Hillel Butman has had two teachers in his life: antisemitism and a woman named Lilly.
Born in Leningrad in 1932, into what he describes as a typical Jewish and Russian family, Butman became an underground leader in the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1960s.
Although his punishment was serving nine years in the Soviet Gulag, he insists it was a small price to pay in exchange for Soviet Jews being able to live freely.
The Butman family was neither religious nor Zionist, nor did they know anything about Jewish history or Palestine, but neither were they assimilated.
Butman’s father had a seat in the Leningrad synagogue where he would attend High Holy Day services; he enjoyed singing Yiddish songs; and the family ate matza during Passover.
“We were like most Russians,” the 84-year-old Jerusalemite says. “We had one leg in and one leg out.”
A young boy when World War II broke out, Butman and his family were evacuated to Siberia. When he returned in 1945 and completed school, his life changed dramatically.
“I came out of the walls that defended me,” he recalls. “I began feeling antisemitism from two sides – ‘above,’ meaning the government, and ‘below,’ meaning the streets.”
“Street” antisemitism, he explains, was the garden-variety type that exists in almost every country, while government- sanctioned antisemitism is the more dangerous, unwritten code that was evident and enforced in the Soviet Union.
“Officially, Russia said there are no laws like the Nuremberg Laws in Germany, that we are all equal,” Butman says.
“But even though I was the best pupil in foreign languages, I was not accepted to study to be a translator for the army or the police. They would not say it was because I was Jewish – they gave other reasons – but I felt it.”
Then he applied to be a journalist and stood in a queue to present his documents.
“A woman with gray hair took the documents from someone before me and someone after me,” Butman remembers.
“I already understood what that meant.”
The “last knock on my Jewish nose,” he says, was when he was accepted, then pushed out of military school.
“These experiences with antisemitism were my best teacher to become a Zionist,” Butman explains matter-offact tone. “My family didn’t influence me. Life influenced me. I didn’t belong to the Russians. Their government was not my government. Their country was not my country. But what country did I belong to? What people did I belong to? I looked at a map and I saw my safe place, my people, my country.”
Butman soon met Lilly, whom he lovingly describes as his “Zionist Mother” and after whom his eldest daughter is named. An ardent Zionist, Lilly taught Butman Hebrew, but died in 1960.
“I was looking for people who thought like me,” Butman says of their friendship.
“In her room there was a circle of people like that – Zionists. After her death, I became a Hebrew teacher for those who were brave enough to learn it in the 1960s.”
In 1966, six of these like-minded Jews sat around a park bench in a Leningrad suburb and the Leningrad Underground Zionist Organization was born. By 1970, the group, which had to remain secret so as not to draw attention from officials, had grown to 39 members.
The Organization had two goals. The first was to break through the walls of isolation for Soviet Jews, thereby forcing the government to allow Jews to make aliya; the second was to fight against assimilation.
“When there is no Jewish culture, no Jewish press, and no Jewish schools, there are no Jews,” Butman says. “We succeeded by creating a network of ulpanim where we taught Hebrew, Israeli history, the history of the Jewish people and geography. We also published a Jewish newspaper and got literature about Israel. We tried to get young Jews to be Zionists and to get ready to go to Israel.”
Of course there was one roadblock: attaining government permission to leave.
Recalling a story he read about a Portuguese ship that was hijacked by anti- Fascists and that led to public awareness of their struggle, Butman thought that maybe the Leningrad Underground Zionist Organization could devise a similar plan to bring attention to the world about the plight of Soviet Jews.
“We wanted to say that we are not silent,” he explains. “We are crying but nobody is listening to us.”
Butman met former military Soviet pilot Mark Dymshits, a Jew who had been thrown out of the army and who expressed interest in emigrating to Israel.
Butman masterminded a detailed plan that would allow 64 Soviet Jews to leave on a plane headed to the Armenian capital of Yerevan. The plan was known as Operation Wedding because attending a family wedding was the reason given for purchasing the tickets, and also for Dymshits to hijack the plane and reroute it to Sweden.
Unbeknown to Butman and the others, the KGB was aware of their activity.
As such, he says, the Soviet government organized a press conference and spoke about “so-called Jews,” saying they had nothing in common with Israel, that Israel was an imperialist country that fights against Arab countries, and that these people “were born in Russia and would die in Russia.”
Moving forward, Butman knew there were three possible outcomes: The KGB would arrest them in Leningrad before they boarded the plane; it would shoot the plane down if it took off; or they would be arrested in Stockholm for hijacking the plane.
“All three of these choices will work,” thought Butman, “because the goal was to bring attention to the people.”
He also thought that the first outcome was the likeliest and he was correct.
On June 15, 1970, Butman returned from the library where he was vacationing and was approached by three KGB agents.
“We are waiting for you,” was all they said.
Butman was sentenced to 10 years in prison while Dymshits and one other dissident were sentenced to death. Released after nine years, he made aliya on April 29, 1979. Nearly 40 years later, he still is philosophical about his past.
“Being in prison was not a tragedy for me,” he explains, adding that he was unaware of the mass aliya that began taking place while he was serving his time. “We couldn’t fight in 1948 during the War of Independence because we were children. As grown-ups, we had to fight our own independence war in Russia and for the right of the Jewish people of the Soviet Union to make aliya. We succeeded. What we did was not done in vain.”
His personal return to the ancestral homeland his family once inhabited also was not in vain.
“I am proud that in my life, 80 generations of my family that came before me were here, in Jerusalem, until the Romans threw them out of Eretz Yisrael,” Butman says fighting back tears. “I was chosen to be the face, the one chosen to close the circle. I, Hillel Butman, after 80 generations, came back.”