Elena (Ilana) and Daniel Romanovsky
Elena (Ilana) and Daniel Romanovsky were refuseniks from Leningrad during the years 1981-1988. They are now residents of Jerusalem.
Daniel Romanovsky: I was born in Leningrad to a largely assimilated family, where only the grandparents had some knowledge of Yiddish while the parents had none at all. That is why I didn’t receive any Jewish education and grew up an assimilated youth. In 1973 I married into a family which, without being religious, was more traditional and had a stronger Jewish awareness. However, this factor alone did not boost my Jewish identity; the birth of my children did. American sociologists say that the time of awakening of Jewish identity for young people who had been deprived it, both at school and college, is when their first-born child reaches the age of one year. This was exactly so with me. It was not the birth of my first child itself in 1976 that acted as a push, but rather the time when she reached the age of one, when suddenly, out of the back of my memory, emerged the thought that, during WWII, the Germans persecuted Jews and killed more of them than of any other group of people. The year was 1977; I remembered the number of six million; they were the six million people the Germans succeeded in capturing, and it dawned on me what the term “genocide” meant – it was not just that more Jews than Russians were killed; these were probably all the Jews the Germans could get to. I felt that this could have happened to my daughter. If she had been born in 1936 instead of 1976 and, let’s say, in Warsaw instead of Leningrad, she would probably have shared the fate of those Warsaw Jews who perished at the hands of the Germans.
This thought struck me so painfully that I started looking for something to read about it. When I became aware of the fact that Jews were being annihilated just for being Jewish, I started looking for some literature on the subject. On my days off I started going to the Leningrad Central Public Library named after Saltykov-Shchedrin, to try to find literature on the annihilation of Jews by the Germans. I looked through the catalogues, looked through the history of Germany and Poland, even poked my nose into the history of France, I ordered books in all the languages I could read. To my unpleasant surprise, I found out that there was nothing, not even one book in Russian on the killing of Jews by the Germans, and this had a jarring effect on me. Now I know that this is not really accurate; even then there was something to read on the subject. I wrote down about thirty titles and ordered twenty of them, but got only four of those twenty, the rest was in the Spetskhran, the Restricted Section, and this struck me even more. We, the young people, held rather anti-Soviet views at that time, and I reached the conclusion that if the Soviet authorities hid, hushed up to such an extent, the fact of the killing of Jews by the Nazis, it meant that they had also had their hands in it and that their consciences were not clean. This conclusion struck me forcefully, and though I must have been wrong, this was what really roused me. I said to myself: “I will not stay in a country which hushes up the Jewish genocide”.
The year was 1977; people were already leaving the country. Among the books that I received at that time, two had been published in East Germany: one was about the Eichmann trial, the other was devoted to the Nazi criminals’ careers in West Germany. Two others were collections of documents. I later found a book by an English Jewish historian named Cohen, who in 1944 had written a book, half of which was devoted to the Jewish participation in the Allied Forces. My English was not good enough at the time and I had to work a lot with dictionaries. There was another book that struck me, a collection of documents by Poliakov and Wulf. I translated from the German, which I then knew better than English, Jacob Lestschinski’s account of the Nazi genocide’s results. As I translated it, I thought I might sometime have a chance of publishing it somewhere.
My friends, with whom I discussed these subjects, started bringing me books, and the first man to do so was Boris Epshtein. At first he gave me a well-known book on the Jewish resistance, with commentaries by its complier and a long preface. It was from this book that I learned my English, gritting my teeth and grinding it in. Then I got a book from Ruvim Gurevich by Lucy Dawidowicz, and I felt that I wanted to translate it for the Samizdat, the underground “self-publishers”. I started looking for people who were connected to the Samizdat, in particular, to “Yevrei v SSSR” (“Jews in the USSR”) magazine. I sought contacts for quite a long time, and finally, through Slava Dolinin, I found them. The representative of this magazine in Leningrad was Sasha Genusov. The year was 1979. I met Sasha, but he didn’t think it was wise to translate it for “Yevrei v SSSR”. We started working together; I would bring him the materials, chapter by chapter, and he was to type them in book-form. Then we decided to shorten the book a little, so the Samizdat version of “The War Against Jews” was a bit abridged, but I added a couple of essays of my own. They dealt with the subjects which, as I saw it, Dawidowicz had not covered – the events in the USSR, in the originally Soviet territories. I also wrote an essay on the refugees’ problem, which she only describes in passing. Genusov and I published this collection of essays, then he was kicked out of the country, and other people took over the job, and one of these people was you, Aba.
Aba Taratuta: Right, but I only provided materials for these books.
D.R.: I don’t know who was reading this book then or who reads it now, but for me it was quite an achievement.
A.T.: Does this book still exist?
D.R.: Alik Frenkel must have it. Then I kept quiet for a while, though I lectured on the Warsaw ghetto uprising at Yulian Hasin’s place in Moscow, also at a seminar in Riga, where Fabrikant and Mitin were among the participants. At some point I started getting invited to Riga on a regular basis. I went there approximately five times. Once I lectured a second time on the same subject because the seminar participants had changed. Then I made a strange acquaintance - one called Viktor Maksimenko. It was in 1980. He was a queer fish, a passing figure. There was a kind of a legend about him. He and another friend took an old “Pobeda” (the make of a car), a video recorder and something else, and went to Belorussia, moving from town to town, interviewing genocide eyewitnesses. They recorded everything, but on the way back their car seemed to have been stolen. It was later found, but all the video- and audio-recordings were gone. I heard that this Maksimenko was the manager of a Jewish theatre in the nineties, but later I lost track of him. I didn’t really like him as a person, but he deserves respect for what he did, if this is true. When I first met him, he explained that his main goal was not the sorting out and processing of the material; that would be the task of the generations to come. What was needed at the moment was available “field hands”, who would simply interview the eyewitnesses who were still around, because there were no other sources of information. Now I realize that this is not true. In 1985, after a long period of hesitation, I left for Belorussia, to the town of Gorodok in the Vitebsk region where my grandmother comes from. I was on holiday, and I went there with my family. I wouldn’t have dared to embark on such an enterprise had I not, already in the winter of that year, met Chlenov, who advised me on interviewing. In 1979 I started attending the Kanovich and Utevsky’s seminar, where I met Beizer. It is difficult to say when we became friends, but in the winter of 1984-85 he instructed me in detail on interviewing, what should be avoided and so on. Before I went to Gorodok, somebody suggested that I should meet the Sirotino landsmanschaft, and record their witness accounts. There is a place called Sirotino in the Vitebsk region, and some people from there lived in Leningrad. I interviewed some of them, but did not have a tape-recorder at the time. I developed a primitive system of shorthand writing, but these recordings had to be transcribed into a coherent text on the same day after the talk, otherwise, if I were to delay it for a day or two, I wouldn't have remembered what it all meant. My archive was growing; I obtained the names and the whereabouts of people I could approach. It was the Sirotino people who helped me find contacts with the former residents of Gorodok. In the summer of 1985 I covered about a dozen townlets and I discovered an interesting thing – of all the Jews who had survived the Holocaust, not even one returned to his native town. Most of them settled in Leningrad, some went to other big cities. The majority of my eyewitnesses were Belorussians, minority were Jews who had not witnessed the events, but knew of them by hearsay. Some even had archives of their own, because when they returned from the battle fields to their burnt down home towns, they recorded what the eyewitnesses had to tell. I gathered from this that there was no need actually to go to Belorussia. I obtained quite a number of addresses in Leningrad, so I started visiting the people there and talking with them. The number of witnesses’ accounts was growing.
A.T.: Did anybody finance your trips?
D.R.: Nobody financed them, in the literal sense of the word, but, when I reported on my summer trip, I received a tape-recorder, and after that I was showered with gifts which were supposed to be traded for something or sold, so that I could use the money, but I was not good at trading or selling. At some point I began getting parcels through the post – that was some kind of financing. I went on those trips in 1985, 1986 and 1987.
A.T.: Frenkel used to go with you, if I am not mistaken?
D.B. Frenkel went with me in 1987. We first went to Vitebsk, then to Nevel, where we split. Again, it is a lot more productive to interview people in big cities because the landsmanschafts are there. These landsmanschafts no longer exist today. I wish I had studied their structure in detail then. I also managed to interview people in Moscow, Minsk and Vitebsk. Everything was later typed. In 1987 I succeeded in smuggling some of those interviews into Israel – Fabrikant took a copy with him and Uri Lapidot took another copy for Yad Vashem. He had come to Moscow with the Book Fair then, and it was there that I met him.
A.T.: Did you participate in the “LEA” (Leningrad Jewish Anthology)?
D.R.: In a very passive way. I contributed two essays and an article. The essays were to a great extent compilations. After the Kanovich-Utevsky seminar ceased to exist, Beizer founded an historic seminar of his own. In 1981 they started to insist that I participate in it, but I didn’t want to go because I didn’t understand the purpose of that seminar. I knew somebody who disparagingly called these home seminars “baking cakes to eat by yourself”. I partly shared this attitude. The Kanovich-Utevsky seminar was a different thing; it aimed at spreading the knowledge of history. Now, a seminar that has no access to sources, whose participants are laymen who are all using the same reading matter – this idea struck me as a totally absurd one (I have changed my mind since then). I refused to take part in it, seeing it as a mutual Likbez, a night class for illiterate adults, but Beizer saw it differently; he thought that it was training of Jewish historians. I didn’t attend, but agreed to write two essays for them, my considerations being that I wanted to study a particular subject and to read whatever I could get hold of about it. I already had some literature. I wrote two essays: one was about the Balkan events (annihilation of the Balkan Jews), the other was called “Romania’s Contribution to the Holocaust”. Later Frumkin suggested that I should write another article and gave me a book by Arthur Butz. I studied the book thoroughly and made notes, without enjoying it. At that time a certain Korneyev, who has now completely disappeared, published an article on the same subject. He maintained that the number of six million was totally unfounded, and that in reality only two or three million were killed. Frumkin thought that Korneyev was a follower of Butz. I read Butz and realized that Korneyev had not used his book, but the idea was already floating in the air. When I returned from my first trip to Belorussia, I was eager to turn all my materials into coherent, comprehensible texts. I spoke at the seminar five or six times. Thus, I became a member and I no longer asked what it was needed for. I never was a member of the editorial board, though from my point of view, there would have been more sense in publishing a Jewish magazine. Sometimes the seminar sessions took place in my flat.
I first applied for an exit visa in 1981, on Sasha Genusov’s advice. Somehow, I had not thought about it before, in spite of the decision not to stay in that country. Sasha said to me: “The authorities look with great suspicion upon those Jewish activists who do not apply for exit visas. It is obvious why we, the refuseniks, are engaged in Jewish activities – we want to leave the country. A person who is active in something like this without trying to leave the country arouses great suspicions with the KGB and they won’t leave you in peace. You had better apply and be like everyone else”. In 1981 I did apply, but the authorities wouldn’t accept our documents. Anyway, I thought that I had done the right thing and that that was enough. In 1987, when we saw that people around us started leaving the country, my wife and I hurried to find a way to renew our invitation to Israel. In March we asked for a new invitation and in June 1988 we were already in Israel.
I have a pleasant Moscow memory I’d like to share. There was a rather peculiar women’s seminar there, Lena Dubyanskaya was the organizer.
A.T.: It was a women’s group, it was called “Women against the Refusal/Aliya Denial”.
D.R.: They invited me to the first seminar of their movement, and I delivered a summarizing paper there, which was called “Soviet Jews under the German Occupation”. This paper is the article which was later published in “Kovcheg” (“The Ark”).
A.T.: Are you using all these materials in your scholarly work?
D.R.: I am, and not only these materials. The materials are kept in the museum, so if I need a reference, I can turn to Yad Vashem.
A.T.: The important thing is that the material still exists and you can use it.
D.R.: To my heart’s content! I never worked for Yad Vashem. When I came to Israel, they looked through my materials and offered to pay me to catalogue them. I have my own copy of the texts and I use it when I need to.
A.T.: Did you encounter any problems in Leningrad?
D.R.: I did, but not in connection with this kind of activity; the problems had nothing to do with my trips to Belorussia. They grabbed me only once, before a lecture in Vitebsk. They detained me and questioned me and then told me not to lecture. This was in 1981. I returned, and after that they harassed me a little more. There was a long talk, boring and devoid of any content, and in the end they suggested that I should “cooperate” – that is, become an informer. My reaction was rather stupid. Everyone says that the answer to such suggestions should be a decisive “No!” and not to beat about the bush like: “No, I am an unreliable person, I will let you down”.
A.T.: Did your children have problems at school?
D.R.: No, they were in primary school then.
A.T.: This is all very interesting. Were you doing these things single handed?
D.R.: No, I was not alone, there was also Misha Ryvkin. He was interested in his home town of Klimovichi. In 1987 Alik Frenkel went with me. Theoretically, he was supposed only to take pictures, but in reality, he also did some interviewing.
A.T.: And in what way did Lena participate in the Jewish activities?
Elena Romanovsky: I was born in Pieter (Leningrad). Both my parents were historians: my mother was an art historian, my father was an archeologist. When I grew up I realized that our family was a little less assimilated than the average Leningrad Jewish family, that is, there was a little more Jewishness in our family. My grandparents were unbelievers. Granddad used to say that our religion was the worst kind, there was nothing you were allowed to do on a Saturday; he himself, he started to smoke on Saturdays at the age of thirteen. Nevertheless, before Pesach Granny used to scour everything out till everything was shining, and she would cook the traditional Pesach food; she did not cook it kosher, but it looked like the right thing. We used to have a Seder, and some passages from the Haggada were read in Russian. That is, we didn’t actually read the Haggada, but the adults rendered some parts in their own words. It was years later that I found out these words were from the Haggada. I had thought: how wise they all were. My father used to say that every person should see himself as somebody who got out of Egypt. The phrase “Next year in Jerusalem” was also pronounced. They explained to me that this should not be interpreted literally, that we would not go to Jerusalem next year. We were not going there right away, that it was a capitalist country, and we were socialists, and besides, they spoke a different Jewish language there, the one we didn’t understand. I was a romantic young lady then, a little over five years old, so I made out from this that what I had to do was to learn their incomprehensible language and to make a socialist revolution there. I did make an attempt to learn Hebrew – that was in Form 9. My parents had Shapiro’s (Hebrew-Russian) dictionary, and there was a grammar appendix there. At the first pages I stumbled over something I couldn’t understand, and that was the end of it. I started learning Yiddish instead. This was easier, but I didn’t make much headway, either.
We celebrated Pesach and Purim as secular holidays. We had a Bible “for use by Jews”, an old book that had been published in Vienna. My dad told me that one should not read this book without a good teacher till the age of sixteen (or eighteen). I don’t know what he had in mind when he said so, but I started reading it right away. It made a strong impression on me, both positive and negative. Very strange stories are told there; everyone kills everyone else. But on the other hand, there are also beautiful philosophic passages, which I could appreciate even at that young age. I tried to enter the University. My father’s friends promised “protection”. I applied for the department of classical languages, where there was little competition. They failed me in the Russian exam in a very insolent way. I applied for a re-examination through the Conflict Commission. There was a man who knew my father there; he said there was no hope for me as I was on the “black list”. The examiner was called, she looked at me and said: “This one? No, I am not going to re-examine her, she doesn’t know Russian”. So I went to the Hertzen Teachers‘ college, which I finished without problems. When I “fell into heresy”, my knowledge of English proved to be useful: I translated from English into Russian, then gathered more courage and started translating from Russian to English.
I was an enthusiastic girl. I listened to foreign radio stations, read “The Chronicle of Current Events” (an underground news magazine) and I thought that all students were somehow connected to this dissident movement, so that, when I entered college, I would join it at once. But in this respect, the college was disappointing; there was no “movement” there. During my first year at college I met Danny Romanovsky, a student from the University Mathematics faculty. He was a young man from a completely assimilated family. He insisted that I should forget all these silly things about being Jewish – what kind of a Jew was I? Who were my favorite poets - Pushkin, Tsvetayeva – Russians; on what fairy tales did I grow up? – Russian again; so in no way did I differ from my Russian friends. I tried to convince him that this was not so, but it didn’t work. I knew I was Jewish, but I could not explain what it meant to me. Then an inexplicable thing happened to him. In 1976 our daughter was born, and one day he looked at her and said to himself: “If she had been born in another place at another time she might have been killed in a gas chamber”. After that he went to the Public Library to look for books on the Holocaust, but he could not find any. Then somebody gave him Lucy Dawidowicz’s book, and he started reading it. At that time his English was poor. He would read into the small hours. By the time I was up, he was ready with a list of words to translate from English, and I used to do it quickly while getting ready to go to work. By that time I was, so to say, “a person with a stained past”. I was a George Orwell fan, and at that time “Literaturnaya Gazeta” published a large article explaining that he was a bad man, against English workers, Spanish Republicans and so on and so forth. I was rather well read in Orwell and I knew his biography, so I conceived a noble idea to open the eyes of those who had not read this writer. I started translating passages from Orwell and contacted some Samizdat people. They were the friends of Dima Panchenko, Daniel’s cousin, and it was mostly Suren Takhtadjyan who was involved. We edited the texts together, and they were published in some Samizdat magazine. Later, in 1984 Suren and I were invited to participate in “Orwell’s Readings” that were supposed to be held at somebody’s home. The organizers told us that the safety rules would be like this: guards would warn us if “they” were coming, and we would climb to the roof and run away. Suren and I decided that this didn’t suit us. Practically, I was already involved in the Samizdat, and all there was to do was to make a further step and contact the Jewish Samizdat. Danny Romanovsky decided that the truth should be unveiled to the people and this book by Lucy Dawidowicz should be translated into Russian, which he started doing. I lent a hand, too.
My parents had wanted to emigrate to Israel since the 1970s. For some reasons they were afraid to do so, they were afraid to lose their jobs. Where they worked, “the ideologically foreign elements” could be persecuted without any scruples. We lived in a communal (with a number of families sharing the same kitchen and bathroom facilities) flat, and my mother was sure that our neighbours would simply kill us if they heard that we were going to leave for Israel. That’s why we did not apply for exit visas then. When in 1979 (mistake – it must have been 1981) we did apply but it was too late – “the train had left the station”. They refused even to process our documents, since we did not have first-degree relatives in Israel. They accepted our application forms, and it all got stuck at that stage; we never got an official refusal. There was an interesting episode before that. Danny’s parents were divorced, and we had to obtain his father’s permission to leave the country. He had a son with his new wife. They used to tell their son and us that the boy should be active in the Komsomol, it would overcome paragraph 5 (ethnicity), which was indispensable for making a career. We, on the other hand, maintained that the thing to do was to go to Israel. We thought they were joking, they thought we were kidding. When I came to them to ask Danny’s father to sign the form, there was a great joy in the family then: their son, who was Russian (non-Jewish) in the documents because his mother was Russian, had been admitted to the Law school of the University, after having enrolled in the KGB special recruiting program. And I tell them that we need father’s signature to go to Israel! So the wife utters a big “Ah!” and everyone rushes to look for her heart pills. In the end he did sign, of course, we handed in the forms, but did not get any further.
At that time we met Aba Taratuta. It was in 1981. Aba was looking for people who had no record with the KGB, to take care of the library. Its owner, I. Furshtein, was leaving the country, and the library changed hands and became the property of the small informal Leningrad Jewish community.
A.T.: I simply bought it from him.
E.R.: I guessed so, later. Three people were involved with the library: Tanya Makushkina (now Avital Ezer), Misha Tsirelson and myself. We divided the library into two sections: one was open to anyone and was dubbed GPB (State Public Library), it was in my care and it was kept in Danny’s parents’ flat in Marata street; the second part was in Tanya and Misha’s care. It was dubbed BAN (the Library of the Academy of Science). The GPB was easily available; one could come and take out books on certain days. Later we decided to open it by previous appointment only. It was a “kosher” library – that is, it did not contain any Samizdat (illegally published books) or Tamizdat, books from abroad. All the books were published in Russia. Some people who used the library knew what they wanted but there were also some who asked for “something Jewish” to read. I used to advise them to read Byalik’s “Aggada’ or essays by Jabotinsky. People often asked for “Exodus” or something like that. I did have “Exodus” to be sure, but it was not part of the library, so it was risky to give it, you never knew who you were dealing with. To obtain books from the “BAN” was not that easy. Books were supposed to be ordered from the catalogue, and then Tanya went to the hiding place which no one knew, and brought the book (I think Tsirelson kept them at home).
So, what I did as a Jewish activist was translations, taking care of the library and, last but not least, organizing celebrations of Jewish holidays for children. I was a teacher and a mother of young kids, so I organized these celebrations for children. The idea was born when we went on a canoe boat trip to the North, with a big Jewish group. I knew how to make puppets, and we always had a puppet show for our daughter’s birthday. So I made the puppets, Misha Makushkin (now Michael Ezer) wrote the script and we had a big Hanukkah-shpiel. This was in 1982 and it later became a tradition.
A.T.: Who wrote the scripts? Were they preserved?
E.R.: Makushkin wrote them, Dina Elman, myself... I think they can still be found somewhere. For some reason, the authorities did not spare any efforts in hampering these Jewish shows, so we decided to disguise them as innocent puppet shows. We used to hang a curtain and pin the texts to it. We needed only a few actors, each one could hold a puppet in each hand and play two roles this way. The text could be first seen by the actors five minutes before the show started and then they would read it from those pages that had been pinned to the curtain. At the first of these shows Makushkin operated two puppets with his two hands and with his foot he turned the tape-recorder on and off. Frumkin, instead of making his puppet dance, danced himself. The children saw this rag puppet drama with real emotion. After the show there were always games, the kids got gifts, everyone was happy. It became a tradition for Hanukkah, Purim and Pesach. In addition, there was a Jewish Sunday school. Masha Dobrusina, an artist, instructed the children in painting. She used to tell them stories from the Midrashim, and they painted very nice pictures based on these stories. Lena Belova taught them Hebrew, and they liked it a lot. There were also Torah classes there, but my children did not participate. There were other schools where Torah was taught. Usually, the religious and the secular parts of our small community lived in harmony, but sometimes small conflicts arose. Once I had to settle a conflict like this. The religious part of our population objected to Raize’s Jewish folklore collection. They said that it was an indecent book, that Jews only believed in the Torah and could not have other beliefs; that Jews could not believe in any fairy tale creatures and that the best thing to do would be to collect all the copies and burn them.
A.T.: Tamara Krasilnikova taught Torah there.
E.R.: Right, we reached a common denominator with her, and the conflict was settled.
What else did I do to “stain my reputation” during those years? I helped Danny with the translations; sometimes Vasserman would bring something to translate, usually on Jewish culture and religion, and one day Beizer asked for an abridged English translation of his excursion’s text. For a period of time he used to take people on (Jewish Leningrad) guided tours, but the KGB started putting spokes in his wheels. I wanted to go on one of these excursions, but I was late, they had already gone (the meeting place was at Teatralnaya Square, near one of the composers’ monuments). I started racing around the neighbourhood hoping to find them, but I couldn’t see them. Instead, I saw a couple of cops at every street corner and jokingly, I said to myself: I should ask them: ”Hey, do you know where our guys are?”. They would have known for sure. And later I found out that it was no joke. It was not by chance that they were there – they were following our people. The minute Misha stopped near a building and started talking they would approach him and claim that he was committing a public nuisance. In the end, they detained everyone, searched their bags claiming that they were looking for black market profiteers and recorded all the names. Misha stopped guiding groups and decided that these tours should be turned into written texts and that a short translation should be made for overseas guests. So I did that and an American told me that I had done it well but he corrected the style a little.
Sometimes people came to me and asked me to translate letters about their attempts to emigrate, so that it would be known abroad. One day Avrom, alias Nikita Dyomin, brought materials from Kiev. There was a boy there who applied for an exit visa while serving in the Soviet Army. They declared that he was a loony and from time to time they put him in a madhouse where they drugged him with injections. Then they demanded that he appear on TV and declare that he did not believe in Zionism, etc. The boy turned out to be a hard nut to crack – he refused. Somehow he succeeded in smuggling out his dairies, and it was these dairies that were to be translated into English. I finished the first batch and gave it to Dyomin, but he didn’t show up to get the next batch. When I saw him next time he said there was no need to, they had already let the boy go. So that was a story with a happy ending. In 1988 we went to Israel.
A.T.: Did you have any problems with the authorities?
E.R.: No, I didn’t. We put it down to our secrecy rules being that good. It was difficult to understand the KGB: one day they go out of their way to stop the Purimshpiel, and the next they pay us no attention.
I remember an episode like this: there was a Jewish event in our flat, and somebody rang the bell after it all started and said he wanted to participate. Danny Romanovsky asked him sternly: “Who invited you?” He said: “Simon.” – “Simon who?” – “I don’t know his last name, a short black-haired guy”.
There were two men called Simon there: Simon Frumkin was neither short nor black-haired, the other Simon was black-haired all right, but he was definitely tall. So Daniel refused to let the man in. You never knew who you were dealing with.
The children understood everything very well: what you could talk about in a tram and what you only could say at home, with your door closed. We saw it as wonderful intuition, but the real reason was fear. There was an episode like this: one day our son Ilechka (Eli) got mad at his dad and he started yelling: ”I’ll call the police, tell them you are a Jew and they’ll come to get you”. His father laughed: ”It’s written in my passport (ID card) that I am Jewish”. But Sasha (our daughter) explained that it was dangerous to be Jewish and that’s why her brother behaved like that.
More people started to use the library, and I had to keep record of the books, so at first I gave all the readers nicknames that were only known to myself, but I didn’t know the new people. There was one called Devyatov, with a group of young people. We would not deal with his group. He said that they all had nicknames, but we had to know first and last names and phone numbers, to keep track of the books. In the end he brought them, and they went under their real names then.
A.T.: When you left, in whose care did you leave the library?
E.R.: We left the library in Sasha Tsveyer’s care. Firstly, he was neat with books, secondly, he had no record with the KGB (we were afraid that they would confiscate the library, this was what happened to a Jewish library in Riga). He later told me that, when everything had been legalized, the library was handed over to the community centre which was founded in the synagogue, and I am afraid that it all just disappeared, same as my collection of puppets, which was also left in some people’s care.
A.T.: Tsveyer gave it away to some Jewish centre, it was in the Kirov Palace of Culture, I think. I lost track of it. I later bought another library and added it to the first one.
E.R.: Right, the library was getting larger. Tanya would come and say: “X. is selling this book for a hundred roubles.” Taratuta would say: “Fine, I have a pair of jeans”, and the jeans would be traded for the book. Leonid Belotserkovsky (he is now the editor of the newspaper “Novosti Nedeli”) had a library. We had a catalogue of it even before it was bought and people could use his books, through Tanya Makushkin. Tanya wrote a serious article about all of this.
A.T.: Leonid had second copies of some books, so I gave them away to Begun in Moscow.
E.R.: Right, our library was a good one. It’s a shame we lost track of it; I wish we could find it.
A.T.: I think that Kelman had something to do with the library, at some time.
E.R.: Tsveyer left for Israel in 1989. He may have given the library to Kelman. Kelman lives in the USA, he can be found there.
Translated from Russian by Ilana Romanovsky