Seder in a prison camp in the Gulag

A reflection of the Jewish question in the former Soviet Union.

Drawing of exile in Siberia by Lilia Goysman (photo credit: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST)
Drawing of exile in Siberia by Lilia Goysman
(photo credit: COURTESY OF THE ARTIST)
Passover is the great holiday of the Jewish People, and its central point is the Seder, the “other night,” when the whole family sits around the table eating “other bread” in an “other way,” telling the story of how Jews became free people. Jews have been performing this ritual for thousands of years wherever they are living. Even Jewish prisoners in the Russian Federation are visited by a rabbi on Passover and celebrate the great event of Jewish tradition.
But such was not the case in Soviet Russia in the middle of the 1980s, when I was serving a long sentence in a prison camp in the Gulag for “anti-Soviet propaganda.”
Our camp was a small “island” of the large archipelago in the northern region of the Urals. The inmates in our and neighboring camps were political prisoners, among them well-known dissidents and human rights activists.
Soon after my arrival there, my Hebrew books, among them a Bible that I had been allowed to keep after my trial, were taken away, under the pretext of “forbidden religious literature.” At the same time, many of my inmates openly had the Russian Bible. I had to wage long hunger strikes to have some of my books returned to me. But the camp administration periodically confiscated them, so my camp life was plagued with a constant battle for my right to have books in Hebrew, my national language.
Another episode revealed the existence of the “Jewish question” in the camp. As many inmates wore crosses around their necks, I also wanted to wear the symbol of my religion. So I asked a camp locksmith to make me a pendant of a Magen David. He made it from stainless steel that looked beautiful, like silver. I wore it proudly, but under my shirt for security reasons, even though no Christian had to conceal his cross. It didn’t help me. One morning, as usual, I got up early and was doing my exercises next to the barracks. As two guards were making their rounds, one of them saw my secret Jewish symbol. He ran up to me and tried to tear it off my neck. I resisted desperately, but the strengths were unequal. For “violation of the rules,” I was punished by serving 15 days in a locked cell.
The main event of my adventures in that Gulag camp happened on Passover in April of 1984. Isolated from the Jewish world, I naturally felt sad but tried to cheer myself up by recalling the miracles of the Exodus story.
We know that sometimes miracles for Jews take place in our time, too.
Poster used in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry campaign in the US.(photo credit: COURTESY YOSEF BEGUN)Poster used in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry campaign in the US.(photo credit: COURTESY YOSEF BEGUN)
So the Passover miracle happened in our camp with the arrival of a one-kilogram package of food. In fact, it was the only such package I received during all my years of imprisonment. The package contained matzot! It turned out that this “bread of affliction” of our ancestors with which we remember the Exodus from slavery fit the definition of “dry bread” that was permitted in packages to prisoners. Clearly, the camp authorities did not realize what an “anti-Soviet” product they were allowing into the camp.
So now that I had matzot, I could not help thinking about how to somehow celebrate our great holiday.
The right idea came at the right time. Just around that time, an Armenian inmate had held a tea party to commemorate the mass tragedy of his people, the Armenian genocide of 1915. At that camp “feast,” in the company of people with whom I enjoyed sharing ideas, I realized that the most important event in the history of my people could also be celebrated in a similar manner. I did not foresee any problems in regard to camp rules. After all, shouldn’t what is permitted to an Armenian be permitted to a Jew? With the onset of the evening of the 14th day of the month of Nisan of the Jewish year 5744 (i.e., in the spring of 1984), we gathered in the dining hall for a festive tea party. In addition to those I invited, others came as well. All told, we numbered 20 to 30. As was customary on such an evening, the doors of the dining hall were open so that anyone who wanted to could join in. I was moved by the fact that, like millions of other Jews around the world, I was celebrating this major Jewish holiday. My audience listened with great interest as I recounted the biblical story of the Exodus and the traditions of the holiday. There were many questions. The culmination of the celebration was the distribution of a small piece of matza to each participant.
For most of them, it was their first taste of the poor bread of Jewish liberation, as well as a reminder of what they well remembered without it – the difficulty of fighting for their freedom. The atmosphere of the evening was very congenial, and not a single person left until the signal sounded for lights out.
The following day I arrived at the industrial zone with the column of prisoners, started up my lathe and began to turn out my metal pieces. Before the break, the supervisor approached me and said, “Begun, turn off your lathe.” I followed him, sensing that something bad was about to happen. You don’t get called to the camp heads for nothing, especially during work time. I was right. The discipline chief said, “We have been informed that yesterday evening you gathered a group of prisoners and conducted anti-Soviet propaganda.”
I expressed genuine perplexity, but the chief enlightened me by holding out a piece of paper written in scrawled letters with the following words: “...yesterday in the dining hall building, the prisoner Begun…” The standard nature of the denunciation was revealed by phrases such as “Begun conducted nationalist propaganda” and “used hostile expressions…” There were such kinds of prisoners in the camp, including polizei (Nazi collaborators), turncoats, hijackers, etc. Many of them were “honestly” atoning for their guilt by loyally serving the camp administration.
The discipline officer said that I was being arrested for organizing “anti-Soviet activity” and would be sentenced to six months in the camp jail. It meant that I would be locked in a cell, deprived of many camp privileges such as fresh air and communication with other inmates.
But in that cell, I had time to reflect on all the things that happened to me in the camp. Comparing the Armenian tea party with the Jewish one, I ascertained that I had been mistaken in my hope that what was permitted to an Armenian would also be permitted to a Jew. For the camp administration, was talking about Jewish history and tradition at the Jewish tea party considered anti-Soviet activity? Why did they take my Hebrew books and tear the Magen David from my neck? My actions themselves did not violate camp rules. So why did they punish me? Sitting in the prison cell, I could put everything in place to find answers to these questions. My first thought was that they were antisemites. But no! There were other Jews in the camp, who were not concerned about “nationalistic” issues like I was, and they had no such conflicts with the administration. One could see that the Jewish inmates in the camp were treated like all the other inmates. So I could comprehend that in the camp there was no antisemitism in its “simple” form, where Jews are persecuted just because they are Jews. My case was an exception, as I demanded special rights as a Jew, in particular to observe the traditional customs of my people. It was not forbidden by Soviet law, but that last action of the Seder made it clear that the camp authorities did not tolerate such demands.
Was that antisemitism, too? Good question, one could say.
In my reflections about the Jewish question in the camp, I couldn’t help but compare it to two seemingly very different places: (1) our camp, a tiny part of the Gulag, with a few dozen inmates; and (2) the Soviet state itself, a massive country of “victorious socialism,” with a Jewish population of two to three million. I had the opportunity to have firsthand information about both places: as an inmate of the camp and as a Jewish activist. I was arrested in November 1982, was sentenced to seven years, which was served in this camp.
My “crime” consisted of the following (from the sentence): …During the period from 1974 to 1982, Begun prepared and distributed anti-Soviet literature… containing slanderous fabrications, criticizing the Soviet state and social system… distributed slanderous works… for use in subversive activity directed against the Soviet state…
KGB investigators presented to the court many examples of these “slanderous” works. One of them was an open letter to B’nai Brith (USA), where I said that Jews in the USSR were denied the right to observe their culture. I wrote: “…Merely a few years after the defeat of fascism, dark shadows again loomed over the Jews of the USSR… These were the campaign against ‘cosmopolitans,’ the murder of Mikhoels, the closed trials and executions of figures of Jewish culture and, finally, the Doctors’ Plot or the case against ‘the murderers in white coats’… We were forced to forget the tragic history of ancient Israel… to forget Babi Yar and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The place of Jewish education and Jewish culture is taken by propaganda that castigates the Zionists and ‘Israeli aggressors’… In Moscow, the police disperse Jews who gather at the synagogue on Jewish holidays.”
The court accused me and gave their estimation of this letter: “... I.Z. Begun prepared an open letter… in which he slanderously claimed that the USSR, supposedly during its entire existence, conducted an intentional policy of ‘intimidating’ the Jews, a policy of suppressing Jewish ethnic culture.”
David Ben-Gurion said in 1949 – the time of Stalin’s atrocities against Jews – that an entire generation could be murdered without gas chambers but by killing its soul. Later, in post-Stalin time, the policy of the “cultural genocide” of Jews in the USSR continued.
It was the most important feature of the Jewish question in the USSR but, paradoxically, the least known. In a totalitarian country, every fact that embarrassed the authority fell silent. My trial, for example, was a closed trial. The dossier, all 18 volumes, was classified as secret. Anyone who dared expose the truth became a victim of repression. The real status of the Jewish question was shrouded in a cloud of lies and misinformation. But just as in a small drop of water one can see its complex composition, so one could better realize the Jewish question in the communist Empire of Evil behind the barbedwire fence in this tiny territory of the Gulag in north Ural. I had such experience.
To this day, more than three decades after I was confined there, after the end of communism in Russia, there are many disputes as to what the Jewish question was in the Soviet Union. For me, however, the celebration of Passover with my fellow inmates in that camp is a clear demonstration of what it was.