Let My People Go!

Benny Lidsky

 

by Dina Goldman
The Jewish Agency for Israel ©

Year of Birth:   1959
Place of Birth:   USSR
Year of Aliyah: 1990
Soviet Jewry Aliyah activist

Personal Story

I grew up in a family without much connection to Judaism, a topic that my parents rarely discussed; only my grandparents spoke Yiddish. At some point or other I became aware that I was Jewish, but did not give it much thought until I encountered Antisemitism at my new school. Another child came up to me one day and told me that all Jews were stingy, and the proof was that they even made their matza from water and flour only.

The Yom Kippur War broke out when I was eight years old. I remember my grandfather sitting hunched over the big old radio, listening day and night to the news reports about Israel's fate.

My father was the Head of the Cardiology Department at a hospital. One day, a Refusenik called Misha Davidsky was brought in with a heart attack and he treated him. They became firm friends and I also made friends with his children.

Another thing I remember is receiving a copy of "Exodus" (by Leon Uris) and reading the entire 700 pages of the Russian version in two days: it made an immense impact on me. When I was in high school, I began attending the synagogue; during my first year at university, I started taking lessons with Jewish activists: I studied Hebrew with Aleksandr (Sasha) Kholmyansky, who was my teacher until 1984, when he was arrested and also attended lessons in Judaism and Jewish History.

I remember one particular lesson I attended in 1983, the subject was the Pogroms. About five minutes into the lesson, there was a lot of knocking at the door, and someone even joked that the pogromchiks had arrived. Sure enough: there were police officers and KGB agents at the door, and we were taken to the police station for questioning.

Sasha Kholmyansky maintained contact with Jews across the entire Soviet Union. He would make trips to supply them with books, and teach Hebrew. Dov Kontorer, Zeev Gaiser, Mikhail Volkov and I began making trips for him to cities all over the USSR, where we would distribute various books and organize Hebrew lessons. Initially, Dov would teach these classes, but Mikhail and I also began teaching after a while. Our textbooks consisted of home-made photographic reproductions of original books, which we bound together.

We were in constant need of funds for these activities, and foreign Jewish tourists who visited us were our source of support. Since it was illegal to hold dollars, we could not accept money from them directly; instead, they would bring in expensive cameras, which were highly saleable black market goods and thus provided us with the money we needed.

On one occasion, I travelled to Frunze by train, in the winter. I was supposed to go to the apartment of an Aliyah activist called Misha Ginzberg and give him a supply of books and journals. I got off the train and suddenly my suitcase strap broke and my baggage fell to the ground with a deafening crash. Obviously, the case was crammed full of printed materials on Hebrew language and Judaism and very heavy. I got down on my knees and tried to mend the strap, when suddenly I noticed a police officer looming over me. He sized me up, looking very suspiciously from the suitcase to myself and back, and I realized that he was intensely interested in viewing the contents of my heavy load for himself. He began by demanding to see my identity papers, but I knew that if I could not divert his attention he would force me to open the suitcase – with dire consequences for me. So I decided to try to be friendly towards him; while I was showing him my documents, I began chatting away. Luckily, the policeman was actually pleased to talk to me and the tactic worked: he was distracted from his intentions and I got away with it.

In 1987, I completed my studies at university and received an affidavit from Israel (an invitation for family reunification required by the Visa and Emigration Bureau). I informed my future employers that I planned to emigrate to Israel, and they declined to employ me. Unemployment, however, being an indictable offence in the Soviet Union, for which one could go to prison, I began working as a furnace stoker with Dov Kontorer and continued in this employment until my Aliyah in 1990.

Diplomatic Pressure from the USA

In 1988, we rented a house outside Moscow for a seminar in Hebrew and Judaism that we planned to hold. Right before the opening date, the landlady came to see us, money in hand and accompanied by police officers, demanding that we vacate the premises and take our money back. We realized that the KGB had exerted pressure on her, in order to prevent us from holding the seminar. We refused to quit the premises and stated that we were not in violation of our contract, and that there was therefore no cause to demand that we should do so. At that time, the US Secretary of State was visiting the USSR and we managed to make contact with him through our own channels. When he heard the story, the Secretary forced the authorities to allow us to hold the seminar without further obstructions.

Israel's Role in the Soviet Jewry Struggle

In the 1980s, I attended an International Book Fair that included a stand representing Israel. The Israelis desperately wanted to give us books, but were forbidden to do so: KGB agents were all around, keeping an eye on the Israeli stand in order to prevent any direct contact, let alone gifts of books. So, from time to time, the delegates would conceal Jewish visitors from eyes of the KGB and we would stuff the books we received down our trousers or under our shirts and sneak out quietly.

Family Response

My family did not know a lot about it at first, because I did not want to worry them. Later on, when they found out I that was involved in the Soviet Jewry struggle, they never stopped me, but they were very concerned about me. By 1987, it was already clear to them that my sister and I intended to go on Aliyah to Israel, and they began studying Hebrew themselves. In 1993, they came on Aliyah and joined us here in Israel.

Influential Factors

It was more of a process than something that happened all at once. First I realized that I was Jewish; then I discovered that this was important to me; subsequently, I understood that I was prepared to give of myself for this - even to endanger myself for this purpose.

On Zionism

Being Jewish is an existential fact of immense importance and it differentiates us from other peoples. In my opinion, there are two ways to preserve Judaism:
The first is through the closed ultra-orthodox community which has proven itself over thousands of years, and there is no reason to assume that it cannot continue to do so for thousands to come.
The second avenue is appropriatee for those Jews who wish to remain in contact with the surrounding environment and remain Jewish at the same time – through living in Israel.


 

 

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07 Oct 2007 / 25 Tishrei 5768 0