The hall was packed to capacity. It was an excited happy and emotional crowd.
Last evening November 7, 2019 a crowd of young, middle-aged and elderly Israelis, speaking Hebrew, English and Russian, surged into the events’ hall at the Intelligence-Services Centre in Ramat Hasharon. The reason being, the commemoration of the astounding activities which took place between British Jewish women in the UK and the Refuseniks in the FSU during the cold war period of 1970-1987. Also the consecration of these archives at the National Library of the Jewish people in Jerusalem.
The Israel National Library of the Jewish people had recently received the precious archives of the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry commonly known as the 35’s. I say precious because at one point in time the documents, photos, press cuttings and diaries of the inimitable work of this British Jewish Women’s organisation which had been transferred to Israel, were inadvertently lost.
It was only after the passing of Barbara Lyons who had been the secretary of 35’s and herself a diarist and activist, that her personal archive and the diaries of the years of the groups’ activities plus urgent requests to others like myself and some Soviet Olim enabled us to arrive at this day.
The atmosphere at the reception was one of congeniality. Old friends and acquaintances now living in Israel, meeting up again and recreating past experiences while munching on a selection of delicious savouries, cakes and drinks(non-alcoholic).
The entrance hall and surrounding walls were covered with a polished display of photos spanning the years 1971 until the mid 80’s which included the arrival in Israel of more than 1 million Soviet Jews.
In 1966, I with my family were forced to return to the green fields of the country of my birth, for serious medical and financial reasons. I was feeling like a lost Israeli with no purpose in life. I had left for Israel aged 18, married my boyfriend Leon, who had joined MAHAL(volunteers from overseas). Since my childhood spent mostly avoiding the Luftwaffe bombers and joining Hashomer Hatzair most of whose members at the time were young Germans and Austrians who had managed to escape, Israel was the only place that I ever wanted to live in. I had dedicated myself to this land.
Fortunately, I had a childhood friend named Nigel Wallis whose wife Sylvia on hearing that we had arrived, immediately invited us for Shabbat Eve dinner. Not many of our former friends had even stretched out a hand having blamed our penurious circumstances as our punishment for having gone to Israel in the first place!
Through Sylvia, I met Barbara Oberman and as the saying goes “lo be mikrei”.
One evening just before Shabbat I received a call from Sylvia asking if I would be willing to sit in a car on a hunger strike outside the Soviet Consulate? This was the only way to protest the disappearance of a young 35-year-old woman named Raisa Palatnik who had gone missing and was believed to be, being held by the KGB. Her parents knew not where.
Sylvia and Barbara both Shomrei Shabbat lived within walking distance of each other. We dropped Betty my mother in law home and went on to meet them.
Much has been written about what emanated from that auspicious meeting and so the November 7th event was for me an emotional roller coaster since my involvement with 35’s from day one, was my milium during those 12 years we spent in the UK.
From the adoption of Vladimir Prestin who spoke Hebrew and so was given to me as the first contact, to involvement in everything pertaining to our activities. Whether meeting politicians, actors and academics. Taking part in brilliantly thought out demonstrations invariably the brainchild of Doreen Gainsford who later became our leader. Eventually going to the USSR to meet some of those for whom we had demonstrated.
We had maintained contact with the refuseniks despite the fact that at the time of the historic visit of Nixon to the USSR in 1972 the KGB had cut the telephones of all of our contacts. Mail was hardly received and cables not at all.
The Refuseniks, otkaznikim as they were commonly known, were forced to use the public post office to receive our calls. They would order calls to us or us to them and while we were in our comfortable warm homes, would stand in the freezing cold in the early hours, to give us news of what was currently taking place. The calls were interrupted by the KGB who would cut the line, then we would wait until it was reconnected. Each call contained news of a recent arrest or other occurrences. On replacing the receiver we would call around to journalists and activists in the USA and Canada and within hours the news was all over Europe the USA and Canada. On one of the occasions when I was receiving a call from a well-known academic who was an activist, I asked him “Is it safe for you if I quote you, use your name? His reply “My name on your lips is my life”
So this evening for me brought home the idea of believing in the cause. With trust and determination, proving that not only Jews but all human beings deserve to live in freedom, not in fear and uncertainty. That is the only way forward.
When we spoke about the possibility of the Soviets allowing out hundreds of thousands of Jews it seemed an impossible dream. It happened.