The Lost Jews of Ilyinka

Soviet Jewry, like the Soviet Union itself, is not ,simply one unit, but a collection of communities within Judaism. Best known are the Ashkenazim who live on the western borders, to where a large proportion of Anglo-Jewry traces its origin.

The Republic of Georgia, on the other hand is the home of a fiercely independent community said to have been founded by Jews fleeing from the Assyrian invasion of the Kingdom of Israel nearly 3,000 years ago. Then there are the Bukharan Jews, almost 20,000 of whom have emigrated to Israel in the last decade.

Each of these communities has its own diverse culture cemented through the long centuries of persecution. For example, the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus speak tati, a Jewish-Persian dialect while the Krimchaks of the Crimea began to develop a religious literature in a Turkish dialect in a Hebrew script before they were massacred to a man by the Nazis.

In all the communities, the dreams of geula (redemption) never died throughout the long years of Stalinist oppression. After the Six Day war, the Jewish emigration movement spread from Riga and Georgia until it reached even these far-flung areas. Moscow became the natural centre of this movement and Jews travelled to the capital to seek the help and advice of the refuseniks. The Moscow leadership thus became used to discovering other lifestyles which existed side by side with their own.

The strangest episode in the Jewish experience came when an old man turned up on the doorstep of the Slepaks’ apartment in Gorky Street. He said that he was Grigory Yefimovich Varnavisky, aged 81, from the village of Ilyinka  in the Voronezh region in Southern Russia. Though looking like a typical Russian peasant, he demonstrated to Vladimir Slepak that he could read Hebrew prayers.

He said that the local Russians referred to the inhabitants of Ilyinka as “geri” which is similar to the Hebrew gerim (converts). The 650 inhabitants all had Russian surnames but biblical first names such as Sarah and David.

Varnavisky said that the village had been founded with others in the anti-Semitic atmosphere that had grown up in rural Russia during the blood libel case of Mendel Beilis in 1913.

Local anti-Semites had threatened to murder all the Jews in the village of Tishana. The warning was heeded and Jewish homesteads were established in isolated areas of Voronezh.

Throughout the years, the other villages became assimilated through intermarriage with Russian settlers. Only isolated Ilyinka, without any roads or any real contact with the outside wqrld, survived as a Jewish collective farm.

The inhabitants did their best to preserve Jewish tradition under Stalin. During the great purge, their shochet was arrested. He never returned and for years afterwards, they refused to eat meat. Now they compromise and eat meat only from cattle which they have raised themselves. Despite the momentous events and pressures of the twentieth century, the villagers are totally traditional. The dietary laws, The Sabbath, circumcision, the covering of the head by men and married women and daily prayer in the Ashkenazi tradition are all observed in Ilyinka.

Varnavisky pointed out that every boy in the village was circumcised, even though it sometime meant taking the children to communities hundreds of miles away.

In the 1970s, along with the rest of the rest of Soviet Jewry, the villagers began to dream of emigrating to Israel. In 1974, relatives in Israel sent the first invitations to the village and within a few months, a number of families were permitted to emigrate.

At the same time, the authorities began to adopt a tough line. The villagers were harassed for refusing to work on Saturday and were told “You are Russians, not Jews.”

One of the early applicants for emigration to Israel was Shmuel Matveyev, who was called into the local KGB headquarters and intimidated. His sister’s letters from Israel were never delivered. Matveyev went on strike as a protest and the authorities retaliated by conscripting his son into the army.

During Pesach 1975 was arrested and imprisoned for a month. He drank only days for three days and refused to eat the bread which the warders offered.

In June 1976, the local newspaper attacked him, declaring “Who wants this man to Ieave Russia?” Only the Zionists from Tel Aviv and the United States”. The Matveyevs were finally given permission to go but were allowed only ten days to finalise their departure.

The authorities have refused to deliver invitations from Israel to the village. Matveyev was shown some 120 undelivered invitations on the desk of the collective farm chairman.

Relatives who attempted to deliver invitations were stopped by militiamen outside the village. There is no passage out of the village, since the chairman alone has the authority to issue passports.

On hearing this amazing saga of the Jews of Ilyinka, Slepak and two other refuseniks travelled the long distance from Moscow to the village. But they were turned back at its outskirts. The militia, however, confirmed to Slepak that the villagers had “a different Easter” and baked matzot and worshipped on Saturdays instead of Sundays.

Despite the hostility of the local authorities, a few villagers have succeeded in emigrating to Israel. There, they have pointed out that for the “geri” of Ilyinka, Israel is the bright light at the end of the dark tunnel and if given the freedom to leave, nine out of every ten Jews in the village would emigrate.

Jewish Observer 22 September 1977

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