point to child abuse—but he quickly realized that these parents were acting out of love.

“This wasn’t a recommended child-rearing practice,” Hillel told me, “but it was undertaken under extraordinary circumstances for extolled purposes.”

The couple swore Grossman to secrecy; they were terrified that the communist authorities could take away their son and send them to Siberia. But the rabbi felt compelled to violate his oath. From his home in the U.S., he mounted a private lobbying campaign. With the help of several prominent members of Congress, he secured exit visas and the family moved to Israel. But he never shared their names publicly.

This story has now been retold in an elegantly written and illustrated graphic novel by author and literary agent Anna Olswanger and award-winning illustrator Yevgenia Nayberg. Published by West Margin Press, A Visit to Moscow is scheduled for release on May 24.

Olswanger, who was Grossman’s congregant at his next pulpit in Memphis as well as his editor, first heard the story back in the 1980s while helping him write a Holocaust novel. That novel was never completed, but the story stuck in her head. A decade later, she rewrote it as an adult short story but that genre didn’t feel right and she put it aside. Later on, she turned it into a picture book, which didn’t prove to be commercially viable. She put the story away but it continued to haunt her.

After Grossman’s death in 2018, the rabbi’s daughter presented Olswanger with a box of the rabbi’s writings, including that long-forgotten novel. ”I hadn’t thought about the manuscript for years,” said Olswanger. She began to reread. At the same time, she dug out the notes from her own files. “I realized that I had lost the thread of what had really happened. Was I reading fact or fiction?” The rabbi had known the family and kept in touch with them but Olswanger didn’t know their names, so she couldn’t follow up or confirm details. She tried to track them down but couldn’t, she said, because the Israeli government’s aliyah records are sealed.

Her editor’s suggestion to call it “historical fiction” propelled her to move forward, recasting the story as a graphic novel. As a literary agent, Olswanger had successfully sold graphic novels for her clients. “That seemed like the right format,” she said.

For the art, she called on Nayberg. Herself a Soviet Jew, Nayberg was born in Kyiv when it was still part of the USSR. “The story felt familiar to me,” said Nayberg. She researched using old photographs as well as Soviet film noir. In her glowing digital illustrations, Nayberg captures the beauty and horror of that time.

In real life, the family’s son was killed while on reserve duty in Lebanon in the early 1990s. In the book, the story opens after the death of that son (here, named Zev), as he recalls events from beyond the grave. This gives the book a dreamy and almost surreal quality. “He thinks he’s looking down from heaven,” Olswanger explained. “Then he hears a voice and follows it. It leads him to Rabbi Grossman seated at his Shabbat table with his family, about to share the story.”

In real life, Grossman used the story to highlight the plight of Soviet Jewry and to reinforce Jewish identity. “I heard it throughout my childhood at college campus kumsitzes and speeches,” said Hillel.

Almost a half-century later, Hillel can still picture an especially emotional retelling that took place at a National Conference of Synagogue Youth Shabbaton. “My father stood in the center of a circle of teenagers, referring to his promise to keep quiet about the boy.” He’d asked them rhetorically: “If I swore not to tell, why am I telling you?” As Hillel recalled, “When he ended with a description of the boy’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall the entire room was in tears.”

That fateful Moscow trip inspired Grossman to take up the cause of Soviet Jewry. He later spoke at Soviet Jewry rallies across the U.S., often appearing together with his dear friend and former Lakewood Yeshiva classmate Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was also known for his Soviet Jewry activism. “When you heard my father speak, you wanted to go to Moscow,” said Hillel.

To those who knew him, that wasn’t a surprise. The rabbi had imbibed the message of activism from his cousin, the famed female partisan and later Knesset member Chaike Grossman, and from his rabbinic mentor, Rabbi Yisrael Gustman. A prominent scholar in prewar Vilna, Gustman escaped to the forest to become a partisan. “He even killed Nazis,” said Hillel. After the war, Gustman led yeshivahs in Brooklyn and finally in Jerusalem.

Sadly, the events of these years have been forgotten. “People don’t realize what Soviet Jews suffered,” said Olswanger. “I hope that this book will increase awareness of this period.”

As for whether the story itself is, in fact, fiction or nonfiction, or some combination of the two, this is still not certain. “The details may never be clear,” admitted Olswanger. Despite her uncertainty, however, she senses a truthfulness to the story. “Someday I hope to discover the boy’s name and where in Israel his family is living,” she told me. “I would like to share A Visit to Moscow with them and tell the boy’s children how much I admired their father and grandparents for withstanding Soviet repression and for trusting in Rabbi Grossman.”

Carol Ungar is the author of Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What It Means, and a prize-winning writer who blogs about traditional Jewish food at Kosher Home Cooking.