Our 1984 trip to the USSR – Part Three (Final)
As we sped from the hotel to the train station, we could not help noticing out of the window the multitudes of people lining up outside the food stores in the freezing cold, desperate to procure basic staples from the near-empty shelves, resignation writ large on their faces. This was our last and lasting impression of the Soviet “paradise”.
Our emotions were very mixed. We were, on the one hand, relieved to be leaving that benighted country. On the other hand. we felt the nagging weight of partial failure and of unfinished business (we had only seen half the refuseniks we had intended to see, although we also had some ‘bonus’ encounters) as well as deep concern for the Jews we had visited.
On the train, the realisation hit us that we were minus one of the books – A Guide To Family Purity – which the airport officials had noted down. We had loaned it to the refuseniks intending to retrieve it at the home where I was to sing. But we were apprehended prior. What excuse could we give at customs?
Then I remembered that there was one book they had failed to note down. This was a thin Hebrew-only edition of Kitsur Shulchan Aruch. And so, I hit upon a daring plan. Rather than just write a fake title in English in a Hebrew book which may have looked ‘sus’, I calligraphed the following inscription inside the front cover of the Kitsur volume. To Judith. Trusting you will cherish this Guide to Family Purity all your married life. Never let it out of your sight! Love, Mum.
It was daring because we had been told on one of our pre-departure briefings that a few of the senior KGB agents were experts in the Hebrew language – precisely to make it easier for them to catch a refusenik studying a religious text. However, we figured that most KGB agents were more likely to be well-versed in English than Hebrew. After all, the bureaucrats at the airport had capably recorded the English titles of all our other books. But they left the Kitsur alone – understandably if they couldn’t read the Hebrew title!
Meanwhile, Judith had another concern. It was strictly illegal to take Russian currency out of the USSR and we had therefore surrendered the little we had had. But she had heard a rumour that KGB hid money in the roller blinds of the window carriages to frame those against whom they wanted to make a case. The ubiquitous presence of Russian officials constantly patrolling outside our carriage did nothing to calm her already-frayed nerves.
The train ride through dull and grey landscape was tedious as well as tense. and, what with the frequent lengthy stops, seemingly interminable. We had no idea when we would reach the border. Suddenly at one of the stops there was a flurry of activity. Officials entered our carriage. They checked our documentation. No, we said truthfully, we had nothing dutiable to declare. I said fervent Tehilim under my breath. They talked among themselves at length. We had no idea what they were saying. The tension was unbearable. We were all ready to reach for the books when …. abruptly, they returned our documentation, bid us a cursory unsmiling greeting – and left. Mercifully, the books had been ignored! Five minutes later there was a buzz of excited noise outside our carriage. Finnish staff appeared, smiling, offering us glasses of tea. They told us that we had crossed the border. Thank G-D we were safe! Our relief was immeasurable.
The mood in the train was utterly transformed. Freedom had dawned! Fellow passengers came over to us marvelling at how long the customs officers had stayed with us. They appeared to think we must be VIPs to have experienced such treatment!
During the course of our conversation, it transpired that we were in a new time-zone. Our watches had to be set one hour later. Which presented us with a new major concern. We would be arriving not ninety but just thirty minutes prior to Shabbat – if we were lucky!
We resolved to jump the carriage in Helsinki as the train was about to stop. We had barely twenty minutes to candle-lighting! As we ran along the platform with our luggage to the station exit intent on finding the nearest motel or boarding-house, we were startled to suddenly hear our surname being called. It turned out to be … a member of the British Embassy staff. She told us she realised we would be arriving close to the Jewish Sabbath and had already booked us in to a motel (or pension as she called it) a few streets away.
The British Embassy had come good big time! We now realised that their ‘curtness’ when we had rung them the previous day was, in actuality, a vigilance not to land us in further trouble. They had known the phone would be tapped and, while not saying anything, had noted every word we told them, had read between the lines and, doubtless, made further investigations. Or maybe our story had broken already!
She wanted to walk us there, but we said “no, a taxi please!”. She came with us and checked us in. Meanwhile Judith was turfing out the contents of our suitcase, searching for our small candlesticks, our box of matsa and the grape juice we had brought with us as well as some basic staples. She lit Shabbat candles with minutes to spare. We feasted that evening on tinned sardines and some canned sweetcorn. Shabbat had never tasted more divine!
I davened in our assigned room while Judith spoke at length with the embassy staff member about our experiences. After davening, I asked the receptionist for a map. I was amazed and gratified to see that Helsinki’s main synagogue was a five-minute walk away. I came excitedly to tell Judith – but she already knew! The extraordinarily helpful embassy staffer had informed her.
We walked to shul together on Shabbat morning. Judith recalls me being honoured with an aliya. Then the rabbi spoke (in his native Swedish as he later told us, which is not dissimilar to Finnish). Suddenly our ears pricked up as the words “Leningrad”, “Moscow” and “refusenik” were uttered. It was, we discovered, the very first time the rabbi had spoken about Soviet Jewry from the pulpit. Finland was a neutral country but because it bordered the Soviet Union, its spokesmen and media had to be circumspect. However, the repression against dissidents had reached a nadir and this rabbi had decided to take his courage in both his hands and address it.
The rabbi and rebbetsin invited us for lunch. We recall being in the company of a fascinating, cosmopolitan group of Jews including a furrier from north-west London who, on hearing our story, asked us to contact him following Shabbat. He turned out to be our malach shel chesed, loaning us the airfare to get home. (The 35s whom we contacted at the first opportunity after Shabbat would have wired us the money – as of course would our parents had it been necessary – but this was quicker and easier.)
The earliest flight to be had was not for a couple of days so we enjoyed being tourists in Helsinki. Our most memorable experience was walking on water (the iced-over Gulf of Finland!) We also bought a pair of candlesticks made of Finnish glass to remind us of the sweet taste of freedom following the most perilous escapade of our lives! They have a prominent place in our display cabinet.
We spoke to our somewhat shell-shocked but mightily relieved parents from Helsinki. My father-in-law advised us “Keep your heads down when you arrive in Heathrow!” As it turned out, we were not approached by any reporters until we arrived back in Newcastle. Evidently in London our “big” story was now already fish and chip paper!
But in Newcastle upon Tyne, it was a different story …!
We were carrying with us, for some reason, a compensation voucher for a first-class British Rail ticket. We decided to use it for our three-hour ride home to Newcastle so that we could stretch out and catch up on some much-needed sleep.
On arrival, we alighted from the train somewhat refreshed and walked towards the exit. Suddenly we heard a noise of rapid motion behind us, and our names being called. This time it wasn’t a British Embassy staffer! It was the paparazzi. They had been waiting for us by the rear third-class carriages! They stuck a video-camera in our faces and started an impromptu interview with us on the station platform. That interview was shown on TV screens throughout the UK and beyond!
When we arrived home our next-door neighbour greeted us excitedly. She told us that reporters had been camped outside our house and had interviewed her. The pressing question they wanted to know was …were we married! Apparently the Tass report had given my wife’s name as Judith Levy (her maiden name) as she had not yet changed her passport. Our sharp-witted neighbour responded: “just look through their front window and you will see their wedding photograph on display!”
In the days that followed, it became evident that the KGB’s strong-armed tactics against us, a young, newly married minister of religion and his wife, was backfiring against them badly. The press coverage was unfailingly sympathetic to us and hostile to the Soviet bureaucrats.
It transpired that the week before our visit, two young American Orthodox Jews had also had their visas cancelled in Leningrad. One day prior to our detention, London-based Mrs. Ann Kennard and her daughter suffered harassment. A few days later, we learned that Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu of the London Beth Din had shockingly been manhandled by KGB agents. But after our story broke there were no more incidents. Things quietened down again. We like to think that this was due to the fallout for the KGB from the unfavourable press they received as a result of our treatment.
We neither saw nor heard any mention in the news of our adopted refuseniks Pavel Astrakhan, Yitzchak Kogan and Grigory Wasserman. We took it that no news was good news and davened that they and their families were safe from harassment at least for the time being.
As a postscript: a few years later when we were rabbi and rebbetsin in Leicester, a travelling exhibition intended for the wider community entitled The Jewish Way Of Life, spearheaded by the late communal stalwart Ruth Winston-Fox, came to town. One of the exhibits was on Soviet Jewry. We looked on a screen and to our amazement we saw the interview we had given on the station platform being relayed. Which was nothing compared to the amazed looks on the faces of the motley viewers who had one eye on the screen and one on the young couple standing there right next to them!
Scarcely a year after viewing that exhibition, seventy years of seemingly invincible Soviet Communist rule came to a juddering demise.
They, the mighty ones, ignominiously perish – but we, the downtrodden ones, mightily live on!
For in every generation they stand against us to destroy us, but G-D constantly – and miraculously – rescues us from their hands! (Pesach Hagada)