Etka Leibowitz was actively involved in the struggle for the Soviet Jewry freedom. The interview with Etka Leibowitz was conducted by Aba & Ida Taratuta in Jerusalem on January 7, 2005.
Etka Leibowitz: I was born in New York in l958. I went to public school during the day and Hebrew school in the afternoon until I was old enough to go to Hebrew High School. I was always involved in Zionist activities. My family was not religious but it was always very Jewish culturally.
The Hebrew High School that I went to was very Zionist. Most of the graduates now live here in Israel. After I graduated from Marshaliah Hebrew High School I went on to the joint program of The Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University. I studied in this program for one year. There I met Glenn Richter and became involved with the SSSJ (Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry).
Aba Taratuta: Was it Jacob Birnbaum or Glenn Richter?
E.L.: It was Glenn Richter. For my second year of college, I went on the one-year program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
When I decided to stay in Israel, I interrupted my studies to go into the army and joined a Nahal Unit, where I served for 2 1/2 years. I was in the army from l977 until l980. When I finished the army, I had about a half-year vacation until University started. I finished in March and University started in October. So I went back to America to visit my family. There I met the parents of a friend of mine who had been sent to the Soviet Union by the Foreign Ministry. I was also interested in doing the same; going to the Soviet Union to visit refuseniks. I asked them to recommend me, which they did. I had a very good friend in New York, Elise Kintzer who is now living in Israel. I asked her if she would like to go with me to visit refuseniks in the USSR. She agreed, and so it was that we went. The Foreign Ministry arranged to send us to the USSR and gave us a list of refuseniks to visit. We visited Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Lvov and Vinnitsa. During the period of the High Holidays, we were in Moscow and Leningrad. It was a very inspiring trip. We met a lot of people with whom I maintained contact during subsequent trips to the USSR, and later on, when they were permitted to emigrate to Israel.
That was the beginning of my real intense involvement in Soviet Jewry activities. Then I went back to Israel and recommenced my studies at the Hebrew University, majoring in Jewish philosophy and Political Science. Simultaneously, I started to study Russian with Inna Rubin, a former activist from the USSR (her husband was a prominent Sinologist who had been active in the human rights campaign in the USSR).
I decided that I wanted to go on a long-term trip to the Soviet Union. We had only been there for two weeks when sent by the Foreign Ministry. There was a summer program at Leningrad State University for American students studying Russian, which was almost two months long. I was able to be accepted to it; of course not from Israel, but using an American address. In 1981, I went on this program to study Russian, but the real purpose was to meet refuseniks and to help them. I smuggled in a lot of Hebrew literature, religious books, Judaica, and kosher food. While in Leningrad, I gave Hebrew lessons, talked about life in Israel – education, employment, etc, and taught Israeli dancing. I also got some other people in the University program involved in visiting refuseniks. I even attended the trial of the refusenik – Yevgeny Lein, although I did not understand very much of what they were saying. I actually attended the trial together with another student from my program and we managed to push our way into the courtroom whereas many other people, particularly other refuseniks, were forced to remain outside. Upon leaving the USSR I smuggled out names of refuseniks who wanted invitations to Israel, material on Yevgeny Lein’s trial, and many photographs.
In l984, I once again visited the Sovit Union under the auspices of a Russian Language program (Progress Tours) based in London. That was my last trip to the USSR. I was in Leningrad for 2 weeks and in Moscow for 2 weeks. Once again I smuggled in Hebrew literature, Hebrew language instruction tapes, Judaica, and kosher food. I visited refuseniks, gave Hebrew lessons and talked about daily life in Israel. I collected names for invitations and requests for material for teaching Hebrew.
I became active in volunteer work for Soviet Jewry here in Israel and with the Public Council for Soviet Jewry with Enid Wurtman. That is when I finished my B.A. and then my M.A. at the Hebrew University.
A.T.: Did you study with Russian students at LGU (Leningrad State University)?
E.L.: No, we didn't study with the Russian students. Our group had separate classes with teachers from the University. That was in l981. Although the six (6) week program (July – August) was based in Leningrad, we also visited Moscow.
A.T.: Who did you meet in Leningrad?
E.L.: Many people, including Ida and Aba Taratuta, Yosef Radomyslsky, the Genusovs, Nelly Shpeizman, and other Hebrew teachers.
A.T.: Would you give me the precise dates?
E.L.: Right. My first trip was in l980 and my second l981 and my last l984, I guess.
A.T.: Did the Foreign Ministry sponsor all three trips?
E.L.: No, only for my first trip to the USSR was I sent by the Foreign Ministry. They gave me a list of refuseniks that I should visit. They also gave us various Hebrew language materials to give to them. Our goal was to encourage them to make aliyah to Israel. There weren't any special orders. We were told that if the KGB interrogated us we were to say that we know nothing, that nobody sent us, that we were just visiting. If we were interrogated, which we were, we should say that our synagogue gave us their names.
A.T.: Were you interrogated by the KGB?
E.L.: Yes, during our first trip in 1980 we were interrogated in Vinnitsa and threatened with expulsion. We were asked who sent us and warned not to visit any other refuseniks. They knew everywhere we had been. So, we didn’t visit any refuseniks in Vinnitsa but recommenced with our activities upon arriving in Leningrad. I think that they also interrogated us during the second trip.
A.T.: Did you speak with them in Russian?
E.L.: No, that was my first trip. I did not know Russian then. They (the KGB agents) kept on thinking that we knew Russian. I remember the KGB saying: "but you know Russian." And I kept saying that I don't know Russian. I think it was because I had learned a few words, maybe 20 - 25 words of Russian, nothing much.
Ida Taratuta: Where did you study Hebrew?
E.L.: Hebrew, in America. I went to Hebrew school and then afterwards to Hebrew high school.
A.T.: Who was Alexei Lorentsson (from Moscow)?
E.L.: He was a refusenik and Hebrew teacher. His mother was American. His mother had left for America with her parents before the revolution, and then they came back after the revolution. They made a big mistake. She had been struggling to get out through her American citizenship, which did not do any good. They finally did get out and emigrated to Israel.
OK, I should also mention that in Moscow I visited my cousins. During all three trips, I visited these cousins, who wanted to go to America, and now they are in the US. In Kiev, we met the Elbert family (aliyah activists) ,of course, and also the Cherniak family.
A.T.: Did you feel that you were being followed?
E.L.: In Vinnitsa, when the KGB caught us; they had been following us. Following the interrogation, we decided it was a good idea to lay low and not do anything else. So we just toured around. We had been on our way to visit a refusenik in Vinnitsa. I forget which refusenik it was. And in Kiev, we could also feel that they were following us. But they did not create any problems for us. Then we got to Leningrad. It was like being abroad. It was like being in America. We were so much freer.
[Etka continued to speak while looking through notes and pictures].
We were there for Simhat Torah - with the Elmans, with Misha Elman. And here we are with the Genusovs on our last day in the USSR.
A.T.: How did you smuggle in items?
E.L.: On our first trip to Russia, our baggage was lost by the airlines. It got sent somewhere else. It actually worked to our advantage because we had to go back to the airport and get our luggage once we had already been there. And when we went back to get our luggage, we did not go through customs at all, so we were able to bring everything in.
After the course at LGU in 1981, we had an eleven day field trip. The program was for students attending universities in America. I was attached to Dartmouth College, and I remember the person who organized it from Dartmouth College was Jewish. He knew what I was doing, to some extent. I think he told me just not to get too involved or something like that. At one point, I think when the KGB caught me, he said something to the effect that we had better not cause any problems .
So, here we visited Tallin. We went on a field-trip; I did not really visit with refuseniks, I think.
A.T.: Did you meet anybody in Tallin?
E.L.: No. We did not meet any refuseniks in Tallin.
A.T.: [still looking at photos]: Is this Leningrad?
E.L.: Here is somebody else from my course who was Jewish, with whom I got involved. But he did not really look Jewish; he was blond and nobody realized he was Jewish. I got him involved in visiting refuseniks as well. We visited other people. We visited both the religious refuseniks and the Zionist refuseniks - everybody. Here, I remember giving a class to the Hebrew teachers. I remember that all the Hebrew teachers got together so they could ask me questions, and I would teach them modern Israeli slang.
[Shows more photos]
Here is some more Israeli dancing. Israeli dancing was a big thing that I taught. Oh, I also met Yosef Begun, Lev Shapiro, that's right. I also visited him. I went to the dacha. It's amazing, actually, how much we did. I went all over the place; it wasn't as if I was just in Leningrad. I went all around the environs, to the beach, to dachas. I visited Kiev a second time also. In Kiev I visited refuseniks. The Elberts.
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Here are the Russian language students. And Peter Nussbaum and I in Kiev in a boat on a lake - the only place where there is no microphone, so one could talk. And here is Alexei Lorentsson with his girlfriend. And this is his mother, Beatrice, who has American citizenship. Oh, here it is, our group leader, Prof. Barry Sherr. He was the assistant. So, he knew what I was doing. I think he said something to me, like, don't get the group in trouble. In other words, it wasn't as if he disapproved of what I did, but I guess he thought he didn't really approve and just wanted to be very careful about not ruining the program. It was a very sensitive issue. If there were problems, they could cancel the whole program.
[Shows more photos]
This is with my cousins back in Moscow at the end of the program. Many of the photos I took were published in the London based publication (edited by Nan Grieffer) "Jews in the USSR." I also gave a lot of the information to Glenn Richter, who later used it.
A.T.: What did you bring into the USSR?
E.L.: Not only did we take things into the USSR, we also took things out of the USSR. We took many pictures. We also took the names and birthdates of people who we could arrange for the Foreign Ministry to send them invitations to immigrate to Israel. I remember that we had a special calculator-computer (this was in the early l980s at the beginning of the computer age), which Soviet Jewry activist friends from the US had given us, and in there I was able to put in the information without it being discovered.
A.T.: How did you go to the USSR since you were living in Israel?
E.L.: On my last trip in 1984 I went via London. I stayed over with a friend who lives near London, June Lewis, whom I had met on my previous trip. She was also sent by the Foreign Ministry and had become active for Soviet Jewry. She actually helped me arrange my trip.
I.T.:Where did you stay during your trips?
E.L.: We stayed at a hotel. I forget which hotel. It was right over the river in Leningrad. Hotel “Leningrad” maybe. During my last trip, we stayed in dorms, and that was in Moscow. I also brought shirts with Hebrew letters on them when I visited the refuseniks. This shirt was for Alek Zelechonok, from Leningrad.
[Shows more photos]
Here is Lev Elbert of Kiev, after he was freed from prison.
A.T.: What did you talk about with the refuseniks?
E.L.: I taught Hebrew, Israeli dancing. One of the big things I did was to tell about Israel, because many of the people who visited them were not actually living in Israel. Most of them were in America. They were planning on making aliyah, visiting Israel, but not actually living in Israel on a day to day basis. So I think it was important for them to hear everyday facts about Israel, information and all kinds of things.
A.T.: Did you deliver your lectures in Hebrew, in English or even in Russian?
E.L.: Right. The lectures, I think, were usually in Hebrew. Then I would talk to people in Russian. More in Russian, actually, since it was easier. As soon as they heard that I knew Russian they were happy to talk to me in Russian. I would talk to the Hebrew teachers in Hebrew. Other people preferred to talk to me in Russian.
On my second and third trips, I was able to meet with relatives of the people from my first trip, and tell them about how they were adjusting to life in Israel.
A.T.: Were there serious problems with KGB?
E.L.: During the first trip they interrogated us. It was a long interrogation. They interrogated us for a few hours. I remember that the friend I was with was more scared than I was. Basically, the only thing they threatened us with was that if we continued our activities, then they would throw us out. They did not really threaten us with anything more. But the whole process was rather scary. They were following us. And then they grabbed us roughly and took us away. We were interrogated in a room in a hotel. Not very pleasant.
When I was interrogated during the second trip they treated me better. I think it was because I was with a group. It was not as harsh an interrogation. We figured that the worst thing that could happen was just that they could threaten to throw us out. That would be the worst possibility.
A.T.: What were your reactions to the reality of daily life in Russia?
E.L.: Very difficult. It was like visiting a third world country - which it was - and maybe still is. There were all kinds of things that you take for granted in the West which were not available there: toilet paper, for example.
A.T.: What was it like bringing things in and out?
E.L.: We had various ways of hiding things. We did not take movies; we did not have a video camera at the time. I took pictures. I think I actually brought tapes of Israeli dancing music in with me - for teaching. I do not know if I brought other tapes back. I am not sure about that. Once I returned to Israel, I would maintain telephone contact with many of the refuseniks whom I had visited. The Foreign Ministry would pay for the telephone calls to certain aliyah activists. I would also tape the phone calls. They would arrange to pay for a certain amount of time (usually 15-30 minutes). If I went over the time then I would have to pay for it. Afterwards, I had to give a report of my phone call with any important information – names for invitations, Hebrew language materials requested, etc.
A.T.: In what ways were you involved in activities and organizations?
E.L.: I said it was the Public Council for Soviet Jewry. We organized demonstrations, we sent packages, Hebrew books, and packages of food. I was active with Dan Roginsky who founded an organization to help Hebrew teachers. Also, we would ask the refusenik Hebrew teachers for specifics, exactly what Hebrew books they needed and also tried to send them in with people going, as well as by post. It was a whole involved affair -- mailing letters or packages, as you know. One mailed the package from the Post Office and asked for a return receipt. Then, if the receipt didn’t come back from the USSR (which it often did not), we had to request that the postal authorities make an inquiry. The goal of this long bureaucratic procedure was to try to force the Soviet authorities to give the refuseniks the mail that we were sending them. We would also write personal letters to refuseniks in order to try to encourage them, sent packages for Tu b'Shvat and we would send kosher food for Pesach.
A.T.: Were you in touch with the American Embassy during this period?
E.L.: No. The people abroad with whom I was in touch were Glenn Richter from the SSSJ and Nan Grieffer from England. Mostly our contacts were through Israeli organizations active for Soviet Jewry.
A.T.: With whom were you active?
E.L.: We had a group of Jerusalem volunteers that was associated with the Public Council for Soviet Jews. The main people involved were Enid Wurtman, Phyllis Pollack, Lessa Roskin, and myself. When somebody would arrive from the USSR, we would try to help them. We prepared their apartments and put food in the refrigerator. I'd also help prepare people who were going into Russia. Tell them what to expect, where to go, how to take the metro, how to get to certain refuseniks’ apartments (if they had maps), how to visit people.
A.T.: Were you active on behalf of Natan Sharansky?
E.L.: Yes. We also organized activities together with Aivtal Sharansky - demonstrations for Anatoly. I remember, we organized one demonstration in the center of Jerusalem on Tu b'Shvat. Near the garden next to the Mashbir, where there's a little park, we planted a tree and had a big stone inscribed for the Freedom of Anatoly Sharansky. The stone is still there. But you cannot really see what is written on it; you can barely make out the letters.
A.T.: What about political activities here in Israel?
E.L.: We lobbied Knesset members. And then, of course, there were the internal struggles with the Foreign Ministry - which said that we have to do things quietly. But we believed that we had to make a lot of noise. That was also a big struggle between establishment and non-establishment organizations. We believed in “noisy” demonstrations but the Foreign Ministry opposed them. Although they were not for much of what we did, they did support us in some of our activities. This was basically financial support, such as paying for phone calls to activists in Russia. I remember that I used to have loads of people whom I would call and talk.
A.T.: So you were quite involved?
E.L.: Yes, I was very involved. It was quite overwhelming. Once you got involved with it, it took over your whole life.
A.T.: What was the Foreign Ministry's attitude to Sharansky?
E.L.: Right, the Foreign Ministry was not happy that Sharansky was for the dissidents, but I did not agree with them. I believed that any change in the Soviet system would help the Jews. The dissidents were trying to change the Soviet system, and this would also help the Jews. The very fact that the Jews want to emigrate also effected a change in the Soviet system. So one is connected to the other. The Foreign Ministry wanted to differentiate the two issues (of refuseniks and dissidents) but it's impossible; they are interconnected.
A.T.: Were you involved with Avital Sharansky?
E.L.: She was constantly traveling back and forth to the US but she was based here in Israel. She lived in Kiryat Moshe and many young religious women who lived there would help her. When she asked for our help, we would also help. She had her own little organization, "Shomer Akhi Anochi", "I am my brother's keeper." She was more involved with the very religious community. So they would have their own activities, but we would also work together. This was not a problem. We certainly did not adopt the Foreign Ministry's policy.
A.T.: Were you surprised by the mass aliyah?
E.L.: When everybody came out, we were shocked. We hadn't believed it in our wildest dreams. We couldn't believe that the gates would be open, and everybody would come out. It was amazing. Nobody, nobody would have believed that that would have happened. We though that people would get out slowly, one by one. It never occurred to us that the gates would open and everybody would leave. Once everybody got out, I stopped being as active. I became involved with other things. Most people who wanted to continue to be active devoted their energies to Keren Klita (absorption fund).
A.T.: What about financial assistance for refuseniks?
E.L.: Emotional help was also important - having people visit. There was a combination of financial and emotional help. One without the other doesn't help. I think that although the refuseniks were happy to get packages with food and clothing, as well as Hebrew books, the fact that people cared about them was even more important than getting the packages. To know that there are people out there who help you with your struggle and care about you is vitally important.
I.T.: Did the Soviet authorities know that you were from Israel?
E.L.: I remember that on our first trip, the Foreign Ministry said to make sure and take all the Israeli tags out of clothing and shoes so that the Soviet authorities shouldn't suspect that we were from Israel. But, I think they knew. I am pretty sure they knew. When the KGB interrogated us, they knew that we were from Israel, and that we have American citizenship. They were no dummies. My friend wasn't Israeli, but I was.
A.T.: Do you remember some special day that you spent in the Soviet Union with refuseniks - something special that happened?
E.L.: Certainly Lein's trial was special. We were inside the courtroom, with Peter (another boy from my group).
A.T.: Did you understand what was happening? Was your Russian sufficient? Were you there only one time?
E.L.: No, we did not understand. But we did think it was important to be there. We were only there once, one day. I remember, there were a whole bunch of us standing there outside the courtroom. Then they opened the doors, and everybody started pushing everybody. Then afterwards, when I came back to Israel, I was interviewed and I spoke about the trial on the radio.
A.T.: Thank you.