"WE, JEWISH WOMEN…"
by Yehudit Agrachov
This August the members of the group “Jewish Women for Survival under Refusal” mark the tenth anniversary of their movement, although the forming of the group began a year earlier.
Some months ago, when one of the movement’s members, Mara Abramovich, was asked to give an interview, she refused to be interviewed alone. She explained: “I will gather all our members and we will tell you everything together. For so many years we took all our decisions together, we cried together, we laughed together and we held out only because we were together...”
It may seem strange but it was only in Israel that they were all able to get together for the first time – Mara Abramovich, Elena Dubyansky, Inna Uspensky, Rimma Yakir, Ada Lvovsky, Ida Taratuta, Rosa Yoffe, Victoria Hasin, Lydia Weinshtock and Judith Lurie. Those who could not be present on that day were Galina Kremen, Oksana Holmiansky and Genia Lukatsky.
The memory of Alena Krichevsky and Asia Gorohova, who did not survive, was etched indelibly in the hearts of all those listed above.
At the reunion there were shouts, bursts of laughter, embraces and ringing voices occasionally interspersed by a heavy sigh which was invariably followed by the exclamation ”Oh, girls!...“
All of them are beautiful, clever, reliable. And all of them are strong, very strong, without exception. Most of them were, on an average, thirty five years old when they first applied for papers to allow them to emigrate to Israel. They were full of optimistic plans; to come to Israel, to start working in their chosen profession, to change profession, to build a house, to build a family, to found a business, to graduate from University, to study a language, to get a doctorate… Women of this age-group have a lot of hopes and plans.
Five years of refusal, ten years…nobody could tell them how long they would have to live in hope and expectation of starting their new, “real” lives. They were losing their professional skills, they were forced to put their plans on hold, they had to do their best to support their husbands (heroic, powerful, the best in the world…but only men after all!) and to help their children grow up under conditions of constant stress. They began to avoid looking at themselves in the mirror and to become accustomed to being shadowed, searched and even arrested by the K.G.B.
They read letters from their friends who had been lucky enough to reach Israel, had found work there, were studying, were building families and were able to travel round Europe. And those left behind in Russia were burying their parents, who didn’t live to see Israel. Children, who were five years old at the beginning of the ‘story’, were celebrating their twentieth birthdays and being called up into the Army. Children began to apply for papers to leave Russia separately and got refusals…they just inherited them. How else could it have been in this country of lawlessness and lack of human rights??
Then came the arrests of the boys who grew up as refuseniks. The sons were now being accused of draft evasion…By now our women had stopped dreaming about changing their world. They couldn’t – and didn’t have the strength to struggle with the authorities. They put all their energies into protecting what they still had…the life and the health of their families.
And it was just at that time that the movement “Jewish Women for Survival under Refusal” was formed.
- We had to do something, but we didn’t want to set up a new organization. Any organizational framework assumes that roles will be cast, some kind of discipline under somebody’s leadership. But at that time we had no strength left to adjust to new relationships so we decided to draw in only women…women who knew each other well; women who’d gone through fire and water together; women who were friends and reliable. Our greatest need was supportive warmth and only the women who could share such warmth gathered together.
- Those years were very difficult. There were practically no permits granted to leave the country. The beginning of “perestroika” was marked by further arrests. Any changes in the country were a threat to us. We knew from bitter experience that our fears were not groundless. The first time we gathered in a forest to discuss our plans; we had to do it in secret despite the fact that there was nothing officially illegal in our action.
- It seemed to us then that we could take no further action. Our husbands still struggled but we women only wanted to help each other to survive. There had to be somebody to leave for Israel when our husbands did succeed. We didn’t know what “perestroika” would give us, how many years we would still have to wait or what these years would bring our families.
- Our boys, our sons were in danger or army draft or imprisonment. Every mother understood that it was she who had enabled such a fate for her son. Was it possible to stand alone?
- We got together also because all of us wanted to live in Israel. We felt ourselves strangers among people who spoke about life in America or Canada. Up to now, we had suffered so much for our ideals and the slogan ”Next year in America” really hurt us.
- That doesn’t mean that we weren’t prepared to help those refuseniks who wanted to leave for the United States. A person should be free to live in the country of his choice, but it was only possible to receive the necessary ‘invitations’ from Israel and there were people who ‘used’ Israel to make it possible to leave Russia with no intention of going there. Besides, even when permissions were granted, there was a quota. That means, of course, that despite the number of people given visas at the time, very few would actually go to Israel. We didn’t want to blame anybody but we felt pain and that pain also united us.
- And there was a time when permission was given only to people who planned to go to the States.
- Most of the Prisoners of Zion struggled for the right to live in Israel. They shed blood for our children so that they would be able to grow study and get married in our country. Nowadays all that seems rather bombastic; nowadays we know that some Prisoners of Zion left Israel but, at the time, they symbolized success and acted as banners for us.
- It was very important to us to bring up our children in an atmosphere of honesty and sincerity in spite of the conditions we lived under. We just couldn’t turn off to the United States on our way to Israel; we just couldn’t betray the ideals we brought our children up on.
- We are speaking about what it was that united us. But to understand why such a union appeared necessary to us it is important to recollect the conditions we lived under. The telephones of most of us had been disconnected. If something serious happened, our SOS signal had to force it’s way though a malicious and hostile environment. You went to the telephone but it showed no signs of life; you looked through the window and you saw that you were being shadowed; you opened the door and saw “people in plain clothes”. You got the feeling that you were alone in the world and that those who wanted you to surrender were in their thousands. Every time our husbands and children left the house, we were not sure that we would ever see them again. My son was arrested before my husband’s eyes! Where could I go? Where could I find foreign correspondents, in whom we placed so many hopes. Our weekly meetings gave us the possibility to send to, and receive, information from the West. Our weekly meetings gave us the feeling of connection with our friends out there; it was our remedy for loneliness.
- When you are fifty years old it is more difficult to cope with problems than it was when we were thirty five. We were never passive. Jewish women in general were never passive. If, during the first few years of refusal we tried to struggle together with our husbands, then, ten to fifteen years later, we all wanted only one thing – to be ourselves. And we wanted to help each other to be themselves. The authorities beat us, taunted us, set fire to our apartments. They trampled us down into the earth but we rose again and again. When you have somebody to lean on it is easier to rise. And there is no choice; you have to rise and manage to stand. All this time we hoped that some day we would get to Israel, that there would be a new period in our lives, despite the age we might be when we got to it, and that we would need a lot of strength then.
-Those who had small children wanted to bring them to Israel healthy and strong. But our children were living a double life; on the T.V. screen and in the street they heard one thing but in the home another.
Some children were persecuted and intimidated at school. At home they were present at searches by the KGB and also knew that their parents were summoned for interrogations. The Militia
“worked up” the neighbours so as to make them wreak their anger on the children. In our meetings we had the possibility of talking things over with each other and to draw up programs on how to deal with these situations and to share the results of consultations with specialists.
- We just feared for our children. At the beginning of being “in refusal’, some of us were told the estimated “date of release’, so it was possible to pace ourselves. But gradually, as the expected date passed and the wait became longer from year to year, our nerves began to fray and we didn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, the children grew; they had to be taught, to be brought up, to be given strength. We had to defend them and we didn’t know how to do this.
- But we girls supported each other, we encouraged each other, we calmed each other. We knew how to help and to console. Under refusal, as in a communal apartment, it is very difficult to hide anything.
- It was very difficult to survive without friends, even if you had a good family. My husband was flatly against my participation in any actions and, in the beginning, I obeyed him. But when I heard about the women’s group I told him positively that I want to join it.
- We didn’t intend to confine ourselves only to our own problems. We wanted to help each other to be strong enough to help other people. At first we invited the wives of Prisoners of Zion to our meetings and asked them what we could do for them, promising that they could rely on us.
-If one of the prisoners’ wives had to go to the camp to see her husband, we helped her get some things together, like food, and we helped prepare for the visit. Somebody had to accompany her to the camp. To go there alone was beyond her power.
Rimma Yakir: - The men were shadowed more strictly by the KGB; we women could move around more easily.
-Now that we were together, we could extend our connections with the West. Our men applied to Presidents and Senators and we, their wives appealed to women’s organizations throughout the world. And…it turned out that women understood our problems better. They were more sympathetic than men, who, as a rule, were too busy to help the refuseniks. When we were asked by women from the West what we needed, we didn’t answer modestly: “Thank you but we’ll cope”. What we did ask for was medicine for our children who were often ill but they not only helped our children, they helped us too.
-Once gynecologists responded to our call and a group of physicians “landed’ on Moscow!
- I have to say that our first cry for help was not to the wives of American Senators but to the women in the Knesset in our “own” country, Israel. We sent them letters we wrote about our lives, about the tragic fate of our children, but we got no answer. Israel responded only when our movement became widely known all over the world and it became impossible to remain silent.
- With time, our actions became more resolute but, in our struggle we chose ways not only oriented to the reaction of the West in general but mainly to the reaction of women. For three years running, on March the 8th, International Woman’s Day, we began an hunger strike and announced it both to the Wet and to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
- We sent out letters to every possible address, that we began with the words “We, Jewish women….” And then set forth our demands to go to Israel.
- We had telephone calls from all over the world…to those, of course, whose telephones had not been cut off.
We got telegrams of support and visits from representatives of different democratic organizations from the West and of foreign correspondents. Once we were even visited by a correspondent of “Vechernia Moskva” (“Evening Moscow”), who happened to be a Jew. In his conversation he tried his best to humiliate us. When he was leaving he said, with an unpleasant smile, ”I hope this diet will be of benefit to many of you”. His article was of the same low standard.
- Once we decided to visit some places where Jews were destroyed during World War II.
We visited Minsk, Lvov, Riga and Kiev. We laid wreaths on the graves with an inscription in several languages, including Yiddish, which was compiled by Mark Lvovsky. It read: - “To the generation of misfortune from the generation of hope”. Local inhabitants, who dared to join our missions, lamented quietly that there is nobody left alive who can read these letters.
- We held a demonstration in support of Joseph Begun; it lasted five or six days before buses arrived with militia volunteers from Lubertsi. They pushed us aside one by one in such a way that we couldn’t breathe. They dragged Elena Dubiansky over the ground. In addition, they created a crowd, shouting anti-Semitic slogans in our faces. They broke the cameras of foreign correspondents who wanted to take pictures of the incident.
- By the way, it was customary in our group not to take children on demonstrations. We knew that some women dissidents, and even refuseniks, were so desperate as to take their children to political demonstrations and even hung placards on their breasts but we never ventured to do this. We protected our children as much as we could.
- On the International Day of Defense of children we organized a seminar on the problem of children’s lives under refusal. For the press conference we prepared and drew up seventy documents, each one of which gave the history of a child who grew up like that. On a stand we placed a photo of each child at the age of two to three, as they were when their parents first applied to leave for Israel and next to these we put up photos of how they looked ten to fifteen years later. This made a tremendous impression, even on ourselves, their mothers.
- In Moscow there was once an International Congress for Peace. Moscow was flooded with members of Greenpeace but the main “fighters for peace’ from the Soviet Union were members of the KGB. The Greenpeace contingent was very naïve; they didn’t understand anything about the Soviet system. But they were told that the USSR was on its way to “perestroika” so they and came to shake the hands of their “brothers”. Somehow they also managed to get our addresses.
- The man who came to visit us was a very nice person but we pounced on him rather aggressively and said, “You don’t understand to whom you held out your hand; you don’t understand the political situation in this country!” He answered, “Wait a minute. You’re right. I don’t understand and I’d like you to tell me and my friends what’s going on here.” They all came and listened to us for a couple of hours in a state of absolute shock. They suggested that they arrange a day especially for our group to meet with members of congress.
- And we agreed, although we were sure nobody would give us the opportunity to speak there. We asked that this arrangement be kept totally secret and a date was set. We decided to talk it over with our men. They bristled and said, “Nonsense; it’s just provocation! Nobody will give you the chance to speak! At which Militia station will we have to look for you? You mustn’t go.” But we insisted; how could we pass up on this chance. And we went. I remember we were all very nervous but we supported each other all the way, joking and laughing. We were met near the hotel Druzhba (Friendship!) and led to the conference hall. The program made it seem that we were there for a totally different event. We got to the stage via a back entrance. Our knees shook. The stage wasn’t illuminated and we were led to places especially reserved for us. At that moment the projectors were switched on. We pulled ourselves together. The first rows were occupied by KGB members who pretended that they didn’t understand Russian, and further in the hall it was possible to identify specific Soviet faces.
Now it was time for us to speak. We didn’t speak about politics, about ideology, about the high aims of mankind in the fight for peace. Each one of us stood up and spoke in a trembling voice about her fate, about her husband, about her children, about her parents and about her suffering under refusal. The audience was shocked. The guests were shocked by the things they heard, the KGB members by the blunder they had committed.
- The KGB members regained their senses first and began to interrupt us, to ask questions; they obviously wanted to create disorder. But it was too late…our words had been heard. One of the foreign guests stood up and said, “I don’t understand what is going on in this country and in this hall, but I feel something wrong here; the women are very frightened.”
- After that event our men held us in high respect.
- Refusal was a very hard time for us but the recollection of our group, about our girls, about our meetings and about our deeds brightens up that period.
- When it was especially unbearable, I usually took the train and went to Moscow.
-Sometimes in the morning when I opened my eyes, my first thought would be “I can’t do this anymore. It is beyond my power, there is no sense in resisting”, but then the girls appeared with their plans, with their problems and even with their tears and I got up.
- There wasn’t ever a moment when we felt a hint of doubt about each other. It was an invaluable experience.
- Now that it’s possible to look back, we can see that our group was a part, maybe a very tiny part, of the mosaic of Jewish history.
Published in the supplement ‘Vesty–2’ to the Israeli newspaper in Russian ‘Vesty’ of August 28, 1997.
Translated from Russian by Ida Taratuta
Edited by Tamara Brill