The Testiment and the First Leningrad Trial

Of the 16 people arrested on June 19 1970—four in a forest near a stopover point and the rest on the tarmac—two are still in strict regime labour camps in Potma and Perm.

They include Leib Knokh, whose wife Meri now lives in Israel with their son Yigal, whom he has never seen.

Merl was one of four people released shortly after the incident on humanitarian grounds. The others were the wife and two daughters of Mark Dymshits.

In 1974, Mendel Bodnya was released after completing a four-year sentence. Shortly after, be emigrated to Israel. At about the same time, Silva Zalmanson was unexpectedly pardoned, presumably as a result of a diplomatic intervention and constant protest in the west, and she too, is living in Israel.

If the sentences of those still imprisoned run their full term, the next one to be released will he Silva’s brother, Israel who has another two years to serve.

Secret document

To those already mentioned must be added the cases of Hillel Butman and Mikhail Korenblit, who were sentenced lathe second Leningrad trial in May 1971. Both were charged with treason and with complicity in a crime.

The employment of Article-64—the charge of treason—was the biggest shock of all for the defendants in the first trial. Though it carried the death sentence, none of them had even readied the plane when they were arrested. Edward Kuznetsov, Silva Zalmanson’s husband, had expected a maximum of a three-year sentence when he began preparations with the others back in Riga. He believed that, if caught, he would be charged under Article 83—illegal departure abroad.

During the first Leningrad trial, therefore, the defence tried to show that their reasons for emigrating were purely personal rather than political. They thus advocated that the charge of treason be dropped and replaced by one of illegal departure abroad. The prosecution refused and tried to characterise the defendants as a bunch of ruthless murderers.

Just before the affair, the participants signed a document known as “the Testament”, which detailed the reasons for the flight. It stated that their motives for this extreme step in leaving the Soviet Union were purely personal and the attempt involved no danger for anyone except themselves.

Iosif Mendelevich, who wrote the document, handed it to another young Riga Jew, Lev Eliashevich, on the eve of the attempt. Three days after the arrests, Eliashevich was forced to hand it over to the KGB and warned not to mention its existence to anyone. Fortunately the activists in Riga had been wise enough to photocopy it.

A month before file trial began, Eliashevich was forcibly conscripted into the army and sent, ironically, to Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomous region on the border with China. The KGB told him that if mentioned the testament – he would never return from Birobidzhan and never join his new bride in Israel.

In Riga, the older activists, fearing for the safety of Eliashevich held onto the copy of the testament. Some of the younger ones however believed it was wrong to conceal it despite the danger to Eliashevich.

But the document was not published. The prosecution at the trial had to acknowledge its existence but did not refer to its contents. The prosecutor simply dismissed it as “a slanderous anti-Soviet document”. An embarrassing situation had been averted and the defence was unable to substantiate its demands for a plea of personal motive and a dropping of the treason clause.

Eliashevich reached Israel m 1973 and the Testament was finally published. Whether, it would have made any real change in the final verdict is open to speculation, but clearly, the prosecution would have had a much more difficult time.

Iosif Mendelevich, the author of the Testament, received twelve years. Next Tuesday he will have completed exactly half his sentence.

Jewish Observer 11 June 1976


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