How I became a Zionist

by Barukh Podolsky

1. Where does it all come from? From family.

       No, my parents had not been Zionists when they were young; it was the Soviet reality that caused them to become Zionists. They were good Jews who believed in the equality of nations. Why should they be ashamed of their ethnicity, of their culture?

       My mother, Dora Borisovna Kustanovich, was born in 1911 in the small town of Khoiniki in the Gomel region. (This town suffered terrible damage as a result of the Chernobyl atomic plant explosion.)

       Her background was of a middle class family who owned a bakery. Naturally, they spoke Yiddish in the family. My mother finished the Jewish (Yiddish) pedagogical school (an institution that trained elementary school teachers without awarding them degrees. – Translator’s note). After she had worked as a teacher in a Jewish (Yiddish) school she went to Moscow Teachers’ College, to the faculty of Yiddish Language and Literature. She graduated from college in 1938 and was admitted to a post-graduate studies course. But when she returned to college after the summer vacation, she discovered that the Yiddish faculty had been closed down and there was no chance of post-graduate studies. She then worked as a teacher of Russian Language and Literature.

       My father, Semyon Moiseyevich Podolsky, was born in the small town of Novovorontsovka, not far from Kherson. (Now there is a water reservoir called Kakhovskoye Sea at the site of that town). A teacher’s son, he became a teacher in his turn. During WWII he was seriously wounded and nearly lost his leg – it was to be amputated, but an experienced surgeon made deep knee to ankle cuts (what were called “general’s trouser stripes”) and thus saved the leg from gangrene). After the war my father graduated from the History Faculty of Moscow University and taught history in high school.

       I was born in Moscow in 1940. During the period of 1941-44, my mother, her two sisters, my grandmother and I lived in Orsk in the South Urals, and in 1944 we returned to Moscow.

       The end of the nineteen forties and the beginning of the nineteen fifties was a trying period for the Soviet Jews. The wounds of the horrific war that carried away the lives of six million Jews were still fresh when a new kind of anti-Semitism emerged, thinly veiled by the phrase “the struggle with cosmopolitans” (for no obvious reason, only Jews were labeled Cosmopolitans). In 1948 Solomon Mikhoels was assassinated; by the end of the year all Jewish cultural institutions had been closed down and shortly after that the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were shot down. The newspapers swarmed with satires about “Pinya from Zhmerinka”. Even though our family lived through these years unscathed, my parents took it closely to heart; mother’s hair was completely white when she was only forty.

       Even though anti-Semitism was being stirred up “from the above”, it had a heavy impact on the everyday life of the Jews. Anti-Jewish harangues were heard everywhere; many Jews lost their jobs and children were often insulted and beaten up at schools.

       The Jews reacted to all this in different ways. Some tried not to stick out, to be as inconspicuous as possible, others “went into hiding”, changed their passports and were passing for anything but Jews to get rid of the cursed “point five” (the point in the ID for nationality to be indicated. - Translator’s note).

       There were others, who wore their Jewishness openly and with pride; but Yiddish was hardly ever heard in the streets.

       My mother and father loved Jewish culture, they used to go to performances in the GOSET (State Jewish Theatre - Translator’s note), they subscribed to “Einikait” and kept quite a library of books in Yiddish. My father, who was an expert both in world and in Jewish history, used to tell me Bible stories and episodes from Jewish history.

       When I was about nine years old, my mother taught me to read in Yiddish. Even though I couldn’t understand a single word, I tried to read Sholem-Aleichem. Moreover, I would often go out into the backyard (we lived in a Moscow working-class neighborhood, where there were three Jewish families for every hundred non-Jewish ones) with a book of Sholem-Aleichem in Yiddish and read “Dos Meserl” (“The Knife”) in front of everyone, just for the hell of it.

       My father taught me to read Hebrew from Granny’s prayer-book; again, I could not make out a word of it. Father was not a religious man, but Hebrew was part of our ancient culture for him and he did not want me to be severed from it. Gradually he drip-fed grains of Jewish heritage into me: Bible stories, stories of Jewish traditions. My memory retained quite a number of Hebrew words and expressions which had been planted there at that time.

       I was interested in languages from an early age and learning a new alphabet held no difficulties for me.

       I would often sit near the radio in the evenings, tuning to various stations and trying to guess in what language they were broadcasting. One day, through noise and interference, I seemed to hear familiar words. That was Yiddish – the broadcast was from Israel. My parents started listening to that station regularly; it was the only link to the Jewish world at that time.

       I was stubbornly unwilling to give up my Jewishness and even sought to flaunt it. In tenth grade, quoting a well-known aphorism “If I am not for myself who is for me?” (Avoth 1, 14), I named its source: “From Jewish sages”. My Russian literature teacher remarked: “But this is from Gorky”. I retorted: “Gorky himself wrote that he took it from Jewish sages”.

       Later, when I was already studying at Moscow University, I wrote an essay on Sholem-Aleichem in English and read it at an English class.

       After finishing school I wanted to study Semitic languages. At that time it was only possible to study these in two places within the Soviet Union: in Tbilisi University, where they taught in Georgian and at the Faculty for Oriental Studies of Leningrad University. In Leningrad, as Prof. Vinnikov explained to my father and myself when we went there to get me enrolled, they opened a new course once in two years; that year there was no enrolment. I entered the Oriental Languages School of Moscow University, meaning to learn Arabic, but that year the Arabic department did not open a new course, so I was admitted to learn Hindi.

2. My first step towards Israel.

       When I was a young boy, I loved to wander through Moscow streets looking into unknown lanes and alleys. One day – it was in August 1955 – I was walking along a rather narrow street when I saw a beautiful building adorned with columns. To my immense surprise, I saw a Hebrew inscription on the pediment when I got near it. I started copying down the inscription, to ask my father about it when I got home. An old woman, who was passing by, advised me to go inside and ask there. “What is this building?”- I asked. “The synagogue”- she answered. I entered the building, talked with the “shames” and found out that the right time to come was Friday evening or Saturday morning, when services were held.

       I came on a Friday evening and it proved to be most interesting. Hebrew inscriptions on the walls, the unfamiliar chanting of the cantor and, last but not least, just Jews who had come there to pray – all that was new to me.

       Soon Rosh ha-Shana came, the Jewish New Year. The synagogue was crowded; near the eastern wall, apart from the rest of the people, stood a small group of people who distinctly differed from all the rest. “They are from the Israeli Embassy”- an old Jew who stood next to me whispered.

       The next holiday was the merry Simhas-Toire, or Simhat Tora. The Jews were singing and dancing in the synagogue. I got nearer to the Embassy people. A young girl was holding a book in her hand (I later learned that she was the daughter of Yosef Avigdor, the Ambassador). I asked her to let me have a look at it (I did not know Hebrew then, but I was learning English). The girl handed the book to me – it was a prayer book. The shames, who was standing nearby, snatched it from my hand and returned it to the girl. Then an Embassy man handed me another prayer book and said that it was for me. I hurried out of the synagogue, unwilling to lose my treasure.

       Back home, I told my parents about the encounter in the synagogue. My mother said that she would like very much to meet an Israeli Embassy worker. I took it upon myself to arrange such a meeting.

       A week later I managed to have a short talk with the Embassy man who gave me the prayer book, and told him about my mother’s request. We arranged to meet at the Fine Arts Museum. On the appointed day and hour my mother and I came there and met that man – he was the Embassy’s Attaché for Cultural Issues, Eliyahu Hazan. A Polish Jew from Bialystok, who had moved to Palestine in the thirties and had fought in the Jewish Brigade during WWII, he was naturally interested in the Soviet Jews’ situation. After a long talk Hazan promised to give us reading materials about Israel. This is how my “subversive activity, as the KGB saw it, started. Once in three or four weeks I would come to the synagogue in Arkhipov street, and Hazan would inconspicuously slip into my hand a packet with some printed matter – once it was Pevzner’s Hebrew-Russian dictionary, next time a Yiddish magazine “Folk un Tsion” or a Warsaw Yiddish newspaper “Folks-Shtime”. (At the trial a reference from the Lenin Public Library was presented – it qualified this newspaper as anti-Soviet material). In the summer of 1957 a Youth and Student Festival was held in Moscow. Two delegations came from Israel –one representing the Communists, the other – all the rest. Together with my girl-friend Lida, I ran around looking for Israelis, receiving souvenirs, trying to talk. While doing all this, I got acquainted with two Jewish girls who were interested in Israel and Judaism. Three months later, when I started learning Hebrew with Grigory Davidovich Zilberman, he brought those two girls, who had also started to learn Hebrew. When we made sure that these girls were not sent by the security organs, we let them into our activities, and then one of them, Tina Brodetsky, who dreamed of going to Israel, also made contact with the staff of the Israeli Embassy. At the end of 1957 Hazan was expelled from the Soviet Union – he had had the daring to hand out pins and other souvenirs from Israel to Odessa Jews. Even after that, our contacts with the Embassy were not severed – other embassy workers (Katz, Agmon and Gorev) took it upon themselves to provide us with reading matter.

       The Embassy people were kept under constant surveillance, and we were tracked down and photographed, in spite of the precautions we were taking and, on April 25th 1958, all of us were arrested. All of us – meaning my parents and myself, Tina Brodetsky (her friend confessed at once, split on all of us at the interrogation and was released), her step-father Yevsei Drobovsky and Zilberman the Hebrew teacher.(It surfaced at the investigation that back in the thirties he had been jailed for teaching Hebrew to young children; in 1948 he was again put into prison for a ten year term, but was released in 1953, and now, in 1958, he was arrested for the third time. He did not know about our contacts with the Israeli Embassy, his sole “crime” consisting of having been offered a Warsaw-printed Jewish newspaper to read. For that he was sentenced to one year of “deprivation of freedom”).

       In addition, our distant relative Iosif Makovich Kamen was arrested in Dnepropetrovsk; he had taught electrical engineering in college, and we would sometimes send him some of the reading materials we had.

       For more than eight months, from the end of April till the beginning of January, we were held in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow while the investigation was going on. The KGB investigators questioned us many times about every episode, trying to find something criminal in every possible way. When I was reading the investigation materials before the trial, I came across three very unexpected investigations that had been held in Khoiniki – the small town where my mother had lived. She had left the place in the middle of the thirties, and by 1958 had neither friends nor family there. The examination records were very short. An old Jew was being questioned: “Did you know Borukh Kustanovich?” (my grandfather) – “No.” – “The investigation is over.” The next one is exactly the same. Then a third time: “Did you know Borukh Kustanovich? – Yes. – What did he do for a living? – He was a baker. – (Now there follows the main question, the one for the sake of which the investigator was sent to my mother’s birthplace.) Did he employ labour? – No. – The investigation is over”. They were very keen to find a social basis for our “anti-Soviet” activities.

       All of us were accused of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda using national/ethnic prejudices” (Article 58-10 part two) and “participating in an anti-Soviet organization” (Article 58-11). When I asked what kind of agitation could take place if we all held the same views, the answer was: ”When you were talking with your mother, it was agitation – she agitated you and you agitated her”.

       But that was not enough for the investigation. All of a sudden I read in the case materials that my parents were being accused, on top of all that, of high treason: they allegedly knew some military secrets and could pass them on to the Israelis. My mother, for example, had once worked in a technological school affiliated with an aircraft plant in the Moscow suburb of Fili. She knew about the aircraft plant’s existence. The fact that dozens of thousands of people knew about the plant’s existence, that even the tram conductors announced the near-by tram stop as “Aircraft plant”, - was of no interest to them. In addition to that, my cousin, who had been living with us since 1942 (his parents had died during the war), was at that time serving in the Army somewhere near Moscow and he visited us from time to time. My parents could have found out where his army unit was situated (they never even thought of asking him) and could have passed on this information to the Israeli Embassy.

       As a result, our case was transferred to the Military Prosecutor’s Office, and in March 1959 we were tried by the Military Board of the High Court of the USSR. The trial was held “behind closed doors” and lasted two weeks. The sentence: for high treason –acquittal but, for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, my parents were sentenced to seven years in prison, I got five, Tina – two, Drobovsky – one and a half, and Zilberman, who was 82 years old, was sentenced to one year of imprisonment.

       Iosif Kamen was tried a little earlier in Dnepropetrovsk. At first, he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment; the Prosecutor lodged a protest, and the sentence was extended to seven years instead; however, after our trial an annulment was filed, and the original sentence of three years of imprisonment was restored.

3. In the camps.

       After eight months in Lubyanka and another six months in Lefortovo, we were sent to prison camps. The women – my mother and Tina – went through an especially hard ordeal. They were transported to the Kemerovo region where the women’s political prisoners’ camp was then situated. Then, at the height of Siberian frosts, all the women were transferred to Taishet, from where Tina was released when she had served her term. My mother, together with all the other women political prisoners, was transferred to Mordovia, where, at last we were able to see her:my father and I were sometimes allowed to visit her.

       Men were taken to the Mordovia camps and distributed among different camps or zones, as they were called. I got to camp No 11 (lagpunkt 11).

       The greatest part of the two thousand prisoners who were held there were military criminals: politsais (servicemen of the indigenous police during the Nazi occupation. - Translator’s note], Vlasovites (defectors to the Germans during World War II, served in the German army. - Translator’s note), a lot of Bandera men (men of Ukrainian separatist military formations. - Translator’s note); also some Baltic republics independence fighters; religious activists (Jehovah’s Witnesses, True Orthodox Church members and members of other sects).There were about 400 men who were serving terms as proper political prisoners: for distributing political leaflets or for criticizing Khrushchev. There were some Zionists, too: David Khavkin from Moscow, Anatoly Rubin from Minsk. Groups of older Jews had been arrested in Moscow (the Landmans, the Gobermans), in Leningrad (Pechersky, Naum Kaganov), in Kiev (Meir Draznin, Remenik). Besides, there were many Jews who were in jail for other than Jewish activities.

       A former Moscow University Historical Faculty lecturer, one Obushenkov, told me an interesting story. In 1957 a Neo-Marxist group was formed at the University. Its members wrote papers on the true nature of Soviet power (which, in their opinion, had drifted away from true Marxism) and tried to distribute their leaflets in working class neighborhoods of Moscow. In the fall of 1957 the group was arrested. At the interrogation a KGB investigator yelled at Obushenkov: “Why did you get into the company of those Yids?” Obushenkov was taken aback. An educated man, an intellectual who was taking the ideas of “proletarian internationalism” at face value, he had never expected to stumble upon such out and out unveiled anti-Semitism in an organization which was supposed to guard the “social state” and its values.

       - What does it have to do with Jews?

       - Everyone is a Jew in your group!

       They started counting. The count yielded interesting results: nine people had been arrested; of those, three were Jewish, three were Russians and another three were half Jewish. But from the point of view of an anti-Semite, especially a KGB man, a drop of Jewish blood was enough to list a person as a Yid.

       The imprisonment enhanced my Jewish identity. On the one hand, I met people whose views were akin to mine. On the other hand, there were constant conflicts there with anti-Semites who accused the Jews of all of Russia’s troubles, from alcoholism (Jewish tavern-keepers made Russians drunkards) to the revolution, and these conflicts only served to augment my Jewish identity.

       One of our fellow inmates, a Russian writer, Kirill Uspensky (Kostsinsky) by name, who was learning English, received a parcel of English books from his wife. Among these books was Uris’s bestseller “The Exodus”. When Uspensky saw that the book was about the rising of Israel, he gave it to Rubin. E.B. Goltsberg organized reading it out loud (with translation); we later wrote down the translation and Avraam Shifrin, smuggled it out when he got released from camp and set about disseminating it in “the big zone” (“zone” is a word for prison camps; “big zone” means Soviet territory outside of camps, implying that life “at large” was not entirely free – see later. – Translator’s note).

       Meir Draznin, an elderly Jew from Kiev, managed to obtain texts in Hebrew: my father copied them down and passed them on to me; this allowed me to advance in Hebrew. My father even compiled a hand-written Hebrew-Russian dictionary, which I still keep.

       It was in the prison camp that I started speaking Hebrew. When the date of my release was nearing I wanted to discuss my future with my father (we were in the same camp then): I had neither a trade or a profession, nor a place to live. I was unwilling to speak about my personal affairs in the presence of other inmates, the majority of whom were politsais, and there was no privacy in the camp. That is how I started speaking Hebrew.

4. In “the Big Zone”.

       Five years had passed, “the bell rang” and I was liberated from camp. I had neither a trade or a profession nor yet a place to live; I was not even allowed to return to my own city. My parents were to spend another two years in camps.

       I went to the town of Aleksandrov in the Vladimir region – that was the nearest place to Moscow where I was allowed to settle. With great difficulty, after bribing the man in charge, I got a residence permit in a workers’ hostel of the Construction and Repairs Office and started working as a simple laborer. The wages were scarcely enough to live on. The hostel looked very much like the camp “section” (common bedroom-living room): thirty men in one room, all of whom had criminal records. Week-ends were spent in booze-ups, often ending in fights. I started looking for an alternative. I went to the local Board of Education and offered myself as an English teacher. I found out that several village schools had vacancies for foreign language teachers and I was immediately offered a job of a teacher of German in a village at a ten kilometers distance from the town. The catch was that I had only learned German at school, and that was seven years before, but there was no other way out. For three years, from 1963 to 1966 I taught German and Physical Training (!), not because I was a great lover of sport, but because all the other teachers were not particularly young women and it seemed only natural to give that job to the only young man around.

       I spent all my week-ends in Moscow. Soon, at a concert of Nehama Lifshits (Lifshitsaite at that time, of Lithuanian style) I met my old friends Tina Brodetsky and David Khavkin. Naturally, we resumed our friendship. Khavkin introduced me to some Zionists: the Landman family, Victor Polsky, David Drabkin. The latter two had got hold of a copy of “The Exodus” and organized translating it into Russian; I joined with them in that work with zeal and pleasure. Once, on a Saturday, I went to the synagogue with Dov Shperling and Miriam Garber from Riga; Dov was handed some literature from Israelis there. We were spotted, but managed to escape the chase.

       In 1966 I married my distant cousin Lida Kamen, the daughter of Iosif Kamen, the man who was arrested and tried in connection with our case. I moved to Kramatorsk, where she worked as an engineer at a machine building plant, and started working in the translations department of the same plant.

       A year later I was detained by the police, with a cooked up charge. On the next day I was interrogated by the KGB people who had come from Moscow and demanded that I give evidence against my Moscow friends, mainly Khavkin and Dolnik, who had been arrested a short time before. I claimed that I knew nothing of their Zionist activity. Even so, I was tried and sent to a prison camp for two years.

       In the summer of 1969 my parents, who were living in Zhitomir after they had been liberated from camp, received permission to emigrate to Israel, and I had to sign my consent to their leaving the country at the camp’s administration board. Immediately after my liberation from camp in August 1969 my wife and I, together with her parents, applied to leave for Israel. The authorities tarried and kept us on tenterhooks for quite a long time, trying to dissuade or to demoralize us, alternately. Four months later we received an official refusal, the reason being “inexpediency”. We started to struggle for our right to leave the country. I wrote a letter to the UN and it was broadcast by the Israeli radio.

       Not losing hope, my father-in-law Iosif Kamen started learning Hebrew. I also polished up my Hebrew by reading books; I also started to correspond in Hebrew with the poet Boris (Dov) Gapon, who translated Lermontov and Rustaveli into Hebrew. On May 1st( which was a national holiday) my wife and I went to Leningrad where we met both my old friends from prison camps and local Zionists (V. Mogilever, A. Gitelson). At Pustyntsev’s flat we met Eduard Kuznetsov and Yura Fyodorov, my former fellow prisoners. A month and a half later, on the 15 of June, they were arrested with a group of other Jews for an attempt to high-jack a plane.

       After the loud “plane case” trial, at which two of the accused men were sentenced to capital punishment, a wave of protest swept the world, and the Soviets retreated: the capital punishments were replaced by long imprisonment terms, and soon the authorities started to issue permits to leave the country. My family received visas in the middle of March 1971, and on April 4th we flew to Israel via Vienna. The Soviet period of our life came to an end.

Translated from Russian by
Ilana (Elena) Romanovsky.