Chaim Lensky's Ordeal
THE story of how the manuscript of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of the Soviet Union is drab compared to the odyssey of a recently published collection of strange, curious, and perhaps very important verse by Chaim Lensky*- a Soviet Hebrew poet who vanished in a Siberian labor camp in 1942. It took eighteen years for Across the River Lethe to reach its destination in Israel, where it was finally issued in 1960. Two earlier collections of Lensky’s work-both assembled from manuscripts that had reached periodicals in Israel circuitously and piecemeal over a period of fifteen years-had already been published, but Across the River Lethe was prepared in completed manuscript by Lensky himself.
Lensky never sent his manuscripts directly to his editors or to his literary friends in Palestine-Israel. From Leningrad, where he was making his living as a steel-worker, he would enclose them-his poems and also communications to editors-in letters to his sister in Tel Aviv. She would then forward them on to the addressees. Later, the station of Siberia was added: from there Lensky dispatched his poems to his wife in Leningrad, and she, disliking all poetry and especially these Hebrew manuscripts which had landed her husband in trouble, nevertheless dutifully passed them on to his sister in Tel Aviv with the same precise instructions her husband had formerly given. The poet ran two risks: the lesser one that his manuscripts might be intercepted by the censor and never reach their destination, and the greater risk that once they did appear abroad, they would in time come to the attention of the Soviet secret police, with obvious consequences to himself and perhaps also to his family. He took every precaution to reduce the lesser risk and circumvent the censor. Yet his passion to establish his literary identity in public was so profound that he seems never to have thought of using a pseudonym.
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