Let My People Go!
by Dina Goldman
Year of Birth: 1958
Two important events happened in my life when I was four years old: my father took me for the first time to the "banya" (Russian sauna, a very popular leisure activity for men) and my grandmother took me to the synagogue for the first time. I remember Pesach Sedarim held with my grandparents and their attempts to teach me Yiddish; my mother and my grandmother would speak Yiddish to each other all the time. And at the age of six, someone bashed my head in for the first time, because I was Jewish.
In February 1979, I applied to leave the Soviet Union – but to go to the United States, not Israel - and in May 1980 I received my first rejection. However, during the waiting period, other factors intervened. Firstly, I met Yuli Edelstein who included me in his circle of friends; secondly, I read the novel, "Exodus". It helped me understand that I had no reason to leave the Soviet Union for a higher standard of living: I had a nice apartment and my life in the USSR was very comfortable.
From the moment I received my rejection, my entire life changed:
I was unable to complete my studies at university, because I got expelled, so I began working as a casual labourer – as a shifter in stores, and even in a refrigeration plant.
On the first occasion that the Soviet Army sent someone round to my home to look for me (after I did not comply with the draft order), I anticipated them by packing a few belongings and going to stay with friends for a while. The second time, I claimed that I was mentally unstable: my mother testified that I had attempted to commit suicide, and I was sent to a psychiatric institution for a month and a half.
When I was released, I joined a group of people working on a "Purimspiel", a presentation of the story of Megillat Esther combined with a contemporary setting. Each year, our performances would be attended by one thousand people, in private apartments. The first time, we appeared to 400 people crammed like sardines into a small apartment, and our stage consisted of a door that had been taken off its hinges. There were ten actors in the troupe covering all the roles; I would always play the part of Haman, while my sister Irena played Esther. Professional directors obviously refused to work with us because we were amateurs and also because they simply could not comprehend how such a production could be held on such small premises. I have never played to better audiences: they always welcomed us and acclaimed our performances to thunderous applause.
In 1983, we planned to stage a Chanukah production in Riga. We were supposed to appear in a café that had been rented for our performance, but officers from the Fire Brigade visited the premises six hours prior to the show and refused to authorize us to use them. The show went on, but at the private apartment of a local activist.
As time went on, I also began to study Hebrew and Judaism. Lessons would be held in various private apartments, including my own; my teacher was Yuli Edelstein. I also helped with these activities, by photocopying textbooks and distributing them.
In the early 1980s, my friends and I initiated a correspondence with the Soviet authorities, requesting we be allowed to leave the USSR to go on Aliyah to Israel. Our correspondence reached the highest possible level, the Soviet Union's first citizen himself, Leonid Illich Brezhnev – the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. We invested a great deal of time in these letters and their composition. Many years down the line, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I had an opportunity to talk to former staff at the OVIR (Visa and Emigration Bureau) who had been responsible for issuing exit visas. I learned that our letters had made absolutely no difference: decisions about who could or could not emigrate were entirely out of their hands.
In 1982, I lived in fear of being arrested and imprisoned, because the KGB had begun to target me. They would come regularly to check on me at home, and I received frequent summonses to appear for interrogation. The KGB did not like our "Purimspiel" troupe and they put pressure on me to end my involvement. I would go around with a change of clothing and soap, in case of arrest – but I was never arrested. I don't consider myself a hero. I know people who spent twenty years in the exile because of their Zionist activity, and I have friends who went to prison and to prison camps, like Yuli Edelstein and Sasha (Aleksandr) Kholmyansky: they are the true heroes.
During the 1980s, I worked as a stock-shifter and stacker in a store. All the other employees were addicted alcoholics, and on my first day on the job, I was invited to drink with them. I told them, "I can't drink with you, because I'm Jewish and we are forbidden to drink your wine." Their response was unexpectedly interesting: one of them jumped up and said, "I'll run and get some vodka!" From that day on, I never had to explain myself to anyone; even if employees from other shops came and harassed me, my work colleagues would defend me. From this I learned that as soon as you stop pretending to be someone that you aren't and become yourself, you earn far more respect from those around you
I once received a fantastic T-shirt in blue and white, with a Magen David and a logo on the front that read, "I Love Israel because it's ישראל" and I wore it everywhere. On one occasion, I wore it in the Metro and everyone in the vicinity made themselves scarce: I stood there alone in that space, like royalty. On another occasion, a man approached me and said, "This can go down one of two ways: either I take you along with me now, or you wear a coat." I have to admit that I took the second option.
In 1987, we organized a demonstration carrying banners that read in Hebrew, "Let My People Go!". It was a more liberal era: despite the fact that we got pushed around, no-one went to jail. I really enjoyed the experience of standing there with placards in Hebrew.
My family's response was always one of support, love, and understanding for my struggle. My father was even dismissed from the plant where he had worked for 33 years, because of my application to leave the USSR, but continued to support me with all his heart and soul.
I believe that Jews should live in Israel. In my opinion, the issue is not even up for discussion. The probability of remaining Jewish in the Diaspora is virtually nil: my ancestors did not endure such a hard life in order for my grandchildren to be goyim.
The wars obviously had a great impact on me, as well as the Entebbe Rescue, but the event I remember most was the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor. I felt such tremendous pride in my people!
My name was on the list of Refuseniks, so people from Nativ would visit me. They were always so concerned about meeting me and used to ask me, "How will you recognize us?" To me this was an absurd question, because it would have been difficult not to pick them out: in addition to being distinguishable by their clothing and their European appearance, they would be the only people wearing socks that matched the colour of their shoes…
It was a very interesting period in my life and I don't regret it in any way!