The Forverts’s Rukhl Schaechter once heard a Yiddish professor complain that his American students knew nothing about Stalin’s execution of 13 Soviet Jews, which took place in August 1952. Even more discouraging, he added, was their “complete lack of interest” in the Yiddish culture that once thrived in the Former Soviet Union.
Two days before the premiere of “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” Schaechter talked to author Nathan Englander about this phenomenon and what inspired him, a self-proclaimed Yankee from Long Island, to write about it.
Rukhl Schaechter: What inspired you to write about Stalin’s execution of Soviet Yiddish writers?
Nathan Englander: I guess it’s because I read a lot, and I believe in imagined worlds. I learned about that period when I was in Israel, in my junior year abroad at Hebrew University, and the Iron Curtain was about to fall. My teacher, Edith Frankel, who was a Russian studies expert, mentioned it as an aside. I thought it was strange that no one talked about it, and I felt that these writers deserved a story about them. So I waited a few years. It was shocking to me that this nefarious event occurred and because of it, a whole world was destroyed, and yet no one wrote about it. When I began working on the story myself, I discovered there was almost no information, just an entry here and there in the Encyclopedia Judaica.
In dire times, some people are given the opportunity to display what is best in human nature. Such is the message of a new book by Arno Lustiger, author of “Stalin and the Jews” and many other historical works including “Rescue-Resistance: Europe’s Rescuers of Jews in the Nazi Era” which was published by Wallstein Verlag in September.
In a 2005 speech at The Bundestag, Germany’s federal legislative body, Lustiger opined that his adopted country — born in Będzin, Poland in 1924, he is longtime resident of Frankfurt where he made a career in the clothing industry — does not honor its own rescuers of Jews sufficiently. Even Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem only honors 495 Germans as Righteous Among the Nations, which Lustiger feels is too few.
He told a recent interviewer, “In Berlin alone there were thousands of Germans who helped their Jewish fellow citizens.”