The Letter of Hillel Butman to Grigory Vertlib

A most remarkable letter has reached London from the “strict regime” labour camp no 35 in Perm.

The author of the letter is Hillel Butman who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in the second Leningrad trial nearly three years age. It is addressed to Grigory VertIlb, Butman’s one-time friend and compatriot in the Exodus movement In Leningrad.

Vertlib signed petitions to Soviet and world leaders together with many of those imprisoned in the Jewish trials in 1970 and 1971. He was lucky enough not to be arrested and was allowed to emigrate to Israel with his family. He found difficulties in adjustment and was unable to make headway in his legal profession. After some time, he decided to return to the U.S.S.R. and travelled back to Vienna. Like many others in the same situation, he was subjected to humiliations as the price for his return.

The following is the full text of Butman’s letter to Vertlib.

In the summer of 1954, two 22-year-old Jewish fellows graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Law. They were Grisha Vertlib – you, and Grisha Butman               – I. In essence, we were still boys, still learning about life, first from school textbooks and later from works of the “Great Father of Peoples,” but not yet from the one book that forges one’s world outlook — the book of life.

In the national sense, we were not yet aware of ourselves as belonging to anyone. Our names show this very well.

Not only our names, but our life-paths too were similar, like two drops of water: we were born and grew up in the same city; we lived in the, same Street; we graduated together from the same institute; we were both unable to find work (incidentally for the same reason) and we both remained unemployed for a long time. Finally we both found work, both of us as proof-readers in a printing house. We even got married at almost the same time although we did not then know that our wives, too, would be in the same maternity home and would give birth to our first children in the same month (July) of the same year (1966).

But all this that we had in common is nothing in comparison with what later made us close to each other.

In November of 1966, you and I were among those who founded In Leningrad a Zionist organization (I am not ashamed of that word, because our entire Zionism consisted of a struggle so that any Soviet Jew who wished to live in the national Homeland of our people, should be able to realise his right do so so) and we travelled the hard road together to the end.

We took Hebrew names for ourselves; you became Giora, I became Hillel.

On June 15, 1970, I, like many other of my comrades, was arrested, sentenced to 10 years imprisonment am now pushing barrows of coal.

You went to Israel, within three months, you had become disappointed with lsraeli reality and now, for over a year, you have been sitting in Vienna and dreaming of returning to the USSR. And I am sitting in the Urals and dreaming of going to Israel. Our paths have diverged — and not only in a geographical sense. Suddenly, the Leningradskaya Pravda publishes a letter from you, saying that Soviet Jews should not go to Israel. At the same time, my comrades who had decided that only Jews so wishing should have the right to emigrate are here, together with me..

It is clear that your letter is payment (or rather advance payment) for your return to the U.S.S.R. and by the time you will be able to read my letter, perhaps you will already be “Twice a Jew of The Soviet Union.”

I do not want to dwell on those petty complaints that you have against Israel. However, had you retained even part of the honesty that you once had, you would not have reproached Israel for not having been able to provide you at once with work in your profession. There are thousands of Soviet emigrants with higher education (especially in the humanities).

You, who of your 16 working years In the USSR had laboured for only two months in your profession, would you have reproached a small country for not being able to give immediately all the good apartment in the big cities to the Soviet immigrants – a country that without laying down Its arms, is building more housing per capita of the population theft the mighty Soviet Union is building today.

Had you retained your honesty, you, who lived in Leningrad with five persons living in 15 square metres of space, would not have reproached a small country into which Jews, from almost 100 countries from different parts of the world, arrive with their own languages, habits, traditions and customs, because there is no harmony among them in the very first generation.

Perhaps I mould remind you about apartment No. 10 in house No, 20 on Kirovsk Prospekt in Leningrad where you used to live. Only three families lived there a Polish one, an Armenian one and a Jewish one and not one family was on talking terms with the others, and in the toilet and in the kitchen there were three lamp-bulbs. In the hall it was always dark, so that there should be no arguments about electricity. And all this was in the first socialist country of the world, 50 years after October 1917, in the most cultured city of the Union, in an apartment occupied by three cultured and educated families.

Had you not lost your decency you would not have written that our organisation concerned itself with only a few dozen Jews who wanted to go to Israel. During the period you have been sitting in Vienna, about 50,000 Soviet Sews have gone to Israel. No Store than 200 of them have gone back, people like you and Zeltser (he was brought to our camp for a talk; I would like to tell you something pleasant: in comparison with him, you seem exceptionally honest and nice).

Now let us put aside all the trifles, and let talk about the main thing. You were disappointed in the social reality of Israel, about the fact that it includes workers and capitalists, poor and rich, cultured people and those who eat sunflower seeds in buses.

Remember our talks in the organization and outside it, even after my own life and that of my family was maimed ha the U.S.S.R. First they deprived me of the possibility to leave the Soviet Union legally, when I wanted to, and then they deprived me of 10 years of my life when I had been about to realize this right of mine,

Even after that I remained convinced that socialism is the future of mankind and of Israel. That in Israel there should be no social contrasts, that the chief mechanism of capitalist relations — the unrestrained chase after profits — is an evil, which kills morality and which engenders a society of egoists and petty bourgeois. I am convinced that the time will come when my dreams (which were yours, too, once) will come, true in Israel, but nothing comes by itself. The people of Israel is advancing towards its happy future not by the way of a revolution, but by the way of evolution. This requires more than a momentary effort; it demands years of struggle.

I shall not remind you of the remarkable achievements of my small country (not yours) – they are known to all. The fact that Israeli society does not drive Its sores inside, but bravely bares them — this is the guarantee of a victory over them.

Fighters, not dreamers. Menilova, as before, build castles in the air only in their imagination. But a new life is built by men such as Joseph Trumpeldor, by the scores of thousands of Israel’s kibbutzniks, whom you are ‘ashamed’ to join.

Don’t be sorry for us! We are happy, because our happiness cannot be measured either by the size of an apartment or by the amount of a salary, or by the graph of Saturday transport. History is made today, but written tomorrow.

Your Volodia and my Leliashka will see more clearly which of us deserves pity. For me it is already clear today.

Hillel – who once respected you.

 Jerusalem Post 1 February 1974

1 thought on “The Letter of Hillel Butman to Grigory Vertlib”

  1. Hillel Butman died yesterday and was buried today. He lived all his life as a fighter for the things he believed in. My heart is sore, missing him.


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.