Let My People Go!
Gila Ansell Brauner
Interview by Dina Goldman
Born in the UK.
After the end of the Stalin era, which was marked by the persecution of Jews and the Purges, the western world believed that Khrushchev's rise to power heralded better times. However, conditions for the Jews remained much the same; indeed, their economic situation and future in the liberal professions was even endangered, and there continued to be a clampdown on any expressions of Judaism.
In the late 1960s, I became very interested in Soviet Jewry and read a great deal about it; I wanted to help. From 1968-1972, I studied Russian at high school, as well as Soviet history, and continued with Russian Studies at university, followed by qualifying as an interpreter.
Occasionally, I would act as an interpreter for international telephone calls to adopted Refusenik families in the USSR by support groups in the British Jewish community. These calls would only last a few minutes (after a long time spent trying to get connected via the operator in Moscow!), because the line would inevitably be cut (presumably on KGB instructions). The support groups in the UK would ask about the situation of their adopted Refusenik families and other Soviet Jews, in general. Their connection provided moral support and there was always a follow-up report about the logistical help they needed – medicines, Hebrew textbooks, siddurim. I also attended a few demonstrations for Soviet Jewry.
In 1977, I acted as interpreter for Avital Sharansky and Ilan Friedman (Ida Nudel's sister), who met with Conservative MPs and party members as part of the campaign to generate international pressure for the release of Natan Sharansky and Ida Nudel.
The significance of the Six Day War
I was at high school at the time and remember the war. It raised my consciousness of Israel and in this sense it was a turning point in my life. Firstly, we were very apprehensive about Israel's chances of survival. Secondly, the entire Jewish community mobilised around the clock to raise funds for Israel; there were also a number of volunteers who went out to Israel to join the Machal (overseas volunteer unit) in the Israeli Army. Last but not least, I recall that we were glued to the news - mainly the newspapers and the radio - for whatever information there was, which was not that much, and the BBC at first refused to broadcast a report that Israel was on the way to victory, which also impacted on me.
Before the Six Day War, Israel was relatively peripheral on the horizons of most Jewish teenagers in the UK, but the war brought Israel front stage for us. Afterwards, Israel became a focal point in my own life and that of my close friends. We began to study Modern Hebrew – the Talmud Torah provided a Hebrew teacher, but we had to insist! I joined the Bnei Akiva youth movement and planned to go with them on their Israel camp in 1970. It was my first visit to Israel; afterwards, we all began to think more about our identity and what we wanted to do. Some of my friends planned to go on the youth movement hachshara year in Israel, some went to Yeshiva, some were already planning their Aliyah and making their home in Israel.
The international and diplomatic Soviet Jewry Campaign
The UN adopted a very important convention, known as the Helsinki Convention, which addressed human rights, the right to work, freedom of movement, etc., and it was very relevant to the situation of Soviet Jewry. Natan Sharansky was a member of the Moscow Helsinki group, the monitoring group, inside the USSR – which is why he was arrested and sent to the Gulag (prison camps).
In 1977, I passed the entrance examination for UN staff interpreters in Geneva. I did not take up the position, but I did spend some time going to meetings that interested me. There were a lot of different international conventions and meetings going on at the time, such as the Jurists, and the ILO (International Labor Organization), where the situation of Soviet Jewry was put on the agenda and raised at these forums. Irwin Cotler, for example, then a jurist and today a member of the Canadian parliament, and Issi Liebler from Australia, labor activists , were two of the outspoken advocates of Soviet Jewry and their rights to freedom of movement, or to work, and they also protested the trumped up charges and show trials against Jews in the USSR.
International pressure was exerted on the USSR to end the persecution of Jews and Refuseniks and allow them to go on Aliyah to Israel. Soviet diplomats were constantly being reminded of the subject, thanks to persistent action worldwide. There were periods when the Soviet Union conceded to this pressure and allowed more Jews to emigrate.
One of my uncles was also involved in the campaign, along with other groups of concerned scientists. As a medical specialist, he would travel to lecture at international conferences, where he would meet colleagues from around the world, including the USSR. He and other specialists would raise the Soviet Jewry issue there, too. They would condemn the embargo on Soviet Jewish doctors, who were not allowed to attend conferences outside the USSR, and who were often dismissed from their positions within the USSR because they were Jewish, or wanted to go to Israel.
In 1978, together with my sister, I went to the USSR for two weeks, similar to many other Soviet Jewry activists, but we did so via our Zionist youth movement, effectively, in conjunction with "Nativ".
We were to join a (non-Jewish) student tourist group on an organized tour, which was the only way to get a visa to visit the USSR. We set off with a supply of siddurim, Tanachim, money, presents, and our own kosher food. The group flight to Moscow was from Copenhagen, but when we got to the airport, we found that it had been overbooked, so we couldn't join the group. My siter and I had to stay behind, together with two young American tourists - which was problematic, because we had hoped that in a large group we wouldn't get ourselves noticed too much. The two Americans also appeared to be Jewish and were most likely intent on similar purposes to our own, but we didn't even talk to them.
We were all four rescheduled on a Aeroflot flight to Japan via Moscow a day late, the only non-Japanese passengers on the plane, and the only people to disembark in Moscow. With all our supplies of siddurim, Tanachim and kosher food, our suitcases were not only full, but very heavy. We passed through Customs trembling with anxiety, but without a baggage search, or undue incident. The other two were behind us, but we could see that they were not so lucky: their rucksacks were searched inside out.
Our task was to get in touch with specific Refuseniks, who would act as our contact people in the various cities that we were to visit in the USSR, to visit as many people as possible, and to give out our books and presents, give talks on Judaism, offer moral support, and obviously to ask for the names and details of other Jews who were interested in Aliyah. Many of the Refuseniks were unemployed, because they had been fired from their jobs, so the presents we brought could also be sold for hard cash.
It was not easy finding our contact people: firstly, accurate maps of cities in the Soviet Union were a problem, and finding our way around was not straightforward. Secondly, we were part of an organized tour covering 6 cities over a wide area of the USSR, so we had to plan our visits as best we could to fit in with a tight schedule of arrivals and departures. Soon after we arrived in a city, my sister and I would 'disappear' to go and contact our Refuseniks. We would tell others in the group that we were off to buy fruit and vegetables, or send postcards.
Our first stop was in Moscow, where we needed to find a woman Refusenik who acted as a kind of "switchboard" for Jewish visitors. We called her from a public phone box and agreed to meet with her son by the metro station in their neighbourhood that evening, so that we would not lose our way. Evening came and we set out. My sister and I were the only two women standing outside the metro station, while everyone else was hurrying to and fro in all directions. We did our best not to look too out of place, but it was 20 minutes before a young man turned up with a black umbrella (as agreed), he spotted us and came towards us, and we were off.
His mother was a lovely lady, but did not speak much English, so she was delighted that I could speak Russian, although she made it obvious that she thought the apartment was tapped. She helped us find other addresses and talked about her own situation, and that of other Refuseniks, which was deteriorating rapidly. So many of them had lost their jobs and ran the risk of being prosecuted as 'social parasites on Soviet society', because they were unemployed. They had no way to find work, or alternative employment, and lived in very straitened financial circumstances. On top of this, they were being harassed by the Soviet authorities on a range of false pretexts. This meant that the various circles of Refuseniks kept more and more to themselves, and we didn't get any names of new people who were interested in Aliyah.
During our trip, we visited other cities, too: Tbilisi, Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand and Leningrad. When we went to private homes, we would give out some of our books and hear updates on the Jewish situation there, and we felt that these visits offered them hope. It was important to show that Jews around the world had not forgotten them, that we were concerned for them, and campaigning actively on their behalf. Unfortunately, we did not always manage to find the addresses that we were given, and sometimes we had to make do with visiting a synagogue, or visiting fewer families than we had planned. This was also because of the group's tight travel schedule and because the hotels where we stayed were often a long way out.
I continued my activities with Soviet Jewry in Italy from 1978-1980, working first in Ostia (a seaside resort outside Rome), as well as Rome and Ladispoli, in the framework of the Jewish Education Project launched by JDC with Israel Community Centers' Association, along with the Jewish Agency.
A few years earlier, Italy had agreed to act as a country of first refuge for the stateless Jews who left the USSR and had decided not to go to Israel, but to apply for entry visas to western countries. Despite the fact that the Soviet Jewish transmigrants had decided not to go on Aliyah, JDC was interested in providing educational input and decided to offer informal and formal education, bringing shlichim from other Jewish communities and from the Jewish Agency – university graduates, teachers, academics, intellectuals, as well as cooperating with Chabad – in order to teach and work with them. There were also visits by all kinds of dignitaries: members of parliaments, Congress, Members of the Knesset, and even former Prisoners of Zion. My job was to run part of the informal education programme, exposing the Jewish transmigrants to Israel and Judaism. The Education Project for Soviet Jewish Transmigrants was transferred in 1979 to the Israel Association of Community Centers.
I worked with Soviet Jews from across the USSR – Russia proper, Bukhara, and especially the Ukraine – and from all kinds of backgrounds. Many of them lacked any connection to their Jewish roots and this was possibly a major factor in their decision not to go to Israel - as well as being considered by some of us to be the putative reason for the USSR's decision to allow them to emigrate. They lived in rented accommodation around Rome and Ostia, one family to a room, and received a subsistence allowance from JDC. During that first year, the numbers of Jewish transmigrants in one month hit the 10,000 level, and many of them had to look for accommodation in Ladispoli, a lot further away from Rome.
The project operated a nursery school and a two-shift day school, where children encountered Jewish life and Israel; we also ran synagogues on the premises of our centres or schools, and there was a thriving lending library, as well as adult education: something for all ages. For the tens of thousands of Jews each year going through Italy, this was often their first encounter with Israel, the Jewish world and Jewish concepts. The former Soviet Jews and their children participated actively in Purimspiels, choirs, concerts and seminars, met speakers, and watched films with Jewish and Israel content.
The importance of Aliyah to Israel
Jewish life in the Diaspora communities is not secure, in the sense that it is increasingly difficult to build one's Jewish home and future outside the major communities; in addition, Antisemitism is certainly a significant problem in Europe, both on campus and in cities with large Jewish communities.
Aliyah is, in and of itself, an important means of self-fulfillment as Jew, as well as being an absolute value in Jewish life. However, Aliyah requires a lot of energy and planning by each individual, if it is to be successful.
In addition, in order for Aliyah to succeed, Israel has to do a lot more than talk in cliches: it needs to make provision for olim so that they can them get on their feet and make a living here, it has to help them integrate into society, and it needs to treat them properly.
Was the Soviet Jewry Campaign worthwhile?
The West's campaign for the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union was definitely worthwhile and effective in the long term, both in terms of input and outcomes. The contact that was established and maintained with Refuseniks gave them the hope and strength to carry on. Without the worldwide Soviet Jewry Campaign activism and concerted action by all the Jewish communities, international figures and statesmen would not have been concerned, and it is difficult to imagine that we would have achieved anywhere near as much without the high profile personalities. Indeed, the Soviet Jewry Campaign is often held up as a model of grass roots activism. My only personal regret is that I wish I could have done more in the earlier years of the struggle.
Aliyah and Olim
I spoke fluent Hebrew, thanks to working for two years with so many Israelis in Italy and it worked in my favour. The first part-time job I landed while I was interviewing for a professional qualification at the Hebrew University in Community Centre Management, was working with Olim from Soviet Central Asia, in a neighbourhood in NE Jerusalem called Neve Yaakov. Olim from different countries had bought apartments there in the 1970s and the neighbourhood was home to immigrants from the European sections of the USSR, from Georgia, and from Soviet Central Asia (Bukharan Jews), as well as large numbers of immigrants from Latin America – most had arrived in the early and mid-1970s.
The job only paid 1/3 of a full-time position and was funded by the Israel Ministry of Absorption and again, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in conjunction with the local matnas, or community centre. I was to report therefore, to all three, plus my university supervisor in community work, which was very time-consuming. In addition, "voluntarily", I also worked along with matnas staff on cultural programmes, especially those targeted at Russian-speaking olim from the rest of the Soviet Union, also about 1/3 time.
There were two families in Neve Yaakov who recognized me from Italy, they had "changed their minds" about going to the West and come on Aliyah: one was from the Ukraine, the other was from Bukhara!
It was a big learning curve for me, both about the Bukharan olim and Israeli society. Bukharan Jews have a very different cultural and ethnic history and they were different in many ways from the Bukharan Jews who had come to Eretz Yisrael in the nineteenth century. The older immigration had come with money; the new generation came without anything. It took me a while to find out about the complex relationships and issues beneath the surface of the community. One of my discoveries was that a single, religious, woman was not the ideal combination for a community worker with this population, although most people are by nature accepting and will judge a professional by their work.
I was introduced to researchers and administrative professionals interested in the Bukharan Olim, including a social anthropologist who allowed me to read her anthropological and social research before we made any decisions about what and how to work with them. I was also introduced to all kinds of officials and bureaucrats with more pragmatic interests in the community… The veteran community was interested in providing the new immigrants with religious leadership, supported by Agudat Yisrael. Most of the community from Bukhara and Samarkand were traditionalists, but not of the orthodox mould; those from other cities were far more secular and urbanized in the Soviet sense, although all of them remained very conservative in their attitudes to women, despite the fact that all the young women worked and were often better educated than the men. At the same time, veterans and others of the "old guard" in the the Labour-led Histadrut and the Herut/Likud led Le'umi Health Fund were vying for influence.
If we needed to organize a "cultural" event, funds had to be canvassed from a variety of sources; when social and educational needs were defined as priorities, it was far more difficult to find funding. I did organize some social events, and also some explanatory lectures and home hospitality for IDF officers about immigrants from the USSR [a great success], but the olim preferred the individual family and clan setting to the community approach. The main focus soon became the families and how they and their children functioned in Israeli society, visiting them at home and finding ways to bring their children into active participation in the classroom, parent education, and so on. It rained a lot that first winter in Israel; I was always covered in mud and soaked through on my home visits to families, and having very sore feet. I used to take another pair of shoes to put on when I went inside. On the whole, it was more a question of me visiting the homes than any sustained group work, but I believe this was the only group work ever conducted and sustained for over a year in this community.
All the workers connected to the Israel Ministry of Absorption's social absorption projects learned a lot about different communities in Israel at local, regional and national meetings – for example, about Jewish life in Ethiopia and the work with Ethiopian Jews in the Gondar in the 1980s. Whatever our hopes, no-one believed then that most of Ethiopian Jewry and 750,000 Soviet Jews would all be in Israel in just over a decade - and no-one was prepared for an Aliyah of that scale in such a small window of time.
Within a couple of months of starting work in October 1980 and after a few of these local meetings, I was asked to speak in various forums about the more holistic approach to immigrant communities, using a triangulation of issues, and the differentiated focuses necessary for these special sectors of the population, as well as how to take the information and create innovative small group programmes for.
I also worked with summer day camps for younger children in the matnas and my salary went up to 2/3. But it wasn't enough to keep body and soul together and that's when I found a job in the World Zionist Organization Jewish Agency in Education, at the Youth & Hechalutz Department, although I worked at both my new and old jobs for a few months.
WZO and JAFI: Between Israel and the Diaspora
After speaking only Hebrew and Russian for so long, I started using my French and other languages again, working with young madrichim from the Diaspora: in leadership training, educational resources, and media production. At first I worked with a mobile educational unit and we held workshops for madrichim from the Diaspora all round Israel – in all kinds of weather and physical conditions, too. After a stretch in administration back in Jerusalem, however, I was itching to get back into the educational side so I worked a compromise, doing both. It was a great opportunity to bring together group and community work skills and experience into informal education, learn how to produce slide-tape shows, videos, get into Hasbara, educational productions, and all kinds of media.
In my first years in Israel, Dr Moshe and Shulamit Catane re-introduced me to their protegee from the Soviet Jewry campaign, none other than Avital Sharansky, and she was also an occasional guest speaker for groups of youth leaders from the Diaspora, sometimes invited by Schlomo Balsam. Schlomo would also give slide lectures to Israeli youth about Soviet Jewry and from these we built a slide tape programme in French about the history of Soviet Jewry and some of the Refuseniks he had met on his trips to the USSR, with a Hasbara booklet in French to support the Soviet Jewry campaign, for use in the Diaspora. Some of those slides are on exhibition today at Beth Hatefutsoth, and Schlomo has also allowed us the use of his personal collection on this website.
On other occasions, the Jewish Agency needed me to act as a professional translator or even interpreter for its conferences and meetings. At one of the major WZO meetings, I was also liaising with the Press, taking in the translated documents for press releases. At that time, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky's deteriorated health and living conditions were causing great concern and one of the major topics on the agenda was Soviet Jewry, which always brought in the foreign media. Schlomo Balsam asked me to try to get media interviews for Avital, in order to get wide public exposure for Natan's plight and spotlight the campaign for his freedom. So when (West) German TV were looking for a personality to interview, I rang Avital and she agreed to the interview; they also filmed her at the Kotel.
When Natan was finally freed, thousands of people went to the airport to greet him on arrival in Israel. I think I got a glimpse of him, but it was a major event, and I recorded it on video so that I could get a better view of him later. That summer, I got engaged and shortly afterwards, Natan was a guest speaker at a youth leadership seminar, and we were invited to come early to meet them both. We were bowled over by it all. Since then, Avital has become much more the figure in the background, as Natan worked first in NGOs, became an MK and Minister, and has returned to NGOs. Our paths have intersected from time to time.
Avital and Natan have had, without doubt, a tremendous impact on my adult and professional life in terms of their courage and messages - even today. Every time I see or hear the families of kidnapped and missing Israeli soldiers, especially Karnit Goldwasser, I think of Avital and of Natan's courage under physical abuse and incarceration. They give me hope.
From Soviet to Russian Jews
In 1989, the Jewish Agency worked with the first Russian-speaking group from the Diaspora (although we had already worked with groups from Eastern Europe), there were about 70 participants of all ages. I was the only Russian speaker in the Youth and Hechalutz Department, so we brought in other specialists including Schlomo Balsam (who did not speak Russian at the time). This was the beginning of reconnecting professionally with so many people who had been on shlichut to Italy, but it did not really all come together that way properly for another year or two.
One of the most important things we always explained to our new teams of facilitators was how to work with homo sovieticus: people who distrusted officials, officialdom, Soviet propaganda and manipulation in groups, because it was crucial to create trust for an open exchange and a learning process as part of our leadership training. The key was for each facilitator to first establish their own credibility through their credentials and openness, so that the participants would accept us, open up to our ideas and engage with us; essentially, it was group work with a switch, and we succeeded in motivate them to go back and become involved.
In 1990-91, we received more Russian speaking groups, right during the Gulf War. Without telephones or other means of communication, they were very cut off from home. During the Gulf War in 1991, I had to find a replacement for a young leadership seminar that I had agreed to conduct in the USSR, because my husband was on active service. That same year, the Jewish Agency also began officially recruiting shlichim and training them to go out to major cities in the USSR. I worked on both of these projects and was then asked to go to the Soviet Union to lead the first ever Hadracha Seminar for counselors for the brand new summer camps scheme that we would be initiating, and help recruit and interview shlichim. Believe it or not, I went to the USSR in my sixth month of pregnancy, on an El Al plane, with Yuli Edelstein, for just over a week!!! The conditions were awful, we took our own food and we were stuck for 6 days without a phone or transport in a trade union holiday facility some 80 km from Moscow. But it was a fantastic experience, working with 152 potential madrichim from all over the USSR, of all ages, from 16-50.
When I came back to Israel, we completed our training of the Israeli shlichim and they went out to the USSR. Then there was the first putsch, telephone lines were cut, I couldn't speak to any of the shlichim for about a week. We got lucky with Moscow the first day, just before the lines were cut; we managed to speak with Riga for a few days running; we kept in touch with the families of the shlichim, because sometimes they got through to them.
That's when Jewish education in the then USSR all started to take off, beyond the scale for which I had time to deal with it. An entire Division was built up in the Youth and Hechalutz Department, later the Education Department, as well as in the Jewish Agency main offices, to work with Russia and the CIS/FSU. For three years, I continued to work with a smaller group of madrichim that were brought to Israel for more intensive hadracha training, but I have not been back since the USSR became Russia, the CIS, etc. I worked with one Russian-speaking group at Limmud in the UK in winter 1992, in conjunction with AJJDC. I have also acted as personal tutor on various professional training programmes for E. European and Russian speaking educators under the auspices of AJJDC "on loan" from the Jewish Agency – not only Limmud in the UK, but also the Buncher Program, in the early 1990s-1995 and again in the late 1990s.
My full time employment branched into Internet in 1994, and we have never looked back. Since then, I have been fully and gainfully occupied in the area of producing and editing educational resources for the Education Department website, and as the eHelpdesk Consultant. We have a Russian Education website, which is widely used in the CIS, Germany and the other countries of the Russian Jewish Diaspora. We go out to the Jewish and wider world via the web and they visit us that way: although it is a virtual interface, it is effective and wider-reaching.
I have continued learning about Soviet Jewry, not only via the Internet, but by working with so many people who come from the former USSR within the Jewish Agency and other organizations, as well as through my freelance work as a translator of academic articles. It was a privilege to be asked to be part of the team that has created, translated, and collected resources for Let My People Go: 40 Years to the Soviet Jewry Campaign.