Passover in the USSR 1977

SOVIET Jews are preparing for the Festival of Passover in a state of fear and depression unequalled since the height of the Stalinist era.

Despite the release of Dr Mikhail Shtern half way through his eight-year prison sentence and the news over the weekend that he has been granted an exit visa for Israel, the mood among Jewish communities in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, as well as in the smaller outlying towns, is extremely tense.

With Anatoly Shcharansky and losif Begun already in prison, awaiting formal charges which could result in heavy sentences, and with other leading activists expecting the fateful knock on the door at any  moment, the atmosphere is hardly conducive to the celebration of the Festival of Freedom.

But because of the deep spiritual significance of Passover, and because the advent of the festivals provides an opportunity for Soviet Jewry to remind the free world of its desperate plight, the few remaining synagogues will be crowded on Saturday night and prayers will be followed by the traditional Seder service in countless homes.

It will not be easy, however. Apart from the knowledge that they are being closely watched and that they may be interrupted at any moment, the likelihood is that an essential ingredient of many of the services will be missing this year. A few weeks ago, it was announced that the Soviet authorities would not be allowing any matzot sent from abroad to enter the country. It is expected that they will allow token amounts to be produced in the state bakeries, though it is doubtful if this will meet even the minimum requirement.

The banning of matzot at Passover is a favourite ploy of the Soviet authorities which they have been using for many years.

The original assault on Passover came in 1957, when the Kharkov authorities refused to issue baking permits. At that time, at least 70,000 Jews lived in the Ukrainian city. The following year the ban was extended to towns where religious congregations were not officially registered, such as Lutsk, Yakutsk and Khabarovsk.

By 1959, the ban covered cities where congregations were officially registered. This included such major Jewish communities as Odessa. In 1960 Kiev, Kishinev, Lvov and Chernovits were covered by the ban.

We know that matza is not quite as innocent a thing as some people think. It is, first of all, a means of propagating the Jewish religion… You rabid defenders of Judaism are kindling Zionist-chauvinist propaganda around the matzot that you send to Jews with a provocative, anti-Soviet purpose. (From an article in an Odessa newspaper).

The KGB then began to harass Jews who had set up their own bakeries. In October 1960, “Sovietskaya Latvia” criticised Hirsh Gutkin,

a Jewish baker in Riga, for allegedly setting up a private factory to bake matzot. The report said that it had been set up with a staff of 50 “with the direct connivance of the Jewish religious community of Riga” and with the aim of “enriching themselves.

In March, 1962, Chief Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin of Moscow announced that matzot could no longer be baked in Moscow. The explanation given was that the machines in the state bakery had broken down. By Passover 1963, Soviet officials began to offer new excuses to stem the rising tide of western protest. “It is unconstitutional and illegal”, they said, “for state bakeries to bake matzot and for state stores to sell them, because matzot are a religious article and the USSR adheres strictly to the separation of Church and state”.

Chief Rabbi Levin was forced to offer a rabbinical dispensation to his congregation. Instead of matzot, they could eat rice and peas.

In July, 1963, four Jews faced a Moscow peoples’ court, charged with profiteering through the illegal sale of home-made matzot, The “criminals” turned out to be the most unlikely of villains. Their ringleader was an 82-year-old, Emil Katz. His partners in crime were the shochet at the Moscow synagogue, Golgo Bogolmolny, and two middle-aged illiterate women, Klaudia Blyakahman and Malka Brio. This somewhat pathetic quartet had been kept in prison for over four months.

The women were accused of baking matzot and handing over what they did not use for their own purposes to Katz, who sold it to other Jews. The prosecution insisted that all the defendants had been engaged in black market trading. Katz admitted that he had sold matzot to members of the Moscow community, but without profit.

Chief Rabbi Levin himself appeared in court and testified that he had spoken about the lack of matzot to an official of the state committee on religious cults. He had been told that if rnatzot were not available, the community should bake them.

All the defendants were found guilty, though Katz was released because of his age. Bogohnolny received a year’s imprisonment and the two women six months’ each.

The lengths that Soviet Jews were driven to in order to preserve the religious traditions of Passover aroused great anger among Jewish communities of the west, many of which began to send parcels of matzot to Russia. Under pressure from the KGB, these parcels were often returned, stamped “not needed”. By 1964, the pressure of protest became too great and Chief Rabbi Levin was given permission to make special arrangements for baking matzot. Yet even this concession was accompanied by a face-saving propaganda campaign on the “good life” of the religious Jewish community.

Jewish Observer 31 March 1977

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