Is Emigration Good for Soviet Latvian Jews?

A Review by Ralph Dumain

David Bezmozgis, The Free World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 356, [1] pp. ISBN 978-0-374-28140-3. $26. Web site: David Bezmozgis :: The Free World.

This novel portrays a family of émigré Jews from Soviet Latvia from July – November 1978, with references to important world events from that year. There are also copious flashbacks in the lives of the Kransnansky family. Most of the really dramatic action takes place in the past. In the present, they find themselves in Rome, Italy, weighing their options and seeking opportunities for their final destinations. In true Jewish fashion, they spend much of their time kvetching, bickering, and making sarcastic remarks.

Though this is not the case for some reviewers, I found Samuil’s story the most memorable. He was an old Communist and veteran of the Red Army. More on him momentarily. Other family members include Samuil’s wife Emma, his sons Karl and Alec, Alec’s wife Polina, and Karl’s wife Rosa.

The various family members are weighing the options for which country they wish to settle in. The main options are Israel, the United States, Canada, and Australia.  Samuil is contemptuous of Israel. There is much bickering among family members over Israel.

Chapter 10 may be the funniest in the novel. Various groups are vying for the family to sign up. For example:

— Well, perhaps we can be of help. The woman beamed, handing Alec a pamphlet. I am with an organization offering services. Free English classes and assistance with immigration processing, for example.

— What is your organization?

— We are with the Baptist Church.

— What is she saying? Polina asked.

— Jesus Christ wants to solve all our problems.

— That’s a relief. (p. 65)

Samuil’s son Alec and Alec’s wife Polina favor Canada. Beyond a favorable impression of the Olympics once held in Canada, the family is not terribly knowledgeable about the country. Among the plusses:

— It’s more European than America, and more American than Europe.

— What does that mean? Rosa asked.

— It means, it means that a person can eat and dress like a human being, watch hockey, and accomplish all this without victimizing Negroes and Latin American peasants. (p. 70)

In a later chapter, there is a flashback to Polina learning English in Riga.

Polina had always been a good student, but she found herself struggling with the language. Alec encouraged her, saying that even his mother’s cousin in Chicago, barely five feet tall, was learning the language. Everyone learned it. Millions of imbeciles spoke it every day. (110)

Back in the present, the family is subjected to propaganda in favor of Israel and encouraging the practice of Judaism. The Russian émigrés are shown a film of Fiddler on the Roof. Not everyone is impressed.

On the screen Samuil watched a lurid, fetishistic montage of Jewish symbols: a star of David, a menorah, Hebrew letters, the worn burgundy velvet cloth covering the bimah. He looked around and saw that his wife, his daughter-in-law, and many others were entranced by it. Somewhere in America, Sholem Aleichem was spinning in his grave. The filmmakers had taken his “goodbye” and turned it into “hello.” What Sholem Aleichem had meant as an acceptance of a new reality and a critique of the outmoded ways had here been transformed into sentimental Jewish burlesque. The movie encouraged a wistfulness and a mourning for the past, But what past? The filmmakers had no idea, but Sholem Aleichem could have told them. The old man had seen enough, even if he’d left for America and died there before the worst of the horrors. (118-9)

Given the role of language in this novel, I should also mention the neologisms “shitocracy” and “shitocrat” (100).

So much for the funny parts. For the most part, we are treated to Eastern European misery, and what is more miserable than that? 

Samuil’s story stretches back the farthest and is the most dramatic. In the interwar years he and his brother Reuven were staunch communists.  The whole family was politically divided then, as are the family members interned in present-day Italy. One flashback recounts the Soviet takeover of Latvia. (August: Chapter 14). They face a different set of concerns now that the political tendency they supported is in power. They have to protect their “counterrevolutionary” family members from the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. They do not succeed in every case. (175)  They are in for a rude awakening when Hitler invades the USSR. (August: chapter 17) They are still in thrall to Soviet propaganda. (198-9) Their skeptical relatives are disinclined to evacuate Riga. The brothers travel to the border prepared to defend the socialist fatherland, but the NKVD treats them like traitors, but with help, they escape, but become permanently separated.

As we see in the present, in spite of the disillusioning betrayals, Samuil has retained his basic communist mindset, and is accordingly scornful of both Judaism and Israel. Samuil and Emma participate in a dance, but he is feeling disconnected from the event, feeling they are all relics, “Stalin’s Jews”. A rabbi attempts to influence Samuil. (236-239) Samuil denies that all Jews carry a holy spark within him, and recounts his life history, including his rise to captain in the Red Army, his administrative position in a radio factory, his war medals and his good standing in the Communist Party. He is equally dismissive of the rabbi’s pleading for Israel. In thinking back to the fateful days of the Soviet takeover of Latvia, while he thought he was on the winning side back then, the family members who opposed his politics might have won the contest after all.

Lyova lives in Italy, and plays a prominent role in the novel. Alec and Polina take up residence with him. Much later, Lyova is introduced to Samuil, who is suspicious of him. Lyova refers to himself as a “serial dissident”, “a rootless cosmopolitan”. (275) After having left the Soviet Union for Israel, he left Israel as well. He explains his disillusionment with Israel and with the Soviet Union and why he does not wish to return to either. (276-7) Samuil, who has treated him as some sort of spy or plant, accuses Lyova of seeking some unrealistic utopian perfection. Lyova concludes: “So far I’ve been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades.”

Alec and Polina have their own backstory. (September: chapter 3) He met Polina in 1976; Polina was married at the time. She becomes pregnant, They weigh their options, especially in view of Alec’s decision to emigrate. The decision is made for Polina to have an abortion, divorce her husband, and marry Alec.

The novel’s structure is complex, alternating between present and past, and the various characters, family members and others. I will not detail all these adventures here, beyond the characters I have already highlighted. The most dramatically memorable event for me that occurs in the present occurs when Alec gets mixed up in a scheme to fence icons smuggled from the homeland. (November: chapter 6) The deal goes sour, and Alec and his companions get severely beaten. (303-4) In the next chapter we find Alec in the hospital.

There is more drama, however. All along, Alec has been having an affair with Masha, who ultimately confronts him in front of Polina. (November: chapter 10)  Polina then leaves to spend the night with Lyova. (November: chapter 11) In the following chapter, Samuil takes a train ride to cool off following the ugly confrontation, experiencing his final interchange in Esperanto (see below), and dies of a heart attack aboard the train. Next comes the funeral, conducted by a rabbi. The sons are not familiar with Hebrew or the rituals, and while going along with the ceremony, are not satisfied, knowing their father’s communist convictions, and ask the rabbi to add something their father would have wanted. So they all sing the Internationale (344).

Finally, the family prepares to leave for Canada. Polina is coming along, too, though she will leave Alec once in Canada. At the end, the family is divvying up Samuil’s possessions. A box of papers, Samuil’s most personal and prized possessions, is found. The box contains a bundle of letters from Samuil’s brother Reuven, from 1941 and 1942, after they had been separated. The final letter is from a stranger, dated 29 September 1942, informing Samuil that Reuven has been killed by a German bomb. So ends the novel.


As is the case in several Jewish novels peering into the past, Esperanto plays a role in this one. The first flashback takes us to Riga, to his uncle Naftali, who owned a bookbindery in the interwar years.

Samuil had liked the bindery. He liked the acrid, moldering smell of paper and glue—the smell of knowledge. In one corner of the shop sat two old bookbinders, pious Jews, who bound and repaired Hebrew holy texts. Everywhere else were books in Yiddish, Latvian, German, Hebrew, French, English, Russian, and Esperanto. (143)

In the fall of 1942, Samuil is in hospital. He flashes back to when he was 17: the Jewish community is divided along rival political ideologies. Samuil and his brother Reuven stay away from home as much as possible and avoid any participation in religious affairs.                                                                                                                                                                                               

Instead, they spent many evenings with their old neighbor, Eduards, Through him they were able to meet non-Jewish workers, Latvian Communists. It was also there, through Eduards’s daughters, that they continued their studies. The same daughter who had tutored Reuven in Latvian loaned them the writings of Thomas Mann, Maxim Gorky, and Romain Rolland. She also schooled them in the international language of Esperanto. She used primers in combination with issues of Sennaciulo, a weekly journal whose title meant “Nationless.”

Later, they continued independent of her, and to the consternation of Baruch Levitan, they practiced the language at work.

Kioma horo estas nun, Reuveno?

Estas jam tagmezo kaj kvarno. Kial vi volas scii, Samuilo? Cu vi malastas?

Mi sentas etan malaston, jes.

Cu vi volas mangi ion?

Mangeti, jes. Mi certe ne deziras grandan tagmanon.

Kien ni iru, do?

La kafejon ce la stratangulo? Sanjas al mi, ke gi estas malmultekosa.

Ni iru tien. Verdire, mi tre malsatas!  (165-166)

All the errors in the Esperanto text are the author’s, not mine. An English translation appears as a footnote on page 166. Sennaciulo is the main periodical organ of the international proletarian Esperantist organization Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda, which flourished between the world wars. Both the organization and the magazine still exist.

In the present, Samuil is stuck in an Italian train station.

[....] Samuil was casting about for another Russian émigré when he caught the attention of a man of his generation, dressed neatly, wearing steel-framed glasses, his eyes gentle, considerate.

The man walked up the aisle to Samuil.

— Non parle Italiano? he inquired.

Samuil shook his head.

— Français? the man asked.

Samuil shook his head again.


Samuil shook his head once more and, though his knowledge of the language was spotty, proposed, Deutsche?

It was the man’s turn to shake his head.

— Ruskii? Iddish? Latviesu? Samuil asked for the sake of formality.

The man smiled regretfully and then paused, as if considering one final, doubtful possibility.

— Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? he said.

Gingerly, Samuil nodded his head.

He saw the man smile, delighted.

— Many years ago, Samuil said.

— Well, let us try.

— Very well.

— You would like to know why the train is not going?

— Yes.

— The engineers have called a strike. All the trains have stopped.

— For long?

— They did not say. It could be for long.

Samuil digested this.

— How far is it to Rome?

— Fifteen kilometers. Perhaps more.  (332-333)

In the Acknowledgments, Bezmogis credits Detlef Karthaus for helping him with Esperanto (355).

Just about any published review is better than mine. There is at least one review that mentions Esperanto and the role it plays among the many languages spoken or being learned:

He even scatters in some Esperanto, and again, far from being trotted out as a parlour trick or a busker’s device, the use of this international language of hope is both pointed and genuinely affecting.

In the country of the absurd,” reviewed by Leah Hager Cohen, The Globe and Mail, April 1, 2011.

More reviews:

David Bezmozgis on ‘The Free World’  by Irina Aleksander (The Paris Review, April 5, 2011)

Moving Between Two Worlds, Outsiders in Both by Adam Langer (The New York Times, April 10, 2011)

The Free World by David Bezmozgis – review by Colin Greenland (The Guardian, 15 April 2011)     

Review of The Free World by David Bezmozgis by Jeet Heer (Quill and Quire, January 2011)

The Free World by David Bezmozgis: review by Leo Robson

Wikipedia references (in English):

Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda


Esperanto & Laborista Movado / Esperanto & the Labor Movement

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & interlingvistiko

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Uploaded 10 March 2014

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