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A Memoir of the Gulag Explores the Baleful Consequences of Soviet Tyranny for the Jews—and for Russia

When World War II broke out in 1939, Julius Margolin had just returned to his native Poland from the Land of Israel—three years after making aliyah—to attend to some business. He soon found himself in the Soviet-occupied portion of the country and, the next year, was exiled to one of Stalin’s vast network of prison camps, where he remained until 1946, after which he returned to Palestine. According to the historian Timothy Snyder, Margolin’s memoir of this period is perhaps the very best personal account of the Gulag. Snyder writes in his foreword to the recently published English translation:

Margolin is a keen observer of what happened in eastern Poland under Soviet rule: the deportation of elites, the subjugation of the economy, the closing of all independent organizations. Many Jews wanted to go back [to the German-occupied portion of Poland]: “as late as spring 1940, Jews preferred the ghetto to the Soviet equality of rights.” Many Jews did in fact return. Those like Margolin who stayed were expected to take Soviet citizenship. Jews who did not were deported to special settlements in Soviet Kazakhstan and Siberia in June 1940. A few weeks after that, Margolin was sent to a camp in the Russian far north to fell trees.

During Margolin’s first year as a zek, [as the inmates were known], the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies. His forced labor served an economy that supplied the Wehrmacht. We might be tempted to think of this as ironic; for Margolin it was simply the end of his world: “Both sides were inhuman reflections of everything we held dear and sacred.” There was nothing surprising, for him, in “Russia’s alliance with Nazi Germany.” A Jew in Soviet confinement, he had to endure pro-Nazi propaganda: “The rare Soviet newspapers that landed in the camp were full of pro-German publicity.” The Soviet press was reprinting the speeches of Nazi dignitaries. “In line with Hitler’s successes,” Margolin recalls, “anti-Semitism increased in the camp.” Although he was a Polish Jew, and well aware of Polish anti-Semitism, no one called him a “kike” until he was in a Soviet camp.

Margolin, a philosopher by training, had much to say about the brutal horrors of the Gulag, but he also had some insight into the legions of fellow travelers and Soviet apologists among Western intellectuals:

After the war, Margolin read Jean-Paul Sartre and laughed at Sartre’s idea that alienation was something experienced by bourgeois French people. He saw Sartre’s complaint about the absence of absolute meaning in existence as a temptation to seek it in politics, in a system such as Communism. As a prediction of Sartre’s politics, this was correct. Margolin actually experienced something very much like a pure alienation and wrote about it with a skill that should have been humbling to those who wrote about what they did not know.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Anti-Semitism, Communism, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nazi-Soviet Pact, Soviet Jewry, Soviet Union

A Senior Saudi Political Figure Takes the Palestinian Leadership to Task

In an extended television interview with an Arab broadcaster, Prince Bandar bin Sultan—who served for twenty years as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., for a decade as head of the Saudi National Security Council, and two years as intelligence chief—responded forcefully to the Palestinian claim that the Gulf states have, by normalizing relations with Israel, “stabbed the Palestinians in the back.” Defending Saudi devotion to the Palestinian cause, Prince Bandar delivered a lengthy history of his country’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which he bluntly upbraided Palestinian leaders, and Yasir Arafat above all, for squandering chances at statehood and for their lack of “ethics.” While Bandar’s sentiments can hardly be described as pro-Israel, he asserted that the Palestinian leaders are every bit as responsible as the Jewish state for the plight of their people:

[After the UN issued its 1947 Resolution 181 for partitioning Palestine], a Jewish state called Israel was recognized, which became a member of the United Nations. As for the Arab side, the Palestinians rejected the resolution, and as usual, we [Saudis] supported their rejection. Many years later, the main demand of our Palestinian brothers has been UN resolution 181, which is no longer on the table. No one is discussing it now. This was the beginning, and such events, as I mentioned, were repeated once, twice, and three times.

After the Oslo Accords, I asked Abu Amar, [i.e., Arafat], God rest his soul—and as they say remember the virtues of your dead—what he thought of the autonomy provisions [offered to the Palestinians under the 1978] Camp David Treaty. He said, “Bandar, Camp David’s autonomy provisions were ten times better than the Oslo Accords.” I said, “Well, Mr. President, why did you not agree to it?” He said, “I wanted to, but Hafez al-Assad threatened to kill me and to drive a wedge among the Palestinians, turning them against me.” I thought to myself, so he could have been one martyr and given his life to save millions of Palestinians, but it was as God willed it.

Bandar recounts another incident where he came to Arafat with an offer from the Reagan administration to pressure Israel into making concessions to the Palestinians, but Arafat stalled pointlessly until the offer expired. In short, Bandar’s view of things reflects the old adage “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Read more at Al Arabiya

More about: Israel-Arab relations, Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, Yasir Arafat