Soviet Jewry's 'Refusenik' woman, Ida Nudel

The author recounts her experiences with Ida Nudel, the famed heroine of the struggle for the release of Soviet Jewry to emigrate to Israel.

 Ida Nudel is greeted upon her arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport by Natan Sharansky, flanked by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, on October 15, 1987. (photo credit: NATI HARNIK/GPO)
Ida Nudel is greeted upon her arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport by Natan Sharansky, flanked by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, on October 15, 1987.
(photo credit: NATI HARNIK/GPO)

Ida Nudel, the famed heroine of the struggle for the release of Soviet Jewry to emigrate to Israel, passed away on September 14 at the age of 90. She was born, I believe, with a huge sense of mission, a mission at a certain crucial and highly dramatic phase of her life, she was able to fulfill. I became involved in her story through the British Soviet Jewry campaign, known as the 35s, when activists were asked to adopt a “refusenik.” I adopted Ida, though it would be more accurate to say she adopted me. Ida was like that. She never married and she had no children, but she was essentially a caring person. She took people under her wings, the reason why she became known as, “the Guardian Angel of the Prisoners of Zion.”

There came a time during the campaign when it was felt that certain of us should go to Moscow to meet our refuseniks. So it was that in 1977 I went as a tourist with my friend, Zelda Harris, a dedicated campaigner, whose refusenik was Volodya Prestin, loaded with items we knew were in short supply in the Soviet Union, to meet those we knew only through the grapevine. Most of what we did while we were there, we did together, but I went to Ida’s small apartment on my own if you don’t count the two guys who followed me, identified later by Ida as KGB as if it were obvious.

  Ida Nudel, the diminutive Prisoner of Zion (credit: GPO) Ida Nudel, the diminutive Prisoner of Zion (credit: GPO)

At this point, Ida’s application for an exit visa to join her sister and family in Israel had been refused year by year. She had been dismissed from her work as a food analyst at the Moscow Microbiological Institute and she had made it her business to maintain and support Jews who had been imprisoned for their activities on behalf of the release of Soviet Jewry. With the help of fellow Jews and foreign visitors, she procured reading material, medicines, and foodstuffs for the Prisoners of Zion and took it to them whenever she could. I was aware of how precarious her position was and this meeting, apart from the personal pleasure for me, was to bring gifts and to show support and concern from Jews around the world for her and her situation. She brushed it all aside. What she was doing, she implied, was what anybody would do. For her, it was a duty, and for the moment, what bothered her most was my well-being. She had prepared for me a dinner of roast chicken which, I later learned was a luxury she could ill afford and must have cost her a month’s rations.

I was amazed that this small, dark Russian woman, emitting energy and strength was able to communicate with me in English, heavily accented and basic but completely comprehensible. It was only one of many extraordinary things about her. She wanted to know about the campaign and who else I was meeting, [one of them was the mother of Anatoly, later Natan Sharansky, but that’s another story] and about the tourist program and whether there would be another opportunity for us to meet, [there was, with other refuseniks in Red Square and outside the synagogue]. Above all, she wanted to hear about my family, especially the children. She showed me around her flat and there I found further evidence of her dedication to her mission. Pinned behind her bathroom door was a list of ten words in English with what I assumed was the Russian equivalent alongside. I asked her about it. They were the ten more words she had to learn that day because, she said, if she was to be of any help to her fellow refuseniks, she would have to be able to speak in their own language to those who might have influence with the Russian authorities.

A year later, Ida was arrested and charged with hooliganism for hanging a sign from her balcony saying, “KGB, give me my exit visa to Israel.” She was sentenced to four years exile in Siberia where she found work as a factory guard but was essentially isolated from all around her. We somehow managed to maintain contact. Before she left, she had arranged for my elder son to receive carved wooden chess set for his bar mitzvah and, miraculously, from Siberia, I received a soup tureen complete with a ladle and four bowls. Most of the messages I received were more about the dog she had acquired to keep her company, than about the harsh conditions she endured. At the end of the four years, she was released but was forbidden to return to Moscow. Eventually, she found a place to live in Bender,  Moldavia where she stayed until 1987 when, following pressure from celebrities and influential Jewish businessmen, Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist Party, granted her a visa.

She arrived in Israel to a heroine’s welcome, headed by Yitzhak Shamir, the then-prime minister. Shortly afterward, she was hosted on a tour of honor which included England where I was able to reciprocate her hospitality and she was finally able to meet my family. On her return to Israel, she established a fund to assist mothers who arrived alone with children from Russia or were in financial difficulties here. She kept it going for some years, but age, declining health, and, in my view, the absence of a cause that required her kind of commitment, left her with a degree of disappointment in her new life. I last saw her, again with Zelda, over lunch in the cafeteria of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot where she lived. Caring as ever, she lectured us on what we should and should not eat if we wished to live to old age. She clearly followed her own advice.

The writer is an author, former journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation.