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The Six Days of Soviet Jewry

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
“Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say: Return, you backsliding Israel, says the Lord; I will not frown upon you; for I am merciful, says the Lord; I will not bear a grudge forever… In those days the house of Yehuda shall walk with the house of Yisrael, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given for an inheritance to your fathers. (Yirmiyahu 3:12-18)
There are many aspects to the miracle of the Six Day War, in which God saved us from the enemies who sought to annihilate us, restored to our hands His holy mountain, the city of His inheritance and the land of His desire, and showed us innumerable kindnesses. In this shiur, we will focus on just one of the great miracles that was part of that war: the religious and national awakening of Soviet Jewry.
At the time of the Six Day War, the Jews of the Soviet Union had lived for five decades under the Communist regime, which tried in every possible way to cause them to forget and abandon their religious identity and tradition. Over the course of many years, most of Russian Jewry had indeed neglected their ancestral heritage and the covenant that God forged with His people at Mount Sinai. When the Communists rose to power, there were around 5,000 synagogues in the vast territory under their control; the great majority were shut down immediately. It was forbidden to teach Judaism or Hebrew. Two million Soviet Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, and afterwards Stalin and his successors did everything in their power to cause the Jews of the USSR to assimilate into the local population. It is impossible to conceive of any logical, human explanation for the revival of the Jews in Russia, who shook themselves free from the dust of their spiritual wasteland and renewed their connection with the Land of Israel.
There were several milestones in this national awakening, several of them related to the State of Israel. One climactic moment was Golda Meir’s visit to the Choral Synagogue in Moscow for the Rosh Hashana services in 1948 as the newly-appointed Israeli ambassador to the USSR. The most significant Jewish awakening, however, came with the terrible fear for the fate of the Jewish community in Israel prior to the Six Day War and the immense relief and pride following the stunning victory.
On the eve of Shavuot in 1967, just a week after the war had ended, Yasha Kazakov, a 20-year old student, wrote a letter to the Supreme Soviet demanding to be “freed from the humiliation of being considered a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” He was not deterred by KGB interrogations. He had already twice broken into the Israeli embassy in Moscow, demanding that the staff help him make aliya; after the Six Day War and the suspension of diplomatic relations with Israel, he barged into the US embassy, too. Yasha Yaakov Yosifovich Kazakov made aliya, changed his name to Yaakov Kedmi, and eventually became the head of Netiv (officially, the Liaison Bureau), an Israeli governmental liaison organization that maintained contact with Jews living in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and encouraged aliya. The letter he wrote to the Supreme Soviet – a body that cast fear into the hearts of hundreds of millions of Russians – is worth studying:
Comrade Representatives,
I appeal to you again, and I shall continue appealing in the future, until my request is approved. I demand that to which I am entitled, and any negative response – in whatever form it is given – is unlawful and runs counter to both the constitution of the Soviet Union and the Declaration of Human Rights which the Soviet Union is committed to fulfill and honor.
I, Yaakov Yosifovich Kazakov, Jewish, born in 1947, living in apartment 42 Tratiya-Instituskaya Street, Moscow, renounce my Soviet citizenship. Since the moment I first announced my renunciation of my Soviet citizenship – in other words, since July 13th, 1967 – I no longer consider myself a citizen of the Soviet Union.
I am a Jew. I was born Jewish and wish to live my life as a Jew. With all the respect I feel towards the Russian people, I do not view my people as inferior in any way in relation to the Russian people or any other people, and I do not wish to be assimilated by any nation. Since the Soviet Union does not offer the conditions for the Jewish people to exist, those Jews who wish to leave should have the possibility of doing so, just as is the case in other countries – Romania and Poland, for example.
I am a Jew, and as I Jew I believe that the State of Israel is my homeland, the homeland of my people, and the only place on the face of the earth where there exists an independent Jewish state. I, like any other Jew, have the inalienable right to live in that state.
The Jewish people has its own right to an independent state. Every Jew, no matter where he lives and no matter where he was born, has the right to live in the Jewish state. This right was affirmed in the UN resolution of the 29th of November, 1947, in which the Soviet representative voted in favor.
It makes no difference what the political regime in Israel is or what the country’s internal or foreign policy is. It is our country. Israel is a Jewish state, and only we – the Jews – have the right to decide its policy…
I do not wish to be a citizen of the Soviet Union, a citizen of a country that refuses to award the Jews (along with other peoples) the right to self-determination. I do not wish to be a citizen of a country whose Jews are subject to forced assimilation, and where my people are stripped of their national image and cultural treasures. I do not wish to be a citizen of a country in which, under the guise of a struggle against Zionism, all Jewish cultural life has been exterminated; in which there is suppression of the dissemination of literature about the history of the Jewish people and Jewish cultural life in our times. I do not wish to be the citizen of a country that conducts a policy of genocide against the Jewish people. While the fascists annihilated us physically, you are annihilating us as a people. I do not wish to cooperate with this additional crime of yours against the Jewish people…
On the basis of the above, I renounce my Soviet citizenship and demand to be freed from the humiliation of being considered a citizen of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I demand to be given the possibility of leaving the Soviet Union.
Yasha Kazakov’s letter was smuggled out to the West and was published by the Washington Post. A few days later, he received an exit permit enabling him to head for Israel.
Kazakov wasn’t alone in his struggle. Boris Kochovyevsky, whose grandfather had been murdered by Nazis at Babi Yar, took advantage of the ceremony held at the site in 1967, calling for the victims of the massacre to be recognized as Jews. He, too, wrote a letter to the Soviet government, asking to immigrate to Israel:
I am a Jew. I wish to live in a Jewish state. This is my right, just as it is the right of a Ukrainian to live in Ukraine… I wish to live in Israel. I want my children to learn Hebrew. I want to read Jewish newspapers, to go to a Jewish theater. What is wrong with that?
Boris Kochovyevsky was arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to three years imprisonment with forced labor as punishment. But his call echoed on. We can only be astounded at the courage of these individuals, who proudly waved the banner of Judaism and Zionism in the face of tyranny and intimidation.
The connection between their actions and the Six Day War is not merely a matter of chronology. R. Yosef Mendelevich was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment in an isolated camp in the Ural mountains on charges of high treason against the homeland, after trying to hijack a plane as part of the struggle to allow Soviet Jews to make aliya. In his memoir he writes:
As everyone knows, the Six Day War contributed greatly to the awakening of a national consciousness among the Jews of the Soviet Union. Sometimes I encounter people who talk about how they became patriotic towards Israel in 1967. I ask them, “When did that happen? Before the Six Day War, or afterwards?” Their answers categorize them into two groups: those who discovered their love for Israel in their hearts when the country was in danger, and those who were proud of its military victories afterwards and felt that they, too, would have been capable of playing a role in the battles in the Sinai and the Golan.
Natan Sharansky, who was given a thirteen-year sentence for his human rights activities in the USSR, wrote in his book, Fear No Evil:
Three years previously, the Six Day War had made an indelible impression on me – as on most of the Jews of the Soviet Union. In that war Israel had fought not only for its life, but also for our dignity. On the eve of the war, when Israel’s demise seemed almost inevitable, the Soviet anti-Semites rejoiced… A fundamental, eternal truth reappeared for the Russian Jews – that personal freedom cannot be obtained through assimilation. It can be obtained only by adhering to one’s historical roots.
Prof. Mark Azbel, a theoretical physicist and lecturer at Moscow State University, and Jewish and Zionist activist and refusenik, wrote:
Overnight we realized how close Israel’s fate was to our hearts. We had been living in desperate fear, knowing that the Arab world was armed to the teeth and well prepared for war. We knew that there were a hundred million Arabs against three million Jews in Israel. A catastrophe seemed the only conceivable outcome. The news of the victory came as a stunning surprise… It is difficult to describe the inner transformation that Soviet Jews underwent. They were filled with an entirely new spirit, a new soul. For the first time in many generations, they were proud to be Jews, proud to belong to a nation that was capable of fighting courageously for their country, outnumbered by far.”
We conclude with the words of R. Yosef Mendelevich in his autobiographical book, Mivtza Chatuna (“Operation Wedding,” the code name for the hijacking plan):
At that moment, I heard God’s voice calling on me to set off on my journey. The time had come for me to take upon myself fulfillment of all the mitzvot commanded to the Children of Israel. Mendel [Dr. Menachem Gorodin] showed me the way through his sterling personal example. I was still far from truly being a Jew, but I had decided in my own mind to choose the proper path… Out of a sudden sense of connection with the Jewish nation, I arrived at an understanding of my connection with God.
The wonder that we witnessed with our own eyes was nothing less than the realization of Yechezkel’s prophecy of the dry bones. Indeed, there is no more appropriate metaphor for the awakening of Soviet Jewry than the miracle of resurrection:
Then He said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: “O dry bones – hear the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath into you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I was commanded, and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a commotion, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I saw, and behold, there were sinews upon them, and flesh came up and skin covered them up, but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me: Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet – an exceedingly great host. Then He said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is lost; we are cut clean off.” Therefore prophesy and say to them: “Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people, and I will bring you into the land of Israel…” (Yechezkel 37:4-12)
Translated by Kaeren Fish
*Although all the excerpts from the various texts appearing here have been published in English translation, they are translated here directly from the Hebrew shiur by Rav Yaakov Medan.