Written by “Avraham Netzach”/Lazer Nannes
A review by Chaplain, Maj Elie Estrin, USAFR
“Back to the USSR!” With where things have been going on the geopolitical front, it does seem like the 80s have called, but they’re taking back our foreign policy. So maybe it’s a good time to reflect on the bad old days of the gulag with one of my all-time favorite books.
This remarkable memoir’s title was given to its author, Rabbi Eliezer Nannes (who uses the nomme de guerre “Avraham Netzach” to avoid the ire of the KGB,) as his jailbird nickname. “Subbota” means Sabbath in Russian, and Nannes was called that name due to his superhuman efforts to keep Shabbat during his 20 years(!) in Soviet prisons. What makes a person such a threat to social order that they would be imprisoned for 10 years, and then rearrested while in prison and given a second dose of 10 years? Teaching Judaism, of course. Anyone caught for such a heinous crime in the USSR was punished under the infamous Paragraph 58 and stamped with the ostracizing term “counterrevolutionary.” Nannes’ stay as a guest of the Soviet regime would make Solzhenitsyn’s look like a cakewalk with caviar, and his efforts to keep Judaism despite the terror reigning around him are the stuff of legend.
Yet despite the dozens of near-death moments lasting until almost the final chapter and evil torture inflicted upon Nannes himself and his friends, you find no self pity whatsoever in his writing. Indeed, when reading this book, you don’t even pick up a trace of ego. It’s almost as if the protagonist is telling a story that just happened to occur to him, without even realizing that he’s the hero. That total selflessness is remarkable, in and of itself. But ultimately Subbota is a book of steely determination; of one man’s faith against the entirety of the Soviet machine. What remains with the reader far long after the book is closed is the fact that twenty years inside the terror islands that made up the gulag could not put out the flame of Rabbi Nannes’ Judaism, nor his mentschlichkeit. His indomitable efforts alongside the dignity of his humanity cannot fail but invigorate and inspire.
Rabbi Nannes (and his wife) survived their difficult sojourns, and after eventually being granted permission to immigrate to Israel, they became teachers in public. Both did so into their old age; Rachel Nannes passed away at the age of 91, while her husband died a few weeks before his 100th birthday. They will forever remain true heroes of the Jewish people, and their story, as recounted in Subbota, is a must-read tale of the ultimate triumph.
Originally published in the Three Weeks 5782 Jewish American Warrior