What did you do on arriving in Moscow?
I tried to contact the people involved in the seminar and found that all the telephones had been cut. I then attempted to approach some of these people personally. For example, I went to the home of Professor Benjamin Levich. He had earlier been accosted as he left his apartment and subsequently interrogated. When I went to see others, I found that searches were going on. Still more I found, had been under house arrest.
I went to Vladimir Prestin’s apartment but there was a uniformed guard and plain-clothes men outside, and they wouldn’t let me in. I went to the Slepaks to find a search was going on. Everybody had been herded into one room. Slepak said to me: “Very good, you came at the best possible time, you can see what’s going on.”
He said this in the presence of the KGB! Their boldness and dignity are beyond description. The search of the Slepak household lasted 18 hours.
What happened when all the organisers of the seminar were arrested?
A number of sympathisers who had planned to attend the seminar found an alternative meeting-place in a private home. The Nobel Prize winner, Andrei Sakharov, joined them and they held an impromptu meeting as a gesture of solidarity with the seminar.
When did you finally meet the organisers of the seminar?
They were not released until Shabbat. I met them all outside the synagogue on Saturday afternoon where they usually congregate.
What was their reaction to your unexpected appearance?
They were certainly thrilled that they were not totally isolated. They were happy to know that western Jewry cared about them and they were delighted that someone had got through.
They were concerned that it should be known in the west what had taken place that week. Despite their release, the harassment still continues. They were worried about Professor Naum Salansky from Vilnius. He had been accused of anti-slander, which could carry a very heavy penalty. Moreover, he is not a well man and has recently suffered from heart trouble.
Did Professor Mark Azbel’s Sunday seminar continue as normal therefore?
It was felt that although the symposium had been prevented from taking place, some kind of demonstrative substitute seminar should be held in which some of the topics for discussion in the original symposium could be raised. Therefore a report was given on the poll taken of Jewish opinion in the USSR on cultural questions.
Some very interesting points came out of this questionnaire. One of the questions was: “in the hypothetical case that you had the absolute freedom to determine your children’s nationality be registered as Russian or Jewish, which one would you choose?” Eighty per cent said that they would wish their children to be registered as Jews. I was totally amazed and so were the Moscow Jews.
Did you give your lecture intended for the seminar?
Yes, I spoke on “Concepts characteristic of Judaism”. In a sense, this was parallel to a discussion of Professor Benjamin Fain, who reported on a study which tried to compare psychological characteristics which determine Judaism and not simply Jews.
How many people were present?
Between 50 and 60. They stayed for a long time, from about a quarter to twelve to a little after six in the evening.
You spoke in English?
Yes. Most of them understood, as they were trained as scientists, but nevertheless Professor Azbel translated for them. When Professor Fain spoke in Russian, they were kind to provide me with a running translation by a young man who spoke excellent English.
Were you able to celebrate Chanukah in Moscow?
On the Sunday, they had a children’s celebration of Chanukah. Several dozen youngsters had gathered in a private home. They were rather apologetic about the fact that they had to postpone it to Sunday because of the house arrests. I felt that their Chanukah was not an anniversary of events long past, but a real Chanukah because they are the real Hasmoneans of our time. It was very heartening to discover children who are discovering their Jewish identity and are being introduced to Jewish values by people who themselves as children were denied these opportunities.
What were your impressions about this desire for Jewish knowledge?
I was impressed by this amazing thirst for Jewish knowledge. It is clear that they are yearning and groping for a self-definition in terms of traditional values. They are faced with a very difficult problem in that that religious terminology and categories are to them, in a sense, anathema. They have been conditioned to see them as primitive and negative. They are unable to see that the conceptual framework of Russian religious terminology is not at all applicable in the Jewish set-up.
They yearn for a formulation of their Jewish identity and their Jewish faith, but cannot cope with formulating it in traditional religious terms, as they exist within the Russian framework of thought. It is a struggle which exercises them continually and can be resolved only by acquiring genuine Jewish knowledge.
But did you not meet people who could be considered religious such as Ilya Essas or Shaknovsky or some of the Hebrew teachers?
All of them, I feel are considerably religious people. In our discussions, I tried to formulate how I see it and l think they agreed with me. I pointed out that two dominant attitudes characterised the group. One was a sense of being summoned or commanded to respond to the historical circumstances in which they found themselves. The other was a profound sense of optimism that it is in their power to respond to —and that if they respond, they will in some way affect the ultimate reality.
The combination of these two is really the substance of Jewish belief. We don’t have much of a theology to speak of—all we can say is that man is commanded by God and is able to respond and this response can create lasting values.
As all of those people shared these two fundamental outlooks. I said to them that they were ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim, believers the sons of believers, and I stood with great humbleness before them. The kind of commitment and dedication and the readiness for real martyrdoms which they demonstrate are not something we find anywhere else.
Do you think that as their cultural-education programme progresses, it will lead to a heightening of religious awareness?
I am confident that it will, providing that it is allowed to proceed. Their spirit is indomitable, but they need all the support they can get in the wide world.
What conclusions did you draw from your trip to Moscow about what can be done in Britain to help Soviet Jewry?
It is important to keep the issues alive in the public consciousness. It is imperative to insist on opening every channel of communication. But beyond this, and perhaps more fundamental, there is the heightening of our own awareness. It is imperative that the idea of klal Yisrael be realised by us, no less it is by them.
We are in a position where we are not subject to the restraints that they are placed in. Yet I don’t think we could find that kind of people or even that number of people, with an absolute lack of background, but with the level of intellectual attainment, who gather as they do to learn about Judaism, to study Jewish culture, to learn Hebrew, to study the Bible.
We couldn’t do it here and this is something that we should be profoundly ashamed of.
Jewish Observer 6 January 1977