The holiday of the Exodus in a Moscow prison, 1977

A Passover story on the eternal theme of being a Jew.

Torah lesson in a Moscow prison cell (photo credit: HANALISA OMER)
Torah lesson in a Moscow prison cell
(photo credit: HANALISA OMER)
After the cold, dark winter comes Passover, a holiday of spring that warms the heart. And no holiday was closer to the hearts of Jewish activists in the Soviet Union than this one, which marks the Exodus from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. But in the spring of 1977, I was not to share in the joys of the celebration.
Incarcerated in a Moscow prison for my “anti-Soviet” activities, I shared a cell with criminals who were imprisoned for such crimes as robbery, violence and rape. They were simple, ignorant men.
Nevertheless, I developed a good relationship with them, and they even gave me a place on one of the bunks. I told them of my desire to live in Israel, of how I was arrested for giving Hebrew lessons and of my demand for the legal right to teach this forbidden language. Soviet prisons were so inhuman that everyone in it felt he was a victim of the regime, so my companions responded to my anti-government activity with respect.
Jewish activists, unlike the majority of Jews in the USSR, celebrated the Seder. To try and shut myself off from the gloomy reality in jail, I recalled the story of the Exodus and envisioned our Passover Seders.
Meanwhile, my cell-mates were occupied with their prison affairs and idle conversations. We had nothing in common to talk about. But Passover coincided with the holiday of Easter, and the theme of my cellmates’ discussions seemed to change. They began to talk about the upcoming “bright holiday” of the resurrection of Christ. I must mention that the native population of the atheistic empire was aware of “Russian” Easter – Pascha – in contrast to most Jews in USSR, who did not know anything about Passover.
One of my cell-mates, all of whom were much younger than myself, suddenly turned to me and said, “Listen, Pops, tell us something about Jesus.”
But Jesus…? I had to disappoint them.
I said, “Guys, I don’t know anything about Jesus. You know I am a Jew.”
The men were disappointed, but they insisted, “Okay, but you are a person who knows things. Tell us about the Bible.”
They knew that there was such a book but had never seen it, as the Book of Books was not published in the USSR. Their interest forced me to think further: Why not tell them if they genuinely want to know? So I started to tell the story: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...” Then I told them about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and his love for Rachel... I told them biblical stories that one evening, and then a second.
I was in no hurry, and recounted in detail everything that I could remember.
Evenings in jail are a particularly tedious time, but in our cell they became interesting for everyone, including me. We had the time and the place for forbidden education. And for me, it was my first Torah lesson. I felt like a melamed who had to find the clearest mode of expression for his talmidim to understand.
When I finally got to the story about the Exodus, I described it in great detail, and this gave vent to my feelings. In that prison cell, I felt as if I had been saved from Egypt, wandered in the desert and looked forward to entering the Promised Land.
Among my cell-mates was one young man who didn’t stand out in any way from the others. But he knew how to draw, even though he had no professional training, and he fooled around drawing pictures at the request of the other criminals. During my “lectures,” he sat in his corner as usual and made his drawings.
When I finished telling my stories, he came up and showed me his sketches. It was such a surprise! I saw, executed with a somewhat uncertain hand, illustrations of what I had been speaking about. One drawing, for example, depicted a basket floating on a river carrying a little baby. This, of course, was a depiction of the miraculous saving of the future prophet Moses, the leader of the Exodus. And there was the Exodus itself in a picture with a complex composition: one could see the long-bearded prophet with a staff, followed by a large crowd, with a pillar of fire showing them the way. And so on. And where did I see all this? In that habitation of crime and inhumanity! “Why did you draw these?” I asked.
My question sounded absurd, but his reply shocked me.
“I am Jewish, too,” he said quietly.
Just the day before, I could not distinguish this young criminal from his cell-mates, and now he turned out to be close to me, to our people. Definitely, I was the first person in his young life with whom he could talk about his “secret.” At that moment, I felt quite differently about the meaning of my being in that prison.
His background story was typical of such a young person, but no less sad for it. Boris had run away from home after a fight with his stepfather, suffered through terrible hunger, and ended up in the company of thieves.
From that time on, Boris and I began to talk more.
We chose a corner in the cell and, sitting on a torn mattress, had long conversations about Israel. I told him about the struggle of his fellow Jews for freedom, for the establishment of a state of their own, about the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, about Operation Entebbe... In order to make my accounts more comprehensible, I drew a map of the Middle East from memory, marking the directions of IDF attacks with arrows. He listened, forgetting everything else.
A transformation took place before my eyes. And this transformation was effected by the Bible, which was banned in the USSR but still accessible to a prisoner in that Moscow prison cell. There, within the gloomy walls of a prison for people under investigation, one more miracle of the Book of Books took place, a miracle of Jewish rebirth. A Jew who was far from his people began his path toward his own people. From then on he chose for himself to follow this path, and thus, while still in prison, he became a free man.
The young “convert” was interested in everything, and I was happy to tell him all I could. About Israel, Jewish history, our fight to leave for Israel. This was a kind of lesson like the oral Torah, the way that Jewish knowledge was passed down from generation to generation during the time of our ancestors. The Soviet authorities did everything to prevent such contact, yet this took place in a Moscow jail! I myself, years before, had only through chance met my first Hebrew teacher, who introduced me, an “outsider,” to the spiritual world of my people. It was fate that now I had become the first teacher of this young prisoner. My desire to give Boris as much as I could was second only perhaps to the enthusiasm with which he absorbed all the new knowledge.
However, our “Jewish university” did not continue for long. Just a few days after we became acquainted, the prison guard called to him through the food slot: “To the exit with your things!” and Boris was taken out of my cell. Before he left, I slipped him the addresses of some of my friends. “They will help you after you are released,” I whispered.
I stood trial and began my “unwilling journey” to the Gulag. Altogether, I was arrested three times and endured almost 10 years of prisons, labor camps and exile. At the end of 1982, they accused me of “undermining the Soviet regime by distributing Jewish culture” and sentenced me to the severe punishment of 12 years of forced labor camp and exile. Eventually I was released when Mikhail Gorbachev began his policy of perestroika at the beginning of 1987. Naturally, the memory faded of that Passover encounter in the Moscow jail.
One year after my release came the greatest day of my life. I and my family arrived in the Land of Israel! It was already night when we landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on January 20, 1988. After 17 years of rebellion, I stepped onto the soil of Israel. Our homeland waited for us! Despite the very late hour, many of my old cohorts were there to greet us at the airport.
Among the throng were government ministers, members of Knesset and a large press corps. Channel 1 had a live broadcast of the event. The major Israeli newspapers snapped pictures of me with my granddaughter Dena, who was a year and a half old, descending the steps of the airplane. The warm embraces of friends began. Natan Sharansky, Benjamin Fain, Volodya Slepak and dozens of others… Suddenly I felt myself in a particularly strong embrace.
Looking up, I saw a young man in an IDF uniform with an Uzi rifle slung over his shoulder.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Yosef, don’t you recognize me?” he replied. “We were in prison together in Moscow.”
It was Boris, my cell-mate, the young Bible illustrator! I often think about the story of this young man.
Like the story of the biblical Exodus, for him it was his personal exodus, the way out of Soviet prison to his people and his homeland.
The author was a prisoner of Zion. The illustrator Hanalisa Omer is an Israeli artist born in Czechoslovakia (