Olga Serova and Eugene Kozhevnikov
This interview with Jewish activists and former refuseniks Olga Serova and Eugene Kozhevnikov (1976-1978) was conducted by Aba and Ida Taratuta in their apartment in Haifa, Israel on June 21, 2005.
Aba Taratuta: We have guests today from America, Olga Serova and Eugene Kozhevnikov. Let’s start our conversation with Olga.
Olga Serova: I was born in Moscow in 1947. My family was not Jewish. My father was a good man, but a communist. My mother loved him very much and agreed with everything he said. My grandmothers were religious, so when I was very little I wore a small cross.
A.T.: Did you get, in your family, any hint of anti-Soviet opinions or feelings?
O.S.: Not at all. On a contrary, I remember very well how I cried in March, 1953, because of the death of “Grandfather Stalin”. Then one of my grandmothers took me to the Mausoleum where we cried again.
A.T.: This was before the time that one learnt to cry for joy in that very place!
O.S.: When I became a communist youth pioneer, later, at school, I wanted to be a very good pioneer, but for some reason I could not get along with the community work.
A.T.: Maybe the community work couldn’t get along with you?
O.S.: I guess you may say that; there seems to have been an ideal disagreement between us. Much later in the communist youth movement I tried to be as passive as I could. At the age of fifteen, at one of the summer camps, I met a boy, Misha Balashov, who brought me to his school and introduced me to his physics teacher, who, at that time, was a student of one of the Moscow institutes. I was thrilled with the information which I started to get from him and his friends. The people who surrounded me then were older then I by about ten years. This was also the time when somebody gave me a book published in Samizdat (illegally)"Krutoi marshrut" (Rough route) by Eugenia Ginsburg. That book shocked me. I remember sitting on the couch at home reading the book while on our television there was loud singing: “Lenin is always alive! Lenin is always with me!” Communists where celebrating the 21st gathering of their party officials. I asked my Mother if Lenin was a villain, but she was not able to answer me. My parents were lovely people: kind and caring, always helping others, but with me they had a big problem. My father was very conservative and I was afraid to share my thoughts and my understanding of life with the family; I did not want to raise any conflicts. It was acceptable in Russian families to abuse their children physically and later I experienced that. I had a feeling that some kind of strange force was pushing me into new life. Everything that was happening to me was because of that book. As I remember it, my parents were watching the 21st Communist Gathering on television and I was reading that book. It became clear to me that everything on the television was a lie, as opposed to what I was reading in my book. That was what I believed in. At Misha’s place there was always a big crowd and it was there that I met many interesting people: mathematicians, physicists, intellectuals who gave me more ‘Samizdat” (illegal literature) for reading and also for typing; I had a “Remington” typewriter. An ocean of feelings churned inside me, driving me towards my future, which was to be absolutely different from that which the Soviet system had been preparing for me.
A.T.: I guess there is an Article 70 of criminal code for that. (Article 70 of the criminal code relates to cases of anti-Soviet propaganda. – Editor’s note).
O.S.: So, I started typing for “Samizdat”. The trial of poet Brodsky (1967-68), the trial of Daniel and Sinyavski and the priceless play of N.R.Erdman “The Suicide”.
A.T.: And for that you could get 10 years to Capital Punishment straight away.
O.S.: I did not know any of that; for me it was just a very interesting time to live. When I was a senior at the high school (1964-65) I attended a special program at the Moscow Art Theater School as I wanted to become an actress. Before that I was studying in the theatre group for youth with M.G. Alibekova. I had taken part in many concerts, festivals and competitions. That’s why The Moscow Art Theater for me was more than a dream. “Theater Novel” by M.Bulgakov had not been published at that time but I was full of admiration for the stage of the Art Theater where I watched “The Blue Bird” by Maeterlink. At the end of the first year at the theater school and the last year at the high school I met a person to whom I explained my wish to become an actress. He said that I was out of my mind if I thought that the Art Theater was a good theater." Follow me", he said, "and I will show you a real theatre, the great one". That is how I came to the Mark Rosovki’s Student Variety Theater at the MGU (Moscow University). That day they were playing “The Evening in Despair” by M.Rosovski. I was stunned by the performance and immediately fell in love with the play, with the actors, with the public, and with all the atmosphere of the student theater. I left the Art Theater School and started to work for M.Rosovski. That happened in June of 1965 and I was 17 years old. I was extremely lucky to be able to play with this group from September of 1965 to the very end of December of 1969, when the student theater of M.Rosovski was closed by Soviet authorities claiming not to approve of the repertoire. But the truth was that success of our theater was so great, so gigantic that ours was the only theatre among all others professional theaters without any communist party censorship. That’s what they did not like; that’s why we were closed. I remember one phrase which was said by one of Rosovski friends on his way to see the play at our theater “The evening of Russian Satire” (winter of 1967). As he made his way through the crowd of people, he lost all the buttons on his coat: “That’s what happens to Russian satire when the Jews take over.”
Later I learned that most of our actors were Jewish. I could not be more surprised. I knew nothing about Jews.
Once, when I was very little I asked a girl in our neighborhood about Jews. I wanted to know who they are and why everybody says the word "Jew" in a whisper. She said that the Jews crucified our God. One of my grandmothers took me to the church where I saw icons of a man on a cross, bleeding. There were people standing in line to kiss those icons. I remember candle lights and I remember a big man in gold cloth giving me something very sweet to drink and a little peace of nasty tasting bread, which was hard to chew. It was hot there and unpleasant. I was scared and frightened. I don’t know why, but everything I saw there I associated with the word “Jew”.
Many years later (1965) in conversation with Mark and Inga Rosovski I discovered that Inga is Jewish! I asked: “Are you Jewish?” I did not believe my ears. Of course, she said: “We are all Jews: me, Mark, Misha Kochin, Sasha Karpov, Simon Ferdman (Farada), Lenya Schwartz, Lilia Dolgopolskaya.
That particular moment in my life became a turning point. I felt that I had to do something about my negative attitude. The Jews of my theater were very talented, clever and cheerful and I loved them all. Everywhere were Jews.
A.T.: Jews! Jews are everywhere!
O.S.: Yes. I told my mother that they are very good people.
A.T: Despite the fact that they are Jews.
O.S.: Going through my family photographs, I noticed many Jewish faces. My father’s friends were Jewish. At the same time my father told me: “You are confusing two different things: Jews and Kikes. About our Rosovski Theater he said: “I know what kind of anti-Soviet plays you put on your stage!”
A.T.: Your father unmasked your theater right away.
O.S.: You are right. When we asked him to give us his O.K., his permission to move to Israel because my husband was Jewish, he said: “Don’t fool me. You are simply against the Soviet system!
E.K.: We were so frightened that he would not give us his signature… I did not say anything but that I have relatives in Israel and he replied: “What relatives? Your relatives are here!”
A.T.: Did he give his signature?
O.S.: No, he did not. A long time before that Zhenya proposed to me that we get married and gave me his photo. After seeing the photo my father exclaimed: “He is a Jew! He is a Jew!” And when we applied to go to Israel he said: “I warned you before, Olga! First you got married to a Jew, and now you’ve betrayed you mother land!”
A.T.: By all his standards that was a complete downfall.
O.S.: Yes. But the most amazing thing happened at the end of his life. I learned about his last days from his close friends when I came for a visit to Moscow in 1990. My father died from leukemia in 1982. What they told me was unbelievable. At one of their visits to the hospital where my father was near death he said: “Olga was right…” What a revelation! He said that to another person, not to me, who had been waiting for the truth from him over all these 25 years. I have a letter from his other close friend, whom I knew very well from my childhood. And what did he write to me? “You very much enjoyed riding in my car, standing next to the windshield and looking at what is in front of you; at six years of your age you saw further into life than we who were in our fifties.”
Now we are guests here in Israel. For about a week we have being living in Jerusalem. I don’t know how to pray, but I talk to HASHEM in my own way. I am thankful to Him that He led me to the light out of the darkness. I am grateful to Him that I was not a sheep in the flock; grateful that from my childhood I was open to accept His knowledge. For me it was a long and hard way to become a Jew. I went through the conversion to Judaism twice. Firstly at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles in 1982. Then in 1985 I went through an orthodox "giur" (conversion to Judaism, Hebrew. – Editor’s note) also in Los Angeles. That was done by Chabad House. That same year (1985) we had our Huppa. So this is my story.
A.T.: Now we'll ask Zhenya to tell us about his family.
E.K.: I was born in Moscow in 1948. My father is Jewish, my mother is Russian. My father’s parents ran away from pogroms in Zhitomir, Ukraine to Kiev. That was in 1920, and then in 1922 they moved to Moscow. The grandparent’s family was a family with many children. As far as I know it was an assimilated family; they did not teach their children Yiddish, but only Russian. I remember once when I was a little boy somebody on the street saying to my father: “Hey you, Jew!” My father took that as an insult and was ready to fight the man.
My grandfather, a house painter had three daughters and four sons: one son was a military man, another was a sailor, and one became a circus performer - a magician. Before World War Two he had his own circus during the summer time at Sokolniki Park, Moscow. So my father, the fourth and the youngest son also became a magician and two husbands of his two sisters followed him. You could say that everybody in our family, in one way or another, was connected to the circus. Time passed, my father stopped performing and started to do agent work for different circus productions. And on the side he organized stage performances for the Soviet movie stars throughout all of the Soviet Union. I got to know a few of them and of course I decided to become an actor myself. In 1966, after graduating from the high school, I asked Leonid Haritonov, one of the movie stars, for his advice about which acting school I should go to. His answer was very painful: “I have some connections and if you like I can help you to become a good auto mechanic.” My feelings were hurt and I was left wondering what to do now. For almost a year I worked at one of Moscow most prestigious shopping centers, GUM, as a simple worker, and then decided to try my luck at the Moscow School of Circus and Variety Arts. And then – Bingo! I was in.
My father’s last name is Kanengiser. Kozhevnikov is the maiden name of my mother. She was born in Siberia not far from the lake Baikal. My parents met each other during the WWII on the Far East front somewhere in Manchuria. Both of them were in the Red Army and in the army they got married. The War ended and they came to Moscow to my father’s parents' house. My grandfather died the year I was born; my grandmother, in 1961. I don’t remember anything specifically Jewish in the house, except that at Hanukah we children got presents of money and in the spring on grandmother’s table, there were matzos in a big green glass vase. I also remember hearing my grandmother speaking Yidddish to somebody on the phone once.
A.T.: Did you understand any of it?
E.K.: Of course not. When in America people ask if I speak Yiddish I like to tell them “Abisele”.
Let’s go back to the time when I was at the circus school. Student years are the most wonderful years of one's life. By the end of school I had found my future partners for my first stage production: Slava Untshteller, Elia Baskin, and Slava Troyan. Together we had built our “number”, a stage act containing both music and the eccentric, together with all other comic clowns' gags. Leonid Utesov, the famous Soviet actor-singer with the jazz-band, called Utesov Orchestra, offered us a job and we started working with his orchestra. Utesov was a remarkable and unique man. I feel myself very lucky to have known him. Later, our group of four split. One of us went to work in the Moscow Theater Miniature; one was drafted to the Soviet Army, another one started work on the stage with his wife. I went to the small circus as a clown. Then my wife, a student of the same school and I decided to create our own family act, which we did .but found that it was almost impossible to find a job because we touched the forbidden fruit – Satire. The boss of one of the concert organizations said: “You have got a very good stage act, but I don’t want to have any responsibility for what you are saying from the stage, so I can't allow you to work here. One of the greatest Moscow conferansie (master of the ceremony) and very influential person, Boris Brunov, helped us to get in to the Moscow Concert Organization: “Don’t worry kids, you are great!” We worked at that place for about a year, performing either in the suburbs of Moscow or in the country, outside of Moscow. Then we had to tour some small towns in Siberia in a group with drunken musicians and drunken actors… that was a terrible experience.
O.S.: It was… “Circus – Panopticumus.”
E.K.: Up to graduation from the circus school my last name was Kanengiser and one of my partner’s - Untshteller. To work with such names on the stage in anti-Semitic Russia required incredible bravery, so Untshteller became Shumilov and Kanengiser (me) – Kozhevnikov. To change one's last name was really quite difficult. Olga told the authorities that they'd better do it or she would divorce me.
O.S.: They kept on asking why I wanted to do it and when I told them that there were anti-Semites all around, it seemed to satisfy them.
E.K.: Many Jewish actors changed their names. This way it was easy to work in an anti-Semitic atmosphere.
When our “Godfather” – Boris Brunov was out of the country on a business trip, and nobody could protect us any longer we were challenged. In short: the communist party officials of that concert organization closed our stage act. Their reason? They told us: “There is a big negative aspect in your act (because of our satire) and you need to create a new stage act with more positive attitude. Also stop criticizing the country!”
They put us in a desperate situation by taking away our work. We had a little son, we had to make money to feed him, we had to survive somehow. This was in 1975. By that time we already knew that some Jews were leaving Russia. One of my former partners Elia Baskin was on that “boat” out.
O.S.: "Shall we do the same? – Zhenya asked me. I said "Yes, let's go. Let’s leave this place once and for all, leave Russia for good". I went to their office and gave them five minutes notice: “We quit working here.” They did not understand and asked me why. My answer was short: “We’ve got another offer". What offer? "To perform in The Great Bolshoi Theater!"
E.K.: We got an invitation to Israel from my “aunt” living in Bat-Yam, Israel. Now was the time to collect all the documents we needed. Olga’s father refused to give us his consent. It took me a long time to get my father’s consent, in spite of the fact that he was Jewish. He was telling me that he was a Soviet Jew and I was telling him that I was just a Jew. In July of 1976 Palestinian terrorists took the world by surprise, high-jacking the Air France airplane with Israelis on board and taking it to Entebbe, Uganda. Everybody followed this news, even my father. Israel sent their commandos and freed the Israeli hostages. Everybody was happy and proud that they were Jewish. My father also was proud and I got his consent. The next day he asked me to give it back to him, but I told him that it was too late. We had sent all our papers to the very high level of the Soviet authorities, applying to emigrate for permanent residence in Israel. In six months we got a refusal. We had very good friends, the Ruzers family: Serezha and Alya. They had not yet applied to go to Israel, but Serezha was already teaching Hebrew in Moscow. He told me that if I want to get information about how to get an exit visa,” how to break the "iron gate”, I should start going to the Moscow synagogue and, more precisely, to Archipov Street, the area in front of the synagogue. Nobody knew me there. For the next six months I went there every week before I got a chance to talk to somebody for the first time. Refuseniks were afraid to talk to strange new people in the fear that those people could be KGB agents. My father started to blame my wife for everything that was happening to us.
O.S.: Through his father our circle of friends found out that we had applied for emigration and from that moment on we could not find a job for ourselves on the stage. Everyone was afraid to give us a job.
E.K.: I had to sell the rare books from our own library to feed my family. Soon I found a job as a mailman. After that I worked as an elevator attendant. Then I decided to attend taxi-drivers' school; there was such a school in Moscow. I thought it was a very good idea: I will learn how to drive a car and they even will pay me a little money. In our group of students I noticed a man whom I saw every Saturday at the Moscow synagogue. We carefully approached each other. I said: “I think we are for the same cause." We threw ourselves into the conversation. Benjamin Bogomolny was the longest waiting refusenik. His parents left for Israel in 1966 from the Soviet Union. The same year Benjamin was drafted into the Soviet Army, after which he had been steadily getting refusals to join his parents in Israel. I told him that my wife and I were actors and he said that the best way to get an exit visa was to organize our own “something”. We decided that that "something" could be an underground theater in our apartment. With just two actors: my wife and me, together with Benjamin as a consultant in Yiddish and Hebrew, we started to work. Two shows were produced in 1977-78, before the soviet authorities finally gave us our exit visa: “The First Russian Aliya” and “The Refuseniks”. In our apartment we created a real stage with a real curtain and real spot lights, thanks to our friend Edik Nizhnikov, also a refusenik. We did not charge the public, the performances were free. Benjamin invited people. Hundreds of them visited our small apartment on Mosfilmovskaya Street: friends, refuseniks, Jews who were thinking of applying to go to Israel, but had not yet started the process.
Now, after many years have passed, looking back on our life, I can say without any reservations that that period was the happiest time in our acting life. To come on the stage, small but a real stage, to say the words everybody in the audience were thirsty to hear – isn’t that wonderful? Among the audience were Sharanski’s mother and his brother, professor Levich. Tolya had at that time already been arrested.
Our friends told us that it is not enough to have just a Jewish audience. If we really want to get our exit visa, we must invite foreign Jews who come to Moscow to visit the refuseniks, and better yet to invite foreign correspondents, who could write about us in the West. Benjamin Bogomolny knew a few of them and invited them to our apartment for the performances. The articles in different newspapers and the radio programs began to appear. This was in 1977.
Both of our plays were a huge success; in spite of their short time on our stage. Moscow Jews during the performances were laughing, crying, applauding. After the play ended nobody wanted to leave our small apartment-theater; that’s how comfortable we felt with each other. It was too hard for Benjamin to explain to the audience that now it was time for actors to rest, that this was not the theater any more, but a small apartment in Moscow. Eventually we started giving performances in different Jewish apartments in the city... A few words about our second play “The Refuseniks”: We created that by using the literary material of Felix Kamov-Kandel. Moving to Israel after “serving his time” as a refusenik, he had left behind his novel “The Gates of our Exodus” published in Samizdat. We transformed that novel first into the script, and then into the play with songs in Yiddish and Hebrew and the clown gags. Our life and work became more organized and more interesting. The Los Angeles Times published an article about us and our theater.
A.T.: Were you afraid of what you were doing?
E.K.: No, we were not. It was an adventure: either we would get our exit visa or… we would end up in prison.
O.S.: I did once feel fear and it was a really unpleasant experience. At the time of our work on the second production of “The Refuseniks” a women’s movement for Jewish emigration was being organized. Benjamin told me that as an actress, I have an important theater and that it would be foolish to draw more attention to myself but I could not hold myself back from joining the group. One day the women’s group decided to carry out a protest demonstration in front of the Lenin’s library. Most of us were arrested earlier that day, but somehow I managed to get as far as the library. Under my coat I was hiding a big home-made poster “KGB, give me my visa!” When I approached the library I noticed that all around there were many men in civilian clothes. Some of them were watching me. Immediately I felt enormous tension in all of my body and frigid cold in my spine. Fear? Yes. I was not afraid when we were doing our performances, but here I was terrified. Somewhere near the men I noticed foreign correspondents with their cameras. I did not feel my legs, they became numb. There were four women and many, many men around us in civilian clothing. We women approached each other.
A.T.: Was Dina Beilina with you?
O.S.: No. She had probably been arrested earlier. There were four of us: Natasha Rosenstein, Ira Gildengorn, Larissa Vilenskaya and me. Ira said: “Now!” and we flung open our coats so that everybody could see the posters. It took those men literally a few seconds to grab us. They arrested our small group and took us by bus to one of the police stations where they started questioning. This was my first encounter with the Soviet system Of course I had always strived against them, but never before did I have a chance to come face to face with my enemy.
E.K.: As far as I know, our second play “The Refuseniks” did help us to get our exit visas. My friends were telling me: “You have to show Hashem that you are not going, that you are not ready to leave Mother-Russia. That means: do some repair work in your apartment, buy new furniture and take a vacation. Spend some money.” That is exactly what we did. I felt strongly at the time that something must happen to us: prison or freedom. Half of the summer of 1978 we spent in the country outside of Moscow and the other half in the city of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea.
In November we got news that we were on Senator Edward Kennedy’s list (18 families). The Voice of America announced that in the very near future all 18 families would get their exit visa. Soon after that we got permission from the Soviet authorities for emigration.
A.T.: Unfortunately, not all the 18 families got an exit visa.
E.K.: Now, after so many years have passed, after we learned how hard American and British Jews were fighting for us, we know for sure that we got out of the Soviet Union, thanks to our play “The Refuseniks”. Through Benjamin we were introduced to the family of Rabbi Kokotek, who frequently came to Moscow from London to visit Moscow Jewish refuseniks. His was a one of a kind Jewish family. Being a German Jew, Rabbi Kokotek saved his pregnant wife in 1938 from Nazi Germany. They suffered a lot during those years and now they were helping the Soviet Jews. They were trying to bring the attention of the British media to the subject of the refuseniks. His wife Vally and their two daughters Susan and Sheila recorded our songs during one of our presentations and took back with them to London, so English actors would know about their Moscow colleagues' struggle to obtain exit visas. They approached Ingrid Bergman, gave her a chance to listen to the songs and then asked her to sign a telegram to L.Brezhnev on our behalf, asking him to give us freedom to emigrate. After that, Vally and her friend Lillian Levy went to see Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud. English newspapers published these meetings and that was probably how our publicity started in the West. We don’t know how we got onto Senator Kennedy's list. It is still a mystery to us. When we got our exit visa we flew to Vienna.
I would like to emphasize, in this interview, one very important moment in my former Moscow life, when the assimilated Jew, as I was then, started his slow but certain process of rebirth as a Jew. For two and a half years I was surrounded by absolutely wonderful, amazing Jewish friends – refuseniks, and half of me, that half which was becoming more and more Jewish, vehemently pushed out my assimilated other half. We started to celebrate Shabbat, tried to keep kosher at home. I was Kozhevnikov, but there was nothing left of the Russian Kozhevnikov, apart from speaking the Russian language at home. I could not say the text lines in our play “I am a Jew! I am a Jew!” without complete understanding of what I was saying, without actually feeling it. My wife and I were becoming Jews in real life, living as Jews, and then, only after that, could we convey this on stage. That period of my life is very important in my formation as a Jew. We discovered who we are, what we are, where to go and how to live. But ironically our play “The Refuseniks”, which helped us to find out who we are, caused us to go from Israel to America. At the time we thought we had an ability to influence American and British Jews by using our play, so they would pressure their governments on the Soviet Jewry problem and so resolve the problem with the Moscow refuseniks. Our wish to help others to emigrate prevailed in our decision to go to America. In Vienna, after our arrival however, we had an awful experience. When we said that we were choosing to go to America, Jacob Kadmi of the Jewish Agency berated us harshly, saying that we were traitors. This was a very painful situation but we were very determined that we were doing the right thing, so we had very tough answers for him and one very loud one. Scandal!. When we entered the office, the people standing in line talking to each other would suddenly produce absolute silence. They were probably got scared, not knowing what was awaiting them inside. We were actors with trained voices and, of course, if we needed to use our skills at a certain moment we would do so, loudly.
A.T.: Did he (Jacob) understand?
E.K.: According to my impression – yes. In the evening of that same day he came to the hotel we were staying and apologized, he said: “Go to America from Vienna”. We had a long talk. Then he left. At night my Jewish soul exploded. My Jewish soul was insisting on going to Israel from Vienna. The next morning we went to the Jewish agency and asked them to send us to Israel.
In Israel we were settled in the Mevasseret Zion absorption centre. There we met Kandel, Kalik and Dina Beilina. Dina Beilina offered us money. Everybody was saying: “Now you are at home, calm down, cure your wounds and forget about everything”. But I found it impossible to forget? We had left behind our friends and Benjamin, but we had our play “The Refuseniks”. So we decided to go to America for 2-3 years and then come back to Israel later, coming, in fact, to the same conclusion as we had reached before our departure from Moscow and now we needed to find a way to carry out this plan. Somebody told us that there was a man in Israeli government who could help us. His name was Nehemiah Levanon. We went to Tel Aviv to see him. He said he could help and within a few months we flew first to Austria, then to Italy and then to San Francisco.
We lived in Berkeley, not far away from the university. For the first few months we were working hard on our production of “the Refuseniks”, as we had to produce an English version. The translation was done by friends in London. We wrote a new scene with KGB, added a few clown gags, new songs and rehearsed day and night. I don’t remember how it happened but we got the chance to perform the English version for the Consul for Soviet Jewry in San Francisco at our very first performance. They said: “Great! We are taking you with us to Washington DC to the conference of all American Consuls for Soviet Jewry!” So they did. In Washington DC we performed the play in a big hall for a crowd of 500 people. At the end of play many of them were crying. Did we touch their hearts through our Yiddish songs? Who were those people? They were American Jews, who were not indifferent to the plight of Soviet Jewry.
A.T.: Was the play pitiable, deplorable?
E.K.: Once, back in Moscow, our teacher and director G.Granovskaya had come to our apartment to see the play. This was what she said: “I cannot judge your work from the artistic point of view, simply because it made the audience weep. You step over the barrier and you acquire such an audience… (She meant the refuseniks) It does not matter what you are playing; what matters is the words you are saying” (Thanks to Kandel).
O.S.: We left Moscow 19th of December 1978, the birthday of L.Brezhnev. That was our gift to him. The exit visa was valid for two months, but we left Russia in two weeks.
E.K.: And so we are in America. By car, by train, mostly by plane we moved across the States performing “The Refuseniks”. Near and around San Francisco we gave only 80 performances. We took very little money for our play, but the money was not an issue. The people paid as much as they could afford to pay. We never refused to play. I remember when we moved to Los Angeles, we met Felix Kandel who came to the States from Israel for a visit. It was very interesting to hear his opinion about the play now that we were working with the text only in English. During our conversation, I told him that we were getting paid. And then, to our surprise, after the performance he wanted neither to talk to us, nor to see us. May be he was upset by the fact that we were receiving payment, or maybe he did not like our play at all. I still don’t know, but I am glad that he saw “The Refuseniks”.
Then we went to England with the play performing in different cities. In London we met with members of British Parliament, who were pro-Israel, pro-Jewish and offered their help with the Benjamin Bogomolny case.
After every performance in England and America we gave a petition to the audience which they signed and sent to their senators, congressmen, to the White House, or to the British Parliament. We had many radio and television programs and everywhere we spoke about Moscow refuseniks and asked people for their help.
O.S.: We always remember those who did help us and because of that we tried to help them in return as much as we could.
E.K.: Of course all this time we wanted to go back to Israel, especially in the first years. In 1983 we asked Israel Center in Los Angeles to help us to move back to Israel and it took them almost three years to give us an answer: “Your case is very complicated. When you were in Israel you signed request to the Minister of Internal Affairs to revoke your Israeli citizenship. Did you sign anything?” Actually we had signed something but everything was in Hebrew and I didn't remember what it was. I thought at the time that for the Israelis this way would be easier to send us to the West. In 1985 we were told by Israel Center in Los Angeles: “Your return to the state of Israel has to be decided at the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Israel). After that it took them another few years before they gave us this answer: “You have been living in the United States long enough to apply for American citizenship. Our advice - get it.” So we did that. It took us another several years. Our children graduated from the high school. We feel quite comfortable here now. English became as our Russian. Then Olga and I wrote another play, which had nothing to do with refuseniks or Jews for that matter. And after that we produced another one. So we live and work in America.
Olga was in Israel in 1997, but for me this is the first visit since I was here 26 years ago. Israel has changed a lot. It is unbelievable how fast it grows. Haifa is absolutely beautiful and your freeway system is amazing.
A.T.: What are your children doing?
E.K.: When our daughter Masha was 4 years old we started giving her piano lessons. Very soon we found out that she’s got the perfect musical ear. Later she became the winner of many prestigious music competitions in California and practically developed herself as a professional musician. But unfortunately the music has not become her fortune. She taught herself computer programming and started to create different computer games. She is 23 and she is studying science at the Humboldt University.
Our son Anton was a student at a Jewish school in Los Angeles. When he was 16 years old we sent him for a whole year to an American Agriculture high school program in Pardess Hanna, Israel. At the end of the semester he called us and said that he intended to stay in Israel. But it did not happen. He came back and developed a great passion for the classical guitar. At 19 he attended the conservatory of music in San Francisco, but after one year he understood that he started too late. Anton graduated from the Hayward State University as a geographer. Now he works for an energy firm not far away from capital of the state of California, Sacramento. He loves to travel.
A.T.: Our children don’t live with us any more.
A.T.: Do you still work?
E.K.: All our life we have been performers but I also have a small taxi company. Then, not that long ago, we discovered for ourselves a new sort of theatre art: puppets, or Puppet Theater. I made several puppets and Olga started to perform with them. The puppet- character with Olga’s help tells us his or her story. Those stories are from Bereisheet (Genesis) for young children at the Jewish schools. Then, I don’t know what pushed me, but I started to write songs in Russian. I am one of the founders of the Bay Area Russian Song Club. We organize concerts in the Bay Area and other cities. At our annual song festivals we have an audience of up to 400-500 people at a time.
A.T.: When you celebrate your birthdays do you have Americans as your guests?
E.K.: For us our birthdays are very exceptional family holidays. We have friends among American, but not very many.
O.S.: We never invite friends to our birthday celebrations. Our closest friends congratulate us by phone. We have, I would say, a narrow circle of friends, whom we value very much. We have known some of them for more then 40 years. We are cautious with new people.
E.K.: We are telling you about us and we have not done that for a long time. Of course we have given many interviews in the past, but never about our private life.
O.S.: By nature I am an open person. It was easier for me to become friends with people, so I was always surrounded by them. But for some reason I was offended so many times, that I became very diffident. With time my wounded soul healed, but what I was going through before and now are two different things. I just don’t have any strength left to go through this kind of ordeal any more. Here in Israel people communicate with each other more openly than in the States. I don’t know if I could be absorbed with my feelings here, as they are now. In Moscow, and then is America, I had to keep myself at a distance, so that nobody would hurt me. Yet I don’t want to make an impression of a sad person. Most of all in the world I like to laugh. I adore my friends, my husband for their jokes and anecdotes. We never complain. Our prosperity? We’ve got so much more of everything than our parents ever did that it is nonsense to talk about it. Prestige? I don’t understand that word.
E.K.: All actors must have one very important component, which is vanity. We do not have it.
O.S.: I want to add a little about my puppet shows. I painted all the scenery and decorations myself. I never have done that before and I consider that as a gift from above. I paint the land of Israel in the ancient time of Abraham, according to my vision of those times, of course. I perform the Torah Stories for children. I see their happy eyes and I know what it means. Now we have just finished creating a new puppet show “The Adventure of Pinocchio”. We’ve got quite a big supply of energy which we want to put to work. To have a talent and not use it is a big sin.
Sometimes we go to Moscow to visit our friends. We don’t understand each other anymore, but still we cherish them. We try to find in our communication with them the common ground: that we remember once loving together.
A.T.: Everything you have told us has been more than interesting. Thank you very much.
Translated from Russian into English by Ilana Romanovsky, Israel