Philosophers long-buried story of gulag finally sees light

Finally, the whole truth about Julius Margolin’s years in Soviet labor camps has been published and may be appreciated at last — by anyone who reads French.

That makes this triumph somewhat bittersweet for Ephraim Margolin, 84. His father, who died in Tel Aviv in 1971, wrote “Journey to the Land of the Ze-Ka” some 65 years ago, after being held in the camps from 1940 to 1945. Family members have been seeking a publisher ever since.

“I am grateful and I am indebted to the people in France who have published my father’s book,” says the San Francisco resident. “Yet this book has never come out in Hebrew, or in English. How does it feel that a non-Jew in Paris saw that this was a great book, when nobody in the Jewish community saw that?”

A renowned criminal defense attorney and former law professor, Ephraim Margolin served for 40 years as an attorney for the State of Israel and still represents the Israel Consulate in San Francisco. He also was chair of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. Margolin and his wife, Gilda, have two children and one grandchild.

Ephraim Margolin with his father’s book, written 65 years ago but just recently published. photo/cathleen maclearie

Censored editions of the elder Margolin’s book and some excerpts have been published in the past, but the 800-page French edition (“Voyage au Pays des Ze-Ka,” Le Bruit du temps, Paris) is the first to contain the complete manuscript. Translated from Russian by Luba Jurgenson, a professor of Russian literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, the book was published in October. (An unauthorized English translation of part of the book is posted in the Toronto Slavic Quarterly at www.utoronto.ca/tsq/27/margolin27.shtml.)

Margolin knows why earlier editions of his father’s book were censored. “Publishers were interested in commentary about Soviet camps, but not terribly interested in Jews,” he says. “Also, at the time, the Soviets looked like they were our friends because they were fighting our enemy, so nobody wanted to hear that the Soviets may be almost as brutal as the Nazis.”

Margolin continues: “In 1948, when the Soviets believed that new State of Israel should be supported because it was hurting the British, still nobody wanted to hear my father’s story. He knew that the Soviets were not pro-Jewish, that they were not interested in us. But nobody wanted to hear that.”

Soon after the start of World War II, Julius Margolin — a philosopher, a Jew, a Polish citizen, and a resident of Palestine — was in Pinsk, Poland, the home of his parents. He was arrested by Russian police on June 19, 1940 and sentenced to five years in Siberian labor camps. For years his wife, Ewa, and son heard nothing from him.

“The Polish army was bivouacked in Palestine, and my mother advertised in the newspapers for anyone who may have seen my father,” recalls Margolin. “Over 60 people responded. My mother would treat them to tea and cakes, and they would talk. Some spoke of seeing him at place X or place Y. Some told her where my father was buried.”

One day, a telegram came, saying Margolin’s father had been liberated and was trying to get home. “When he returned, after nearly a seven-year absence, he had broken front teeth and strange, round eyeglasses,” says Margolin. “He had white hair, but his moustache was still red.” Julius Margolin — who had previously published news articles, essays, poetry and literary criticism — wrote his book in 10 months.

The new edition is garnering much positive attention. Le Monde called the book “one of the most profound sociological analyses of the gulag.” Liberation, another French newspaper, noted that “Margolin demonstrates that no book is more powerful, pure and even stirring than a big story about the camps.” The Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris has scheduled an evening in Julius Margolin’s honor.

“Journey to the Land of the Ze-Ka” is already in its second printing. “Time passes, and eventually the contribution is acknowledged. My father waited a long time for this,” says Margolin. “Now my father’s book is being compared with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s,” who wrote famously of the Soviet gulag.

Eyeing the French edition on his desk, Margolin adds: “There is talk of a German edition. The book has been translated into English, but there is no contract yet.” The French publisher has global publication rights and will “deal with an American edition, if there is one.” He pauses, and smiles. “Still, at last the story is getting out.”

 

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.