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KGB: Thanks For the Memories
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel National Radio commentary
November 24, 2001

In 1970, Yosef Mendelevich from Riga and a few young friends sparked a modern-day Jewish liberation movement whose echoes are felt until today.

This evening, Mendelevich and a handful of other heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement met at a Jerusalem restaurant to thank a visiting U.S congressman and tell him of their fears for the future of the Jewish state.

Sitting around the table with Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Il) were Anna and Ephraim Kholmiansky; Yevgeny Lein; Mila and Leonid Volvovsky; Natasha Khassina and Yosef Mendelevich. The congressman represents the Chicago district that is home to Pam Cohen, known to all those at this evening's gathering as a prime mover behind the grass-roots movement for Soviet Jewry during the 1980s-mid1990s. As president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews during those years, Pam was on first-name terms with many congressman and senators. At the time, John Porter was her congressman and his foreign policy aide was the young Mark Kirk.

This evening, freshman congressman Kirk recounted how he first visited the former Soviet Union in the early 1980s. "I knew nothing about refuseniks or prisoners of Zion," he admitted.

Now, ahead of his fifth visit to Israel, Kirk asked Pam if she would arrange an evening with some of the people whose lives he had touched, but whom he had never met. All the men around the table had spent time in Soviet jails or labor camps for their "anti-Soviet" activities. Kholmiansky was arrested for teaching Hebrew; Lein spent a year in Siberia for his Jewish activities; Volvovsky, another Hebrew teacher had run afoul of the KGB, and Mendelevich was a key player in a desperate plan to gain freedom that involved hijacking a twelve-seater plane to Sweden, returning the aircraft to the Soviet Union and making their escape to Israel. The group was caught before they even stepped foot on the plane, and the ensuing show trial culminating in death sentences for two participants, was the impetus for western Jewry to take up the cause of oppressed Soviet Jews.

Natasha Khassina was the only one amongst the crowd who was never arrested for her Jewish activities. During her years as a refusenik in Moscow, she was known as one of the boldest activists, going about her Hebrew lessons and efforts to organize women refuseniks quite openly.

Each one of the former refuseniks and prisoners has rebuilt their lives here in Israel. Natasha and husband Gennady are residents of Gilo. The Leins live in the Jerusalem suburb of Maale Adumim with their two children and six grandchildren nearby. Ephraim Kholmiansky and Ari Volvovsky both wear the knitted kipa of the national religious movement. I've seen Yosef Mendelevich wearing similar headgear, but tonight he's sporting a black velvet kipa. Yosef, his wife and seven children live in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem. The Volvovskys have lived in the Gush Etzion community of Efrat since they arrived in Israel some 14 years ago.

Joining in the evening are former Union of Councils president Stuart Wurtman and his wife Enid, who has devoted her life to the welfare of those Jews who came to Israel from the FSU. As we go around the table introducing ourselves, Stuart notes that he and Enid came to Israel for a year right after his presidency to assess the situation of those whom they'd been helping through the Union. "That was 24 years ago," he says with a smile.

Indeed, it's hard to reconcile the fact that so many years have passed since the days of the semi-clandestine visits to refuseniks and the western campaigns on their behalf. I brought with me slightly faded photos of a 1985 visit I made to the Leins in Leningrad and Khassina in Moscow. Yevgeny's hair is now white, but his open, expressive face is instantly recognizable. In the 1985 picture taken with Natasha Khassina in Moscow, I'm standing next to a smiling, round-cheeked woman, wearing a headscarf for religious modesty. Today, Natasha wears a stylish pant-suit and her short hair is fashionably coiffed.

Mendelevich, twenty-three years old at the time he was sentenced for the hijack attempt, emerged from Chistopol prison 11 years later and arrived to a tumultuous welcome in Israel. Tonight, this fifty four year old with wispy, long gray beard and steely eyes is persuaded to recount his story to the visiting congressman.

And then Congressman Kirk drops the best line of the evening: "So, I guess I'm going to recommend that we hire you as the new US airport security consultant!"

In more serious vein, Kirk addresses the group and admits that during the years when he and his boss, Rep. Porter, would send reams of letters and petitions to Soviet officials, "we never knew if there would be a good chapter at the end of the story." Emotion overwhelms his voice as he expresses appreciation for meeting these heroes and hearing first hand how the prison commandants reacted to the official correspondence. As he speaks, the former refuseniks are visibly moved.

Volvovsky, who joyfully proclaims that he's now forgotten exactly how many years he spent in prison, tells Kirk that he now considers him "our brother," because of the congressman's participation in their struggle. "So next time you're here, you must come to our house," he insists.

The former prisoners of Zion have lost none of their passion over the years. Relating to the situation in Israel today, each of them eloquently urges Kirk to impress upon the Bush administration the need to stand strongly behind Israel, and not to be swayed by Arab attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state. "We're still in a struggle for our homeland," explains Mendelevich.

Outside in the cool Jerusalem evening, we go our separate ways. The Kirk party heads back to their hotel for a few hours sleep before returning to Chicago and Washington. The Volvovskys drive off to Efrat via the tunnel road that they find closed for the first time in a few weeks due to the resumption of Arabs shooting at Gilo. Natasha leaves for her home in Gilo and a night punctured by gunfire. Yevgeny and the Kholmianskys take the bus back to Maale Adumim, east of the city, along a road that has seen sporadic attacks in recent months.

The context has changed, but some of the players and the struggle itself, goes on.

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