A Bid for Freedom

On June 15, a group of criminals, trying to seize a scheduled airplane were arrested at Smolny Airport. Investigations are in progress.

It is almost four years since this small and at the time somewhat insignificant Item appeared in Vecherny Leningrad. Since then, the so-called “group of          criminals” have become the martyred heroes of the Jewish exodus movement in the U.S.S.R. and their supporters outside. Songs have been written about Silva Zalmanson. The paintings of Boris Penson have been in the finest art galleries. Even the camp writings of Edward Kuznetsov have been published in the West.

The tribulations of the prisoners of Zion, arrested on that summer’s day in June, 1970, have stirred many an indifferent heart and have elevated the level of national consciousness of Jews the world over.

In the few years since then, over 80,000 Soviet Jews have emigrated to Israel. An indirect result, perhaps, of the storm of protest and indignation surrounding the subject of the stealing of the aircraft. Behind this attempt to leave the USSR, there were feelings of black gloom and deep desperation at the inhumanity the Soviet emigration authorities and at the so-called civilised world which turned a deaf to the cries of Soviet Jews.

In early. 1970, when emigration, when emigration was almost non-existent, the few Jewish activists talked of mass hunger strikes to break the impenetrable wall of indifference. Many, particularly those in Leningrad thought that the UN Declaration of Human Rights should not be a mere piece of paper with no real meaning for Government. Hence, at the beginning of 1970 the Leningrad Jews signed two protest letters to the UN Commission on Human Rights. They became known as “the letter of the 21″ and “the letter of the 37.”

It was in Riga that the frustration was greatest… Letters were signed, but activists that something more was needed. Plans to publicise the plight of Soviet Jewry were in abundance. People even joked about it. “Setting fire to one’s greatly beloved mother-in-law in Red Square to attract the world’s attention would be well worth considering,” was one jest going the reloads. Into this scene came Mark Dymshits.

Dymshits had worked as a pilot in Bokhara and felt that he had never really had any opportunities to fulfil himself because of anti-Semitic discrimination. Unlike the other accused in the first Leningrad trial, who spoke of family reunification and national feelings, Dymshits put forward three reasons for his action: anti-Semitism in the USSR; the Soviet Union’s policy in the Middle East; the Soviet nationalities policy as it affected the Jews.

At about the time of the Six Day war, Dymshits dreamed up the idea of flying out of the Soviet Union. He was full of bizarre notions such as floating out of the country in an air balloon or building his own aircraft. Such thoughts were those of one man and had nothing in common with the embryonic exodus movement.

In the autumn of 1969, Dymshits’s difficulties with learning Hebrew led him to Hillel Butman, a leading Leningrad activist. The samizdat version of the trial proceedings show that dymshits soon began to talk of stealing a plane. To numerous Leningrad Jews. People like Lev Korenblit, a. man widely respected for his knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish affairs and his brave attempts to educate the young people in Leningrad came down on this suggestion with a passionate conviction that it was wrong.

Soon no one in Leningrad would listen to Dymshits and he told people that he had dropped the idea. In Riga it fell on much more fertile ground. The Jews there were far more emotionally geared to the concept of Jewish state, Jewish traditions, a Jewish way of life in general. After all, Latvia had only been annexed in 1940; the currents of Judaism were still strong there.

Silva Zalmanson, Iosif Mendelevich and Leib Khnokh had all come from anti-assimilationist backgrounds. During the trial, Boris Penson explained that that his mother been born in a small Jewish town, spoke Russian very badly and could not acclimatize herself In the USSR.

Personal factors were also important. Edward Kuznetsov had spent seven years in a camp on anti-Sovietism. Yet even on release in 1969, he was not given a proper chance to settle down. As an ex-prisoner, he was kept under surveillance and harassed. Obstacles were placed In the way of his getting employment. Even new girlfriends avoided him after proper instructions from the KGB.

Silva Zalmanson had had it tough. She had spent many years looking after a sick mother                in a household of men and had wanted to emigrate ever since the early sixties.

The notion of stealing a plane without violence or bloodshed to fly to freedom became a reality to some, while to others it was a romantic fantasy. The escape on a magic carpet to the land of their dreams became a rosy image that these courageous Riga Jews could not give up. Even when they knew that their                chances of success were infinitesimal, they could not turn back to a life of desperation and frustration.

IT IS CLEAR from many sources that the KGB knew what was going on right from the start. Even more tragically, the Riga Jews knew that the KGB; yet there could be no going back.

In his diaries, Kuznetsov comments that he realized on the day before the attempted seizure of this plane that all of the Rigaites felt the operation was doomed to failure, but did not meet to admit it to themselves or to one another.

Boris Penson told Kuznetsov on the train from Riga to Leningrad, “Better into the hands of the devil now rather than return.”

Iosif Mendelevich and Israel Zalmanson had argued sometime before about the philosophical nature of the attempt. Mendelevich pointed out that people should understand the danger of the mission. Its nature was directly relevant to the persecution Jewish people had suffered down the ages. The attempt even though it had virtually no chance of success, had to be made, said Mendelevich, if only to awaken the outside world to their plight.

Last year a letter signed by eight of the participants on the eve of the adventure was discovered. Headed “Flee from the land of the North”, it expressed their fatalistic urges:

If we fail, we ask you all to take care of our relatives and protect them against those who would try and make them pay for our act. We would point out that our act does not endanger anyone else. The moment the plane leaves the ground, we ourselves will be the only ones in it.

The KGB had been carefully fostering the plan by keeping out of sight. Their plan had been to use the attempt, which all parties knew would be unsuccessful, to destroy the exodus movement. Personal contacts between Jews in other cities were to be made into links in an “all-nation Zionist conspiracy.” The Smolny airport staff had even been informed well in advance that that particular flight had been cancelled. No second pilot had been detailed to the flight.

The single pilot had been given orders to taxi up and down to give the impression that everything was OK. As the Jews approached the plane, squads of KGB men threw themselves at them. What happened next was like a Keystone Cops comedy, except that it was in bitter earnest.

Notes from the samizdat version of the trial proceeding state:

The Moscow security services, having failed to make precise arrangements with their Leningrad colleagues, had decided on their own, and at the last moment, to carry out the arrests at the airport. As the Moscow officials knew what each member of the group looked like, but were not certain that there had been no last minute changes in the group, they decided – to be on the safe side – to arrest every person approaching the aircraft. The result was that some of the Leningrad security agents who resisted arrest, required prompt medical attention.

The group had divided on arrival in Leningrad; the women went to Priozersk with Knokh and Penson. The Leningrad plane containing the others was scheduled to land there and the plan was to tie upthe pilots in their sleeping bags and hop over the border to Sweden.

From the start, the group noticed that they were being followed. They changed trains twice. Upon reaching Priozersk, they lost their way, so they decided to light a fire and spend the night in a nearby forest. At three in the morning, Penson, acting as a guard, heard a rustling of leaves. Suddenly police came charging at them, firing slat-keg bullets at them indiscriminately.

Within half an hour of the seizure of the airplane at Smolney airport, arrest of Jews and searches of their homes were taking place in half a dozen Soviet cities. Six months later, the first Leningrad trial opened.

The prosecution exaggerated and distorted the events. Apart from treason, the accused were charged with theft of government property, even though the theft did not take place, and they had intended that the plane should be returned once they were in Sweden. Defence counsel tried to change the charge to ‘banditry with the aim of seizing government property’.

Jerusalem Post 14 June 1974

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