My family found itself in the USSR in 1941, in the wake of the Soviet annexation of the supposedly "socially dangerous" Baltic states. A week before the war arrived in our part of the world, from June 12th – 16th, 40,000 people were ordered onto trains and evacuated to the East… Most of these "risk elements" were from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, but there were also some Poles, too.
My own parents – my father was from Kaunas and my mother from Shaulyai – were swept up in this convoy and split up to be evacuated with their parents' families and relatives. My father was Yona Uljamperl. His mother (my grandmother) was named Rivka and she was together with my father, who had a younger brother and sister, Berel Dov and Ida. My mother was with her entire family, the Shlapoberskys. Her parents' names were Frida and Benyamin.
I begin with this to give an idea why my parents had such a burning wish to leave the Soviet Union. For them, it was a place to which they had been forcibly exiled, under terribly harsh conditions. My paternal grandfather was immediately arrested and sent to a labour camp in the Sverdlovsk region, where he died a month later. The remainder of my father's and my mother's families ended up in the Altai region: my mother was only 17, while my father was 29.
For the first year, they were obliged to work on the sovkhoz and kolkhoz collective farms, under a more or less feudal system, where the bosses would come and pick their labourers like cattle:
I'll take this one, not that one, because… he limps, or can't work with his hands or he's old.
My parents never mentioned it to me – possibly because they did not want to raise the spectre of these painful memories. I only became interested in this period in recent years, after their deaths and indeed only learned the story a few years ago. It shocked me terribly to read about it in a book entitled, "The 16 Year Journey", which recounts what happened to these "socially dangerous elements" from Lithuania.
In 1942, they were once again rounded up – to be sent to the Far East. Somehow or other, they made it to the River Lena and were then sent by river barge to the frozen Northern Arctic Ocean. This all took place during the war and they knew something about the start of the war in the USSR from their period in Sverdlovsk. However, I believe this second move was purely accidental, and not planned to save them from the Germans. Nonetheless, this internal exile paradoxically saved the lives of the majority of these Jews, at a time when 95% of all Lithuanian Jewry were annihilated by the Nazis and their collaborators - in the camps, the killing ravines, the ghettos of Kaunas and Vilna.
They were transported along the Lena to the Delta into the Laptev Sea, and then transferred onto another vessel, ferried across to the Yana Estuary, where they were disembarked. It was already late August and they were ordered to build yurts (skin tents) and formed into fishing brigades. They had no civil rights: at any time, they could be ordered to go to a round-up and be transported a further 100 or 150 kilometres into the wilderness, and they were forced to fulfil any and all kinds of labour. When they worked, they would receive enough food for their subsistence. My father and his brother worked in a factory, while my mother and his sister occupied themselves with the household chores. In the late 1940s, they managed to make their way to the town of Yakutsk, but I have not been able to find out how they escaped.
Recently, I discused this with a woman who shared a yurt with my grandmother. She said the following: "We didn't fall sick and almost all of us survived, but the Poles and the Lithuanians were very ill, and their rate of mortality was very high. The support we gave each other and our solidarity helped us survive and remain human beings." Despite the extremely harsh conditions, they were able to preserve their semblance of humanity;some of them even managed somehow to observe Kashrut. - they all came from the former Pale of Jewish Settlement, where all the Jewish population had been religious until 30 or 40 years previously.
My parents married in Yakutsk in 1948, but they had met before making their way there. These "undesirables" were rich, because they managed the factory shops and had some connections. My father was a knitting engineer. Special transmigrants frequently contacted each other and often arranged business meetings. Some of them remained in Yakutia, in Yakutsk. Until 1957(?), my parents, as special transmigrants, had to present themselves at the Militia (police) station once every fortnight. In the region where they were located, there was no need to put them under guard: there was nowhere to escape. Nonetheless, I do know for a fact that some of the young people managed to get to Moscow as early as 1955-1956, in order to go to university. It was quite common for them to be caught in Moscow and sent back to the Far East.
In 1954, through my father's connections, we were able to move to Barnaul, where he began working as an engineer at a knitting factory. The climatic conditions in the area were not as extreme. In Barnaul, my parents often listened to "Kol Yisrael", and would then discuss what they heard with their friends. Once, when I was already at school, but in one of the lower grades, I remember I was sitting at home doing my homework. I remember that I heard my parents in the next room saying, "The Arabs, the Arabs", and I lost my concentration and wrote "Arabs" in answer to one of the questions. School rules were very strict so I couldn't cross out the mistake or tear the page out of my exercise book: my parents came and erased it with a razor blade!
My parents' generation were Zionists, and despite the fact that they never talked about it openly, they managed to pass it on to us, too. I knew who I was and where I was going, and that we hoped to go to Israel, as well as the fact that the Soviet Union was not my country.
I belonged to the Young Pioneers and then the Komsomol movement (which were essential if one wanted a good college or work reference), but my brother even managed to avoid joining the Komsomol – yet he still managed to be accepted to a Teacher's Training College. We weren't vocal Zionists, nor were we religiously observant, but we always had Matza in our home on Pesach. It was made in a mill with an oven in Novosibirsk: women would travel to the mill with their own flour, bake the matzot, and then take them back to their homes.
In 1958, my paternal grandmother and aunt left for Poland, from where they went to Israel in 1959. In 1963 or 1964, they sent us an affidavit and invitation for family reunification in Israel, and my father went to the OVIR [Visa Offices] with these documents, where he was told to come back in a week's time. That week, in the Saturday issue of the local newspaper, an article appeared about how bad life was in Israel. When my father returned to the OVIR, he was asked whether he had read this article and what he thought about this situation. He replied that he had indeed read it, but nonetheless wished to go to israel, because his mother and sister lived there. So we began getting together the necessary documents, references – from work and school. 1964 passed. We were particularly concerned to do this as discreetly as possible, so as not to attract any negative spin. My aunt was friendly with the principal of the school where my brother and I studied and arranged for us to receive our references without it getting around. I have no idea how my parents did it, but they managed to obtain references from their places of work. We then submitted our documents and, a short while afterwards, received notice that our applications had been rejected.
We continued living in Barnaul. Each year, we would submit an application for exit visas; each year, we would receive another rejection. This went on until the Six Day War. Afterwards, diplomatic relations with Israel were severed and we no longer had any way to apply. My parents then began writing protest letters to Leonid Brezhnev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party (the equivalent of President), as well as to the Congress of the Communist Party and wherever else they could think of.
In the early 1970s, information was circulated that former "special evacuees" from Lithuania were being released, so we began looking to exchange our location of residence. We had an apartment that had been allocated through my parents' work, because we appealed our rejection saying that we did not have an apartment, and that this was the reason for our departure. In 1971, my elder brother left for Vilnius, where he went to live with relatives and began the search for an exchange apartment. My parents travelled over and completed on a deal to exchange our three room apartment in Barnaul for a two room one in a Vilnius co-op association.
I remember very vividly the moment I heard from them about the exchange, and that I didn't sleep the whole night: I lay awake thinking about whether to quit my studies (I had already completed two years at univeristy). At any rate, I wanted to go to Israel, and that night I took a decision that would be critical in terms of the direction of my future. We had an encyclopedic dictionary at home: overnight, I studied the Hebrew alphabet in its entirety (and later forgot it all!). When my parents returned, I told them that I wanted to go with them, and that I would try to transfer to a university or college in Vilnius, in order not to hold up their departure.
When we got to Vilnius, I found work as a locksmith in a local industrial park and registered at the university night school. In actual fact, I was not accepted because my parents were not considered working class and because I was Jewish – but that is another story.
We lived in Vilnius for six months. Every few days, Jews left for Israel – often, people whom my parents know. After I had held down my job for three months, I was able to receive a letter of reference. Three months later, visas in hand, we left for Israel. The date was April 20th, 1972. At the time, there was a significantly large wave of Aliyah, numbering about 100,000 people over a period fo three years. We travelled via Vienna and when we got off the train, we were met by a HIAS representative who asked us who wanted to go to the USA. Only one family left the train with him; 19 went to Schoenau Castle, where we stayed until we left for Israel. It was the day before Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel Independence Day and we arrived in Israel together – my parents, my elder brother (two years older than myself) and I.
On our arrival in Israel, we went to live in the Absorption Centre in Akko (Acre) and began studying Hebrew at Ulpan. From the moment they left the plane, my parents began speaking Ivrit – which they had studied at the Hebrew High School in Lithuania long ago. While they had no problems with the language, for myself it was another story…
Exactly one month after our arrival, we were told that on the following day there would be a demonstration in Tel Aviv on behalf of Soviet Jewry, under the banner of "Let My People Go!", to be attended by US President Nixon. My brother and I travelled to Tel Aviv and Sarei Israel Square, which was crowded with rivers of humanity. From there, another group was organized to go the following day to the Kotel [Western (Wailing) Wall] and begin a hunger strike in support of Soviet Jews: my brother and I decided to go with. 100 people went on a hunger strike and the demonstration lasted an entire week. While we abstained from all forms of food we did, however, drink water and fruit juice. We lay down a lot, weak from lack of nutrition;I lost 7 kg in weight.
One of the organizers was the MAOZ association whose Director was Avraham Shifrin. A lot of people came up to express their support and the hunger strike was written up in all the newspapers. The demonstration attracted visits by the major Israeli figures of the time – Golda Meir, Yigal Allon – and also by many tourists. It is also interesting that for Shabtai Kalmanovich, who went on hunger strike with us, this proved an opportunity to make himself known in government circles and his career took an upward turn.
I recall that the Arabs were also very sympathetic towards us. Sometimes, we would go to the Arab souk (market) but did not sense any hostility from them. I also remember that, even after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, there were never any problems with hostility from the Arab population in Hebron or Beit Lechem, either.
At the end of the hunger strike, all the participants received a Siddur signed by all the other participants, including my brother and I. We have kept the Siddur.
Such was my own contribution to the Soviet Jewry campaign at that point in time.
After our return to the Absorption Centre in Akko, we continued with our Hebrew studies and I applied simultaneously to the Haifa Technion and the University of Beersheva. The Technion accepted me into their first year, while Beersheva accepted me into the second year of their degree course, both for Mechanical Engineering. I opted for Beersheva, and completed my degree there.
During the first year after my own Aliyah, I devoted a great deal of my time to life almost entirely among other Olim and failed my university exams: we were happy, but we didn't have sufficient command of Hebrew. The Yom Kippur War arrived next and after Tironut - basic training - we were sent straight to the frontlines. After the war, I repeated the second year at university but kept my distance from other Russian speakers, beginning to associate instead with native Israelis. My wife and children do not speak Russian.
In late 1976, I signed up with the regular army service in the IDF, and was finally demobbed in 1994. I was on active service at the beginning of the massive wave of Aliyah in the 1990s. As part of our military service, we were responsible for the Olim from Ethiopia, but I did not have any personal contact with the Olim themselves.
In 1994, I was approached by Nativ, or Lishkat Hakesher as it is known in Israel, to apply for their screening process for staff candidates, and I pursued this invitation. I was interviewd by Yasha Kazakov about going on shlichut on behalf of Lishkat Hakesher. However, at the same time, I was also approached by Israel military industries and offered the position of department director, so I turned down the offer from Nativ.
Five years later, my department underwent drastic cuts and I decided to resign my position. At this stage, I became interested in opportunities at the Jewish Agency and applied for Shlichut. In 1999, after completing the screening and training process, I left for the former Soviet Union as the head of the delegation to Ekaterinburg in Central Russia, Samara and St Petersburg. Subsequently, on my return to Israel, I was appointed to a position at the Education Department of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, where I worked for six years. I am currently once again in the former Soviet Union, as the Education Delegate and Head of Delegation to the Ural Region.
My father passed away in 1991, and my mother in 2000. After their death, I became interested in finding out as much as possible about them. I began investigating their life history, talking to people whose lives had led them in similar directions and asking them all kinds of questions. I found out that some of these people had written a book, so I read it.
It often happens that this kind of interest emerges when the people you most want to ask are no longer alive, so the following is intended for all the young people I know:
Put your questions to your parents now, while they are around and can answer you, because afterwards there will be no-one to answer you. I am doing my best to talk about it to my own children, but evidently this interest takes time to mature and emerges only much later in life, and usually takes a turn into areas that are highly eclectic.
I arrived in Ekaterinburg as Head of the Jewish Agency Delegation. It was on my mind that I did not know where my grandfather was buried, only that it was somewhere in the Sverdlovsk Oblast (Region). In Ekaterinburg, I once accidentally met a former lieutenant in the MVD (State Security) and I told him about this. He took down my details and within a relatively short time, he got back to me to say that he had not found anyone with the same surname, but that one person had a very similar name to my own and that he had three children, named Yona, Berl-Dov or Osher-Dov and Ita. When I heard this, I came out in goose bumps all over: I had come full circle without ever imagining it possible. He then brought me the file, but obviously I was not allowed to make a photocopy, so I wrote it all out in longhand. The file contained seven documents: a triumvirate order of arrestation, a conviction to a 10-year sentence, the three transport orders, arrival at the labour camp, admission to the hospital unit and the death certificate, certifying death from "debilitation and distrophy". There was also a letter about the fact that my uncle had searched for him and a reply stating that he was deceased on such and such a date. My grandfather had been a well-known figure in Lithuania, but he died at the age of 62 or 63, because he was simply too weak to survive the arduous conditions in a labour camp.