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Novelistleon Uris Discovers ‘unpleasantness’ in the USSR

October 23, 1989
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The celebrated novelist Leon Uris is winding up a three-city lecture tour of the Soviet Union that he describes as having “quite a bit of unpleasantness surrounding it.”

“I think when we get out of the Soviet Union, we have to take a long, second look at what has happened,” Uris said grimly in a telephone conversation Friday from Moscow. “I think that a lot of the news that the American Jewish community is dying to hear is just not true.”

Uris, whose 1957 novel “Exodus” is widely credited with helping to spark the post-1967 revival of Jewish consciousness in the Soviet Union, went to the USSR under the sponsorship of B’nai B’rith International. He was accompanied by Dr. Michael Neiditch of the B’nai B’rith International staff.

Uris, who last visited Moscow in 1962, repeatedly refused to give details of the “unpleasantness” he encountered, apparently fearing surveillance. But he acknowledged that reported increases in anti-Semitism were “absolutely” a factor in his gloomy assessment.

He also said that during the course of his lecture tour, which covered Riga, Leningrad and Moscow, “our halls grew smaller and further out of the center, for reasons that were not clear and probably never will be. I think the audiences were kept small.”

At the same time, Uris said the trip was deeply gratifying for him personally, because of the influence of his popular novel. For many years, typewritten copies of illegal translations of “Exodus” were passed throughout Russia from hand to hand.


“It’s the most tremendous experience a writer can undergo, to realize that his work has been that far-reaching,” said Uris.

In much of the Soviet Union, said Uris, “Jewish life has been pretty well eradicated. We found a lot of intermarriage.”

“We have seen a whole range of attitudes,” added Neiditch, “ranging from apprehension and fear to extraordinary optimism in Riga,” the capital of the Latvian republic.

” I think that what is happening in Riga is something the Jewish world has got to pay attention to,” he said.

Uris described the Riga Jewish community as going through a “revolutionizing” process, with an active Jewish cultural center, senior choirs and a Jewish day school the first in the Soviet Union with 400 students in its first year.

“The most heartwarming moment in the trip was when we walked into the day school and the kids got up and sang to me in Yiddish and He brew. They were very happy, very open and very Jewish,” he said.

The novelist said that after leaving Moscow, he would be visiting Poland and Hungary, under the sponsorship of the United Jewish Appeal.

Among the activities planned for him were a visit to Mila 18, the Warsaw street address immortalized in his novel of the Warsaw Ghetto, and participation in a ceremony in Budapest to mark the first legal publication of “Exodus” in an East-bloc country.

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