This is a story about a story about a story.
Passing along stories is Anna Olswanger’s passion as a literary agent and children’s book author.
The story she passes along in the forthcoming graphic novel “A Visit to Moscow” is a work of historical fiction, based on a story that Rabbi Rafael Grossman told her in the 1980s.
Ms. Olswanger, who grew up in Memphis, was a member of Rabbi Grossman’s Baron Hirsch Synagogue there. (Much later, they both moved to Bergen County. She lives in Fair Lawn; he lived in Fort Lee and then Englewood before making aliyah toward the end of his life.)
“Rabbi Grossman and I began collaborating on writing projects in the early 1980s,” Ms. Olswanger said.
During one of their sessions, he told her that in 1965, he’d been one of nine rabbis who went to the Soviet Union on a trip organized by the Rabbinical Council of America. The Orthodox rabbis went to visit Jewish victims of government-sponsored antisemitism. Rabb Grossman met a Holocaust survivor there with a young son — Ms. Olswanger named him Zev in her novel — who had spent his first 11 or 12 years hidden inside the tiny apartment where he was born.
The parents explained that they wanted Zev to live as a Jew and not to be persecuted or harassed by the Communists. But the price was steep: no school, no friends, no outside interactions whatsoever.
With the help of the late Representatives James Howard (D-N.J.) and Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.), and Senator Clifford Chase (R-N.J.), Rabbi Grossman managed to get the family to Israel, seven years before the Brezhnev-Kosygin government granted the first exit visas to Soviet Jews.
Rabbi Grossman even visited Zev and his family in their new homeland. “Every time I visited him, he was smiling,” Rabbi Grossman told Ms. Olswanger. He saw them for the last time in 1992. Later that year, Zev was killed in action in Lebanon at the age of 37, leaving a widow and young children.
Ms. Olswanger intended to include this poignant story in a novel she and the rabbi started writing together, but the book never was finished. She didn’t see the manuscript again until Rabbi Grossman died in 2018. His daughter, Aviva, who lives in Englewood, sent Ms. Olswanger a box of work they’d done together. And that prompted her to dig up her old notes from their original conversation.
“I was always so taken with that particular story of the little boy who never went outside,” Ms. Olswanger said. “And I couldn’t let go of it. Over the years, I thought it could be a short story or an illustrated children’s book. Now I knew it could be a graphic novel.”
In September 2018, Ms. Olswanger contacted award-winning illustrator, painter, and set and costume designer Yevgenia Nayberg of Brooklyn, who immigrated from Ukraine.
“She’s done a number of picture books that I had sold for her as an agent,” Ms. Olswanger said. “I thought, not only was her style perfect, but just the fact that she was a Jew from the former Soviet Union felt perfect. So I asked her if she would illustrate Zev’s story, and she said yes.”
Ms. Olswanger had never written a graphic novel before and felt “it was important to find an artist who could communicate the starkness of Soviet Russia alongside the emotional narrative of ‘A Visit to Moscow.’”
It was necessary to write it as a fictional account because there were many details — including the names of the family — that she hadn’t preserved in her notes.
“Someday I hope to discover the boy’s name and where in Israel his family is living,” she said. “I would like to share ‘A Visit to Moscow’ with them and tell the boy’s children how much I admired their father and grandparents for withstanding Soviet repression and for trusting in Rabbi Grossman.”
About a year after the initial contact between Ms. Olswanger and Ms. Nayberg, West Margin Press accepted the manuscript for publication.
“I thought it was a middle-grade book because it’s short, but the publisher thought it would be best for ages 12 and up, which means it’s a young adult and adult book,” Ms. Olswanger said. “It’s a crossover. And that’s fine with me. I would love for adults to read this book. I think it’s complex and rich because of Yevgenia’s illustrations. She’s done a phenomenal job.”
Another of Ms. Olswanger’s books, “Greenhorn,” is based on an incident in Rabbi Grossman’s childhood and set against the backdrop of the Holocaust. She is also the author of “Shlemiel Crooks,” a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and PJ Library book, which she wrote after discovering a 1919 Yiddish newspaper article about the attempted robbery of her great-grandparents’ kosher liquor store in St. Louis.
The Moscow story, she said, “encompasses for me what Rabbi Grossman was and what he stood for, which was that life is here, and it is joyful, that no matter what, we are a joyful people. He always said that’s what Hashem wants for us. He talked to me about how happy Zev was in Israel, that he bore no residual sadness from having lived in a room in isolation for however long it was — I think 11 or 12 years until they left the Soviet Union.
“Many of us relate to a feeling of isolation, especially from our childhood,” she continued. “This story builds on the hope that we can end the loneliness and isolation by connecting to a wider community.”
She believes the book also has the potential to spark new interest in the historical events surrounding Soviet refuseniks and the more than two decades of grassroots movements needed to free them.
“A Visit to Moscow” will be available as of May 24. Locally, it will be sold at stores including The Curious Reader in Glen Rock. “Anybody who wants to order a signed copy can purchase it there and I’ll go there and sign it,” Ms. Olswanger said.