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Interview with Vera and Lev Sheiba
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"We, Jewish Women..."
Interview with Rita Charlestein
Interview with Tina Brodetsky

Interview with Vera and Lev Sheiba

Lev and Vera Sheiba

Vera and Lev Sheiba were refuseniks from Leningrad (1980-1989).
The interview was conducted by Aba and Ida Taratuta on 21 July 2004, in Brooklyn, New York.

      Vera: I was born in Leningrad in 1938. During the war I was in Sverdlovsk. I came back to Leningrad, where I went to school and later graduated from the Institute of Electrical Engineering.

       Aba Taratuta: What kind of people were your parents?

       V.: They were assimilated Jews, one of whom came to Leningrad from Gomel, the other – from Staraya Russa. My father was a construction engineer and my mother was an electrical engineer. My brother, who was also a construction engineer, left Russia in 1974 and went to Israel. My parents spoke Yiddish only when I was a little girl, when they wanted to hide something from me. When the war broke out, they stopped speaking Yiddish. My brother, who is nine years older than me, could understand Yiddish but my sister, who is only four years older than me, was already too young to pick up the language so it's only natural that I didn't know it either. In 1955 I entered the Institute of Electrical Engineering. Even though I would have preferred the Medical School, I decided against it, because that was much more difficult. I graduated from the Institute and met my husband.

       A.T.: Was it then that you became a Zionist?

       V.: No, at that time you could not go to the synagogue. One of my friends was kicked out of his Institute after a single visit to the synagogue. There were some other friends who were half Jewish – these had a Russian identity and didn't mention having a Jewish parent. The odd man out was a certain Kavnatsky, who, when called a Russian, would say: "I'll kick your ass; I'm a Jew, my father is Jewish". But that was an extremely rare case. In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, my father's brother came to us and said: "We ought to go to Israel". But at that time my parents were working and I still went to school.

       Lev: At that time there was no way to do it, to put it into practice.

       V.: It was only a dream. In 1974 my brother applied for an exit visa and left for Israel. That was the year when de Gaulle visited Russia, and they let out a lot of people then. Naturally, when my brother was filling out the forms, he included the fact that he had two sisters. My husband was then working at the Krylov Central Research Institute. We decided that we had no right to say anything to my brother, he had the right to leave – it was his life. But inside ourselves we were expecting something to happen. In a couple of years, when he applied to visit the graves and again gave our names as next of kin, our quiet life ended. It was in 1978. Before that, even before 1974, we had visited Vilnius. Vilnius was seething with excitement at that time, people were leaving the country, friends were coming to see them off, bringing gifts and organizing farewell parties. When we came home, we bought English and Hebrew books and found language tutors. At that time Lyova's mother said: "I want to die in my own bed". Lyova was her only son so he couldn't do anything and the dream collapsed again.

       L.: Slowed down.

       V.: In 1979 I was giving a class in lab. work in a technical college where I was teaching. Suddenly the door opened and Lev entered. He was wearing his coat and hat and was extremely pale.

       - What happened?

       - They have cancelled my security classification.

       After that life was never the same.

       L.: My father, Solomon Sheiba, was an electrical engineer; my mother's name was Anna (Haya-Ita) Grigoryevna. They came from Slutsk in 1919 or 1920. My paternal grandfather stayed behind in Slutsk, but in the course of their retreat in 1920 the Poles took away my grandfather's horse. So my grandfather sent his younger son Haim to Poland to bring back the horse. Haim was about eighteen at that time. He left for Palestine from there. Since then the family split. In Slutsk the duties were divided in the family: Haim had tended to the horses and vegetable gardens while my father studied. Grandfather wanted to make him a rabbi, but after the revolution my father decided to become an engineer. As grandfather was very religious, my father sometimes had disagreements with him. Somewhere about the year 1926 my grandfather left for Palestine to join his son Haim. He was one of the last people to be allowed to leave. My parents were also offered the possibility to leave together with grandfather, but they stayed behind in Leningrad.

       In 1926 or 1927 my father graduated from Electrical Engineering Institute, later called LETI named after Ulyanov-Lenin. He had certain problems there, because they made him pay for the fact that his parents lived abroad. In the beginning of Stalin's epoch he stopped writing to them. My mother could not go to a higher education establishment because she was a lishenka – her father and her brothers had owned a distillery (lishentsy were a class of disenfranchised people, mostly small private business owners and their children, who under Soviet legislation of the 1920s were deprived, among other things, of the right to vote and be elected and to be admitted to institutes of higher education. This legislation existed despite the fact that private enterprise was allowed under NEP – New Economic Policy – from 1921 to 1928 – Translator note). Besides, she was a sick woman. I was born in 1931.At that time father was already working at Lenenergo where he ultimately worked for thirty-five years. We lived in a communal flat, a big one, in a 27m room with a plywood wall.

       Why did my father stay behind in Leningrad? Firstly, he wanted to become an engineer, secondly, because he did not become a rabbi (an English word for "rabbi" is used instead of a Russian one – Translator note). Also he had disagreements with grandfather, and my mother didn't want to live close to her in-laws because of that. Due to the fact that father's parents were living abroad, our family was always under great suspicion during Stalin's time. My parents could not make a professional career, even if they had joined the Party. My father, as I see it, was a person of encyclopedic learning and high intellectual abilities; he was very well educated and had a good understanding of politics. With time he realized that the country was being ruled by a gang of bandits and that joining the Party was out of question. They explained this to me when I got to the age of 13 or 14. Before that father had often been purged, and for a long time he worked for Russian people who were his bosses. In 1941 the war broke out, I was ten years old at that time, we were in besieged Leningrad, and my mother and I left the city together when an escape ice road opened up at Lake Ladozhskoye. That was a very difficult time. We all were in the state of malnutrition: I was in hospital, father was in another one, mother was little better. Father stayed in Leningrad to work on the problems of the power industry, while mother and I left for Tyumen for a year and a half, returning in 1944, when the siege was lifted. I have a siege survivor medal.

       I finished school in 1949. That was after Golda Meir's visit, when railway carriages were already being prepared to send Jews to the East and when the Doctor's Plot was being planned. At first I wanted to enter the Mathematics faculty of the University, but my Jewish face didn't fit in there. Jews were still being admitted to the LETI, so I went there to the faculty of Radio Engineering. After the third year they deprived me of the right to specialize in the Navy because I had family abroad and transferred me to Faculty Five, where instead of radio engineering I was supposed to study acoustics. I had never seen my grandfather or my uncle, both of whom had left the country long before I was even born, but it did not matter a bit, because the KGB, or NKVD as it was then called, knew everything about everything. I had the impression that hydro-acoustics should have been a more secret specialty than radio engineering. I can't say that I was persecuted when I graduated from the Institute, but being a Jew, I was pushed aside a little everywhere. Sometimes I was called "Yid" by other schoolchildren or students, sometimes there were even fights, but I was pretty strong at that time and I went into boxing, so I used to hit them on the face at once.

       When I graduated from the Institute I got a job assignment in Gorky instead of Leningrad, and I did not feel like going there at all. Besides, I had some medical problems, but there was no way out. I strove to stay in Leningrad and, to that end, I went to Moscow. They told me there that Gorky was a big city where my liver and bowels would be taken good care of. So I went to Gorky and from there they sent me to Zelenodolsk where I was supposed to assemble electrical machinery. I explained to them that, because I had majored in acoustics and nuclear physics, I could not do that; I then took my suitcase, moved to Moscow and went to the CPSU Central Committee (having got a tip from a friend). I explained everything at the Young Specialists' Department and I also said to them that non-Leningraders got jobs in the city while I, a Leningrader, was kicked out into the provinces. The Central Committee gave the Ministry a ring and they sent me to Leningrad, after a scolding. One of my former teachers offered me a job at Krylov Central Research Institute. I was doubtful. I told him that I had family abroad, that I was Jewish, and that they wouldn't have me. This teacher was Kolesnikov Alexei Yevgenyevich, who had also had problems of his own and was getting rather rough treatment for some reason, said that I did not have to point out these things when I filled in the form, so I didn’t. Surprisingly, they accepted me. Lev Yakovlevich Gutin, Ph.D., asked me afterwards: "How did you manage to get to this place, with that typically Jewish face of yours?"

       I worked there for twenty five years, I had security classifications of all degrees, but there was hard competition for higher rank positions. My friends, who graduated from the Institute together with me, were promoted without any trouble, while I could not get any promotion. People advised me not to stick out, but I wanted a post with a good salary. I wanted an in-service postgraduate program (our research institute held a postgraduate course of its own), but my application was rejected. I was later told that the deputy director for manpower said: "It's unwise to spend money on these guys." Nevertheless, I received my Candidate of Science degree before my co-workers who were entitled to postgraduate courses did. After I had defended my theses and obtained a Candidate of Science degree in 1964, I was promoted to head of section, got a salary rise and my family could breathe a sigh of relief.

       I worked a lot, often went on business trips; I went to the North, to Severodvinsk, to Severomorsk, I was in charge of the trials – that is, I was allowed to do some things. But when they demoted the man who was head of department, they gave this post to a Russian man who became my boss, but not to me. It was quite clear to me why they did it, there was no doubt about that. Meanwhile, our desire to leave the country was growing all the time. I discussed all these questions with Lev Yakovlevich Gutin, with whom I was on friendly terms. In 1976 my wife's brother Izya left the country. I did not go to the airport to see him off because I knew that I would lose my job at once if I did. On the other hand, they would not let me out because I had access to many classified projects. So I started to lower my level of secrecy gradually, that is, I simply refused to accept certain security classifications: "I don't need this, I don't need that". At that time one of my cousins left the country, and my father, for the first time, talked on the phone with his brother who lived in Rehovot. (after about fifty years).During the siege grandfather had sent a postcard to the domoupravleniye – the house management committee – in an attempt to find his son Solomon. When grandfather died, his younger son, my father’s brother, sent a parcel with shoes and something else. We were receiving letters and I used to give Palestinian stamps to my friends. It was impossible to hide the fact that we had relatives in Palestine. My wife's brother left the country, then my cousin; my father's brother sent some money to father. Father had retired by then, and was getting 117 rubles twenty kopecks – this sum included provision for my mother, who was allotted nine rubles. That was a disgrace. Because I was earning more, I was helping my parents.

       Surely, the KGB nosed out all of it, and somewhere in the year of 1978 the deputy director for security regimentations called me and asked:

       - Why did not you tell us that you wife's family had left the country?

       - My wife's brother isn't my relative.

       They started cutting down my visits to other enterprises, and I realized that I had to learn languages as fast as possible, so I started learning languages right there in my office. At that time the director was one Matveyev, who disliked me, but my immediate bosses wanted to keep me at the job. At that time Romanov [First Secretary of Leningrad Region Party Committee] gave instructions to screen all enterprises for persons of non-native ethnicity who were looking in the direction of other countries and had no patriotism at all. After the briefing with Romanov, Matveyev came to the Institute, called in the deputy director and told him to fire me. Instead of firing me they cancelled my security classification and took away the secret suitcase and my already completed postdoctorate. I had just then been appointed head of the laboratory, having won the contest for the vacancy. The bosses arrived at the conclusion that as I had already done all the new development work and there was no need to work out anything else, this laboratory should be simply closed down because there was no need for it, and its workers should be transferred to other laboratories. I became a general without an army. Then they said that because my post had been abolished, I was to resign. There was a mestkom (local party committee) meeting at which everyone voted for making me redundant. Friends with whom I had worked together for years said to me:

       - Sorry, Lyova, you've been run over by a street-car.

       Soon the order for my redundancy was signed. I found myself "on the street". I wrote a letter in Hebrew and in English to my uncle, asking him to send an invitation for me and my family. My parents were already retired and were both sick. When the invitation came at the beginning of 1980, we went to the OVIR (Visas' Office) and applied for exit visas.

       V.: On April 27th. I brought our documents to the OVIR. There I talked with somebody called Natalya Petrovna. She asked where my husband was working. I said that he worked at the Krylov Central Research Institute (that's where he had worked lately). I thought she would fall off her chair. She said: "Do you realize that they will keep you here for five years?" As it happened kept us there for ten years.

       L.: After that I went to Moscow, to the Supreme Soviet Presidium. I wrote them a letter in which I stated that I had worked in that place for many years and that now they had kicked me out because my wife's brother had left for Israel, and that I needed a job. Surprisingly, they issued an instruction of some kind and, with the help of my acquaintances, I got a job at the Leningrad branch of the Moscow Academy of Municipal Economy as a senior researcher. The salary there was smaller, but nothing could be done about that. I kept applying for exit visas. One day a KGB man came to me and asked why I was doing it. I explained that there was nothing to do for me here and that it was their fault, not mine.

       A.T.: Did they make any trouble for your son who was then a student at LETI?

       V.: Natalya Petrovna in the OVIR gave me a tip not to include our son in the documents while he was a student at the Institute, but if we were to get permission, to include him into the invitation at once, so that he would not be left alone here. That's why we didn't include him in the original application. I had good connections with this Natalya Petrovna; even though she was a bitch, she behaved decently to me for some reason. I must have shocked her when I said that we were applying for exit visas despite the fact that my husband was working at Krylov Central Research Institute. She was quite flabbergasted at this. But even though we did not include Lyonya in the application, they started a hunt for him. The Institute had a military sub-faculty {where all male students were supposed to get military training}, but Lyonya was exempt from military training due to a kidney disease. The drafting office kept calling him up for service. This should have been avoided, so that he would be able to leave the country easily and wouldn't be delayed because of recent army service.

       L.: Because I kept applying for exit visas, they suggested that I beat it from the Academy of Municipal Economy. The head engineer called me and said that he wanted to demote me to junior researcher. I sued them. That was certainly a farce, I lost my case; it disgusts me even to talk about it. They kicked me out, I lost my job. The year was 1983. I found myself without means of existence. We immediately sold the dacha (summer house) that was left by my wife's parents. Then Aba Taratuta gave me work: I copied Jewish literature at night, my son helped me; I also made colored prints. A Jewish visitor from England brought me a small computer for which I worked out a program that enabled me to make colored prints. I took photos of children and adults and made an album: our refusal process, with pictures of refuseniks who died before they could get permissions. We gave this album to President Reagan when he visited Moscow. There were also many shots of demonstrations which were held for the freedom to emigrate; we then sent out these pictures everywhere. The year was 1987. Whenever it was necessary to demonstrate for our right to emigrate, we tried to be among those who participated.

       A.T.: Before 1983, while you were still working at the Academy, you, even then, participate in the Zionist movement?

       L.: Yes, I did. Ida gave Hebrew lessons to Vera and me and we attended seminars. My work at the Academy was in no way connected with our spiritual life. We were already entirely oriented to Israel and America. At that time I started to exchange letters, sometimes in Hebrew, but more often in English, with the part of my family that lived in Rehovot. In 1980, after a phone call from London, my cousin, the younger son of Uncle Haim, the one who had gone to retrieve a horse, came to Leningrad. Haim was still living, my father had died, but mother was still alive. We saw the cousin, even though it was dangerous and scary. I had a car, we came to Hotel Astoria and he jumped into the car while it was moving. We brought him home; he looked very much like us. There were very interesting talks. He spoke Yiddish with my mother. He was living in America, and afterwards he helped us, too.

       V.: I want to tell you about Russian Jews' lives and their relations with their relatives abroad. Once, when one of the cousins was leaving for Israel, he asked Lev Solomonovich to ask his father Solomon Veniaminovich to call his brother in Israel. The two brothers had not talked or corresponded for fifty years (there was one letter during the war). I took Solomon Veniaminovich by taxi to the apartment of relatives who ordered a telephone talk with Israel. When they talked, it was impossible to listen to it: two old men wept in Yiddish at two ends of the telephone line. But they never saw each other.

       A.T.: You certainly saw a lot foreigners when you were "in refusal"?

       L.: Yes, of course. We met people who were trying to support us. They were mostly American and British Jews; there were very few French Jews among those people. French Jews thought that we were doing the wrong thing, that we should change the life of Russian Jews instead of leaving Russia. An Australian Jewish leader held the same views.

       V.: The Philadelphians were very active. They supported us very much. These were Brodsky, the Solomons and others.

       A.T.: Who did you have contacts with among the refuseniks?

       V.: A lot of refuseniks used to come to our place. The apartment was big, so sometimes celebrations of Jewish holidays were held there.

       Ida Taratuta: Don't forget, when there was a women's hunger strike in Moscow, the Leningrad hunger strike was held in your apartment.

       V.: I remember a visit of some Americans. They wanted to meet the Moscow women, so I called Moscow and tried to coordinate between them; they had their own interests there. A lot of people used to assemble in our place because often people [from overseas] came, and they did not have the time to visit everyone, so we called the whole lot of those people, and they all assembled at our place, it was always crowded.

       L. We often saw the Taratutas who became our friends, while my old friends and colleagues forgot my phone number. One of my old friends, with whom I even now exchange e-mails, phoned from a public telephone on my birthday and said: "Number forty-nine congratulates you". We all were in the same cage then, and at that time we fought even without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We did not know if we would ever be able to leave Russia. Taratuta's son was in the army, the Kalendaryovs' son, our neighbor, was trying to evade the draft, and then he was imprisoned and we strove to keep our son out of the army. Thank God, due to a kidney disease, he managed to wriggle out of the army.

       A.T.: Did your situation affect you daughter?

       V.: Very much. It seemed at first that children were not really affected. Only when I came here did I realize that they had it harder than we did. We were together and supported each other, while the children had to cope with the situation on their own, letting everything boil up inside. Our daughter left Russia when she was eighteen, and she left alone. She told me afterwards; "Mummy, I could not make close friends or make any close relationships because I knew I was about to leave".

       A.T.: How old was she when you applied for exit visas? Did she have problems at school?

       V.: She was eleven. And yes, she did have problems at school. She liked to share everything with everyone, that's why she used to give her friends pencils, magazines from abroad. At school they knew that she was about to leave the country, but they said nothing, so we did not speak about it, either. When the whole class was to go abroad, I came to school. I did not want her to go and anyway, I knew that they would not let her go. To smooth out this unpleasant situation, I said that she was not strong enough for the trip, so they released her. She had all the best grades all the time at school, but her school leaving composition was marked as "fair". I asked to see that composition – there wasn't one mistake in it. One sentence was underlined by the examiner, and they told me that the image of Lenin was not given full exposition. All the children got report cards of praise at the school leaving party, while she got nothing.

       L.: An obvious case of discrimination.

       V.: There was another Jewish girl called Lena in the class. There was a boy in the class who used to tease her, but he was on friendly terms with our Lena. I asked him: "Vladik, why do you tease Lena calling her yevreika? Our Lena is just like her."- "Your Lena is not a yevreika." That's how kids saw these things.

       A.T.: Were there any events during your life "in refusal" which you remember as something special?

       V.: Yes, of course. We were often visited by a group of Englishmen, and we became great friends with them. It started with the visit of Jeffry Kazmir. When he came for the first time, we actually didn't speak English, and he didn't know how to communicate with us. I somehow managed to bring it home to him that it would be okay if he phoned us. He started calling every two weeks and talking with Lev.

       L.: Improving my English.

       V.: Lev had to speak, so he started talking English. One day we were expecting some people to come over. Through the window I saw two Englishmen we knew, being escorted by some Soviet men, definitely on official duties. I ran out to the yard and said: "What are you doing? These are our friends". The man turned to me and said: "I suggest you to go home; it's very cold out here." We found out later that they detained these people at the entrance to our house, took them to their hotel and kept them under house arrest till they were deported from Leningrad. We were later told that these people were in a terrible state; they were totally in shock and were looking forward to being able to leave Leningrad. There was another case. The telephone rang, and we were told that there were detainees at the police station who said they did not know us, but "we think they do, so come here". We came there. Those people were astonished by our coming to the police station. They denied being acquainted with us because they thought that it would cause us trouble, and they did not want any harm to come to us. We said that they were our friends, that both they and we were interested in photography, so we had common interests. Then the KGB man said: "We know you take photos, we've seen your photos; they are good". Those people were also deported from Leningrad. We later met them in England.

       L.: It was all very difficult. At last, in 1988 our son and daughter were allowed to leave the country without us. Vera suffered, and they let her to go on a visit, while I was to stay behind as a hostage. When she came back, she said that if it had not been for me, she would not have returned. That was in 1989.

       V.: They were two very hard months. Lynn Singer helped me a lot in the States. She organized my meetings with senators and congressmen in Washington. At that time Edward Kennedy's sister flew to the USSR, and Kennedy gave her a letter.

       L.: My cousin was also very active in these things.

       V.: People who visited us approached the philanthropist, Hammer. The problem was that he only helped cancer patients. The most terrible thing of all was when I had to leave the States after my visit while my son and daughter were staying there. When I boarded the plane, I did not know whether I would ever see them again.

       A.T.: When did you finally reunite?

       V.: I returned to Leningrad in 1989, and about a month later they called us from the OVIR and asked…

       L.: It wasn't exactly like that. I met Glushkov, the former party organizer of the Central Research Institute. He said: "Lyova, I have signed your permission to emigrate, you can go now". It turned out that Moscow had given a command to that effect. After that we got a phone call from the OVIR and were told that we could leave. I asked to prepare all the documents for the USA, since we had children there. Within a month's time we left Moscow directly for the US where we were met by Lynn Singer, Rabbi Friedman, my cousin, our daughter (Lev uses the English word for "rabbi" instead of the Russian one. His use of the word "cousin" is also influenced by English – E.R.). We were then invited to speak about the "refusal". The Jewish organizations' attitude to us was very positive: we were getting telephone calls, we were congratulated on coming to the country, etc. A briefing was organized in the Congress; in the course of which I answered Senators' questions, together with some other refuseniks. Then Lynn Singer took me to see a Senator who had invited some people who wanted to know what kind of jobs they could hope to find. I told them that I had spent ten years "in refusal", but I could still do something. After that I held some seminars with scientists and then I got a job.

       A.T.: How has your life developed here? Do you feel satisfied?

       L.: From my point of view, our life here is a success, because we found jobs right away. I started working actually two weeks after our arrival; Vera started a little later, but also successfully. My coming to the States occurred a little late in life: I was fifty eight. My life could have been more successful had I not been refused the right to emigrate.

       I can't sue the KGB, but the ten years of creative life they had taken from me certainly seriously affected me. We have retired now, and thank God, we are living in America and not in the Soviet Union, and I wish we could have come here earlier. It would have been better to be born in the USA or Israel. I visited Israel, went to Rehovot. I have forty-nine relatives there whose last name is Sheiba. I was happy to meet them; I visited my grand-parents graves.

       A.T.: Vera, what's your opinion: have your life and the children's lives turned out well?

       V.: Yes, definitely. There's a Russian saying: good parents help their children till their old age. Here the children are absolutely independent, they build their own lives as they want to, they can provide for themselves and their families. Who could dream in Russia that our children would be able go abroad, to see Paris, Rome, Jerusalem.

       L.: And we, too.

       V.: I am speaking about the children. Everything is available to them. I am looking at my children, at our grand-daughter, who is three and a half – everything is available to them: cars, computers. They go to the synagogue, the children go to a Jewish school, they learn Hebrew.

       L.: Our grand-son was circumcised. When could that have been done in Russia?

       V.: That's the freedom we did not have there.

       L.: We can be normal Jews.

       V.: My grand-son is a real Jew. His given name is Solomon Menahem; our grand-daughter's name is Dina Rachel. Could anybody give such names to their children in Russia? This is what freedom is about. Of course, everything is more difficult for us than for the children. I came here at the age of fifty, Lyova was fifty-eight, but the children and the grand-children, they are absolutely free people.

       A.T.: During those fifteen years that you've been here, have you ever encountered instances of anti-Semitism at different levels?

       L.: No, never.

       V.: We wear the Stars of David around our necks, even though we are not practicing Jews. Neither we nor our children and grandchildren hide our Jewish origin.

       L.: We did the right thing not only for ourselves, but also for all our posterity. One can not be free in Russia; Russia is an anti-Semitic country.

       A.T.: Thank you very much.

Translated from Russian by Ilana Romanovsky.

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