The light of Hanukka in the darkness of the gulag

'On the first night of Hanukka in the year 5732 by the Jewish calendar, in our cell there was a candle burning on the table, just as there was for Jews around the world’

An artist's rendering of Hanukka in a Moscow prison in 1972 by Hanna Lisa Omer, 2012. (photo credit: COURTESY HANNA LISA OMER)
An artist's rendering of Hanukka in a Moscow prison in 1972 by Hanna Lisa Omer, 2012.
Hanukka in the coldest place on Earth, 1977. Our sages taught: “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Hillel, Pirkei Avot 2), and so it was that our pious ancestors preferred to live together, even if it was in a medieval ghetto in the towns of Western Europe or the shtetls in Ukraine.
Therefore, while my March 1977 arrest in Moscow led to my involuntary journey to Siberia, where there were no signs of Jewish life, small acts of observance held unbelievable meaning.
The Soviet Union’s policy of repression against the refuseniks had the unintended consequence of actually developing a close-knit community in which all the events of Jewish cultural life took place. Within this community of refuseniks, there was the study of Hebrew, religious education, seminars on Jewish cul - ture, holiday celebrations. Some of the members were involved in producing and disseminating what was considered illegal literature and periodicals (Jewish samizdat ).
After four months in a Moscow prison, I was sent to Kolyma to serve years of exile in the Magadan area.
The journey from Moscow to Kolyma can take 11 hours by plane or five to six days by express train along the Trans-Siberian railroad. My trip in a prisoners’ train lasted more than two months and entailed stop - overs in more than 10 transit jails. After Khabarovsk, I traveled the remaining 3,000 kilometers to Magadan by plane – in handcuffs. From the Magadan jail, I was taken 650 km. deep into the Kolyma region. It was the end of August, but it had already snowed, and the guards in my prison van lit a small metal stove.
The mining area where I served my exile in the Susuman Region of Magadan Province is situated 200 km. from the locations that scientists have categorized as the Poles of Cold. In Kolyma, people used to joke, “We have 12 months of winter; the rest is summer.”
During the winter, the temperature drops to minus 65 degrees Celsius. This huge region of permafrost covers a territory equal in size to all of Western Europe. It was one of the main islands of the Gulag Archipelago, the site of suffering and death for a huge number of people during Stalin’s reign of terror.
I was alone there, far from my familiar world, feeling a great moral isolation. But the phrase “No one is forgotten” turned out to be true in relation to prisoners of Zion. I began to receive many letters from Jews around the world. There were short holiday greetings and long, detailed letters. All these letters sustained me during that time, but the most heartwarming were heavy envelopes with 20 to 30 letters from Israeli children.
Since I was being punished for protesting the policy of depriving Jews of the right to their own culture, I continued the struggle. What could I do? I, too, could write letters. One of my letters was addressed to a well- known Soviet “national [i.e., ethnic] writer,” one of those whose works called on the members of their ethnic groups, the smaller peoples of the USSR, to preserve their national languages and cultures. Thus Rasul Gamzatov, the famous Avarian poet, expressed pride that he was writing his works in the language of his people, fulfilling the injunction of his father: “First be an Avar, and then be a poet.”
The Chukchi writer Yuri Rytkheu introduced in his novel the image of a young Chukchi, a student at the 19 University of Leningrad, who reasons that “to forget your people’s language is the same as forgetting your mother.” The Armenian poet Silva Kaputikyan echoed him in her appeal to her ethnic fellows living outside the Soviet Union, when she passionately urged: “And even if you forget your mother, Do not forget the Armenian language!” In an “open letter” to that people, I cited my own case of being found guilty of supposedly leading “a parasitical existence,” but actually of demanding the legalization of teaching Hebrew.
I addressed another letter to the Israeli minister of culture, Zevulun Hammer. It was in connection with my being granted the Jerusalem Prize for developing Jewish culture in the Diaspora. In my letter to the minister, I characterized the situation of Jewish culture and education in the USSR as the cultural genocide of the Jewish people. These letters were widely reprinted in Israel and the world Jewish press. They also constituted a significant part of the KGB file on the basis of which, several years after the end of my exile, I was put on trial for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.
Jewish holidays in the gulag – what could be more paradoxical, more of an oxymoron? You are alone, there is no one nearby with whom to share your feelings. But Hanukka arrived, and many holiday greetings warmed my soul. I felt spiritually uplifted. For us activists of the 1970s, the epic struggle of the Maccabees was a great example of how belief in the ideals of freedom and justice could prove mightier than a powerful enemy.
That December in the northern expanses of Kolyma was a very dark time. For that reason, the light of Hanukka had special meaning. In a carpentry workshop, I made a hanukkia. It had a base into which I knocked eight nails for the number of candles that we light during the holiday. I lit the first candle and recited the Sheheheyanu prayer. Isolated from the entire Jewish world, exiled to this unimaginably cold and desolate place, I felt more profoundly than ever that we Jews were one people. In my imagination, I was illuminated by the holiday light of Jerusalem.
The next day, I sent letters to friends, writing that on Hanukka I had lit a candle in the most northeast - ern part of the USSR, not far from the coldest place on Earth.
Hanukka in the Matrosskaya Tishina Prison, 1972 The Moscow winter of 1972 was dreary and raw. We were several Jews, and we celebrated the wonderful holiday of Hanukka... in prison.
During this period, the early 1970s, the “Great Aliya” had already begun. There was hardly any humanity on the part of the Soviet leaders who were responsible for this change. Rather, the opposite was true: In the summer of 1970, the famous “hijacking case” was fabricated in Leningrad, after which arrests and trials took place in a number of cities, with the aim of getting Jews to give up the idea of leaving the USSR.
However, it was just at that time that a mass movement in defense of Soviet Jews began to develop in the US and other countries. The Kremlin was compelled to take into consideration public opinion in the West.
In 1971, some 10,000 people emigrated (compared to about 1,000 the preceding year).
Frightened by the growing movement of emigration, the authorities began a selective policy of granting exit visas, issuing them to some, but denying them to others on the outrageous grounds of security concerns. A large number of refuseniks had already appeared in Moscow in 1971-72. An important element in the refuseniks’ struggle was to bring the problem of Jewish emigration to Israel to the attention of the mass media and the public in the West.
In late November 1972, a large number of refuseniks gathered at the Central Telegraph Office in Moscow.
They declared a collective hunger strike, which they would continue until they received permission to emigrate. There were about 20 of them – scientists, writers, artists, physicians and teachers. The main hall of the Central Telegraph Office was the only place in the center of Moscow that was open to the public 24 hours a day, and was therefore the ideal place for such a protest. I did not take part in the hunger strike, but I spent a lot of time at the telegraph office in an effort to maintain contact between the protesters and the outside world.
The public Jewish hunger strike in Moscow became an international news sensation. When the authorities recognized the Jews’ persistence and determination to stick to their principles, they resorted to a radical measure: They had all the participants arrested for 15 days for “disturbing the peace.”
Then it was our turn.
The next morning, six of us Jews arrived at the Central Telegraph Office and sent a telegram addressed to the head of the Soviet state, saying that we were declaring a hunger strike to demand the release of the Jews who had been arrested the day before. After two or three hours, a large group of policemen appeared at the telegraph building, and in minutes we found ourselves outside, where a bus took us to a district police station. The next morning, a judge ruled that we would all have to serve a 15-day sentence for petty hooliganism.
We were held in a cell at the infamous Moscow prison of Matrosskaya Tishina. It turned out that in adjoining cells were the participants of the hunger strike, so a total of 23 of our fellows were in the prison. We were glad we wouldn’t be alone for the next 15 days. It was clear that we would not be bored.
The conditions were quite harsh. In contrast to the basic contingent of criminal prisoners, we “short- termers” apparently did not deserve covers or mat - tresses. We slept on bare wooden boards, huddled in our jackets or overcoats. But all the discomforts of daily prison life were diminished by the encouraging fact that we were together and had many interesting things in common.
One of those things was Hebrew. Our group included students and teachers. One young mathematician among us knew Hebrew well, and under his guid - ance we studied the fine points of the language of our people. It was not easy to organize such a Hebrew seminar on the “outside,” where people were terribly busy and drew the undesirable attention of the KGB to such “anti-Soviet gatherings.”
Time in the cell passed quickly. Each person shared what he knew as best he could. That attracted everyone’s interest and often led to animated discussions.
We learned and sang songs and listened to lectures.
Our group also included an engineer, a jack of all trades with golden hands. Valery made amazing things out of nothing. His masterpiece was an extraor - dinary set of chess pieces made out of jail bread. We drew a chess board on the prison table in the middle of the cell and held chess tournaments. The chess pieces Valery made in prison were of such artistic quality that we seriously considered presenting them to Bobby Fischer, the reigning world chess champion.
Hanukka was approaching. In our jail cell seminars, we discussed with feeling the history of the Maccabean war and the traditions of Hanukka. We were proud to be descendants of the mighty Maccabees. At the same time, we were sad; this was the holiday of lights, when candles were lit in Jewish homes in commemoration of “the great miracle that took place in those days” at the Temple in Jerusalem.
We could expect no such miracle in our dark prison cell. The truth is, though, that our jack of all trades did something to help us celebrate even there: Out of the same lump of bread, he created a dreidel. But no candles were permitted in prison.
Then Valery suddenly became ill. He grabbed his stomach and howled in pain. He asked for a doctor.
The food slot opened, and the guard asked, “What happened?” Writhing, Valery could hardly get out the words: “Oh, I’m feeling bad! Call the doctor quick!’ Twenty minutes later, the prison doctor entered in a white coat.
“Doctor, help me! My hemorrhoids are hurting me terribly. Please give me some suppositories” (the word is the same as the one for “candles” in Russian).
Ten minutes later, a suppository was brought. The rest was only a matter of technology.
We had matches in prison, and we melted the suppository in an aluminum spoon. We pulled threads from our prison rags, twisted them and had a wick.
From the wax of the suppository the prison doctor had prescribed, Valery, with his golden hands, made a real candle with a wick inside. We stuck this candle in the middle of an aluminum bowl.
On the first night of Hanukka, in the year 5732 by the Jewish calendar (1972 by the Gregorian one), in our cell there was a candle burning on the table, just as there was for Jews around the world.
Many years have passed since that time. I have celebrated Hanukka many times in a triumphal, beautiful environment, with lovely hanukkiot and tasty holiday food. But that Hanukka in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison 30 years ago remains my most memorable one. Our candle did not burn long, perhaps half an hour. We eight Jews stood around the table and recited by memory the Hanukka blessings: “These candles we light in memory of the miracle that You performed for our ancestors, in memory of the salvation that You brought to our fathers in those days at this time, by means of your brave servants the Maccabees”; “Blessed are You, o Lord... for the fact that we have lived, existed, and arrived at this time”; and “Blessed are You, O Lord, who made miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.”
Our thoughts and feelings raced back and forth from ancient times to our own, from the Maccabees to our contemporaries. Locked up in a prison cell, we experienced an exalted feeling of identification with our heroic forebears, a special awareness that in our days, as “in those days at this time,” we, too, were living in a tenuous period when the fate of our people was being decided.