Back in the USSR: Recollections of an American College Kid Turned Manuscript Smuggler

50 years later, illicit texts and dissidents remembered

Howard Kaplan poses in front of the Kremlin, summer 1971 (Courtesy Howard Kaplan)

In July 1971 in Moscow, after dinner with my tour group, I hurry along a memorized route in the direction of nearby Red Square. Kids are taught to inform in Komsomol, the political youth organization in the Soviet Union, so better not to ask directions.

I tap lightly on an apartment door. I hear noise within and someone approaches the entrance and speaks through the solid wood in Hebrew, “Erev tov.” “Good evening.”

I am startled that he would speak Hebrew to an unexpected knock. Code? Then the voice speaks in Russian.

“I don’t speak Russian.”


I am an American, on my way back to Los Angeles after spending my junior year at the Hebrew University, with this slight detour. I have to wait as he unbolts three locks. Lev Navrozov throws open the door to a huge and elegantly decorated apartment. Elegant crystal fills a tall cabinet. His wife appears, a half-tied apron dragging from her waist. She motions me to sit and she speaks vociferously to her husband.

Lev Navrozov. (Photo: Unknown family member, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

“My wife would be pleased if you would have supper with us but she is worried since the meat is not kosher.”

I’m stunned at his English, look at her and grin. “It’s O.K.”

She vanishes into the kitchen. I explain that his friend, Professor  Mikhail Zand, a recent émigré and Professor of Oriental Languages, spent an evening in my dorm room writing his official letter of arrival to Prime Minister Golda Meir and taught me how to find this apartment. Zand had introduced Navrozov to the Jewish Resistance Movement, a natural ebb from the ‘democratic’ movement of which they were a part. I unburden myself of the Hebrew primers and histories I’m hauling, completely unavailable in the USSR.

“Thank you,” he says. “You must understand Soviet mentality to realize how important these are to us. Everything here fluctuates, dependent on the caprice of the government. There is a thirst for textbooks. In the USSR, where so much energy is expended on propaganda, books take on an exaggerated significance. They transcend their words to become symbols, nurture strength, foster the will to struggle.”

Soon his wife delivers a full course meal. I am too stuffed from the group Chicken Kiev to eat much. Sensing my embarrassment, she returns with a bowl of raspberries on crushed ice. This opulence stuns me and then he explains. Around the globe, people translate from their acquired language into their mother tongue. Navrozov is the preeminent translator of books and articles in the Soviet Union from Russian into English, has tackled Dostoevsky, Herzen and hundreds of technical articles. Soviets cannot buy books from London. Stalin created the Referent Faculty of the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages to produce a generation of experts in Western languages and culture. Forty-six years later, I created a character in The Spy’s Gamble with Navrozov’s bona fides.

Tourists waiting in line to visit Lenin’s Tomb, 1971 (Courtesy Howard Kaplan). Click image to enlarge

For the following week, I continue on my tour which takes me to Leningrad, Kiev, and Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. In the evenings, I meet with Jewish dissidents in their homes. Saturday, I head through Red Square. The guys are waiting for me outside and guide me back to a basement which I see in the daylight is an artist’s studio. I had been here a week earlier to meet the leaders of the Soviet Jewish movement and discuss the transfer of a manuscript on microfilm that I would carry to London.

I jokingly ask, “Why aren’t you in synagogue?”

Navrozov translates and they all laugh. He says, “We have the address of KGB central headquarters if you would like it. Why settle for the synagogue, it’s merely a branch office.” Informants.

I have a present I’ve saved, a slate, the kind children write on then pull up the plastic to erase it. They go bananas.

Navrozov says, “During a year we probably use tons of paper to talk.”

They provide a list of those in desperate straits. They give money when they can. An artist hands me ten Chagall-like lithographs, ink on parchment. They place the lithographs between tourist posters of the Soviet Union, rolled the posters and lithographs together and slipped them into a tube. I give the artist my address. I’ll mail them to him when he gets out. All unpublished writings and art are considered property of the state and must remain behind.

I take a fresh 35mm Kodak film canister from my bag. London instructed that I can secret the microfilm in it, then throw it in my camera case with a slew of exposed and unopened rolls. In my room I had carefully opened the box with a knife and pried off the end of the yellow canister. I remove the film, sever a long length of lead, insert the roll of microfilm and tape the lead to protrude several inches from the canister the way new film appears. I try to snap the round end back but can’t.

“I engineer,” someone says and grabs it from me.

Another speaks in Russian and they all laugh. “He asked what he knows about engineering. He has not worked in two years.”

Unnamed Soviet dissidents with whom Kaplan met (Courtesy Howard Kaplan). Click image to enlarge

I love these guys. Somebody gets it on and we glue the top of the small rectangular yellow box closed.

That manuscript was My Father Killed Mikhoels by the dissident writer, Vladimir Gusarov. Solomon Mikhoels, the Yiddish actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was assassinated in Minsk in 1948 on orders of Josef Stalin who had been pursuing an increasingly anti-Semitic policy.

Before very long, Gusarov’s work found its way to the National Library of Israel.

This article has been published as part of 
Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

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Water vs. Corona? Don’t Try This at Home!

Curing diseases, restoring organs, revitalizing the body and even resurrecting the dead! Rare caricatures from 19th-century England prove that strange folk remedies have been with us for a while…

A common theme: A patient sits naked in the bath, receiving a shower of hot or cold water, "The Sure Water Cure", the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Has anyone tried to sell you an anti-coronavirus machine recently? We suggest you pause for a moment before you hit that “Buy Now!” button…This isn’t the first time that our society has been inundated with promises of miracle cures of one type or another. Perhaps you’ve heard of something known as “Hydropathy”? Well, a series of lithograph postcards preserved in the National Library of Israel’s Sidney M. Edelstein Collection, which were printed in the satirical book, The Sure Water Cure, (Messrs Fores, London, 1843) tells us of a series of weird and cruel attempts at healing, alongside a thriving and criminal water-treatment industry. Perhaps the logic used here was something along the lines of, “If these methods don’t kill you, congratulations – no silly virus will stand a chance…”

Nowadays, we’re familiar with modern water-based therapies and their great contribution to the field of orthopedics, the development of motor skills, as well as emotional development. This modern method of treatment is known as ‘hydrotherapy’. In the past, more than a century ago, water medicine was referred to as ‘hydropathy’ or ‘water cure’. This school of thought gained momentum and became extremely popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It even spawned an entire field of alternative medical literature.

Doctors estimated that water might have healing properties that could be harnessed, for example, by manipulating water temperature or water pressure, or transferring water through an assortment of odd contraptions. In general, their observation was correct: water can indeed be used effectively in certain situations for healing purposes. For example, water treatments were found to be successful in reducing fevers and high blood pressure, and scientists hurriedly assumed that they had found the new miracle cure. It wasn’t long before charlatans caught wind of the startling revelation, and “holy” and “miraculous” solutions to various ailments began appearing by the dozen.

Among promises made to anyone willing to listen, were the far-fetched assurances that various methods of water treatment were capable of rejuvenating one’s youth and restoring missing limbs. There were even claims that special, secret treatments could bring a person back from the dead. The postcard here displays a real advertisement, with the head of a water pump shaped as a cross, alluding to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The advertisement declares:

The Sure Water Cure – Amputations restored the dead revived and age hydropathicalized into youth.”

The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the late 19th century, it wasn’t uncommon to see amputees and elderly people standing in line for ridiculous, unreasonable treatments. Gradually, and in order to increase revenue, the practitioners promised that water therapy could cure mental and spiritual illnesses, such as insomnia, suicidal tendencies, manic-depressive disorders, as well as severe physical illnesses such as paralysis or arthritis. Toward the end of the 19th-century, the phenomenon was so popular and widespread, that a series of medical caricatures were printed in England, warning the public of the false “miracle cure” and poking fun at the trend.

Hydropathy was based on external and internal water treatments. One of the treatments the public was warned about came to be known as “The Mummy State”. The below illustration shows a patient lying in his bed (probably suffering from the flu, a fever, or some other malaise), tightly wrapped up in blankets like a mummy, as a machine pumps generous quantities of water into his body through a tube.

“…those who thus expect to be cured, will suck in any thing, any quantity, and at any price!” – The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

The process is described on the back of the caricature, in words that serve as biting criticism of a gullible public:

“The Mummy State

The patient […] is tightly enveloped in blankets to perspire, if he lives long enough he is usually made a Mummy of or cured, the chances are equal. The hands being confined. Water is given plentifully through a tube, obviously those who thus expect to be cured, will suck in any thing, any quantity, and at any price!”

Or in other words: When in a panic, you’ll buy whatever you’re told works.

Many of the caricatures show a patient sitting naked in a bathtub receiving a shower of hot or cold water (depending on the treatment) in the hopes of curing some mental illness. The skeptics continued to cast doubt, and instead of recommending the treatment to the public – suggested it be used on members of the British Parliament. The back of the postcard reads: “…a Douche is in preparation expressly adapted for the use of M.Ps. as it will be found extremely efficacious in clearing the intellectual depository and in supplying the said vacuum!”

“…extremely efficacious in clearing the intellectual depository…” – The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

The mentally-ill population suffered in particular from these aquatic “miracle cures,” which were especially prevalent in London’s horrific 19th-century psychiatric institutions. In order to extract the disease from one’s head, treatment methods sometimes included plunging the patient’s head into a bucket of water, while he or she was held upside down, using ropes and pulleys. The torturous method, which harkens back to medieval times, proved itself ineffective in treating diseases of the mind. However, over the years, various intelligence agencies have controversially used similar methods, involving the simulation of a sensation of drowning, while attempting to extract secrets from people who weren’t interested in disclosing them.

Dunking the head of the patient in water: not so useful in treating mental illness; similar methods would be used in interrogations, The Sure Water Cure, the Sidney M. Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Water therapy treatments were a hit more than a century ago. At the beginning of the 20th century and with the establishment of modern medicine, the cruel treatments were abandoned. But if anything can be learned from the past, it’s that people will always take advantage of humankind’s desire for health, and sell all kinds of tricks, instruments, and concoctions, which will “guarantee” quick cures or a miracle. So the next time you hear about an anti-corona device or an all-curing wonder-bath which fits in your own living room, don’t be quick to order that special delivery – go to a doctor. Stay safe.


Many thanks to Chaya Meier Herr of  the Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine for her assistance in preparing this article.


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Contagious Books: Epidemics in Literary Masterpieces

Coronavirus? We've seen it all before… A look at several plagues (both real and fictional) that were commemorated in literature over the years

In these tumultuous days of corona, as we all endure the weighty rules of social distancing, allow me to recommend that you keep the four following books close by – at best they will provide comfort; at worst, they’ll remain sealed on your book shelf, because this article will tell you all you need to know (spoiler alert!).

Let’s start with The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a common folk tale which dates back to the Middle Ages, and which has been told and retold in many different versions. The story takes place in the year 1248, in the city of Hamelin, Germany, during the outbreak of a disease among the city’s rats.

Just when the residents of Hamelin despaired of their unsuccessful struggle against the pestilence, a mysterious piper appeared and offered to remove all the rats from the city for a fee. After facing the ridicule of the city’s residents, the city council approved the pact with the odd visitor. The piper took his pipe and started playing a tune as he strode along the streets of the city. As he played, the rats were lured out of their hiding places, to the great surprise of the locals.

A painting of the Pied Piper on stained glass, 1592

When all the rats were gathered, the piper left the city and walked down to the Weser River. When he reached the water, he walked into it, while still playing his pipe. The rats followed him in and drowned. The city of Hamelin was saved from the rats, and the city council immediately declared a holiday and held a festive ball.

When the piper came to demand his fee, he was met with derision, and to his surprise, the locals even demanded that he be thrown out of the city. When the residents were exposed as ungrateful villains, the piper once again took up his pipe and began to play. This time, he played another magical tune – yet it wasn’t the rats that ran after him bewitched, but the children of the city! Once all the children had gathered around him, the piper made his way into a large mountain, from which no child ever returned. And so, the city of Hamelin lost all its children, as a result of the evil deeds of its people.

The story was rewritten again and again over the course of history; including by the Brothers Grimm. The moral of the story teaches us that the punishment of a corrupt, rotten society is annihilation – just like the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and the following literary plagues.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a Hebrew edition, Guy Publishers, 1990

Unlike the previous story, the next book isn’t based on an actual historical plague.  However, just like the tale of the Pied Piper, it also makes use of the theme of disease to hint at a process of decay in society (and rats are again at the center of it all! Is someone trying to give us a hint…?)

The Plague is a novel by Albert Camus, a French Algerian author, and a Nobel laureate in Literature.

The novel is divided into five parts: in the first, we are told of an outbreak of plague in the city of Oran, in Algeria. The locals grow anxious as the city is filled with dying rats and before long people begin to succumb to the disease as well, at an ever-growing rate. Preventive measures are taken and a special department is opened in order to treat the patients and isolate them. Due to the sharp increase in the number of people infected and the lack of proper equipment to take care of them, the city is sealed off and a state of emergency is declared.

In the second part, all resources are severely limited and the city is completely cut off – communication with the outside world is impossible, apart from phone calls in cases of emergency. The narrator emphasizes the separation of family members, friends, and couples. The separation and lockdown affect daily activity in the city and crush the peoples’ spirit, despite their attempts to continue to behave normally.

(Don’t panic, it’s only a book…)

The remainder of the book reads like the script of your typical post-apocalyptic thriller, as the atmosphere in the city descends into chaos, and attempts to revolt and escape are violently suppressed. Just as people begin to despair, the disease miraculously abates and the rats return to the city.

The book, perceived as an allegory of the maladies of human society, was published in 1947 after World War II. Some also consider it a metaphor for the French resistance to the Nazi occupation.

The Plague, Albert Camus, a Hebrew edition, Am Oved Publishers, 2001

And now let’s head down the Atlantic coast from France to Portugal…

Blindness is a novel by the Portuguese author José Saramago, published in 1995.

The story begins with a driver who suddenly goes blind. However, this is no ordinary blindness – the only thing the driver sees before his eyes is the color white! A passerby volunteers to bring the driver home, but exploits his blindness and steals his vehicle. The blind man contacts an eye doctor, who is unable to find anything wrong with his eyes.

Gradually, the blindness becomes contagious, spreading from person to person: when a blind person looks at someone, that person also becomes blind. This is how the car thief is afflicted with blindness, the people in the doctor’s waiting room, and the doctor himself. The only person who remains immune to the blindness is the doctor’s wife. As the epidemic of blindness continues to spread, the authorities declare a state of emergency, placing all the blind people in isolation in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, in order to prevent the spreading of the blindness, which becomes known as “the white sickness.”

The patients suffer hardships until they manage to escape the asylum and return to the city. There, they discover that all of the city’s residents have gone blind and that chaos rules. The group tries to establish a measure of structure and order in what has become a lawless world, and is confronted with the difficulties of this strange new life and the necessity to search for food and water (and, I assume, toilet paper, as well).

At the end of the book, the blindness is lifted, and all the residents of the city get their sight back in the same order in which they were infected – starting with Patient Zero and so on. The cause of the strange blindness isn’t explained in the book, and remains a mystery.

Blindness, Jose José Saramago, a Hebrew edition, Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group, 2000

And now, an abrupt transition, from the white plague to the black plague, in a literary masterpiece which narrates a fictional plot against a backdrop of historical reality. Here, too, we see an attempt to preserve normal social order amidst instability and social disintegration, in Giovanni Boccaccio’s great work – The Decameron.

Boccaccio wrote The Decameron in the 14th century, as the bubonic plague (“The Black Death”) ravaged Florence.  In his story, ten young noble Florentines flee from the plague to an unaffected rural area. Quarantined with their servants in a luxurious villa, they spend ten days telling each other stories. We won’t dwell on these fascinating tales, but rather on the introduction describing the situation in the city during the epidemic.

A painting by Sandro Botticelli, Decamaron, 1487

Instead of explaining and expanding, I’ll just let the text speak for itself.

“Thirteen hundred and forty-eight years had passed since the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God, when there came into the noble city of Florence, the most beautiful of all Italian cities, a deadly pestilence, which… several years earlier had originated in the Orient, where it destroyed countless lives, scarcely resting in one place before it moved to the next, and turning westward its strength grew monstrously. No human wisdom or foresight had any value: enormous amounts of refuse and manure were removed from the city by appointed officials, the sick were barred from entering the city, and many instructions were given to preserve health… at the beginning of the spring of that year, that horrible plague began with its dolorous effects in a most awe-inspiring manner, as I will tell you.

…But what gave this pestilence particularly severe force was that whenever the diseased mixed with healthy people, like a fire through dry grass or oil it would rush upon the healthy. And this wasn’t the worst of the evil: for not only did it infect healthy persons who conversed or mixed with the sick, but also touching bread or any other object which had been handled or worn by the sick would transport the sickness from the victim to the one touching the object.

…Because of all these things, and many others that were similar or even worse, diverse fears and imaginings were born in those left alive, and all of them took recourse to the most cruel precaution: to avoid and run away from the sick and their things; by doing this, each person believed they could preserve their health.”

The Decamaron, Giovanni Boccaccio, a Hebrew edition, Carmel Publishing, 2000

It’s true that the social distancing that’s been forced upon us isn’t easy to cope with, but let’s stay optimistic (and adhere to the rules), and remember that things are gradually getting better (and warmer). Let’s hope we get a few good books out of this pandemic too!


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When the ‘Jerusalem of Austria’ Burned to the Ground (on Lag B’Omer)

A look back at the disaster which befell the city of Brody in 1867, and how Europe's Jews came together to help the victims

“There is no way to estimate, no way to tell or describe the great catastrophe that occurred in our city that day…  All the houses were completely consumed by fire, all that people had worked for came to nothing, everyone’s faces became disconsolate from the flames, holy books flew into the air, utterly sparks of light. The new and old synagogues, the houses of study, and the hospital went up to heaven in fiery smoke.”

Brody was a commercial and intellectual center. Since at least the 1500s, it was home to a thriving Jewish community and notable figures from different streams of Jewish thought and life had called it home – Kabbalists, Hassidim, proponents of the Enlightenment, even famous writers and entertainers.

The Fortress Synagogue in Brody, late 19th century. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

It was known as the “Jerusalem of Austria”.

By 1867, Brody’s population had reached about 20,000, some 75% of whom were Jewish. In March of that year, the Kaiser himself granted the Jews of Brody the exceptional right to hold up to half of the seats on the municipal council as opposed to the one-third generally permitted.

On Lag B’Omer, just two months later, the “great catastrophe” described above by newspaper editor Baruch Werber, destroyed much of Austria’s Jerusalem.

Brody had suffered fires in its history, even as recently as 1859. Just a generation before that, a massive blaze in the village inspired noted Hebrew scholar, poet and Brody native Marcus Strelisker, to publish “The Cup of Poison“, a raw lamentation on the destruction of his hometown, which included these words:

“Poor turbulent Brody! She almost turned into a wasteland
Soon a moon will have passed, and she is not yet consoled
The fury has not yet subsided, the wrath has not yet abated!”

From a copy of Marcus Stelisker’s “The Cup of Poison“, the National Library of Israel

The city had just a few poorly outfitted firemen. Nearly all of the homes and roofs were made of wood.

Besides the destruction of central institutions, two major synagogues and a hospital, according to one account no less than 32 batei midrash (Jewish houses of study) were destroyed in the 1867 blaze, alongside between  800 and 1300 homes (sources vary). The wooden homes served as ready kindling. Some roofs were made of zinc, which turned into molten streams running down the collapsing walls of what had once been homes, oozing into the streets.

“I saw  masses of people running and not getting tired, their eyes  turned to the heavens, towards clouds of smoke rising higher and higher. Before I knew it I was among the runners… I became one of the terrified ones lifting my legs to run towards home, and before I even got to my doorstep, ha! Fire stood over me, and every place I went there was a pillar of fire before me…” wrote Baruch Werber, the editor of local newspaper Jbri Anochi, a week after the blaze.

Baruch Werber’s son Jakob, pictured here as a young man, survived the fire as a child. He would follow in his father’s footsteps as editor of Jbri Anochi. From the National Library of Israel archives

Thousands like Werber fled, gathering their loved ones and most valued possessions and running to the fields.

Then something kind of beautiful happened.

As the flames continued dancing in the sky and the smoke billowed on, people began to arrive from the surrounding villages. Some had seen the fire and smoke, while others had heard the fast-spreading rumors of Brody’s fate. They came from places like Radyvyliv, Dubno, and Tarnopol, and brought with them clothes, blankets and bread.

As the fires retreated and the embers sizzled into ash over the coming days, many of those fortunate enough to still have a bit of roof over their homes invited the less  fortunate into their homes until the devastation could be better assessed, and the reconstruction could begin.

In the coming weeks, accounts of the carnage, accompanied by pleas for assistance, and words of gratitude to those who had already sent aid cluttered newspaper pages. Donations came in from near and far as simple peasants, synagogues and communities heard the plight of their neighbors and availed themselves to help. Donations were listed in Werber’s Jbri Anochi newspaper, even spurring complaints that he had not included them all.

Leon Ephrussi, one of the richest men in the world, a “King of Wheat” described in Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, even spearheaded a campaign to raise funds for the decimated shtetl, where his wife Minna had grown up.

Headline in the Hamelitz newspaper on June 6, 1867 imploring its readership: “Turn your hearts to mercy!”
“Wake Up Call!” in the Hamagid newspaper on June 12, 1867, asking readers to help the victims of the Brody fire


According to a first-hand account from Adela Landau Misis, who was a child at the time, the fire prompted the creation of a well-equipped volunteer fire department. Wood shingles were banned.

All of the homes in Brody were re-built with better materials and iron roofs, and “The Jerusalem of Austria” never again saw a fire like the one kindled that Lag B’Omer.

Postcard showing a rebuilt Brody in the late 19th century. From the Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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