How Russia’s Jews Welcomed Israel

IN 1947, the Soviet Union supported the partition of Palestine and the establishment of a sovereign Jewish national State. It promoted the cause of a new Israel with great vigour within a de facto recognition of the Zionist solution to the Jewish problem.

In November, 1947, stating the case for a Jewish State, Andrei Gromyko remarked that “in Western Europe, there was not a single country able adequately to protect the interests of the Jewish people in the face of the lawlessness and tyranny of Hitler’s men.” A few years before, Roosevelt discussed the Jewish question with Stalin at Yalta. The President told the Soviet leader of his sympathy for Zionist aspirations with which Stalin seemingly concurred.

If the report is to be believed, Stalin’s conversion to the Zionist cause was the more incredible since he had unceasingly persecuted Soviet Zionists for two decades. A more obvious answer seemed to be one of sheer expediency in counteracting Western Interests.

By 1947, Soviet representatives were making speeches that any socialist-Zionist would have been proud of despite the fact that in reality all socialist-Zionists in the USSR had either been liquidated in the purges or inhibited one of the many islands of the Gulag Archipelago. This conflict of interests was overlooked by Soviet Jews in their establishment of a Jewish State.

Many Soviet Jews wished to fight for Israel in the War of Independence. In April, 1948, Major Joachim Shperber attended a three-week course at the Tushino air base near Moscow and was told by a high-ranking officer that a plan to create a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan was being pushed by the Kremlin on Marshal Voroshilov’s initiative. moreover there was a plan to organise an expeditionary force , tens of thousands strong. Shperber believed that he would be one of 800 pilots sent.

When the existence of the State was officially proclaimed, 20 Jewish officers gathered to celebrate. After the first statutory toast to Stalin, one General Levin lifted his glass and proposed a toast to the State of Israel, saying. ‘Today is a great holiday for us: after 2,000 years, an independent Jewish State has come into being.”

This was followed by yet another toast–this time to Chaim Weizmann. Even the Hatikva was sung in Russian. Throughout the entire course, Jewish officers talked about the possibility of volunteering to fight for Israel.

In Leningrad, medical student Leonid Rutshtein collected 50 signatures on a petition asking for the right to go and fight for 1 Israel.

When the Israeli Embassy opened in Moscow, it, too, received its fair share of requests : to leave. Ex-Major M. wrote to the Israeli military attaché from Kiev:

Is it possible for a Jew who has spent four years fighting the fascists to go to the land of our birth, to our dear country, in order to be together with the remnant of our people, which demands the freedom of the oldest of nations? All praise to the head of the Army, Ben-Gurion. With honour and blessings to Zion.

Even in the camps there was great concern for the security of the new State. As early as 1942, a Lithuanian Betarnik, Yechezkel Pulerevich, wrote to Stalin from his camp suggesting that a Jewish army be formed. This, he concluded, would speed up the opening of a second front against the Nazi armies and relieve the pressure on the USSR.

On hearing the proclamation of the Jewish State on Moscow Radio late at night in the far reaches of Northern Russia, one Jewish prisoner recorded: “All the non-Jews who were there with me became silent with astonishment. Then they rose from their bunks and spontaneously shook the hands of the Jews and congratulated them.

In honour of the festive occasion, each of us produced the little food in his possession and we camp Jews held a feast together. We could not sleep all night. In our hearts and thoughts we were at the front with our brothers and sisters who had begun a bitter war, rifle in hand against the invading Arabs.

The coming of the State produced new demands for the teaching of Hebrew, which had been banned for decades. David Hofshtein, the Yiddish writer who had lived in Palestine and written in Hebrew, began openly to advocate the teaching of Hebrew in the USSR. A quiet group of Hebrew writers, calling themselves MARAK –M’dabrim rec Ivrit (We speak only Hebrew), revealed their existence. In a letter to Stalin, the Hebrew writers, Zvi Praeger-son, Meir Baazov, Zvi Plotkin and Aron Krikheli, asked for permission to leave for Israel.

The arrival of the Israeli legation in Moscow, headed by Golda Meir, had a remarkable effect on Soviet Jews. The legation became the natural address for pleas of help to emigrate to Israel.

An impromptu visit to the Jewish theatre in Moscow prompted the number two in the Israeli legation, Mordechal Namir, to reflect:

“We were deluged with questions about Israel, about the Embassy, the war, the Hebrew language and many other topics. Here and there, people asked after relatives in Israel.

“They told us, some quite openly, some loudly and some in a whisper, ‘You can’t imagine how much Jewish joy you have brought us. For God’s sake, take us with you to Israel. Don’t desert us.'”

Even so, the demonstration on the first day of Rosh Hashana surpassed anything that even the Israelis had expected. When Golda Meir and her entourage reached the street which housed the synagogue, they were greeted by thousands of Soviet Jews.

When they were noticed, spontaneous applause broke out. A narrow path was made for them and they entered the synagogue. Yet, during a four-hour service, all eyes were on the visitors. When they finally went back into the street, a tremendous roar went up. Shouts of “Shalom” and “Hashana haba b’Yerushalayim” greeted them.

Jews sat on cars and clambered over parked lorries for a better view. They leaned out of windows and stood in stairways. The street was packed from one end to the other by an estimated 30,000 people. It was Soviet Jewry’s declaration of solidarity with Israel.

It was also an answer to an article by Ilya Ehrenberg which had appeared in “Pravda” a few days previously. In it, the Jewish masses were warned that they were first and foremost Soviet citizens and that Zionism was a reactionary creed. The Kremlin had replied in no uncertain fashion to Mrs Meir’s requests for Jewish emigration from the USSR.

The Soviet leadership was  shocked by the magnitude of these demonstrations of affection. It had probably believed that the Jewish problem had been laid to rest and that Zionist sentiment no longer existed in the USSR.

In pursuit of this policy to cleanse the USSR and eventually Eastern Europe of nationally conscious Jews, the Kremlin had permitted its satellites to allow emigration to Israel. The Soviet Union itself allowed a total of some 175,000 Polish Jews to return to Poland from the USSR in the post-war years. Yet it was well known to the Kremlin that a majority of these people would finally leave for Palestine.

The realisation that the Zionist ideal was alive and well in the USSR after 30 years of Marxist Leninism brought with it a terrible vengeance, From November, 1948, the Kremlin put into force anti-Jewish policies which have labelled that era as the Black Years of Soviet Jewry. Those Jews who had openly applied to leave or to fight in the war, or simply to be able to speak Hebrew, became new members of the Zek (prisoner) fraternity in the slave labour camps. They were dubbed “GoIda’s prisoners.”

Leonid Rutshtein was sentenced to ten years in 1950 for his collection of signatures. One of the accusations was that he had read the works of William Shakespeare — “decadent bourgeois literature.” Iosif Shmerler, from Novosibirsk, was also given ten years for propagating “bourgeois nationalist propaganda” because he had asked to fight for Israel.

David Hofshtein’s demand for Hebrew died with him on that dark day in August, 1952, when the cream of the Yiddish writers and poets were executed as a prelude to the Doctors’ Plot. Major Shperber’s plan to enlist as a volunteer for Israel was aborted when he learned from a non-Jewish officer that Stalin had turned down the scheme for volunteers for Israel and had subsequently ordered the arrest of all those who had openly expressed such a wish. Although he avoided the camps for one more year, Shperber was finally arrested at the Turkish border in an attempt to steal an aircraft and fly to freedom.

Thus, after a brief time for euphoric celebration, there were once more Jews of silence. They had to wait another 20 years before Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War gave them the courage once again to speak out.

Jewish Chronicle 27 April 1979


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