Let My People Go!

Dov Kontorer

 

by Dina Goldman
The Jewish Agency for Israel ©

Year of Birth:  1969
Place of Birth:  Soviet Union
Year of Aliyah: 1988
Soviet Jewry and Aliyah activist in the Soviet Union

I was born in Moscow in 1969. My family was not religious, but we retained some aspects of Judaism. For example, there was a Seder at Pesach which my grandfather would lead every year; my parents did not know any Hebrew, but they spoke a little Yiddish.

I always knew I was Jewish. I don't recall when I was told about it for the first time, but at some point in my early years in kindergarten, after an encounter with Antisemitism, my parents explained to me that I was indeed a Jew, and that there are people who did not like us. For whatever reason, I never attempted to hide my Jewishness, even as a child. I strongly believed that being Jewish held some great significance, although this feeling had initially no connection with religious Judaism.

The Yom Kippur War

The Yom Kippur War exerted a tremendous influence on me. I was ten years old at the time and came home at the very moment that the announcement about the outbreak of war was broadcast over the radio. In a dramatic voice it was announced that Israel had launched an attack on Egypt and Syria. However, what struck me most of all were my parents' reactions, which were totally unforgettable. My mother, who was washing the floor at the time, simply froze on the spot, holding the dripping wet floorcloth in her hand. My father, who was sitting on the other side of the apartment was concentrating furiously on every word he heard. After the news announcement, my mother asked in a voice full of anxiety, "Why have they attacked them all, again? Now they'll 'give it to them'."

It was obvious that they did not wish to discuss the subject in front of me, and for days there was a feeling of something fateful hanging in the air. Each time I tried to talk about it with my parents they would avoid the subject. When I became insistent, my mother would say to my father, "Semyon, don't mess up the boy's life."

I realized that something very important was happening, in which they were deeply involved, but that they did not wish to worry me about it. My father sat up all night listening to the broadcasts from western radio stations, going almost without sleep, to the extent that he went off to work completely exhausted. At one point, he announced, "The French reported that the Arabs attacked Israel." Again, my mother urged him to be silent; this went on for a week or two.

I realized that something very odd was going on: it is difficult for a young boy to grasp that there is something his parents are too frightened to tell him, while it is blatantly obvious that this matter is nonetheless vitally important, to the point that they remain glued to the radio, listening intensely and with considerable anxiety to reports about events happening somewhere else in the world. At one point, I decided to create an incident that I knew they would be unable to ignore. We were sitting down at a meal together, and the radio in the background was giving a report of continued fighting in the Middle East, and how many Israeli tanks and fighter planes had been knocked out. The broadcast had a very upbeat tone to it: the "goodies" were vanquishing the "baddies". So I said, "Great! The goodies are winning!" It was a childish ploy, but I knew that they wouldn't let it pass without comment and would inevitably respond. No sooner were the words out of my mouth, than I realized my idea had worked. My father got up and stood by the table. My mother again pleaded with him, "Semyon, Semyon, I beg of you, don't mess up the boy's life!"
My father seemed to be weighing every word carefully as he made a pronouncement, seeking whatever he could say in response to this situation, but nonetheless, trying to ensure that it would be within the limits of what he was allowed to tell me. "I know that you go to school and are also a member of a youth movement, where they teach you all kinds of important things about Imperialism and aggression, but I want to tell you something that I want you to remember for the rest of your life: when you hear that there are Jews being killed somewhere or other, you have no cause to rejoice!"

This moment changed my entire life. For the first time, Israel became connected in my mind to Judaism. I realized that it was extremely important to my parents, but that they were also very frightened. I didn't like the fear, and I made the decision that I wouldn't be like that: I would not hide matters like this from my own children in the future.

Although I was only ten years old, I think that the decision to go on Aliyah to Israel was already crystallizing within me then and there. I understood that the radio broadcasts were lies, that Israel was on the side of "good", that this was my country, which I should be supporting and where I should live.

With the passing years, I grew up and developed. My interest in Israel also thrived, and I came to realize that Judaism was related to religion. I had a schoolfriend who had been loaned a Tanach for a few days, and she allowed me to have it for a day. I managed to read all of the Book of Genesis and to take a look at the rest of the Pentateuch. I felt very strongly that it spoke directly to me and held great significance for me. From about age fifteen, I began to state that I believed in G-d, despite the fact that I had never met any religious Jews.

Simchat Torah in Moscow

From quite a young age, I would go to the Moscow synagogue on Simchat Torah. Initially, I would accompany my grandfather, but as I got a little older, I would go by myself. Many Jews would assemble there, it was a tremendous experience, and I really enjoyed being part of it. When I was about 15, someone told me that people go to the synagogue on Pesach, and later on I learned that some people went every Shabbat, and I also began going on Shabbatot. The Jews who gathered there on Shabbat were mainly Refuseniks, or connected to them in some way. They weren't serious students of Hebrew or Judaism, but they knew bits here and there. From them, I learned about Brit Milah (Circumcision) and I decided to have a Brit when I was 16.

I began Hebrew lessons with various teachers. I would read a lot and my vocabulary increased substantially: my goal was to acquire a native command of Hebrew, even if I didn't manage to go on Aliyah to Israel.

In the 1970s, I was far too young to go to Israel alone and the emigration option came to an end in 1980. Prior to this, while the gates were open to some extent, many people took this opportunity to emigrate, but that was no longer possible in the 1980s. The Cold War was once again at a peak, with war being waged in Afghanistan, as well as the staging of the Moscow Olympics, both of which had an indirect impact on our situation.

There were a lot of people who, like myself, had missed the opportunity to go to Israel, because the gates had closed. This barrier forced them to channel their energies into other directions: they began to learn Hebrew, study the Torah, and Judaism.

Background

The outcome was that the Moscow Jewish community, which had shrunk during the 1970s because of the large numbers of people leaving for Israel, began to grow. The 1980s were prosperous, in terms of Judaism: hundreds of people began studying Hebrew, Judaism, Torah, and attended seminars. In the mid-eighties, there was already an impressive spectrum of schools of thought and political parties among Moscow Jewry, encompassing everything from those who defined themselves as left-wing through Satmar Hassidim.

Zionism

Israel is at the centre and heart of the Jewish People. I already knew then that I wanted to live in Israel, that Israel was important to me.

On Activism

There were a few people to whom my life became connected: Grigory (Grisha) Rosenshtein - Efraim's son -; Shimon Yantovsky; and Semyon Abramovich. In 1981, I met David Tokar, the Hebrew teacher. Despite his being 27, which was a borderline age for army recruitment, he was thrown out of college for teaching Hebrew and drafted into the Soviet Army, and sent to serve in the Far East. Grisha, Semyon and I decided to maintain contact with him and we would occasionally telephone him, and generally watch out for him.

At some point, David Tokar was hospitalized in the Chita hospital and was discharged from the army on medical grounds. We expected him to be released from hospital and come home, but he suddenly disappeared! We were unsuccessful in making contact with him and no-one seemed to know where he was. Eventually, we discovered that he had been compulsorily hospitalized in a psychiatric department. His family lived in Czernowitz, which was a long way from us, and they were unable to do anything to help him.

I set out on a round of visits to government offices in the guise of his 'cousin', but was unable to turn up any new information. This was the period of the war in Afghanistan and so my request for information about a soldier who had disappeared only one week previously seemed trivial, compared to the fate of those who had been listed missing in Afghanistan for several months. After two weeks without any success in unearthing new information, we decided to travel to the last place in the Far East where the trail had gone cold and where we had lost contact with him, in order to search from there. The original plan was that I would travel as his cousin, together with a girl who would claim to be his fiancee, but after we bought our tickets, I resolved to travel alone, because the region was dangerous.

The episode of how I got him out is a story in itself and a miracle, too. I managed to trace him and tried to smuggle him out, but in the end he was released because there was no official cause for his detention in the facility. The KGB had apparently thought it would be a good place to stow him away, and never imagined that anyone would actually go there to search for him, so when they saw that relatives had turned up, they were unable to hold onto him. I drew great strength from this experience, and realized that I had the capacity to confront difficult situations and overcome them.

Semyon Abramovich would travel a great deal around the USSR to meet with Jews. My activism continued along these lines, and through 1981 and 1982, I would travel at his behest. I went to the Ukraine, Belarus (then Byelorussia), Borisov, and Minsk, where I distributed Tallitot and Siddurim to Jewish families.

Once, just before a trip to Samarkand in 1982, Sasha (Aleksandr) Kholmyansky contacted me. Sasha was an activist for Jewish rights, and in later years would become a Prisoner of Zion for some time. He asked me to join him in his work for an organization that he had established, and I agreeed.

Sasha's organization was so clandestine that it even lacked a name: when we would speak about it among ourselves, we would call it "Cities" (goroda, in Russian). The organization acted as an umbrella for many activities in the Soviet Jewish Aliyah movement. Some of these activities were prohibited de facto by the Soviet authorities; others were prohibited by law; working within the framework of this organization was a dangerous undertaking. Its activities were both numerous and varied, and included: teaching Hebrew, maintaining contact with Jews from overseas and with 'Nativ', publishing books (clandestine press, or Samizdat), recording audio tapes, fund-raising, and organizing seminars.

I worked with Sasha Kholmyansky for two years, until he was sent to prison. During this period I travelled a great deal across the entire USSR. We did not use telephones to contact people, because we knew the lines were tapped; we also tried to avoid air travel as much as possible, because records were kept of all passenger names. So my travels were frequent and of great importance.

From 1983, I also began to teach Hebrew in my apartment, and at the same time attended a course with Sasha under the pen-name of 'Zvi'. Sasha had initially opposed the idea of teaching me, because he was afraid it might expose the organization to which we both belonged, and because any connection between us would appear suspicious, but my persistence won out. In 1984, when Sasha Khelmansky was arrested and sent to presion, Zeev Gaiser and I continued his work and ran the organization, through to our Aliyah in 1988.

It is to the credit of the "Cities" project that many Jews in 30 different cities across the USSR were able to study Hebrew and Judaism. We supplied them with textbooks, audio cassettes, and other accessories necessary for their studies. Our work may not have reached massive figures in terms of the participants, because we invested so much in camouflaging our activities but, nonetheless, our operations were highly successful. These were the people who carried the spark within them: they wanted to study and they were seeking what we could offer them.


 

 

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07 Oct 2007 / 25 Tishrei 5768 0