Q&A with David Bezmozgis: On Crimea, JDC's 100th, and His Next Novel
When David Bezmozgis was conceiving his upcoming novel, "The Betrayers," whose plot is partially set in Crimea, he never imagined the sleepy peninsula he visited in 2011 would suddenly become the center of international attention.
“The Crimea I wrote about was the one that existed in 2011 and the change there has been fast and radical,” he recently told JDC in a phone interview from his home in Toronto.
But as he watches the unfolding events in Ukraine with concern, the critically acclaimed author, 40, has another text with his name on it: He penned the preface of the just published photo-book “I Live. Send Help,” a sweeping pictorial history of JDC’s first 100 years of service.
Bezmozgis spoke about his association with JDC, ill-fated attempts to found an independent Jewish state in Crimea during the 1920s, and what it's like to be a Jew in the former Soviet Union.
Q: What’s it like writing a foreword for a book that sums up 100 years of history in about 300 pages? Was it difficult to find a way to introduce such an expansive history?
A: I think my role was to speak of my experience as someone who has been helped by JDC and written about Soviet Jewish immigration, and that’s how I approached it. As someone who has been helped in his research by the Joint – not only as a child – I have benefited from my friendship with JDC.
Q: You went for a very personal story. Why?
A: It was a sheer coincidence that I happened to take this trip and go to Toledo at the time I had to write the preface – it was an act of synchronicity. To find myself talking to a man of a different generation, both of us Joint clients, and for the conversation to go so quickly into his past, I thought it was a good way to introduce the book.
Q: You said your family was helped by JDC, in what way? Do you have any recollections of JDC's work as a child?
A: My family was helped as all Soviet Jewish families were helped at the time. While we were in transit, waiting in Italy for visas to Canada, my parents had no legal status and so were unable to work. We were in Italy for four months. Some families were there much longer than that. The Joint provided stipends to all the families to cover their basic needs. I was six and didn't know enough to understand where our support was coming from.
Q: Was there anything that surprised or shocked you when you went over the book?
A: There are a great number of things I did not know. The main shock or surprise or main impression is just how much turbulent history has taken place to the Jews over the past 100 years. I was aware before of the role of JDC after the Holocaust, its role in the DP Camps afterwards, and its work in Crimea with the Agro-Joint, perhaps the most interesting chapter. But JDC was also in Hungary in 1956 and so many other places – you become aware of how involved JDC has been.
Q: Why is the Agro-Joint of such interest to you?
A: To take Jews who were mostly improvised small tradesmen, bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie and after the revolution found themselves déclassé, without class, being trained to become agrarian workers … it was work transforming Jews that in a way was similar to what was being done by the Zionists. This project also led to the idea of establishing an independent Jewish state in Crimea that JDC was involved in.
Q: How far along did this idea come?
A: Molotov, who became the foreign minister, had approved it so it went up fairly far in Soviet command. At that point for various reasons and because Stalin wanted to establish [the Jewish republic of] Birobidzhan in the Far East then, the Crimea idea had to be eliminated. The strongest supporters were killed – the book alludes that during the purges, 17 members of the Agro-Joint died
Q: You were in Crimea recently to do research for your book. That region is now in the news. Can you tell us a little about what you saw and its Jewish community?
A: I traveled through Crimea, visited the Hesed in Simferopol and saw a small remnant that is trying to hold on. Elderly people, as throughout the former Soviet Union, need help and you also see the embers of a young Jewish community being stoked. My impression was – as I wrote in my preface – is that it resembles what you see in Toledo.
Q: Many people in major Jewish population centers, either in the U.S. or Israel or even smaller communities in the U.K. or elsewhere, might look at a place like Crimea and ask: ‘Why do they stay?’ As a member of a family that chose to immigrate, how do you make sense of that decision?
A: A lot of young people have left, Jewish and non-Jewish, but people are individual and people are used to their language, their culture, their homes. It’s a traumatic experience to leave and for Jews it has become the norm, so we accept it, but it should never been the norm.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about “The Betrayers”?
A: It's set in Crimea – Yalta and Simferopol – and talks about what it means to be the remnant of a community. I pose some of the same questions you raised, like: What is the future for Russian Jews? Now with watching Ukraine and Crimea in the news that question is becoming shockingly more acute.
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