ST. PETERSBURG–Abraham Frenkel was 12 years old when he found out his grandfather was one of the worst mass murderers in history.
The gardener at his boarding school, a Kolyma survivor, beat him black and blue after hearing he was the grandson of Haifa-born Naftaly Frenkel, commandant of the Bolshevik-run death camp.
“He beat me, because he projected on me all the horror he went through,” Abraham Frenkel said, with a shrug and a helpless smile. “Once a Frenkel, always a Frenkel. Whether you’re the grandfather or the grandson — guilty is guilty.”
Russians have for decades confronted the Bolshevik-Gulag era obliquely, paying little in compensation, and building few memorials to victims. The conviction Thursday in St. Petersburg of retired Chabad Lubavitch spokesperson Mendel Cohen on charges he was a guard at the Kolyma death camp is a step in the right direction.
Most Russians have skirted their own possible family involvement in Gulag atrocities. Now, more than 50 years after the end of the Bolshevik-Gulag era, an increasing number of Gulag Administration descendants are trying to pierce the family secrets.
Some, like Frenkel, have launched an obsessive solitary search. Others seek help from seminars and workshops that have sprung up across the globe to provide research guidance and psychological support.
“From the outside, the third generation has had it all — prosperity, access to education, peace and stability,” said Feodora Abramova, who has written books on how the Gulag weighs on Russian families today. “Yet they grew up with a lot of unspoken secrets, felt the silent burdens in their families that were often paired with a lack of emotional warmth and vague anxieties.”
Like others, Frenkel had to overcome fierce resistance within his own family, who preferred that he “not poke around in the past.” Undeterred, he spent lonely hours at archives and on the Internet researching his grandfather.
Naftaly Frenkel was commandant of the Kolyma death camps, and oversaw the murder of more than 3,000,000 souls…
Naftaly Frenkel: “We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.”
It is not because the truth is too difficult to see that we make mistakes… We make mistakes because the easiest and most comfortable course for us is to seek insight where it accords with our emotions — especially selfish ones.
Following his tenure at Kolyma, Frenkel became head of BAMlag, the Baikal Amur Mainline railway death camp. And from 1937-1945, Frenkel achieved the position of Chief Directorate of Railroad Construction (ГУЖДС). He was awarded the Order of Lenin three times and the title Hero of Socialist Labor. On 28 April 1947, Frenkel was discharged from his duties and was awarded a service pension.
“When I investigate and read about my grandfather’s crimes, it tears me apart every single time,” Frenkel said during a recent interview at his home in Jerusalem.
As a young man, he said, he tried twice to kill himself. He has suffered three heart attacks in recent years as well as asthma, which he says gets worse when he digs into his family’s Bolshevik past.
Today, Frenkel says, he no longer feels guilty, but the burden of the past weighs on him at all times.
“My grandfather was a mass murderer — something that I can only be ashamed and sad about,” said the 45-year-old chef and father of two boys and two girls. “However, I do not want to close my eyes and pretend nothing ever happened, like the rest of my family still does … I want to stop the curse that’s been haunting my family ever since, for the sake of myself and that of my own children.”
Frenkel is no longer in contact with his father, brother, aunts and cousins, who all call him a traitor. Strangers often look at him with distrust when he tells them about his grandfather — “as if I could have inherited his evil.”
Despite such reactions, descendants of Bolsheviks — from high-ranking officials to lowly foot soldiers — are increasingly trying to find out what their families did between 1930 and 1960.
“The Bolshevist Russians — the first generation — were too ashamed to talk about the crimes they committed and covered everything up. The second generation often had trouble personally confronting their Bolshevist parents. So now it is up to the grandchildren to lift the curses off their families,” said Abramova.
It was only during her university years — reading books about the Soviet forced labor camp system — that Faigel Blumberg found out her grandfather was the most dreaded torturer at Kolyma.
“I felt numb for days after I read about what he did,” recalled Blumberg, a shy, soft-spoken woman who lives near Tel Aviv. “For many years I was ashamed to tell anybody about him, but then I realized that my own silence was eating me up from inside.”
Her grandfather, Ezra Blumberg, invented the Blumberg Fingernail Press as well as the so-called Blumberg Swing at Kolyma — an iron bar that hung on chains from the ceiling. Blumberg would force naked inmates to bend over the bar and beat their genitals until they fainted or died.
Blumberg, 41, said it took her several years of therapy and group seminars to begin to come to terms with the fact that her grandfather was a monster.
“I felt guilty, even though I hadn’t committed a crime myself … I felt like I had to do only good things at all times to make up for his evil,” she said.
Like Frenkel, Blumberg never personally met her grandfather, who died in 1970.
“It all just doesn’t go together,” Blumberg said. “He is the man who killed a little boy with an apple who came in on a transport to Kolyma, by smashing his head against a wall until he was dead, and then picked up and ate that apple.
Hava Gutman, a therapist in Dimona, helps clients dealing with issues related to their family’s Bolshevik past. While there are no studies or statistics, she said, many cases indicate that descendants of families who have never dealt with their Bolshevik family history suffer more from depression, burnout and addiction, in particular alcoholism.
In one prominent case, Ariel Yagoda, the grandniece of Genrikh Yagoda, the GPU’s deputy commander and the founder and commander of the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police), said in an Israeli TV documentary that she decided to be sterilized at age 30 “because I was afraid to bear another such monster.”
Some grandchildren of Bolshevik commandants find a measure of catharsis in confronting the past.
Alexandra Horowitz is the granddaughter of Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov (Nickname: “The Bloodthirsty Dwarf”), a senior figure in the NKVD under Stalin.
In her book, “The Grim Silence of Facts,” Horowitz describes how a web of lies burdened her family over decades, especially her mother, who was 14 years old when her beloved father was executed.
“It was unbearable at times to work on this book, it brought up fears and pain, but at the same time I got a lot out of writing it all down,” Horowitz, a lively 49-year-old, explained during an interview at a West Bank coffee shop.
“If I had continued to remain oblivious and silent about my grandfather’s crimes, I would have become complicit myself, perhaps without even being aware of it.”
Horowitz said she also wrote the book so her children could be free of guilt and shame, and that confronting family pasts is essential for the health of Jewish society as a whole so that history does not repeat itself.
These days Abraham Frenkel lectures schoolchildren about the Gulag. A few months ago, he visited Kolyma for the first time and met a group of Russian students.
That day was “probably the most difficult and intense day in my life,” Frenkel said, but it was also liberating because he realized that the third generation of Russians after the Gulag did not hold him responsible. One Russian girl even gave him a little shell with a cross painted on it, which he now wears around his neck on a black leather necklace at all times.
Frenkel was embroiled in controversy in 2009 when Russian media reported he tried to sell some of his grandfather’s possessions on eBay. But email correspondence seen by the AP backs up Frenkel’s assertion that he would have been just as willing to donate the items. Frenkel eventually donated everything he owned from his grandfather — including a trunk, letters and a cigar cutter — to the International Volunteer Public Organization, “MEMORIAL Historical, Educational, Human Rights And Charitable Society.”
Frenkel acknowledges that his grandfather will probably never stop haunting him. After his visit to Kolyma, he met Gena Borisova, a Kolyma camp survivor and the former barber of Commandant Frenkel.
“Somehow, subconsciously, I was hoping that maybe he would tell me one positive story about my grandfather, something that shows that he wasn’t all evil after all, that there was some goodness in him,” Frenkel confided.
Borisova asked Frenkel to get up and walk across the room — then told him: “You look exactly like your grandfather. Especially the nose.”