By Rachel F. Goldberg
On April 22, 1823, a 3-year-old boy named Fedor was found mutilated in a field outside the town of Velizh, in the Russian Empire’s western Vitebsk province. More than 40 Jews were wrongly accused of the murder and arrested. Some weren’t released until 1835.
The Velizh Blood Libel, as it became known, was among the reasons that Semyon Reznik, 81, left the Soviet Union in the 1980s. And it’s why he’s sitting now in his home in Springfield, Virginia, talking about the historical novel he wrote about the blood libel and the pervasive anti-Semitism in his birth country.
“I was brainwashed by Soviet propaganda like everyone from my generation,” Reznik said. “We believed in the Soviet Union, socialism, communism, Marx, Lenin. Religion was out of the question.”
Born in Moscow in 1938, Reznik grew up under a Soviet system that did not tolerate religion. In his home, there was no expression of Judaism. His grandfather had been a respected Talmud scholar, but his father grew up as a secular Soviet citizen.
Even without religion, Reznik knew he was a Jew. His neighbors reminded him of that. Reznik said that at the time he believed they were anti-Semitic because they were uneducated; his friends at school were different.
He became a researcher, writer, and editor, circulated among well-educated people. But he faced anti-Semitism. In his research, Reznik learned of the Black Hundreds — anti-Semitic, Russian nationalist group active in the early 20th century that conducted raids and pogroms against Jews and revolutionary groups. The Black Hundreds promulgated ideas that Jews were not Russian, they were wealthy, and they were against the czarist government, Reznik explained.
Armed with new knowledge, he wanted to share his findings and put his thoughts in writing, only to learn that it was impossible to get any piece on anti-Semitism printed by the government-controlled press.
“I decided I had to emigrate,” he said.
It was 1980, and Reznik, with his wife and 15-year-old son, wanted to go to Israel. But the KGB disrupted mail delivery between Reznik and a relative in Israel who was to give an official invitation to make aliyah. The Soviets eventually denied the family’s request to emigrate, and they became refuseniks.
Reznik says he continued to petition the authorities until 1982 when the family finally received exit visas that would expire in three days. They left immediately, arriving in the U.S. with $330 between them.
The family settled near Newark, New Jersey, where friends had settled the year before. They were already employed, so they were able to help the Rezniks get on their feet.
“The first two to three years were very hard,” Reznik recalled. He had to learn English, how to drive a car, and he had to find a job. His wife, who had been a physical chemist in Russia, learned computer programming.
But Reznik’s work, including “Chaim-and-Maria,” a novel about anti-Semitism, was published in Russian in the U.S.
After a few years, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where Reznik delivered news in Russian at Voice of America. He later worked at a Russian-language publication before returning to Voice of America, where he worked until his retirement about 10 years ago.
Reznik continues to write about the history of science and literature, and anti-Semitism, in his preferred Russian. His first book translated into English is “The Nazification of Russia: Antisemitism in the Post-Soviet Era.”
Full of ideas, Reznik is writing about the Russian war hero, surgeon, and poet Ion Lazarevich Degen, who died in Israel in 2017 at age 91. Reznik and Degen never met in person but corresponded extensively.
Along with Reznik’s 20 books, hundreds of articles, and numerous other writings, “Chaim-and-Maria” remains in print. This year, an English-language translation was published.
“What is good about fiction is that, if it’s good literature, it is good literature,” Reznik said.
The topic of Jew hatred continues to be apropos, especially in the current environment of increased anti-Semitism, he added. “I have a theory about where it comes from. It is part of the culture of Western Civilization that cannot go away. We have to fight against it every day and at every opportunity.”
As for his next project: Reznik said it just may very well be his own memoir.