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No one puts Sylva in the corner.”

In seven words, Johnny Castle’s best line (slightly altered) tells the tale: short version, minus details, of what “no one” – not even an entire state with all its combined weaponry for crushing dissent – can do to punish, isolate or silence a woman who will simply not allow it.

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Today, the above-referenced woman – Sylva Zalmanson – is one of Israel’s most productive and successful artists. Since 1997 she has been a member of the Israeli Union of Artists, with exhibitions scheduled from December 2015 through March 2016 at the Hirsch Theatre in Beit Shmuel, the Jerusalem Theatre, and a huge collective exhibition in Tel Aviv (after previous exhibitions in Israel, the USA, the UK, Italy, Rumania, and Finland).  Her work can also be viewed – and purchased – at shows, on art websites and her Facebook page.

Her subjects include animals – wild and alive, owls in flight, horses on the run, sheep gathered together; portraits – from the world-renowned (Lubavitcher Rebbe) to the unknown, going through the motions of life and flamenco dancers – brilliantly colored, clicking, knocking, stamping their heels against a wooden floor, long arms held out like in a ballet, intensely dark eyes reflecting spiritual passion tempered by emotional maturity. She cites Rembrandt – “the greatest one of all time” – as her personal favorite.

“I believe that every person is given a talent from the moment she is born,” says Sylva.  “If she’s lucky, thanks to favorable circumstances, she finds her calling, which becomes the meaning and purpose of her life. I would have never dared to touch a paintbrush if not for my good luck in getting to Israel where I started a new chapter in my life.”

Today, if you’re lucky enough to attend her upcoming Israeli shows and old enough to stop short at the sight of her signature on canvas, you might recall her name from headlines flashed around the world 45 years ago:  Sylva Zalmanson, former Prisoner of Zion, Soviet Jewish refusenik, prisoner of the Gulag in Soviet Mordovia, whose unwavering courage, decisiveness, defiance and dignity, even while in captivity, made her a symbol of freedom and faith – not only for her own people, the trapped Russian Jews, not only for the entire free world rallying behind her cry, but also for her Soviet oppressors.  The latter, collapsing under the weight of their self-constructed Iron Curtain, were presiding over a national near-death experience, a flat-lined economy – and only a trade deal with the West could save them.

No deal, said the Americans, unless you let those Jews go.  Faced with an offer they couldn’t refuse, the Kremlin let 163,000 souls depart the Soviet “paradise” for Israel.  The price of freedom was paid by newlyweds Sylva and Edward, Mark Dymshits, Yosef Mendelevich and the other activists forced to stay behind, locked in prison camps.

Knowing the crushingly hard knocks history of this Jewish heroine, this Bat Yisrael, it is simply astonishing that she never gave up hope.  Born in 1944 to a middle-class Jewish family in Riga, she graduated Riga Polytechnic University in 1968, worked as an engineer-designer and dreamed of living a Jewish life.  Repeatedly requesting and being denied an exit visa to leave the USSR for Israel, Sylva and her husband Edward Kuznetsov became members of a group of dissident activists who came up with a plan to escape.

The plan was called the Dymshits-Kuznetsov Hijacking Affair or “Operation Wedding,” the latter a code name for the pretext that the hijackers – who had purchased every seat on a chartered domestic aircraft – were planning to attend a family wedding elsewhere in Russia.  Once on board, they would take over the controls of the “borrowed” government plane and Major Mark Dymshits, a former Soviet military pilot and Jewish refusenik, would fly the aircraft over the Russian border, over Finland, into Sweden, bound for Israel.  Aware that the KGB was watching and waiting, they nevertheless decided to go through with the plan – and got caught, arrested, accused, tried, condemned, sentenced, imprisoned, separated from each other and the whole “civilized” world, for years.

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Beth Sarafraz is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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