“It's better to work in Israel as a water carrier than as an editor here”
One of the last writers of the Soviet Union to write in Hebrew, Abram Freeman, was saved from another arrest only by death. In 1968, fifteen years after the death of the writer, his last works and correspondences were published in Israel. The cherished dream of an ascetic of Hebrew literature, who dreamed of publishing his books in the revived Jewish state, has finally come true.
Abram Freeman was born on October 15, 1888 in the town of Trostyanets in southwestern Ukraine. As a child, like all the neighboring boys, Abram studied at the cheder, but, in addition to the traditional Jewish, his parents tried to give their children a secular education.
In the pre-revolutionary years, Abram often spent time with his sisters at a private female gymnasium in Odessa. In this important center of Jewish culture, the young man quickly became acquainted with leading Jewish writers and poets. Noticing the great talent of the provincial youth, the Odessa Palestinophiles blessed Freeman to start his writing career. In 1909 he made his debut in the monthly Ha-Shiloah, publishing his poem in Hebrew there. In 1917, Abram studied literary skills for several months from the Jewish classic, Hayim Nakhman Bialik, who lived in Odessa. Bialik prophesied a great future for Abram, but during the years of devastation and civil war, the young writer had to deal only with survival in a hostile and dangerous environment.
In May 1919, Freeman witnessed a pogrom by Ukrainian peasants in Trostyanets. He vowed that he would definitely capture on paper all the suffering of the Jewish people and the examples of heroism that he saw in those terrible days. He fulfilled his oath – this is how the most significant work of his life, the novel “1919”, was born.
When the American Relief Administration (ARA) mission arrived in the Vinnitsa region to help Jews, Freeman began to cooperate with the Americans, collecting materials on their instructions, reflecting the situation of the Jewish population. After ARA handed over its functions and documentation to the Vinnitsa Joint in August 1923, Freeman continued to prepare certificates and collect photographs of the starving population for the Joint. But work with the Americans had to be abandoned due to pressure from the authorities.
In 1924 (according to other sources - in 1926) Freeman left Trostyanets for Odessa – to improve his literary skills. There he studied with the Jewish writers who remained in the country. Since 1929, Freeman began to be published abroad. One day he received a letter from the poet Saul Chernyakhovsky, who in 1922 moved from Odessa to Germany. Chernyakhovsky invited Freeman to publish in Berlin and, a little later, translated the advance payment for the writer. Realizing that in the Land of the Soviets the mail is being perlustrated, the writer nevertheless decided to take a chance and sent his manuscripts to Chernyakhovsky. Copies arrived safely at the addressee and were subsequently printed.
After completing the first part of the long-planned novel, Abram was able to send individual chapters to Palestine to his friend, the writer Yakov Fikhman, and publish them in 1930 in the Ha-Olam magazine, hiding behind initials. In 1931, the entire first part of the novel, entitled “1919”, was published in Berlin by the publishing house of Abraham-Yosef Stiebel.
Unlike other Jewish writers, Freeman did not want to adapt to Soviet reality. In the circle of relatives and friends, he admitted that he had made several major mistakes in his life, but the most important was his refusal to move to Palestine. In 1928, in Odessa, Freeman knew a family that was supposed to help with the trip. A visa at the British embassy was already being prepared, it was only necessary to marry fictitiously, but the writer's mother asked him not to go.
In 1931, Freeman lived in Tulchin, not far from Trostyanets, and worked for the Raypotrebsoyuz. But literary work took up a lot of time, the pressure on the “unearned elements” was constantly increasing in their native lands, and it soon became completely impossible to live. Freeman was forced to go to his nephew in Moscow. The writer stayed there for almost two years, working in Mostrikotazh. But it did not work out normally even here, and Freeman decided to try his luck in Odessa again.
In 1932, Abram returned to the city by the Black Sea, where he rented a room and soon got a job as an authorized distributor of periodical literature in higher educational institutions. In Odessa, he continued to write prose and articles, which he sent to Palestine, Germany, the United States and England. The meager salary of an employee and rare fees from abroad were sorely lacking, Freeman lived in a damp, unheated room, having no money even for normal shoes. In Odessa, Freeman began teaching Hebrew as an additional income.
The first time Freeman was arrested on December 15, 1935 by the Office of the NKVD in the Odessa region as an active member of the Zionist organization.
Odessites were accused of holding clandestine meetings, illegal communication with Zionist circles abroad, and the dissemination of anti-Soviet literature. Freeman was also accused of sending his manuscripts to Palestine and taking part in harboring a representative of the Moscow Zionist center Khanzin, who fled from the investigation to Odessa.
On December 15, 1935, Abram was sentenced under Article 54-10 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR (“anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation”) to three years of exile. As the writer later recalled, the fact that he was arrested two years before the start of the "Great Terror", to some extent, saved him.
Shortly before Freeman's first arrest in December 1935, Abraham Kariv, who worked in the Palestinian Jewish press, prepared for publication the second part of Freeman's novel “1919”, which he published at the Tel Aviv publishing house Stibel with his own preface. The publication was very well received by Jewish literary circles, and the writer was awarded the Bialik Literary Prize for 1935, the most prestigious literary award in Eretz Israel.
The writer served his exile in the city of Kamyshlov, Sverdlovsk region. When the case was already moving towards release, he was arrested a second time. The Kamyshlovsky district department of the NKVD learned that the administratively exiled writer continued to maintain contact with the “Zionist circles of Palestine” – Freeman's friends and colleagues who managed to leave the Soviet Union.
Friends did not forget the writer and supported him in every possible way, including financially: sometimes they sent money orders and parcels. But most importantly – they supported morally – with letters from Eretz Israel, in which they included clippings from Hebrew-language newspapers. This turned out to be quite enough for a new term.
The investigation lasted a long time. Freeman, who was arrested again in March 1938, received three more years in the camps, but the investigation dragged on for so long that it was only over two years later, on June 11, 1940. During the Great Patriotic War, the writer lived in the same Kamyshlov, where, after serving his sentence, he worked as the head of the base of the Soyuzutil procurement office.
In 1945, the former political prisoner was allowed to return to Ukraine. Freeman decided to get closer to his survived sister, who lived in the resort town of Osipenko (now Berdyansk).
In Osipenko, the Jewish intellectual first had to work at a fish base, then as a storekeeper. Problems with employment pursued the writer until the end of his days: on the one hand, it was psychologically difficult for the Bialik Prize winner to do anything other than literature, on the other hand, with two convictions it was difficult to get even the simplest job.
Over time, in Osipenko, the writer acquired like-minded people from among the local Jewish intelligentsia. Not all friends shared Abram’s views on Zionism, but they all agreed that the Soviet Union was not the country which it initially claimed to be.
However, Freeman had another category of communication, perhaps even more numerous – professional provocateurs: secret informants and MGB agents. An extremely intimidated man, with undermined health and psyche, Freeman was terribly afraid of falling into the hands of a bloody regime again. And the system, tuned in to the constant control of former political prisoners, followed on his heels. It was impossible to hide. Moreover, they used unmistakably selected tools: Jews, writers and former prisoners were sent to the Jewish writer, former prisoner Freeman.
Already at the end of July 1949 Abram Freeman was actively spied on by the MGB agent “Zarnitsky” (Zalkind). On the instructions of the MGB, the former "specialist" on convicted Trotskyists began to scour the city in search of the Jewish underground. Having got acquainted with a religious Jew, watchmaker Gedalia Rosenfeld, “Zarnitsky” noticed that an elderly Jew sometimes stopped by to talk to the old watchmaker. It turned out to be Abram Freeman, to whom the agent very soon infiltrated his confidence, pretending to help an unemployed fellow tribesman, as repressed as he is. He actually got Abram Freeman into the Office of Normalized Works No. 113, where he himself was listed in the supply department; the victim was imbued with gratitude and almost boundless confidence in the provocateur.
According to the denunciation by “Zarnitsky” and another agent, “Borisov”, on Abram Freeman and his friend, photographer Moisey Podva, on February 21, 1951, local department of the MGB opened an agent case. Agents reported that Freeman and Podva were conducting nationalist propaganda among the residents of the city. The accusations were standard: Freeman and Podva slander that Jews are being infringed upon in the USSR and are furiously agitating for leaving for Israel, and in every way they praise life in the capitalist West.
The unsuspecting Freeman was happy to tell his “colleague” from the MGB about his literary work in the 1920s and 1930s, and shared a retelling of the speech of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion heard at the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
Zalkind characterized the Jewish writer Freeman as a malicious anti-Soviet who criticized absolutely all aspects of Soviet life: he called the elections to the Supreme Soviet nothing more than a comedy, and characterized the authorities' policy towards Jews as anti-Semitic.
To assist on this case of Abram Freeman, agent “Yanovsky” (Yasin) arrived in Osipenko on July 23, 1952. Having met Yasin and seeing in him a well-read man, Freeman inadvertently told him that he had never stopped working in the field of Hebrew-language literature. With him, he began to criticize Soviet policy towards Jewish culture.
After the TASS report on January 13, 1953 about the arrest in Moscow of “killer doctors”, Freeman did not find a place for himself. He was especially frightened by the accusation of doctors in collaboration with the organization “Joint”, with which he himself once worked in the early 1920s. Meeting in the city with acquaintances, the writer carefully looked around, and sometimes – tried to get away from the “outside observation” that he kept seeing in every passer-by.
When Stalin died, Abram exclaimed: “I am happy that I have lived up to the moment when I can come and spit on his grave!” The writer had no idea that just on March 5, 1953, the Deputy Minister of State Security of the Ukrainian SSR Brovkin sent a letter to Osipenko with an order to arrest Freeman and confiscate all the literature he had. It was proposed to arrange the arrest through the Ministry of Internal Affairs: the police were supposed to search the house of Freeman and his sister for a far-fetched reason, and there – “accidentally” – stumble upon anti-Soviet literature. All this was done in order to avoid decryption of the KGB agents. To divert his eyes, the main agent working on the case, Alexander Zalkind, was ordered to organize an imitation of a search.
However, on May 21, 1953, a retreat came from Moscow: the 4th Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs demanded to postpone the arrest and organize a more thorough development of the Osipenko Zionist and his entourage.
In September 1953, a Jewish writer and literary critic from Chernivtsi, who was also an agent of the Ministry of Internal Affairs “Kant”, was sent to help. “Kant”, aka the Jewish writer Grigory Bloshtein, a former correspondent of the Jewish newspaper “Einikite”, has proven himself well in working against the Zionist underground in Western Ukraine.
Sitting in a compartment with an unsuspecting Zalkind, returning from Zaporozhye to Osipenko, Bloshtein, also not warned that he was dealing with a colleague, had to introduce himself as a Jewish writer who travels to Azov in search of materials for his poem. The security officers were going to kill two birds with one stone: to check “Zarnitsky” and “Kant” for professional suitability, and also to ensure the secrecy of the operation.
As planned, Zalkind introduced his friend Freeman to a writer who had come to the coast of the Azov Sea from Chernivtsi. Bloshtein had several tasks, but the main one was to get the drafts of Freeman's works, supposedly to be sent through reliable people to Israel. Also, by sending Freeman's poem to Israel, the KGB thought to find the Zionist channels in Chernivtsi and subsequently use them to their advantage.
In October 1953, in his letter to Grigory Bloshtein, Freeman excitedly promised to send him a copy of his poem as soon as possible. The writer hoped to send his manuscripts through Kant without indicating his own address. But he didn't have time.
In early December 1953, in a Zaporozhye hospital, Abram Freeman Freeman died. His sister decided at all costs to publish her brother's archive. The special services learned that Alexandra Freeman planned to send the manuscripts to Israel from Moscow, while on vacation with relatives. To intercept the manuscript, Zalkind was again sent to her, who promised to arrange the transfer of materials through Grigory Bloshtein.
On August 24, 1954, 25 pages, written from right to left in intricate Hebrew letters, ended up in the hands of the special services. Most likely, the Chekists received from the agent a copy of the poem “Hymn to Mother”, which was copied by the writer's sister by hand. Freeman's sister had to be informed by the agent that the papers had reached Israel safely.
After the confiscation of the copy obtained by Bloshtein, they came to Alexandra Freeman with a search and took away the chest belonging to the writer, in which he kept his notes and books. The fate of the fourth part of the novel “1919” and other drafts of the writer is still unknown. The first three parts of the novel were published under one cover in 1968 in Israel with an afterword by I. Slutsky; the novel is considered a classic story about the life and struggle of the inhabitants of the Ukrainian shtetl during the Civil War.
Abram Freeman could not fully reveal his talent due to the difficult vicissitudes of fate, but he had the great honor of becoming the last defender of Jewish national literature in a country where even just learning his native language – Hebrew – could be sentenced. Like the last defender of Masada, Abram Freeman fought to the end for the right to be called a Jew and a man.
1888 – 1953