When World War II broke out in 1939, Julius Margolin had just returned to his native Poland from the Land of Israel—three years after making aliyah—to attend to some business. He soon found himself in the Soviet-occupied portion of the country and, the next year, was exiled to one of Stalin’s vast network of prison camps, where he remained until 1946, after which he returned to Palestine. According to the historian Timothy Snyder, Margolin’s memoir of this period is perhaps the very best personal account of the Gulag. Snyder writes in his foreword to the recently published English translation:
Margolin is a keen observer of what happened in eastern Poland under Soviet rule: the deportation of elites, the subjugation of the economy, the closing of all independent organizations. Many Jews wanted to go back [to the German-occupied portion of Poland]: “as late as spring 1940, Jews preferred the ghetto to the Soviet equality of rights.” Many Jews did in fact return. Those like Margolin who stayed were expected to take Soviet citizenship. Jews who did not were deported to special settlements in Soviet Kazakhstan and Siberia in June 1940. A few weeks after that, Margolin was sent to a camp in the Russian far north to fell trees.
During Margolin’s first year as a zek, [as the inmates were known], the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies. His forced labor served an economy that supplied the Wehrmacht. We might be tempted to think of this as ironic; for Margolin it was simply the end of his world: “Both sides were inhuman reflections of everything we held dear and sacred.” There was nothing surprising, for him, in “Russia’s alliance with Nazi Germany.” A Jew in Soviet confinement, he had to endure pro-Nazi propaganda: “The rare Soviet newspapers that landed in the camp were full of pro-German publicity.” The Soviet press was reprinting the speeches of Nazi dignitaries. “In line with Hitler’s successes,” Margolin recalls, “anti-Semitism increased in the camp.” Although he was a Polish Jew, and well aware of Polish anti-Semitism, no one called him a “kike” until he was in a Soviet camp.
Margolin, a philosopher by training, had much to say about the brutal horrors of the Gulag, but he also had some insight into the legions of fellow travelers and Soviet apologists among Western intellectuals:
After the war, Margolin read Jean-Paul Sartre and laughed at Sartre’s idea that alienation was something experienced by bourgeois French people. He saw Sartre’s complaint about the absence of absolute meaning in existence as a temptation to seek it in politics, in a system such as Communism. As a prediction of Sartre’s politics, this was correct. Margolin actually experienced something very much like a pure alienation and wrote about it with a skill that should have been humbling to those who wrote about what they did not know.
Read more on Tablet: https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/julius-margolin-timothy-snyder