Gish’s Story

by Gish Robbins

      I was born Gisela Treumann in Germany in 1936, in a small town called Reitberg. By 1937-8 my parents had moved to Cologne because of the anti-Semitism in that small town. They had been thrown out of their home and their business and arrived in Cologne in time for Kristallnacht during which my father was attacked by the Nazis and beaten so badly that he carried his injuries for the rest of his life. The Nazis left him for dead and my 6 year old brother was hit against a steel post and still has his scars to this day.

       All my family from both sides, some of whom, moved to Holland were eventually slaughtered in the Holocaust. My father, on the other hand, decided not to follow the others and was successful in obtaining a visa to Rhodesia.

       When we arrived at the immigration point, in the Spring of 1939, the officials could not pronounce my name and, as they started saying "Gish" my father, anxious to get through the formalities, agreed and from then on I became Gish.

       I grew up in Rhodesia; it was not a very happy childhood because my father, after the injuries inflicted on him by the Nazis, was prone to terrible headaches and tempers. But I had started ballet lessons at the age of 4 and soon realized that this was what I wanted to do.

       I left home as early as I could, at the age of 17, and traveled the 6,000 miles to London. There I did some stage work and learned my craft and then I eventually met my husband, settled down and had two children.

       My life revolved around my family and trying to keep up a show business career. I mention this because I want to emphasize that I was a totally apolitical person during all that time and I certainly knew nothing about Soviet Jewry or even much about Israel.

       One day somebody asked me if I would work for Israel, collecting money and I agreed. In the meantime, we had traveled to Israel for the first time, (this was in 1978) and I was transformed into a Zionist. Seeing Israel and its people, especially after reading, "Exodus", I realised that this was where I wanted to be. I particularly wanted to work in Hasbara and, for this, I had much to learn.

       So it was that I started going from door to door, with the JIA, collecting money and the more I did this the more I realized how politically ignorant I was. I read a lot and also became friendly with Brenda Katton who was the Chairman of WIZO.

       One day I told her that I wanted to contribute more to the cause and would like to become an activist. She immediately introduced me to George Garai who was the chairman of the Zionist Federation. He suggested that I organize groups to work against the PLO; I was to get out onto the streets and literally demonstrate against that entity.

       I formed a group consisting of ten women called DOVE, Democracy over Violent Extremism, which I still think to be a very apt name.

       A particular incident that comes to mind is when we decided to demonstrate outside the Congress Hall in Brighton where the Conservative Party was holding its annual Congress. There were socialists and unions demonstrating against the Conservative Party but, when they saw us, obviously Jewish, they turned against us virulently and aggressively. We had no one to protect us, despite having previously contacted the AJAX organization. No one turned out to help us and this so enraged me that I went to the first Jewish meeting I could find in Edgware, where I lived which turned out to be a Soviet Jewry meeting. Frustrated and angry I pointed out that the English Jews were not active enough.

       By now, I knew enough to be able to say that the Jews in the Soviet Union were demonstrating, of course with no police protection, despite the hostile environment and the fact that at any one time they could be imprisoned or sent to labour camps. Here, I emphasized, in England, we have every right to campaign for our oppressed brethren in the Soviet Union.

       Linda Isaacs was working in another organization for Soviet Jewry called "Exodus". She put forward a terrific case, urging us to visit refuseniks in the Soviet Union. This immediately appealed to me and I registered my name. I presented my husband with the announcement that we were going and he thought it would be interesting to see Leningrad and the Hermitage. The idea of visiting refuseniks was not for him but we went anyway and that was my first visit. It was in 1982.

       On that first trip, when we went to Moscow, where we met with Oscar Mendelev and his family, who impressed us enormously. In Kiev we contacted Fanya Berenshtein whose husband Yosif was imprisoned in a labour camp and Vladmir Kislik recently released from camp. I can't remember exactly who else we met but they managed to fuel the fire in me. From then on, this was going to be my life and I put all my energies into working for Soviet Jewry.

       When we came home I was emotionally shattered because suddenly my background came back to me with its horrors of pre-war life in Germany. I realized anew that the persecution of the Jews, the same persecution that had lost me my family, was still going on. Again, Jews were being oppressed, were not allowed to be free, to travel to Israel. It really affected me, especially when I saw their living conditions and heard their stories.

       I was astonished by the incredible sense of humour I found among all the refuseniks. How, with everything that was going on around them, with the fear that they were living under, with the fact that they were followed by the KGB all the time and the general circumstances that they were living in, they could see humour in every situation. For example, Oscar Mendelev kept fit by training. I asked him why he did this and his answer was that he wanted to be strong enough for work in a labour camp!

       They always seemed to have enough food to put on the table for visitors and they always managed to have something to give us to take back home.

       And, they were invariably so very happy to see us, to welcome us and be hospitable.

       That was the first trip. On the second trip I went with my friend, Liz. We went to Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad, as I did on all the four visits I made.

       After each time I told the stories of everyone I'd met to anyone who would listen. I desperately wanted to influence more people to visit the Soviet Union.

       In the meantime, in London, we demonstrated and campaigned and I learned more and more about what individual refuseniks were going through and the strength they showed. It was this that I wanted to communicate to other people.

       I once had the opportunity to tell some of these stories to an Israeli visitor, he was moved to tears, which amazed me and when he got back to Israel he repeated it all to his wife, who was a teacher in Ashdod. She was so stimulated by the stories that she started a project at her school, encouraging her pupils to write letters to the children of refuseniks. This shows how one story can have a positive reaction.

       After my second trip I tried for three years to get another visa and was denied each time I applied. Eventually I decided to ask my son to go instead. He really wasn't very interested and the only way I could persuade him was to say that he'd won a prize that we give to students and that that prize was a free trip to the Soviet Union, based on the understanding that he would also visit a few refuseniks. He did, in fact, come back a little wiser, having indeed met some of my new friends.

       Meanwhile, I was getting more and more frustrated with visa rejections and decided to do something drastic; I gave myself another name Candy Calder on a new passport. This proved to be a bit problematic later on but I did get my visa. I went to the Soviet Union and visited my friends, encountering no problems. This was in 1986.

       In 1987 I managed to get in again for my fourth visit. I saw my friends in Moscow and Leningrad and then went on to Kiev. While I was there I decided to visit a family I had met previously, the Gorodetsky family. They had made a strong impression on me as they'd been in a lot of trouble. Their daughter had leukemia and could receive no treatment. We'd managed to get her help, and I wanted to see how they were, as I had been corresponding with them.

       I have to emphasize that I hadn't actually been instructed to visit them this time but I remembered their address and so was able to find their flat. I knocked on the door and it was opened by Mrs. Gorodetsky. Her face was a picture of shock and horror on seeing me. She was a totally altered woman from the one I had originally met. Previously, she had looked tired, badly dressed and downtrodden and yet here was a smartly dressed, well made-up, upright lady but with a look of sudden fear in her eyes. I realized at once that there was something wrong. She told me that she couldn't see me, that I must never contact her again, that her son was working in a secret military establishment and begged me to leave at once.

       I thought to myself that I could be in real trouble here but decided to go on to my next visit, anyway, which was to Lev Elbert. When I told him the story, he was aghast at the fact that I'd not known that Gorodetsky had been "turned" by the KGB. He had appeared on T.V. denouncing Jews and Israel. "They are traitors to the cause" he said. He also told me that, as an activist, I'd be "finished" now.

       Finished or not, I decided to carry on. I wanted to visit Stanislav Zubko who had just come out of prison and with whom I'd been corresponding. It took me a long time to find the particular area where he lived but I found his block of flats and was about to enter when there was a tap on my shoulder. When I turned round, there were three men and the conversation went as follows:

       - What are you doing here?

       - What do you think I'm doing here? I'm a tourist.

       - You're not a tourist.

       - Of course I am a tourist.

       - This is not where tourists go. You won't find any Russian guide bringing you here. This is just where ordinary people live. You have no business being here.

       - Well, I like to see where ordinary people live. I want to see how Russians live so I came to a suburb of Kiev.

       It did me no good. I was bundled into their jeep and taken to a prison where they started questioning me. They did the usual thing, the good guy/bad guy routine. The good guy would say that they wanted no trouble, that they had a good relationship with Britain, that they wanted no problems and that they just wanted to know what I was doing there. Then they'd leave me for half an hour, or so, to my own thoughts and I have to admit that I was getting more and more frightened.

       Then they'd try the bad guy technique, which was more forceful and aggressive, telling me that I have no protection from the British consulate there and that I was completely in their hands. They called me a Mata Hari, a CIA agent and a Zionist spy.

       I had known in advance that this fourth visit would have to be my last, as I realized that I was taking a major risk. For that reason I'd been very careful not to bring anything in writing with me. I had learnt all that I needed to know, names and addresses, by heart so that I'd have nothing incriminating on me. But, I had also thought that, should anyone go through my belongings, I'd give them something to look at. For this reason I took with me my mother's old address book.

       (My mother had been dead since 1972). In it were names and addresses of her friends and family all over the world, Australia, England, America and, of course, Rhodesia. This the KGB men took out of my handbag and, to my astonishment, they started laboriously copying down every address, every name in that book, which amused me as I imagined the KGB knocking on those doors all over the world. I remained calm throughout the questioning, at times giggling like a schoolgirl perhaps as a result of my increasing nervousness and fear.

       They also took out a couple of packages of artificial sweetener. When they asked me what these were, I answered sarcastically 'Drugs'. I thought that they would have to charge me with something so I gave them the "something" … drugs. They became very uptight and left me alone again for a very long time. I was becoming more and more nervous and was actually shaking with fear as I realized just how totally alone I was.

       Eventually they came back and announced that they now knew who I was. They had obviously phoned the British Embassy to report me as having a false passport. The British had explained that my Candy Calder passport was legal…,but it was also clear that my visa was an illegal one because I had lied on the application form, saying that I'd only been in the Soviet Union once previously.

       They continued the good guy/bad guy interrogation for several hours and refused to let me smoke. I was becoming even more frightened. Eventually they had enough and told me that my "limousine" awaits me. It was the same old jeep as they had originally picked me up in and they took me to the railway station. I was told to go to Moscow; I couldn't believe I was free but I did knew that I was truly finished as a Soviet Union visitor.

       All the same, I thought that I would be free to continue sight-seeing with the rest of the group once I arrived at the Moscow hotel but, as I was having breakfast and feeling much calmer, the Russian guide came up to me and told me that I had to go upstairs. "There are some men waiting for you on the 7th floor."

       I couldn't understand what was going on but I did as requested. I walked into a room full of camera crews. It was absolutely packed. I was invited, very politely, to sit down next to a man at a table. I asked who these people were and was told that they were "just journalists". I tried to break the ice by joking… "Ooh, I'm on T.V. What fun!" but it didn't help. I was subjected to the same routine as before. "Who are you?", "What are you doing here?" were the questions they asked as the cameras started rolling.

       They didn't get the answers they wanted; I still insisted that I was a tourist, that I didn't know what they wanted from me and that I had no idea what was going on.

       That went on for about an hour and a half, till they got fed up with me again.

       They finished by saying that I was to be thrown out of the country and for this privilege I was expected to pay 600 roubles. I was most indignant and told them that I had already paid my return fare and possessed only 25 roubles, which they were welcome to, and that, no, I had no credit card! (How could I have a credit card on a false name?). I told them that I was quite prepared to be thrown out of their country but that they would have to pay.

       They saw that they were getting nowhere with me so I was ushered into a car with three KGB men, one of whom was the translator. While we were on our way to the transit hotel at Moscow airport, this man said "Now that it's all over and you are on your way out, let me ask you a question. How many passports are you allowed to have?" I explained that I lived in a democracy and could have as many passports as I wanted. He seemed totally amazed and believed this exaggeration. When we got to the hotel, he insisted that I keep the 25 roubles to pay for my dinner and, maybe, a bottle of champagne, which was nice but I was still under guard and not supposed to mix with any other people.

       This didn't stop me from getting together with a group in which someone had a guitar. I started getting a little drunk and began to do some flamenco dancing and had a great time. Unfortunately, however, the wine was cheap and nasty and I was very sick afterwards.

       I was terribly sick all night, which was my own fault, but it was no wonder that I'd got drunk. I had kept myself so strong and controlled over that whole hellish period of capture and interrogation that, when it was all over, I just let go and allowed myself to loosen up my inhibitions; that's the way I am!

       Next morning I was again separated from the rest of the passengers. The others all went on one bus and I, would you believe it, had a whole bus to myself plus my "minders". That's how dangerous they thought me to be!

       I had another noteworthy experience at the airport. I had had a lot of gifts given to me during my various visits and among them were items that I had been told one couldn't take out of the country, amber for instance. I had been told to claim that I had bought these things at a Beriozka shop but I was sure that most of them would have been unobtainable there. I was naturally very worried that these gifts would be discovered and confiscated; they meant a lot to me.

       Again, I was separated from the main group and taken to have my luggage searched and noticed that all tourists had to empty their suitcases entirely and I was sure that was about to happen to me but the female customs officer who took my case was so busy, talking to my KGB minder, that she didn't search it at all. It was ironic as I was probably the only traveler with anything to hide. What a relief!

       As I had to show my passport for the last time, I was asked my name and started to say Gish Robbins, only changing it to Candy Calder just in time. I realized then that my defenses had already come down and I was relaxing at last.

       On the plane it transpired that there was an Australian journalist in the group, who had nothing to do with, and maybe knew very little about, Soviet Jewry. As everyone was aware that I'd had unusual experiences, she approached me…."Will you give me an interview?" I answered that I couldn't tell her anything. I knew that there was no way that I could answer her questions without possibly endangering other activists who would be following in my footsteps.

       This is MY story.