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Interview with LEV YAGMAN

Lev Yagman

LEV YAGMAN (AGMON) is a prisoner of Zion from Leningrad - five years of prison camps (1970 - 1975). He repatriated with his family to Israel in 1975 and lives in Haifa.
He was interviewed by Aba Taratuta on November 4, 2005 in Haifa.
Translated from Russian by Ilana (Lena) Romanovsky

Aba Taratuta: - We are talking with Lev Yagman, a prisoner of Zion. We will start with his childhood - where and when he was born and so on.

Lev Yagman: - I was born in Leningrad in 1940. My father was born and raised in Novgorod oblast. His grandfather was a kantonist [cantonists were underage boys who were educated in special military schools for future military service. They were granted the right to live outside the Pale of Jewish Settlement after demobilization - Translator's note (T.N.)] and that is why they got the right to live in big cities outside of the Pale, and after the Revolution the whole family moved to Leningrad. My mother was born in Nevel in Byelorussia and after the Revolution her family also moved to Leningrad.

A.T. - This is a common story for most Jews.

L.Y. - My parents were not observing Jews and we did not observe kashrut at home, but there were always matzos for Pesach and my father always went to the synagogue on holidays and fasted on Yom Kippur. This did not prevent him from being an ordinary Soviet citizen in his everyday life. They spoke in Yiddish at home only when they did not want us, the children, to understand them.

A.T. - Did your father work on Saturdays?

L.Y. - He naturally did.

A.T. - Your parents were not Party members, were they?

L.Y. - No, they weren't.

A.T. - Was that when Stalin was still alive?

L.Y. - Yes. When family came to us, they always sang Jewish songs. That was the most vivid memory of my childhood. I always knew that I was a Jew. My people used to say: a Jew is always "acceptable with limitations", which means that to compensate for this "handicap" you have to be the best in everything. My friends were mostly Jewish. At school I did not have serious problems. I did not look Jewish, but everything concerning Jewish problems strongly affected me. My reaction for every insult was always prompt and violent - I immediately rushed into fight never paying heed to who and how many were against me. That is why they didn't like to deal with me.

A.T. - In what neighborhood did you live?

L.Y. - In the last years I lived near Forest Technical Academy. I finished school with a medal and could enter any institution for higher education, but I knew that there were some whose doors you had better not even try to open. That is why I chose a place where the attitude to Jews was more liberal. I was admitted to the Shipbuilding School of Higher Learning. It awarded degrees to its graduates, so I have a degree in mechanical engineering. My specialty was ship engines. But I actually did a lot of different things, whatever there was to do. In the last thirty years I have been working with fuel systems.

A.T. - Were there any problems with being admitted?

L.Y. - Since I had a medal I only had to pass two examinations. Even before finishing school I became interested in Jewish matters, and this interest was growing. In the synagogue I got acquainted with an old man who had been teaching in a Jewish high school before the revolution and I started learning Yiddish under his guidance. I went to all the performances and concerts that were available, read books and with time I started speaking Yiddish a little. I graduated from the Shipbuilding Institute, got married and worked as an engineer. I already had children, but my interest in Jewish matters did not fade. At one of the concerts I met some guys who were also interested in these things. We started coming together, and gradually a group of people with the same views was formed, people who were doing more than just trying to find out something on the subject. It was then that I finally got to the conclusion that the possibility of leading a Jewish life in the Soviet Union was absolutely Utopian and that is why one should strive to leave that country.

A.T. - What year, approximately, was the turning point in this decision?

L.Y. - Actually, the thought that I did not want to live in the Soviet Union first came to me when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. At that time, by chance, I got some booklets and souvenirs that the Israeli delegation brought to Moscow for the Students' Olympics.

A.T. - Khavkin rubbed shoulders with them at that time.

L.Y. - So, in this way even before the Six-Day war we united ourselves into a Zionist organization.

A.T. - Who were the members in it?

L.Y. - They were David Chernoglaz, Hilel Butman, Vladimir Mogilyover, Solomon Dreizner and others. We split into a number of subgroups, each of which had a representative in the committee that took decisions.

A.T. - Were there any formal regulations?

L.Y. - There were statutes. The initial goal was fighting assimilation, studying the Jewish history and Hebrew. The ultimate aim was Aliya. We started organizing ourselves, learning and teaching others. We organized ulpanim [Hebrew classes - T.N.] and classes for teaching the history of the Jewish people.

A.T. - Who were the lecturers - the members of the committee?

L.Y. - Everyone lectured, whoever could do it.

A.T. - How many people were there in the organization?

L.Y. - At the last stage, before it was forcibly dispersed in 1970, the organization numbered about 35 members.

A.T. - Was there any procedure for admitting members?

L.Y. - Each group worked out their own procedure. There were no general meetings. For example, our group consisted of five people and we tried to avoid contacts with members of other groups. Our representative in the committee was David Chernoglaz.

A.T. - But could your group decide whether to admit or not to admit a certain person?

L.Y. - Yes, of course. Somebody recommended a candidate and the group took decisions by voting. Now, about the history classes. Our knowledge of history was relatively poor, there were no teaching materials, so we solved this problem by dividing the whole enormous material into separate sections between us. Let's say, my subject was the history of Polish Jewry. I managed to obtain books by Graetz and Dubnow, prepared lectures and taught several groups of students.

A.T. - At home?

L.Y. - Yes. There were "specialists" in the history of ancient and modern Israel and so on. One person could not cover all of it. After the Six-Day War the public interest grew. There were very interesting projects, for example, the project made by Shura Boguslavsky. He was interested in military history.

A.T. - Was he a group member?

L.Y. - No, he wasn't. He prepared slides on the course of the Six-Day War with a sufficiently serious analysis of the military operations. We prepared slides about Israel. We organized Jewish holidays celebrations and invited young people, but before the merry-making started, a member of our group would stand up and tell the people about the holiday in a nutshell (Pesach, Purim, Hanukah, etc.). Then we played a record with Jewish songs (we had Israeli records). After these parties people often asked to give them something to read. We typed and photographed various articles from foreign magazines, history books and so on. None of us knew Hebrew. We started studying the "Elef Milim" primer. One who had learned the first part taught it to beginners while going on with further studies. In our wider circle there were several elderly Jews who knew Hebrew from the old times. One of them, A.M. Belov, trained a number of teachers. I taught beginners in my own ulpan at home while continuing with my own studies. In this way, more and more people were involved into our activities.

A.T. - Did university students have problems with their school administration at that period?

L.Y. - They did, but they were few. The organization grew, we established contacts with other cities: Riga, Moscow, Kharkov.

A.T. - With who, namely, in Moscow?

L.Y. - In Moscow with Vilya Svechinsky.

A.T. - Did you ever attempt to outline the whole picture and to estimate how many people were involved into the organization at that time and participated in those groups and classes?

L.Y. - This would be very difficult to do because a lot of people were "irregular students". They would come, express their interest and go. We did not have membership cards, though we did pay membership dues, because we needed money. When we were arrested - and I was the bursar during the last two and a half months - we had about three hundred rubles, but this was not only the membership dues money. We started receiving parcels from abroad, we sold the things and the money got into our cash-box. Our activities widened. We went on with language studies, learned history. And more and more often we were asked the same question: "What do I need Hebrew for in the Soviet Union? You need English, not Hebrew, for your PhD." We got to the stage when we had to decide what to do next. It was the end of 1968- beginning of 1969. It was then that the letter of Georgian Jews became known to us. [The letter of 18 Georgian families of 1969 to the UN with the request to urge the USSR government to let them go to Israel was the first document of the Aliya movement that became known to the world - T.N.] After 1967 there was a very active anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist campaign in the Soviet press. We decided to express our views too, and at the same time started to apply for exit visas. I applied in 1969.

A.T. - Without any invitation?

L.Y. - In the summer of 1966 we were on vacation in Bendery, and there I got acquainted with a Polish Jew who was leaving for Israel, and he sent me an invitation from there. I was working at the design office of a plant and when I came to Head of Department (who was Jewish) and told him that I needed a reference for obtaining an exit visa I thought he fainted on the spot. Then he said: "You didn't talk to me, I heard nothing and know nothing. Go to Head Engineer if you want to." I went to Head Engineer. He talked forty minutes with me. He had gone abroad on several occasions, he spoke about homesickness and tried to talk to me out of "doing stupid things". He said: "You have such prospects before you, you have passed postgraduate examinations, what do you need all this for? You have two young children - where are you taking them? Aren't you afraid that they will afterwards ask where you have brought them there?" I sat and listened to him and he went on: "If you go away now it will be as if our talk never took place, but you have to understand that if there is a continuation I will be powerless." At the end of our talk I said: "I don't know what my children will say afterwards, but today I am afraid that if I don't take them away from here they will later ask why I didn't do it." At that our conversation ended. In the end they arranged a meeting at the department to condemn me and give me a reference. They gave me a reference after they had recited all my sins, both the real ones and the imaginary ones. We applied in November 1969. They kicked me out from the department at once and transferred me to another one.

A.T. - But they didn't sack you, did they?

L.Y. - At that time they did not dismiss people yet. They did not know what to do with this. In January 1970 I received a refusal by telephone. The grounds: they do not see any reason for reuniting with my aunt's cousin. They explained it to me like this: "We do not provide specialists for the imperialists. You were educated here, you have to work for it. We do not provide soldiers for the army of occupants. You can go when you retire." In fact, they didn't let me work. They sent me to vegetable stores or to a kolkhoz. This lasted up to my arrest in June. Now about what happened in our organization. Part of the members applied for exit visas, we started writing letters demanding to let us go, we wrote letters of protest against libel on Israel in the press. We sent these letters to all party and state authorities and we smuggled the copies abroad.

A.T. - Did people from abroad come?

L.Y. - We didn't see them. We had some guys who were in touch with them. Most of the contacts went through Moscow, but some were in Leningrad, too. In the beginning of 1970 we found out that we were being followed.

A.T. - How many people signed these letters, approximately?

L.Y. - It depended. Ten, fifteen, twenty, depending what kind of letters these were. Some people preferred to stay in the shade, they did not sign letters.

A.T. - How many people applied? Around twenty?

L.Y. - No, about ten. Everyone had his or her own reasons, most people were afraid to lose their jobs. And then the idea of hijacking a plane arose. In Butman's ulpan there was one Mark Dymshits. He was a pilot who had been demobilized a couple of years before that in the rank of a major and worked as an engineer somewhere. At the end of 1969 he came to Butman with this idea. Mark said that the attempt of hijacking a plane, even if it fails, would attract the world public's attention to the problem of emigration from the USSR. Without the support and pressure from the West we had no chance to succeed.

A.T. - Did you have people from Kishinev?

L.Y. - Sure. In the organization there were guys who studied in the (Leningrad) Polytechnics. After graduation they returned to work in Kishinev. Butman suggested that the committee should check out the plan of hijacking a plane. The idea was mainly discussed within the committee, and it caused serious conflicts between supporters and opponents of the plan. One of the versions that we were checking out was hijacking a 100-seats plane that flew between Leningrad and Petrozavodsk, close to the border with Finland. The plan was to fill the whole plane, under the disguise of flying to a wedding. Of course, these were discreet talks, but nevertheless, as my investigator told me later - what is known to two is no longer a secret. To break this deadlock, a Solomon's decision was taken: to request Israel's advice.

A.T. - Was it the committee that took the decision?

L.Y. - Yes, the committee. Those who suggested inquiring Israel thought that since Israel fought hijacking in its own territory it would not agree to an operation like this. The answer to our inquiry was negative. We considered that the question had been taken off the agenda, but the situation proved to be much more complicated. A lot of people who were not members of the organization were involved in checking out different plans of hijacking and our decision did not bind them to anything. When Mark found out that the organization had decided to reject the plan of hijacking a plane he decided to carry on, together with a group of people from Riga. They thrashed out an alternative plan: a small twelve-seat plane whose route went along the border with Finland in the Kolsky peninsula. In the morning of June 15 1970 they were arrested when boarding the plane. The KGB decided to use the situation to crush the Zionist movement that had just started to raise its head. They said afterwards that if the plane were not there it should have been invented. It was rather inconvenient for them to arrest people for studying Hebrew and Jewish history. As a BBC commentator put it - they managed to squeeze 34 people into a twelve-seat plane. I was arrested in the evening of June 15 in Odessa. As part of our educational work with young people, we decided at one of the committee's meetings to organize a summer youth camp in Moldavia. I was in charge of organizing the first month of the camp's work. On the 14th of June I came to Kishinev with my wife and children in order to see the place and prepare it for the boys and girls' arrival. To our surprise, the owner of the house (it was a kind of a barn on the periphery where we could pitch our tents), with whom the Kishinev guys had earlier settled everything, suddenly refused to rent out the house. Then we decided that I would go to Odessa while the Kishinev people would try and find another place. On the 15th of June we got to Odessa with the morning train. All the day we were walking with young children (six and a half years old and three years old) in the heat looking for an apartment, which we found only by the evening. When we put the children to bed and I was washing my feet in the yard the "comrades" came. I was arrested and sent to Leningrad by plane. At first we were supposed to be tried as a whole body: one charge, one case: the attempt of hijacking a plane. Then we were divided into several groups. All in all there were four big and two small processes around the plane case. The trial of eleven of the "hijackers" took place in December 1970. In January the Military Tribunal sentenced Vulf Zalmanson, an officer. After that, in May 1971, nine members of our Leningrad Zionist organization were put on trial. At the end of May the Riga court condemned four people from Riga for Zionist activity. In May six people from Kishinev and three from Leningrad were tried in Kishinev. Almost a year later they arrested Boris Azernikov and "hitched" him to our group. He was tried separately. The second Leningrad process was supposed to be started on December 25 1970, just after the hijackers process, which was being carried out from the 14th and up to the 24th of December. But they kept postponing it, hammering out all kinds of excuses, till May 1971.

A.T. - And who was the defense attorney?

L.Y. - Stryapunin, quite a decent man. I had had another lawyer before him, who had turned me down since my stance on how I should act didn't suit him. He said: "You should tear your hair out in repentance, nothing doing for me here otherwise". I retorted: "Nothing doing, go". When Stryapunin came to me in January I asked him: "What's going on?" and he answered: "This has never happened in my practice before. Your case has been passed to the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic - T.N.] High Court for check-up, for no apparent reason. And he added playfully - "The situation is like this: either you will get capital punishment or you are set free, anything is possible".

A.T. - A wide range indeed.

L.Y. - Right. He went on: "Actually, I think that this is connected with the Party Congress which is scheduled for March. They don't seem to welcome too much ado before it".

A.T. Were you kept in "Kresty"? [ prison in St. Petersburg where the suspects and those who were charged with a criminal offence were kept while awaiting trial. It was the most prominent and well-known one in the country - T.N.].

L.Y. - No, as especially dangerous criminals we were kept in the Bolshoi Dom [the main remand center of the KGB in Leningrad, commonly known as the Big House - T.N.] pre-trial detention center. The conditions were relatively decent. In this aspect, we should do justice to the KGB: clean cells for two, not like in common prison. To make the long story short, I was tried, got my five years and was transported to Mordovia where all prison camps for political criminals were then situated. I was placed in Zone 19. (The Mordovia Zone, also known as Mordovlag, is a complex of strict security penitentiaries, still in use today, with special severe regime prison camps for convicts sentenced to long-term imprisonment, including life sentences .Zone 19 was used for political prisoners - T.N.]. We were eleven - eleven Jews in the zone, and we were in a never-ending confrontation with the administration - going on hunger strikes, complaining to the Public Prosecutor Office and so on. A year later, when they transferred part of "political" prison camps to the Urals, the group was split and I did the three last years of my term in Perm oblast (krai), near the Urals.

A.T. - In Camp 36? [Perm-36, now a major Gulag memorial, was a Soviet forced labor camp, part of the large prison camp system established during the Stalin era. The Urals had been used for convicts' forced labor in Tsarist Russia as well - T.N.].

L.Y. - 36, right. Tolya Altman, Butman and Arye Khnokh were there with me. I did one day less than I was supposed to, because June 15, 1975 fell on a Sunday. They freed me on the 14th. My family had left for Israel in February 1973.

A.T. - How old were the children?

L.Y. - My son was nine, my daughter was five and a half. They settled in Haifa. I applied for an exit visa at once, just after they had let me out of camp. I was not allowed to return to Leningrad - they ordered 101 km. (The "101 km restriction" barred certain categories of Soviet citizens, released criminals and dissidents in particular, from living within 100 km of big cities like Moscow, Leningrad, etc. - T.N.]. At the end of July I received a permission to go to Israel and on the 7th of August 1975 I already landed at the Ben Gurion Airport. That's how my way to Israel came to its end.

A.T. - This activity that started in the 1960-ies - how did your family, your wife take it? They certainly knew that this was not a kids' game and anything could happen.

L.Y. - My wife totally supported me. My mother passed away in 1968, my father did not exactly know the details, but from what he knew he predicted very well where I would end up with it. My in-laws were really scared when we applied, they did not want to sign the permission papers.

A.T. - Tell me a couple of words about your wife. How did things go with her?

L.Y. - My wife was born in Bobruisk. The family spoke Yiddish. She came to Leningrad to receive education, and that's where we met. Her parents came to Israel half a year after she did.

A.T. - Did they hold any important positions?

L.Y. - No. Her father worked at a production plant. When I was behind bars, my wife, like other guys' wives, supported me tremendously. If you ask me - they had a harder time than we did.

A.T. - If you look back now, can you say that there were mistakes that could have been avoided?

L.Y. - It's difficult to say. We are always smarter after the horses have been stolen from the stable. It was enormous work for the situation we were placed in, and it was done. We were young, dynamic people; we wanted to do something and were doing it. It was interesting, even thrilling, and we were magnetized by its novelty, the adrenalin was boiling over, and I think it did bring some results. If not us, then somebody else, for as Marxists put it, the situation was ripe. The generation that was doing it had grown up in the post-Stalin epoch and we didn't have that animal fear of the previous generation. These trials gave a push to the Aliya, people started to leave the country. When I was closing my thick case file that I was to read and sign, I found a list of the witnesses at the last pages. The list was followed by a recomendation of the investigation office to bring a number of witnesses to lawsuit after the trials, and the list was of formidable length. And when at the trial these people were called to give evidence and the secretary announced that the witness was absent because he or she had left for permanent residence in Israel, it was a sign for us that what we had been doing was not in vain. I remember Volodya Bukovsky telling us in the camp (he was serving time with us) that the Germans would come to him and ask him to speak with the Jews and find out how come that they started getting permissions to leave while they, the Germans, couldn't learn the trick.

A.T. - This process had been already trickling in the Baltic republics, even before that.

L.Y. - Right, but these were individual cases, rare ones. Now, this was the first time when the Soviet authorities caved in and mass Aliya started.

A.T. - Right, if not for that push, Kissinger would probably be unable to come to any agreement, there was almost nothing worth talking about. A large-scale process did have some impact, no doubt.

L.Y. - Most probably. At the very beginning of the inquiry the case investigator solemnly announced to me: "Last time we tried Zionists in 1948, and for 20 years everything was quiet. We will put you behind bars now and have a quiet life for another 20 years."

A.T. - Some investigators make mistakes, too. If you look back, can you say that everything was done the right way?

L.Y. - Well, naturally, there were things that could have been done in another way. But I never gave much thought to it. I think that whatever was done was the right thing to do, and anyway, you can undo nothing now.

A.T. - And how did Israel meet you back then, in 1975?

L.Y. - At the beginning I was meeting people, going to receptions. I tried to do what I had been doing before for a while because some people were still denied freedom. I wrote, spoke in schools, in the Army, went abroad. But then you get back to your normal life, and life just goes on, you know.

A.T. - Who organized all these things, the Lishka, the Liaison Bureau? [Lishkat Hakesher or the Liaison Bureau, also known as Nativ, is an Israeli government organization that maintained contacts with the Jews in the East bloc during the cold war and later - T.N.].

L.Y. - Yes, it was the Bureau. There was also the Aliya Activists Committee.

A.T. - Who was in this committee?

L.Y. - Yosef Yakobi, Rita Tarlo was the secretary. There were also some other people who came and went, their names escape my memory now. The committee was doing important work: they issued brochures, organized meetings, etc. In 1979 the Soviets released the people from our processes (except three), and they came to Israel. You become a regular Israeli citizen, you live, you work. I did not go into politics, this is not for me. At the beginning I tried to move in this direction, but I soon realized that I was not built for it. I worked as an engineer for almost twenty years in the same firm, then I left and have been working independently since. I have three children and seven grandchildren.

A.T. - A rich grandfather. That's all, thanks.

Database Recollections Our
of Zion
From the History of
the Jewish Movement
What Was Written
about Us by the Press
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Our Photo
Chronicle In Memoriam Write
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