Interview with Ida Nudel’s Sister

I first met Ilana Friedman two years ago in Tel Aviv. Seeing her in the Anglo-Saxon civility of a Hampstead flat, I was struck by the uncanny resemblance she bears to her famous sister, the Moscow refusenik, Ida Nudel.

At 43, Ilana is three years younger than Ida and is her only living relative. She lives in Holon, near Tel Aviv with her husband and their 14 year old son Jacob, who was named after their grandfather. Her  husband who has a degree in agriculture from Moscow University, works as a milk inspector with a cooperative. llana herself is a sales assistant.

This visit to London is her first visit abroad since arriving in Israel. For her, it has only one purpose: to publicise the plight of Ida. Reluctant to talk about herself, she is only too happy for the opportunity to talk her sister—which is what she has been doing, while here, to womens’ organisations, Jewish groups, professionals, in fact anyone who might be able to help Ida to secure that vital little pink slip of paper: a visa to Israel.

Speaking with a sense of determination, llana told me that it was almost exactly six years since Ida first applied to leave. In fact, she applied together-her with Ilana (or Yelena, as she was then called). “I applied under my married name with my husband and child, while Ida applied separately. But we informed the emigration authorities that we were one family”.

A year later, however, the Friedman family received permission to leave. Ida was refused. The official explanation was that Ida had been in possession of classified information when working as a quantity surveyor at a Moscow microbiological institute. Her job was to cost the erection of new buildings — nothing more, nothing less.

Each year, liana sends a new invitation from Israel to replace the old one and Ida continues to fight on the basis of her 1971 documents. As with hundreds of other applicants, the answer is always the same:

“No. You have been refused”.

“But what is the secret information I am supposed to know?”

“That is a secret.”

“When does the information become obsolete?”

“This is also a secret”.

I asked Ilana how accurate was the western tendency to portray Ida as an angelic symbol for women’s groups – and how dangerous it could be in the long run. “Her activity comes from her big heart”, she replied, “and her desire to help those who need her help. I do not think for a moment that such publicity has harmed her. After all, they could imprison her, but they haven’t don’t so.”

The danger, however, remains. Ida has been in prison three times for short periods. She was one of seven activists named by Sanya Lipavsky in his Izvestia article in March. Anatoly Shcharansky, who was also named, was arrested ten days later and could on trial at any moment.

Ida and the others were certain that after the publication of that article, all of them would be arrested. The immanent danger may well have passed, but Ida is only too well aware how precarious her situation is. Last time it was Shcharansky. Next time…

Both Ida and Ilana learned their Zionism from their grandfather. A member of Hashomer Hatzair, he worked on a Jewish agricultural settlement in the Crimea in the hope of being permitted to leave for Palestine. Those farms disappeared with the rest of the pre-revolutionary Zionist movement as Stalin tightened his grip on the country. Eventually they were destroyed by the Nazi invasion.

Their father died young at Stalingrad. The two girls were left alone with their widowed mother. As teenagers in post-war Russia, they grew up with typically assimilationist attitudes.

The Doctors Plot of 1953 changed all that. The blatant anti-Semitism in the streets and at work, the threats of pogroms and the mass deportation of the Jews to Central Asia deeply impressed themselves on their youthful minds.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, they began to gather information about Israel and sometimes tuned into the Voice of Israel. With the Six-Day war, the dramatic momentum of the Jewish emigration movement forced them to translate their thoughts into deeds. They applied to leave.

For Ida, the commitment became deeper and deeper and her work on behalf of other Prisoners of Zion has made her greatly loved and respected not only in the Soviet Union but all over the world. David Chernoglas, for example, who served five years in a strict regime labour camp, said of her when he arrived in Israel.

The one person above all others who helped to keep up my morale and who constantly helped with letters and parcels, the person rated by all to be a superhuman angel, is Ida Nudel.

One unpublicised side of her work has been in uncovering information about new “prisoners of conscience” as well as Jewish prisoners who although arrested on other charges, later become Zionists while in the camps.

Such work in the face of considerable KGB harassment and intimidation takes its toll. Ilana pointed out that when she last saw her sister in 1972, she was a strong young woman. Now she has heart trouble.

In fact it was the deterioration in Ida’s physical condition that impelled Ilana to make this visit to the west before the formal opening of the Belgrade conference to review the Helsinki Final act.

Ilana feels that Ida’s cause is exceptional. “She is a mature woman who is completely alone, separated from her family. There is absolutely no reason not to permit her to go to Israel tomorrow. This is a clear-cut case of the Soviet Union violating the Helsinki agreement’.

It is clear that like Vladimir Slepak, Ida Nudel has become a highly-priced commodity on the refuseniks’ market. No one knows when she will be released: maybe next month, maybe in ten years. If it is in the political interests of the Soviet Union to keep her, then she will remain.

I asked Ilana what Ida would do, if she were allowed to leave Israel: £Living, that’s all, she would simply start living once more.

Jewish Observer 6 October 1977

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