Interview with Margalit Kavenstock
Margalit Kavenstock's wedding. At her side: Yaakov Liash and Yehezkel Pularevitch.
I was born in
Israel. My grandparents spent 11 years as Refuseniks, but in Romania - not the
Soviet Union. My parents came on Aliyah to israel from
Romania in Aguust 1950, leaving my grandparents behind – they arrived in 1962.
Most people know very little about the Antisemitism that prevailed in
Romania. For example, there was a numerus clausus for Jewish applicants to universities – which is why my mother was not able to go to university. My father was the son of a Romanian war hero in the First World War, so he was accepted.
We spoke Romanian and French at home. In
Israel of the 1950s and 1960s this went against the trend: Prime Minister Ben Gurion insisted that everyone speak Hebrew. Indeed, it was considered an insult to speak any other language – not only Arabic, but even French or Romanian: so much so, that we children refused to speak anything but Hebrew at home. My parents explained that we could not afford to forget Romanian, because without it we would be unable to communicate with our gandparents, when they come to
Israel. The outcome is that I can speak Romanian at a childish level: in my own home there are no books in Romanian, because I never received any formal eduation in the language and I had no circle of Romanian-speaking friends. The language held no particular value for me, but today I am pleased that at least I have retained it in some form, as well as French, even if my competence is not that of a native speaker… Through my knowledge of Romanian, which belongs to the Latinate languages, I found it easy to learn French and Spanish.
Very little is known about the history of Romanian Jewry, either. My mother never talked about it, and the information I have is partial. What I recall is how much she disliked having had to live in the constant feeling of fear. My parents were afraid of their neighbours, and always concerned about what they might say, because neighbours often reported to the authorities on Jews in their building.
My parents were granted their emigration visas to
Israel in return for financial payment, but lived in trepidation until they were actually out of the country, because the authorities often decided to substitute one Jew for another, purely on a whim. A week before their sailing date, my grandparents' passports were confiscated and they were informed that they were not being allowed to leave – without any grounds being given. From the time my parents left, all contact between them ceased: they were not allowed to call each other by phone, write each other letters, send parcels, or money to them. So they knew nothing about each other – the situation simply defies the imagination.
In the end, my grandparents fled
Romania illegally. My grandfather had his own textile shop in
Bucharest. They arranged a "business trip" to
Italy to sell carpets - my grandfather took several carpets out of the country for this purpose. In Italy, they were followed by Romanian agents and at some point (my grandfather never gave me the details) they sneaked aboard the ship "Massa"; and so, three days after leaving Romania my grandparents disembarked at
Haifa port. At this point in time, the Romanian police called to arrest my grandfather's business partner, and interrogated him to try and establish where my grandfather was.
My mother never even knew that her parents had arrived in
Israel. My grandfather had the addresses in
Israel of his grandmother's brothers who had come on Aliyah in 1926. They had fought in the Haganah and the Palmach and lived in Tel Aviv. So my grandparents travelled from
Haifa to Tel Aviv and turned up at their door. Afterwards, they came to live with us on a permanent basis. We only heard the story of their Aliyah in bits and pieces – the topic was practically taboo. Our language of communication was Romanian.
I have never visited
Romania, however: my mother was very anti-Romanian and considered that she had suffered enough there and wanted to forget it all. My paternal grandfather, who was religious and became a rabbi, founded an orphanage during the Second World War for yeshiva students. He was arrested and deported to a forced labour camp, where he was interrogated. I gathered that he suffered a cardiac infarct during the interrogation itself and died on the spot. My parents had a hard time with the Romanian police and refused to talk about it. They were deeply traumatised and when they came on Aliyah they decided to bury their memories of the past: the most important thing was that they were now here in
My Involvement with the Association for the Prisoners of
In 1976 I was demobbed from the Israeli Army (the IDF) and began my studies in Social Work at
TelAvivUniversity. At the time, my only knowledge of olim from the
USSR and their struggle for freedom was through what I had learned from newspapers and television. There were no Russian-speaking fellow students in our schools, and there were no Russian-speaking olim in our Tel Aviv neighbourhood in the 1970s – nor had I met any during my military service.
In my second year of study, we took a course on self-help organizations and all the students had to select an organization that met specific criteria, namely that it must not be an organization dedicated to providing assistance to others, but for their own group. Such organizations tend to be formed where there is no official recognition of a particular need of a specific group of people, and they were being created in Israel following on a similar trend in the
United States – particularly in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I had no personal experience of these organizations, so I used the telephone directory and looked up self-help organizations. I noticed the Prisoners of Zion Association at the Migdal Or tower on 1,
Ben Yehuda Blvd
in Tel Aviv, because the address was convenient and decided to go there. Migdal Or is a large building and on the same floor there were offices for the Georgian Song and Dance Ensemble and other organizations founded by olim from the Soviet Union. Later in my life, my future husband would wait for me to finish work at the rehearsals of the Georgian Ensemble.
Anyway, I arrived for an appointment and entered a darkened room chock full of files and papers, where Yehezkel Pularevitch and Yaakov Liash sat. I explained to them about having to write a paper for university and asked their permission to present their organization. They showed me documents and explained exactly what they did. I had soon completed my paper, which unfortunately I no longer have, but stayed on to work with them in a voluntary capacity for another two years. I think this would have been between 1977 and 1980.
The Work of the Association for Prisoners of
As I got to know more about the organization, I began to appreciate how important its work was.
Yehezkel Pularevitch and Yaakov Liash founded the Prisoners' of Zion Association and it is thanks to their efforts and those of their associates that
Israel legislated the Law on Prisoners of Zion. A special Knesset Committee decided whether each applicant met the criteria defined under the category of Prisoners of Zion and debated the legislative procedures for the law. Yehezkel was the person who travelled to its sessions and was empowered to represent the Prisoners of Zion before it.
At that time, Israelis held very stereotypical ideas about olim from the
Soviet Union: they believed that they were all medical doctors, musicians, or liars… Israeli society was unwilling to hear their personal stories of terrible hardship. The accepted wisdom went something like this: "You've come to
Israel – be happy and don't complain, don't whine." Stories about how people had suffered were considered whining… "You don't get special treatment – you have suffered, we've all suffered, it's not just you…"
But Yehezkel Pularevitch and Yaakov Liash claimed that these hardships had a name and had a price. People who had been deprived of their freedom and lost their health in their struggle to come to
Israel could not be deprived of the opportunity to be heard, and were not to be treated with contempt. For the most part, they were all in their sixties and seventies and their lives were marked by continued suffering – from chronic illnesses and physical trauma acquired or inflicted upon them during their incarceration and through forced labour – while in
Israel this went unrecognized. They had no source of income or financial resources, and if they were over fifty or sixty they often had no family or support networks.
They were not the same as everone else, and the State of Israel needed to grant formal recognition of that fact. There were many cases of extreme hardship, personal stories, despair – and I heard all these stories… They were unfit to work and some of them were mentally ill. Even in terms of their personal testimony, their life history, they had been deprived of their professional life and lost their good health. But they had not given up their dream of coming on Aliyah, although they lost so much in this cause.
All this was unknown to the general public at the time. Many years later, in light of my own grandparents' personal stories, I understood what happens to people who are deprived of the freedom to choose where they wish to live, who are sent to prison or forced labour camps, physically and emotionally abused – and all because they want to live somewhere else…
Israel had already passed a law on Nazism, but concepts such as the Gulag were unknown in the Israeli lexicon and Yehezkel Pularevitch put them on the public agenda, raised them as issues for discussion.
For an oleh to be establish his or her status as a Prisoner of Zion, evidence was required and testimony had to be documented. A great many applicants were unable to provide the necessary documents, so this meant transcribing verbal testimony.
Yehezkel Pularevitch and Yaakov Liash compiled, formulated and provided detailed documentary support for all the applications by people who asked for recognition as Prisoners of Zion. Every one of these required evidence and substantiation, but where people had not been given copies of relevant documents, notarized testimony had to be provided instead, both from the people in question and from third parties.
Both Yehezkel and Yaakov knew their population well, and understood the realities of Soviet life. They questioned people methodically, while it fell to me to compile and prepare the files for submission with all the documentation. They would make copious handwritten notes – I used to read each file and sometimes I would help draft the documents.
Yehezkel had superb organizational abilities and knew how to persuade people, explain to them how important this issue was, put demands on the table, organize strike action with people. As a member of the Betar Movement, Yehezkel was well known in certain circles and knew Menachem Begin personally. He set up the infrastructure for the organization and many people are indebted to him for his work.
A lot of time was dedicated to appointments. Masses of people needed to come to the office and the numbers went up each year: new people were always arriving in Israel from the
USSR, news of the organization's existence was passed on. Despite the fact that the Russian language press at the time was not on the scale it is now, and that no notices were published in the Hebrew language media, information about the organization got about.
Yehezkel and Yaakov were neither trained in nor inclined towards office administration: they were no good at organizing files, running an office, creating an archive, and did not know how to type, so I took over this side of the operation. For two years, I helped organize the office: there was a vast volume of paperwork all over the place, and I collected it, put it in order and filed it so that all the information about a particular person would be in his or her personal file. On the other hand, there was no problem with the work in Ivrit, because both of them had an excellent command of Hebrew, having received a Jewish education in their youth. Yehezkel even wrote books in Hebrew and composed Hebrew poetry: he had been a Hebrew teacher before his arrest and during his exile in a camp in
At first, I would go into the office once, then twice a week, and eventually three times a week: my minor academic paper ended up being a two-year commitment! It involved a tremendous amount of typing, transcribing Yehezkel's handwritten notes into letters. On many occasions, I sat in with Yehezkel and Yaakov when they received clients, to take down the testimony directly, and I also helped draft a number of applications.
I was responsible for the micro-management of the organization, including making sure of supplies of tea and biscuits, keeping the waiting list in order, organizing the waiting area. I tried to optimize the use of their time, so that there were no bottlenecks of people waiting, and to avoid having people arriving all at the same time. This was important, because many applicants had to travel into Tel Aviv from
Haifa, Petah Tikvah, etc., and many of them did not have a home telephone. For the office also became a meeting place, a kind of club for them, where they came to meet up from all over
Israel. Some people visited the office only once, but others would come in every week, and I came to know those visitors better. This work brought me into contact with some very interesting people.
Yehezkel Pularevitch's and Yaakov Liash's Stories
Yehezkel talked to me about his life and his family. At the time, I did not realize how important it was to write up these conversations.
Yehezkel was arrested in summer 1941, just a week before the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment (exile) in a prison settlement in
Siberia. His wife and son were also exiled to "resettlement" somewhere else in
Siberia and they did not see each other again for over a decade. He told me that only after he had been released – and not immediately, either – were his wife and son given permission to visit him. To me, this was an inconceivable experience.
He also talked a great deal about his son Yakov Shavi, who served as a doctor in the Israeli Navy and perished on the Dakar, the Israeli submarine that sank without trace on its maiden voyage in 1962. Despite the great tragedies in his own life, he remained a cheerful, kindhearted man, and showed tremendous patience with other people. He always had a positive outlook on life and appreciated the good moments. Both he and Yakov Liash were products of the European academic culture and social status was far more important to them than money. Yehezkel held down a full time job elsewhere, I think it was in the Tel Aviv Muncipality, while he worked for the Prisoners of Zion Association on a voluntary basis, without any financial remuneration. Yehezkel also wrote numerous articles, as well as prose and poetry, he was extremely talented. In 1987, he was awarded the prestigious Jabotinsky Prize for his contribution to Literature.
Life was hard on Yehezkel, he suffered like Job. He went through innumerable trials and tribulations, torments and tragedies: the camp, exile, forced separation from his wife, the death of his son… It is incomprehensible how he managed to build a normal life after all of this. His son was so successful – he served as a doctor in the IDF and had not been scheduled for the outgoing sea voyage of the
Dakar, but someone else had not been able go and had called and asked him to act as his replacement. Yehezkel died in 1995, a few months after the loss of his wife. The
Dakar was not finally located until long after Yehezkel's death.
When I knew Yehezkel and Yaakov in the late 1970s, they were already not young men – Yehezkel was about the same age as my own grandfather and in many ways he was a grandfather to me and we developed a special bond.
Yaakov also told me about his life – his story was marked by a great deal of sadness, He and his family came to
Israel in the 1960s.
Today, with hindsight, I am sorry that I did not keep in contact with both of them: I got married, moved to
Jerusalem, and started a new life. After moving, I simply lost contact with both of them and met up only once with Yehezkel in Tel Aviv, when I visited my mother. I nevertheless kept up to date with all his activities through the Israeli press and knew that he had published anthologies of poetry, an autobiography, and a book about his son, under the surname to Avi (father of) Shavi Maor.
I have told my own children that when we are young, we begin something and then move on, and lose contact with people from our past – and that this is wrong. I deeply regret that I did not take the initiative to maintain contact with Yehezkel and Yaakov.
Yaakov Liash: A Short Biography
Translated and reproduced with the kind permission of "The Soviet Jews Exodus" website © www.angelfire.com/sc3/soviet_jews_exodus/POZ_s/POZ-45-1.shtml
Yaakov Liash was born in 1916 in
Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine. From 1921-1940, the Liash family lived in
Shaulai, Lithuania. Yaakov went to the
TarbutHebrewHigh School and joined the Betar youth movement in 1928. He was active in the Jewish community and was a correspondent for the following newspapers: Yiddishe Shtime (Jewish Voice), Unser Moment (Present Moment) and Der Emes (The Truth).
From 1937-1938, Liash served as movement commander for Betar in Shaulai. Following the Soviet Occupation of Poland in 1939, the movement went underground and he was responsible for its clandestine group, which included Dov Shilansky, future member of the Israeli Knesset, and was in close contact with Yehezkel Pularevitch, who was Betar Operations Officer for Lithuania and responsible for all Betar's clandestine operations.
From the beginning of the USSR's participation in the Second World War in 1941, Liash was evacuated to Mari in
Turkmenistan, where his tiny apartment became the meeting place for all Zionists in the underground movement. In 1942, he moved to Kramin in
Uzbekistan, where he continued his clandestine Zionist activity. In 1945, he was arrested by the Soviet authorities and indicted for, "treason towards the Homeland, dissemination of anti-Soviet, Zionist materials, and for composition of a work on the Jews of
Bukhara." He was sentenced to 10 years penal servitude in "correctional labour camp", i.e., the Gulag. He was released in 1954 and returned to Vilna (
Liash finally received an emigration visa for himself and his family to go
Israel in 1969. In 1970, together with Yehezkel Pularevitch, A. Shtukarevitch, and others, he was a founding member of the Prisoners of Zion Association. In 1987, he was a contributor towards the publication, Belahav Hama'avak (Through the Flames of Struggle), chronicling the stories of the Prisoners of Zion. He served as permanent secretary to the Prisoners of Zion Association, and was a delegate to the 29th, 30th and 31st Zionist Congresses. Liash was deeply involved in the campaign for the right of Jews around the world to go on Aliyah to
Israel, and for the rights and dignity of Prisoners of Zion.
Bibliography and Further References
For more about Romanian Jewry, please see:
The Ransom of the Jews: The Story of the Extraordinary Secret Bargain between Romania and
Israel, Radu Ioanid.
Research project: www.tau.ac.il/humanities/ggcenter/promania.html#3
Biographies by year from:
Boris Morozov, Documents on Soviet Jewish Emigration. Routledge, 1999.
Ya'akov Roi, The Struggle for Soviet Jewish Emigration.
CambridgeUniversity Press, 2003. http://books.google.co.il/books?id=vvfIq0aJ_1oC&dq=%22Prisoners+of+Zion+Organization%22%2B%22Soviet+Union%22&hl=en&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0
Ya'akov Roi, Avi Beker, Jewish Culture and Identity in the
Soviet Union. NYU, 1991. http://books.google.co.il/books?id=E_MxlYGaLggC&dq=%22Prisoners+of+Zion+Association%22&hl=en&source=gbs_summary_s&cad=0