By 1932, Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Forverts—America’s most significant Jewish newspaper—remained a committed socialist, but was also a fierce opponent of Soviet Communism, having realized early on that not only Stalin, but also Lenin and Trotsky, were unscrupulous tyrants. Seeking accurate information about the situation there, he sent the Ukrainian-born Jewish journalist Mendel Osherowitch to the USSR. Osherowitch’s dispatches were collected into a book, which was published the next year and, at long last, has been translated into English. Mark Glanville writes in his review:
Osherowitch’s honest account in direct, no-nonsense Yiddish (he spoke fluent Russian and Ukrainian, as well), superbly translated by Sharon Power, complements the harrowing contemporary testimony of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, whose reports of starvation and cannibalism in Ukraine were cynically dismissed. At the time, the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty concluded that “conditions are bad, but there is no famine” after what he deemed “exhaustive inquiries.” . . . Duranty’s credulous reporting satisfied not only the Russian authorities but a Roosevelt-led American administration keen to maintain friendly relations with Stalin in the face of developing threats from Germany and Japan. It also won Duranty a Pulitzer Prize. Osherowitch’s account remained unread by anyone outside the Yiddish-speaking community until now.
Osherowitch’s book not only bore rare eyewitness testimony to one of the worst atrocities in a barbarous century; it did so from the vantage point of a brother of two of the perpetrators. While [one brother], Buzi, worked for the secret police, Osherowitch’s brother Daniel was a pistol-toting bully whose task was to force peasants to hand over their precious grain at gunpoint. Osherowitch described him as “strong as iron, hardened, armed” before making a devastating observation: “Only barely, at the corner of his mouth, did you notice a smile, betraying a small trace of the good nature our family was known for.”
When he returned to his hometown of Trostianets, he found Jewish life changed beyond recognition. The klayzl (study hall) was now a cinema, the beit midrash a school for modern languages, the kloyz (which Powers renders as a “small synagogue, prayer and study house”) a bottle-cover factory. Only on the High Holy Days did the old shul fill, but many of the pious avoided it, afraid their presence there would compromise children who were party members. Yet for Jews, Osherowitch was frequently informed, Bolshevism had been entirely beneficial.