Let My People Go!
with Dina Goldman
Yuli Edelstein: Refusenik 1979-1987; Prisoner of Zion 1984-1985
Date of Birth: 1958
I was born in Czernowitz in western Ukraine. Ukraine was only annexed to the USSR in 1940, so that the Jews there escaped the strictures of the Soviet regime for an additional twenty years or more following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and another generation managed to benefit from a Jewish education in Jewish schools. I am offended when people state that Jews in the USSR are assimilated, because assimilation happens when a person abandons one culture for another. My response is always semi-humourous: I say that I was never able to abandon Jewish culture, simply because I didn't know very much about it when I was growing up.
My only connection with Jewish culture was through my grandfather and grandmother. I remember from when I was about 5 years old, that my grandfather would take a small suitcase in one hand and my hand in the other. We would walk to a certain street and walk up and down it until a woman called to us from one of the houses and invited us inside. My grandfather would give her 10 rubles and she would give him a package of matzot, which he stowed away in his suitcase and we would go home. That doesn't mean to say that they kept the Halachot [laws] relating to Pesach, or held a Seder, but some elements of Judaism did indeed exist.
When my grandfather was about 70 years old, he began to learn Hebrew. I don't know exactly why, because he wasn't religious, and he didn't want to go to Israel. He studied from a text book that he got hold of somewhere and had a notebook of Hebrew words that he copied from a dictionary. I am only sorry that I never demonstrated any interest in what he was doing and never sat down at any time to study together with him. It was only after my grandfather died that I decided to study Hebrew using the books that he had left, partly in his memory and partly out of curiosity. At the same time, I wasn't very happy with what was going on in the Soviet Union and that state of mind was something I had acquired at home, from my parents.
During my second year at University, I decided that I did not want to live that way any longer, and that I wanted to go on Aliyah to Israel. The problem was that I had no relatives in Israel: it wasn't possible to apply to leave the Soviet Union without an affidavit from one's relatives – many other Jews had the same problem. I managed to find some people in Israel who agreed to claim me as their relative, and I concocted an entire story about my grandfather having had an illegitimate son who had left for Palestine many years before, and whose family was now sending me an affidavit. I submitted the documents with an application to go to Israel in 1979 – and inevitably, I was immediately expelled from university.
My application to go on Aliyah was rejected. I continued to study Hebrew – at first, on my own, but later with a teacher named Lev Ulanovsky. When he received his visa to go to Israel in 1979, I decided that I myself wanted to teach Hebrew. There was obviously no formal training for this, so these lessons were not professional. I would teach small groups of between three and six people in private homes; some of them were Refuseniks, while others were Jews considering leaving, or simply interested in learning Ivrit.
Was this a clandestine activity? While it can't be said, on the one hand, that all the Hebrew teachers were thrown in jail, on the other hand, a successful teacher would inveitably come up against the authorities. He would not necessarily be arrested immediately: there were an entire range of methods used to break up Hebrew study groups. On one occasion, KGB agents accompanied by the district police officer forced entry into an apartment where I was teaching. We tried to hide whatever we could, because they proceeded to confiscate everything they saw: books, tapes, tape recorders. My students had to show their identity cards and their details were noted down. For myself, I was taken to jail, where I was searched, which they did in order to humiliate and intimidate me, with the promise that, "If you're caught teaching Hebrew once more, we'll smash your head in."
The technique of forcing entry into apartments where people were teaching Hebrew was quite effective when sustained, because once this began occuring at every lesson, the students would eventually stop coming. That is what happened, for example, with Yuli Kosharovsky, who was a really good teacher, but he was continually being arrested - either on his way to lessons, or just after he began them.
In the 1980s, we also tried to establish a network to teach Hebrew outside Moscow, because there were very few teachers outside the main cities of Moscow and Leningrad. I was in Minsk, while Sasha (Aleksandr) Kholmyansky and his brother Misha worked in other cities. We would hold intensive language instruction seminars; after a week or two in each place, we would get caught and be expelled.
In 1979, I took part in a "Purimspiel". I will never forget the atmosphere: a lot of people jam-packed into a tiny apartment, until it was bursting at the seams. The show was based on the Megillah story, interwoven with expressions and Russian songs relating to the Refusenik experience, laced throughout with humour… there was an incredible feeling of togetherness. We had to throw everyone out afterwards, because they simply did not want to leave!
In 1984, after the deaths of President Brezhnev and Andropov, the KGB strengthened its hold on the regime and decided it was time to "settle accounts". There was a round of arrests of Hebrew teachers. Sasha Chelmansky, Yossi Bernstein, myself, and many other teachers were arrested. No-one was accused of teaching Hebrew, there was always another pretext. For example: the charges against me were for possession of drugs, those against Sasha were for the illegal possession of a lethal weapon, while Berstein was charged with the assault of police officers. I was sentenced to three years'imprisonment, although in the end I was released after serving a year and eight months.
While I was being held for trial, my wife arrived at the prison and demanded I be given my Siddur and Tefillin, which she had brought with her, and they naturally refused. When I was taken for interrogation, I noticed that I had a choice of the language to give my statement, so I declared that I would give my statement in Hebrew, purely to spite them. The policeman in charge of the interview rushed off to call the KGB and ask what to do: I gathered from his agitated behaviour on his return that they must have ordered him in no uncertain terms to do his job properly.
Later, I would learn that the police officer who had taken my statement had a very long memory, because he remembered to call the management of the prison where I was held to inform them that there were forbidden items in my cell. The guards ransacked the entire cell and didn't find my Siddur, but they confiscated my Tefillin. Then they held me in the corridor while they smashed them to bits in front of my eyes; I hit out at the guards and was punished by being thrown into solitary confinement, where I began a hunger strike.
Afterwards, I was sent to a labour camp in Burtiya near the Mongolian border. We were assigned to hard labour and I was injured. I was transferred from one prison camp hospital to another, first in Burtiya and then in Novosibirsk, where I underwent surgery. After the operation, I was due to be transferred back to Burtiya, but my wife was alerted and declared that she would go on hunger strike until she died, if I were returned there. So I remained in the Novosibirsk camp until my release in May 1985.
Weren't you afraid?
First of all, no-one actually believes that it will really happen to him; and then it's impossible to stop once you've committed. Just like a tightrope walker can't turn back or stop in the half way across: my friends and I simply went on with our activities. It was a bit like playing the lottery: some people made it to Israel, and some to Siberia. There was no real reason why some people were allowed to leave and others not; it's impossible to put a finger on any particular combination of factors that determined who would receive an exit visa, or who would be arrested. There was no systematic formula involved, it was simply entirely random.
What influenced you most?
There is no one event that influenced me most deeply, but there were several factors. For example, books that I read, like, "The Six Day War" by Winston Churchill (Jr), or "Exodus" and "Mila 18", by Leon Uris, which made a lasting impression.
My family's attitude to the struggle
My parents did not opt to move closer to Judaism, as I did, but they continued to support me; they did not approve of what was going on in the Soviet Union. Parents were required to sign consent forms if their children submitted an application to leave the country, and sometimes this led to a tragic situation where the parents refused to sign, creating friction and conflict which lasted for years. I heard these stories, but I could not even imagine my own parents considering that kind of action. There was an understanding between us that I had decided to make my life in Israel, and they offered me their support.
I don't have a concise definition of what Zionism means to me: it's connected to my past, about which I have no regrets, and my present. I don't agree with the saying that, "Zionism means living in Israel," because it's far more than that. Zionism is about living a meaningful life, with substance, here in Israel. The substance is different for everyone, and I prefer this definition because it works for everyone.
Israel's Soviet Jewry Campaign
We didn't know about Nativ. We realized that someone was behind all the organization and that it was in Israel. My friends and I refer to him as, "our mutual friend"; later on, we learned that it was Aryeh Kroll. We received many items: books, presents, kosher food… The connection was tremendously important to us, and we knew that there was someone we could rely on if anything went wrong.
The 'generation gap' among the Refuseniks
The first generation of Refuseniks worked on the assumption that they were teaching people who were leaving for Israel, so rather than focus on grammar or pronuciation, they concentrated on the practical use of the language. We, however, taught both grammar and culture. We requested modern accessories for language teaching from Israel and received them, including visual aids and books. There were many disagreements between the 'generations' on this subject. There was also tension between those who focused solely on Aliyah to Israel and those who wanted to teach Jewish culture.
Time has proven that there was no essential difference between these two approaches. The source of the tension was, rather, the realization at the end of the 1970s that the gates had closed and that we were set to be living as Refuseniks in the USSR for a very long time to come.
The international Soviet Jewry Campaign
We knew about the international campaign, and we felt that people cared about us. Years later, when I gave a lecture tour overseas, some Jews approached me to ask whether I remembered them, because they had sent me letters. And it's true that when I was in the labour camp at Burtiya, after a long working day the camp commander approached me and said, "Edelstein, I want you to know that I have a safe full of letters for you, but I'm not going to give you a single one of them!" The knowledge that people remembered me and wrote to me gave me tremendous moral support and the strength to go on.