Review by: Chaplain, Captain Mordechai Hecht, JBLE, USAFR
All he wanted was to return to his homeland, Israel. But he couldn’t… because of communism.
In order to survive life under communist rule he needed to be, in the words of his Uncle Nahum, “lower than water and quieter than grass.”
Return, first published in 1982 and then republished in 1986 as Return: The Story of a Russian Jewish Scientist, is a riveting tale of survival during communism and the Cold War. The autobiographical account details how magnetohydrodynamic pioneer Professor Herman Branover grew up in Riga, Latvia, in a minimally traditional family that periodically attended the local synagogue. As a young boy, Branover attended the Latvian Zhid school (school for Jews), but he and his family were eventually displaced by the war, fleeing from Omsk and resettling in Central Russia, specifically Leningrad. When Branover’s father was killed by the Russians, his mother filled the void like a warrior, staunchly taking care of the family through thick and thin, physically and mentally.
In his book, Branover describes how he painstakingly tried to be recognized—at a time when Jews were discriminated against—for his skill set, including his work on the Kapshagay Hydroelectric Station on the Ili River, a river that ran through a desert. He hoped to gain experience so that one day he could apply his knowledge in Israel.
Branover’s wife Fania was involved in medicine. Their wedding was celebrated in a basement with only 10 friends present. After they got married, Fania helped her husband with his hydro experiments. With all the challenges they faced, they eventually went on to have children—a complex saga that was beautifully recounted in the book.
Under the toxic atmosphere of communism, Branover’s struggle with the communist agenda and propaganda only increased over time, which affected him in many ways and dampened his hope to move to Israel. He compared the toxicity to the body’s internal systems, saying, “In no way can I understand why the human stomach reacts immediately with indigestion at the smallest quantity of spoiled food, whereas the brain day after day digests tons of thoroughly rotten information with impunity.”
While living in Central Russia, Branover secretly attended a synagogue, but felt that he was constantly being followed. As his thirst for Judaism grew, he eventually obtained some Jewish books to learn Hebrew, Jewish prayers, and halacha (Jewish law). “Contact with Torah healed my desperation,” he says simply. “It raised me above time, space, and borders and united me with Israel over which the KGB had no control.”
Branover preferred to go “downstairs” in the main synagogue in Moscow, where the Chassidim prayed. Over time, he got to know them well. These were some of the men that had true self sacrifice to promote Judaism in Russia. As he described, “The dwellings of the Chassidim were clear of all Soviet influence. From infancy, their children and grandchildren breathed love and devotion for the Jewish people and the Torah. They all lived with the hope of leaving for Eretz HaKodesh—Israel.”
The book reads like a spy thriller, except that Branover is not a spy, rather a survivalist, a Jew in a barren wasteland who is simply trying to live a fulfilling life and reach his ultimate destination, Israel.
His family finally made it there in November 1973 where he became an instant sensation, and was sought after by the full spectrum of Jewish, Chassidic, and academic groups who were eager to meet the Soviet scientist who found refuge and healing in his new homeland.
Months later he traveled to New York to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom he’d heard so much about from his Chassidic friends in the former Soviet Union. “His eyes, sometimes the sparkle with a thousand smiles,” Branover described.
The book is a textbook of survival on every level. In my humble opinion it’s a must-read for all of humanity, a story of trying to survive and thrive, and of eventually seeing one’s dream come to fruition. If Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is the number one book to read on the humanity of survival, this is number two.
Originally published in the Purim 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.