Rabbi Rafael Grossman from Long Beach, New Jersey, was among the group, and, he had a personal mission that went well beyond the group’s agenda.

Nine Orthodox rabbis traveled to the Soviet Union in 1965. Sent by the Rabbinical Council of America, they were not there for a holiday. Seeking positive public relations, the Kremlin decided to allow the rabbis to visit and make connections with the Jewish community in the USSR.

The delegation had another, non-publicized mission — to investigate the well-being of Jews in the USSR. There had been rumors and reports about their mistreatment under Soviet rule; rumors and reports that we now know to be true.

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Alene and Graham Landau Archivist Chair

The rabbis knew there were risks to their trip. Their tour “guides” were likely to be agents of the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police. Their hotel rooms would be “bugged.” In short, every move the rabbis made would be monitored and, when possible, recorded by the KGB.

Rabbi Rafael Grossman from Long Beach, New Jersey, was among the group, and, he had a personal mission that went well beyond the group’s agenda.

A Visit to Moscow is his story as he told it to Anna Olswanger. She and illustrator Yevgenia Nayberg have produced a meaningful and beautiful graphic novel. Although, strictly speaking, this book might not be considered a bona fide history because there is no empirical evidence in footnotes; the story is based upon recollections of Grossman told second-hand. However, the narrative does speak honestly and accurately about the status of Jews in the Soviet Union during the 1960s.

One day, when the rabbis went on a scheduled tour, Grossman feigned that he was ill and declared that he would have to stay behind. What he did not tell anyone was that he wanted to slip away unnoticed and try to find one of his congregation member’s long-lost brothers. A Visit to Moscow is the story of Grossman’s clandestine and dangerous mission to find Meyer Gurwitz, brother of congregant Bela.

Grossman snuck out of the hotel and hailed a taxi that drove him to a dismal part of Moscow. There stood a dilapidated wooden structure bearing the number “35.” Grossman had an address from a very old letter to Bela, which led him to this place. He was not even sure if Meyer Gurwitz still lived at this address, but he entered the building and knocked on the door of apartment No. 4.

A man opened the door and stepped into the hall. He asked a question in Russian, Grossman responded in Yiddish. The man was clearly nervous, afraid of the authorities and a family trip to a gulag in Siberia. Grossman finally convinced him that he was not a KGB agent, rather, he was Bela’s American friend. He was finally invited into Gurwitz’s starkly furnished apartment.

After the rabbi stepped inside, Gurwitz’s wife (who remains unnamed) prepared tea for him. Grossman then received a major surprise. He meets the Gurwitz’s son, Zev, who had been hiding behind the curtains.

The squalor of Gurwitz’s living conditions and their palatable fear of the Soviet state was enough of a shock for Grossman. He is stunned, however, when he learns that Zev has never left their single-room apartment. His only acquaintance with the outside world was through an apartment window. Meyer explained why this was so: “No one yanks his yarmulke from his head. No one teaches him arithmetic in the Russian language on the Jewish Sabbath or feeds him milk with meat from a state school lunch. No one laughs at him because he prays to God.”

Grossman swore he would tell no one about the Gurwitz family and their son who hides behind the curtains. Upon returning to America, however, he began an intense, personal quest to liberate them. Eventually, after extensive lobbying of governmental officials in the states, he obtains visas for the Gurwitzes, which are thrown into their apartment through the door. They are released and move to Israel. The book ends as Zev recalls the flight to Tel Aviv.

Anna Olswanger worked with Grossman on many projects over the years and often heard this story from the rabbi. Sadly, he died in 2018. This is Olswanger’s ode to the rabbi’s trip to Moscow, his courage, his shock at the conditions of the Jews he encountered in the USSR and his noble quest to release the Gurwitz family from the sordid antisemitic environment in which they lived in the Soviet Union. It is an uplifting ending for them, that one wishes all Jews in the Soviet Union — perhaps, those now in Russia as well — could experience.

Tersely written, Olswanger’s book tells this story in a mere 63 pages. The concise text is brilliantly illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, who is herself a former Soviet Jew. Her angular drawings, often with subdued colors, neatly fit the narrative and greatly enhance the story. The combination of a moving narrative and outstanding artwork makes for a most compelling read. It is also essential to read the brief end notes to fully understand the meaning of the book.

I highly recommend A Visit to Moscow. Like any fine book, it will leave a deep impression. It is a story you will not forget reading or seeing.

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