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Karl Rodman’s “Comes the Revolution”

Leonard Lehrman
May 17, 2015
by Leonard J. Lehrman 41G3zj8q+YL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_IN THE SPRING, 2015 Jewish Currents, the obituary of my mother, Emily Lehrman, shares a page with an ad for the self-published novel, Comes the Revolution: Birdie's Story, by retired teacher and tour guide Karl Rodman, based on the life of his late Aunt Fagel. I think the two women would have liked, and liked knowing about, each other. I was immediately drawn to the title, though I'd always heard the expression as "Come the Revolution." I was also drawn to the book by the name of its main character, as my father's mother's name was Fagel too, but her English name was Frances, and she was called "Frankye," while Rodman's aunt was called "Birdie," a literal translation from the Yiddish. Even more of a draw, though, was the fact that both my mother and Birdie had each lived in and believed in the Soviet Union for over a decade in the 1920s and '30s. My mother was born there and left for America as a girl of 12 in 1935, wanting, at least at first, to go back, doing so eventually only as a visitor, in 1968 and again in 1970 and 1987. Birdie was born in New York, of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, in 1910, and went over to help build socialism in 1929, returning to the US just two months before the June 1941 German invasion. She too went back to Russia only later — much later, in 1992, and in one of the most moving passages of the book offers this observation, on p. 288:
I saw that you Russians were doing marvelous things. You made me proud. But I also saw how brutal the regime was. You were sacrificing your people for a better world that would come soon. It never did come, did it? But the sacrifices were horrible. All I could do was to remain silent. I didn't want to be counted among the enemies of the state.
And she is not willing and "not able to let go of the dream" of socialism (p. 301). Birdie is describing here the difficulties so many folks in the ex-Communist Party community had, dealing with issues of truth and loyalty. Paul Robeson and his late son and daughter-in-law are mentioned by name briefly in the narrative. So are the artist Charles Keller, the poet Anna Akhmatova, and the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who is not given his own name but rather Vladimir or Victor Mayerhoff for no apparent reason. In a telephone interview, Rodman told me that his aunt's romance with said director was invented, inspired by the bust she kept of him, and that her experiences in Israel were actually based on those of his parents. But she certainly did have adventures, not least her solo trip from Moscow to Siberia to get her Russian common-law husband released from a labor camp, in which effort she was in fact eventually successful. Her ride is worth reading about, even though the Russian and the historical accuracy of the book are, alas, sometimes faulty. Rodman's novel is a fitting memorial to his aunt, but would be even more so if he were to make corrections, which he told me he has every intention of doing. The Young Communist League, for example, is referred to several times as the "Communist Youth League." The Russian (actually, Old Church Slavonic) expression meaning "Lord, have mercy" should be "Gospodi pomiluy," not the various forms in which it appears. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas issued his stay in the Rosenberg case before, not after, going on vacation; he did come back to argue it, in a losing battle, with the full court; and the execution was moved up to before, not postponed until, sundown. Rodman's description of the Rosenbergs' funeral is vivid, and other vignettes are also powerful, especially the torment of having to give up teaching as a profession: "We all had to sign loyalty oaths... I wouldn't sign the damn thing, because next they'd be asking me, 'Do you know anyone who has been a member?'" This was an experience my mother also had when she had to turn down a public school teaching contract for fear of perjuring herself by having to sign just such an oath. Instead, she became a librarian. Trying to put a positive light on it all, she later described herself, as Birdie might have, as "the product of two cultures." Towards the end of her life, like my mother, Birdie is described as devoted to family, "remembering to send a card on every birthday." They certainly both deserve to be remembered as a blessing. Click here for a link to tributes to my mother. Click here to order Karl Rodman's interesting and often moving book. Leonard J. Lehrman, a composer, translator, has been a frequent contributor to Jewish Currents since 1981. He was co-director of the National Committee to Re-Open the Rosenberg Case in 2006-2010. Having visited and performed in the Soviet Union in 1971 and 1985, he is planning a trip in memory of his mother in 2016 to some of the cities where she lived: Samara, Dushanbe, Tashkent, Bobruisk, and Leningrad (now Petersburg).