How authentic are historical accounts of events? How reliable is human memory? We strive for historical truth, not only for the sake of truth itself, but also for honoring those who struggled and fought for their and our rights and freedoms. This article is a requiem for my father, Ben-Zion Yakobishvili (Ben-Zion Jacobi, in later years of his life), who passed away in 1987.
Memory is an unreliable source of historical evidence. This relates to the difficulties of distinguishing between perceptions and reality. Typically, the tendency is to describe the same event or process from an individual perspective, depending on one’s background, experiences, and knowledge. In this context, in the search for truth, facts and eyewitness accounts and corroborative evidence help to distinguish between perception and reality.
One example of the historical controversy is the account of the beginning of the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union half a century ago, related to the 1969 Letter of Eighteen Jewish Families of Georgia. This Letter of appeal for the right to immigrate to Israel, addressed to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, profoundly influenced the Jewish exodus from the Soviet Union. In recent years, various hazy accounts of the delivery of the Letter to Israel were given. In one, it was described that the Letter was brought to Israeli embassy in Oslo by a Norwegian engineer, who was visiting Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. In another account, according to the former Israeli MK and Ambassador Esther Herlitz, an unnamed individual met Ms. Herlitz in Copenhagen in 1978 (nine years after the event?) in the hotel and delivered the Letter to her (Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2015).
There are also two accounts of the same event, described in books by Leonard Schroeter (The Last Exodus, 1979, pp. 122-123) and Colin Shindler (The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History, 2017, p. 187). These descriptions are closer to truth than others, although they also contain some inaccuracies. According to these books, the letter was delivered through the Netherlands embassy, which represented Israeli interests following the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and Israel in 1967, in Moscow. Indeed, this was the most direct and reliable channel, as the Letter could have been sent by diplomatic mail to Israel, without any mysterious men in Oslo or Copenhagen.
In my recollection, the most accurate description of the events was revealed by my father (Ben-Zion Yakobishvili, the direct participant and eyewitness of the whole process). The two main organizers of the 1969 Letter of Eighteen Jewish Families of Georgia, Shabtai Elashvili and Ben-Zion Yakobishvili, went to Moscow with the objective to deliver the Letter to the Netherlands Embassy. They had several separate letters: one was to the Netherlands Embassy, requesting help to transfer their letter to Israel. Two other short letters were addressed to Prime Minister Golda Meir and Yosef Tekoah (Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations), giving them authority to expedite the transfer of the main Letter to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. Thus, these four letters were intended for establishing a legal framework of actions.
Arriving at the Netherlands embassy, Shabtai Elashvili and Ben-Zion Yakobishvili, while strolling along the street (on the opposite side of the embassy), observed the visitors to the embassy, buzzing the entrance door that opened without any delay. Thus, quickly crossing the street across from the entrance to the embassy and buzzing the door would be sufficient to evade the patrolling militiamen at the embassy. They have decided that Shabtai would deliver the envelope containing the Letters, while Ben-Zion would witness any subsequent actions from the militia guards. So, while Ben-Zion was walking along the street on the opposite side of the embassy, Shabtai crossed the street and buzzed the Embassy door that opened without any delay. He was out in minutes, successfully delivering the envelope, but was immediately stopped by the militiaman, who demanded his name and address in Georgia. Eventually, the local authorities in Georgia visited Shabtai after his return home. However, no arrests followed, although Shabtai and Ben-Zion were expecting the worst.
Most of the credit for writing the 1969 Letter of Eighteen Jewish Families of Georgia deserves to go to Ben-Zion Yakobishvili, who was a graduate of (what is presently) the St. Petersburg Institute of Cinema Engineers. Upon the arrival in Israel, Ben-Zion Yakobishvili was invited, as a representative of the Jewish exodus movement in Georgia, to be one of the 12 torchbearers for Torch-lighting ceremony, dedicated to the Aliyah movements, during the 1971 Independence Day celebrations in Jerusalem. The same year, he was invited to give a lecture, related to the struggle of Jews in the Soviet Union for their right to immigrate to Israel, in a one-day symposium in Jerusalem, with Golda Meir giving a keynote speech. Ben-Zion Yakobishvili was one of the four other speakers at the symposium.
My father’s generation has passed into history, while my generation is fading away; and this makes it more important to tell these recollections. We owe them, the 1969 Exodus generation, not only our gratitude, but also remembrance.
B. G. Yacobi received his PhD in physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1975 on Mount Scopus, in the presence of Golda Meir, which was very fitting for the story that began in 1969.