Interview with Shimon Frumkin

Shimon Frumkin

Shimon Frumkin is an erstwhile Leningrad refusenik (1980-1989). He made aliya in 1990 and currently lives in Ma’ale Adumim, near Jerusalem.
Frumkin was interviewed by Aba Taratuta on April 28, 2004.

       Shimon Frumkin: I was born in 1949. My grandfather was a melamed in a small Belorussian town on the river Pripyat. He died before the revolution, after he had caught a severe cold when rescuing some of his pupils who fell into an ice-hole. In this way father was left an orphan. During the Civil War the Gomel Zionists assembled the orphans and decided to send them to Palestine, in order to save them from pogroms. But my father never got there, though other orphans did. At the Gomel railway station he met his cousin, who said to him: "Where are you going? How will you get there? Get into the van with me, and tomorrow we will be in Minsk, in a warm place". That’s how my father ended up in Minsk, in a Jewish orphanage. He stayed there till 1924 when he started working as a printer in the print-shop of the Belorussian Communist party. He later went to Leningrad, where he graduated from the Graphic Arts technical school. In 1939 he was conscripted into the fighting army and then invalided out of it because of a severe head injury, after which he worked at the Lenizdat Publishers’ print-shop. In 1948 half of the print run of “Leningradskaya Pravda” came off the press with a misprint: the letter “r” in the word Leningrad was missing (which changed the meaning to something like “Lenin is a scoundrel”. – Translator’s note). That was classified as intentional ideological sabotage, and a special committee was convened to purge the publishing house and its print-shop from “cosmopolitans”. Even though my father was not arrested, he lost his job with a “never employ” clause in his record (this was called “wolf’s ticket” and probably only existed in the KGB records. - Translator’s note). After that what used to be his hobby, became his bread and butter – he was an amateur photographer, so he started taking shots of village dwellers a hundred kilometers from Leningrad, bringing them their pictures back a week later. In this way he lived through these hard times, but in 1950 he succeeded in returning to his work in the publishing house, because by then his oppressors had themselves been oppressed in the course of the ”Leningrad process” (one more Stalin’s purge directed this time against Leningrad party bosses. - Translator’s note). My father had been a Bolshevik party member since 1932; my mother joined the party during the war.

       As a true son of Leninist Bolsheviks, I followed in my parents’ tracks and became a Komsomol activist, my highest position in the Komsomol being “faculty secretary for ideological work”. I held this position for four months and only my excessive curiosity ruined my whole Komsomol career.

       Aba Taratuta: What year did you enter college?

       S.F.: In 1966. Actually, I had first applied for the University and not the Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute. [At the entrance examinations] they sat all the Jews, one behind the other and handed out problems to solve. Out of five problems I managed to solve one and a half, even though I had finished school with a silver medal. I failed that exam, and [after passing other entrance exams] was admitted to the Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute (LETI), as a part-time (evening) student. After the first semester I was transferred to the full-time (day) department, without any time loss, in terms of the academic year.

       Now, what was the improper curiosity I displayed as a Komsomol activist? Because I was in charge of ideological work, I was often invited to meet overseas students. Students from France asked questions about Daniel and Sinyavsky, Ginzburg and Galanskov, etc. (these were dissidents who were tried and sentenced for anti-Soviet activities. – Translator’s note). I asked what I should answer in such cases. At the Institute Komsomol Committee they advised me to speak with the appropriate people, journalists, for example. That is why I went to the Leningrad Union of Journalists, to the chief editor of “Leningradskaya Pravda”, who could not figure out what had aroused such keen interest. He informed the authorities in charge: “Comrade F. displays an unhealthy interest in all kinds of anti-Soviet lampoons“. Without any explanations I was transferred to a less responsible Komsomol activity post. I graduated from the Institute in 1972. Back then, in the seventies, it somehow surfaced that a number of LETI students were learning Hebrew; then again, somebody knew somebody who was acquainted with somebody who was had up in the Leningrad highjack plot – in short, there was enough reason for the Institute’s Party meeting to come up with a fateful resolution. It was worded something like this: “The Selection Committee of the Institute and the Selection Committees of the faculties shall pay closest attention to the forming of the student body”, which in plain Russian meant “keep out the Yids”. In my time about 10 to 11% of LETI students were Jewish. Six years after this resolution had been adopted the percent of Jews had decreased to 1.5%. That is, the party organs met the Zionist threat with due vigor. Even though I graduated from the Institute with all A’s and thus, had a priority right in choosing a job (from jobs offered to that year’s graduates. – Translator’s note), at the Vacancies Distribution Committee I was told that none of the three vacancies I had chosen was available for me. I was offered a fourth vacancy – at the Leningrad branch of the Institute of Communication. When I entered the manpower office, the answer that was awaiting me was: “We refuse to employ you”. Hardly had I got back to my Institute, when they received a letter which read as follows: “In connection with the fact that our request for five graduates who had majored in a certain field was not granted; instead, we were offered graduates who had specialized in a different field, the Institute of Communication agrees to provide employment to the following four graduates”, listing the names without including mine. The LETI graduates employment official had to rack her brains in order to find a suitable opening for me. At last she said: “One of our alumni is now director of an X-ray equipment design office, I will talk to him”. He agreed to employ me. At that time out of the 650 workers in this design office 320 were Jewish.

       A.T.: I see, their employment policy was entirely wrong, from the point of view of the mainstream one.

       S.F.: In 1980 our general director was discharged from his post. The office numbered 3,000 employees by that time, and he was demoted to head a department with only 30 people under him. By that time he had a Ph.D. degree and enjoyed quite a high standing in the field. He was accused of three sins. The first was mixing up personal property and perks like dachas (summer houses), cars and boats. The second was twisting the accounts, and the gaps [in dates] in the accounts between what was on paper and the real thing could reach nine months – that is, for nine months the experimental plant was to accept fine words and promises like “we will speed up and settle everything”. What could he do when they said to him: “Settle things with your customers, there’s no other way out, you have to give an account of your work”. But his greatest sin was employing Jews and promoting them, thus contributing to the brain-drain when they left for Israel or the US.

       I soon started feeling at home in my new job. By the way, when I came to work, they showed me a desk and said: “You know, this was Alexander Fridman’s desk. – Who’s this? – You don’t know Sasha Fridman? He was tried in the Leningrad highjack plot“. I was told that Fridman had not been sentenced in that case, but he later got three years in jail for the criminal offence of stabbing a co-worker with a knife. It was a romantic, tear-jerking story: he fell in love with a co-worker, and when she said she was going to marry another man, he grabbed a knife and stabbed her. He surfaced three years later, asked for a work reference and went away, so the story goes, to the US.

       There was a group of interesting people at my workplace; many of them were lovers of hiking. Every week-end we would get away from the city. We used to talk a lot and of course, the question of what to do, what course of life to take, could not be left out in these conversations. I thought that even though there were a lot of limitations and obstacles, one could advance in science and technical inventions, even when playing according to the rules of Soviet science management. I soon made a number of proposals for improving production methods, obtained copyrights for my inventions and published some articles. My field was developing equipment for searching for diamonds by using their luminescence qualities. This equipment was shipped to Yakutia where diamonds were mined. I used to spend a lot of time on business trips; among others, I visited a new ore concentrating plant, which beat all the records in Soviet stupidity: showing off, chaos, punishing the innocent and rewarding the undeserving. When I came back from that trip, I said: “That’s it, I’m fed up with this. I don’t want to live in this country any more”. That was the beginning.

       By that time our leading designer Samuil Barsky had already left the country and the deputy department manager Leonid Slonimsky was going to leave. I was ready to choose the “right” path; my family had been waiting for it and felt relieved, agreeing that we had to leave. There were two serious obstacles to overcome: my parents and my brother, who was also in the Party. He worked at a secret institute of the Ministry of Ship-building and held the post of department party organizer. He realized that his brother’s emigration would put an end to his party career. He started pressing our parents, pushing them to show active opposition to our plans. On top of all that, in 1978, my father, due to his being a veteran Party member, was appointed to work in the Propaganda and Agitation department of the Leningrad City Communist Party Committee. A long time before the Anti-Zionist committees were formed, it had been decided that veteran communists should put a barrier in Zionist propaganda’s way. I said to my father: “Do you want people to spit in your back? – Let them just dare do it! – Will you have a man with a gun guard you?” His position was not that straightforward: “Maybe it could be better for our whole family to leave the country but, since mother’s brother and his children can’t leave, we have to stay here and play according to the rules. Which basically means not to stick your head out. If you stick it out, it will be cut off” – “If I leave, will they stop your pension payment?”– “Certainly not, but we will lose all the special benefits, like holidays in the veteran Bolsheviks’ pension, holiday delicacies packages, shorter waiting lists for certain goods and other privileges”. All these things were a serious hindrance for me. Besides, he ran to his party boss for guidance: “What’s to be done? My son has crazy ideas”. – “Don’t worry, they won’t let him out, especially after he has had access to the diamond mining industry”. To make the matters still worse, my brother consulted some KGB people, and they advised him to put it all on paper and send them a letter, which he did. I later read this letter. Long before I applied for an exit visa, this letter had been sent to the KGB with instructions for the OVIR (Foreigners’ Registration and Visas Office) – to put into effect. The letter said that such-and-such could not be allowed to leave the country for such-and-such reasons; besides, if he left, the Motherland would lose not only one skilled specialist, but another one as well, because in that case he would not be able to work with classified documents. There were threats from another direction, too: my father-in-law was a deputy director of an assembly line belts plant in Lvov. They lived in Lvov, too, and were pretty well off (dacha, car, etc.). He received a number of letters that were commissioned by the KGB bosses, and these contained a threat: “Dear unrespectable Sir, are you asking for a check-up of your income? If not, and if you want to leave this country in peace, let go of our Leningrad boy”. At that I decided that I would not and could not leave all of them behind: “Leave without me, and I’ll see what I can do”. In September 1979 they applied for exit visas, in November they got permission to leave the country, and in March 1980 the whole family left. I was left alone and soon, after getting an invitation [from Israel], I went to the OVIR, where I received the standard refusal, which was formulated like this: ”Giving out the application forms is inexpedient in your case”. I retaliated by sending letters of complaint to the Home Affairs Ministry and several party organs, meeting party officials. When none of this worked, I went to Moscow, to the Party Congress which was held at that time and handed them an appeal by a group of refuseniks. As a result, I received a letter from the OVIR saying that I could apply for an exit permit. I got the application forms, issued a notary inquiry to my parents (to obtain their signed permission to leave the country – Translator’s note) – and received a flat refusal from my father, grounded on ideological considerations. The OVIR inspector insisted on sticking to the formal rules - that is, handing in the documents immediately, which I did. Three weeks later I received a formal refusal.

       A.T.: Did you take a reference from work?

       S.F.: I certainly did, and when I asked for it, they said: “If you want a reference, file a request to demote you from senior researcher to engineer”. I retorted: “Do you have complaints concerning my work?”. “No”. “If this is the case, I will not write a request of this sort. If you won’t give me a reference, I will go to Prosecutor’s Office”. I received a reference without being demoted and continued working there till 1984. In 1985 I asked to be transferred to a post of chief engineer, without salary loss, and in the same year I gave notice and resigned. In 1988 I got a phone call from the OVIR notifying me that the ban on my leaving the country had been lifted and that I could re-apply for an exit visa. In November 1989 I was allowed to leave the country.

       A.T.: In which year did you become a Zionist activist?

       S.F.: In the summer of 1980 I happened to attend an out-of-town seminar in Dyuny – it’s a place near Sestroretsk. The last carriage of the train was packed with Zionists, who were wearing T-shirts with Hebrew writing – that is, they were very defiantly dressed. They were quite a sight, especially against the background of other Jews, who were always trying to be as inconspicuous as they could and not to stick out of the crowd. The whole carriage load, over a hundred people, crossed the bridges to Dyuny, where Kanovich and Vassesman gave a lecture on Hassidim and Hassidism. A group of volleyball players “happened” to be nearby. As I realized later, it was a Komsomol group dispatched to “patronize” the Zionists. The whole crowd dispersed and vanished, but not before the lecture had been given. After that lecture I went to another one, then a third one, and I became an active member of these seminars, which were held four times a month, sometimes at Kanovich’s place in Pavlovsk, sometimes in other places. Two seminars took place in my apartment. After the official dispersal of the seminar in May 1981 there were some feeble attempts to hold seminars out of town, in the forests, but even those were persecuted severely.

       A.T.: When people assembled at your place, how did your family take it?

       S.F.: I severed ties with my family; I absolutely refused to see my parents and my brother. In 1981 Grisha Kanovich left the country. Before he left, he had invited Misha Beizer, Edik Erlikh and myself and said: “What do you guys think of publishing a magazine or something of the kind? Maybe we shouldn’t wave a red rag at the bull, but do it quietly, without much ado?” We started preparing a magazine, which we called Leningrad Jewish Anthology (Leningradskii Yevreiskii Almanakh, or LEA). The first issue was published in the summer of 1982, the second one followed after a month or a month and a half, but then the publication was stopped for almost a year. As I figure it out now, the KGB pressed Erlikh to make a deal with them to reduce his activity. After his departure we restarted publishing the magazine. From January 1984 it was issued as a quarterly. All in all there were nineteen issues; I held out from #3 to #9. I later passed on the rest of the materials to the Riga magazine VEK, which was published legally, so that they’d be able to use them.

       A.T.: Who was the chief editor of the first issue?

       S.F.: There was no chief editor but Edik Erlikh was the motivational force for the first issue. He selected materials and passed on some portions to other people for looking through and editing. These I would read and give my opinion about. From the start LEA was using the papers of the historical seminar headed by Misha Beizer as its basic source, and this helped to collect original materials. On the other hand, the LEA publications motivated people to participate in the seminar.

       A.T.: Where did you get together to work on the magazine?

       S.F.: As a rule, in Erlikh’s flat or Beizer’s rented room. There is a complete file of the magazine in Leningrad and also in the archives of the Center for Documentation of East-European Jewry. Where these archives are now and in whose hands they are, is not known to me.

       A.T.: From which issue did you start working in the LEA’s “editorial office”?

       S.F.: I think, from #3. #3 and #4 were a team work by Beizer, Kolker and myself. After #4 Yura (Kolker) left the country, and Rimma Zapesotskaya joined our team. This crew held out up to #12; #13 was issued after Misha’s departure, but he had participated in all the preparations. That was in 1987. After he left, other people joined us in selecting and editing the materials: David Yoffe, Alik Zelichonok, Yura Osterfeld. Issues 17, 18 and 19 were printed in Israel and returned to us in print (the earlier issues were hand-typed. – Translator’s note).

       A.T.: How did your wife get on with your family?

       S.F.: My first wife left the country in 1980; I married again, and came to Israel with my second wife, her mother and her sister, in 1990. My daughter from the first marriage was a baby when she left the country with her mother; my second daughter was born in 1987.

       A.T.: Did Vasserman and Gorodetsky participate in working at LEA?

       S.F.: Vasserman prepared the second issue of the magazine, Gorodetsky organized the distribution.

       Now, something on another subject. The conflict with the “melukha” (from Hebrew: authorities. – Translator’s note), the detention and friends’ arrests caused me to study thoroughly and gain quite a lot of knowledge of the Soviet law, of the Criminal Code. I became an expert in writing all kinds of complaints. We invited Volodya Albrekht from Moscow, who gave a lecture on behavior strategies during interrogations and searches. I often had to give advice in legal matters, and if they (the authorities) tried to bite me in some way, I kicked back, and very successfully, at that. I have a story which I call “compensation for Yido-expenses”, when I received from the ”melukha” a postal order for the sum I had demanded (3 roubles 88 kopeks).

       Another aspect of my activity was connected with an attempt to found the Leningrad Jewish Cultural Society (LOEK). I wrote about it in an article devoted to the 20th anniversary of this society’s foundation. The project was revived in 1988. A request for establishing a society of this kind was submitted, and in March 1989 it was founded, with official permission. I have still kept materials connected with establishing this society, including my own speech.

       In the course of my Zionist activity I met some “Zionist hikers”; they made up quite a team: Makushkin, Kelman, Romanovskaya and others, all people of the same type of thought. We went on a boat trip to Karelia, in the course of which we became close friends and practically all those years we worked together, in perfect harmony and with good productivity. After that trip I went on to learn Hebrew. We started organizing shows for Hanukkah and Purim. For Purim 1981 I participated in a show which was directed by Kelbert. I played a dim-witted KGB man who was running around wearing country-style felt boots and a belt with a badge, sticking official orders on walls. Afterwards I not only played in Purimshpils, but also wrote and directed them.

       A.T.: Were the texts of these plays preserved?

       S.F.: Some texts were collected by Vitya Birkan, in his samizdat selection; it can be found in the same archive where LEA is kept. Two volumes of modern Jewish folklore were published as LEA’s supplement.

       The next aspect [of my work as Jewish activist] is Memorial Days, Yom ha-Shoa. I attended a Memorial Day like this in 1981, in Rabinovich’s flat on Vasilyevsky Island, when the KGB men took down all the participants’ names. We afterwards looked for a place for the next Memorial Day and found ourselves at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, where we found some graves of Jews who had fought in WWII. When Misha Beizer was preparing a guided tour of the Jewish Preobrazhenskoye Cemetery, he found a cenotaph to several Jews who fell in the Holocaust or in the course of hostilities. The first memorial meeting at Preobrazhenskoye Cemetery was held in 1984, with 15 to 20 people present. Next time the number of those present doubled. In 1987 hundreds of people came to the Memorial Day, and in 1989 there were over a thousand people present. I think this tradition has survived to this day. In 1989 we brought a special issue of the newspaper “Shahar” to the meeting. That was the first Jewish newspaper after long years [of absence of Jewish press], and had been published in Tallinn.

       A.T.: Did the authorities hamper publishing the magazine and holding Memorial Days? Did they come to you, to your place, for searches or interrogations?

       S.F.: We must have been good at practicing secrecy techniques, for all those years I managed to escape such encounters. I knew their questions and their behavior style very well. We held some simulation talks and interrogation sessions, for practice, in which I played a KGB man. My comrades were well prepared and knew what to answer. Misha Beizer was invited to talks of that kind, Misha Elman had similar troubles. The fact that I escaped all this means that I hid well.

       After 1987 we virtually broke out of the underground, where, as Grigorenko put it, only rats can be found. We openly participated in illegal press editors’ conferences; I went to Riga and Vilnius to meet other Jewish activists; I participated in the work of the first Vaad in Moscow. I still have the materials referring to these activities.

       There’s another story I want to tell – about Nemchenko, an active participant of Beizer’s seminar. After Beizer’s departure in 1987, the work of the seminar went on. A meeting on the problem of anti-Semitism was underway in Moscow, and we were asked to speak at it. Nemchenko and I divided the themes for the speeches between us; he was supposed to go on a holiday to the Crimea, stop in Moscow on the way and deliver a speech at the meeting, while I booked an air ticket to Moscow, in order to be there on the same day. On the day before the stated date I phoned Nemchenko and told him that the meeting had been cancelled because the KGB had banned it. He said that he would go anyway and bring his article to our Moscow friends. I said that I preferred not to go. Three weeks after his holiday I tried to contact him, but he seemed to be out of reach. Only a month and a half after that I happened to meet one of his relatives, who said that he had been murdered. I went to the Prosecutor’s Office and told them that I could throw light on the motives of the murder. I told them about the circumstances that had preceded the murder, and that I had given him the book “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, which I had borrowed from Lyonya Belotserkovsky. When the police entered the flat and saw that book, they passed on the case to the KGB, and two days after that the KGB people came up with the murderers’ names on a silver platter. This is how the investigator presented it. Two minors, who wanted to buy a motorbike, decided that a rich Yid would have money at home. They climbed to the roof, slid down a rope to the balcony, entered the flat and, on finding the man at home, got scared and pushed him, and he fell and hit his head. Nothing sticks together in this version. When the body was found, it had practically no head at all, it had been smashed to pieces by a steel bar. The murderers had left the flat without taking anything, but they returned on the next day. Psychologically, there’s no explanation for that and it can’t be comprehended. Why should they have come back? What did they take? They took his savings books, which had his name on them and were supposed to be non-transferable. They did not cash them at once and only did so after the body had been found three weeks later. A watchful savings bank worker helped detain the criminals. One of the offenders had escaped from a juvenile delinquents’ reformatory, and the police inspector was aware of that. All these contradict the criminal’s way of thinking. I told this to the Investigator, I wrote about it to the Prosecutor, but what made the KGB see red was my suggestion of organizing a meeting in Nemchenko’s memory and to talk about the things that he had not been allowed to voice at the Vagankovskoye Cemetery in Moscow. I chose the “Pamyat” favorite hang-out as the place for the meeting and the authorities turning a blind eye. Together with Borya Kelman, Yura Osterfeld and Borya Dubrov I applied to the Executive Committee of Dzerzhinsky district for a permission to hold a meeting, but we were refused. As a result, an article was published in a newspaper. It was devoted to the criminal side of the case and the struggle against Zionism. Since I was the main representative of Zionism in the case, “Leningradskaya Pravda” mostly focused on analyzing the circumstances of the murder and put a special emphasis to what a foul, stinking bastard I was, a parasite who had not worked for years. In truth, I was working at the time in the Leningrad branch of a firm whose manpower office was situated in Krasnodar. I used this circumstance as a base for a lawsuit, and at the court hearing I demanded the protection of my honor and dignity. The journalist Kravtsov (Abram Feld’s pen-name), who was the party boss of the newspaper, did not come to the trial. The court stated that a journalist’s statement could not be considered an affront to my dignity. It was in the process of preparation for the court hearing that I got familiar with my file in the OVIR and read all the letters and resolutions.

       This is all I wanted to tell you. The only thing I would like to add is that most of my friends now live in Israel, and that every year we meet on Independence Day in the forest near Beit Shemesh.

Translated from Russian by Ilana Romanovsky.