by Zinaida Partis

Zinaida Livshits-Partispanyan was born in Leningrad in 1930, survived the first year of the Leningrad blockade 1941-1942 (she was evacuated in 1942 from the blockaded Leningrad via the Ladoga lake). From 1948 through 1966 worked as a draftswoman and later designer in the All-Union research machine building and radio industry institute, which belonged to the military-industrial complex of the USSR. She graduated in 1965 from the philological faculty of the Leningrad University. Her family applied to OVIR for an exit visa in July 1976 and was refused the visa in January 1977. They applied seven times more with the same request, and in 1981 received eventually the visa and emigrated to USA. She lives in New York. Russian-language magazines Slovo-Word, Posev, Zerkalo publish her works from 2005.

      This tale is dedicated to memory of refuseniks
who died before getting permission to leave USSR.

      It took place on the 2nd of April, 1977, in Leningrad. The refuseniks of Leningrad decided to get together to celebrate the Passover. According to the lists kept underground by the refuseniks themselves, and sent over to the West, in Leningrad by that time there were about 150 Jewish families who were refused permission to emigrate. Those lists were certainly incomplete, because in order to have all the names, a lot of courage was needed.

      All refusals were issued on Fridays, so all those who were called in to come on a Friday would come out of OVIR (Visa office) as refuseniks, and you needed courage to stop at the door on your way out, and there always was a refusenik on duty to write down your name. That was an early stage of Jewish emigration, and the word “refusenik” had emerged only 5 years before.

      Well, so we – all the refuseniks – decided to celebrate the Seder together, as a collective, in an organized way, as they always taught us in the Soviet Union! There were about 100 people – all those who wanted to be together, to be among Jews for the Seder. We wanted to celebrate properly with matzo, with Yiddish music, and even together with a Jewish couple from Canada!

      We all contributed 6 roubles each, and thus collected 600 roubles and rented a whole cafeteria for the night. Ahead of time we made all the arrangements and ordered the menu – all except the matzos. A cafeteria is not like a restaurant, it does not have an orchestra, so we brought our own music there – a record player and records. We brought it there ahead of time, about 2 P.M., set it up, turned it on and tested the sound.

      We were supposed to meet after 6 P.M. We could not tell the director of the cafeteria that we were going to celebrate Pesach, so we told that the purpose of our meeting was to celebrate 25th anniversary of the wedding of one couple among our group. We knew that we were constantly being watched – the authorities always were on guard – ready to stop us if we would want to try to do anything against their rules. They already knew from experience what kind of things had already happened before.

      Once 15 Jews got on a train went to Moscow and there they went to the lounge of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and sat down in that lounge, right on the day before the opening of the Party Congress, in order to turn in their complains to Comrade Brezhnev personally. Another time some rebellious type decided to stand right in the Zhelyabov street in front of OVIR holding a poster: “Let my family go to Israel!” Another did even better: he rushed into the office of the chief-commander of OVIR with a tape-recorder in his hands and tried to record his conversation with the chief.

      The refuseniks of Leningrad were bad, they really misbehaved. They organized regular Hebrew classes, seminars in Jewish history, Jewish culture, in Math and Law. Some refuseniks who had been engineers or professors in colleges and lost their jobs when they applied for emigration and who were at that time jobless or worked in chimney-plants or in bath-houses, were very enthusiastic about conducting those seminars at the highest professional level. That is why we were constantly being watched.

      Knowing all of that we were very cautious in our preparation for Pesach. We never spoke about it on the phone. Nobody knew the address of the cafeteria where we were going to celebrate until the very last moment, when we all met at a subway station. When we got off the subway train at “Ploshchad Vosstania” Aba Taratuta and Tolya Epshtein gave each of us a colorful anniversary card with the address of the cafeteria and a quote from a famous story by Isaac Babel: “And newer talk again of all this silliness”.

      Everything was arranged so thoroughly and everything fell through. When we arrived to the cafeteria, it was still before six, the doors were closed and outside about 10 or 12 from our group were already waiting. After 6, more and more people were coming to celebrate Pesach, but the doors remained closed. The doors were made of oak and glass in the top section. It was dark inside, with no sign of any motion. It seemed as if we all gathered in front of a wrong cafeteria. The snow began to fall, it became very cold. We were all dressed up, not bundled up for stormy weather, since we had planned to walk fast from the subway station, but there we were standing outside for more then half an hour already. One young woman (now she lives in Jersey City) wearing a long evening dress, freezing and already completely mad began to knock on the glass, in order to make them open the doors. There was no reaction. She turned around her back to the door and began to kick the door with her high heals. Some passersby stopped to look at us. Hearing her bang on the door, somebody came out eventually and declared that because of some technical breakdowns the cafeteria would remain closed, and that our meeting would not take place.

      Our crowd was growing – everybody was there. The crowd staring at us also grew big. Just imagine – 100 Jews in front of a closed cafeteria. At last Aba and Tolya joined us. They knocked at the door again. The same reply again: something broke at the kitchen, the cafeteria cannot be opened, “don’t worry, your money will be returned to you in a week”.

      We all knew: that was done according to the orders from KGB. Maybe someone reported on us, or they figured it out themselves. Here we noticed that on each side of our group there were 2 policemen watching us, with their walkie-talkies they were reporting to their supervisors from the scene. The policemen, obviously not on their own initiative, but advised to do so by their superiors, came closer and began to repeat loudly: “Citizen Jews, please disperse. The cafeteria is closed. Your meeting will not take place”. Some people from our group got worried and decided to leave, not expecting anything good from the whole story.

      Aba and Tolya were trying to convince everybody to stay – they were sure that we would find a way to do something. They got in a car and went to hotel “Oktiabrskaia”. The maitre d’hotel asked: “how many people are there in your group?” About 75 – they said. “No, we cannot let you in”.

      Quickly they drove to “Universal”, another big restaurant in the Nevsky Prospect. Same question – same response – same result. Getting back in the car Tolya said: “Instead of 75, I should have told 25, of course the restaurants had received instructions regarding Jewish Pesach”.

      They drove back to where most of the group was still waiting, about 75 people, the most persistent, the most stubborn. And there still were, leaning against the unwelcoming wall, our guests from Canada – a newlywed couple, who had come to see their friends, a family of refuseniks. For them, this was their real experience of the Soviet reality.

      After all we decided to go to the “Oktiabrskaia” hotel: it was not far from the cafeteria, the restaurant was huge and almost empty. We decided not to come in all at once, but in small groups of 4 or 5, and take separate small tables.

      There were very few people in the restaurant, but soon it got crowded. Our Jewish group, aspiring for Pesach, was noisy, loud. We occupied about 20 tables. The waitresses looked pleased. They had already served dinner to the 2 small groups of foreign tourists – one group was from Hungary, they occupied 4 tables in one corner of the restaurant, the other group from East Germany had 3 tables. The orchestra played Soviet songs, a singer was singing. Several couples rushed to dance.

      And from that minute on, everything was marvelous and unforgettable. That very minute was the beginning of the first and only collective Seder of the refuseniks of Leningrad.

      One of us walked up to the orchestra and asked them to play “Hava NaGila”. Everyone knows: if you give musicians a 10-rouble note, they will play “Hava NaGila”, even unauthorized, even it is not on the program.

      The Jewish tune began. About 30 refuseniks went to the middle of the room, and in a circle, holding each others hands, danced and sang “Hava NaGila”. Then all at once, all our 20 Jewish tables were lifted up and put together to form a long, long table. Aba and Tolya brought in and placed on the tables big 2 lb packages with matzo, while the blond lady, in a blue uniform, maitred’hotel, ran back and forth along our long table, yelling, that it was against the rules to move tables in their restaurant, that nobody would wait on us, that there is no more food left, that we all have to get out. She understood already that the Jews had played a trick on her and that she would most probably get a reprimand from her boss.

      But on what grounds could she throw us out? What did we do wrong? We were not hooligans, we were just having good time, singing and dancing. Still, certain severe measures were taken at once. The orchestra stopped playing. The musicians gloomily began to put away their instruments.

       “Why?” – we asked. “We were told to leave” – they answered. Well, we can sing without music, can we not? And so we began to sing our Jewish songs, all the songs that we knew. Somebody brought wine, sandwiches and apples. There we were all together, sitting, singing, drinking wine and eating matzo. The Hungarian delegation, sitting across the room, liked our idea. They also put their tables together and began to sing Hungarian songs. Their guide came over to our table and told us that we were giving a bad example to the foreign tourists, that we should stop singing. But instead, we sent our matzos over to the Hungarian tables as a sign of friendship and hospitality.

      Since foreigners (Hungarians, Germans and Canadians) were present in the restaurant, maitre d’hotel received new instructions and waitresses brought us hot dishes that we had ordered, and wine. We went on singing Jewish songs. Then all of a sudden, we saw the musicians coming back with their instruments! They were instructed to return and play Soviet songs. They were playing so loud and the singer was singing “Vologda-gda-gda-gda-gda”, we could not hear each other any more. The time was past 10 in the evening. We had a great time - nothing could now spoil our evening, our Holyday. Because we did it! We celebrated the Pesach of 1977 together.

      Not in a vulgar cafeteria, somewhere far from the Nevskiy Prospect, all alone, unknown to the world. No, we celebrated our Pesach in one of the most fashionable, chic restaurants in the center of the city, across the square from the Moscow railroad station, among foreign guests. So, after all, the authorities fooled themselves when they prohibited our celebration in the cafeteria.

Translation from Russian
by Natasha Roklina and William Partis.