Since the Revolution, there have always been Soviet Jews wishing to repatriate to Israel. The trauma of the Holocaust spiritually created small groups of young assimilated Jews blindly searching for an explanation. The establishment of the state of Israel provided an interpretation and a visible goal. Such clandestine groups evolved with the political thaw that followed the death of Stalin.
More often than they adopted as mentors old men and women who had been Zionists in the early days of the Soviet state and, although they had not emigrated, neither had they renounced the dream of a return to Zion. When former Zionists from the annexed Baltic states, Bessarabia and Bukovina, returned from the camps, they swiftly became teachers.
Young Jews struggling against the peaceful slumber of assimilationism often looked to Riga, a stronghold of Jabotinsky’s followers, and to Georgia, where a patriarchal structure enabled Judaism to flourish. A turning-point was marked by the International Youth Festival in Moscow in the summer of 1957 which drew young Jews from all over the USSR in the hope of meeting members of the very large Israeli delegation.
Gatherings such as these enabled inter-city contacts to be made. When a number of these youthful contacts were arrested, the KGB made the mistake of placing them in the same camps, thus creating the basis for yet another network. By the mid-sixties, groups existed in a number of cities emanating from different periods of Soviet oppression in Soviet history and, more often than not, ignorant of each other’s existence. For example, Aron Shpilberg, a member of an isolated group in Leningrad, went hitchhiking in the Crimea in the summer of 1965. By accident he met a Jew from Riga who told him that there were Jews in the city who had applied to emigrate to Israel.
In February 1966, Shpilberg went to Riga and met Mordechai Blum, an activist who had applied to leave. Riga was still extremely strong in its Jewish traditions, a far cry from assimilated Leningrad. Blum taught Shpilberg about the Jewish festivals, Hebrew songs, how to dance the hora and, most important, how to work for emigration. Shpilberg went back to Leningrad with his suitcase full of books – books on Israel, Judaism, Jewish history, the Hebrew language and even Gideon Hausner’s speech at the Eichmann trial.
No one from the Leningrad group had been in the camps and this contact was therefore an important one. Blum gave Shpilberg an address in Leningrad. When he followed this up, he found to his astonishment that another group of activists existed in Leningrad. This was the group of Hillel Butman and Grigory Vertlib. Within months, an eigth man initiative committee had been established and, in November 1966, the group formally labelled itself the Leningrad Zionist Organisation.
The Six Day war affected all Soviet Jews and was without doubt the catalyst which ushered in a Jewish national renaissance in the USSR. The apprehension in the early days of the war was felt no less keenly by Jewish communities in even the remotest parts of the USSR. In Moscow, Jews silently gathered opposite the Israeli Embassy. This did not materialise because the Leningraders had no contact with either the Moscow activists or with foreign journalists.
The Six Day war brought in recruits in droves to these small Jewish groups. No more were there Jews of Silence. The most vibrant and influential was the group headed by David Khavkin in Moscow who had pioneered activity to raise the national consciousness of the Jewish masses. In exile near Odessa in the early sixties, Khavkin had been observed walking along the seashore with a tape-recorder. The difference was that the music drifting through the atmosphere was that of Israeli songs sung in Hebrew. Bewildered Jews would often stop him to ask about the songs.
Following the Six Day war, the Kremlin halted even the trickle of Jews permitted to leave for Israel. in August 1968, emigration resumed once more, but significantly, the Kremlin decided to give exit visas to well-known activists. Thus, in November 1968, when the Riga activist, David Garber, arrived in the Soviet capital, Moscow Jews refused to belive that he was en route to Israel until they actually saw his suitcases. Soon even the most militant Jews, such as Leah Slovina and Dov Shperling, were permitted to leave.
The accelerating pace of events demanded greater co-ordination. On 16 August 1969, activists from seven cities met in a forest to establish the VKK (the All-Union Co-ordinating Committee). One purpose of the meeting was to initiate collective appeals. Unknown to them and to Gershon Tsitsuashvili, the Georgian representative, the famous letter of the eighteen Georgian families to Golda Meir had been handed into the Dutch Embassy the week before by a group unconnected with the mainstream movement, personified by the VKK.
Another central issue raised was the propagation of educational material. The VKK considered the concept of levels of activity. Those who were willing to come out into the open were designated ‘aleph’ while those whose activities were clandestine were labelled ‘bet’. ‘Aleph’ activists signed collective letters while ‘bet’ people would be those involved in the accumulation and dissemination of material, particularly in the form of a journal.
At the second VKK meeting in Riga, a decision was taken to establish Iton whose editorial board consisted of ‘bet’ activists from Moscow, Riga and Leningrad. Addresses and telephone numbers to obtain the necessary information and material were exchanged. The cities were even given code names. Moscow became Misha, Riga Roma and Leningrad Lonya. The Riga representative on Iton was the young activist, Iosif Mendelevich. His expertise was undoubtedly in the writing of letters. He had already drafted an appeal to Jews to register their mother tongue as ‘Jewish’ in the forthcoming census. Terming the Soviet assimilationist approach to the Jewish problem as linguistic and cultural genocide, he wrote:
I shall not give those who would like to destroy my people the possibility of stating on the basis of data in the census that as the Jews of the Soviet Union have lost their language, they have nothing in common with the Jewish people.
The first meeting of the Iton editorial board took place in January 1970. They were marked, however, by severe differences of opinion. Mendelevich, a young orthodox Jew, came from a Latvia which had been Sovietised only thirty years before. Victor Boguslavsky, the Leningrad representative, came from a Communist background. Even his grandparents, had been Bolsheviks. The nominal editor-in-chief, Lev Korenblit, who had been brought up as a chalutz (Zionist pioneer) in pre-war Romania, did not accept Mendelevich’s militancy.
For all that, within a few weeks, Iton was being typed by Silva Zalmanson in Riga, where photography, printing and eventual distribution were carried out. The first Iton contained articles by Amos Kenan and Ephraim Kishon, a piece by Jabotinsky on Trumpeldor and a profile on Golda Meir from The Times. Mendelevich himself contributed two articles: Purim in the Forest and May the Jewish People Live on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A third article to which Mendelvich attached his name, entitled About Assimilation, was in fact written by Professor Mikhail Zand, a future movement leader, but at that time, unwilling to declare himself openly. One hundred and thirty copies of the second Iton were produced, containing similar material to its predecessor; an article from the Jerusalem Post; a report of the gathering at Babi Yar in 1969 and open letters from Soviet Jews.
The third meeting, essentially to discuss the next issue of Iton took place in Riga in May 1970. The difference of approach between Riga and Leningrad seemed keener than ever. Mendelevich termed the whole idea of Iton, ‘child’s play’ and said that something else, something more significant, should be done to help the thousands of Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union. He did not elaborate.
Boguslavsky and Korenblit rejected Mendelevich’s version of the third Iton as virulently critical of the Soviet Union and thus counter-productive. Mendelevich consequently resigned from the Iton editorial board. The next meeting of the board was scheduled for 13 June in Leningrad. On that day, the new Riga representative, Boris Maftser, flew into Leningrad. At the airport, he met, of all people, Mendelevich. When Maftser asked what he was doing there, Mendelevich snapped back: You haven’t seen me’ and mysteriously disappeared.
Mendelevich’s secrecy, his frustration with Iton and his desire ‘to do something else’ had found a haven in another project.
The idea to take an aircraft and to fly it out of the Soviet Union to freedom was not a new one. In 1948 Jewish students conceived such a idea in the hope of enlisting to fight in Israel’s war of independence. In the two decades that had elapsed, such a scheme periodically surfaced as a result of the intense frustration in waiting. Forgotten were the tight security considerations or the fact that Soviet airline officials usually put up a determined struggle.
Shortly after the Six Day war, Mark Dymshits, a former pilot, began to concoct several different notions of illegal escape from the USSR. His first idea was to float to freedom in a do-it-yourself hot-air balloon. This was dropped to make way for a backyard build-it-yourself aeroplane. When this, too, proved impracticable, he resolved to steal an already manufactured plane – one belonging to the Soviet state. Such thoughts could not be translated into action by one man. Dymshits needed friends.
He first met Hillel Butman, one of the leaders of the Leningrad group in the autumn of 1969. Butman became interested in the plan to take an aircraft. His acceptance, however, antagonised many within the group and created differences of opinion. The paramount priority of the Leningrad group was to increase emigration. In 1967 only 1,380 Jews had left the USSR. In 1968 this figure had dropped to 224, and by late 1969, the all-time high of 3,000 looked like being reached. Yet even if this was relatively high compared to other years, it would still have taken decades for all the thousands of applicants to leave.
The idea to attempt something dramatic, to cause a scandal which could not be hushed up, was by no means novel to the Riga people. Butman therefore began to sound them out. Indeed before been mentioning the aeroplane plan, Edward Kuznetsov, the new husband of Silva Zalmanson, told him:
Many people are desperate, ready to explode; their applications are rejected with no reasons given and they go from humiliation to humiliation. They spend years in and out of suitcases. Their whole life, whether it be personal relationships or their job or their apartment and the rest of it is at the mercy of others. Can’t you see it ?
Maybe today or tomorrow, a group of people, united in desperation, will take the fateful step forward. They, themselves, may suffer greatly, but by their actions theu will break the dam through which many others will pass. My good sense tells me: ‘Wait, wait, wait and you’ll get there without due difficulty’, but my conscience says ‘Yes, but over someone else’s dead body.’ My temperament despises waiting; yet, united with my conscience and my and my impatience, it urges me to take my part in every stage of the way forward. (Prison Diaries by Edward Kuznetsov)
Kuznetsov warmed to the aeroplane plan and emerged essentially as its advocate. In Leningrad, however, the other activists were becoming increasingly agitated as reports from a number of cities about the ‘aeroplane people’ filtered through. Lev Korenblit, David Chernoglaz and Lassal Kaminsky were particularly incensed and realised that such attitudes and preparatory work could endanger the mainstream movement. They regarded the idea as a cancer spreading throughout the movement with only one end in sight.
Jewish Chronicle 5 December 1980