Thirsting to be a Jew

A former Prisoner of Zion describes his "wandering in the desert" of the Soviet Union.

Succot gathering in the Ben-Shemen Forest, 2011 (photo credit: Courtesy Yosef Begun)
Succot gathering in the Ben-Shemen Forest, 2011
(photo credit: Courtesy Yosef Begun)
The pilgrimage of Succot commemorates an important event in ancient Jewish history – the wandering of the Jews in the Sinai Desert after they escaped from Egypt. The former Egyptian slaves found themselves in the wilderness and were very frightened by the challenge of freedom. Some even wanted to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. God’s punishment of 40 years of wandering in the desert was actually a lesson in Jewish education for the horde of former slaves. They had to learn to be Jewish people.
In October 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, everything changed in the lives of the Jews. In keeping with their ideological dogma, the totalitarian rulers denied Jews the right of cultural autonomy and destroyed the institutions of Jewish education.
When I was a schoolboy growing up in Moscow before World War II, there was no means of Jewish education. Under the Soviet regime, millions of Russian Jews were estranged from any national connection after the liquidation of social institutions of Jewish life, and they were prevented from having any connection with Jews beyond the Soviet borders.
If the Egyptian Jews wandering in the Sinai Desert under Moses’s guidance experienced spiritual elevation, the Soviet Jews some 3,500 years later went through steady national degradation. To make a kind of historical analogy, the Jews were “wandering” in a spiritual “desert” in the Soviet Union.
However, although they were deprived of national development, Jews in the USSR had equal rights when it came to civil affairs and education.
Many well-educated Jews played an active part in the development of the Soviet Union's culture and economy. For example, I worked as a PhD specialist at the Moscow Radio Institute. The Soviet regime used this double-edged policy to conceal the spiritual genocide of its millions of Jews. As Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion said, “The danger of the extermination of the Jewish people is not to have them disappear. A people can be exterminated not only in gas chambers but also by killing their soul. The mass of Jewish people is being exterminated in such a way.”
Clearly, he was referring to the Jews in the Soviet Union. Spiritual genocide, like all other types of mass persecution for ethnic reasons, has the same result – extermination of an ethnic group. As American author Herman Wouk wrote in This Is My God, “These people are lost from Judaism; lost down the road that has swallowed many more Jews than the Hitler terror ever did. Of course, they survive as individuals, but from the viewpoint of the army, it makes little difference whether a division is exterminated or disperses into the hills and shucks off its uniforms.”
The Bible says that according to God’s sentence, our Jewish ancestors had to wander in the desert until the generation of former slaves died, but the new generation could enter the Promised Land.
Contrary to that, the Soviet Jews were doomed to wander in that invisible Jewish desert of the USSR forever.
The dictatorship decreed that all generations of Russian Jews – parents and grandparents, as well as children and grandchildren– would never leave it. As the Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Jewish history, the Soviet Jews ultimately had to vanish but remain alive as individuals.
The anti-Jewish policy reached its peak in the “black years” of Russian Jewish history, the final years of Stalin’s life, 1948-1953. The Soviet dictator was going to realize his version of the “final solution of the Jewish question.” The last remaining people who dealt with Yiddish culture in the USSR were arrested and killed after a secret trial. As in medieval Europe, a group of Jewish doctors were accused of trying to kill the government leaders. Jews were under threat of mass deportation to the coldest areas of the north. Stalin’s sudden death during Purim of 1953 brought a miraculous salvation. The Jews were saved, but again as individuals. Under the same totalitarian regime, Jews remained the victims of the same policy of spiritual genocide and continued to wander in the Soviet desert. I spent almost 40 years of my life in that desert – from my birth in 1932 until 1971, when I submitted my request to leave for Israel.
After Stalin’s death, more and more Jews tried to escape. Not out of the country, as it was under lock and key, surrounded by the Iron Curtain, but out of that spiritual desert where we Jewish people lived. The main problem was to realize an initial idea, to get your own wish – to be a Jew. Not according to any official registration but in terms of belonging to the Jewish people and its destiny. It seems too simple, just to wish. For today’s readers, yes. But for the Jews of that time, no! They were wandering in a spiritual desert, totally ignorant as Jews, without any knowledge of the history and culture of their people. How could such a Jew get such an idea? It wasn’t simple to realize the idea. Indeed it was the first and most difficult obstacle on the way. I will try to explain how it happened with me.
At the beginning of the 1960s, when Khrushchev’s “thaw,” a more liberal policy that shifted Stalin’s severe winter, I was in my 30s and had a prestigious, well-paid job at the Institute of Radar Systems. Moscow was a great center of Russian culture, which I enjoyed. My Jewish friends and I used to talk about many things, including forbidden subjects such as human rights and democracy, but never Jewish topics. Why? Our collective Jewish memory was wiped clean. We didn’t know anything about our Jewish past or present. We were cut off from all Jewish connections. Being totally alienated and afraid of being accused of Zionism or nationalism, we were silent. As Elie Wiesel so aptly titled his book about us, we were “The Jews of Silence.”
But then something happened to me at the cinema. In the new, more liberal era, we were permitted to see more foreign films. Among them were those related to the war, and we sometimes saw footage of the Holocaust: deportations and the murder of Jews. The subject of the Holocaust was forbidden in the USSR, and watching those horrific episodes, I experienced a strange thought: “I am a Jew like them, and I could be among those miserable people.”
My friends did not share this interest; it was too painful.
But I couldn’t shake off those horrifying images. Each time I thought of them, they strengthened my newfound feelings.
Together with the shocking impression of the fate of those unfortunate men and women and children,I realized that I was a Jew and was seeing my Jewish people.
For many years, my Jewish origin had been rather confusing and uncomfortable for me. I wanted to be like all the people I lived with – Russians – but I knew that I was in some way not like them, somehow strange. Now everything changed. Of course, this change took place in my own mind. I continued to live as usual – I was still wandering in the desert like the majority of Jews in the USSR. But as I said, after Stalin's death individuals and small groups of Jews began to look for a way out of the desert. They didn’t know each other; everyone looked for his or her own way out. Sometimes those people were arrested and punished for “nationalistic activities.”
After the “discovery” of my own people, I became interested in finding out who they were. At that time there was no Internet – people read books in libraries. To my great surprise, there were no books about Jews in the massive Lenin State Library in Moscow. (The majority of Russian language books on Jewish subjects were published before 1917.) Well, if they didn’t want me to read about Jews in Russian, I would read in Yiddish, the official language of Jews in the USSR. Yiddish wasn’t known to the young generation but was used by the older people. Contrary to Hebrew, which was a forbidden “counter-revolutionary language,” Yiddish was taught in schools after the Revolution. I hoped that with Yiddish I could communicate with the older, less assimilated Jews. With Yiddish I could read the Yiddish newspaper Sovetishe Heimland (Soviet Homeland) or to listen to Evreiskiye Pesni (Yiddish Songs) on the radio. But my naïve hope to find some means – textbooks a dictionary – to learn Yiddish and approach these rare manifestations of Soviet Jewish culture failed. Again! There was nothing anywhere, not in the libraries nor in bookstores. Like in a real desert! It is worth mentioning that I am talking about the “best time” of Jewish culture in the USSR, after Stalin’s time and before the 1967 Six Day War, which was followed by massive anti-Zionist propaganda.
It was my experience, further evidence, that the desert in which I lived, with some three million other Jews, was made to prevent an attempt to leave.
The majority of the inhabitants remained there until the collapse of the communist regime, decades after the time I am talking about. There was, of course, resistance against this spiritual imprisonment, but those people acted on their own, each in his or her own way. I met many of them in the Jewish movement in the 1970s. Many of them went through arrest and imprisonment for their nationalistic activities such as teaching Hebrew or talking about Israel.
In my case, it was by chance that I met a man who led me out of the desert.
He was well-educated Jew of the pre-revolutionary epoch. He became my Hebrew teacher, or my first guide to the Jewish world that was hidden for Soviet Jews. From him I learned about Torah and Jewish history, Zionism and the State of Israel. In Moscow at that time there were, of course, other people like my teacher, as well as people like me, their potential pupils. But these two generations of Jews couldn’t meet. Everything was done to prevent their meeting each other. The Soviet regime had severed the connectionbetween the two generations of Jews to prevent the transfer of the national memory.
Lev Grigorjevich Gurvich was educated in a modern Zionist type of Lithuanian yeshiva. His mission was to teach Jews, but all his life he worked as an accountant in a Moscow factory.
Close to 70, he was a Soviet pensioner, and our meeting was a great event for both of us. At a time of nationwide fear, it was a very bold action for him to take me on as a student. I would go to his small, shabby apartment where several other families lived, each in their own unit, with a common bathroom. In his 10-square-meter room there was a bed, half a table and a chair.
When I arrived, he would close the door and lock it and turn on the radio, explaining that it would be better if the neighbors didn’t hear our conversation. Such were my first Hebrew lessons, followed by Torah reading lessons, talks about Jewish history and, incredible for that time, stories about the State of Israel. I found out later that he had connections with people from the Israeli Embassy. For me, it was a completely clandestine affair, as my whole career could be destroyed if the authorities knew about my “anti-Soviet” meetings with my Jewish teacher.
The Six Day War of June 1967 changed a lot in the lives of many Soviet Jews, who recognized that they had a state and an army their own Jewish ones. It was inspiring. They were proud, but the Jews of Russia were silent and separated in the Jewish desert. They couldn’t openly express their joy.
However, more and more Jews intensively looked for a way to be more Jewish.
The growing Jewish identity made them less afraid. They dared to demand the right to leave for their “historical homeland.” Groups of such Jews began to learn Hebrew, to disseminate information about the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
Those were the first seeds of the Jewish movement in the USSR in the 1970s-80s. The KGB tried to crush the movement in its incipiency.
Anti-Jewish trials took place in different cities. The most well-known was the Leningrad hijacking trial in 1970 against 12 Jews who, in an attempt to reach Israel, were planning to steal a plane and flee the country. The cruel verdict with two death sentences triggered the American Jewry movement to support Soviet Jews. The next decade of the 1970s was marked by waves of growing immigration to Israel, the signs of the beginning of the great Russian exodus.
It did not come by itself. The fierce struggle of Jewish activists in the USSR and the support of world Jewry became one of the most meaningful events of the 20th century. The Soviet regime, like the ancient pharaoh of Egypt, didn’t want to letits Jews go and used everything in its power to diminish the emigration. Under external political pressure and economic difficulties within, the totalitarian authority used various pretexts to refuse Jews’ requests to leave for Israel. Such applicants became “refuseniks.”
The life of these people became a nightmare. Specialists lost their professional jobs, families lost their livelihood. In the eyes of society, they became “renegades” and “traitors,” not to mention the KGB’s interest in them. The refusal could last five, 10 or more years. No one knew when it would end.
But they gained a reward: to became free Jews, even in the USSR.
They gained a lot of opportunities, such as being members of the Jewish refusenik community, with features unknown before such as education, culture, religion, holidays – everything Jewish! Despite all their difficulties, refuseniks had the special advantage of living with the hope of eventually attaining their dream to reach the Jewish homeland and join the Jewish people.
I became a refusenik at the beginning of the 1970s, when I submitted my application to leave for Israel. Two years before that, I had left my secret Radio Institute for a future opportunity to leave the country. My request evidently was made too early. It would have been better had I waited some years before making the application, but I could no longer sit between two stools. In the middle of 1971 I became a refusenik and formally joined the community of other refuseniks, whom I had known well before. At the age 39, my wandering in the Soviet desert was officially over, just almost the same 40 years as the Torah talks about the Jewish people in the Sinai Desert.
My wandering was also a searching and strengthening of my Jewish identity and a kind of lesson in Jewish education.
Now that all of this was complete, I became part of the common struggle of all our forces – the refuseniks, Jews of the world, the State of Israel – for the freedom of Soviet Jews. Like every activist in the Jewish movement, I began a completely new life of fighting for Jewish rights and standing up against KGB oppression.
For the next 17 years, every day of my life would be filled with work dedicated to the goal of the Jewish revival of Russian Jews. There would be dramatic events, such as arrests, trials, imprisonment, the Gulag and eventually aliya.
But all of that is another story. The three Jewish pilgrimages of Passover, Shavuot and Succot present the fundamental lesson of Jewish education. It is not by chance that the great Russian exodus of the 20th century is compared with the biblical Exodus. The “Red Pharaoh” who ruled in Russia did not permit Jews to leave the country; and after a long struggle under the biblical appeal “Let my people go,” Soviet Jews won the battle for aliya. Jews in the Soviet Union were deprived of the right to learn Torah, God’s gift to the Jewish people. Activists of the Jewish movement resisted the policy of the spiritual genocide of Jews and disseminated Jewish knowledge, Hebrew lessons, religious education. Groups of refuseniks celebrated all the Jewish holidays.
In the life and struggles of refuseniks, Jewish holidays were very important. One can say they were our weapons, the very meaningful historical lessons that strengthened our spirit and our will to stand up to the KGB.
Succot as a holiday of harvest is a very joyful time on the Jewish calendar, and this tradition was upheld by refuseniks.
They gathered with their families and friends in the forest near Moscow, 30 km. out of the city. The Ovrazki Forest became very popular as a place for summer picnics for refusenik families.
Ovrazki became famous at the end of the 1970s for the mass Jewish gathering on Succot with the festival of Israeli songs, an unbelievable event for communist Russia of those days. In a wide forest glade, a large succa was built according to tradition (despite the absence of palm fronds), and a crowd of about 1,000 spectators would sit on the grass. For the jury, a podium was made from logs. Before the concert, the audience could listen to lectures about the Jewish holidays. The concert of Israeli songs was performed by a group of refusenik musicians: singers, violinists and guitarists. People were fascinated by the beauty of the strange melodies of the foreign songs, which sounded like the beloved music of their homeland.
The Succot celebration had a wide program: sports, games for children, conversations, discussions and exhibitions. It was a day of Jewish connection and culture. For many, it was their first encounter with the completely unknown Jewish world.
These Jewish gatherings in the Ovrazki Forest continued for some years in the late 1970s, but at the beginning of the 1980s when the Soviet regime began its oppressive policy against the Jewish movement, one of its first actions was the prevention of these gatherings.
At the time of the large wave of Russian aliya of the 1990s, a commemorative stone was erected in Israel in the Ben- Shemen Forest on a site they called Israeli Ovrazki. To this day, many Zionist veterans from the former Soviet Union gather there during Succot to remember and reinforce their friendship.
Anatoly Schwartzman, founder and organizer of the Jewish gatherings in the Ovrazki Forest (Courtesy Yosef Begun)Anatoly Schwartzman, founder and organizer of the Jewish gatherings in the Ovrazki Forest (Courtesy Yosef Begun)