Zelda Harris
Five on the 100 aliyah from UK list!

The indomitable spirit of the “refuseniks” 1971-87

Sitting in the sunny, well appointed apartment of Pasha and Mara, in the bustling trendy area of old Tel Aviv a heartbeat from the sea and so nostalgic to me who first arrived  here in 1949, my mind takes a leap back in time.

Were was I and these familiar people who are around me, forty-five years ago?

Due to “circumstances beyond our control,” I had returned with my family to London.

Once we found an apartment and our older sons were installed  at JFS (Jewish Free School),  which most of the Israeli kids attended, I began to look for ways to connect with Israel.

A phone call from a friend to a friend in 1971 resulted with the birth of a movement, which became known as the 35’s. This movement was the call to action, for Jewish women in the UK and in other places around the world, on behalf of their brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union. Being the granddaughter of Ukrainian immigrants who had arrived in Israel at the turn of the 20th century, I jumped at the chance!

Now back to Tel Aviv, where today I am with the close family and friends of Volodia (Zeev) Prestin.  He was a leading activist and teacher of hebrew in the aliyah movement in the Soviet Union who finally made aliyah to Israel in 1987.

We have just returned from visiting his grave on the first anniversary of his death. He lies next to his beloved wife Lena, who died in 2007 after prolonged illness.

The only person in the room who does not speak Russian is me. Yet I was the first link of that family to Israel. I was given the phone number of Prestin in 1971 because I could speak to him in Ivrit!

“Refusenik” this the nickname given to a person who applied for a visa to leave USSR to go to their “historic homeland” Israel and were refused. For me and all of us who “adopted” refuseniks then, life would never be the same again. The close ties and the sustenance we gave to each other during those long years of refusal without any advanced forms of technology, resulted in the mass aliyah to Israel of over a million people from the FCU and the aliyah of many of those who campaigned for them.

I look around the room especially at the younger members of the group now in their thirties, some with their own sabra children. I know that these former refuseniks will talk about those arduous days remembering their poky apartments, lack of luxuries, the food shortages but mostly they will recall the denial of basic human rights.

Marina wife of Felix the son of  Lena’s sister Mara, was fortunate to arrive in Israel with her parents in the 70’s aged seven.She tells me that she remembers how she was called “little yid” at school. Her father was an academic not even a refusenik, at the time.

Although I campaigned for the Prestin and Abramovitch families from the moment I knew about their plight, it was only in 1977 that I met them in person.

Volodia’s son Misha, who was already a teenager  when  I went to Moscow for the second time in 1980, told me then ” I am a Jew at home and trying to be like everyone else at school”.

He also spoke of what life was like living in a home with a father who was either working at some menial job having been refused a visa ( on applying people were automatically fired from their professions) and the rest of the time teaching Ivrit or involved in organising clandestine mostly cultural, events.  He naturally referred to the times his Dad was arrested by the KGB and held without charges. He spoke tenderly of his mother a frail and beautiful women who was an English teacher. The only quality time he spent with Volodia  was across the chess board.

Over wonderful salads, blinis, scrumptious cakes and  wine, I was able to talk to those almost disciples, for whom Volodia was teacher and friend,mentor and shining example. His son and brother in law Pasha also a leading activist were overwhelmed at the enormous feeling of privation being demonstrated for this great and yet ostensibly modest man. One who never boasted, but defended his principles fiercely. Visitors to his Moscow home, the likes of Britain’s Chief Rabbi Emmanuel Jackobovitch, historian Martin Gilbert, Human Rights lawyer and Canadian politician Irwin Cotler and Australian community leader Isi Leiber, are some who would attest to that.

In the course of conversation with Aaron Gurevitch, who has written a book about Prestin, he said “You know I met him in 1974 when I was looking for someone who could teach me Hebrew.” Then he with others went on to grumble at how their Israeli pensions were not in anyway commensurate with the human endeavour of standing up to the most powerful regime in the world at that time.

As an immigrant myself and one whose whole adult life has been dedicated to Israel and our people,I have not made an account.

Israel for my family was never an easy option but the simple fact of being able to live in this magic place with so much potential and history albeit so much inexcusable pain,has been enough for me.

Some former refusniks live in the USA and others among whom were members of that family whom I am close to, have combined careers in both the USA and Israel with seats in prestigious universities.

The bottom line is “Freedom of choice.Freedom of movement”

I am concerned that the lessons to be learned from what happened 45 years ago will be lost if we do not record them while people from that era, are still alive to tell the tale.The younger generation of olim from the FCU are almost totally unaware of what happened in the USSR.They can take pride in the history of the “refusenik” generation whom without use of violence were the trigger for vast changes in the world.

To this end, I with others are working on a project to build a website which will permanently recall that period of human to human trust and joint effort; known as the Struggle for the Release of Soviet Jewry.

At this Festival of Freedom which describes the release of Jews in Egypt from slavery we must look on the results of their courage and tenacity, as the epitome of success in recent history.

My own children grew up as I did with very little knowledge of how our antecedents lived. We carry collectively a burden of the suffering of our people, we must also pride ourselves on our capacity for survival and indomitable spirit to go forward.

Hag Herut Sameach!

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.
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