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Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

30 years since the fall of the USSR : Recalling our harrowing visit in 1984

1.

Last week on 26th December, a landmark anniversary went almost unnoticed by the world. It marked exactly 30 years since the dramatic and unprecedented dissolution of the Former Soviet Union and its repressive and atheistic ideology. For seventy years, it held captive in its iron vice thousands of active dissidents including Jews many of whom were murdered, tortured and imprisoned for the crime of wishing to express their Judaism in the form of mitsva observance, education of their children or identification with Israel

In the manner of the ancient Greeks at the time of the Chanuka story, though even more brutally, the aim of Soviet Communism was to expunge any vestige of Judaism from the hearts of its citizens.

That it did not succeed, and that the proverbial Iron Curtain, seemingly impregnable, was lifted in such miraculous fashion late in 1991 is due to the grace of G-D and the spirit of its dissidents, in particular the valiant and self-sacrificing refuseniks – those Jews who refused to take “no” for an answer when submitting request after request to be allowed to make Aliya.  In the 1970s and 1980s the cry of Moses “Let My People Go!” could be heard on the lips of banner-waving Jewish protesters throughout the Western world. Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits zl coined the variant slogan “Let My People Live!”

At the beginning of this year, I reproduced a sermon delivered in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK (where I had been assistant minister and chazan) in 1983 which led to Judith and I being selected by the local branch of the “35’s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry” – what an amazing cadre of committed Jewish activists they were! – for a solidarity mission to the USSR to visit refuseniks in Leningrad and Moscow and to attempt to boost their spirits.  This trip eventually took place in February 1984 at the height of the repression during the interregnum after Yuri Andropov’s death and prior to Konstantin Chernenko’s assuming power, at a time when the KGB were especially intent on proving to the new heads how effective they could be! Judith and I experienced a torrid time, being interrogated and held under house arrest by the KGB, an event which made the international media briefly. The resultant bad press it engendered for the KGB, having detained a rabbi and his wife for no illegal activity, actually improved the lot of the refuseniks for a while.

I promised at that time to tell the story in more detail later in the year. With the advent of thirty years since dissolution, no time is more appropriate than now.  Amazingly I had never previously committed this story to writing. Judith and I had to dig deep into the recesses of our memories which we hope are reliable – and we found ourselves reliving the hashgacha p’ratit, the Divine Providence that we believe makes the story still worth telling almost forty years on.

The story will unfold in two instalments.  The first appears below Next week I plan to re-run the 1983 Parshat Bo sermon that led to it all. The following week, G-D willing, I shall conclude with the second and final part of the story.

* * *

We were barely out of shana rishona, our first year of marriage. We were young and venturesome.  It was nevertheless with some trepidation mingled with much excitement that we anticipated our ambassadorial trip behind the Iron Curtain.

We were professionally briefed as well as coached in the Cyrillic script and basic Russian words and phrases. Above all we were made aware of the fact that we were entering a repressive country at an immensely challenging time and that we had to maintain a balance between visiting the maximum number of refuseniks and staying safe and discreet.

We were given the names and addresses of three (maybe four) refuseniks in Leningrad and another three in Moscow.  For our seven-day trip, we were to fly Aeroflot (the Soviet airline) to Leningrad on the Monday, stay till the Thursday then fly to Moscow where we would also spend Shabbat before flying home.

We had two suitcases and three bags, all of them bulging.  (Thus began the Ingram tradition of always travelling with five pieces of protuberant luggage!) Their contents included: cosmetics (for refuseniks in prison to use as bribes to make life easier for them) and essential medications including Panadol and antibiotics (scarcely available in the USSR); sheitels; mezuzot (well-hidden in the depths of Judith’s capacious handbag); a small Megila; cassette tapes and a tiny cassette recorder (more on those later); and half a dozen sefarim, Jewish books ostensibly for our own use (we didn’t dare take more) but, in reality, to be given away.  In addition, our cases contained our own vestiary requirements including heavy jumpers, given the sub-zero late-February conditions in Russia, and moon boots to navigate the snow – and, of course, our essential kosher food as well as my own tallit, tefillin and mini-siddur.

The names and addresses of the people we were to visit plus essential information were sequestered in code in my notebook. We were ready to fly!

We kept our heads down on the plane. I was wearing a flat cap and did not at all look like a rabbi.  That didn’t stop one individual whom I sensed was a fellow-member of the tribe sidling up to me on the plane and trying to wheedle out of me what we were going to Leningrad for. I revealed nothing. We had been warned to trust nobody!

As we filed through passport control in Leningrad, we started to feel the tension as several airport bureaucrats (undoubtedly KGB agents) made a beeline for us.  Of course, the Israeli stamps in our passports could not have helped.  The titles of our books were noted down (we later discovered that they missed one which proved to be a veritable miracle, but more on that in due course!) and we were told we had better have them still with us when we departed the country. Our hearts sank. We wouldn’t be able to give them away as planned. All we could do is show them to the people we visited.

Our Mezuzot and Megila, thankfully, were not discovered. The bureaucrats did, however, request to listen to one of the cassette tapes. They seemed disappointed to hear the familiar and uncontroversial strains of Tchaikovsky’s music emanating from our recorder and shut it off after a few seconds. Had they had the patience to wait five minutes they would have heard the music cease and the sound of my voice recording a shiur on the laws of Shabbat. But mercifully, they didn’t! We thanked the Almighty for His kindness and in absentia our briefers for sharing with us their intelligent ploy!

An airport-hotel shuttle bus was waiting to take us to Hotel Leningrad (still operating, now called Hotel St. Petersburg). The other passengers bound for that hotel could have been forgiven for being irate at having to wait for us.  Instead, they were concerned.  A few muttered quietly to us how distressed they were at the way we had been singled out for “special treatment” at arrivals.  That made us feel a little better!

On arrival at the hotel, our passports – together with those of our fellow-guests – were “held for safe keeping” (euphemism for “confiscated”). We arrived physically and mentally exhausted.  Unfortunately, we slept through the meeting scheduled that evening at which we were expected to make our tours selection.  This was a big mistake, due to which we never got to go on even one tour, as we had been advised we should. Our absence from all tours was assuredly noted by the surveillance agents who were everywhere. We were convinced that even the lifts were bugged! Judith and I had to be very careful even of what we said to each other, never mind to others, and when and where we said it!

Each floor was patrolled by a stern, unsmiling female commissar. She made sure we deposited our key whenever we left.  It appeared her job was to monitor all the comings and goings and everything the guests said or did as well as to make the guests feel incredibly unwelcome and on edge!

The hotel was attractively situated by the water and near a naval museum.  Later that evening, we went for a walk to get our bearings and to find a telephone box.  Of course we didn’t dare to make any calls from the hotel.  We succeeded in setting up our meetings with our designated Leningrad refuseniks. They were – we are thrilled we both still remember – Pavel Astrakhan, Yitzchak Kogan and Grigory Wasserman and their families.   (It is possible there was a fourth, but we don’t recall.)

Pavel was a mechanical engineer, married to Sophia with a tiny daughter, Lily. (He was finally granted permission to emigrate in March 1987). I remember them as being very straightforward, sincere, salt-of-the-earth people.  Yitzchak, known as the “Tsaddik of Leningrad”, was a baal teshuva who became a  clandestine shochet. We remember him and his wife Sofa for their warm hospitality.  We also recall him telling us how he always had to find a different site for his shechita operations lest he be caught in the act.  He aided many refuseniks under the radar including “celebrities” like Ida Nudel and Iosef Mendelovitch. (He finally received permission to make aliya in 1986 but returned just before the fall of Communism to serve as a rabbi and mentor in Moscow where he now resides. His published autobiography in Hebrew tells his full, incredible life-story.)

Grigory (Zvi) Wasserman was a communications engineer with, I recall, a sharp and incisive intellect.  He is now a charedi rabbi living in Rekhasim, near Haifa.

We were told inspirational stories about how Jews who only had a smidgen of Torah knowledge taught those who had none; and how valiant parents bound the right hand of their children in a bandage on Shabbat (Saturday school was compulsory) so that they would not have to write.

All the very special Jews we were privileged to meet expressed their deep appreciation for our visit.  It means so much to know that Jews throughout the world care for our plight, they all said.  What they did not realise is that they did far more for us than we for them!  What we later experienced gave us a very small taste of the fear under which they lived on a daily basis. They were a tremendous beacon of continuing inspiration.

Grigory introduced us to his close circle of fellow-refuseniks. When it came out that I was a serving chazan, one of them, a musician, asked if she could arrange a concert in her home for the next evening, which was planned to be our last in Leningrad before flying on to Moscow.

I was only too happy to oblige. I was given to understand that there was nothing illegal in performing at a concert even if Jewish music was sung. This came under the banner of “Jewish culture” and was permitted – as long as there was no praying or textual study.

We had, by this point, deposited all the clothes, medicines, cosmetics, sheitels, tapes and mezuzot designated for Leningrad. We had not left behind any of the books as we knew we had to return with them. But after Judith got into discussion with one of the female refuseniks about taharat ha-mishpacha and mikveh, we agreed to leave a small booklet called A Guide To Family Purity (which Judith still had tucked in her handbag)  behind, stipulating that we would need to pick it up the following evening from the home where the concert was to be held. This gave them an invaluable opportunity to photocopy the contents.

We had travelled by Metro to all of our destinations. But the following evening, as the place to which we were going was not accessible by Metro, for the first time, we took a taxi.

I shall never know whether that taxi driver suspected something about us or about where we were going and played informant.  All I do know is that as we entered the building where the concert was to be held, we found ourselves surrounded by KGB agents who told us we were under arrest on the preposterous charge of harbouring narcotics.  Later we found out this was merely a ploy to enable them to take us in a darkened vehicle to the police station for interrogation regarding a far darker crime – acting in a hostile fashion towards the State.

To be continued.

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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