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Dispatch from the Jewish Underground by Robert A. Frauenglas
Dispatch from the Jewish Underground by Robert A. Frauenglas

Volume 1 , Issue 3

It was 6 a.m. The train had just entered the Soviet Union. Suddenly, there was a shout and a knock on the door of my sleeping compartment. ?Passport Control,? boomed a woman's voice. Little did I know that this was a prelude to four and a half hours of interrogation and intensive search of my body and luggage.

After an initial ten-minute search, two uniformed guards took me off the train. We were accompanied, by a young soldier (with peach fuzz on his face) carrying a rifle much too large for him. I was led into what appeared to be the main building in the border city of Ungheny. (This is the border all must cross on entering the Soviet Union from Romania, as I did.) First an Intourist interpreter speaks to me in a separate room. His English is perfect, as was most of the English of everyone who spoke to me. He is friendly and tries to put me at ease, and then attempts to learn my political leanings with quite transparent questioning.

After some time, the search of my luggage began. As soon as they found my siddur and tefilin, another young man began speaking to me in fluent Hebrew. I was shocked to find a Soviet official speaking Hebrew like an Israeli, in this small border crossing. But that was my one lapse into thinking like an American. For the rest of the interrogation and the next 11 days, I thought nothing that any official did surprise me.

Time began to merge for me. I was questioned by Customs, Intourist, police and, I imagine, secret police. One person had three stars on his shoulders and came with his own private interpreter. The three-star was the only one who spoke no English. They questioned me about my religion; if I believed in G-d; my family; why wasn't I married; how does one get an American passport; how does one get a Soviet visa; if I had children in the Soviet Union (that was a bit of a shock); if I had friends in the Soviet Union; was I planning to meet people; did I have ?rendezvous? set up; and so much more. Mainly, the questions were insipid attempts to catch me in mistakes.

I missed my train. After apologizing to me for any discomfort they may have caused, the authorities placed me in my own private compartment on the next train into Kishinev. An independent traveler is met by an Intourist guide as soon as he enters a city and is then driven to his hotel. My guide was awaiting me at the train station. She asked me what kind of tours I wanted to go on and how she could assist me. I told her to come back for me in two days.

Kishinev is the capital of the Soviet Republic of Moldavia. It is also one of the most beautiful cities in the Soviet Union. After recovering from my ordeal at the border, I hit the streets, carrying my names and addresses. I had brought numerous names and addresses of Jewish refuseniks, but the border people never found them.

I tried to contact Alik Kogan, an active refusenik and one we know much about, However, he was too afraid to meet with me.

The people I did meet in Kishinev told me that Kogan is going through a very bad time with the authorities now.

I had no luck setting meetings for that day, so I settled for having dinner with my two KGB tails. (It is quite easy to pick them out-and I became quite professional at losing them.)

The next day I had a ?suspicious? meeting with a ?university professor? in the street. Not sure who he was, and not knowing whom to trust, I decided to use him to at least lead me to the synagogue. It's in a rundown part of the city, down a muddy street. Inside was one elderly man, too afraid to even let me photograph the interior.

I later met with Sasha (not his real name). Sasha, his wife and son have been refuseniks for the past 11 years. I didn't have a phone number for Sasha, so I just knocked on his door (finding his apartment was a trick in itself, as Soviet apartment complexes epitomize the word ?maze?). It was on the top floor of a seven-story building. All of the landings had lights-except on his floor.

Sasha was a wonderful, open person. He is a physician who can't practice in his chosen field. He was transferred to sports medicine, on a high school soccer team. He said he was a glorified trainer. He asked for a different job and was assigned to work with an ambulance crew. When he realized he could be blamed for anything that went wrong, and could be accused of malpractice for an accidental death, he again tried to leave. He is now in his late thirties and trying to learn a new medical occupation. He feels that even if he gets out, after so many years, he won't be able to practice what he really loves.

Eleven years of waiting and Sasha thanks me for coming and asks me to remember him to his friends in the West. His spirit is great. His son had just received a letter from Israel the day I arrived. It had a place of honor on the kitchen table, His son is waiting for Sasha to translate it. Sasha used to speak fluent Hebrew, but eleven years of refusals have put a damper on his use of the language, and he is refreshing his knowledge with tapes. I left him some blank tapes.

Walking in the street with Sasha I met Leonid Vainshtein.

Leonid has been separated from his wife and child, who live in Israel, for eight years. The last time Americans came to visit Leonid, the secret police broke into his home. I did not have this problem in Sasha's home, but Leonid preferred to remain in the streets. The three of us walked and talked into the cold night for almost three hours. They were very knowledgeable about Jackson-Vanik (the United States law which links the right of emigration with most favored trade status), and very much wanted it to remain strong. They knew all about the visit of 400 U.S. businessmen to the Soviet Union, but were skeptical about the visits of Bronfman (a businessman and Jewish leader) to the Soviet authorities. Like many Americans, they hope that with new leadership (Gorbachev, etc.) in the Soviet Union, things might be changing, but they are not too certain.

The whole evening wasn't heavy, as we told each other jokes and laughed a lot. It seemed strange, but then we all realized that to stay sane in such circumstances, one must have a strong sense of humor and of the absurd. These two brave men (and all Jewish refuseniks and fighters for human rights in the Soviet Union) are truly living a Kafkaesque existence.

Days later, I found myself in Odessa, a major port city in the Ukraine. For me, this visit was devastating. I spent Erev Shabbat (Friday evening) visiting and praying with the Nepomniashchys and some friends. Yevgenia Nepomniashchy's husband and son-in-law are in prison. Yehudit Nepomniashchy-Levin's husband and father are in prison. (Both men were convicted of anti-Soviet slander. In reality they were both active in the Jewish revival movement in Odessa and Yehudit's husband, Yakov Levin, was an active Hebrew teacher. The Soviet authorities view these activities as crimes?although myopic American clergy such as the Rev. Billy Graham have the incredible tunnel vision to announce to the world that there is religious freedom in the Soviet Union!)

How these brave women go on day to day is simply amazing! They have received no mail from the West in the past 4 years. All the thousands of people who have written to them from all over the world are unknown to them. (But the Soviet authorities know the amount of mail they get, and it is important to keep it coming.)

Yehudit almost singlehandedly helped revive the religious Jewish community in Odessa. With her then fianc?, Yakov Levin, she became more religious, learned Hebrew, and taught others. She was all of 18 when she began. She's now about 23. A beautiful, Jewish Joan of Arc leading her people in maintaining their Jewish identity in the face of the massive might of Soviet power. I spent one of the most moving Shabbats of my life with Yevgenia, Yehudit, and some half dozen more refuseniks. I embarrassed Yehudit, because I actually got choked up in front of her and cried.

They want us in the West to keep fighting for them. They hate the words ?quiet diplomacy.? They told me it was noise and action which got Jews out of the Soviet Union in the past They fear that Jews in the West are becoming tired of the struggle to aid the Jews of the Soviet Union. They fear that most Jews are allowing their ?leaders? to carry the struggle, and that most of these ?leaders? are returning to the ways of the 1950s, when almost no Jews were able to leave the Soviet Union. They demand action. They particularly wanted to know why a movie, not a documentary, was not being made about their struggle; they want a commercial film which would engender massive support around the world.

I told them about the documentary that I had just viewed in the Israeli Consulate before leaving for the Soviet Union. I told them we (Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and others) would try to engender more support among the Jewish and non-Jewish masses, and that we would never adopt ?quiet diplomacy? as our sole tactic . . . and would try to prevent others from doing so.

Mainly I felt impotent. I felt embarrassed. There I sat, in front of these incredibly courageous people, and I knew that when I left I would eventually be returning to the U.S. We sat and discussed strategy, but they would remain while I was free to go.

I have been involved in the Soviet Jewry movement since 1967. In that time over 250,000 Jews have been allowed to emigrate. But there are still over 400,000 Soviet Jews who have expressed their desire to leave. In the past two years less than 10,000 have been allowed to leave. Mark Nepomniashchy and Yakov Levin were imprisoned for crimes stemming from their Jewish identity. Their wives sat across from me. One burning question remained for me: what could I do? What can we in the U.S. do?

[Robert A. Frauenglas is a freelance writer, the volunteer Asst. National Coordinator of Center for Russian and Eastern European JewrylStudent Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), and vice chairman of legal affairs for the Network of Independent Publishers of Greater New York. Versions of this article have previously appeared in New American and Universitas: The Saint Louis University Magazine.]



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