To hell and back: A South African Jew in Stalin’s Russia

Boris Gorelik is a Russian writer and researcher and faculty member at the Institute for African Studies - Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. He has an MA in linguistics from Moscow State University (2001).


Two man, a Russian and a South African, video-chatted for hours. Although Ilya and Bradley had never met before, they had eighty years to catch up on. Their grandfathers, Joseph and Barney, said good-bye in Johannesburg in the 1930s. One was moving to Moscow, the other remained in their native city. They never saw each other again.

‘It’s incredible’, Ilya told me. ‘We spoke until late at night. I’m seeing this red-haired man in front of me, and he’s truly my brother. He’s a Glazer, just like me!’

Joseph (Joe), his grandfather, had passed away in 2011. His passport read, ‘Yuzef Genrihovich Glazer’. He was the only South African survivor of the Soviet labor camps. I did not have a chance to interview him, but managed to find people who knew him well. Joseph rarely spoke about his ‘nightmare years’ in the labor camp. Apart from his family and friends, the British historian Allison Drew was probably the only person to whom he told his story in detail.[1]

Joseph spent most of his life away from his native country, but his command of English remained perfect. He even used some typically South African words and expressions, like ‘bioscope’ instead of ‘cinema’.

‘After several hours, I asked if he wanted to take a break’, Allison recounts. ‘He exclaimed, “Seven years in the gulag, and you think I’m tired!”

In the communist era, his story was put into service of propaganda. Soviet journalists gushed over the fact that Joseph relocated to Russia of his own free will to find ‘warm-heartedness, brotherly solidarity and support’.[2] They omitted one crucial point: both he and his father fell victim to state repression.

Joseph’s parents, Henry and Rose, came out to South Africa from Poland. By the time Joseph was born, in 1916, the family had established themselves in Johannesburg.

The Glazer family, circa 1917: Rose with baby Joseph, Henry, Barney and Abe

The Glazer family, circa 1917: Rose with baby Joseph, Henry, Barney and Abe

Henry Glazer once sported stiff collars and handlebar moustache, aspiring for a bourgeois lifestyle. But after reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a novel about the tribulations of an East European immigrant in an American city, he woke up to the idea of class struggle. [3]

‘We, the Glazers, are like that’, says Bradley, Joseph’s grand-nephew in Johannesburg. ‘If we see injustice, or when someone is being treated unfairly, everything just boils up inside us. We can’t put up with it.’

During the Rand Revolt of 1922, Henry, a member of the Communist Party, was detained as a dangerous agitator. [4] In his office, the police found a letter to the prime minister with all sorts of curses, the most decent one being: ‘May the hound of hell chase him over the blue rocks of buggery.’ [5]

Henry was blacklisted and sacked from his job at the mine. When Stalin invited engineers to come to the Soviet Union and work for the world’s first socialist state, he decided to try his luck. In 1931, he went to Russia on spec, with his son Joseph. According to Allison Drew, Henry was the only known socialist who voluntarily emigrated from South Africa to the Soviet Union in that decade:

‘He did not go to the Soviet Union on behalf of the [Communist Party of South Africa] or as a member of a trade union delegation. As his son recounts, he was inspired by Stalin's call to socialists around the world to help build the Soviet state and develop its industries. But his decision was made against the backdrop of the Great Depression that had swept across the world and into South Africa.'[6]

‘I came out here for adventure’, Joseph used to say. But from the first day in the Soviet Union, the South African teenager felt that ‘things were bad, very bad indeed’. When Henry asked fellow passengers on the train about the health of the great dictator, everyone kept quiet. They wanted no trouble from this foreigner with his loaded questions.

Joseph Glazer in Moscow, early 1930s

Joseph Glazer in Moscow, early 1930s

Later, Henry’s wife joined him with their other sons, Aubrey and Michael. Rose didn’t like Henry’s Spartan way of life in Moscow, the poverty, the food shortages. And the plain clothes and kerchief that her husband had her wear so that she would resemble a Russian worker. Maybe she had a premonition. She and Michael decided to return to South Africa. As their train was pulling out of the Moscow station, Michael leaned out of the window shouting, ‘Whoopee!’ [7]

The following year, Joseph’s father was arrested. The 61-year-old man had not seen it coming. In South Africa, Henry had been known as a communist agitator. And in the Soviet Union, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor for ‘anti-communist propaganda’. Someone reported him for a disapproving look he had when someone spoke of Stalin. Joseph never saw him again. Perhaps he died in the labor camp.

As the son of an ‘enemy of the people’, Joseph lost his job at the factory. He was blacklisted, like his father had been in Johannesburg. It took Joseph four years to find steady employment, as a trolleybus driver. And after the war, he found a steady girlfriend: Eleonora, an Estonian of Podolsk, a town near Moscow.

‘We dare not get married and kept our relationship secret’, he recounted. Eleonora could be compromised by her involvement with him. After she got pregnant, the authorities urged her to leave Joseph. She refused.

Then came 12 June 1949. Joseph came home with his pay, and Eleonora had a surprise for him: tickets to an opera at the Bolshoi for the 14th. But the biggest surprise came later. At two in the morning, they heard a loud knock. The secret police came to arrest Joseph. They rummaged the flat and led him away. Like his father, Joseph was accused of anti-communist propaganda.

‘My colleagues must have reported me’, he assumed. ‘Maybe they didn’t like that I praised some American equipment. Who knows? It was no use asking for a reason.’

Nine months of questioning began. He committed no crime and didn’t want to ‘confess’. They would send him down to the cold cellar. Then back to the office, for a lengthy interrogation, after which they would deny him sleep for two days. If they saw that Joseph closed his eyes, back to the cellar he went.

‘When you return to the interrogator, you’re glad to sign anything’, Joseph recounted. ‘Then I had to sign a paper that I was given a ten-year sentence. My hand was shivering. I couldn’t defend myself. It was a three-man jury, and they decided everything for you.’

He was put in a cattle wagon and shipped to Karlag, an enormous labor camp on the arid plains of Kazakhstan. Sixty-five thousand people were living and working there. Only then did he realise the extent of the repressive system. Many inmates were as innocent as he was. ‘I used to believe in the newspaper propaganda’, he admitted. ‘I thought that everything was wonderful in our country.’

The guards addressed them by the numbers stitched to their jackets. His was 3566. Inmates were dying by the hundreds. One of Joseph’s pals fell ill and committed suicide: he approached the fence and reached for the barbed wire. The guard shot him dead.

Convicts weren’t allowed to communicate with their families. But somebody smuggled a photo of Joseph’s daughter, who was born soon after his arrest, into the camp. Joseph asked one of his inmates to draw her portrait in colored pencil from that photo. The artist charged him in the hard currency of the camp: two daily rations of bread.

Joseph Glazer as an inmate in a labor camp, 1952

Joseph Glazer as an inmate in a labor camp, 1952

Joseph was released in 1957, four years after the dictator’s death. Eleonora was in Podolsk, raising their daughter. Eventually, he joined them. When Allison Drew interviewed him, they were living in a small one-bedroom flat.

‘When I got out, I tried to forget that I ever was there’, Joseph told her. ‘There was nothing I could think of that could make me glad. But I couldn’t grumble. Grumbling won’t help.’ [8]

His brother Aubrey, a taxi driver, lived in Moscow, and they saw each other from time to time.[9] Joseph was an enthusiastic photographer, ever since his father gave him a camera for their trip to Russia. Most of his snapshots were lost or confiscated after the arrest. But Aubrey kept the family pictures, their only tangible connection with South Africa.

In the 1990s, Joseph visited his brother Michael, who settled in London after his departure from Moscow. They had had no contact for decades. He managed to trace him through the Red Cross. Thereafter, they exchanged letters and phone calls.

He was also hoping to get in touch with his eldest brother Barney, who didn’t go to Russia and remained with his family in Johannesburg. In the Soviet era, when Russia and South Africa had no diplomatic relations, this was an impossible task. Later, foreign correspondents heard about Joseph and came to see him in Podolsk. One of the journalists, a South African, promised to track down Barney or his descendants. Joseph waited for the news, in vain.

But now, the two branches of the family have been finally reconnected.

‘I hope to visit Bradley in South Africa one day’, says Ilya Drobyshevsky, Joseph’s grandson and freelance cameraman for Western TV channels. ‘My grandad used to tell me about his childhood in Johannesburg.’

Joseph could still clearly remember their house in Simmonds Street, the red-brick walls of his school on the corner of Beit and Davies (the present-day I H Harris Primary School, Doornfontein), the Afrikaans songs that he liked to sing, the weekend outings to the Zoo Lake with mum and dad. He recalled playing games that his Russian grandchildren did not know, such as rugby, cricket and kennetjie.

‘I showed him photos of Johannesburg on the Internet’, says Anatoly Drobyshevsky, his son-in-law. ‘He could still recognise a few places. Though he really wished to go there, it was beyond his means.’

Most of Joseph’s friends were from his time in the camp. He hardly made any new ones in Podolsk. ‘I just live with my family’, Joseph used to tell interviewers. ‘I love them, and they love me. And I try not to remember those terrible years.’

But once, he revisited a place that brought back his painful memories. Ekaterina Kuznetsova, a journalist from Karaganda, took them to a field where many thousands of inmates were buried in nameless graves.[10]

It was sleeting on that grey November morning. Standing there, in the middle of the field, Joseph threw up his hands. ‘Then he knelt down in the autumn mud and cried out’, recounts Kuznetsova. ‘His voice didn’t sound human. It was as if he were no longer with us. He was facing his past.’

Joseph Glazer in his 90s, Russia

Joseph Glazer in his 90s, Russia


1 A Drew, ‘Prisoner number 3566: An interview with Joseph Leon Glazer’, Socialist History. No 22, 2002, pp 32–55.

2 L Haikin, ‘Joseph Glazer vybirayet Podolsk’ (Joseph Glazer chooses Podolsk), Sotsialnoye Obespecheniye. No 3, 1984, p 52.

3. Drew, ‘Prisoner number 3566’, p 32.

4 ‘Forbidden literature’, The Rand Daily Mail. 16 March 1922, p 3; ‘Socialist arrested’, The Star. 13 March 1922, p 5.

5 L Lange, White, Poor, and Angry: White Working Class Families in Johannesburg. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003, p 166.

6 Drew, ‘Prisoner number 3566’, p 35.

7 D Merkusheva, ‘A Brit abroad’, The Guardian. 28 August 2001.

8 Drew, ‘Prisoner number 3566’, p 52.

9 F Wills, ‘The happy grin on the face of Comrade Cabby’, Daily Mirror. 3 December 1966, p 9.

10 E Kuznetsova, ‘Te, kto vyidut otsyuda, naveki rodniye’ (Those who leave this place are forever dear to us). Nasha Yarmarka. 29 August 2008, p 14.

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