Chapter 3

Day and night I scratch my head over how to organize the project efficiently.  What exactly do we need to accomplish? How to find the people to carry it out? How to coordinate all the various aspects of the project? The first goal is obvious: communication with the peripheral cities.  Or rather, we should not approach this theoretically, but, first and foremost, seek out the right people, those who meet our stringent criteria.  Each such person is invaluable.  Once we have found them, we need to see which tasks best suit each person.  No, that’s correct, but still the basic functions of the project should be determined now, at the initial stage.

At the same time, we need to develop the criteria for selecting our team members.  Certain considerations are obvious.  These key people should be reliable, tight-lipped, courageous, and not well-known to the KGB.  We need to make these people at least partially interchangeable in the event that they receive an aliyah permit or, God forbid, anything less agreeable.  Most likely, we will find such people only among our Hebrew students.  In reality, with no one else do we communicate so closely and intensively.  We understand them better than anybody else and have all the tools to judge whether they are suitable for the project, and, if so, what tasks suit them best.  Also, meeting our students is easier logistically because we already have a framework for contact.  It is convenient to meet after class and address current problems, or to arrange an additional meeting without needing to use the tapped phone.  So it is decided: from now on, I will start admitting new Hebrew students to my Moscow groups according to their potential suitability for the Cities project.

Little by little, we begin to form a network for seeking out prospective candidates from among the visitors arriving in Moscow from peripheral cities.

Many new teachers who have started operating in Moscow have been summoned lately to the KGB.  They face charges of anti-Soviet propaganda “under the guise of teaching Hebrew” — up to three years’ imprisonment.  Especially ominous is the pressure building up on the Jewish samizdat[1].  To avoid unnecessary problems, Jewish samizdat writers have always practiced strict self-censorship, eliminating any criticism of the Soviet regime.  Nevertheless, the “samizdat” has always been persecuted in the USSR.  During liberal periods the persecution is milder; during repressive ones, harsher.

The most popular samizdat magazine is Tarbut (“culture” in Hebrew).  It was initially created by Vladimir Prestin, and has been published for several years.  At different periods, editors have included Felix Dektor, Benjamin Fein, Alexander Bolshoy and Ilya Essas.  Many Jewish activists have contributed articles, regarding the magazine as a pivotal common endeavor, and believing that its quality depends on each one of us.  The magazine has been printed on a typewriter on exceedingly thin paper.  Since Tarbut is quite a voluminous publication, it is clear that professional typists are involved.  The KGB is constantly on the lookout for them.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Yuli Kosharovsky introduces me one day to a young woman with a mop of fiery red hair.

–     I would like you to meet Golda Akhiezer, our young teacher of Hebrew.  Incidentally, she’s planning to move to Tbilisi.  I think you might find some interests in common.

Indeed, Golda proves to be an extraordinary person.  We meet quite a few times, discussing our potential collaboration.  Over time, Golda becomes an integral part of the Cities Project.

Golda Akhiezer:

I moved to Tbilisi, because at that time it was one of the few places in the USSR where one could still apply for aliyah.  Quite quickly I found a lot of young people who wanted to learn Hebrew.  They didn’t understand what the dangers are in studying Hebrew, and my calls to be cautious were greeted with humor.  They kept saying that Georgia is not Russia and that there never been and cannot be anti-Semitism here.

I soon assembled even two groups, and we quickly began to advance in Hebrew.  I used to tell them about Jewish tradition, history, and holidays, and everybody started to go to the synagogue.  We used to study at the home of one of the students.  We developed unusually warm and friendly relations in the group.  All that serenity continued for half a year.  And then abruptly the serious trouble started.

First, all the students were summoned for questioning by the KGB and threatened with expulsion from the university.  Some of them immediately dropped the Hebrew studies.  Others, in spite of everything, continued to attend the lessons.  Then the pressure began to mount on me.  In my rented apartment, I stored the Jewish literature which I brought from Moscow in large quantities for distribution (photocopies of Hebrew books, dictionaries, books, samizdat on Jewish history and traditions, etc.).

The KGB started open surveillance on me.  I could hardly move without being closely tailed.  It was not always possible to understand whether the KGB agents were just the “normal” bullies, or unusual bullies specially sent for this purpose.  This has affected my psyche strongly.

I rented a new apartment.  One evening, when I got off the bus near my building, I suddenly noticed a light in my window.  The light then switched off immediately.  When I entered my room, I found that all the electric wiring had been cut and all my money has been stolen.  At first I suspected a common theft, but when I discovered that all my Hebrew teaching material was gone, it immediately became clear who had done it.  I knew I had to flee immediately.  I started packing my belongings at dark, assisted only by bleak candlelight, since the electrical wiring had been cut.  At this moment I heard someone knocking.  I opened the door.  Two policemen were standing in front of me.  One of them said:

– I want to conduct a search in your apartment.

– There was already a “search” here and everything which could have been taken has already been taken!

– A murder has been committed in this house!

– If you are looking for a corpse, there is none.  You can be sure.

At a loss for words, the policemen finally left.  Of course I had to find another apartment.  At first, all was quiet in the new apartment.  But after a while the landlady told me:

– It’s somewhat bizarre — this morning a policeman came and told me that you are a thief, you robbed your husband, and now the investigation is underway.  He said that I have no right to keep you in my house.

This story repeated itself several times.  Finally, I ran out of patience and decided to go to the Visa Office and find out where the things stood with my aliyah application.  When I entered, I was greeted by a KGB official rather than the Visa Office clerk I expected.  In a solemn, conspiratorial tone he said:

– If you want to emigrate, you should give us information about all the people who come to you to learn.  And in general to collaborate with us.  If not – you will never get the emigration permit!

– Well, if never, then never.

– Since you do not want to cooperate with us, keep in mind that Tbilisi is an unsafe city.  Here, ruffians move about freely, they could kill you, rape you, rob you. . .

– As for robbery I have already acquired some experience.  I guess you know where my money and other belongings are, that disappeared from the apartment I rented in Nutsubidze Street?

– I don’t know what you mean.

After that he started asking me all kinds of questions.  I refused to answer them.  I had no experience in interrogations, but I had heard that it’s advisable to talk as little as possible.  I said,

– Actually, I came here to enquire about my emigration application.  Since you have nothing to do with it, there is no point in wasting our time.

Then he decided to switch to another tactic:

– Well, look, you should bear in mind that your parents in Moscow will be dismissed from their jobs and get into serious trouble.

I was taken aback.  My parents have long feared that they would be fired from their jobs because of my activities, the full extent of which they never knew.  They indeed had something to lose.  They tried to discourage me from emigrating.  It was my weak spot.  I do not know what psychological mechanism triggered my response at this point.  Most likely it was a special intuition which develops in a person after a long struggle for survival.  At any rate, my improvisation hit home.  I said,

– That’s none of my business.  I have had no relationship with my parents for a while.  If they are willing to continue to live in a country which so mocks the basic rights of its citizens and humiliates their own daughter, I can do nothing to help them.  Do what you want.

This was of course a wild exaggeration, but I was so inspired that I spoke convincingly.  Then he said:

– Well, you can leave now, but I would like you to come for a drive in my car, and we can discuss a couple of questions along the way.

I don’t understand why I agreed, apparently due to the overall stress and fatigue.  He brought me out of town and stopped the car.

– Now you will not get away until you sign a paper saying that you are willing to collaborate with us.

– Well, then, we will sit here.

– Tbilisi is a dangerous city, and if you are killed or raped, no one will be surprised.

– You, too, shall not be surprised if at the upcoming broadcast of the international radio stations you will hear that “the hooligans have beaten and raped me, and that my corpse was found in the woods”– everyone will guess easily who these hooligans are!

So we continued to sit in silence for quite a while.  I felt that he was beginning to fidget and didn’t know what to do.  The situation was ridiculous enough – he had achieved nothing, and didn’t know what to say.  He started to talk about art, but I interrupted him and asked him to take me back to the city.  And, strangely enough, he surrendered.  He brought me back to center of the city.  I never saw him again.  Nevertheless, the KGB continued its pressure, and I realized that it was too dangerous to continue living in Tbilisi.

 ***

 Time and again I notice at my meetings that in addition to the invited guests, uninvited ones always arrive as well.  Each time, I thoroughly inspect the vicinity of the meeting place.  Increasingly, I find a strange “specimen”, seated nearby on the bench or passing by, seemingly by chance.  Willy-nilly, I am becoming trained in detecting KGB spies.  As time goes by, I get used to them and can routinely single out those faces with a peculiar motionless expression, as though bearing the mark of Cain.  “Do not flatter yourself,” I say to myself.  “Maybe there are higher lever masters among the KGB whom you are failing to recognize.”  The encounter brings disgust and fear, as though I suddenly came upon a scorpion, and I shudder.

Moreover, many newcomers from the cities, who have not yet experienced the contact with the KGB, do not understand why the project is so secretive.  They think I am exaggerating.  There are even those who believe that I have a sort of mania – either megalomania or paranoia.  Indeed, go try to explain to a normal person that learning a language could be dangerous.  However, the KGB perceives it, quite rightly, as a major factor in the Jewish national revival.

In the meantime, the Cities Project is like a huge machine, like an enormous flywheel rotating with insane speed, dragging me with it mercilessly, regardless of anything else going on.  Time flies by.

More and more people from the cities are getting involved in the project, and we can be proud that we have stirred up such a Jewish awakening.  The project steadily gains momentum.  It is like a conveyor belt running at a frantic, incredible pace.  It’s moving faster and faster, and forcing me to keep up with its inhumane pace . . . Every day the project expands, causing me more and more overwork, more and more stress.  It’s becomes increasingly difficult to manage the project.

As the project moves forward, I am sitting at the nerve center of the project’s network.  From all across the vast country, people’s troubles flow to me in “streams and rivers”: this one was summoned for interrogation, this one has undergone a house search, this one was expelled from her job, and this one has been threatened with arrest.  My heart is broken. . . I am the only person on Earth who knows all these details.  God, what torture!

[1] Samizdat (“self-publishing”) was a system for publishing books and other literature unofficially.  The government tightly controlled what was published through official channels, so samizdat was the only way to publish anything that would not pass government censorship (which included anything about Jewish history or religion).

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