“Ever since I was a little girl, people always asked me: ‘Do you know your parents are heroes?’ When I was growing up, everybody knew who my parents were. But in the last fifteen years their story has been forgotten.”
So begins “Operation Wedding,” a new documentary from Israeli filmmaker/director Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, which opened to a packed house in December, on United Nations International Human Rights Day, at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.
As shown in “Operation Wedding,” by the late 1960s trapped Russian Jews had reached a tipping point, willing to risk death rather than continue living in a totalitarian state where they were forbidden to live openly Jewish lives.
Incredibly, almost all of those who took the most dangerous path of escape didn’t know even the most basic tenets of the faith they were forbidden to study yet willing to die for.
Deprived of any Jewish education, they instinctively sought out ways to teach themselves at least the basics, despite fear of being discovered by KGB investigators. (One of the most popular books among refuseniks was Exodus, Leon Uris’s novel about the founding of Israel, which ignited sparks of Jewish pride and inspired masses of Soviet Jews to try – or die trying – to escape to freedom.)
The film is the first full-length historically accurate English language documentary account of what came to be called “the Dymshits-Kuznetsov Hijacking Affair,” the June 15, 1970 doomed escape attempt by fourteen refuseniks and two non-Jewish dissidents who bought every seat on a small plane, pretending they were traveling to a wedding inside Russia.
The group intended to take control of the plane during a stopover at an airstrip near the Soviet-Finnish border, fly fifteen minutes to cross that boundary, which would put them out of danger, and then another ninety minutes or so to finally land in Sweden. Upon disembarking, they hoped to call a press conference and appeal to the conscience of the free world.
Focusing on the personal memoir of her parents, Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov effectively presents the big picture of the Soviet Jewry freedom movement. Avoiding melodrama, the London-trained filmmaker allows people to speak for themselves in plain, clear language.
Personal family accounts and Russian Jewish history are juxtaposed as the film swings back and forth from black and white newsreels, film clips, and archival footage of the 1970s to present-day interviews with aging survivors, who recall the past in incredible detail.
Anat, the loving Jewish daughter born in freedom, revisits the past with her family, always returning to that one fateful day when they tried to escape but ended up imprisoned. Camera in hand, Anat films it all, the whole rich, hair-raising tale of desperation, chutzpah, courage, faith, and suffering.
We see how the KGB caught and arrested the would-be escapees before they even boarded the plane. Branded “criminals” by the Russians and hailed as “heroes” by the western press, the group included the late Major Mark Dymshits, a former Red Army pilot who was going to fly the plane. Among the passengers were Mark’s wife, Ella and his teenage daughters, Yulia and Liza; the group’s leader, Edward Kuznetsov and Edward’s wife, Sylva; Sylva’s brothers, Wolf and Israel; Yosef Mendelevich; and seven others.
After a trial in Leningrad in 1970, Kuznetsov and Dymshits were condemned to death by firing squad. The others received lengthy prison sentences in the Soviet Gulag. The film dramatically documents the outcry in Europe, the United States, and Israel, with twenty-four governments and the Vatican intervening on behalf of the defendants, demanding their freedom.
In the wake of the international protests, the Soviets modified the sentences, commuting the death sentences of Kuznetsov and Dymshits to 15 years in prison and reducing the incarceration time of several other defendants.
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“Operation Wedding” is presently being screened all over the world and last year won two Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards including Best Story -Woman Filmmaker.
Its “official” New York City premiere will take place on Sunday, February 26, at Columbia University, organized by Aryeh, the school’s largest pro-Israel student public affairs committee. Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov will be there, ready to answer questions and greet more Jews who will surely react the way the audience did in December at Lincoln Square Synagogue – uplifted and astounded by this story of heroism and Jewish pride.
At the December Lincoln Square event, Anat’s uncle Israel Zalmanson, the former prisoner of Zion who participated in the desperate escape attempt, and Glenn Richter, a pioneer in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, were reunited. Warmly welcomed by the audience, Zalmanson and Richter stood for over an hour answering questions.
“Our generation of young American Jews promised ourselves that we would not be quiet, as our parents’ generation largely was during the Holocaust,” said Richter.
“We did not have their psychological limits of self-restraint. Several of us who began the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in 1964 had previously been involved in the American civil rights movement. We saw that strong nonviolent action achieved results….
“We felt we achieved some victory when, after the intense international protests, both on the streets and in corridors of international power, the Kremlin canceled the death sentences and reduced some of the other sentences. The mighty Kremlin walls were cracked.”
One of those “corridors of international power,” hidden from protesters and news broadcasts, was, as “Operation Wedding” reveals, involved Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s behind-the-scenes effort to save Kuznetsov and Dymshits from death.
In a voiceover narration, Anat tells us:
“Golda saved my father’s life and it was a state secret for many decades. In order to save the lives of two Jews, my father and the group’s pilot, the prime minister of Israel asked for help from Spanish dictator, Franco.
“How is it related? Well, at the very same time, six Basque terrorists in Spain were awaiting a death sentence for killing two policemen. Golda sent a message to Franco, saying: We know that you are descended from a Jewish family that was forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition, so we are pleading with you to help. You can save the lives of two innocent Jews by sparing the lives of six killers. If you do that, Brezhnev the Communist will try to prove that he is more humane than Franco the Fascist.”
Franco cooperated. Brezhnev followed suit as Golda had anticipated, commuting the execution previously ordered for Kuznetsov and Dymshits to long years in the Gulag. Despite being a closed society, the Kremlin had some concern for its international public image.
But there was a price to pay. The refuseniks convicted at trial were held back, serving long prison sentences. The fearless and foolish youths – who, armed with rock solid faith and courage, ran ahead of everyone else, opening the eyes of the world and thus the pathway out for Jews escaping tyranny – were forced to stay behind.
According to Israel Zalmanson, “Even locked up in the Gulag, we knew there was a struggle on the outside to free us. I didn’t mind – as much – to be in jail once I learned that the gates were opening for other people.
“This was a morale booster – that at least whatever we did was not a complete failure. That was my initial feeling, especially since I had also learned that the KGB had used our hijacking attempt [as an excuse] to crush the Jewish movement for emigration and cracked down hard, arresting many Jewish activists, our friends.”