In the summer of 1912, we received a letter from Warsaw, from A. Goldberg, who was writing to tell us he would be coming to Switzerland...and would like to call on us.... We thought he would be coming for a rest, like all others, or as a tourist. It turned out, however, that he wanted to visit Maxim Gorky and Alexander Amfiteatrov in Italy, for the purpose of interviewing them for Haynt.
The situation in Russia was very repressive. They were preparing the ugly false murder trial against Beylis in Kiev....The reactionary, anti-Semitic mood was increasing. One point of light was the attitude of the better Russian intelligentsia and the Russian literary establishment. They built up a movement of great moral strength, which has become a very important social and psychological factor.
Amfiteatrov had a great influence over the intelligentsia, but Maxim Gorky was its "high Priest." Gorky was at that time the "master of souls." Every word he uttered was listened to with the greatest attention and at once commented widely. For the persecuted Jewish masses and for the Jewish intelligentsia, the stand of the Russian writers was therefore of the utmost importance....Our first visit was to Amfiteatrov...He was a political exile and in his time he had become famous for his novel "The Family Obmanov." (It was known that the novel was based on the Tsar’s Romanov family)
Amfiteatrov was a great friend to Jews, and he always had the courage to come out sharply and actively against the Tsarist persecutions and against the anti-Semitism which at that time began to spread among the intelligentsia....
When we arrived at his house and he found out the reason for our visit, he received us with his special Russian intellectual warm welcome, and with broad Russian hospitality and open-heartedness....And it so happened that another esteemed guest came in, one of the most magnificent personalities that Russia has had, the well-known freedom fighter Herman Lopatin...
Few names have elicited such admiration in progressive circles as that of Herman Lopatin....After the leaders of "Narodnaya Volya (Will of the People)" (who had carried out the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in the year 1881), Andrei Zhelyabov and Sofia Perovskaya, were hanged by the Tsarist regime, Lopatin was elected leader of the organization at Narodnaya Volya’s meeting in Paris in 1884. He was arrested in 1884 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was immured in the Petropavlovskaya Fortress for 21 years, a most cruel living entombment that elicited the greatest shudder in all of Europe. For 21 years he saw no other human beings and heard no human words except those of his prison warders. After the 1905 amnesty, he was freed, already an aged man...
His eyes filled with sorrow when we told him about the new anti-Semitic bacchanalia. "What can be said that is new about anti-Semitism?" he said. "Even in 1884 I wrote strongly in our organ, ‘Narodnaya Volya,’ about anti-Semitism and the Tzarist incitement to Jew-hatred. The government is still inciting hatred toward the unfortunate Jews."
Lopatin related to us that already in 1870 he had met and befriended Jewish revolutionaries in the earliest gatherings within illegal circles. He told us with great emotion about his friend Aaron Lieberman, the editor of the first Jewish socialist periodical in Hebrew, Haemeth (The Truth). In good spirits, laughing and with a sparkle in his youthful eyes, he told us a very interesting episode in his life. Having been forced to live illegally under an assumed name, he lived for a certain time using the passport of a close Jewish friend.
"Everything was in order, except I was afraid of one thing. What would I do if the police came, and to verify who I am, insisted that I read from right to left?"
Amfiteatrov, on the other hand, was totally immersed in the present, in its concerns and sorrows, in all the Russian problems....Strolling around the room, he said, "A person gets a certain strange feeling when he signs up to step out publicly in defense of the Jews. Whatever one says is not enough, and besides, do the Jews need to be defended by those who would defend them? It seems that a bitter feeling overtakes the Jews themselves when they read the articles and speeches defending them. Yes, that is understandable, but we, Russian writers, need to free ourselves, however, from this heavy guilt, we need to free our consciences."
Amfiteatrov let us know how he is helping organize the collective protest of Russian writers, scientists, and known progressive activists against the blood-accusation of Mendel Bellis....He told us that he was a friend of many Jewish writers, was well-acquainted with many other Jews with whom he corresponded, and was not just a friend to Jews but was also knowledgeable about Jewish concerns ans in Yiddish literature. He even understood Yiddish and could read it to a certain extent. "Naturally," he complained, "I have to work hard at it." He was acquainted with Yiddish literature through the Russian translations, and esteemed it highly. He talked with us about Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Mendele, Bialik, Frishman. He was very impressed by Sholem Aleichem, whom he had met personally.
(From Amfiteatrov, Dr. Kruk traveled with Goldberg to Maxim Gorky’s on the Isle of Capri. She relates.......)
Gorky was in a very depressed mood. This was one of his bad days. Early in the morning, he would read the Russian newspapers he received, and this day’s news had particularly disturbed him greatly. He spoke in brief, curt sentences: "Russia, Russia, what is going to become of her?" he asked painfully.
...Gorky slowly becomes animated, begins to show interest on various subjects, ..
asks us a number of questions, replies with more spirit to our questions. He is very interested in Hebrew and Yiddish literature and actually knows quire a bit about it.
He also knows the Jewish writers personally, and particularly speaks warmly and very admiringly about Sholem Aleichem:
"How is our ‘gospodin’ (Mr.) Aleichem? Is he well?" he asks, thinking that Aleichem is his last name and Sholem his given name.
And Gorky tells us that....he wanted to know how Yiddish sounds. He asked an acquaintance of his, a Russian Jewish dentist who lives on Capri, to read Yiddish to him: "Since Mendele Mocher Sforim is the grandfather of Yiddish literature, I asked my friend to read to me some of his work also. I wanted to hear the rhythm and music of the language....I am reading Peretz now in the Russian translation. He is a great talent. It’s a pity that Dovid Frishman’s work is not translated into Russian! I esteem Gomberg and Asch very highly; and Bialik! A majestic poet! We didn’t know him at all until now. Only the Russian translation has allowed us to become acquainted with his great poetry.
Gorky asks about the development of Hebrew and Yiddish. He is also interested in the Jewish press. When Goldberg told him about the Yiddish press, and said that Haynt is printed in 100,000 copies, he was amazed.
Gorky called his wife from another room, where she had gone to prepare tea for us, and said, "Listen to this, their newspaper is called Haynt, meaning ‘sevodnya (today),’ what a fitting name!. There are various Yiddish daily publications, and theirs has 100,000 readers already. This is a people of culture whom others may envy!"
Moving over to the Jewish question, Gorky said, "Russia belongs to all nationalities and all peoples, and every people has a right to its existence, to the full development of its national idiosyncrasies, to an autonomous life of its own. No one has the right to deprive a people of this elementary right! The most important thing right now is to have an effect on stopping the spread of this poison that is anti-Semitism, that has lately caught on among some Russian intellectuals, and could spread to the young people of Russia. I don’t forget about this. I am always warning our progressive and better readers."
He told us he has plans to put out a special periodical, where representatives of different nationalities might collaborate, and which would be dedicated to the rapprochement of one culture to another..., one nation to another. "This will create a fertile base of mutual understanding and mutual respect, which are so necessary to cultural life." And Gorky adds, "Oh, if Jews could lead normal lives, and if Yiddish literature could develop normally!"