The Red Star
The Extraordinary Story of
Margaret Werner, the Only
American Woman to
Survive Stalin's Gulag
In 1932, the Ford Motor Company offered to send workers and technicians to Russia to build a complete factory for the production of farm machinery. 400 men --- many with wives and children --- were transported from Detroit to the Soviet village of Gorky to embark on the project.
Margaret Werner was seven at the time, and reluctantly took leave of her school and friends in Detroit to be part of that historical experiment. Which turned into a political, historical, and personal disaster.
From their relative prosperity in Michigan, they found themselves in a village with little or nothing in the way of infrastructure or privacy. There was never enough food. The living conditions were filthy. Housing was impossible.
Carl soon began to suffer from malnutrition. Worse, as an old radical in the labor unions from the United States, he despaired, realizing that the Soviet system was hopelessly far from the ideal he had envisioned from so far away. The workers around him at the factory in Gorky were all "renegades, rebels, and hypocrites," he said.
The traitors are everywhere --- liars and thieves, selling themselves and everyone else for pennies.
The Russian workers would steal parts from the factory, including machinery and even production line belts. He was not a happy camper, he spoke out. Six years after their arrival, Carl was arrested by the NKVD.
No reason was given; he had five minutes to pack his things; he was never heard of again. Margaret and her mother spent the next years trying to track him down, lived pitiably, always hungry, their clothing threadbare. Margaret also found herself an outcast among her recent new friends.
When she was seventeen, the Communist party of Gorky called an assembly. The children were to sing the Russian anthem and then, as "loyal comrades," were to stand and denounce anyone convicted of crimes against the state. "Family members were no exception."
When Margaret was called, she said, "I chose to speak out against their blasphemous insinuations."
Instead of denouncing my father as instructed, I decided to speak the truth.
Shortly after, she was arrested as a traitor, and sentenced to ten years at the gulag at Inta, in the far, cold, north --- just shy of the Arctic Circle.
§ § §
This is prison lit, but with a distinction. As the title tell us, Margaret is probably one of the few if not the only American woman to go into the gulag and survive. Readers may not be familiar with the Russian prison system. It imposed impossibly hard labor for the men and women alike; there were tiny portions of often inedible food; there was no clothing supplied; the prisoners lived with constant thievery and hostile guards, often ready to violate the female prisoners. Too, since they were in the far north, there were bitterly cold winters, while prisoners were forced to live in preposterously bad housing.
Communication with the outside world? One letter a year, on a single page, was all that was allowed. Treachery was everywhere. Privacy and hope ... none at all.
Margaret turned out to be a tough cookie. From the ease and joy of her life in Detroit --- and from her relatively happy life swimming and playing in Gorky, she turned savage merely to survive. She learned the most basic rule of prison: be tough or be lost. "Before I gave up smoking, I actually punched a young man in the nose for attempting to steal my cigarettes. "
I had to do this, not only to defend myself, but also to set an important personal precedent. I had to mark my territory and set a boundary for the rest of my life in this camp, what I would tolerate and what I wouldn't ... I had to become a good actor.
"I hit him really hard ... He promptly hit me back, squarely in my left eye, and I carried around a severe black eye, but he was walking around with two black eyes himself from my boldness and my direct hit to the bridge of his nose ... I now had a reputation."
§ § §
The most intriguing part of Dancing Under the Red Star is not the tale of hardships and bare survival ... but the story of the deep friendships she made over her ten years of incarceration. Such onerous living conditions force one to find peers that can be trusted completely. She provides us with the nitty-gritty of the life, the acknowledgement of how important they were to each other. Too, there were their animals: prisoners often sacrificed their meager rations so that their pets could live.
We learn as well how in the midst of this deprivation, Margaret and several other women overcame all resistance --- from fellow-prisoners, from the camp authorities, from their own fatigue --- to set up an acting and ballet company, "The Cultural Brigade," which performed for their own gulag and nearby gulags. They undertook such works as Prince Igor, Stone Flower, Swan Lake.
Given that there were no costumes, no sets, they improvised everything. This on toothpaste tubes: "I sliced them open lengthwise, thoroughly washed and dried them, and straightened out all the wrinkles. This produced very shiny pieces of gold foil, which I used to make sequins, stage jewelry, and ornaments for the stage."
Toothpaste tubes also formed a candelabra and chandeliers for the stage. For Tamara, our teacher and now my best friend, we cut out more than two thousand foil discs to cover her costume for a solo she danced in our production of Faust.
It's a bitter overview of Stalin's system of justice, especially hard on those who had started life in peacetime America. But despite Margaret's oft-repeated deep affection for her father, one might wonder at a parent's stubbornness, one that kept the family in a dangerous country for far too long; a parent who planted the seeds of his own demise, along with twenty years of misery imposed on an unsuspecting wife and child.--- Ivan RichHebrew
(Sounds True)There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, characters representing not only sounds but numbers and specific objects. "Yud" [Fig 3, below] is the number ten, but it is also the first letter of the Tetragrammaton, and as Rhine says, "It is the only letter suspended and is the first letter of G-d's Holy Name." He also cites the significance of ten in the Torah: Ten commandments, ten utterances of creation, ten plagues brought by Hashem against the Egyptians. "A prayer service cannot begin without a quorum of ten men."
Hebrew Illuminations celebrates the visual richness of the letters, with full page illustrations, vivid with color. "Aleph" is the number one, and represents "chief" --- the unity, the connection. It appears as a near block with elaborately decorative filigree.
"Beit" is two. It means house, as well as "the beginning, the pairing." It appears a reversal of the letter "C" with a floating four-pointed star.
Gimel is three, "to bestow," implying the three parts of the Torah.
§ § §
Each letter is given a sample quote. Artist Rhine draws on Psalm 145 to provide the context "to open our hearts to the letters." He also concludes the book with twenty-two full page "Magen Davids" --- not to be confused with the wine, please --- illuminated prayers from Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Traditional Prayers, among others. One offers a Prayer for Dew: "Dew, precious dew --- let it drop sweetly on the blessed land..." The illustration shows a full page six-pointed star enclosing the word "Tal."
The foreword by Rabbi David Zeller is brief and winning, proposing that the letters might be considered modern Rorschach ink-blots. "Abra Kedabra, the magicians' formula" --- the ones we used as kids, before producing something we believed to be magical --- is from "the Aramaic, the language of the Talmud and the Zohar, an ancient Hebrew dialect, that means, 'I will create (a-bara) according to (ke) my word (dabara.)'"
Rhine begins his Introduction with a quote from one of our favorite parts of the Pentateuch: Moses demands that Hashem show his face. The divine refuses, saying that it would kill Moses. He then offers to set Moses in a "cleft in the rock," to cover him "with My hand until I have passed by."
Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back: but My face shall not be seen.
Rhine has chosen here a slightly expurgated version of Exodus 33:23. Some commentators offer "My back parts," or "you will see Me from behind." The truth, hidden in the Christian Vulgate, is Avtem meam videre non et videbis posteriora mea. Or, as one irreligious commentator would have it, The Ultimate Divine Mooning.--- Sheila Block