In 1973, a few months after they married, a young couple, who happen to be my parents, went on a mission to Russia. The Israeli government sent them to let Jews in Russia know that they had not been forgotten. They embarked on their trip around the auspicious time of year, that of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos. As it happens, Joseph Telushkin, the author and activist, was on the same operation. However, for safety reasons, there was little communication between the various people in the group. The young couple was blissfully ignorant and was not aware of the danger involved. Little did they know there was a threat of being followed and put in jail. Had they been aware of the risk involved, they probably would not have decided to “honeymoon” in Russia.
Before my parents left on their assignment, they were briefed by someone named Ari in a clandestine office. They were presented with different scenarios and told what could happen if they were detected. That was when they realized there might be some peril involved in their trip, but at that point it was too late to back out, and besides, their sense of adventure propelled them to move forward. They listened dutifully to the necessary instructions so that they could remain as safe as possible and, with a small suitcase, and a prayer in their hearts, they departed on their unpredictable trip to Russia.
The young couple flew Aeroflot and stayed in the Berlin Hotel in Moscow. My mother, a child of Holocaust survivors, was uncomfortable staying there because there was a lot of German being spoken. Growing up with parents who barely escaped the clutches of the Nazis, my mother was allergic to anything German. It is a family legacy that we don’t buy anything manufactured in Germany, from a small pair of shoes to an expensive car, no matter how desirable it is.
One of the purposes of the trip was to smuggle in Judaica, like siddurim and taleisim, to give to the Jews in Russia. My parents had the privilege of providing a talis which was used to bury someone’s brother. They also had the merit of uniting long lost siblings. Before my parents returned to America, some of the Russian folk gave them letters to mail to their relatives once they arrived home. One woman sent a letter inquiring if her family member was still alive. Ultimately, these siblings were united in Israel. Thinking back, my mother realizes that it was dangerously foolish for them to have hidden the letters in their shoes. Thank G-d they were not caught!
On Yom Tov, the couple went to shul, where the KGB was present. My mother remembers certain words being highlighted in the prayers, like “save us” and “peace.” To her, it seemed the Jews were trying to send a hidden message to the visiting Americans. On Simchas Torah, the synagogue in Moscow was packed with people celebrating the joyous holiday. There was no room to move. At one point, the punks hired by the KGB told the crowd not to congregate and to disperse. However, the determined Jews did not listen, so the hoodlums started to push the congregants down the stairs. In response, young Jewish people who were dancing in the street, began proudly singing, “Am Yisroel Chai.” My parents lost each other in the crowd and for my mother it was reminiscent of what she had heard about the Holocaust, which made her incredibly frightened.
When I ask my mother about her overall experience, she says that knowing what she knows now, she would not do it again. She remembers the environment being gloomy and sad. The weather was bleak. They had to wait on line for certain kinds of food. To complicate matters, my mother was pregnant with me and did not know it. As a result, she was not feeling well. The hotel wanted to send a German doctor, but my mother did not want to let him touch her, still haunted by the messages she received about Germans as a child.
At the same time, my mother was inspired to see the Jews in Russia persevering and staying connected to Judaism, even at the risk of their lives. For my parents, the discomfort and relative danger was temporary, but for the Jews of Russia the fear and jeopardy were constant foes in their lives.
Let us thank G-d that this chapter in our history has come to an end and, as the young Jews in Moscow on Simchas Torah so proudly proclaimed, “Am Yisroel Chai!” The nation of Israel lives on!