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Humor and horror and a plot to kill Stalin in a fictional debut

FICTION

The Yid

By Paul Goldberg

Picador

320 pages, $26

By Stephanie Shapiro

Lieutenant of State Security Narsultan Sadykov believes that his prisoners “are better off being mad, or deathly ill, because death would spare them what lies ahead: weeks or months of interrogations, then weeks in the prison train, and, finally, felling trees or mining for gold or uranium ore somewhere in the taiga or the permafrost.”

Sadykov knocks on doors in the middle of the Moscow night, arresting those designated by his supervisors as enemies of the state. Whether they are innocent or guilty is none of his business. Yet his cynicism is not quite total: “What art is there in beating confessions out of the demented and the frail?” he muses. “They will sign any protocol you place before them.”

As “The Yid” opens on Feb. 24, 1953, anxiety has gripped Moscow and the nearby region as empty cattle trains begin to arrive at various railroad sidings. Rumors abound.

“In the streets, people say that Jews have always used Christian blood in their rituals, and that they continue to do so … They say that Christian blood is used in matzo – dry, crackerlike bread they eat on their Easter,” Goldberg declares.

They say a great deal else, too. That a Jewish doctor has injected random people on a bus with cancer cells. Some Jewish doctors have been arrested and kept in a Lubyanka Prison cellar, awaiting Comrade Stalin’s signal for their execution.

The executions in turn are to trigger pogroms across the Soviet Union. On Stalin’s order, the trains are heading for Moscow to sweep the Jews away to camps the dictator has built in various remote areas, Siberia and elsewhere. The trains tend to have many freight cars and only one or two passenger cars, “for the guards.”

Historians still disagree about the Moscow trains. Some say a lack of documents makes the plan unlikely; others declare that Soviet orders frequently were strictly oral, seldom written down.

All these influences and more are woven, along with fictional elements, into “The Yid,” a story as ugly as its title, but one that must be told. The fictional elements, especially peripheral characters, deepen the sense of evil and helplessness that always has permeated Russian and Soviet history. “Has it started yet?” the characters inquire throughout the book, knowing that whatever is about to begin means more hardship for them.

Events in “The Yid” occur during the last week of February 1953, culminating in Stalin’s supposed stroke on March 1 and death on March 5. The whole book revolves around Stalin’s death, the focal point Goldberg takes his time revealing.

No sooner had Stalin died than a newly appointed commission declared not only that the plot to execute the physicians had never really been operative but also that the Jewish Doctors’ Plot was nonfunctional.

Yet Soviet citizens and even Old Bolsheviks and war heroes had reason to fear random arrest, torture and death. Just six months earlier, on Aug. 12, 1952, “the night of the murdered poets,” Stalin had ordered 13 Jewish poets and other intellectuals killed by firing squad at Lubyanka Prison. Purges every so often kept civilian society and military officials, not just the Jews, in turmoil for decades.

The plot begins to move when retired Shakespearean, sort of, actor Solomon Shimonovich Levinson stalls Sadykov’s efforts to arrest him. Levinson finally resorts to an old theatrical trick with Finnish knives to kill Sadykov and his two police assistants. Goldberg describes the maneuver in detail; it is too intricate to attempt summarizing it.

An unlikely band of accomplices begins to form, at first to get rid of the three dead secret security officers and their van in the middle of Moscow in the middle of the night.

The group includes Friederich Robertovich Lewis, an African-American welder named after Frederick Douglass and related to Levinson by marriage. Lewis, fleeing race riots at home, works for a construction company with a contract to build Stalin’s City of Steel in Siberia. His tailor makes Lewis’ suits from black-market gabardine to resemble those of the American singer Paul Robeson, another African-American stuck in the Soviet Union.

Along the way, the group adds Dr. Kogan, chief of surgery at a major hospital. He is a double suspect: a doctor and intellectual. They have to get rid of the bodies and van, eventually piling corpses five deep in a well and trying to hide more.

In only his first novel, Goldberg keeps the back story alive as the characters execute zany maneuvers to stay out of Lubyanka – and the freight cars. Levinson’s memories of Shakespeare’s plays performed in Yiddish, especially “Kinig Lir,” (sets designed by Marc Chagall) drift in and out of conversations. Theatrical rivalries and their connection with politics, including tours of the United States, also get into the act. Solomon Mickhoels, an actual person, an actor who could direct, a laureate of the Stalin Prize, looms in the background.

Goldberg’s research into the cultural history of the Soviet Union even quotes the USSR Criminal Code and touches on the role of token Americans in Soviet propaganda.

After hiding out briefly in a dacha settlement, a sort of upper-class suburb in the “classless” society, they go back. They have devised a plan, more or less. Since the fugitives all could be killed at any moment in the moral limbo of Stalin’s Russia, they ask, why not make an effort to accomplish something worthwhile, say, killing Stalin?

The dictator’s all-night drinking parties, lasting till about 4 a.m., are no secret. Goldberg uses that habit and other quirks as plot devices to get the gang into Stalin’s quarters amid the confusion of tipsy comrades being dismissed from the soiree. Lewis ludicrously concocts a white stage-makeup disguise when they are accosted in their flight from Moscow.

Goldberg’s graphic descriptions of the various killings and assaults may disturb some readers but they convey the terror of everyday life in the Soviet Union. Medically precise reports list the clinical effects of, for example, a stabbing. Plenty of blood, and worse, flows from beginning to end. It is the Blood Libel – that Jews use Christian blood to make matzoh – an element of anti-Jewish propaganda that is expected to trigger Stalin’s pogroms. Blood also figures, grossly, in the assassination plot.

Goldberg packs layers of meaning and atmosphere into the story, deftly blending humor and horror. He gives his characters full life stories, but their lives stay empty. More than a dozen times, characters tell of not having known one or another parent or of a parent’s early death. They refer to each other as “the only family I have.” This emotional privation may explain why they seem unaffected and not shocked by so many deaths, gruesome as they are.

Goldberg’s achievement in “The Yid” transcends the misery and evil he portrays. Just as Shakespeare inserts jesters among the gore of his tragedies, Goldberg has constructed a tragedy instead of a travesty of the human spirit. He never lets his characters give up hope of solving their predicament. Despite the horrors he shows us, we ought not look away.

Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.