Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hebrew Hullabaloo, part 2

This installment of my "Jews Behaving Badly" series takes us to Soviet Russia not long after the revolution. By the early twenties, the Soviet courts were already in full swing meting out party justice to the masses. Today's interesting historical footnote looks at one of these court judges, a 20-year-old Jewish girl named Anna Gluzman. Gluzman made headlines in 1923 for her "cold-blooded" sentencing of seven armed robbers to death in Moscow. (The eighth member of the gang was only 18, so he got off with ten years.)

Further research by journalists revealed that Gluzman was originally from Kishinev. She had quit school to work in her early teens but had studied law at the university in Odessa and had served two years as a local judge in Kharkov in the Ukraine. In April 1923, when she had her brief moment in the sun, she estimated she had sentenced 25 people to death in only a two-month period (A later article in July claimed 50). She had never witnessed an execution but claimed this was just because her schedule hadn't permitted it.

Funnily enough, most of the stories focused on her appearance, remarking on how unfeminine she was. One noted, "She was brown-eyed, plainly dressed, not pretty." Another said, "Slim and short, not at all pretty; her brown wavy hair is bobbed and parted on the side like a man's; her jaw is stern." Yet another wrote, "A pleasant smile saved her from positive ugliness, but there was no hint of feminine finery in her rough boots, black skirt, blue denim workman's blouse, buttoned high at the neck, and an old brown sweater." One paper, upon getting a snapshot, quipped, "Note the boyish features of this girl whose word has sent many to their deaths." Various reporters focused on her constant smoking, another androgynous marker. And people thought the media was rough on Hillary and Sarah Palin!

Perhaps the best line, though, belongs to the Kansas City Star:

For three months in 1923, Anna Gluzman was big news, a symbol of just how far the new Soviet state was turning over centuries old mores and customs. A young person, a woman, a Jew, in such a position of power, holding life and death in her hands... no wonder reporters were fascinated with Gluzman. As one paper put it, "Citizeness Anna Gluzman has probably no ancestors worth mentioning, but she has the power to inflict the death penalty upon those who come before her. Ten years ago the parents of Anna Gluzman were being driven from pillar to post by the minions of the Czar... but presiding in the district court of the ancient capital, she has more power than the whole caboodle of counts, princes and grand dukes in all of Muscovy."

Gluzman represented everything awe-inspiring-- and terrifying-- about the new Soviet society. How on the one hand it was willing to put real power in the hands of those who had for so long been powerless... and yet how it was also using this power to ruthlessly purge its undesirables. As Gluzman told reporters, "the question of individual lives could have no consideration when the welfare of the state and the public were involved." After interviewing her, one journalist compared the executions in the USSR to the French revolution, and remarked that "Citizeness Gluzman is a natural product of the madness, stress and storm that grip Russia now as they plagued France in Jacob's days." The Soviet drama showed America and the world all the possibilities that could come with a total social upheaval... for good and evil.

Sadly, I haven't been able to discover any information about Gluzman past 1923. Did she remain a judge? Was she part of the great Jewish purges of the 40s or 60s? Did she stay in the USSR through to the very end, or did she emigrate when she had the chance? Was she a loyal Bolshevik, or did she come to have doubts?

The writer in me worries that it's just too perfect, too pat, to have the young judge who handed down execution sentences wind up in front of a firing squad herself. But stranger things have happened...

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