A Conversation with Gorky

Jacob Mazeh


On Sunday, 6 Tammuz, 5681 [July 12, 1921], I visited the author Maxim Gorky [ . . . ] and I told him the alarming news that had come to me from various cities about the horrible pogroms that had occurred in recent days, and when I described the cruelty of the persecutors of Israel to him, his eyes ran with tears. [ . . . ]

The beginning of our conversation was about the terrible famine in Samara and other cities, and Gorky told me that the Patriarch Tikhon had written an appeal to America, England, and other countries, to be merciful to those dying of hunger and send food and clothing, and he asked me to write such an appeal. I said to him:

[ . . . ] I fear that the act might be thought of as a sin in the eyes of the Soviet government, and that I might bring upon myself and my nation a curse and not a blessing, since any kind of relation at all with the Entente arouses suspicion. And there is proof because the Zionist Committee, whose eyes and heart are for the Land of Israel alone, was banned about three months ago because of suspicions of good relations with the Entente. Not only that, how could I sign such a petition, at a time when Jewish blood is being spilled in Russia, and all the orphans and widows who remain need great support, and it is entirely impossible to obtain it from abroad, as happened in 1903 after the pogrom in Kishinev and the pogroms that followed it? Now that assistance, too, has ceased, because even the support that was received from America for the victims of the pogroms was not delivered to the Jewish public. [ . . . ] In such a time, can a person sign a petition regarding the general disaster and need of the Russian people, since everyone knows in advance that this help will not reach the Jewish people? After all, the Patriarch is asking for mercy for his brethren, the sons of his nation and religion, and for whom should I ask mercy? [ . . . ]

My interlocutor was very moved and said to me with a great sigh:

I confess, that the Russian nation is a matter of hell and destruction, and no person can contemplate it, its history, and its acts of cruelty, without despair. And the people of our generation, who strove for the freedom of the Russian people and its liberation from servitude and poverty, those who shed their blood and gave up their lives for it, appear to me like a young man who in all the ardor of his youth strives to find a way to the heart of a beloved maiden, and after he has succeeded in attracting her heart to him, he finds her damaged and polluted from head to foot. Woe to us and to our generation! And with an open heart I tell you, that the situation of your nation is also a situation of “beyond despair” in my eyes because the persecutions against it have reached their greatest height, and, since you mentioned the Crusades, I must comment to you that in our day there is a campaign of the writers of all the nations in the world in all the languages to sow hatred in the hearts of the multitude and to arouse them to join together in order to remove the Jewish people from the world. [ . . . ]

People always call the pogroms by some other name, and they cover up the concept of pogrom with various words. [ . . . ] In these days they also call the pogroms by an essentially counterfeit name: Banditism. What is this “banditism”? Murder for the sake of robbery? Does a robber distinguish between nation and nation or between religion and religion? Was it the custom of pirates to fall upon a ship and differentiate among the passengers: Jews, to the right; non-Jews, to the left—and to kill only the Jews and to plunder only their property even if they are rags, and to leave golden treasures in the hands of non-Jews? Should this be called banditism? Is it not a pogrom! Riots particularly against the Jews. And when the Jewish people demands of the government that it save them from their murderers, their robbers, their rapists, they are answered: “What do you want? We are fighting vigorously against banditism.” True, any bandit is likely to make a pogrom, but not everyone who takes part in pogroms is a bandit. And in any case, it is clear as day that the bandits do not mix the pogroms with their robbery. This truly leads to despair. Self-defense is forbidden. To flee is forbidden. Emigration from the land that sheds their blood leads to punishments, “according to law,” and when they need to use the signature of some Jew to help the hungry in some places in the country, they speak to him in the name of “general decency” and say to him: “Come and sign.” They silence his appeal regarding the torture of his people, and they say to him: Raise your voice about the distress of others. [ . . . ]

I heard your words with attention said Gorky, and I no longer dare to ask you to sign the petition, because you are absolutely right. We are living in amoral times, the destruction of an entire people is thought of as a trivial matter, which cannot be dealt with. And nothing can stand before politics. [ . . . ]

After he promised to speak to Lenin himself and to ask him to give me an interview, and he promised me to report his answer to me, I rose from my seat and bid him goodbye.

Ten days passed, and I received no answer. Be that as it may, a deep impression remained in my heart that Gorky was full of despair about the future of my people, and even more about the future of his people; he usually did not express his political attitude explicitly, but his tears, when he remembered the victims of famine of the good people of Russia and the victims of the pogroms of the Jewish people these were “tears of opposition.” [ . . . ]

When he saw me out, he said to me that if I had any problem I could turn to him at any time and any hour. And thereupon we parted. [ . . . ]

Translated by
Jeffrey M.


Jacob Mazeh, “Siah im Gorkii” [A Conversation with Gorky], from Zihronot, 4 vols. (Tel Aviv: Yalkut, 1936), vol 4: pp. 15–23.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

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