The jewish fa­ther who hi­jacked a plane

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - COLIN SHINDLER FILM Colin Shindler was co-chair­man of the Uni­ver­si­ties Com­mit­tee for Soviet Jewry 1969 to 1971. He will be in con­ver­sa­tion with Anat Zal­man­son, fol­low­ing the show­ing of ‘Op­er­a­tion Wed­ding’, by UK Jewish Film at JW3 on Fe­bru­ary 5. www.jw3.

ON CHRIST­MAS Day 1970, a few Jewish stu­dents and some Bri­tish mem­bers of Me­nachem Be­gin’s Herut party, stood shiv­er­ing in the snow out­side the Soviet Em­bassy in London’s Bayswa­ter Road. We had gath­ered at short no­tice to protest against death sen­tences meted out in Len­ingrad to two Soviet Jews, Mark Dymshits and Ed­ward Kuznetsov, the day be­fore.

Dymshits and Kuznetsov had been part of a group of peo­ple, mainly Jews from Riga in Latvia, who had at­tempted to hi­jack a 12-seater AN2 air­craft from Len­ingrad’s Smolny airport in June 1970 and fly across the bor­der to Swe­den — a jour­ney of just 15 min­utes. Apart from two non-Jewish dis­si­dents, Muzhenko and Feodorov, all wanted to em­i­grate to Is­rael but had been re­peat­edly re­fused.

One was Sylva Zal­man­son, the young wife of Kuznetsov, who be­came the hu­man face of this doomed at­tempt to fly to free­dom. Their daugh­ter, Anat, a film-maker, has now made a re­mark­able doc­u­men­tary re­call­ing this episode. It is en­ti­tled Op­er­a­tion Wed­ding be­cause the orig­i­nal plan was to fill a TU-134 with 200 pas­sen­gers — a fic­ti­tious wed­ding party — and co­erce the pi­lot to change course.

It proved im­pos­si­ble to find 200 vol­un­teers. Even to find the fi­nal 16, hundreds were in­formed of the plan — lead­ing to it be­ing leaked to the Soviet au­thor­i­ties.

The KGB knew about the at­tempt long be­fore it was ever made. More­over, the par­tic­i­pants in­tu­itively un­der­stood that the KGB knew. Their frus­tra­tion, how­ever, was so in­tense that, in their eyes, it was bet­ter to go for­ward to cer­tain fail­ure than to re­treat to their for­mer lives.

With the en­gines revving and the plane seem­ingly ready to leave, the KGB at­tacked and ar­rested the Soviet Jews. A fra­cas broke out on the tar­mac — be­tween the op­er­a­tives of the Moscow KGB and their coun­ter­parts from Len­ingrad. Nei­ther had in­formed the other that they would be present. They each be­lieved that they were as­sault­ing Jews who were try­ing to steal Soviet prop­erty to leave the coun­try il­le­gally.

The trial be­gan on 15 De­cem­ber 1970 in the Len­ingrad mu­nic­i­pal court on Fon­tanka Street. It con­cluded with heavy sen­tences and Sylva Zal­man­son’s emo­tional, de­fi­ant re­but­tal to the judge with the time-hon­oured verse from Psalm 137: “If I for­get thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” The JC’s ed­i­to­rial com­mented that, “the aim of the Len­ingrad trial, in­so­far as it is sus­cep­ti­ble to any ra­tio­nal ex­pla­na­tion at all, was to cow the Jews into silent sub­mis­sion.”

The harsh ver­dict was also part

of a KGB strat­egy to smash the blos­som­ing em­i­gra­tion move­ment by evok­ing the spec­tre of a city-wide Zion­ist con­spir­acy.

Hundreds of Soviet Jews were sub­se­quently in­ter­ro­gated and scores ar­rested. This first trial was fol­lowed by sev­eral oth­ers in 1971.

There was wide­spread re­vul­sion in­ter­na­tion­ally at the death sen­tences on Christ­mas Eve — a time sup­pos­edly of good­will to all.

Fig­ures such as the revered Soviet hu­man-rights ad­vo­cate, An­drei Sakharov called on Pres­i­dent Nixon to in­ter­vene,

Seem­ingly un­re­lated to the Len­ingrad trial, Prime Min­is­ter Golda Meir ap­pealed privately to the Span­ish dic­ta­tor, Fran­cisco Franco, to com­mute the death sen­tences, passed on six Basques. For what­ever rea­son — whether to curry west­ern sym­pa­thy for his regime or be­cause he was sup­pos­edly de­scended from Jewish con­ver­sos, Franco gave the or­der not to ex­e­cute the Basques. How, then, could Leonid Brezh­nev, the self-ap­pointed heir of Lenin, sink lower than fas­cist Gen­er­alis­simo Franco?

Kuznetsov was taken out of his death cell at 11pm on the night of 31 De­cem­ber. He thought that he was about to be ex­e­cuted. In­stead, he was in­formed that his sen­tence had been com­muted to 15 years in a strict regime labour camp.

Anat Zal­man­son’s film fo­cuses mainly on her parents’ sto­ries and in par­tic­u­lar Sylva’s har­row­ing re­turn to Riga and Len­ingrad — to re­visit painful mem­o­ries and dif­fi­cult lo­ca­tions.

The couple were ex­changed for Soviet spies in the 1970s and set­tled in Is­rael, where they di­vorced af­ter Anat’s birth.

Kuznetsov, who had al­ready spent seven years in prison as a dis­si­dent in the 1960s, emerges in the film as a strong, prin­ci­pled man in the Rus­sian Jewish tra­di­tion.

His book, Prison Di­aries, writ­ten clan­des­tinely dur­ing his nineyear so­journ in the camps, re­mains a tes­ti­mony to the Jewish re­fusal to be bro­ken by ad­ver­sity. His mo­ti­va­tion in pro­vid­ing lead­er­ship in “the aero­plane af­fair” was to cre­ate an in­ter­na­tional furore, de­spite be­ing warned off by other Soviet re­fuseniks who also wished to leave.

Even the of­fi­cial face of Is­rael com­mu­ni­cated privately that they were strongly op­posed to this ven­ture. Yet some 300,000 Jews were per­mit­ted to leave the USSR dur­ing the fol­low­ing decade.

In the 1960s, it was left to the Uni­ver­si­ties Com­mit­tee for Soviet Jewry to be the stan­dard-bear­ers for this cause in the UK. Dur­ing the last week of De­cem­ber 1970, stu­dents made cer­tain that the saga of the first Len­ingrad trial was never out of the pub­lic gaze.

A pub­lic meet­ing in Chelsea was or­gan­ised — be­fore the com­mut­ing of the death sen­tences was an­nounced — at which Tina Brodet­skaya and Yosef Yankele­vich, two of the first Soviet re­fuseniks to have reached Is­rael, spoke to a packed au­di­ence in Rus­sian and Yid­dish. The trial awak­ened Jewish or­gan­i­sa­tions and the com­mu­nity at large to the fate of Soviet Jewry and many ac­tivist groups emerged in 1971.

Ed­ward Kuznetsov com­ments in the film that he al­ways val­ued “the power that the in­di­vid­ual can have over his­tory… if you are in the right place at the right time, you can in­flu­ence his­tory dra­mat­i­cally.” This was in­stinc­tively un­der­stood by we stu­dent cam­paign­ers for Soviet Jewry in the late 1960s. Anat Zal­man­son’s rai­son d’être in mak­ing this film was not only to counter the “al­ter­na­tive facts” of this episode, em­a­nat­ing from Putin’s regime, but also to re­claim Jewish his­tory for to­day’s gen­er­a­tion. In her hour-long film, she has suc­ceeded ex­ceed­ingly well.

Top: Silva and her daugh­ter Anat at Smolny airport where the group were ar­rested Above: Silva on hunger strike.

P H O T O : I L Y A L E V K O V

Above: 250,000 cel­e­brate the men gain­ing their free­dom in New York, 1979. Left: Ed­ward Kuznetsov in 1972. Be­low: Sylva and Anat at the film’s pre­miere.




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