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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

Kissinger Apology Falls Short

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except, of course, Henry Kissinger’s publicists and strategists who decided that the slowest news day of the year was the perfect time for him to apologize, sort of, for telling Richard Nixon in 1973 that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

They may finally have realized – an apt epiphany given the season – that by not issuing such an admission of regret earlier, Kissinger had violated his own maxim that “whatever must happen ultimately should happen immediately.” They probably also hoped that no one would pay attention over a holiday weekend and that what has become the most embarrassing contretemps (that’s French for public relations train wreck) in the former secretary of state and Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s illustrious career would fade into oblivion.

Not so fast.

For almost two weeks since the now infamous Oval Office remarks first appeared in The New York Times, Kissinger had refused to acknowledge that he had said anything inappropriate. He at first tried to get out from under his predicament with a disingenuous statement that “The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time.”

Without expressing any contrition whatsoever for what even some of his Jewish defenders deemed to be a “disturbing and even callous insensitivity toward the fate of Soviet Jews,” Kissinger’s statement contended that he and Nixon had, in fact, raised Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union “from 700 per year to close to 40,000 in 1972.”

He and the president feared, the statement continued, that efforts to make “Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue” through Congressional legislation – to wit, what became the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment – “would reduce emigration, which is exactly what happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again until the Soviet Union collapsed.”

Unfortunately for Kissinger, he seems to have gotten his facts wrong. As Richard Schifter, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the Reagan administration, pointed out in the Forward, “Kissinger’s analysis is not reflected in the actual emigration data. He was close on the 1970 emigration figure, which was 1,027. His quiet diplomacy during detente did increase that number to an annual average of 20,516 from 1971 to 1974. But after Jackson-Vanik’s passage in 1974, the average for 1975 to 1978 dropped only slightly to 18,271 annually. Then, in 1979, the number of emigrants jumped to 51,320, much more than anything achieved under the Nixon-Kissinger policy.”

According to Schifter, it was only after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing “serious deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations” that Soviet Jewish emigration figures “dropped sharply, reaching a low of 876 in 1984.”

When the furor over the “gas chambers” remarks not only failed to subside but also produced a Clyde Haberman column in The New York Times that considerably raised the temperature, three prominent American Jews wrote a letter to that newspaper chastising Kissinger’s critics. “Never,” they insisted, “have we heard him speak in a disparaging way about the Jewish community.”

The bleeding didn’t stop. During a protest demonstration outside Kissinger’s Manhattan office, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio denounced Kissinger’s remarks as “monstrous,” and the next wave of Anglo-Jewish weeklies across the country brought new excoriations.

It was then and only then that Kissinger bit the bullet and did what he should have done in the first place. In a Washington Post op-ed posted online last Friday, Dec. 24, and published on Sunday, Dec. 26, Kissinger wrote, “References to gas chambers have no place in political discourse and I am sorry I made that remark 37 years ago.” His comments, he went on, were “in a kind of shorthand that, when read 37 years later, is undoubtedly offensive.”

What are we to make of this reluctant quasi-apology? To be sure, the requisite expression of remorse, albeit palpably grudging, is there, almost like the allocution a defendant has to make in open court before the judge accepts a guilty plea. And yet, terminal damage to Kissinger’s reputation has, I think, been done.

Kissinger And The Moral Bankruptcy Of Détente

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

The tapes from conversations recorded in the Oval Office during the presidency of Richard Nixon have provided historians with a treasure trove of material giving insight into the character of one of the most reviled figures in American political history.

But the latest transcripts released by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum have also put the reputation of the one figure that had emerged from that administration with his character unsullied by Watergate into question: former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

On March 1, 1973, Nixon and Kissinger, then the national security adviser, met with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. She thanked the president for his support for her nation and implored him to speak out for the right of the captive Jewish population of the Soviet Union to emigrate. After she left, the tapes document the way the two men deprecated her request:

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger said. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

“I know,” Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

While both Nixon and Kissinger were known to be largely indifferent to the fate of Soviet Jewry or any other factor that might complicate their quest to achieve détente with Moscow, the callousness of Kissinger’s remarks is breathtaking.

The tapes are filled with Nixonian imprecations, including many anti-Semitic remarks that are often, and not without reason, put into perspective by those who note that the president did not allow his personal prejudice to stop him from supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

But if Nixon’s hate speech is old news, Kissinger’s blithe indifference to the possibility of a Communist Holocaust is something distressingly new.

There are two issues here that must be addressed. The first is the question of a wrong-headed policy and the attitudes that sustained it. The second is one of how a Jew, or any individual for that matter, should regard human-rights catastrophes up to and including the possibility of mass murder.

As for the first question, this exchange neatly summarized the general indifference to the fate of Soviet Jewry that was felt by much of the foreign-policy and political establishment at that time. Nixon and Kissinger’s joint concern was fostering détente with the Soviet Union, the centerpiece of their realist foreign-policy vision.

Based on a defeatist view of the permanence and power of America’s Communist foe, that vision saw accommodation with the Soviets as the West’s best bet. And if that meant consigning two million Jews to their horrific fate, not to mention the captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the Baltic republics and other parts of the Soviet Empire, so be it.

The assumption that the only choice was between appeasement of the Russians and “blowing up the world” was one that was, at least for a time, shared by these two so-called realists and those Soviet apologists and left-wingers who were otherwise devout Nixon and Kissinger foes.

But, as Ronald Reagan, Henry Jackson, and other critics of détente asserted at the time and later proved, there was a choice. America could stand up for its values and speak out for human rights without triggering nuclear war. It was by aggressively supporting dissidents struggling against Communist oppression as well as by sharply opposing Soviet expansionism that the West not only kept the peace but also ultimately brought down the empire that Reagan so rightly characterized as “evil.”

While Kissinger has always defended his role in the Nixon White House as being that of the sage voice of wisdom restraining the irascible president, this exchange reveals him in a way that we have never seen before. For a Jew who suffered Nazi persecution as a boy in Germany and who escaped the fate of six million others only by fleeing to freedom in the United States to say that a new set of “gas chambers” would not be “an American concern” was despicable.

A generation before Kissinger sat in the Oval Office with Nixon, another president was faced with the reality of the Holocaust. At that time, those Jews with access to Franklin Roosevelt feared losing his good will and thus restrained their advocacy for rescue or other measures that might have saved lives. Those same insiders abused and did their best to thwart those who were willing to speak out against American indifference.

Jewish Ingratitude To Evangelicals

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Every year Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews raises about $100 million, mostly from evangelical Christians in the United States, for distribution to social-welfare projects in Israel and the former Soviet Union. This is a staggering sum, making the fellowship arguably the largest foundation for Jews in need in the world.
 
One would think that we in the Jewish community would show immense gratitude for such love. I therefore found it extraordinary, not to mention embarrassing, to hear that there is a growing campaign among elements in the Israeli rabbinate to discredit the organization and forbid Jewish organizations from benefiting from its funds.
 
The worst of all character traits in Judaism is to be an ingrate. Denying the goodness that others perform on your behalf leads to a closing of the human heart. No one wants to be taken for granted.
 
So great is the emphasis on appreciation in our religion that our greatest prophet, Moses, is commanded by God not to strike the Nile River and turn it into blood in the first plague against the Egyptians because that same river had saved his life when he was a baby.
 
Later, in plague number three, God will again warn Moses against smiting the dust of Egypt and turning it into lice because the dust had saved his life when he had to bury the body of a murderous Egyptian taskmaster.
 
Imagine that. A man who speaks to God face to face is told he must show thanks to water and dust. But such is the extent to which Jewish values demand gratitude.
 
Over the past two decades evangelical Christians have emerged as Israel’s most staunch and reliable friends. Pastors like John Hagee, my friend Pat Robertson and countless others have galvanized colossal Christian support for Israel.
 
Even in the peak period of suicide bombings during the Second Intifada, when tourism to Israel fell off a cliff, evangelical Christians still came in their millions. The same is true of stalwart Christian political support for Israel. While President Obama continues to bully Israel over apartments in Israel’s undivided and eternal capital, Jerusalem, evangelical Christians have a litmus test for their elected leaders: Don’t support Israel? You’re out.
 
As I write these lines, former president George W. Bush is enjoying something of a renaissance with the publication of his new book, Decision Points. Bush, by almost any standard the best friend Israel ever had in the White House, writes at the beginning of his book how he turned his life over to Jesus, and there can be no question that there is a direct link between his deep Christian faith and his love and unyielding support for Israel against those who seek its annihilation.
 
I am well aware of our immense differences with the Christian evangelical community. I would venture to say that I have conducted more debates over the past decade against leading Christian scholars and missionaries than any other American rabbi (most of which are available on YouTube).
 
Jesus was an observant Jew who ate kosher, honored the Sabbath, donned tefillin, insisted on the indivisible unity of God, and fought for the independence of the Jewish nation against the brutal oppression of Rome, beliefs for which he was ultimately crucified.
 
   It would behoove Christians to realize they have much more to gain from learning about the authentic historical Jesus from Jews than from any misguided attempts at converting them. Indeed, not only must these attempts be emphatically resisted by the Jewish community with overwhelming scholarship, but Christians should learn from Jews to reject any deification of Jesus, which he, as a Pharisee, would have seen as the ultimate sacrilege (and which is the subject of my upcoming book on the Jewish Jesus). They should follow Jesus as teacher rather than a god.
 
But whatever our theological differences with evangelicals, none of this negates the unparalleled kindness and friendship they show Jews and the Jewish community. To say they do this merely to convert us, or because gathering Jews to Israel will usher in the apocalypse, is to perpetrate a sacrilegious act of character assassination. Bible-believing Christians support Israel out of feelings of deep love and brotherhood.
 
The man more responsible than anyone else for building this bridge between Christians and Jews is the aforementioned Rabbi Eckstein, a man whose efforts, with Christian support, feeds thousands of hungry Jewish children and Jewish elderly every day in Israel and abroad.
 

Israel is a nation that dwells alone, with few friends and many prejudiced enemies. Rather than rabbis and lay leaders attacking Christians as having nefarious motives for their charity, we should offer thanks and gratitude to hard-working Americans of faith who believe, as the Bible says, that through Israel all the earth is blessed.

 

 

 

   Rabbi Shmuley Boteach heads This World: The Values Network, which seeks to heal America through universal Jewish values. A best-selling author of 24 books, his most recent work is “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.”

‘I Never Ran So Fast In My Life’: An Interview With Holocaust Survivor and ZOA Official Larry Wenig

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Sixty-five years ago next month – on August 11, 1945 – Polish-born Holocaust survivor Larry Wenig vowed to utilize all of his talents toward creating a Jewish state in Palestine.

Although he moved to America a year later, Wenig never forgot his vow and later became vice-chairman of the National Executive Committee of the Zionist Organization of America. Presently retired after several decades of practicing law in New York City, Wenig continues to lecture and write op-eds about Israel and the threat of radical Islam.

He has also authored two books: From Nazi Inferno to Soviet Hell and My Life of Turmoil: A Jewish Immigrant’s Story and Warning.

The Jewish Press: What happened on August 11, 1945, that inspired you – a 21-year-old man at the time – to vow to devote your energies toward the creation of a Jewish state?

Wenig: First, I should mention that I was a prisoner in the Soviet Union for five years [during World War II]. We escaped the Soviet Union in June 1945 by bribing the KGB, and we arrived in the Polish city of Krakow. And there, on August 11 – a few weeks after the Holocaust – there was a pogrom against the Jews. I heard the mob yelling that the Jews killed a Christian boy and had used his blood to bake matzos. I never ran so fast in my life.

No one was killed that day, but I said to myself, “If you have pogroms against Jews a few weeks after the Holocaust, then for the Jewish people to survive, the Jews must have their own country.” I took a silent oath that I would devote the rest of my life to that cause.

Some people argue that Poland was not as anti-Semitic as many Jews portray it to be.

Poland was a very vicious anti-Semitic country. When I was in Krakow after the war, I went to the barbershop to get a haircut. There were some Polish people there and I heard them say, “This was a terrible war, it was evil, but we will forever be grateful to Hitler that he got rid of the Jews.”

In the 1930s, the Poles were so anti-Semitic that you could sometimes hear people yelling in the street, “Long live a free Poland without Jews.”

In light of the vow you made after the near-pogrom in Krakow, why did you eventually move to America?  

My stepsister had also taken a similar oath, but when we told our father we planned on going to Palestine, he went down on his knees, crying, “We survived so much. I’ve already lost two sons [killed by the Nazis and KGB]. Please don’t break up the family.” So my stepsister and I had to give in.

When you arrived in America a year later, you were 22 and knew no English. The easy route would have been to start working full-time. And yet, you decided to finish high school and then go to college and law school. Why?

I wanted to become a lawyer because of the justice I saw in the Soviet Union. I saw a trial there of a person who engaged in black-market operations. He had a lawyer, but the lawyer was afraid. He said, “My client is guilty, but since he comes from a proletarian family, instead of 25 years, give him 10 years.” This was justice in the Soviet Union. A lawyer could only defend his client by pleading guilty but asking for a lesser punishment.

In your second book, you write about an interesting encounter you had with President Carter in reference to Communism.

When Carter decided he wanted to run for president, he traveled to the big cities to gauge how people felt about him. A few Jewish organizations in Long Island invited him to a Sunday forum at the Garden Jewish Center in Flushing, Queens. As a Zionist leader, I was also invited and placed on the dais next to Carter.

Naturally [since this was the Cold War era], I started discussing the Soviet Union with him. Carter knew nothing. He didn’t know any of the leaders, he didn’t know the history. We departed very nicely, but as I walked away I said to myself, “This man wants to become the president of the United States?”

Where in the Soviet Union did you live during the Holocaust?

We lived in gulag 1499 on the outskirts of Siberia for 18 months, and then we were settled for three-and-a-half years in the Soviet Muslim republic of Uzbekistan. For two of those years, we lived in a mud room next to a cow. I was sent to a Communist school where they tried indoctrinating me in Communist ideology.

It was a predominantly Muslim school body, and that’s where I learned the hatred that Muslims have for infidels. I remember one of the Russian Christians at the school said, “If these Muslims could, they would slaughter us like sheep.” They didn’t want to look at us. They treated us like garbage.

It’s interesting you say that, because many people believe radical Islam started in the 1990s.

You know when it started? In 636 when Caliph Omar dispatched an army of 25,000 Muslims on a jihad against Christian countries.

What frightens me is the ignorance about Islam – even among members of our government. Until 2004, I was in Washington every June for two days [as a ZOA representative] meeting with officers of the State Department, Defense Department, CIA, and senators and congressmen. They’re smart people, intelligent and educated. But they don’t comprehend fundamentalist Islam.

Even Israeli leaders don’t comprehend it. Muslims will never accept a Jewish state. You cannot have an infidel state in a Muslim region.

Sometimes you hear Jews saying, “We have an agreement with the Arabs.” But any agreement that a Muslim country signs with an infidel country can be broken pursuant to the principle of the Hudaibiya [the name of a 10-year agreement that Muhammad broke after two years].

I understand Israelis need peace. I don’t blame them, but unfortunately they’ll never have it. Never ever.

A Belated Appreciation

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

As the Monitor is only too aware, having received a fair number of admonishing e-mails on the subject, this column has disappointed at least some readers with what one called its “shameful silence” on the subject of William Safire in the weeks since the former New York Times columnist passed away in late September.

Guilty as charged. Frankly, though, at this point there’s not much left to say that is either original or insightful about a man whose career has been so thoroughly assessed by both admirers and detractors.

Safire’s move from the Nixon White House to the op-ed page of the Times, where he perched for better than three decades as its token non-liberal, has been well documented, as has been the initial hostility he faced from his illiberal liberal colleagues at the Times.

His polemical skills were complemented by his grammatical dexterity; indeed, his weekly “On Language” column became a Times fixture, read, respected and happily argued with even by those who could not abide the views he expressed in his Pulitzer-prize winning political column.

His books – collections of his language columns, historical novels, a meditation on the biblical story of Job, and his magnum opus, Safire’s Political Dictionary – were all well received. He was a popular guest on the Sunday morning talk-show circuit.

While dealing with the dilemma of trying to come up with a belated tribute that would not merely repeat what had already been said, the Monitor stumbled upon some of Safire’s columns on the Middle East from the miserable Jimmy Carter years. The prescience of those columns – their surprising timeliness all these years later – stands as a tribute in its own right to the man who wrote them. A few examples will suffice:

In a column dated May 24, 1976 – a year before Israel elected its first Likud prime minister, six years before the first Lebanon war, eleven years before the first intifada – Safire was complaining about “Dovish writers and longtime liberals, including many Jews, who are uncomfortable with positions of strength, and who urge the beleaguered Israelis to adopt appeasement under the labels of ‘accommodation,’ ‘flexibility,’ and ‘risks for peace.’ ”

How things never change.

From the same column, thirty years before anyone would hear of Walt and Mearsheimer: “Hating individual Jews does not make you a bigot. Being anti-Israel does not make you a bigot. But undertaking a crusade to persuade the American people that they are being brainwashed and manipulated by a cabal of Jews who sit astride most of the channels of communication, and thereby encouraging an irrational hatred of Jews – that makes you a bigot.”

In October 1977, after Carter responded to critics of his administration’s decision to convene a U.S.-Soviet conference on the Middle East by claiming he’d accomplished a diplomatic miracle of sorts because the Soviet Union up till then had “never recognized the right of Israel to exist,” Safire, normally a man with little positive to say about the Soviets, took the ignoramus to school:

Not only has the Soviet Union repeatedly recognized the right of Israel to exist, the Soviets were the first to recognize the state of Israel…. Through two breaks in diplomatic relations, the Soviets have continued to recognize Israel as a state, and therefore its “right to exist.”… How, in light of 30 years’ continuous recognition, and with hundreds of Soviet restatements of Israel’s right to exist, could President Carter say “they have never recognized the right of Israel to exist”?Okay. Now the Official Correctors will explain that, um, you see, the president “misspoke.” But he does not misspeak; he misthinks. His foot is not so much in his mouth as in his mind. Mr. Carter really believes he has bargained the Soviets into recognizing Israel’s existence.

Despite his status as the Times’s House Conservative, Safire was politically unpredictable; his positions on social issues were significantly to the left of the Republican base and he supported Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election over the Republican incumbent, George Herbert Walker Bush.

Of course, Bush’s coolness toward Israel was a major factor in Safire’s defection. Safire never apologized for his support of Israel. Responding to criticism of his close relationship with former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, Safire once said, “I don’t feel the least bit ashamed or embarrassed about presenting [Sharon’s] views, because they are my views. Actually, mine are a little more hawkish.”

Jason Maoz can be reached at jmaoz@jewishpress.com

Yes, I.F. Stone Was A Soviet Spy

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Back in 1994 the Monitor marked the fifteenth anniversary of the passing of radical journalist I.F. Stone with an unsentimental look at the career of the detestable old commie symp. The column was picked up by FrontPageMag.com and generated comment on several other conservative websites and blogs.

The feedback to the piece was almost all positive, but there was one complaint that animated many readers who contacted the Monitor. What bothered them was that no mention had been made in the column of Stone’s employment by the KGB, allegations of which had been circulating for years after Stone’s death and that seemed to have been confirmed with the opening of KGB files following the demise of the Soviet Union.

As the Monitor saw it, however, the evidence based on those initial KGB reports seemed somewhat circumstantial, and besides, there was more than enough with which to damn Stone based on his own prolific writing.

But as Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev make clear in their new book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press), there can no longer be any doubt about Stone’s ties to Soviet spymasters.

Stone, born Isadore Feinstein, was praised in life and eulogized in death by mainstream journalists for his supposed independence and iconoclasm, and he remains an iconic figure to many in the media.

In 1953, after years of writing for liberal and left-wing publications, he started his own newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which by the time Stone closed it down in 1971 enjoyed a circulation pushing 70,000.

By then, of course, the tenor of the times was such that Stone, unemployable in the 1950’s, had became a regular recipient of awards and accolades from his peers. Forgotten or overlooked in the rush to lionize Stone was his history as a shameless apologist for Stalin.

Stone’s insistence on viewing the Soviet Union as worthy of support, even in the face of the Moscow Trials and Stalin’s purges and executions, led his otherwise sympathetic biographer Robert Cottrell to write that “there was something disingenuous in [Stone’s] willingness to suspend judgment or to refuse to criticize still more forcefully the terror that was being played out in Soviet Russia….”

Cottrell described how Stone came to be seen by anti-Communist leftists as “an apologist for the hammer-and-sickle”; how Richard Rovere, a writer during that period for The New Masses, a radical journal, viewed Stone as a Stalinist who played “fast and loose with the facts”; and how James Wechsler, a writer with The Nation and later an editor at the then-liberal New York Post, dismissed Stone as “a fairly regular apologist for the Communists.”

When a group of American writers and academics broke ranks with the pro-Soviet Left in 1939 to form the Committee for Cultural Freedom, Stone and other die-hards signed on to a vociferous public campaign lambasting “the fantastic falsehood that the USSR and the totalitarian states are basically alike” and commending the Soviet Union for “steadily expanding democracy in every sphere.”

Stone would not split with the Soviets until 1956, disillusioned by a visit he made to Moscow in the spring of that year and the Hungarian crisis a few months later. But he never lost his instinctive hostility to free market capitalism, nor was he ever inclined to extend to the United States even the slightest benefit of doubt in any international dispute.

(On Israel, Stone consistently toed the leftist line. Before 1948 he was opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, preferring a binational arrangement for Arabs and Jews, and his attacks on Israel became ever more frequent and shrill after the Six-Day War. By the mid-1970s the viciousness of his diatribes was such that the non-Jewish novelist James Michener termed them “palpably anti-Zionist, probably anti-Israel, and potentially anti-Jewish.”)

Talk of possible KGB ties, which began to circulate in the early 1990’s, was pooh-poohed by Stone’s defenders as nothing more than an attempt to smear the reputation of a fearless speaker of truth to power. And, as the authors of Spies acknowledge, those earlier reports “were suggestive but not conclusive.”

Now, however, the authors present new evidence, based on KGB files, indicating that Stone (codename: Pancake) did indeed have ties to Soviet intelligence.

“The documentary record,” they write, “shows that I.F. Stone consciously cooperated with Soviet intelligence from 1936 through 1938. An effort was made by Soviet intelligence to reestablish that relationship in 1944-45; we do not know whether that effort succeeded.

“To put it plainly, from 1936 to 1939 I.F. Stone was a Soviet spy.”

The Enduring Strength of the Jewish Spirit

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Making aliyah in 2000 afforded our family an opportunity to become part of the continuity of the Jewish people in the Jewish Land. In addition, we have been blessed to live in a community that has both the brightest Jewish minds of our times and some of the most courageous Jews of our generation.

 

Growing up Jewish in America during the 1970s and ’80s meant becoming involved with the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Who could have imagined that thirty years later, we would count among our dearest friends, Ari (nee Leonid) and Mila Volvovsky, heroes of that struggle, which shook the Soviet Empire to its very foundations?  Their story is something out of a Biblical tale, replete with adventure, suspense, tears and laughter. It is a story reminiscent of the history of our people, a people who have been exiled, enslaved, tortured and slaughtered, and yet, a people whose spirit, will, and faith have continued against all the odds.

 

 

 


Ari and Mila Volvovsky during their struggle for freedom

 

Ari and Mila grew up in Soviet Russia and had very little knowledge of the noble and often horrific history of their own people. They knew that they were Jewish, which to them meant their parents expected them to marry Jews. While their Soviet identification cards labeled them as “Jews”, they were not familiar with any part of Jewish history.  All that would change after the 1967 Israeli/Arab War.  When Israel reunited Jerusalem and regained the Old City, pride ignited in the souls of our Jewish brethren.  In many Soviet Jews, it also ignited a desire to reclaim their heritage through learning, becoming religious and applying to leave “Mother” Russia and return to the land of their Fathers, Israel.

 

An illegal (banned by the Soviets) typed unbound copy of Leon Uris’ Exodus circulated from Jew to Jew in Moscow. Ari and Mila had only one night to read it before they had to pass it on to the next family. Mila recalls how they stayed up the whole night, how they were exhausted the next day at work and yet exhilarated by the novel.  (Later on at Ari’s trial, reading this book was mentioned as one of his crimes against the Soviet State.) This story, Hebrew lessons, Bible and Halacha classes, and meetings with supporters outside of the Soviet Union, all afforded Ari and Mila the opportunity to begin learning about Judaism.  They also provided fodder for the KGB to arrest Ari and send him to a labor camp in Siberia. The Soviet authorities sentenced him to three years in this labor camp; however, due to the Herculean efforts of Mila, the outside world, and a miracle from God, his sentence was commuted to two years.

 

According to Mila it was a difficult but electrifying time for them and their friends. When asked if they were ever afraid, Mila responded that they never lived in fear. They chose, and were chosen, to fight this battle. Ari was arrested on at least three separate occasions and thrown into prison, without a trial, all before his infamous trial after which he was sent to a labor camp. Whenever he was interrogated, and later at his trial, Ari insisted on speaking only Hebrew. He refused to respond in any other language. During the time he was in the labor camp, Mila was followed whenever she left the house, and their phone was bugged. 

 

As soon as Ari and Mila applied to leave the Soviet Union (in 1974) they were fired from their jobs. With no jobs and very little money they lived with their parents. Right before the summer Olympic games (1980), the Soviets decided to “clean-out” Moscow and banish all dissidents. Ari and Mila were told that they could no longer live there. They were sent to Gorky, a “closed” city.  This mean that, unlike in Moscow, very few, if any outsiders could come to visit them. They continued their struggle against the Soviets. They met with others in the forests around Gorky, sang Israeli songs, planned Jewish Cultural Events, and continued to grow in their Jewish knowledge. The Soviets shadowed their every move, listened to their phone conversations, opened their mail, harassed and harangued them at every opportunity; however, Ari, Mila and their friends were relentless. They sat in front of their interrogators denying their guilt and evoking the powers of the free world to put an end to the demagoguery of the Soviet Beast and pry open its jaws to free the citizens who demanded the right to return to their God-given Homeland.

 

 


Mila Volvovsky campaigning for her Ari’s release

 

After Ari was sentenced to three years in the labor camp, he was moved around from prison to prison for two months.  In one place he shared a cell with five other men, real criminals. The lights were on 24/7 and the guards were Soviet women who had a passion for causing pain. He tells a miraculous story of how he made a chanukiah out of stale bread, threads from his prison uniform and oil from the top layer of their morning porridge. He taught his fellow, non-Jewish cellmates, to sing Maoz Tzur after he lit the oil candles, and miraculously the guards were not in the corridors during the same time for each of the eight days of Chanukah.

 

During the winter months in Siberia, the temperatures went below -40 Celsius.  The bathrooms were outside, as well as much of the work prisoners were expected to do.  Three months out of the year the temperatures jumped to +40 Celsius and within the mud the most vile and infectious mosquitoes were bred. At first Ari was sent to saw wood in the freezing cold weather. Next he labored in the quarry cutting stone until he fainted and his fingers developed severe arthritis. He felt like the Hebrew slaves of Egypt making stones for the mighty Pharaoh’s building projects. He was then sent to sew covers for machinery, also physically difficult. There were no fruits and vegetables in Ari’s diet and many prisoners suffered from maladies caused by severe vitamin deficiencies.

 

While Ari was struggling to survive his sentence, Mila was working to make the entire world aware of her husband’s plight. Hundreds of letters, from all over the world, arrived at the camp every week; although, Ari received very few of them, and only those written in Russian had any chance of being delivered. Of course, those were the ones the authorities could read and decide if they would deliver them or not.

 

At one point, the Commandant of the camp called Ari into his office.  He was holding a letter from President Reagan, requesting Ari’s release. The Commandant wanted to know if Ari was related to Reagan! Mila begged, bartered and bribed to get supplies to her husband. The first time she was allowed to visit was after nine months.  Another time she and her daughter, Kira, flew the over 10,000 kilometers to meet their beloved father and husband for one hour.  Mila says that if not for the support of activists around the world, she never could have visited, or bribed the authorities to smuggle things to Ari in the prison camp.

 

 


Ari Volvovsky

 

Ari regales us with the real life adventures of the Soviet Refusniks each time we are at their home.  One commandant told Ari that, if he would ask to be pardoned, he would be released. Ari refused on the grounds that he had done nothing for which he needed to be pardoned!

 

At the Purim seuda this year, someone asked Ari when he had his Brit Milah. Before answering, he first acknowledged that he could completely empathize with Avraham Avinu! To have a brit in the former Soviet Union was forbidden as it was considered a “non-registered” surgery. At the age of 36, Ari decided to perform this difficult mitzvah. Both a non-Jewish and a Jewish surgeon came to Ari’s home. The non-Jew took this very dangerous risk to teach the Jewish doctor how to perform what is a complicated procedure for adult males.  They gave Ari a glass of vodka to drink and a local anesthetic before the procedure was done on the kitchen table and soon Ari joined the halachic ranks of the Jewish people. This Jewish doctor went on to perform hundreds of illegal circumcisions in the Soviet Union until he too, was able to come on aliyah.

 

Ari learned the art of sh’chittah and slaughtered chickens so that he and his fellow Jews could have kosher meat. He taught Hebrew to many Soviet Jews, who later made aliyah.  The father of a Jew Ari met in the labor camp, told Ari he was so happy his son had been sentenced there, because after meeting Ari, he returned to his Judaism and later made aliyah. Even in the most inhospitable of environments Ari, like Avraham Avinu, was bringing people closer to God and Judaism.

 

Today, Ari, a PhD in Cybernetics, teaches at the prestigious Machon Lev. Last year, Mila, their daughter Kira, her husband, their son Shai, (born here in Israel), and their two grandchildren, celebrated Ari’s and Mila’s 20th year of freedom from the Soviet Union’s oppressive regime, and their aliyah to Israel.

 

As we sat at their Purim seuda, Mila pulled out a box, which contained all of the letters Ari had received and written in the Labor Camp. At the airport, when they were leaving Russia, the KGB tried to prevent him from taking them out of the country.  Once again, Ari stood-up to the officials and asked them to show him the law which prevented him from taking personal letters out of the country. They couldn’t.  Now, 20 years later, Mila plucked one letter out of the hundreds.  It was a letter she had written to Ari on Purim, over 20 years ago! In it she expressed the hope that by the following Purim their family would be together in Eretz Yisrael celebrating the joy that this holiday promises.

 

A year after that letter was written Ari was released. A few years later the “mighty” Soviet Union collapsed. Mila’s Purim wish and hope had come true. Ari and Mila had triumphed.

 

            As we watch the news and see how so many new Hamans want to destroy our people, we have hope and faith, like our Soviet Jewish brethren did, not so many years ago, that we, through our own efforts and the kindness of God, will triumph.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/the-enduring-strength-of-the-jewish-spirit/2009/04/22/

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