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White nights: The story of a prisoner in Russia

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English, Hebrew (translation)

240 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1979

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About the author

Menachem Begin

24 books7 followers
Menachem Begin was a politician, founder of Likud and the sixth Prime Minister of the State of Israel. He is considered one of Israel's most extraordinary individuals, playing a key role in the creation of Israel and its politics afterwards.

When he was young Begin and his family fled the Nazis. He escaped to Vilna and became the head of the Betar movement, a Revisionist Zionist youth movement. He was arrested in 1940 and detained in Lukiskes Prison, under the false assumption that he was spying for Britain. He was interrogated and tortured, and stayed in prison until May 1942, at which time he joined the Polish Army of Anders. Some time later, he was sent to Palestine and joined the Jewish national movement, soon becoming the head of the underground Igun (Etzl) Movement.

Begin’s most significant achievement as prime minister was the signing of a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, for which he and Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Prize for Peace. In the wake of the Camp David Accords, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, which was captured from Egypt in the Six-Day War. Begin authorized the bombing of the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to fight PLO strongholds there, igniting the 1982 Lebanon War.

Depressed by the death of his wife Aliza in November 1982, he gradually withdrew from public life, until his resignation in October 1983.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 10 of 10 reviews
Profile Image for Andrew Jacobson.
23 reviews8 followers
May 19, 2020
Told with cool, incisive prose, White Nights is Begin’s own harrowing account of his 1940-1941 detention by the Soviet Union’s NKVD. Decisively, it is a memoir, the first of Begin's two (the other is about Etzel's revolt against the British Mandate), though interspersed throughout is also some political analysis of the Soviet Union's tyrannical regime and the culture of abject fear it engendered in its population.

I read this text after I was inspired by Yehuda Avner's depiction of the great Jewish leader in The Prime Ministers, as one instilled with a keen sense of "Jewish history and Jewish destiny." Begin's emphasis on hadar----Jewish pride, royalty, politeness, honor-----in addition to his insistence on self-defense and the use of force to restore a Jewish national homeland in the Land of Israel---intrigued me. Who was this political leader, grown up scrawny and short in Brisk, Poland, who led the Etzel's underground's revolt in British Palestine, spearheaded the Israeli government's opposition for almost 30 years, struck peace as Prime Minister with Sadat in Egypt in 1979 --- more than any previous administration could accomplish --- and whose legacy for unashamed Jewish pride reverberates unto this day?

I wanted to start an investigation. Who was this man with iron-clad Zionist resolve, the head of Beitar Poland, the eloquent orator who followed Jabotinsky's Revisionist rejection of the labor and socialist Zionist establishment only to overtake his mentor in implementing his ideals? Why haven't American Jews really heard so much of him? In the English-speaking world, why does his name seem to have been relegated to the annals of history? As the leader of the Opposition for many years in Israel, why did he connect more with the Mizrachi constituency that the Ashkenazi one, given his bona fides?

They say that if you want to learn about someone, you need to visit their roots. Certainly to understand Begin's political ambitions, we must first understand his Zionist upbringing, by Ze'ev Dov and Chasia Begin, alongside his two younger siblings Rachel and Herzl. Then we would look to his jump -- by the instruction of his father -- to switch from the Zionist-socialist HaShomer HaTzair youth organization to Beitar, one spearheaded by Jabotinsky and more supportive of physical Jewish self-defense. Then we would continue to analyze Begin's rise through Beitar, eventually becoming Poland's head of the organization, and look at his detention by the NKVD, marriage to Aliza Begin, aliyah to Israel, underground fighting against the British, a more. Begin had a very full life indeed.

But White Nights isn't about all that. Without an ounce of self-pity, it's simply about his detention and interrogation in the enormous NKVD machine. In short, Begin was detained in 1940 in Vilna, and brought in for questioning at the Lukiskes Prison, where he stayed some time. Eventually he was transferred North, to the northern Russian tundra, where temperatures routinely reached many degrees below zero, where he performed hard labor carrying iron and building railway tracks, until Hitler broke his blood-pact with Stalin in 1941, the Soviets allied with the Poles, and all Polish POWs were henceforth released.

This is the story, and Begin writes it with a certain wit and matter-of-fact tone that makes the reader wonder just how the prisoner maintained his sense of humor throughout all the terrible frostbite and hunger and thirst and sleepless nights. But he did nonetheless, and as readers we benefit from his strength and courage.

Overall, Begin's memoir gave me an incredible appreciation for his struggle and his constant, unabashed hope in liberation. His moral strength and clarity, which he maintained in the face of Soviet interrogators, even at the cost of sleep, food, and human interaction -- was inspiring indeed. Begin was willing to die for his ideal. In one incident, after many long "white" nights of questioning, Begin is asked to sign a page "admitting" that he was "guilty" of "having been the chairman of the Betar organization in Poland."

In an astonishing display of nerve, Begin refuses to sign. He insists that the citizen-interrogator cross out the word "guilty," reading instead that "I admit that I was the chairman..." For the interrogator, the words are one in the same, and eventually he relents. But to Begin, hadar -- Jewish dignity and pride -- are everything.

In a word, we might say that it was Begin's sincerity (ok, and imagination/vision) that captured a generation of hopeless Jews to return to Israel and fight for independence. In White Nights, Begin's sincerity is on full display. With humility and deference to the Jewish tradition, Begin viewed himself not as an individual leader but one link in the 200+ generation Jewish chain stretching back to Abraham. In many ways, I believe that he derived his strength and pride from the greatness of the Jewish tradition.

And, concluding the memoir, Begin gives us a window into the pleasure he experienced during the birth of the State of Israel ---- when he announced as much to his thousands of Etzel members who had been tirelessly waging war...

It was more than a "haha, I told you so" to all the Soviet interrogators who had told him that he would never live to see a Jewish state, who told him he would die in the transit camp on the banks of the Pechora, freeze to death as a nameless bunch of bones in the white snow...it was more than that...

In a word, this was redemption.
Profile Image for Moshe Hollander.
49 reviews1 follower
January 24, 2018
A very valuable read. Not the 'life-changing' book that it was promised to be by the person who recommended it to me, but still worth it. Great as a good overview/personal history, but it could have been more descriptive if it was aiming to educate re. Soviet history.
6 reviews
March 26, 2018

This is as penetrating and vivid as Ivan Denisov. moving depiction of Stalinist terror by Israeli hero and Prime Minister
35 reviews
April 10, 2019
Helped me understand Begin and his development into the person and leader he became. To be honest it is plodding but worth it.
107 reviews4 followers
January 14, 2014
Интересно. Иврит несколько устаревший, но быстро привыкаешь, читается легко. Бегин описывает историю своего ареста, заключение и допросы в вильнюсской тюрьме НКВД, а затем несколько месяцев в ПечорЛаге.
Я несколько месяцев назад перечитывал Солженицына, очень схожие описания - но при этом он смотрит на все глазами варшавского интеллигента, и этот взгляд на Гулаг "со стороны" очень интересен.
Порадовали многочисленные вкрапления русских терминов ивритскими буквами - "урки", "доходяга", "бригадир".
В конце книги дано общее описание жизни в СССР, какой он ее увидел после освобождения - нехватка продовольствия, очереди за всем - и как нормальная реакция человека, который видит очередь, - спросить "что дают" и встать в хвост. Я это и из 80-х годов помню.
Profile Image for Christina.
20 reviews
October 27, 2008
I really found this book very insightful. I haven't read much about the Soviet prison camps- just the Nazi ones. It is so sad what human beings can do to each other. I wish I had more of an understanding of all the politics involved between all the countries and leaders at the time. The ending of the book left me a little unsatisfied because it doesn't say how he eventually gets to Israel or if he is reunited with his wife. I would have also loved to hear what ended up happening to the different people you meet throughout the book.
Profile Image for Richard Odier.
89 reviews7 followers
December 5, 2016
Amazing book about the unknown story of Menahem begin in the Soviet camps.

In his youth Begin was arrested by the Russian authorities as a Zionist leader, he was sent his jail. This testimony is well written, highly fascinating and shows the strengths of idealism for the young Jewish leader.
Displaying 1 - 10 of 10 reviews

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