2. Beginnings
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Part Two Voices of the Movement 21 2 Beginnings Formative Experiences in Prison The period from the second half of 1948 until March 1953 has been justly described in terms of the “black years” of Soviet Jewry.1 On Stalin’s secret orders, the chairman of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), the actor Solomon Mikhoels, was killed in a staged accident in Minsk on January 13, 1948. At the beginning of 1949 dozens of Jewish public and cultural figures were arrested. In January 1949 another major anti-Semitic campaign was initiated against “rootless cosmopolitans.” Jews were targeted, fired from jobs, and in many cases arrested.2 The so-called “Doctors’ Plot” described in the official Soviet press involved the arrest of doctors who had supposedly poisoned high Party officials: the overwhelming majority of the doctors were Jewish. As part of the events not reported in the press, one date stands out: on the night of August 12, 1952, thirteen Jewish writers , intellectuals, and artists were shot.3 Among the thousands of Jews arrested during this period were members of the group Eynikeyt (Unity),4 including one of its leaders, Meir Gelfond from Zhmerinka.5 He and others including Mikhail Margulis and Vitaly Svechinsky—who belonged to a different unofficial group in Moscow—served terms in prison but emerged to mentor others and help lead a new Zionist movement. This new generation of Zionists met and learned from Zionists of previous generations in Soviet prisons. Svechinsky talked about his prison experience in this period:6 Kosharovsky: Why were you arrested? Svechinsky: We wanted to escape to Israel. The War of Independence was being waged there. We were nineteen years old. We planned 22  |  “We Are Jews Again” to cross the border in the south, across the Charokh River. It’s a whole story. Kosharovsky: Did you admit your guilt? Svechinsky: The three of us were arrested and we admitted our guilt. But the authorities wanted to expand the circle. They needed to arrest around ten to twelve, but they came up against a wall. They threatened us and subjected us to petty physiological discomforts. Then they threatened us with the torture prison at Sukhanovo, which was truly terrible. Kosharovsky: What was your sentence? Svechinsky: Not bad, a “tenner.”7 We were lucky. Kosharovsky: How did it go? Svechinsky: It depended. At the beginning, it was very difficult. The winter of 1951–52 was harsh, the camp regime was awful, but the main thing was there was nothing to eat. I was assigned to earth-digging work, which is very strenuous. Even people in good health reached the end of their tether there. I was a gymnast with third-level ranking, I had no complaints about my health before that, but I declined very quickly. My organism required sustenance but there wasn’t any. We had to work an exhausting ten-hour day in the frost and there was no place to take shelter. I very quickly became a “goner.” Jews saved me. I had a camp father, Natan Zabara, a Yiddish writer.8 And there was also a fellow, Irma Druker, God bless his memory. They didn’t do the general hard work. In the convoy garrison, they served in the kitchen, chopped wood, paved. In general, they performed light service work. The cook would bring them something to eat from the kitchen. Natan would collect cereal in a jar and bring it to the zone. That was very dangerous because people were frisked before entering the zone, but he did it so artfully he was not caught. Thus, every evening I was able to receive a portion of cereal and this saved me. Kosharovsky: Was the second year easier? Svechinsky: It was easier. We learned a bit about how to survive, how to behave. We “sniffed things out” as they say in camp. We learned how to endure both hunger and cold, which was already a lot. Then Fimka Spivakovsky and I went to the camp director’s weekly reception hours and told him that Fimka graduated from the economics faculty of Kharkov Beginnings  |  23 University and could do something besides striking the earth and that I was a third-year architectural student and could work in that field. This camp happened to have a planning sharashka.9 Two or three weeks later, I was summoned and told that I would be transferred there. At first I worked the night shift. It was difficult because my fingers couldn’t...


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