Chapter 4

Summer is approaching.  The last preparations for our Hebrew summer camp are drawing to a close.  Felix has worked hard and has managed to locate a quiet cottage in the resort town of Alupka in the Crimea.

Crimea

Crimea

Classes start the very next day.  I teach the advanced group, and Golda the beginners.  If we count Golda herself, we have representatives of eight cities in the camp.  A record number of cities!

We plunge headlong into our studies.  My advanced group jumps on the controversial topics I have prepared for them like a fish swallowing bait.  Now they are hotly debating in Hebrew whether to set up a special school for training political leadership; what would have happened if the UN had not made a decision to establish a Jewish state; whether to change the Israeli education system; and whether to allow public transportation on Shabbat in Israel. . .

I try to get involved in the discussion as little as possible.  I direct, adding topics for debate like firewood to the fire.  Sometimes I intervene to emphasize differences of opinion, or to add arguments in favor of each alternative, and then I retreat again.  I listen and am happy to notice that with every passing day, my students are becoming more and more fluent.

Felix arrives a week after we start.  Then the landlord disappears.  An hour elapses, a second one. . . three hours go by.  The feeling of suspense heightens and the danger becomes obvious.  Finally, the landlord appears.  He barely drags himself into the house; his face is as pale as death.  Felix rushes to greet him.  “What happened?”  He does not answer, just shakes his head.  “What, what happened?” Felix insists.  The landlord looks around with fear in his eyes and mutters, “Come in, we have to talk.”  The landlord locks all the doors with trembling hands and then exclaims hysterically,

–     I was summoned to the KGB.  They told me, “You gave refuge to a group of Zionists, you will have a lot of trouble, we’ll check to see if you built your house legally, check where you got the money for it. . . They’re learning a secret language.”  You’ll all have to leave immediately.

We call everyone together for an urgent discussion on what to do next.

–     I: We must close the camp immediately.  This is not a local incident, the KGB is after us.

–     Felix: Let’s notify the landlord that we’ll begin packing up now and leave tomorrow morning, but we’ll actually leave at midnight tonight.

–     Golda: I don’t think this will help us.  I believe we should split up.  Sasha and Felix must disappear in no time!  They should leave without any belongings as if they’re off to the beach, and then disappear.  Without them, our group is of no interest to anyone.  If there is a search and they are caught here, their presence will not protect us.  Instead, it will make our situation much worse.  Without them, we are just a group of holidaymakers; with them, we are a “Zionist conspiracy.”

–     I: Do you want me to leave the group at a time of danger, to abandon everybody?

–     Clara: But listen, it’s better for each of us and for sure for the Cities Project.  If they arrest you now, none of us will benefit from it.

–     Esther: If you leave, the KGB will be less interested in us.

–     Polina: Wisdom sometimes dictates a withdrawal if it is necessary to keep the army intact.

–     Shmulik: Wait a minute; I thought that the captain is the last one to leave the sinking ship!

–     Clara: You know what, let’s vote.

–     Esther: All in favor, except for Shmulik.

–     Golda: Leave quickly!

I look at Felix.  What will he say?

–     Felix: I think they are right.  You cannot afford the luxury of endangering the entire project.

We departed and planned to meet later. But the group did not arrive at the agreed place on time.  It gets dark. It’s already completely dark.  With utmost concentration I survey the stream of passersby.

All of a sudden, a red-haired girl emerges from the underground passageway.  I stare at her in mute amazement. I shout,

–     Golda!

She turns to me, astonished.

–     Is it you, Sasha?  You’re alive?  You’re free?  Where have you been?  We were sure you’d been arrested!

–     Wait a minute — where’s the whole group?  What happened to them?

–     They are all safe and sound.

But listen, isn’t it a real miracle to meet as we did, in a big city, at night, by chance, without prior coordination?  Amazing – we both came to exactly the same spot at the same moment.  I wonder out loud,

–     What’s the probability of such a meeting?

–     Unbelievable!  But tell me what happened to all of you after we parted.

We packed at night in the hope that we could escape towards dawn, but to no avail.  The KGB was everywhere.  Then we decided to go openly by bus.  You wouldn’t believe it — one KGB car rode in front of our bus and the second one behind it, just like an official entourage.

Polina was approached by some unknown people in the port in Yalta who told her, “You’d better get out of here!”  From the port we proceeded to the city and went into a café.

When we entered, everyone sitting there turned to look at us.  Then, as if following the command of an invisible conductor, all the people in the cafe, who were sitting quietly at the tables a moment before, suddenly burst into indescribable rage.  They leaped at us, surrounded us, and began screaming, shouting threats and curses, making threatening gestures.  “Hitler died too soon! Start wearing yellow stars finally!”

I have never experienced such a powerful psychological attack.  This scene, which looked like it was taken from a horror movie, left us stunned.  Dozens of seemingly ordinary people turned violent and insane in an instant.  It’s hard to imagine a more impressive demonstration of the authorities’ power.

We left the café.  Everywhere we went, we encountered “cripples” who whispered curses and insults.  After a while, we saw them again, walking normally.  Towards evening we started looking for a place to stay overnight.  Sasha struck up a friendship with a local girl, and she helped us get inside the youth hostel.  We had hardly entered when we noticed the KGB cars outside the window, and we had to escape.  The girl knew the KGB men and told us later:

–     Guys, what a nice mess you’ve made here!  The KGB of the whole Crimea is on the alert; they even cancelled everyone’s vacations.  Every available agent has been delegated to your case!

With the closure of our camp, the KGB calms down and stops looking for other Jewish summer camps.  This enables us in September to carry out several other small camps we have prepared in advance, led by the new teachers: Bella Rabinovich, Boris Dubrovsky, Golda, and Felix.

***

Zeev Geyzel, a very bright man, starts to learn Hebrew in my group.  Zeev is exceedingly active, always center of attention, staging great purimshpiels, conducting excellent Passover Seders.  Wherever you go, you see Geyzel.  He is very sociable, a little impulsive — such a person is not suited for underground activity.  It’s a pity — Geyzel is a dedicated person, with huge potential.

Zeev Geyzel

Zeev Geyzel

And what if I try an unusual strategy and enlist him anyway.  After all, the KGB analyst will, no doubt, arrive at the same conclusion I did: Geyzel isn’t suitable for underground activities.  This means that they will not suspect him, and he may be able to act without surveillance and contribute to our project. I propose the idea and Geyzel agrees enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, the authorities launch a new wave of pressure.  Students of Misha and Oksana are summoned to the KGB and through them, the KGB passes on persistent threats to me and Misha.

***

Dov Kontorer

Dov Kontorer

Dov Kontorer:

We met in January 1983. You then disclosed to me a huge project for systematic dissemination of Hebrew studies and Jewish literature across the enormous territory of the Soviet Union. Moreover, you proposed to me that I should participate in it!

By that time the Cities Project was operating on firmly established rules that were strikingly different from those of other areas of semi-underground Jewish activity.  The most important feature of the project was its secrecy. People who studied Hebrew at that time in Moscow did not volunteer information about it, but still it was an open community.  It had certain “portals” that any interested person could find, as long as he or she did not raise suspicions.  The same was true regarding Moscow religious groups.

In contrast, very few people even knew of the existence of the Cities Project, and even those few who knew, actually knew very little.  There were no access “portals”, since only you yourself (or later we) selected the participants. The direct participants of the project in Moscow were very few, and they all adhered to very strict rules of secrecy. The project was held in total secrecy even from friends in the Jewish movement.

I was truly shocked by your proposal when I finally comprehended its meaning.  I was barely 19 years old, and here I was, about to get involved with a major project, secret, dangerous, serious business. Thus began our intensive collaboration that lasted until the dramatic events of the summer of 1984. During these eighteen months I traveled extensively: usually once a month, for a week, and often twice a month.

A number of signs indicated that some of my trips were being tracked, but I’m convinced the KGB was aware of no more than a tenth of what we were actually doing. Otherwise, you, the leader of the project, would not have remained at large for so long. Zeev Geyzel and I would not have avoided prison, and the number of arrests in the provincial cities, where the authorities feel much freer to act than in Moscow, would have been much greater.

***

By the spring of 1984, it became clear that you, the project leader, were under attack. Questions about the “nationwide ulpan” were asked during interrogations more and more often, and the KGB began mentioning your name with greater frequency. Your arrest appeared to be imminent. I remember how you yourself initiated that critical discussion and gave instructions in case “something happens” to you. By that time, Ze’ev Geyzel and I had accumulated considerable experience in the project. It was decided that we would split your responsibilities between us.

Full version

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *