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 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.