Rav Huna said in the name of Bar Kappara: Israel was redeemed from Egypt … because they did not change their names: they went down as Reuven and Shimon, and they returned as Reuven and Shimon.
—Midrash Rabbah Vayikra
A peaceful scene greeted me in Russia in mid-February 2022, nine days before Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. In a Russian forest in winter, there were classic white birches interspersed with spruces and towering pines and the pleasant, familiar scent of smoke coming from a distant chimney. Clean snow blanketed everything. A friend had picked me up at the airport and we drove to the 24th kilometer marker on the Kaluga highway, just south of Moscow. We arrived at a tree-filled compound surrounded by an old green wooden fence. A visitor to Kommunarka might mistake it for a public park or nature conservancy, if not for the words on the small metal placard affixed to the front gate: “On this ground lie thousands of victims of political terror from the years 1930–1950. In their everlasting memory!”
Not many people have ever heard of Stalin’s shooting grounds, but Kommunarka—also the name of the broader suburb, and best known for its Covid hospital—and its nearby counterpart, Butovo, are sites of the execution and burial of at least 27,000 of Stalin’s victims, the vast majority of them killed during the Great Terror he launched in the summer of 1937 and concluded in the fall of 1938. Decades after they’d gone silent, the Soviet secret police continued closely guarding their secret execution zones, ensuring that no one entered or even knew of them. Eventually, the KGB itself could not remember what it was they were guarding.
Neither the public nor scholars knew of the existence of these zones until the early 1990s. Not even the late Robert Conquest, who didn’t mention either of them in the 1990 reissue of The Great Terror, the historian’s essential work on Stalin’s purges. After the fall of Communism, the KGB’s Russian successor service, the FSB, continued guarding the sites until transferring them to the Russian Orthodox Church—Butovo in 1995 and Kommunarka in 1999. That’s when the little metal placard was first placed at the gates of Kommunarka, and its vagueness is testament to how little was known about these killing fields even at that late date.
With limited time in Moscow, I chose to go to Kommunarka because somewhere in its woods is the final resting place of my great-grandfather, a Russian Jew named Solomon Levenson.
The Jewish people are no strangers to sites of mass murder, and places such as Babi Yar and the smokestacks of Auschwitz testify to something deeply sacred. The Nazis exterminated Jews out of base, ancient hatred; their victims were martyred together, sanctifying God’s name—as Jews and because they were Jews. Stalin’s murders of Jews on the other hand, different in scope and methods from Hitler’s, were carried out in the name of a progressive idea: Marx and Lenin’s vision for mankind. Though many thousands of Jews lie among the dead in these killing fields, it is here and only here that the Communist vision of a classless and nationless society comes to fruition.
“Hitler wanted to destroy us physically,” the martyred Soviet Yiddish poet Peretz Markish remarked shortly before his own 1949 arrest. “Stalin wants to do it spiritually.”
In this way, Communism represents a uniquely horrifying chapter in Jewish history. From the Soviet Union’s earliest days, it waged a relentless war on the Jewish soul and kept at it for more than 70 years. Communism, by cutting off three generations of Soviet Jews from their religious life and heritage, attempted to rob them of their very essence. That’s what stands out about Stalin’s killing fields. Jews, these places declare, are no different.
“There exists,” the political theoretician Hans J. Morgenthau told Congress in 1971, “a spirit of terror and attack upon the very spiritual existence of the Soviet Jews which, while entirely different and less obvious in nature than was the Nazi persecution, may be no less painful for the souls of the individuals and no less disastrous for the survival of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union.”
In the face of such a tremendous force, it is natural that the vast majority of Soviet Jews could not maintain their religious observance, and it would have been perfectly logical had at least some large percentage not retained their basic identity as Jews. Yet, in blatant defiance of history’s forward march, when Soviet Jews finally began leaving the Soviet Union, they identified not as Soviet citizens of Jewish extraction, but as Soviet Jews. What explains this astounding fact—how did Soviet Jews remain Jews?
One difficulty in appreciating the terrible odds Soviet Jewry faced, and so the uniqueness of their survival, is that few have a conception of the overwhelming enormity of Bolshevik terror. Indeed, to this day very little has been published in English on the scope and mechanics of Stalin’s shooting grounds and mass graves. Which is why the silent forest of Kommunarka is a good place to start.
With the advent of Perestroika in the late 1980s, a new era of Soviet historiography began. Investigators of Soviet crimes, including the KGB’s own archivists, could now sift through newly opened KGB archives in search of the truth of the previous seven decades. Stalin’s Great Terror, which affected tens of millions of Soviet citizens, was naturally top of mind. “Throughout 1937 and 1938, there were on average nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 1,000 executions per day,” writes the historian Stephen Kotkin, who estimates that 830,000 people were killed by Stalin during those years. But researchers soon realized they were missing a critical piece of the puzzle.
Teams of historians working through the reams of paperwork had noticed that prior to 1937 all execution orders were accompanied by cremation or burial instructions, directing bodies, for example, to the cemetery at the former Donskoi Monastery, where the Soviet Union’s first crematorium was built in 1927. In the fall of 1937, however, precisely when arrests and executions began to skyrocket, the accompanying orders for burial disappeared. Where were the bodies?
This proved to be one of the darkest of all Soviet secrets, hidden even within the KGB itself. A slow, arduous hunt led historians to a handful of surviving eyewitnesses, including an old, retired officer of the NKVD, as the secret police was known during much of the Stalin era, with firsthand knowledge of these special zones. There’d long been whispers about Butovo—locals had forbidden their children from passing it on their way to school, telling them that it “was a bad place”—but it took a series of secretive interviews with a former NKVD commandant to confirm them. At the same time, he surprised everyone by revealing the existence of mass graves at Kommunarka as well. Still, mysteries abound. Archival documents published by Memorial, the Russian human-rights organization recently banned by Putin, detail the names of 6,609 individuals executed and/or buried at Kommunarka, and 20,675 at Butovo. But the real numbers at Kommunarka are believed to be closer to 10,000–14,000, and at Butovo in the range of 25,000–26,000.
Terror was from the start a central tool of revolution and governance for the Bolsheviks, and for the most part they executed people in prison basements and the like. But with the onset of the Great Terror and the massive flood of new arrests, the NKVD was forced to scale its operations. In response, the NKVD set up specially designated execution zones. Sites similar to those discovered in Moscow dot the entire former Soviet Union.
“It is precisely with the appearance of ‘execution zones’ that we attribute the absence of directions for burial or cremation in the documents of the NKVD beginning in the autumn of 1937,” wrote Arseny Roginsky, the late historian and chairman of Memorial. “The reason is obvious: The ‘zones’ … were specially designed for burials of the executed, in contrast to urban cemeteries or crematoria, and were under the direct jurisdiction of the same people who carried out the executions—the commandants of the NKVD … . In that case, formal directions for burial lost all meaning.” A serial killer with his own graveyard hardly needs tell himself where to bury his victims.
The Central NKVD operated in Moscow side by side with the city’s own regional NKVD. The majority of the Central NKVD’s charges were tried by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union, while the Moscow NKVD’s men and women were processed by Troikas or Dvoikas, extrajudicial NKVD commissions of three or even two “judges” invoked during the Great Terror to more rapidly sort through the throngs of the arrested. This same arrangement applied to Kommunarka and Butovo, which are only about a dozen kilometers away from each other. The former belonged to the Central NKVD and was where they took their people, while the latter was the purview of the Moscow NKVD.
Using this information as a starting point, historians were able to reverse engineer who’d been buried where. My great-grandfather Solomon Levenson, for example, was arrested by the NKVD in his Moscow apartment after midnight on February 6, 1938. The date was long burned into his family’s memory, including that of his daughter, Olga, my late grandmother. Through the 1990s, Memorial published long lists of Stalin’s victims drawn from NKVD documents, which most often included some basic details about each victim. It was here that my family learned some of what happened next: Levenson was charged with being a member of a counterrevolutionary organization, found guilty by the Military Collegium on June 20, 1938, and sentenced to “the highest form of punishment,” i.e., death. Since Levenson’s case had been handled by the Central NKVD and he’d been tried at the Military Collegium, it meant he was buried in their “cemetery,” Kommunarka.
As with almost all things Soviet, even this truth contains a lie. Though the Military Collegium was formally the highest court of military justice in the land, it didn’t actually make any decisions, these being reserved for Stalin and his inner circle. In the case of the Central NKVD at least, lists of names and suggested sentences were submitted for Stalin to sign off on prior to trials. Of the 383 lists dated between February 1937 and September 1938 found in the KGB archives (some are missing), Stalin’s signature appears on 362 of them. This was not merely pro forma. The despot famously went through massive amounts of paperwork, “devour[ing] the interrogation protocols,” as Kotkin put it. Thus some of the lists include his specific instructions for individuals still undergoing interrogation, such as “wait” to execute, or “beat [him]” or even “beat [him,] beat [him]!” As Arthur Koestler illustrated in Darkness at Noon, the Communist Party—History itself!—required a sufficient admission of guilt as the condemned’s last service to the revolution.
There were two categories of sentence: the first, execution; the second, 10 years imprisonment. On June 10, 1938, the Central NKVD sent Stalin lists containing 127 names, 122 of them—including Solomon Levenson—marked for death. Two signatures approving the sentences appear in blue pencil on the cover letter: Stalin’s and Vyacheslav Molotov’s.
Levenson was found guilty at this “trial” 10 days later, and, in accordance with the law, his sentence was carried out the very same day. It’s possible he was killed elsewhere in Moscow, but more likely that he was brought directly to Kommunarka and executed. It’s clear that’s where he was buried, and 83 years later, I became the first of his descendants to visit his gravesite.
It was Stalin who defined the USSR’s early policy of socialist development as “national in form and socialist in content,” and the fact is that ethnicity forever remained a vital point of biographical data in the Soviet Union. This is still reflected in the spare details included on Memorial’s lists of victims. Alongside Levenson’s year of birth, party-member status, and home address, the mini case file states that he was a Jew. I thought of this as I looked out into the woods and, per the ancient Jewish custom when visiting a cemetery, recited tehillim (psalms) for the souls of the departed.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which has cared for Kommunarka and Butovo since receiving them from the FSB, has constructed monasteries on each site. The firewood I smelled at Kommunarka came from the quaint wooden Sunday school built in recent years. Over time, a number of small memorials have gone up throughout Kommunarka, including one for the summarily executed government of Mongolia. There are also homemade, laminated posters and signs taped to trees or stuck into the ground by family members. In 2018, after years of debating how best to memorialize the dead, Memorial erected a simple wall made up of metal panels with the legal name, patronymic, and date of death of every victim known to have been executed and/or buried at Kommunarka. I had no problem finding my great-grandfather’s name on the panel, or that of his older brother, Mikhail.
Still, the air was crisp and the forest pleasant, and besides the hum of a distant highway, I heard only the fresh snow crunching beneath our feet. That Kommunarka is beautiful should come as no surprise. This was once the dacha of Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov’s immediate predecessor as head of the NKVD. Like Yezhov, Yagoda had faithfully executed Stalin’s bloody directives, but on March 28, 1937, just a few months after celebrating his 45th birthday with a big party at Kommunarka, he was arrested and his beloved dacha confiscated. The decision to turn the property into a shooting ground apparently began with an undated note from Yezhov to Stalin. “Yagoda’s dacha—for the Chekists,” he wrote, referring to purged personnel of the NKVD. The Communist Party consecrated the land as a cemetery on September 2, 1937, when eight former NKVD agents became the first to be executed there. (Shootings at Butovo began a month earlier). But the need for ever more burial space meant that by the end of October, Kommunarka was opened for everyone. Executions there continued on nearly a nightly basis for a year.
Yagoda’s one-floor log dacha, also painted green, still sits on the grounds and is used by the resident priests. To get to the dacha from the entrance, you walk down a road with large pines on each side. On the approach, you can see the white walls and gold domes of the church on the left, the fresh Sunday school on the right, and the old dacha up ahead. The only thing obscuring the view of the dacha is a small children’s playground in the clearing in the middle. “In the 1990s…,” the journalist David Satter writes, “the FSB determined that the former dacha [house] of Yagoda … was used not for executions but as a gathering place for the prisoners and for the filling out of documents.”
Looking around, I tried to imagine how it must have appeared in 1938. Less is known about how Kommunarka operated because historians never found anyone who’d actually worked there, but it was likely not very different from the nightly scenes at Butovo. Around one or two in the morning, the Russian historian Lydia Golovkova writes of Butovo, convoys of paddy wagons could be seen “roaring along the broken forest road,” each of them filled with 20 to 30, even 50 people. Sometimes locals could hear their distant cries. Once in the complex, the prisoners were processed, their sentences read to them, and all their personal details verified. “The condemned were [then] taken out one by one” and guided by his or her executioner toward the ditch that would become their grave. “They fired at the edge of the ditch, in the back of the head, almost point-blank.” The youngest known victim at Butovo was 15 and the oldest 80. Despite the executioners all being officers deemed ideologically faithful enough to believe in the revolutionary morals of their actions, they were still supplied with copious amounts of vodka on the nights they worked, and they were completely drunk by the time they were brought back to Moscow.
Rarely a day went by at Butovo with less than 100 executions, and the most recorded on a single day is 562. Kommunarka operated on a smaller scale, but I was able to calculate that my great-grandfather was one of at least 103 individuals executed there the night of his murder.
On the day I visited, the complex’s roads were all cleared of snow. So, too, were the areas used by the church and the space in front of the memorials. The path to even the closest known site of burial, however, was buried under snow. To reach it, my friend Ilya and I hiked through the two-foot-deep snowdrifts. I don’t know how many people actually visit the dead at Kommunarka, but judging by the fresh path we made on our way, no one had since the most recent snowfall.
While most mass graves can be discerned over time by the sinking of the ground that accompanies decomposition, Kommunarka is different. Because so many of the murders took place in the forest among the trees, the abundance of roots obscures this natural settling. Peer into the forest and you’ll spot buoy-like wooden red-and-white posts marking human remains as far as the eye can see. Between that and the setting sun’s blinding reflection off the snow, it was difficult to recognize a graveyard, let alone a place of unspeakable horror. Truth be told, the thing about the scene that most unsettled me as a Jew was the life-sized Russian Orthodox cross erected at the site. After spending a few minutes in silence and reciting tehillim, we headed back to the gate.
Levenson was a Jew, and many of his descendants, including me, are Lubavitcher Hasidim. This meant that when we got back to Ilya’s car, I had to ask him if he’d put on tefillin. He hadn’t yet and nightfall was approaching, so there at the gates of Kommunarka, he wrapped the black straps of tefillin around his arm and placed the black box on his head. Ilya covered his eyes with his right hand and recited the words of Shema Yisroel, the foundational prayer of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
Given the Jewish tradition of saying this prayer before being put to death, I doubt very much it was the first time these words were uttered at Kommunarka.
Another difference between Kommunarka and Butovo is that Kommunarka was earmarked for the elite. Nikolai Bukharin is buried here, as were Nikolai Krestinsky and Alexei Rykov (his wife, too). Naturally, the Jewish Yagoda, son of a jeweler who from the early 1920s served as Stalin’s man within the secret police, was buried at his former dacha—the Russians have that sort of sense of humor. Of course, Jews aren’t the only ones among the purged NKVD men: Yagoda’s longtime colleague and one of the Cheka’s co-founders, the Latvian Yakov Peters (Je¯kabs Peterss), is also at Kommunarka. Nor were the victims at Kommunarka limited to Communist Party members. Many leading societal figures such as engineers, doctors, architects, and economists ended up here as well.
Jews tend to note who their ancestors are buried next to, and it is comforting to know that aside from the NKVD men and Bolshevik luminaries, my great-grandfather shares his eternal rest with Rabbi Shmarya Leib Medalia, a Lubavitcher Hasid who served as chief rabbi of Moscow from 1933 until his arrest on January 4, 1938. Soviet-Jewish religious martyrs, most of them Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, were as a rule tried by NKVD Troikas and, if in Moscow, deposited at Butovo. Medalia’s prominence, however, meant that his case was handled by the Central NKVD.
Medalia had done everything within his power to strengthen traditional Jewish life in Moscow. Among the charges he faced was maintaining contact with the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who continued leading Soviet Jewry long after his 1927 arrest and exile from the USSR. During months of torture and interrogations, the rabbi insisted he was innocent of anti-Soviet behavior. So did his wife, Devorah, who actively petitioned the Kremlin. On April 13, 1938, days before Passover, she wrote a letter to Stalin crony Lazar Kaganovich begging for her husband to be allowed kosher food and matzah in prison, knowing he’d eat nothing else. On another occasion, she wrote directly to Stalin: “I appeal to you, greatly esteemed Iosif Vissarionovich, with a request to help free my husband. The only thing it would be possible to charge him with is that he is a rabbi.” Which is what they did. Medalia’s name appears on one of Stalin’s lists dated April 19, 1938, the third day of Passover. His execution, along with those of 113 others, was signed off on by Stalin, Molotov, Zhdanov—and Kaganovich. Nine days later, Medalia was “found guilty” under Articles 58-8 and 58-11 of the Russian criminal code by the Military Collegium and executed. I found his name on the panels at Kommunarka as well.
Solomon Levenson (b. 1897) was by no means a rabbi or even a religious Jew, but neither was he a noteworthy Bolshevik figure. The latter distinction goes to his older brother, the aforementioned Mikhail Levenson (b. 1888). The brothers came from a large and wealthy merchant family in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, where their grandfather, a former Cantonist soldier, had settled after his 25 years of compulsory Russian imperial service were up. The Cantonist, also named Solomon, built a fortune in the grain business. This went to his son, Abraham, who became even wealthier. Eventually, Abraham gained the czarist-era status of Merchant of the First Guild. His impressive stables, adorned with his wrought-iron initials, still stand in Irkutsk.
Though Abraham’s mother was a pious woman who berated her daughters-in-law for slacking off in Jewish observance, her children and grandchildren channeled their zeal in other directions. Still, they did what was considered the basics at the time: Their boys were all circumcised and my great-grandfather Solomon given the name Shlomo Zalman at his bris. One of the sisters became an ardent Zionist, but four of the five brothers turned in various degrees to revolutionary politics.
The eldest Levenson boy, Gedalya, a Socialist Revolutionary (SR), was killed in 1906 at age 20 while attempting to rob a bank for the revolution. Next came Mikhail (Meir), likewise an SR. After escaping from a czarist prison, he spent a decade exiled in Europe, where he became a doctor. In the aftermath of the February Revolution of 1917, he headed to Petrograd, joined the even more radical Left SRs—then allied with Lenin. As a member of the Central Executive Committee and Petrograd Soviet, Mikhail participated in the Bolshevik’s October coup.
When the Left SRs broke with Lenin, Mikhail returned to Irkutsk and helped lead guerilla warfare against the White Army forces of Admiral Aleksander Kolchak, the self-proclaimed Supreme Ruler of Russia. Kolchak was captured in January 1920, “tried” by the Irkutsk Military Revolutionary Committee, and sentenced to death. Mikhail’s signature is one of four that appear on the admiral’s execution order. After joining the Bolsheviks and moving to Moscow, he rose to the position of Soviet trade representative to Italy, later serving as chairman of Torgsin, the state’s hard-currency store. In 1936, he became deputy to Israel Veitser, the commissar of domestic trade.
The Great Terror swept through the trade commissariat (Narkomtorg) in the autumn of 1937, annihilating Veitser and his entire staff. On the afternoon of October 14, Mikhail stepped out of his office at the ministry and was arrested by NKVD agents who’d been sitting in his waiting room. The length of Mikhail’s time in custody, as well as his mugshot, suggests he was beaten terribly. His name also appears on one of Stalin’s lists, dated August 20, 1938, and includes a handwritten note from Yezhov suggesting that all 670 people named be shot. “Za [I agree],” Stalin jotted back in response, adding his initials.
Solomon’s career was nothing like his older brother’s—he likely ended up at Kommunarka only because of this relationship—but that didn’t matter. During the months that followed her uncle’s arrest, my grandmother, Olga, 12 at the time, frequently noticed her father in hushed conversations with a relative in a windowless nook in their apartment.
“He was already waiting for it to happen,” she told me.
In the heady aftermath of the Russian Civil War, many were gripped by a spirit of euphoria. When, in 1945, Isaiah Berlin asked a petrified Sergei Eisenstein what the greatest years of his life had been, the director responded without hesitation: “The early ’20s. That was the time. We were young and did marvelous things.”
That’s when Solomon Levenson arrived in Moscow to study law, and he felt some of this exhilaration. An honest and sensitive soul, he had turned down his father’s offer to buy his way out of imperial military service and, instead, enlisted and served on the front lines in World War I. There he joined the SRs, serving for a time as a deputy in a soldiers’ Soviet. In Moscow, Solomon’s older brothers convinced him to join the Bolsheviks and, as surviving family members put it, pushed him into the party apparatus. Shortly thereafter, he met Dasha, a Jewish girl from a White Russian shtetl. Dasha was so taken by the era’s revolutionary spirit that Solomon initially told her his father was a dentist to avoid revealing his merchant roots. They married and settled in central Moscow, a few minutes’ walk from the Bolshoi Theater. But even then, Levenson felt unsettled.
Dasha was younger than Solomon and had arrived in Moscow in her late teens. The far more enthusiastic Communist of the two, she told her husband around 1924 that she, too, wanted to join the party. He shot the idea down immediately. “One party membership is enough for the both of us,” he said. There was no going back for him—once you join the party, you can never leave—but his foresight would later spare her a terrible fate. When my grandmother was born in 1925, a still-enthusiastic Dasha wanted to name her something redolent of the modern spirit of the time—she liked Antenna in particular. Solomon went down to the registry and named their daughter Olga.
Then came the winter of 1934. Solomon and his family were living temporarily in the village of Zmiyevka, where the party had sent him to serve on the newly consolidated regional party committee. On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, a close friend of Stalin’s, member of the politburo and secretary of the Leningrad party apparatus, was shot and killed outside his own office.
In the decades since, countless theories have circulated regarding what actually happened. Was Stalin behind Kirov’s murder? Conquest argues that he was; Kotkin concludes that he was not. Did Stalin need to get rid of Kirov in order to jump-start what would become the Great Terror? Again, Conquest says he did, while Kotkin states emphatically that Stalin “needed no such pretext to act as he chose.” Whatever the case, for decades the murder of Kirov was understood as the gateway to Stalin’s Terror. “The year 1937 began, to all intents and purposes, at the end of 1934,” Yevgenia Ginzberg famously opened her prison memoir, “to be exact, on the first of December.”
I can only add what my grandmother, nine years old at the time, herself witnessed. She remembered her father holding a newspaper on whose cover was a large portrait of Kirov surrounded by a thick, black frame of mourning. “Murder of Kirov” read the headline. The paper reported that an enemy of the people named Leonid Nikolayev had assassinated Kirov in the corridor of the Smolny, headquarters of the Communist Party in Leningrad. Her father saw the unfolding of something larger than a single murder. “I hear Papa telling Mama,” my grandmother recalled, “‘Nu, nachalos—It’s begun.’”
It’s impossible to say what exactly Solomon meant, but his words proved prophetic. Three years later, and more than a decade after warning his wife off from joining the party of progress and the future, Solomon’s elder brother was taken away. Three months after that, in February 1938, after an evening spent at relatives, he and Dasha returned home to find the NKVD waiting for him.
As the secret police searched their home—a single room in a high-ceilinged communal apartment shared with eight other families—Solomon furtively beckoned toward the family telephone book. His wife, understanding as well as he did that every name in the book was now in imminent danger, tipped it to fall between the wall and the couch. When the search was over, the NKVD led Solomon to the car waiting on the street outside.
With that, he disappeared.
Solomon Levenson, as opposed to the martyred Rabbi Medalia and thousands of other Jews, was not murdered by the Communists because he was Jewish. While I’ve never managed to obtain his actual case file from the FSB, despite numerous attempts, his Jewishness is only indicated in the ethnicity box on his Memorial listing. This might be the greatest tragedy of all.
The fact is Levenson’s Jewish upbringing and education was sparse at best, while his wife, like most other Soviet Jews, had left her Judaism behind in the shtetl. My grandmother grew up with nothing at all, not even the Passover matzah that was typical to the Soviet Jewish experience. For years, whatever Jewish knowledge she had came from the stories of Sholom Aleichem, which she could read only in Russian. Until the 1980s, she’d entered a synagogue precisely once. That was in 1948, when she wandered into Moscow’s Choral Synagogue for a few minutes out of curiosity. All she knew about Judaism was that she was a Jew.
It was her father’s arrest and destruction that most shaped her life. In little more than a decade, her picture-perfect family was decimated. She was transformed from the child of young Jews with fleeting dreams to the fatherless daughter of an “enemy of the people.” The logical endpoint for a world ruled solely by man and his vision. In the late 1940s, at her mother’s insistence, Olga entered medical school. The idea being that if she were ever arrested, she might survive the Gulag. That’s, in fact, what happened to Mikhail’s wife, a gynecologist who withstood eight years of the labor camps thanks to her medical background. My grandmother became a pathologist, working for decades at the Yauza Hospital in Moscow.
My grandmother’s lacking Jewish background is not attributable only to her parents having been briefly duped into dreams of a new dawn for humanity. Soviet Communism had done everything in its power to quash Jews’ connection to Judaism. It waged war on the Jewish soul consistently and resolutely.
This was not merely a byproduct of life in a totalitarian society. Morgenthau saw the Soviet war on religion, and Judaism in particular, as fundamental to the regime’s claim on power. When a regime sees its power as stemming from itself, he argues, it cannot live in peace with God. By extension, the regime cannot live in peace with His people on earth, the Jews. It is the very existence of the Jews as Jews that constantly reminds the Communists that this is God’s world and not theirs. “Judaism, in particular, presents a challenge to any totalitarian regime, for the prophetic tradition of Judaism has made its business, since the times of the prophets of the Old Testament, to subject the rulers of Israel to the moral stands of the other world,” Morgenthau told Congress. “A regime for which truth is a mere by-produce of its own power cannot fail to recognize in this Judaic claim an element of subversion.”
Just as history had required the arrest and execution of hundreds of thousands of men and women in 1937–38, it demanded the Jewish people’s spiritual destruction. Seen in this light, how could anyone expect Soviet Jewry to survive such an onslaught?
But survive they did. Not only in name, but in many thousands of instances, in much more than that. My grandmother, despite lifelong protestations that Soviet education had made it impossible for her to be religious, was clearly deeply connected to the God of the Jews. She read the weekly Torah portion, attended Shabbat meals without fail for decades, and fasted on Yom Kippur. For three decades, and until the end of her life, one of her dearest possessions was a dollar bill from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Considering the arc of her life, this is nothing short of miraculous.
The Rebbe was a Jewish leader with deep insight into the Soviet Jewish condition. He was born and raised in what became the USSR, witnessed the October Revolution, and participated in both his father and father-in-law’s defiant work to preserve Judaism in the land of the Soviets. His father-in-law and predecessor as Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, had been released from Soviet imprisonment. But his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, was not, and he died in remote exile in 1944. Following his own 1927 departure from the USSR, the Rebbe never forgot about Soviet Jewry, championing their plight abroad while directing a network of underground activists within.
When speaking about Soviet Jewry, he’d often quote a Midrash on the Exodus, the redemption of the Jewish people that seeded all future redemptions. “Rav Huna said in the name of Bar Kappara,” the Midrash goes, “Israel was redeemed from Egypt … because they did not change their names: they went down as Reuven and Shimon, and they returned as Reuven and Shimon.”
During their long Egyptian enslavement, the Jews had given up on Jewish life and practice. They’d forgotten about God Himself—did they have a choice? But they’d retained their Jewish names. A person’s name is a reflection of their essential being, what’s left when all externalities have ceased to exist. The Kabbalah teaches that the essence of the soul, called yechidah, is the spark within each Jew that is a literal part of God. It connects each individual to God and establishes the Jewish people as an eternal holy nation. This spark is above time and space and incapable of being disconnected from God. Want to summon it? Just as you would revive a fainting victim by calling their name, call it by its name. At its core, this is the stripped-down title “Jew.”
“The Jews in Russia haven’t had a moment of tranquility in all matters of Jewish life and practice, for more than 60 years” the Rebbe remarked painfully in 1983. “And nevertheless, ‘they went down as Reuven and Shimon,’ and ‘they will return as Reuven and Shimon.’ You can see it. I receive information from there [regularly], sometimes photographs—it’s Reuven and Shimon!”
How did they do this? With a Jewish song, a memory, a sigh. Some might not even know what a Torah scroll is, the Rebbe observed on another occasion, “but this they know: Their grandmother told them that they’re Jewish.”
Towards the very end of her life, my grandmother suddenly remembered her mother showing her and her younger brother how she could write the Alef-Beis. Russian, like most languages, goes left-to-right, but this one was strange. “See?” her mother told them. “I can write from right-to-left.”
Olga Levenson passed away on Lag BaOmer of 2021 at age 96 and was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Boston. While her father’s remains lie in the forests of Kommunarka outside of Moscow, his true memorial can be found on his daughter’s gravestone. It reads, in Hebrew: “In memory of Shlomo Zalman the son of Avraham … May God avenge his blood. Murdered in the days of terror in Russia, 21 Sivan, 5698.”
More than a century after Solomon Levenson was named Shlomo Zalman at his bris, despite the horror, persecution, and erasure of the Communist epoch, he was once again recalled by his Jewish name, an eternal memory for a son of the eternal nation. Reuven and Shimon had indeed returned.
All photos courtesy Dovid Margolin
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