Let My People Go!
Interview by Dina Goldman
Country of Birth: France
I was born in Paris, where I went to school and, I went on Aliyah in 1968, a year after the Six Day War. For three years, I lived in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, indeed I was among the first Israelis to go and live there. In 1970, during the 'Leningrad Trials', when the Refusenik defendants were condemned to death, a group of activists who were themselves olim from the USSR assembled at the Kotel and declared a hunger strike. As it was right opposite where I was living, I went over to talk to them, joining in the demonstration, and subsequently, their cause. I learned about the complexity of the problems faced by Soviet Jewry and their struggle for freedom of expression, Hebrew study, and Aliyah to Israel.
In 1972, I returned to France to complete a Master's degree in Business Studies at the Sorbonne, although all my professional life has actually been engaged in the field of education. I also taught at the Yavneh Jewish High School in Paris, and worked for the Bnei Akiva youth movement. At one point, I began to notice that youth movement graduates suddenly disappeared for periods of a few weeks at a time. When I asked the Bnei Akiva shaliach for an explanation, he proposed that I also "disappear" the same way, i.e. that I go for a couple of weeks to the Soviet Union under the auspices of Lishkat Hakesher, the 'Nativ' Liaison Bureau. A Nativ representative who worked at the Israel Embassy was responsible for organizing these excursions to the USSR, and contacts there with Aliyah activists.
On my return from my first trip to the Soviet Union, I was appointed Nativ liaison officer in Paris and I remained in this position through 1979. My remit covered the recruitment of youth from French-speaking countries to visit Jewish activists in the USSR. My responsibility was primarily a technical one, in that I gave the pre-travel briefings for which I would receive ongoing updates about the Jews in each city in the Soviet Union. I was also responsible for recruiting the volunteers: I would contact all the Jewish youth movements and ask their active senior youth leaders whether they would be interested in visiting Refuseniks in the Soviet Union. At first, I sent the movement graduates, after which they became my liaison for their movement. My conditions of acceptance for candidates were that they be well-grounded in Judaism and able to speak Hebrew.
All of these trips were handled discreetly. We would book two of our people on a commercial tour group to the USSR. It wasn't only youth leaders who went - some of the volunteers were rabbis or Jewish couples. They travelled to the Soviet Union to offer their support and help to Soviet Jewry, but when they met Jews who were prepared to go to prison for studying Hebrew, they returned strengthened by those whom they had met on their mission.
In the course of my work as liaison officer for Nativ, I met people from right across the spectrum, from all the youth movements, religious and non-religious: despite the difference between them, they were all united around the cause of and Campaign for Soviet Jewry.
Nativ was a highly effective project of major impportance. Its origins lie in the 'Mossad Le'Aliyah Bet', which organized clandestine immigration for Holocaust survivors after the Second World War, especially from those countries where the frontiers to freedom had been shut. Everyone knows about the Ha'apalah, the clandestine immigration to Eretz Yisrael; what they don't know is that it never stopped, not even after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In 1967 (after the Six Day War), the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Israel. This meant that all contact with Soviet Jewry through diplomatic channels also ceased. Then Aryeh Kroll came up with an entirely different approach: there were a lot of young Jewish people around the world with non-Israeli passports, who could be travel to the USSR instead.
The main objective of these youth delegations was to establish personal contact: to show their concern, that they cared, and to document the life of Jews over there. In addition, these visitors brought the Refuseniks acted as a supply line for Hebrew language textbooks, Siddurim, Tanachim, history books, and books about Judaism. Some of the most popular novels were: "Exodus" and "Mila 18", by Leon Uris. We would also take medicines and basic supplies, because the Refuseniks had lost their jobs and in need of financial support, as well as all kinds of other essentials items.
Our young travellers would also collect names and addresses of people who wanted to go on Aliyah to Israel. This was important, because in order to apply for an exit visa, they needed to receive an official invitation from Israel with an affidavit from a relative.The Netherlands Consulate also provided tremendous assistance in this area.
Another important object of these trips to the USSR was to teach. I recall giving a seminar to Soviet Jews in an apartment crowded with people, on the subject of Israel and Judaism.
Were you frightened?
I was arrested a few times, and sometimes all my belongings were confiscated, but it was the Soviet Jews there who were running the real risks, despite the fact that there was no official law restricting their activities.
On my first visit to the Soviet Union in 1975, Ilan Bloch and I arrived in the city of Czernowitz, where we were supposed to visit a man called Eliezer Shulman. We made it to his home and uttered the pre-agreed words, "We're friends from France", in Hebrew. He had been a member of the Betar movement and had been exiled to Sibera at one time, because Betar was officially listed as an anti-Soviet organization; some years later, he was allowed to relocate to the centre of the USSR.
Inside the door to his home, he noticed that we wore knitted kippot on our heads and asked if we belonged to the Bnei Akiva youth movement. When we replied in the affirmative, he asked us to sing the youth movement anthem, to confirm that we were genuinely whom we claimed to be. It was a very odd scenario: for five minutes, we stood to attention in the tiny apartment of someone we had only just met in the Soviet Union, singing the anthem.
After he was satisfied that we weren't lying about our identity, he took us inside his home. On the wall was a calendar marked with large numbers, and he explained that it denoted the number of days he had been waiting to go on Aliyah to Israel. He also showed us charts he had made illustrating the chronology of the events in the Tanach by their historical date. Eliezer's daughter Yael knew chapters of the Tanach off by heart in Hebrew. At some point in time, Eliezer had found a torn, incomplete, Tanach in the synagogue and he taught his daughters everything in it. I recall Yael declaiming the entire Song of Deborah from memory.
Years later, when Eliezer Shulman came on Aliyah, he contacted me and asked me to accompany him to a meeting with Menachem Begin, in his capacity as a member of Betar. It was a tremendously emotional encounter.
In Moscow, I met Yuli Kosharovsky. I remember that when I arrived at his apartment, he communicated by writing on a board, and erasing each time: he knew that his flat was bugged. Then, out loud, he said to me, "Let's go for a walk" and we only took up a conversation once we got outside.
Another time, one Jew I met asked me if I had Tefillin. I had the set that my father had given me for my Bar Mitzvah, but I felt unable to refuse him, so gave him my own Tefillin.
All these encounters were deeply moving: I met people who spoke Hebrew, were Zionists, and for whom studying Hebrew demanded tremendous sacrifice and presented real dangers.
On another occasion, I was sent to Leningrad via Helsinki, in Finland. No visa was required for tourists entering the Soviet Union on Baltic cruises, since overnight accommodation was provided on board the ship, not on Soviet soil. It was extremely difficult to meet up with our contacts there, because we were part of a group. As soon as we disembarked the ship, we were transferred straight onto buses with a Soviet guide and we were ordered not to leave the group.
We discovered that the visit to the Hermitage Museum would last approximately four hours, and we duly arrived at the Museum with the group, at which point we went our own way. We visited the people whom we were meant to see and then rejoined the groups as they came out of the Museum, and got back on the bus. Precise timing was absolutely crucial, so that nobody would notice our disappearance … it was the most exacting "job" in my entire life!
We use the same method when the group was taken to see the circus, but our return presented some problems. One of the tour group turned and asked me what part of the performance I had most enjoyed and, without thinking, I replied, "The lions" – and then it came out that there hadn't been any lions in the show. In the end, I managed to convince them that I had, of course, meant the bears, and they left me alone.
I subsequently used the Helsinki route to send a lot of people to Leningrad in the USSR because they didn't need to apply for entry visas.
I worked as the Nativ Coordinator for four years, during which I sent over 400 couples to the USSR. After I completed my term of service, I returned to Israel.
Simchat Torah in Moscow
In 1982, I was in Moscow for Simchat Torah, which has to be absolutely the most wonderful celebration I ever saw! Simchat Torah was the most important event in the year for Moscow Jews. Tens of thousands of people would assemble in the street each year to dance. That time, I travelled to the Soviet Union with Hava, and we stood there watching, almost hypnotized – it was so amazing. Then, someone approached us and said, "You're not here to watch, start dancing!"
We joined in, organizing the singing and the dancing: I started up one circle, and Hava another. We sang in Hebrew, and when people noticed this, they started requesting songs: "Sing Shalom Aleichem" or "Sing Hava Nagila"… I remmeber one elderly lady approached me and asked me to sing the Palmach song; another woman asked for "Yerushalayim shel Zahav", and I just sang everything they asked.
We also received a present from a little girl: a small piece of cardboard with the words, "Chag Sameach" written on it, and a small drawing of a Sefer Torah. Sadly, it was confiscated from me at the airport, when I was searched.
I have never danced or sung as much as I did on that evening in Moscow. Its symbolism was so strong that the experience is engraved in my memory.
Israel's Soviet Jewry Campaign
The State of Israel accepted responsibility for all Jews, everywhere, and its contribution to the Soviet Jewry Struggle assumed major proportions, as is evidenced from the work of Nativ, which it mandated for this purpose, and funded.
There was, however, disagreement over whether the struggle should go public, or not. At that time, Soviet Jewry was known as 'The Jews of Silence', a term invented by Elie Wiesel for the title of his novel. I once went to a demonstration calling for the release of the imprisoned Jews behind the Iron Curtain and I remember someone coming up to me and saying, "The Jews of Silence are not those in the USSR! We are shouting out loud! We are fighting. The Jews of Silence are those who live in other countries and in Israel!"
The Leningrad Trials mark the watershed when Israel's Soviet Jewry Campaign went public. Activists in Israel began raising their voices in public, and reports began appearing in the press. Not everyone agreed with this, some believed that the campaign should be waged discreetly.
There was also another division, this within the opposition movement itself, in the USSR. It revolved around the issue of whether the Jewish movement should be culturally oriented, i.e. focus on teaching Hebrew and Aliyah, or whether it should align with the non-Jewish activist movement that opposed the Soviet regime – such as the Sakharov group for Human Rights.
Israel was also at the heart of the committees and conferences organized to save Soviet Jewry, and coordinated the international Jewish campaigns, as the only participant capable of doing so. Individual communities or organizations would not have been able to fulfil this role on such a large scale.
When Yosef Mendelevitch was released and came to Israel, I remember the tremendous excitement. People went to greet him at the airport and carried him aloft! At the time, I was Director of Machon Hizkiyahu at the Jewish Agency, and I sent all the resident course of madrichim to meet him at the airport. The arrival in Israel of the Aliyah activist caused a big buzz.
The Six Day War
On the day the war began, I was due to take my baccalaureat (matriculation examinations). I remember my mother waking me up very early in tears; at first I thought she was overwhelmed by emotion on my behalf, but then she explained that war had broken out in Isrel. I leapt out of bed, in a state of total shock. I went to take my exams, but submitted a blank paper – I was unable to concentrate, I had no head for it all, and no patience.
That same day, the Jews of France organized a massive demonstration of support for Israel. We stood there with placards saying, "Am Yisrael Chai", we were desperately frightened for Israel. I also had relatives in Israel who were mobilized for army service.
The Six Day War made a very great impression on me and spurred me to go on Aliyah to Israel the following year. I had always been a Zionist and wanted to go on Aliyah, but after the Six Day War, everyone believed that we would finally be safe – on both the political right and the political left.
The war itself generated a tremendous explosion of feeling and pride among the Jews of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, on my first visit to the Soviet Union, this fact helped me communicate with the Jews I met there. Rather than patronising them, I came to learn from them. The people I met there were truly amazing!
The decision to go on Aliyah
It's very simple, really. I was born into a Galicianer family from Poland. My mother went on Aliyah in 1936 and was an ardent Zionist. She enlisted in the Jewish Brigade in the British Army and fought in North Africa. After the war, she returned to find my father, and they got married and moved to France. My father was also an ardent Zinist and my mother spoke fluent Hebrew. So from a young age, I was already determined that we would one day go to Israel.
For me, Zionism means getting on a boat or a plane to Israel, "c'est tout". To come and live in Israel - anything else is secondary. I can give you a detailed history lesson, but the bottom line is that it's about coming to live here. I'm a very practical kind of person.