Natan Sharansky turned to me Thursday night. We talked as he was making his way to Pardes Chana for the funeral of Hillel Butman, who passed away at the age of 87.
“Hillel was the first, before the rest of us,” he told me. “Already in 1966, a year before the Six-Day War, he founded the Zionist Youth Movement of Leningrad. Who thought about Zionism back then, before 1967? It was very rare.
“He established an underground organization, taught Hebrew and literature and Judaism, established secret ulpanim in which young people met, and tried to scream to the world the cry of the Jews of Russia, who wanted to go home, to Israel.
“Dozens of people, and then hundreds of people, and then thousands of people got carried away by this movement. Later, he was one of the organizers of ‘Operation Wedding,’ the valiant attempt to hijack a plane and escape to freedom.
“Later on, I sat in the prison cell adjacent to his. We used to talk through the toilet bowl. He taught me how to be a prisoner and he used to pass notes to me, clandestinely. I remember one of his daughters was born when he was in prison, and her name was Geula [redemption], expressing his hope for redemption.
“When he was released from prison together with his cell-mate, Prisoner of Zion Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, they handed me the scepter in a certain sense, but, in fact, Butman handed the scepter to our entire generation, and then to Yulie Edelstein’s generation, and to the whole glorious movement of Russian Jewry.
“The first spark of the silent Jewry, even before the Six-Day War was him. I think that we are not familiar enough with figures like him, and tonight, when he passed away, it is important for me that people should know about him.”