Interview with BARBARA DEAN
Barbara Dean of Birmingham, England, on a visit to Aba & Ida Taratuta, formerly of Leningrad, Soviet Union, now citizens of Haifa, Israel, is interviewed by Aba on Shabbat, 28th October 2004.
Aba Taratuta: Tell us about your own background.
Barbara Dean: My mother came to England in 1938 as a refugee from Vienna, Austria. She worked as a domestic servant in London, where she met my father, a Londoner. After they married in 1939, work opportunities took them to Leicester in the East Midlands, and I was born there in 1948.
A.T.:Were your parents from religious backgrounds?
B.D.: My father came from an English, working-class background. He was not Jewish, and married my mother despite the reservations of his family. They wed sooner than would otherwise have been financially wise in order to provide surety for my mother’s parents who desperately needed visas to escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna.
My mother came from an Orthodox Jewish background. The eldest of three daughters, she had been born in Kolomija (then in Poland, now in the Ukraine) to a Polish mother and a Romanian father. A pogrom forced them to flee to Vienna, where she grew up, studied pharmacy at the university and piano at the conservatoire, married, had a child, and ran her own pharmacy. My mother and her first husband were divorced before she fled to England and so it was that she came alone to seek work for herself and guarantee safety for her 5-year-old daughter who had, of necessity, remained in Vienna with her grandparents.
Our grandparents perished in the Holocaust. Their visas arrived only the day before the outbreak of war and, in 1942, they were deported from Vienna to Minsk to be murdered at Maliy Trostinec camp.
A.T.: Did you attend an ordinary school?
A.T.: Did you receive a Jewish education?
B.D.: No. It wasn’t until I was about 9 years old that I discovered that my mother was Jewish. She had taken me to a children’s pantomime and, during the interval, she had suddenly turned round and spoken firmly to some people in the row behind us.
Later she explained that she had overheard an antisemitic remark which had greatly upset her. She told me that she had run away to this country because, in her home country, people hated the Jews, and that her parents had been killed because they were Jews. No doubt she had intended to tell me all this some time but had found it too painful.
A.T.: And when did you begin to feel you belonged to the Jewish people?
B.D.: Well, I could put it the other way round. At the grammar school, I joined all the other children for morning prayers which were essentially Christian. I began to think for myself, and it was more a question of rejecting Christianity than of embracing Judaism.
At the age of 18, I went to college in London, and joined the Jewish Students’ Society, but I felt self-conscious about my ignorance and there was academic studying to be done, so my transition into the Jewish world just did not happen at that time.
Five years later, I returned reluctantly to Birmingham. My dear mother was keen for me to have a social life, and arranged for me to attend a rehearsal of the local Jewish choral society, the Zimriyah Choir. So, almost fifteen years after the pantomime, it was my mother who engaged me in Jewish activity – though she never anticipated what would result from this.
We did not know then that she had only a few years to live but, when she became terminally ill, it was my turn to reintroduce her to the religion of her youth, and she joined the Progressive Synagogue, which she loved. Now it was finally time for me to seek proof of my own Jewish identity, and a copy of my mother’s ‘Get’ (religious divorce) was obtained from the Israelitisches Kultusgemeinde in Vienna. With this evidence of my Jewish status, the Orthodox synagogue would have accepted me as a member, but the Progressive Synagogue said, “First, study”. (And they say Progressive Judaism is the easy option!)
This is my story. Now may we please turn to the Soviet Union!
A.T.: When did you start to be interested in the problems of Soviet Jews?
B.D.: At around this same time, a letter appeared in our local magazine, the Birmingham Jewish Recorder, from two members of the ‘35s’ who were looking for people to write to refuseniks. My mother and I wrote to two separate families. She did have one reply but I had none, and all the difficulties associated with my mother’s grave illness and subsequent death meant the correspondence petered out.
However, my interest was rekindled some years later when a friend of mine suggested a visit to refuseniks in the Soviet Union. Three of us – Margaret Jacobi, Beverley Nenk and myself - made that trip to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in 1981.
A.T.: Where did you receive the list of families to visit?
B.D.: Rita Eker and Margaret Rigal of the ‘35s’ briefed us prior to our journey. They gave us a list of names and telephone numbers, and instructed us on how to make contact.
A.T.: Whom did you visit?
B.D.: Altogether we met about thirty people. I will try and remember some of their names: Pavel (Pasha) Astrakhan & his wife who was very happy that she had joined a queue and bought butter; Irina Lein and her son Alex and daughter Sasha (Nechama); the Kalendarevs; the Kogan family; Aba & Ida Taratuta; Grigory (Zvi) Wasserman who was beaten up by the KGB as punishment for teaching a Hebrew lesson.
There was a ‘trio’, comprising a married couple and their friend: one of the women was an artist; the other worked for the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra. They received a phone call during our visit, “We know you have foreign visitors”.
Pavel & Viktoria Tsimberov were not on the list given to us, but they were known to a friend of mine in England who asked us to get in touch with them. Viktoria was very helpful to us, and introduced us to another family not on the list: Boris & Alla Kelman and their two sons. The elder son had already reached Bar Mitsvah age, and told how he felt he was leading a double life, trying to be Jewish at home but needing to conceal his Jewish identity at school.
We visited Pavel & Viktoria at their apartment overlooking the Gulf of Finland. There we made a recording in authentic English for Viktoria’s students, and heard the talented Yuna practising the piano in an adjacent room.
It is important to mention those we were not able to meet: Dima Tsimberov who was studying; Misha Taratuta who was in the army; Yevgeny Lein who, on the pretext of hosting a Jewish seminar, had been arrested and sent to Siberia.
Despite so much emotional, financial and physical hardship, everyone was very hospitable and generous to us. I still have the tablecloth, the recording of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater”, and memories of eating jam on its own and drinking vast quantities of tea!
A.T.: What did you bring to refuseniks from England?
B.D.: We brought:
Hebrew literature, for education;
Stars of David, for distribution;
Kosher wine, for religious families;
A winter coat (which came in useful when Irina Lein travelled to Siberia);
Cigarettes and chewing gum, for bribing prison guards; and
Jeans, for sale on the black market – money was badly needed to finance travel to prisons and to pay for lawyers.
A.T.: What kind of problems did you have with the customs on entering the country?
B.D.: I had no problem. To detract the attention of the customs away from my suitcase, I was carrying a copy of the Times. “Vot is zis?” she said, pointing to my newspaper. “A newspaper”, I replied. “And who is zis voman?” she said, pointing to a picture of Queen Elizabeth. “The Queen of England”, I replied. “OK”, she said. I went through!
Beverley had no problem either. She was wearing the Stars of David all strung on one chain around her neck. Being blonde, tall and slim, she looked elegant and the significance of the necklace was missed by the customs officials.
Margaret had a different experience. Her next-of-kin was named in her passport as Rabbi Jacobi. They opened her suitcase and found the Hebrew literature. “Is this Arabic?” came the question. “No, it’s Hebrew”, was the answer. “Is it Arabic?” came the question a second time. “No, it’s Hebrew”, was the answer again. “Is it Arabic?” came the question a third time. “Yes, it’s Arabic”, was the answer from Margaret, who by now had understood the ‘game’. She went through.
A.T.: Did you have any problems with travelling around or meeting refuseniks during the week of your visit ?
B.D.: We were often instinctively aware of being followed, and on one occasion this was confirmed, but we did not have time to be frightened or nervous. We had a job to do.
We used payphones to contact refuseniks and make arrangements to meet or visit them. We moved around Leningrad on foot or public transport. Sometimes we were able to find the apartment building without difficulty, and sometimes it was not easy, but we always managed in the end and never asked strangers on the way. Occasionally we were met by refuseniks in the street or at underground stations and shown the way.
A.T.: Did you experience any problems leaving the country?
B.D.: We went through three separate checkouts at the airport. Nevertheless, in contrast to all the other passengers on the same flight, we were all frisked, and our luggage was meticulously examined. Everything was scrutinized, including Beverley’s student notes which concealed information about refuseniks, but excluding our cheque books which had refuseniks’ phone numbers coded on the cheque stubs.
Irene Lein’s report of her husband’s treatment, which was in my hand baggage, also went unnoticed. She had sent it to England several times, but it had never been received. At her kitchen table, she dictated it to me and I wrote it in minuscule shorthand on the smallest piece of paper, which I then fitted inside an old-style library ticket. I transcribed it back in England, and it finally reached its destination.
I remember feeling very strongly how easy it was for us to exit the country while our new friends were unable to do so.
A.T.: Was it your only visit to the USSR?
B.D.: I arranged to come again a few years later, but the Soviet authorities rescinded my visa at the last minute.
A.T.: Did you write a report of your visit?
B.D.: I wrote two articles for separate Jewish publications. We were not asked for an official written report. We did attend a debriefing meeting with Rita Eker and Margaret Rigal, and we also met with groups of synagogue members and answered their questions about the refuseniks’ situation.
A.T.: After you returned to England, did you start write to any of the people you met in the USSR?
B.D.: Yes, for three reasons:
People liked to receive letters from abroad. It was their lifeline. They felt supported by such letters, and it gave them a contact with the free West.
Even when the letters were intercepted and did not reach their intended recipients, they served a useful purpose because the authorities saw that these people were known in the west.
The refuseniks were no longer just names. They were people I had met. Some of them had become (and are still) my friends.
So I corresponded regularly with Irina Lein, and phoned her from time to time. I perfomed a proxy Bar Mitsvah for Alex Lein, who turned 13 a few years after our visit, and we recorded the ceremony and handed the tape to his family when I visited them in Jerusalem after their aliyah. It was in Israel, too, that I met Yevgeny for the first time.
I exchanged letters with Ida Taratuta. It was difficult to phone her because, during fifteen years of refusal, her phone was disconnected four times (a total of ten/eleven years!) and, at that time, I did not know that it was possible to book calls at public phone booths in the USSR.
Viktoria Tsimberov and I kept in touch until shortly after her emigration to the USA. I am reacquainted with her now, and visited her recently after discovering that she lives not far from my relations in New York State.
A.T.: Do you consider your work to have been important for the movement?
B.D.: Yes. What we did in 1981 and subsequently was comparatively little: a small drop in a very big ocean. However, all the drops made up the ocean, and I was overjoyed when I heard that my refusenik friends, one by one, were granted visas to leave the Soviet Union.
Ida Taratuta: Your visits, letters and phone calls were our defence; the authorities could not treat us as badly as they would have wanted because we were known. If they did something to us, people from abroad would ask, “Where is that person? Why is s/he in prison?” So they had to think twice about putting us in prison or doing anything to us. Yes, they put Yevgeny Lein in prison, but they made it look as though he, not they, had violated the law. For every hundred people they would have liked to put in prison, they maybe only put one there – and this was very important for us.