Report on Trip to the Soviet Union in January 1987 to Visit Jewish Refuseniks

(Part 3)

By Solomon Schimmel, Ph.D

       Lev asked me to visit Natasha Ratner, the wife of Alexsei Magarik, the most recently incarcerated Prisoner of Zion. Natasha was not on our list of contacts but I simply could not refuse such a request and Lev called her from his home putting me on the line to make arrangements. Natasha spoke a fluent English and I told her that I'd be at her house tomorrow afternoon. Natasha had a fifteen month old baby and I asked her if she would be interested in having a doctor come along to examine the child who had been suffering from a recurring rash. Natasha said that she would and I told her that if my colleague will be free tomorrow he will join me. I also asked her if there was anything we could get for her at a Beriozka shop, since from my preparations for the trip I had learned that baby formula is very difficult for ordinary Russians to obtain, but it is sold in the Beriozka shops open only to those with foreign currency. She said that she would appreciate acidified baby formula. I also told Lev that I would obtain for him some baby formula and leave it for him tomorrow with Natasha.

       While I was at Lev's home a gentleman stopped by for a few moments, tall, bearded and handsome. I did not have a chance to interact with him. Later Lev told me that he was Alexander Kholmiansky a former Prisoner of Zion who was released ten months ago. I felt bad that I had missed out on an opportunity to meet with and talk to one of our fellow Jews who has experienced the harshest persecution of the Soviet government for his Jewishness and who though having suffered so much continues to affirm his commitment to Judaism in the hostile Russian environment.

       I bid Lev and Avital farewell with that unique constellation of feelings that I experienced so often during my trip when the time came to say goodbye -admiration and reverence for their strength of character and commitment, sadness in knowing that it will be a very long time before we will meet again, sorrow for them in their plight as prisoners in a country they so much want to leave, guilt at the ease with which I, as an American citizen, could depart from Russia and hope that somehow soon there will be a change in the Soviet government's policy towards emigration and free expression of Jewish culture and religion.

       I returned to the hotel at about 4:30 p.m. to prepare for the talk that I was to deliver in the evening at the home of Baruch Berman.

       In my telephone conversation with Baruch the previous night he emphasized that the group which he has organized and leads consists of extremely serious, sophisticated and well-educated individuals and that my lecture should be deep and scholarly. Some of these people may not know that much about Judaism but they are thirsting for knowledge and understanding and it is important to maximize every minute of my time. You can imagine the psychological pressure that Baruch's background briefing imposed on me as I prepared my lecture and the appropriate approach to the subject matter. I had decided that I would begin with an analysis of the Book of Jonah combining a traditional understanding of this prophetic book with some insights from contemporary Biblical scholarship and analyses of the central features of biblical poetry. As a backup I would discuss more broadly the concept of teshuva, a central theme of Jonah, and if that were not enough I would go into the story of David's sin with Batsheva and the related Psalm 51.

       It was good that I had prepared myself for a long lecture.

       As agreed upon Baruch met me at the Metro station. It wasn't difficult to identify him. There he was, a young, extremely handsome, smiling fellow in his late twenties with a beard and of course, his large gray kippa prominently displayed on his head (notwithstanding the freezing temperature). We greeted each other warmly, as if we were already old friends and conversed in Hebrew as we walked to Baruch's apartment. Once again Baruch reiterated the importance of depth in analyzing the texts –superficiality was to be avoided at all costs. It was this intensity and absolute seriousness about Jewish learning which, perhaps more than any other quality of Baruch's, that has permanently embedded itself in my consciousness. At his apartment where we arrived some time after 7 p.m. Baruch introduced me to his wife Avital, who covers her hair and to his two daughters. The Berman children attend the Hebrew school led by Yuzefovich, and the native tongue of the Berman's youngest child is Hebrew. While we waited for the guests to arrive Baruch told me about them. Not all are refuseniks, some are Jews who have become interested in Judaism but have not requested exit visas. I was to lecture in Hebrew and Baruch would be simultaneously translating into Russian. Almost all of the members of the group were in their twenties and thirties, most of them professionals, academicians or students. Although Baruch himself was orthodox and saw as his mission to bring these people closer to Judaism, he was extremely tolerant and respectful of the diversity of views and attitudes of the members of the group, many or most of whom were not orthodox. By eight o'clock about fifteen members of the group had arrived and after a brief introduction I began to lecture. I lectured for about three hours and covered all of the topics that I had prepared. Imagine how I felt when at one point in my analysis of the David and Batsheva episode Baruch said, in effect, tell us more, what else can we learn from or about this story. Baruch, I said, there is a limit to how much I can squeeze out of David's behavior. I had found over the past few days that I was capable of making the people I had been meeting laugh heartily about their situation and about my own naivete about Russia. At one point in the evening I had interspersed several jokes and funny anecdotes to which the group responded with a clear sense of enjoyment. But then Baruch said - there has been a request to defer the jokes until after the session - let us proceed with the lecture. For Baruch, and for others in the audience too, every moment of exposure to Jewish knowledge was precious - too precious to be set aside even for good-hearted laughter. At one point I offered to play the tape of songs that I brought along, but this too was to be deferred until later. Towards the end of my talk, when I analyzed Psalm 51 with its theme of repentance and renewal and other Psalms with themes of yearning for closeness to God I played several of the selections as examples of musical interpretations of central religious experiences which we had discussed that evening. The lecture was interspersed with questions by members of the group. Incidentally, several members of this group did not want to be photographed, presumably out of fear of being discovered by the authorities.

       After the group left, near midnight, Baruch asked if I could remain a while since there was something very important he wanted to discuss with me, a favor he wanted to request. Naturally I told him that I'd be happy to stay a while and I anticipated a request for personal assistance of some sort on his behalf. As he sat across me Baruch looked at me with hesitation, as if unsure if it would be proper for him ask me this favor. Baruch asked me if I had ever heard of the journal of Jewish studies called Judaism. I told him that I had, that it was a well known journal among Jews in the United States. Baruch told me that he had once come across a single issue of that journal and he was very excited to have read it. But of more importance was his feeling that the journal Judaism could be of great importance to his learning group - in the following way. Some of the members of his group, with his encouragement, have written articles on Jewish themes. In his opinion some of their papers would be very appropriate for publication in Judaism both for their subject matter and for their intellectual level. One of the frustrations of these serious students of Jewish texts and thought is their inability to have any of the fruits of their labor published in Russia. It would give them and the entire group a tremendous psychological boost if they were to know that articles they had written were published and read by others. And then, Baruch, looking at me with longing eyes, asked me ever so gently if I would be kind enough to approach the editor of Judaism to discuss with him the possibility of publishing some of this work. The tears welled up in my eyes as I experienced the pathos of the situation. Back in the States I am overwhelmed by the proliferation of scholarly and semi-scholarly literature on Judaica that appears regularly and with which I cannot possibly keep up and of the numerous outlets available for Jewish expression. And here, seated before me is a beautiful and tragically situated soul who was elated by a single issue of one Judaic journal because it held the promise of reinforcing his students' commitment to their semi-clandestine and potentially dangerous pursuit of Jewish study and whose "favor" which he requested with such trepidation, was of so spiritual a nature. Baruch waited for me to reply, his facial expression indicating that he was unsure if he had gone beyond the legitimate boundaries of asking a favor from a visitor whom he barely knew.

       I grasped Baruch's hand lovingly, stared into his eyes and promised him that as soon as he manages to get any of these articles to me in the States I would personally take it upon myself to contact the editor of Judaism to try to arrange for their publication. I told him that it would be a privilege for me to do this and not a "favor" to him or his students. I assured him that in addition to Judaism there were many other journals in the United States that would be interested in publishing the kinds of articles which he described. Baruch broke into a smile of gratitude and relief, ran into another room and came out with a thick folder containing typed manuscripts of some of the articles about which he had spoken. One of them was by he himself – an analysis of Chapter 1 of Exodus where Pharoah, preparing a cunning campaign of repression and enslavement against the Israelites in Egypt, tells his advisors "Let us deal shrewdly with them". In his article, Baruch tells me, he has shown the many parallels between the experiences of the Israelites in Egypt and the experiences of the Jews in Russia. Since this material had not yet been translated into English and moreover Baruch was reluctant and fearful of having me take out the copies he was showing to me, I suggested that he decide upon the way in which he would feel most comfortable to have them delivered to me in the States and as soon as I receive them I will pursue the matter of their publication.

       We then went on to discuss Baruch himself. As I have indicated Baruch is fluent in Hebrew and he has achieved a very advanced level of mastery of classical Jewish texts, having a particularly strong interest in Midrash. Baruch has an advanced degree in comparative literature. He told me the following story with a great deal of bitterness tempered by resignation. One of his particular interests is in developing improved approaches to the teaching of literature to children of junior high school age. He worked for quite some time on preparing and finally publishing only a few months ago, an attractive pamphlet on teaching children how to probe more deeply into Chekhov's short stories, which are studied in every Soviet school. Shortly after the appearance of Baruch's pamphlet, it was devastatingly critiqued in a lengthy review that appeared in Izvestia, one of the major Soviet dailies. Now it is highly uncommon for Izvestia, being such an important newspaper, to spend its time on reviewing a politically innocuous twenty-five page educational pamphlet - unless there was some covert ulterior motive in doing so. And of course there was -this was the KGB's cunning way of punishing Baruch for his Jewish activities and of trying to intimidate him. Such a review in Izvestia is the KGB's coded way of informing all publishers (whose antennae are attuned to such KGB hints) not to deal henceforth with Baruch Berman - and indeed that is exactly what has happened. No publisher is now willing to hire Baruch, and his income from his literary activities has been markedly reduced.

       With deep sadness and affection I said goodbye to Baruch and Avital and arrived at my hotel after 1 a.m..

       Alan had not yet returned and considering the lateness of the hour I was concerned that he might have encountered some misadventure with the KGB. However, to my relief, he knocked on the room door at 1:30 a.m., safe and sound, and like me, filled with a long day's unforgettable experiences. We tried to communicate to each other, within the limitations of the guarded and fragmentary manner that we permitted ourselves in the hotel room, something of what we had seen, heard and felt this day.

       As Alan had not scheduled any independent visits for Tuesday, we decided to go together to visit Natasha Ratner and if time permitted, to visit Misha Rabinovich for a second time.

Tuesday, January 6, 1987

       Lev Sud and Natasha Ratner, in response to my offer, requested infant formula, obtainable only in a Beriozka. The Beriozka in our hotel did not have any so we took a cab to another, more elegant hotel, hoping to find some there. Unfortunately, for some reason the food department of the Beriozka there was closed that day. We were told that at the Hammer Centre for International Trade there was another Beriozka which might carry the Milex we were seeking. It was several degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) and no cab or bus was available, but we decided to brave the weather and walk for twenty minutes to the Hammer Centre in the hopes of finding the formula. Our feeling was that if we don't obtain some, who knows when Lev or Natasha will have another opportunity to get some. Luckily our walk paid off and we stocked up on the Milex, although the store didn't carry the specific Acidified Milex that Natasha wanted because her son was allergic to the regular formula. As we walked and then shopped we commented to each other on the primitiveness and the unfairness of the Soviet policy of distribution of consumer goods. Only privileged individuals (foreigners and Soviet citizens with special rights of access to certain stores that carry goods generally unavailable to the "proletarian masses") in this society of supposed equality, can buy such a basic item as baby formula!

       From the store we took a cab to Natasha Ratner's mother's apartment, where, since her husband's arrest, Natasha lives with her mother and her fifteen month old son, Chaim.

       Natasha is a petite thirty-year old woman whose small frame leaves one all the more astounded by the intensity and dynamism of her personality. In her fluent and rapidly spoken English she recounted to us the story of how her husband, Aleksei Magarik, was framed by the KGB on a fabricated narcotics charge on March 14, 1986 and is now one of the Prisoners of Zion, imprisoned in a labor camp in Omsk. Aleksei, by profession a cellist, was, together with Natasha, a teacher of Hebrew in Moscow. Natasha's energies are divided between caring for her infant son and working for the release of her husband, or at least for the amelioration of the conditions of privation and torture that he is subjected to in labor camp (such as lack of protective clothing essential for his minimal health and safety in the work he was assigned to perform; deprivation of rights of visitation; incarceration in a special punishment cell; denial of rights to purchase items from the prison store and more). The temperature in the punishment cell is so cold that in order to survive in it a prisoner must jump up and down to generate body warmth. If he doesn't do so he will freeze to death. Natasha told us that one prisoner who had been released from the labor camp told her of another prisoner who had been placed in the punishment cell. Because he had only one leg and couldn't jump up and down he froze to death. In its treatment of prisoners, Communist Russia, for all of its propaganda and crocodile tears shed on behalf of oppressed and suffering humanity, isn't any more humane than the brutal Czarist Russia which it replaced. And it is important to always keep in mind that the present leader of Russia, Gorbachev - whom the Russian government seeks to portray as so enlightened, peace-loving and urbane - arrived at his present position as a protege of Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB.

       One major focus of Natasha's efforts is on writing letters of protest to various government officials responsible for the administration of the labor camps, the prison system and the judicial system of the country - or to their superiors in the government or the communist party. Her feeling is that since the state is not totally lawless, and since it wants to preserve at least a facade of lawfulness, some small amelioration of Aleksei's suffering may result from her calling officials to task for their violations of official Soviet law and administrative regulations. In a letter to the Prosecutor General of the USSR, written one month before we met Natasha, she specified in great detail the unlawful acts of the prison authorities in Corrective Labor Colony # 8 in Omsk and insisted on their immediate termination. She concluded her letter with the following remarks:

       "Nothing but prompt interference can prevent lawlessness in Camp # 8, given such demonstrative scorn for the law on the part of the administration and the full connivance of the supervisory office. It is your duty to ensure observance of the law. However, if it is beyond your power to stop the arbitrary rule of Omsk Camp #16/8, please inform me what other Soviet or international organizations I should apply to". Natasha asked that we request visitors from the West, particularly businessmen, journalists, diplomats, scientists or government officials, who tend to have more contact with Soviet governmental authorities than do tourists, to bring to the attention of their Russian hosts the flagrant violation of standards of justice, legality and morality that are taking place in the treatment of her husband. I hope that whoever reads this report and finds him/herself in the position to do anything on behalf of Aleksei, (or any refusenik) will do so.

       I asked Natasha to tell us a little about her personal history. She was brought up in an assimilated Jewish home and was trained as an electrical engineer. About seven years ago when looking for employment, she encountered anti-semitism in the market place. This experience led her to reflect upon her Jewishness. She heard about a group of Jews interested in exploring Jewish culture led by a certain Aleksei Magarik and went to a meeting where she heard some Shlomo Carlebach melodies. These songs made a deep impression on her. Aleksei suggested that Natasha study Hebrew, a suggestion which she at first rejected. However when he teased her with the challenge that Hebrew is a difficult language to learn Natasha responded to the challenge with “I’ll prove that I can master Hebrew.” She became a student of Mila Volvovsky and later a teacher of Inna Joffe and many others. Along the way of her return to Jewishness Natasha married Aleksei. In addition to her fluency in English and Hebrew, Natasha speaks Italian and French. As another comment on the intra-familial tensions generated by the renaissance of Hebrew culture and religion in Russia, Natasha told us that her mother is not interested in emigrating. However, their personal relationship remains very close and her mother is a strong source of moral support for her.

       All of our conversation with Natasha was taking place as she was scurrying from one room to another with fifteen month old Chaim, entertaining him, preparing food for him and then setting him up for his afternoon nap. We followed her around as ducklings follow mother duck so as to maximize the time we could spend talking to her and listening to her perceptive and coldly objective comments on the nature of the Soviet system, her personal life history, the details of the story of Aleksei's frame up and trial, his present situation and her campaign on his behalf. One of the remarkable characteristics of Natasha, and indeed of every single refusenik we met, was her total lack of self- pity and of any sense of the heroic. Although Alan and I surely saw in her elements of the heroic, and indeed told her so, she in no way projected such a sense of self. Her stories about KGB fabrication of evidence and control over the judicial system, to guarantee the outcome of a trial before it even began; of the pain and privation of labor camp and the cruel cynicism of its staff, aroused our anger and our compassion. Although Natasha recounted these events with passion, resentment and deep concern for her husband's welfare, she maintained throughout, a rational perspective on what she felt has to be done within the constraints of the system.

       In the course of our conversation I had used the phrase "if you get to Israel". Natasha immediately corrected me with "when I get to Israel". Overpowered by her steely determination and fighting spirit as a Jew and as a critic of injustice I told Natasha what I had said on my trip to several other refuseniks I had met. Only now do I really comprehend the secret of Jewish survival over the ages. Our ancestors must have been hewn from the same tough granite that people like yourself come from. I also joked that when Natasha and others like her get to Israel they will turn the country upside down with their strength of character and their willingness to stand up against manifestations of unfairness and of bureaucratic indifference and insensitivity. (Natasha and the others were quite familiar with Israeli society - its negative as well as its positive aspects). I said that it was people like you, Russian Jews, who came to Palestine eighty years ago and built the Yishuv in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. I think that my refusenik brothers enjoyed these complimentary comments of mine, which I made in deepest sincerity.

       Alan examined Chaim and found him to be in good health. Then Natasha wrapped and bundled and enclosed him in several different layers of clothing to prepare him for his nap. I asked Natasha to please expose Chaim's face, which was to be totally covered except for the nostrils, so that I could take a picture of him. As I was fumbling with my camera she said, please do it fast, because he is getting too warm. Well, if it's too warm for him in the apartment dressed up like that, why do you bundle him up so? Do you want him to freeze she said? What do you mean by freeze, I said. Although the apartment is quite cold, still half the amount of garments you put on him will surely be enough to keep him warm. You don't understand, she said, he is going to have his nap outside on the tiny porch - where it is below zero. After all a baby needs his fresh air, doesn't he?

       During my conversation with Natasha I told her that I will cherish the day when she will visit me in Boston with Aleksei and Chaim. When we got up to leave, Natasha looked at me coyingly and said "You invited me to your home in Boston. Did you really mean it?" Of course I did - why do think that I didn't? Well, then, said Natasha, why don't you leave me your address? Inadvertently I had neglected that small detail and shamefacedly, I did. I eagerly await for Natasha to knock on my door.

       We had phoned Misha Rabinovich from Natasha's apartment to find out if it would be alright for us to visit the family a second time. Misha was very happy at our suggestion and we arrived after five p.m. to a very warm welcome from Misha, Marina and Mischka, with whom by now we felt a close friendship. Misha, still on his hunger strike, escorted us into the dining area, proudly praising Marina for having prepared in our honor a special dinner. The dinner included fried carp and Misha insisted that we each take a second helping. We knew that Marina probably had to wait a long time on a queue in order to purchase the fish, and we felt guilty eating it. However, we both saw Marina and Misha's delight in being able to host us generously and so we acquiesced to their entreaties. We also happened to be quite hungry. What was most poignant about the situation was that in American terms the meal was quite sparse. The Rabinovich family was in dire financial straits and we felt that were it not for our sensitivity to their self-dignity we would have tactfully declined to eat and left the fish for them.

       The five of us sat around the dinner table, we with our fish and peas, Misha with his glass of boiled water. Knowing how difficult it is for me to resist the sights and smells of tasty food I asked Misha why he is subjecting himself to the temptations of food which he wasn't going to eat. Misha said that at this stage in his hunger strike the sight and smell of food no longer stimulate his appetite. I had never fasted for more than twenty-six hours. I had never experienced the psychological and physiological effects of thirty-three days without any food and the additional psychological impact on one's powers of self-control when the fasting is an act of desperation, of protest of injustice and a plea for freedom. Whether Misha said what he did just to make me feel more comfortable partaking of my meal in the presence of his deprivation, or whether indeed by that point he actually wasn't tempted to eat, I don't really know.

       The mood this evening was relaxed. On Sunday the bonds between us had been formed, and we had addressed the pressing concerns of examining Misha and of learning about the reasons for his fast and the history and present status of his "being in refusal". This evening we were just old friends getting together to enjoy each other's company, chat, and entertain one another. Many a witty remark and funny anecdote was told that evening and much laughter was engendered. But interspersed between the lighter side of the conversation were Misha's stories of how he had experienced anti-Semitism when applying to enter the university; how he, through perseverance, talent and hard work overcame the attempts of the university authorities to sabotage his application for admission; how he was deprived of his degrees and thrown out of work because of his applying to emigrate. He told us of his family history - the unbelievable suffering and deprivation experienced by his family during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. His grandmother had to burn for fuel, book by book, his grandfather's very valuable library, which included a considerable amount of Judaica, so that the family shouldn't freeze to death in the long winters of those horrible war years. Misha himself grew up almost totally ignorant of Judaism and only late in life did he come to realize that he wanted to be more than merely one born a Jew, but rather to be a Jewishly knowledgeable Jew living in the Jewish homeland. He took great pride in his son Mishka's Hebrew studies.

       As I listened to Misha, engrossed by the events he was describing, the feelings he was expressing, and most of all, by the self-disciplined and courageous personality that he was radiating I had to remind myself of the reality that I was experiencing. I was in totalitarian Russia, being hosted by a brilliant mathematician being forced by the Soviet government to waste away his knowledge and talent. Before me was a man of unusual strength and justifiable pride being subjected to the indignities of forced impoverishment and demeaning labor (for someone of his abilities). I was full and healthy - he was famished and hovering on the boundary between minimal health and acute danger to his life. In a few days I would be attending to my normal personal and professional activities back in the freedom of the United States - he will be devising (if his hunger strike will not accomplish its goal) a new more drastic strategy to try to escape from his imprisonment. I will be able to earn a living by the fruit of my labor - he will be obliged, with deep inner torment and shame, to accept a gift from some American tourist like myself, that will carry him through the next few weeks of buying food and other basics.

       The four hours we had spent together flew by quickly. I thought it appropriate to leave and give Misha a chance to rest. He would not hear of it. Misha insisted that I give a "shiur" (a study session) to the family. He preferred a topic on some aspect of Jewish thought or philosophy. Naturally I had to oblige. I examined his library of Judaica and found a few siddurim in it. I decided that we would study the song "Yigdal" which is a medieval poetic synopsis of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith formulated by Maimonides.

       For almost an hour and a half the five of us studied "Yigdal". I spoke in English and Misha translated into Russian for Marina. Throughout the session Misha made pointed comments and asked penetrating questions. I have no idea from where he derived his powers of concentration in his given circumstances! Each member of the family, according to his ability read portions of the text in Hebrew. At the conclusion of the study session Alan and I sang for Misha, Marina and Mishka the traditional melody for "Yigdal". Misha taped the entire study session and I hope that in moments of gloom he will get some consolation from the thoughts of Maimonides and the voices of his two dear friends in Boston.

       We hugged and kissed everyone in this sweet family goodbye and promised to call them from Leningrad to where we were flying the next morning.

       The first half of our trip was coming to a close. In the morning we were to bid Moscow goodbye and fly to Leningrad. In the six days we were in Moscow the only sightseeing we managed to do was to spend about forty-five minutes in Red Square which was one block away from our hotel. We observed the sacred ritual of communism - the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. The weather was so cold that the pliable, plastic strap on my camera case hardened to the point that it could hardly be bent. Another effect of the cold was that every time I would enter a Metro station or any other building, from the outside, my glasses would not only fog up but a coating of frost would form on them. I thought that a capitalist entrepreneur in Russia, were he allowed to pursue and market his inventiveness, would surely have developed mini windshield wipers and defoggers for glasses. Alan would have to lead me by the hand down the steps into the Metro station, and when he developed back trouble the scene of a limping Alan leading a visionless Sol was a near literal rendition of "the lame leading the blind". The Muscovites we saw in the streets and on the Metro looked handsome, healthy and dignified in their fur hats and coats and their cheeks reddened by the cold. Although physically Moscow is drab and ugly the people appeared friendly and not unhappy.

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