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December 29, 2014 / 7 Tevet, 5775
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The Man The Gulag Couldn’t Break

Fall arrived late this year in Budapest, where I am visiting from Israel, and it is still very warm on Yom Kippur. The largest Orthodox Yom Kippur services in the city are being held in a downtown hotel. A plaque marking what had been the offices of controversial Judenrat leader Rudolf Kastner is on a building just a few steps away.

Below the hotel windows the Danube flows by, with the old Habsburg castle just across the river. The services are led by Chabadniks from Israel, and Hebrew is the official language used for prayer, stories and jokes. Most of the hundreds who attend are young Israelis studying medicine in Hungary. Entrance into Israeli medical schools is almost impossible for mortals; so many study in Hungary.

It is late in the day of Yom Kippur, when alertness is low and concentration difficult. My stomach is making angry hunger sounds and thoughts of food are sneaking into my consciousness between the makot.

I am sitting next to an older man with a Russian accent. In his late 70s, he has flashing grey eyes and comfortably reads the Hebrew in the prayer book. His face looks familiar. During one of the rare breaks in the prayers, we begin to talk. He tells me his name.

The name snaps me into alertness. The hunger pangs are instantly forgotten, along with the drowsiness. His name connects at once with that famous photo – the one that has become an iconic image of the suffering and plight of Soviet Jews in the era before communism collapsed.

Of course, the Josef Begun in that picture is a much younger man than the fellow in the tallit now praying alongside me. It was taken in his Siberian hellhole, a prison camp close to the Pacific, farther from Moscow than Moscow is from New York. In it he wears a thick black coat and hat, ice particles are clinging to his fierce black beard, his fiery eyes are glaring, and there is just the hint of a grin at the corners of his mouth.

“That photo was taken when it was 60 degrees below zero Centigrade,” he tells me. The photo was later enlarged and is on display today at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.

The Josef Begun at my side is arguably the second most famous Jewish Prisoner of Zion from the darkest days of the Soviet empire. Natan Sharansky may be somewhat better known, but Begun’s story is at least as fascinating. And Begun is “one up” on Sharansky in some things: he was arrested for the final time a week before Sharansky and liberated only after Sharansky had been freed. The two were held in the same prison for a while.

* * *

I continue my discussion with Begun the day after Yom Kippur.

He had grown up in Moscow and received the best scientific and mathematical training available in Russia. While the Soviet Union treated Jews as second-class inferiors and discriminated against them in almost everything, it was also desperate for the brainpower of well-trained engineers and scientists, even if the brains were lodged inside Jewish heads.

Begun finished his Ph.D. in engineering at a young age, and by the 1960s – when he was in his 30s – the lifestyle and perquisites of the Soviet scientific elite were wide open to him.

His parents had known some Yiddish but refused to speak it with him when he was a child, lest he suffer for being Jewish during the iron rule of Comrade Stalin. He was vaguely aware of being Jewish, in part because he had a fistfight with a neighbor’s kid after the latter called him a zhid – a derogatory term for a Jew.

“Why do I have to be a Jew?” he asked his mother.

The young Begun saw that in the Soviet Union every other ethnic group had its own media, theaters, newspapers, literature.

“But there was nothing at all about or related to Jews,” he tells me. “During the ‘Khrushchev thaw’ that followed the death of Stalin, there was just the first slight availability of some materials with a Jewish connection, mainly a Yiddish newspaper, largely containing political propaganda. I wanted to read it because it would occasionally carry items of Jewish cultural interest, like stories by Shalom Aleichem about the perils of Jewish life under the czar.

“I decided I wanted to learn Yiddish, but in all of Moscow I could not find a single textbook or tutor. I also searched for books about Jewish history or culture, and found that there were none in the entire city.”

He occasionally went to the one remaining synagogue in Moscow, which was under constant KGB surveillance and where only a handful of elderly Jews dared attend services. There he met an old man who had been a yeshiva student back when the czar was still in power. The old man was desperately poor, living in a tiny one-room apartment and constantly harassed by anti-Semitic neighbors.

Begun asked the old man if he would teach him Yiddish.

“Why do you want to learn Yiddish?” the old man asked. “Why don’t you learn Hebrew instead?”

“Hebrew?” Begun asked. “What is Hebrew?”

“Well,” he responded, “it is the language spoken in Israel and it is the language of the Bible.”

“Bible?” Begun asked. “What is that?”

Begun took lessons from the old man, at first just in Hebrew language, then later in Chumash. “And I felt my eyes and soul opening up,” he tells me.

At the time he believed he was the only person in the entire Soviet Union who was studying Hebrew. He had a small grammar textbook he kept on his person at all times, afraid that someone – even his wife or friends – would see it.

Shortly after the Six-Day War, one of Begun’s mathematics students mentioned to him that he was interested in studying Esperanto, an “international language” invented by mixing strands of existing languages.

“On a dangerous whim – I guess I decided he looked trustworthy, and maybe I was just trying to impress him that I was also studying a language – I took out my Hebrew textbook and showed it to him.

“To my amazement, he broke out in fluent flowing Hebrew. He was Karl Malkin, one of the early teachers in the underground Hebrew movement in Moscow, and one of the leading Moscow Zionists. He told me about scores of others studying Hebrew: a complete network of secret ulpan study groups.

“Even better, he had Jewish books, including a Russian translation of the book Exodus, the most prized possession for all members of the growing Soviet Jewish underground.

“The movement was centered around a group of refuseniks – young people who had applied for emigration visas and were turned down. It was amazing – they organized lectures with foreign and local speakers and classes on Judaism and Israel.”

I smile. I tell him that in 1978 I gave a talk in Moscow on Israel’s economic problems to one such group. It was the first public lecture in Hebrew I ever gave in my life. The host’s Hebrew was better than my own.

* * *

In early 1971, having resigned from the military research institute at which he’d worked on radar technology and hoping his “sensitive worker” classification would be forgotten, Begun applied for an emigration visa for Israel.

Because of the growing outcry against the persecution of Soviet Jews, voiced especially in the United States, a slow but growing trickle of exit visas was being granted. But anyone deemed to have “secrets” or special skills was being turned down by the Soviet authorities. As one of the country’s leading mathematicians and engineers, he was granted a thundering NYET.

Moreover, once he had applied for the visa, he became a political pariah, barred from any work in his professions. So he decided instead to become a fulltime Hebrew teacher. There was a large demand for such teachers in Moscow in those days.

One problem was that he had a limited Hebrew vocabulary and some of his students kept catching up with him. So he had to master new words and rules of grammar just to stay ahead of them.

Another, more pressing, problem was that the regime did not recognize Hebrew teaching as a legitimate profession but rather as “socially undesirable” behavior – along the same lines as prostitution. There were serious penalties against those not employed in jobs the regime regarded as “productive.”

Begun petitioned the authorities to recognize “Hebrew teacher” as his profession and as a bona fide job. They refused. He even went to the tax offices in Moscow to declare his income as a Hebrew teacher and to pay income tax. Officials sent his money back, refusing to accept it.

Those were the days when the Helsinki Group of dissidents was formed in Russia, led by Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Ginzburg and Anatoly Sharansky, ostensibly to promote the Soviet Union’s abiding by the Helsinki Accords to which it was a signatory. The Soviet leadership was not amused; it harassed and arrested dissidents. The political climate was changing for the worse

“I began to receive regular warnings that I was in danger of being indicted as a ‘social parasite,’ as someone not working,” he recalls. “I responded to each warning by telling them of my full-time employment as a Hebrew teacher. After a year and a half the police indeed arrested me and I was charged with social parasitism.

“I defiantly wore a kippah in the courtroom. Students came to my ‘trial’ to testify that they had paid me for lessons and so I was employed. Nothing mattered. I was sentenced to nearly two years’ exile in Siberia in the Kolimar region, 10,000 kilometers from Moscow.”

The journey took 63 days. It was Begun’s first introduction to the infamous Gulag Archipelago. He was ordered to live in a remote mining village where he worked as an electrical technician in a factory. It was here that the famous photo was taken. When he was finally released, he was prohibited from living or coming within 100 kilometers of Moscow. After all, he was now a released felon.

But he had a young son from his first wife living in Moscow, and he had adopted the son of his second wife. He would defy the ban and sneak into Moscow to visit them. He was stopped twice by the KGB while in Moscow and released with a warning. Under the Soviet version of a “three strikes” law, the third time he was caught they arrested him. While waiting for his trial in 1978 he went on a hunger strike.

The prison guards tried to force-feed him through a tube up his nose, but he resisted, and by the time he was dragged into a courtroom his hunger strike was 43 days old. Unable to stand, he passed out before he could give the speech he’d prepared. The judge cynically wrote in the protocols, “The accused refused to answer the questions he was asked.” Begun was deported back to Siberia to serve a three-year sentence, shipped there in a cattle car with starving and violent common criminals.

He was eventually released, but it was still very much the pre-Gorbachev era and dissent was a risky undertaking. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were in the making and the regime wanted no protests or dissidents ruining its showcase festivities. Dr. Victor Brailovsky, a leading Moscow Jewish activist, was among those arrested. (He would later serve as a Knesset member and Israeli interior minister.)

But Begun refused to be cowed and published articles in the Western media on the plight of Soviet Jews. In one famous article he denounced the “cultural genocide” of Russian Jews being perpetrated by the regime, a slogan that came to be the rallying cry of the movement to free Soviet Jewry.

The KGB was not playing around. Begun was arrested in 1982 and indicted for “undermining the regime” and for “anti-Soviet activities,” meaning treason, the Soviet catch-term for dissidence. Hebrew teachers were arrested by the score (one of those taken away was Yuli Edelstein, who today serves as Israel’s diaspora affairs minister).

This was to be Begun’s third conviction, making him the Soviet Union’s version of a habitual criminal. While awaiting trial he was held in the infamous Vladimir prison – the same facility that had held Sharansky and Joseph Mendelevich. His beard was forcibly shaved off.

In 1983 he was sentenced to twelve years of prison and Siberian exile. He responded to the sentence by yelling “Am Yisrael Chai” at the judge.

He continued to study Judaism with a group of other Jews in prison and they celebrated every Jewish holiday. They called it their “prison ulpan.” One prisoner made a menorah for Chanukah out of a dead tree. They sang Shlomo Carlebach melodies, especially the one about the Valley of the Shadow of Death. (After Begun’s release, one of his most exciting visits was with Carlebach himself.)

Freed at last in 1987, Begun had become a legend and a household name among those in the movement to rescue Soviet Jewry. Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and glasnost and perestroika were official policies. But, says Begun, it was President Ronald Reagan who got him released.

“President Reagan kept a bracelet with my name on it in the White House, which he got from American Jewish leaders, and he gave it to me after my release,” Begun recalls. “He kept it on his coffee table as long as I was in prison.”

Today Begun lives in Jerusalem, where he runs a publishing house that brings important Jewish books to readers in Russian translation. He is in the process of publishing his memoirs. He speaks with Jewish students and other groups in the U.S., Russia, Israel, and even here in Hungary, where a film about his life, “Through Struggle You Will Gain your Rights,” was screened between Yom Kippur and Sukkot this fall.

“I felt so happy yesterday in the Yom Kippur services with all the young people visiting from Israel,” he says.

“I felt like I was seeing with my own eyes the coming of Torah out of Zion, here to Budapest.”

Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.

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