Memphis native Anna Olswanger, author of the graphic history A Visit to Moscow, began interviewing the influential New Jersey rabbi Rafael Grossman in the 1980s, writing down his stories from a lifetime spent fighting antisemitism. One of those stories concerned a 1965 visit to the former Soviet Union to investigate reports of Jewish persecution.
In Moscow, the rabbi managed to sneak away from official handlers to find a Jewish tenement from which a Holocaust survivor had sent a letter to a sister in New York. There he found Zev, a young boy raised in secret, never leaving his parent’s small apartment, experiencing the outside world only through an open window, late at night.
Grossman vowed to bring the boy and his family to Israel.
A literary agent representing graphic novels and children’s books, Olswanger is the author of Greenhorn, a middle-grade book based on another of Grossman’s stories. For A Visit to Moscow, she partnered with Yevgenia Nayberg, a Ukrainian-born illustrator and the author of Anya’s Secret Society. In an afterword by the artist, Nayberg explains how she drew on her childhood memories of life in the Soviet Union, as well as Soviet film noir. The result is an immersive visual story with a subtle palette of browns and greens, populated by figures reminiscent of Modigliani. Their darting eyes and flowing limbs heighten the suspense surrounding the rabbi’s cloak-and-dagger mission, as he finds a taxi in Red Square to take him to a dangerous part of Moscow at the height of the Cold War.
Grossman’s approach to the wary family is encapsulated in a series of cinematic panels that could serve as a storyboard for an animated feature film. In the book, as in history, the visit to Moscow ended without resolution, with the rabbi returning to the United States to begin a long campaign seeking relief for the persecuted family. The pivotal moment of that distant success is depicted without words in a two-page spread of a snowy street in Moscow, the domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral poking above drab industrial buildings and black-coated pedestrians. New colors emerge in the illustrations that follow, with the visual story ending poignantly at a double spread depicting a very different city.
In an author’s note, Olswanger explains that Grossman died in 2018, long after the two of them had written a partial draft of an unpublished novel including the Moscow story. By the time she began this book, she had no way to determine the true identity of Zev or his parents — details that Grossman had closely guarded at the time to protect them from further persecution amid the “Let My People Go” movement. In the end, she chose to write A Visit to Moscow as a work of historical fiction, in the belief that someday the real “Zev” will read this moving story and come forward.
Michael Ray Taylor is the author of Hidden Nature and other books. He lives in Arkansas, where he is currently working on a novel.
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