One hundred years ago, on 30 December 1922, four republics, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Transcaucasia, agreed to form a union of states — the Soviet Union. This was to be ‘a decisive step on the path of unification into a World Socialist Soviet Republic’.
The same year also saw the first trials of Zionists in the USSR. Two years later mass arrests and the eventual exile of thousands of Zionists to the Gulag took place while another 21,000 were eventually allowed to leave. By 1927, the emigration had been reduced to a trickle of a few hundred.
The Hebrew language continued to be taught clandestinely and Hebrew poets such as Elisha Rodin and Haim Lensky wrote privately without hope of publication.
In 1934, the remaining members of the central committee of Zeirei Zion — perhaps the last Zionist group in the USSR — were arrested in Moscow.
Much of this oppression floated over the heads of Jewish organisations in the UK as their immediate concern was Nazism in Germany and their imitators in the UK.
For many Jews in the USSR after the October Revolution, ‘the dawn of humanity’ had arrived and they joined the Communist party in droves with the intention of building a new Israel in Moscow. The words of the revolutionary anthem, the Internationale, were, for them, more than lyrics:
‘Those who were nothing will become something…no one will grant us our salvation. No god, no tsar, no hero.’
The Jewish sections of the Communist party, until they were liquidated, sought to impose a different Jewish reality to rival the traditions of millennia. Shabbat challot were presented in the shape of a hammer and sickle while Passover was commemorated in a Bolshevik retelling of the October Revolution as the true meaning of liberation from Egyptian slavery. Jewish children were named after Soviet leaders. One eminent scientist who eventually reached Israel revealed that his name was not Mikhail, but that his parents had named him Melic — Marx, Engels, Lenin, International Communism.
In September 1939, Poland was devoured by both Hitler and Stalin. A year later the surrounding Baltic states were occupied by first, the Red Army, then later the Wehrmacht. Many Jews escaped the genocide by fleeing deep into the interior of the Soviet Union. Here they unexpectedly became the teachers of a hitherto assimilated generation of Soviet Jews. On returning after the war, they constituted a nucleus for an expanding emigration movement.
In parallel but outside the borders of the USSR, Mossad le-Aliyah Bet was established in April 1939 on the eve of war to bring Jews from Eastern Europe to the Yishuv, the Jewish settlement in Palestine. It was headed by Shaul Avigur, originally from Latvia and a founder of the pre-state intelligence services in 1934. This was a fundamental landmark in the genesis of the Diaspora campaign for Soviet Jewry.
Avigur was a puritan in all respects, dedicated solely to his work and defined by secrecy and frugality. Someone who disdained small talk and social events — a man who lived in the shadows.
In the aftermath of the Shoah, Mossad le-Aliyah Bet resumed its work and brought survivors illegally to the Yishuv. On the one hand, this movement of Jews to the Land of Israel — the Brichah (escape) — was spontaneous and unorganised, on the other, Avigur was pressing all the levers while maintaining a cohort of emissaries in Eastern Europe.
By the late 1940s, the heavy hand of Stalinism had effectively eliminated all this work and
Brichah activists were among the first to be eliminated. Nadia Nemirovskaya, her husband and son were arrested in 1950 — all three died in the Gulag. Other Soviet Jews such as Baruch Weissman kept a secret Hebrew language diary in which he noted Jewish reaction to the events of the time.
Mossad le-Aliyah Bet was disbanded in March 1952 because it was no longer able to operate in Eastern Europe. It was also a period when Stalin’s persecution of Jews had reached new levels of paranoia — a time of show trials and the execution of innocents and a growing fear that a great catastrophe would befall the millions of Soviet Jews. Stalin died — and the Kremlin suddenly discovered that ‘mistakes’ had been made.
Such events and the possibility of a thaw after Stalin’s demise persuaded the Israelis that the moral basis for Mossad le-Aliyah Bet — rescuing Jews — should now be directed towards Soviet Jewry. Avigur established the Lishkat Hakesher (Liaison Bureau), later known as Nativ (path), responsible to the Israeli prime minister. Many later referred to it as ‘the office with no name’.
In August 1955, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett and Avigur instigated an initiative, designed to publicise the plight of Soviet Jewry in the wider world and to work with involved individuals. Any campaign would not suggest regime change in the Kremlin and any demand for emigration would be discreetly buried within a plea for national and civil rights for Soviet Jews.
A central figure in Nativ was Alexander Melnetzer (Zvi Netzer) from Kovel. He was a Zionist youth activist in Soviet-occupied Poland in 1939 who was arrested and then deported to a camp in the USSR. Released after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Melnetzer managed to reach Iran where he met Avigur. In September 1945, Avigur asked Melnetzer to return to Poland from Kibbutz Alonim and to become a central operative in coordinating efforts to bring Jews from Poland across Europe as part of Mossad le-Aliyah Bet. Leaving Poland in the late 1940s, he returned as a diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw in 1957. Officially a lowly second secretary, he was present when the Soviets allowed exiled Poles to return from the USSR. Melnetzer was instrumental in facilitating the emigration of many returning Polish Jews to Israel.
Another major figure was Niumka Levitan (Nehemia Levanon) who had been involved in Zionist youth activities in Estonia and Latvia.
Levitan had arrived in Palestine before the war, settled in Kibbutz Kfar Blum and later worked as an emissary for Habonim in London. Later he operated as an agricultural attaché at the Israel Embassy in Moscow but at the same time orchestrating the distribution of basic information about Israel amongst Soviet Jews. This led ultimately to his expulsion in 1956.
Jacob Yankelevitch (Yaka Yanai) was in the Gulag for almost a decade before being allowed to emigrate via Poland in 1957. In Israel, he drew on his experience to improve radio broadcasts from Kol Zion and the dissemination of information within the USSR.
In 1969, Prime Minister Golda Meir decided to abandon previous policies and openly call for Jewish emigration. Shortly afterwards, Levanon succeeded Avigur as head of Nativ.
The events of 1970 — the growing protests by Soviet Jews themselves, the collective letters, the demonstrations by Jewish students in London — forced coverage in the British media. The death sentences passed on Edward Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits on Christmas Eve 1970 for their part in attempting to take an aircraft from Leningrad and fly to Sweden was the final wake-up call.
The Brussels Conference on Soviet Jewry in 1971 brought many hitherto uninvolved Jewish leaders in the UK to an understanding of the cause of Soviet Jewry. It led to the emergence of new organisations such as the Thirty Fives, the Womens’ Campaign for Soviet Jewry shortly afterwards. The rest, as they say, is history.
Jewish Chronicle 30 December 2022