Text size

On June 6, 1967, or perhaps it was June 7, 18-year-old Alla Milkina set out for her boring job in a Moscow office. Whenever she worked in a job that didn't suit her qualifications, something her employer told her resonated in her mind: "You're actually quite talented - too bad you're a Jew." She understood the catch of that remark, but resigned herself to it.

As she did every day, she boarded the subway train that took her to the office. And as on every day, the cars were packed with people pushed up against one another, and as usual they were used to it and passed the time by reading the paper. Milkina also took part in this daily ritual, and had become skilled at glancing at the headlines over the shoulder of the passenger in front of her. Most days, she just let her eyes run over the words without really taking them in.

But on that morning, which can be termed fateful without the risk of resorting to a cliche, the headline not only attracted her attention but made her heart skip a beat. In words she remembers to the letter, the government of the Soviet Union informed the Soviet people that the State of Israel had attacked the progressive socialist Arab states. Moscow, the headline asserted, would not take this lying down.

Her perusal of the headline was accompanied by immediate responses. The first is surprising: this was effectively how Alla Milkina learned about Israel's existence. Strange as it may sound, the fact that Israel existed was not engraved in the young woman's consciousness. It was not that she was indifferent to Israel's existence: she simply did not know about it. True, she had heard the name here and there, but had never associated it with the "Jewish state." Nor did it interest her. "I didn't know where it was on the map. Nobody in my surroundings talked about it; it was not something that was present in our lives. I realize it's not easy to understand this lack of knowledge, but that is the power of a government that controls information."

Even on that morning on the subway, her response did not take the form of great interest. It was a response of great fear. Not for the fate of that country but for herself. "Somehow I associated the name 'Israel' with Judaism, and I was very afraid that I would be accused of something that country would do," she related this week in Jerusalem. "The war was covered with so much hatred that all I wanted to do was hide."

About a month after the war, an event occurred which Milkina-Levy to this day describes as a miracle in her life. Relatives invited her to a wedding in Riga. It was a Jewish wedding, and it prompted her to try to understand the meaning of her Jewishness for the first time. She talks about the festive event in Riga through the prism of her experience at the time. "I felt connected to some tribe with different customs. Then someone said a blessing for the bride and groom, and one of the guests got up and said that another family should also receive a blessing - our brethren in Israel who were defending themselves and our home. Then, suddenly, all the mishmash in my head started to take on shape. All of it: Judaism, the war and the state."

Her relatives in Riga played a mediating role. Ahead of her return to Moscow they gave her an exact address and directed her to a white building which was called a synagoga. She wrote it all down carefully and called the contact upon her return. At Simhat Torah she went to the address she had been given and encountered another 20,000 or so people there.

"Today I know that masses of people met there even before the Six-Day War, but they remained quiet. In 1967, they received backing. The most impertinent among them shouted 'Who are you? - Israel; Who is your father? - Israel.'" The fear had vanished. Thus Alla Milkina was drawn into Jewish underground activity, printing and distributing forbidden material.

Occasionally they went to the Baltic Sea coast and danced the hora. "There was a young man from Minsk there, Yisrael Rashel. He was born on May 14, 1948, and that is why he was named Yisrael. He showed up in 1969 and said he had written a song in Hebrew. Shy and embarrassed, he started to sing 'Blue and white, that is my color,' and instantly we knew this would be our anthem."

But the romantic atmosphere was marred by KGB (Committee for State Security) persecution and interrogation. "Three years of stomach ache - either because of fear or from excitement," is how Milkina-Levy describes the three years that passed between that morning on the subway and her immigration to Israel in 1970. She submitted her request to leave the Soviet Union in January 1969, totally convinced that nothing would come of it. In October 1970, the postcard arrived: "You have five days to get out." "They decided to purge Moscow of extreme nationalist elements," Milkina-Levy says, explaining the timing. "They did not understand the strength of this internal revolt."

Levy turned her life in Israel into a continuation of the action she took back then. She spent her working life in the Jewish Agency, eventually becoming the director general of the unit responsible for the countries of the former Soviet Union. But to her the crowning point of her career was actually the more junior position she held before her early retirement: head of the Jewish Agency mission in Moscow. She wanted to close a circle.

Milkina-Levy is now a member of the Public Committee on the 40th Anniversary of the Soviet-Jewish Struggle for Freedom, organizing a series of events to mark the 40th anniversary of Soviet-Jewish efforts to immigrate to Israel. For Alla Milkina-Levy's story is not only a personal one: it is the story of an era. It is not by chance that the committee - which will initiate events throughout the year - was established in the year marking the 40th anniversary of the war that was the formative event for the open struggle of Soviet Jewry. No one has any doubt that this was one of the positive and uncontroversial results of the Six-Day War.

According to Prof. Yaacov Ro'i, a historian who is an expert on Soviet Jewry, it was the waiting period before the war that engendered the revival, even more so than the victory in the war, to which the awakening is usually attributed. The feeling that Israel's very existence was under threat invoked the fear of the Holocaust, the dread that "it is going to happen again."

Yuli Kosharovsky describes his personal experience as a mystical passage, which is somewhat surprising coming from this practical person. The experience occurred at the height of the Six-Day War in the middle of a busy street in Sverdlosvk, a closed city devoted wholly to military installations. For one fateful moment the many cars on the street seemed to disappear, and the noise of the masses of people went mute. Kosharovsky heard only an inner voice which showed him the right path: Zionism. Then the noise returned, but he already knew. "The kiss of God" is how this secular person describes the moment that shaped his life.

Until the age of 26, his life had followed a completely different path. After completing studies in railway automation, he worked in a military institution. He specialized in electronic systems of planes and missiles, a highly popular and even lucrative field. He led a comfortable life and considered himself a Soviet citizen in every respect. He even saw himself as harboring patriotic views toward the vast country, and was happy to be part of the development of a system which would compete with the Americans' Polaris project. He was very proud when he was chosen to work in the P.O.B. 320 military research institute, a very prestigious address. It was not until the Six-Day War that he understood that he had grown up as a slave, he says.

Kosharovsky, who was denied permission to immigrate to Israel for 18 years, tells his story in his Jerusalem office. On the wall is a photo of him during the years of refusal, captioned "Let My People Go," in English - the slogan of the struggle's activists in the West. On the desk lies volume one of his new book, in Russian, "We Are Jews Again," which documents this chapter in history. He describes a comfortable life, thanks mainly to his great love for his profession, accompanied by an elusive feeling of alienation, reflected mainly in his inability to drink quantities of vodka like his colleagues. Israel, though, did not interest him much at the time.

When the Soviet propaganda campaign preceding the Six-Day War was launched, he heard a broadcast claiming that Israel was an alien body in the region and had no right to exist. That was unexpected: he had been raised to believe in the Soviet values of equality and justice for all peoples - yet suddenly there was an independent state which had no right to exist.

The week of the war was unbearable for him. He couldn't work, couldn't concentrate. He installed antennas at home to pick up as many broadcasts as possible. He shouted and raged at people for five days.

Then, with the victory, Israel turned into the great "aggressor" in the broadcasts. Kosharovsky understood that the state in which he lived was the enemy of his people and that he was selling his brain to his people's enemies. From that moment on, his life changed radically. He felt he had lost the country in which he was raised, but did not yet have another in its place. And then came the "kiss of God" and he knew what to do. He waited another six months to complete his commitment to the institution he worked for, resigned his prestige job and went to work in medical research, a less emotionally charged and also less lucrative field. Concurrently, he started to look for others who shared his feelings, if not his deeds. Even though he did not yet know them, he was certain they were out there. And he found them. Kosharovsky decided to follow his feelings: He lost interest in technical affairs and began learning about the Jewish world, about which he knew very little. His father demonstratively ignored his son's Zionist leanings, although in 1968 he himself was buried, at the request of Kosharovsky's grandfather, in a Jewish cemetery. For a long time, the KGB was convinced that Kosharovsky had become a Zionist because of his father, who actually played no part in the process.

The path he had embarked on became more difficult by the week. The authorities stepped up the pressure, the persecutions became more frequent. After three bad years, a friend suggested he move to Moscow. In the 18 years during which he was denied permission to leave, Kosharovsky conducted both underground and overt activity, met with his colleagues in front of the synagogue, spoke with foreign journalists and was arrested dozens of times. "We operated like soldiers of the State of Israel behind enemy lines," he says in summation of that period, which ended with his immigration to Israel in 1989.

Kosharovsky believes that had it not been for the 1967 war, the movement of Soviet Jewry's immigration to Israel would have emerged ten years later. Because of it, the Jews became an integral element in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. "The empire was rotten from within," he says. "But paradoxically, the Jews were the only citizens there who had no other soil, such as Turkmenistan for the Turkmen people, or Ukraine for the Ukrainians. When the Jews started to leave, the glue that held the Soviet Union together started to come loose. The Soviet Union was a prison of peoples, and when the Jews set the example, other nations wanted to do the same." Alla Milkina-Levy is convinced that the immigration from the former Soviet Union changed Israel for generations. When discussing the 40th anniversary of the war that changed the face of Israel unrecognizably, it is important to recall this chapter, too - about it, at least, there is considerable national agreement.