By Rachel F. Goldberg
On April 22, 1823, a 3-year-old boy named Fedor was found mutilated in a field outside the town of Velizh, in the Russian Empire’s western Vitebsk province. More than 40 Jews were wrongly accused of the murder and arrested. Some weren’t set free until 1835.
The Velizh blood libel, as it became known, was among the reasons that Semyon Reznik left the Soviet Union in the 1980s. And it’s why he’s sitting now in his home in Springfield, talking about the historical novel he wrote about the blood libel, and the pervasive anti-Semitism in his birth country.
“I was brainwashed by Soviet propaganda like everyone from my generation,” says Reznik, 81. “We believed in the Soviet Union, socialism, communism, Marx, Lenin. Religion was out of the question.”
Born in Moscow in 1938, Reznik grew up under a Soviet system that did not tolerate religion. In his home, there was no expression of Judaism.
“That was taken out of society generations before,” says Reznik, a member of Congregation Olam Tikvah, in Fairfax. His grandfather had been a respected Talmud scholar, but his father grew up as a secular Soviet citizen.
Even without religion, Reznik knew he was a Jew. His neighbors reminded him of that. Reznik says that at the time he believed they were anti-Semitic because they were uneducated. His friends at school were different, and he thought that education made the difference in how people approached others.
“I believed this society was progressing,” he says.
In school, he was taught that everyone in the Soviet Union was equal. But life taught different lessons. When he became a researcher, writer and editor and circulated among well-educated people, “I had to face intellectual anti-Semitism,” Reznik says. “They had reasoning and theories about why Jews are strangers in [Russia] and if they want to do something good in this country they can’t; they can do only harm.”
He began to realize that the situation for Jews would not improve.
The pervasive anti-Semitism drove Reznik to explore its Russian roots. “I realized that anti-Semitism had deep cultural roots and didn’t come from nowhere.”
In his research, Reznik learned of the Black Hundreds — anti-Semitic, Russian nationalist groups active in the early 20th century that conducted raids and pogroms against Jews and revolutionary groups. The Black Hundreds promulgated ideas that Jews were not Russian, Jews were wealthy, and Jews were against the czarist government of the time, Reznik explains.
Armed with new knowledge, Reznik wanted to share his findings and put his thoughts in writing, only to learn that it was impossible to get any piece on anti-Semitism printed by the government-controlled press.
One of the unpublished pieces Reznik wrote in the late 1970s was a novel, “Chaim-and-Maria: Bloodthirsty Lovers.” It details the Velizh blood libel case of 200 years ago. Reznik focused on this incident because it was one of the largest and most outrageous of some 200 blood libel cases, yet it is nearly forgotten.
Unable to publish his manuscript, and realizing the firm grip anti-Semitism had on society, Reznik realized there was no place for him in the Soviet Union.
“I decided I had to emigrate,” he said.
It was 1980 and Reznik, with his wife and 15-year-old son, wanted to go to Israel. But the KGB disrupted mail delivery between Reznik and a relative in Israel who was to give an official invitation to make aliyah. The Soviets eventually denied the family’s request to emigrate, and they became refuseniks.
Reznik says he continued to petition the authorities until 1982. “We received our exit visas that had to expire in three days,” he says. “We left immediately. Plane to Vienna, train to Rome, where we had to apply to the U.S. embassy for political refugee entrance visas. Came to this country in late October 1982.”
They arrived with $330 between them. They to leave everything behind except the allowed 100 rubles per person.
They settled near Newark, N.J., where friends had settled the year before. The friends were already employed and helped the Rezniks get on their feet.
“The first two to three years were very hard,” Reznik recalls. He had to learn English, how to drive a car. And he had to find a job. His wife, who had been a physical chemist in Russia, learned computer programming. And, “Chaim-and-Maria” was published in Russian in the United States.
After a few years, the family moved to Washington, where Reznik had been hired to broadcast in Russian at Voice of America. After a decade-long stint at a Russian-language publication, Reznik returned to Voice of America, where he worked until his retirement about 10 years ago.
“Retirement, just means I don’t have a boss and don’t have to go to work,” he says. But he continues to write about the history of science and literature, and anti-Semitism, in his preferred Russian. His first book translated into English is “The Nazification of Russia: Antisemitism in the Post-Soviet Era.”
Full of ideas, Reznik is writing about the Russian war hero, surgeon and poet Ion Lazarevich Degen, who died in Israel in 2017 at age 91. Reznik and Degen never met in person, but corresponded extensively.
Along with Reznik’s 20 books, hundreds of articles and numerous other writings, “Chaim-and-Maria” continues to be printed and read. This year an English-language translation was published in the United States.
“What is good about fiction is that if it’s good literature, it is good literature,” Reznik says.
The topic of Jew hatred continues to be apropos, especially in the current environment of increased anti-Semitism, he says. “I have a theory about where it comes from. It is part of the culture of Western Civilization that cannot go away. We have to fight against it every day and at every opportunity.”
He said that his next project might be his own memoir.
Rachel F. Goldberg is a Washington-area writer.