I really enjoyed the Education Department's Chanukah celebration which was organized this year by the Department's FSU Division. When Dyona Ginsburg got up and talked about her father's work in the Soviet Jewry struggle, it triggered many of my own memories and I would like to tell you about my mother's participation in the struggle. Of course, I was also part of the campaign that my mother led, together with the whole family… I can't remember everything, and hope I don't mix it up too much.
I grew up in Amsterdam, Holland. My mother, of blessed memory, was Sonja Boeken-Teeboom. The events in question were primarily from my childhood and teenage years, and took place in the 1970s, but I need to preface this with some information about my family.
Before the Second World War, my parents were members of a socialist youth group; they both came from working class families. Their parents (my grandparents) were real socialists and members of the young socialists' movement: not the Jewish movements, but the socialist political movement itself and most of its members were Jewish Almost to his dying day, my grandfather would hang out the red flag every year on the 1st of May. When we asked him what his religion was, he would answer that it was Socialism, with a good dinner on Friday nights, and not to work on Yom Kippur.
In those days, Jewish members of the working class were organized as a socialist structure. For example, it was through their efforts that a convalescent home was established in the countryside, where people could recuperate after a long illness. This centre was established by a philanthropic foundation set up and funded by the workers themselves, called the "10 Cent Fund". Periodically, either weekly or monthly (I don't remember which), the workers would pay in a 10 cent coin, and the money was saved until there was enough for a sanatorium. It was an authentic socialism: everyone was responsible for everyone: everyone paid their subscription and they all had the chance to benefit from it, if they needed it. In cases where the heads of the family (mother or father) were taken seriously ill, not only were they sent away for a period of convalescence, but the children were also cared for by other members. When one grandmother fell ill, my own grandmother went to help in her home. People stood together and helped each other.
My father grew up in a working class neighbourhood of Amsterdam that no longer exists. Catholic families lived on one end of the neighbourhood lived, and the Jewish ones at the other end. It was a neighbourhood that still had communal ovens, where everyone cooked or baked their Shabbat food together. As I said, my parents belonged to a socialist youth movement. When we were old enough to join a Youth Movement - a Jewish Zionist Socialist Youth Movement - the older generation viewed this as their natural continuation. Indeed, their own happiest memories were of their own days in the youth movement: I am sure not all the times were easy, but they only remembered the best parts.
People like my mother were products of an ethical school of life founded on standing by each other at all times. During the period of the Shoah, at the age of 16 or 17, my mother had been part of the underground Resistance movement. Together with her mother, she and many friends helped other Jews in finding hiding places and providing them with food, at great risk for their own lives, of course.
It was from their own education from childhood to solidarity and standing together that my parents became concerned about the oppression of Jews elsewhere and engaged in activism on their behalf. They felt that if they were free, then other Jews should also be free, and we were willing to fight for them. It was also rooted in the ethic of "Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bezeh", all Jews are responsible for one another. This held true for both the Soviet Jewry campaign and the campaign to free the Jews of Iraq.
My mother was concerned about everything that happened, anywhere in the world. And she was particularly sensitized to issues of injustice, especially in relation to Jews. Immediately after the letter from the 18 Georgian Jewish families was published in August 1969, she and another person, a young rabbi known as "the Media Rabbi", because of his constantly high profile in the mass media, got together and created the "Solidarity Committee for Soviet Jewry".
At first, the committee had only a few members, but it soon became a large organization. At Chanukah, they began campaigning actively, holding a massive demonstration. From that time onwards, there was always a Chanukah Demonstration and it was held at a very special location in Amsterdam, because that was where all the pro-Jewish and pro-Israel demonstrations and meetings took place. In front of the old Spanish and Portuguese Great Synagogue in Amsterdam is a large square, in the centre of which stands the statue of a docker. This statue was sculpted and placed here after the Second World War as a memorial. In 1941 through early 1942, when the Nazis began transporting Jews to the death camps, the Dutch labour unions organized a massive strike, as a means of obstruction. Strike action went in force throughout Holland, including all its transport systems and ports. The Nazis broke the strike with force and bloodshed, and the monument was subsequently placed there as a memorial. Thousands of people would gather in the square every year on Chanukah, as well as the ongoing meetings held inside closed premises. The entire organization of this event was managed from inside our home.
I remember that our home was always full of placards, banners, and stickers. Every evening, we would be busy with related activities, such as putting letters into envelopes, drawing posters, or glueing something together. There was one room in our home that was always bursting at the seams with materials for the demonstration. There were giant portraits of Ida Nudel and Anatoly Sharansky: these images accompanied us throughout our teenage years, wherever we were. To my mother, Ida Nudel was a tremendously important person. Without ever meeting her, Ida represented the struggle for justice. When Ida Nudel finally reached Israel, my mother was no longer alive, but it happened to be my birthday, and the timing held a symbolic meaning for me...
It is important to mention that the demonstrations which my mother organized were opposed by some people. These were Holocaust survivors who had been liberated by the Soviet Army at Auschwitz, or the other death camps. They felt indebted to the Red Army and it was difficult for them psychologically to express opposition to the USSR. Some of the camps were liberated by the Canadian and the US Army, but the Red Army liberated many of them, and the former concentration camp inmates regarded the Soviet people as their heroes, because they had redeemed them from Hell. They refused to listen to anything negative about Soviet people, and would not tolerate any pressure being put upon those who had saved their lives. In addition to these people, there had been many Jewish Communists in Holland before the war, and both the Socialist and Communist parties were highly influential, and enjoyed wide support from Dutch Jews.
After the Six Day War, everything changed. It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that this was no longer the same Socialism on which they had grown up, but a dictatorship.
My mother did not have any direct personal contact with any particular Soviet Jew. What interested her was finding a solution to their problem, as well as fighting for justice. She would not tolerate abuse of justice and always threw herself into the fray. My mother maintained contact with some people in the Dutch government and organized political lobby groups on their behalf.
I remember my mother getting very upset about what was going on in Iraq. We heard on the radio that there had been a public hanging of Jews in Iraq: there had been one group of Jews who had been hanged, and another group of non-Jews. When the newsreader announced once that 50 people had been executed in Iraq, and specifically that there were no Jews among them, and that there was therefore no cause for special attention, as the Jews always draw special attention: my mother was furious. She immediately rang in – during the broadcast itself – and created a furore on air, remonstrating, "What on earth is the difference, whether they are Jews or not? They are all human beings!"
My mother made frequent phone calls to the Soviet Consulate and Embassy in Amsterdam and the Hague, always asking, "So when are you going to release the Prisoners of Zion?" Together with others our age, we were also very active in our youth movement. My mother would also organize us to phone the Soviet Embassy, and there were days when we phoned hourly. The Embassy recognized our voices and would hang up immediately. Sometimes we would just phone and shout, "Let them go!" into the mouthpiece. My mother gave all her time to the campaign, which went under the banner of "Let My People Go!"; our youth contingent was a full partner in all the efforts behind it.
My mother once even chained herself to the fence of the Soviet Embassy, which was heavily guarded – very typical in the 1970s. At that time, no other official organizations or institutions had that kind of serious security. The staff of the Soviet Embassy actually lived opposite our synagogue, the large Reform synagogue in Amsterdam, and the Ambassador's residence was also surrounded by a high wall. When we walked past the fence, we would always shout, "Let them go!"
My mother was put on the Soviet blacklist for her activities. In the late 1970s, we planned a family holiday to Eastern Europe, taking in Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia. We also wanted to visit the Soviet Union. If you had a Dutch passport, there was usually no problem in getting a visa, but my mother's application was rejected, and we couldn't go to the USSR.
I don't know whether my mother's campaign group was in contact with other organizations in other countries, fighting for the rights of Soviet Jews: but it was an international struggle and active in many other countries. I believe her group knew about them, but were not actually part of the worldwide set up, and acted independently.
So much has changed. I don't think that it would be possible to reproduced this kind of campaign today, despite the existence of computers and the Internet, which provide instantaneous contact. The solidarity that existed in the Soviet Jewry campaign, between all those involved and at the international level, just couldn't be reproduced today. Parallel to the Soviet Jewry campaign, there was also a campaign for Iraqi Jewry, whose situation was very precarious. At the Seder table on Pesach, we would always set the table with Elijah's cup, an empty place for Soviet Jewish refuseniks, and another empty place for Iraqi Jewry.
All kinds of important people and news correspondents used to turn up at our home, to see my mother about the campaign work and to interview her. People close to my mother held her in the highest esteem – as did I…
My mother never lived to meet those for whom she had fought, a fact that I find very painful. She dedicated a significant part of her life and vigour to this struggle, but later she fell ill and was unable to continue her endeavours… She died in 1982, at the age of 58. I once leafed through a World Jewish Congress brochure and saw a photograph of a mass meeting, with placards. As I looked more closely at the photo, I saw it was taken in Holland, and then I recognized my mother on it, sitting in the front row. This was some time after she passed away, and I was in shock.
I grew up in a Zionist home, which nurtured us to broad democratic values, and we were always well informed about what was going on in the world. Amsterdam was a hotbed of political activity on any issue related to the violation of human rights. It is an open, tolerant city and a centre of attraction for young people the world over. Every conceivable opinion and movement, whether positive or negative, found a home in this relatively small city, and information poured in from around the world. It was an interesting place to live.
During the period of the Vietnam War, there were lots of demonstrations and protests. There were also protests against the dictatorship in Chile, when President Alliende was ousted and murdered; then there were protests against the Pinochet regime.
I remember Prague Spring - I must have been about 10 years old when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague: It was unbelievable. I remember my father, of blessed memory, walking throught he house like a wounded tiger, upset and angry. He explained the events very clearly to me, and I sensed that he felt this tragedy was happening to him. At that time, Western Europe was enjoying economic prosperity, people were enjoying life, and were not overly worried by the problems and distress of other people.
My own family was highly sensitized to what was happening abroad: the Franco dictatorship in Spain, the dictatorship in Portugal… There were countries that were very popular with Dutch tourists, but in our family it was a matter of principle not to visit them. The entire world went on holiday to the Costa del Sol in Spain, but we didn't do so for ideological reasons, because it was a Fascist regime! Later, when the dictatorship ended, we were able to go to Spain.
I was very eager to visit the Soviet Union as a member of our youth movement, we knew that these trips were organized through them, but I was too young at the time. My friends did go, and I think that I would have also been able to make a contribution had I been able to go. As soon as I was old enough to sit on committees and councils, I became active on behalf of my youth movement, Habonim Dror, on the solidarity committee for Soviet Jewry, but when I began planning my own Aliyah and future, my involvement declined, as I was increasingly involved in the running of the youth movement and issues related to Aliyah. Obviously, I still participated in meetings and demonstrations, we were always among the first to respond to appeals of this kind.
It was not difficult to be Jewish in Holland. There was no problem with following Jewish traditions in our Reform synagogue, we were members there. This sense of belonging was a major component of my life as a young person: belonging to the Jewish community was consistent with freedom: the right to be Jewish to whatever extent we wished, and simultaneously to be free citizens. For us, the connection between being active members of the community, our youth movement, and civic life in Amsterdam existed in harmony with the struggle for democratic rights. One quarter of the students in my school were Jewish, and the school principal was also Jewish.
Zionism was my entire life. I knew that when I finished high school, I would leave Holland: I did not connect my future to Holland. When I was 14, I was already thinking about what I would be doing when I was 25 or older, and I could only see my future in Israel. In Holland, I always felt that I had a good life, but that I wasn't part of this place – that I belonged to Israel, or part of the Jewish People that lived in Holland. The mindset of the Dutch Jewish community, however, did not gel with mine: to me, they seemed introvert, it was too narrow for me and I did not see myself making my life there….
Aliyah and Full Circle
I came on Aliyah in 1978, at the age of 20, together with four friends, one of whom soon returned to Amsterdam, more or less as we expected. We were all members of Habonim Dror, a Zionist youth movement, and had grown up together in the same community. Together, we went to Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava, which was part of the Reform movement: for us, it was wonderful, a combination of everything to which we had been educated. I lived there for two years and then moved to Jerusalem, where I have been ever since. It wasn't easy for me to leave the kibbutz, which I liked, and I still miss the life there. We had arrived on the newly-formed kibbutz in the Arava Desert straight from Amsterdam: it was hot and water had to be piped in, conditions were relatively primitive, and we felt like Halutzim, the early pioneers. If I had to choose a different time and place to be born, I would have chosen the period of the Halutzim in Eretz Yisrael, despite all the hardships.
When I came on Aliyah, I left my mother and father behind in Amsterdam. Five years after my Aliyah, my mother passed away, and nine years later, my father died. I remember the arrival in Israel of Natan Sharansky and Ida Nudel, which were exciting highlights of my life, although there was sadness, too, because my mother had not lived to see those moments. She did not have the chance to see that everything for which she had dedicated herself had won out, nor to meet the people on behalf of whom she had campaigned.
Once, while I was working at the Educational Center of the Youth and Hechalutz Department (before the days of the Education Department), we received our first group from the CIS. There was a big evening activity, and the photo of my mother from World Jewish Congress brochure was shown on the screen. I talked about my mother's campaign activity and said, "Now we are closing the circle: my mother fought for your freedom, and you were able to come here, with me standing here in front of you." It was a very emotional moment for me: above all, I wanted them to understand that the struggle did not only take place in the USA, but that the Jews of Western Europe had been highly sensitive to the distress of Jews in different countries and had been ready to fight on their behalf.
Some years ago, our youth movement organized a reunion in Holland and I went back with some of my friends. It was an important and formative moment in my life. My generation of the family did not stay in Holland. I have two brothers: one lives in Israel, and the other in Paris. Sometimes I feel a nostalgia for the special atmosphere or food that I remember from Holland. But I am not Dutch, and I find the Dutch mentality unsettling.
(Inteview by Irena Chernaya. Edited by Gila Ansel Brauner)