Zelda Harris
Five on the 100 aliyah from UK list!

Death of a Soviet Jewish activist

For more than a year I have  attempted to raise awareness of the urgency of oral testament in order to preserve and disseminate  the feats and efforts of  all of those who were involved in the Campaign for the Release of Soviet Jewry. The activities which started in the Soviet Union in the late 60’s continued  there  and throughout the western world until the 90’s when the  flood gates opened and the mass of Jews who wanted to emigrate, arrived in Israel.

We all know that the oral testament of survivors of the Holocaust is the most profound vehicle for creating understanding, sympathy and identity   with what took place in In Europe during World War Two.

In their wisdom Spielberg and others realized that there can be no more powerful witness than a  survivor of the horror. The human being, not the book or the movie is what will have the greatest effect on the listener now and in years to come.

The objective at the end of the day is not just to inform but to exemplify the struggle and courage of those who were involved and to learn from it.

As with the holocaust survivors many who were the leading activists in the Soviet Jewry struggle are no longer with us. Those who still remain will not be here to give testimony in another 10 years or so.

Much of our past history presents us as victims or victors and sometimes it weighs heavily in influencing our attitudes, on how we should act to preserve what we have achieved, against all odds.

The story of those in the FSU and the thousands all over the world who supported them is one of victory over adversity. It illustrates what people can do if only they have confidence in others who share their aims and identify with their rights.

In itself it is a lesson of faith, when a future outcome is impossible to determine.

It is a story of which Jews should be proud and which others can emulate.

It was over the telephone in 1971 that I met Vladimir Prestin. I had returned to London from Israel with my family. I was told that he could speak Hebrew, that he was a leading Moscow activist particularly concerned with Zionism and Jewish knowledge and for him the link to the outside world was essential, so that he could receive materials and books to facilitate his teaching others.

I was a founding member of the 35’s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. Through our project to bond with activist families, my family “adopted” his. Even though we had not met them, they became an integral part of our lives. His personal story was fascinating. He had been refused a visa on the grounds that he might have secret information, having worked as an electronic engineer on transistorized components for IBM computers. When I took his case to IBM they told me that the introduction of integral schemes   had made the computers on which he worked, obsolete!

After applying for a visa to go to Israel he was thrown out of his job and became an “elevator man”

He also learned massage from a Chinese expert and told me that when he would come to Israel he would be able to relieve my back pain.

In the USSR at that time there was no ”unemployment” if one did not work one could face a jail sentence. The reason that he and other Jews felt that they had a legal right to leave was due to a clause in the constitution which allowed a person to “return to his rightful (historic) homeland. Once they applied they became persona non grata in the Soviet Union and so despised by  neighbours and workmates.

We communicated by telephone regularly until the visit of President Nixon to Moscow in 1972. Then the activists’ phones were cut and for years were not restored. Telegrams were censored, letters rarely delivered. Volodya and other activists would venture out late at night to the local post office in below zero   temperatures.  Receiving calls from overseas were allowed, but lines were tapped. The conversations were short and interrupted so there was no small talk only the passing of information. Within hours we in the West would forward the information all over the world to where others would take up the call. They would approach their politicians or academic institutions and present the cases highlighting those who were arrested or threatened.

There was no other technology available to Jewish activists in the FCU, even typewriters were confiscated.

We in the West also had very little means of communicating in a world prior to computers, smartphones and facebook.

I first visited the USSR in 1977 with my friend Jane the wife of a British Member of Parliament.

We travelled Aeroflot in a tour group. We were the only Jews and the other tourists with us looked askance when we turned up late for meals or were seen hugging bearded Russian men outside of our hotel. Locals were not allowed in to hotels. Our hotel room was tapped but as I had been advised by a friend in the British Foreign Office to call the Embassy in Moscow to announce our arrival, I felt somewhat protected.

Although he had warned me with a twinkle in his eye” If you do anything to upset the authorities we will not be responsible”

We were overwhelmed by the love and hospitality that Volodia’s family and all his heroic friends bestowed upon us. We promised to do everything possible to bring their cases to the attention of all and sundry. During our visit Anatoli Sharansky and Professor Orlov, leader of the Human Rights Committee were arrested. We met Sharansky’s mother and brother who asked us to take letters seeking legal support for him in Europe, out of the country. It would have been dangerous for us to carry the letters but through connections we made sure that the letters were dispatched. On our return we contacted politicians,trade unions,academics, anyone who would listen.

In 1978 I returned to Israel in with my family. I was  sent  to Moscow for the second time, in 1980.My mission then was to record testaments of “life in refusal”. When I left them I was overcome with emotion and again, promised to keep pushing for their release.

Another seven years went by until he and his wife Lena their son Misha, Pasha , Mara(Lena’ sister) and their son Felix Abramovitch  all arrived at Ben Gurion airport in 1987,along with the other leading “refuseniks”.

During those years they had suffered humiliation deprivation and threats, with no end in view. At one point in London, I had taken part in a seminar on  ”Torture and denial of basic human rights”. It had been organized by Amnesty International. I asked a renowned Professor whether refusal of a visa which would allow a person to leave, without giving any hint of when or if it would be authorized, in other words ”living in total uncertainty of one’s future” was considered torture? His answer was   ”Decidedly, torture is the art of abuse, uncertainty and suppression of   human will and desire.

Sadly, Volodya died at his home in Tel Aviv a few days ago.

Of course we who loved him will remember him but who else will? Many books have been written about the period but none have told the full story.

I stand at his graveside.  I watch his son who bears his resemblance, shovel the sand of the land for which he had longed, on to his lifeless form. He is being buried next to his beloved wife Lena. I cannot weep. The turnout is impressive indeed all of the “stars” of the aliyah movement and tarbut activism in the FCU are present, at least the ones who are still with us! Those who spoke of him said” Volodya was our  Rabbi, who always put others first and inspired us to continue the struggle with optimism and humour”.

This reminded me, of when I received from Volodya one of those dolls which do not fall over, they just rock back and forth. He sent it with a friend, who suddenly was allowed to leave. I asked him” Why did you send it”? His answer “Can’t you guess”?

Sir Martyn Gilbert the iconic historian of the 20th century was writing the “definitive” book on the Soviet Jewry Struggle but after a severe illness he passed away last year.  He   had   met  Volodya in the 80’s and was extremely impressed with what he found, as was Rabbi Jakobovitch the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and many others from different countries, who always reported back to me after a visit .

So who is going to preserve  the testaments of those who established and maintained an ongoing even miraculous, connection with Jews in the free world and inspired the most impressive aliyah?

Beit Hatfutsot is not interested only the Abraham Harman Institute at the Hebrew University is concerned, but does not have funding for the project.

So my dear, dear friend Vladimir,Volodya,Graff as he was known to his close friends and Zeev was what he chose to be called in Israel. The Soviets could never knock you down even though they tried, but you are not here anymore. We all have our memories and must remain forever grateful for what you did. “Your contribution not only to humanity but also to the people of Israel.”

At least I have a video, which we recorded together. 

About the Author
Zelda Harris first came to Israel 1949, aged 18. After living through the hardships of the nascent state, she returned to England in 1966. She was a founding member of the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry. In 1978, she returned with her family to Israel and has been active in various spheres of Israeli Society since. Together with the late Chaim Herzog, she founded CCC for Electoral Reform, was the Director of BIPAC in Israel, and a co-founder of Metuna, the Organisation for Road Safety, which received the Speaker of Knesset Quality of Life Award for saving lives on the roads and prevention of serious injury. She is now a peace activist, blogger for Times of Israel and is writing her life story.