Heroes and hitchhikers
The generation of Jews who came out of the closet in the Soviet Union tells its story / Death of the man who annihilated Hiroshima
When David Havkin was 14, his father bought him an Agfa camera; that was in Moscow, during the Second World War. Film was not expensive, and the chemicals and paper needed to develop photographs were obtainable. Three years after the end of the war, Israel's ambassador to Moscow, Golda Meir, arrived. Some time after her arrival she was scheduled to visit the city's Great Synagogue, an event that stirred great excitement among the Jewish population. However, Havkin's father did not tell him about it, fearing the youngster would get into trouble. He went anyway. With his camera, Havkin climbed a brick wall by the synagogue and captured one of the most famous images in the country's history: Meir, wearing a luxurious hat, being mobbed by hundreds of thrilled Jews.
Havkin returned home without telling his father that he had disobeyed him. He developed the photograph, prepared a package of prints and went to the Great Synagogue. There, he gave the package to one of the ever-present peddlers of tefillin (phylacteries) and tallitot (fringed prayer shawls), who added it to his wares. One day, Havkin's father came home from the synagogue and showed his son a photograph he had purchased there clandestinely. Havkin did not dare tell his father that he was the photographer, revealing the secret only years later, when the authorities arrested him for engaging in prohibited Jewish-Zionist activity. Havkin was permitted to immigrate to Israel in 1969. He is now a retired engineer of 78, living in Jerusalem. The photograph he took 60 years ago is now on display at Beth Hatefutsoth (Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) in Tel Aviv, as part of an exhibition on the Jewish national movement in the USSR from 1967 to 1989.
The exhibition is worth a visit. It reflects much courage in the face of a despotic regime: People gathered, learned Hebrew, listened to the BBC and the Voice of Israel, exchanged banned books, held secret contacts with the United States, Israel and other countries, and on some occasions even held protest vigils and demonstrations. Primarily, the exhibition presents the story of one generation of a struggle that had begun many years earlier - the generation that came out of the closet in the wake of the Six-Day War.
Many of the heroes of that generation are behind the new exhibition. From this point of view, there is an element of the autobiographical in it, recalling the first exhibitions about the Holocaust: The story of the Jews is completely separated from its political context. Just as many years passed before Israelis began to take an interest in the history of Nazi Germany, so there is no reference to the Soviet side of the story in the Beit Hatefutsoth exhibition. This tendency is also marked in the catalogue, which was edited by the exhibition's curator, Rachel Schnold.
The catalogue, in Hebrew and English, is a splendid volume that broadens our knowledge of the events and contains an intriguing article by Michael Baiser. However, the persecution of the Jews is portrayed as a self-evident phenomenon, as though there were no need to expose and analyze its roots and trace its evolution in the Soviet corridors of power. The history of the Jewish struggle in the Soviet Union, and in particular the influence of outside public pressure, can be a useful guide for fighting totalitarian regimes and defending human rights in general. Concomitantly, no consideration is given to the part played by the Jews' struggle in the collapse of the Communist regime.
Israel's role in the struggle also merits further research. Thousands of Jews in the Soviet Union received fictitious requests for family unification from Israel; large numbers of Israelis, mainly from kibbutzim, volunteered their addresses for this purpose. A few of these forms are on display in the exhibition alongside small books of Psalms and a lighter that was smuggled into the country from Israel: it plays "Hatikva." Israel established a secret organization, Nativ, but it is not clear whether it did enough; there were fascinating arguments over this issue, against the background of the feeling that the Zionist movement failed in the Holocaust.
It was also a highly political debate: readiness to do something for Soviet Jewry was considered a sign of Zionist patriotism. At the same time, there were quite a few hitchhikers who used the struggle to promote other causes, such as Meir Kahane and the knights of the Cold War. The catalogue is silent on this.
The exhibition identifies all the Jews of the Soviet Union with the Zionist struggle, but when the authorities began permitting people to leave, it turned out that most of them had no interest in Israel, and preferred to settle in America. Tens of thousands opted for Germany over Israel. This mass "dropping out" was the most severe blow suffered by the Zionist movement since the Holocaust. Mass immigration to Israel began only after the United States imposed tougher restrictions on the entry of Jews, in response to Israel's request. This aspect of the story could serve as a springboard for discussing the extent to which the Jews of the Soviet Union were actually Zionists, and how successful were the underground efforts of Nativ. All this barely rates a mention in the exhibition.
In contrast to the classic Beit Hatefutsoth exhibition, there is also no discussion about which Jews made the right decision, from their point of view: those who settled in Israel, those who immigrated to America or Germany, or those who remained in the Soviet Union until its fall. For example, if the oligarch Leonid Nevzlin had left long ago, he would probably not be so rich today. Naturally, he might also not be suspected of murder, and it's doubtful he would have financed Beit Hatefutsoth.
Death of a pilot
It was thanks to her son, a World War II pilot in the U.S. Air Force, that Enola Gay entered history: He named the bomber he flew over Hiroshima after his mother. The plane dropped "Little Boy," the nickname for the atomic bomb that killed 140,000 civilians, most of them Japanese. The pilot was Paul Tibbets, who died last week at his home in Columbus, Ohio, at the age of 92.
His death reignited the debate about the bombing of Hiroshima, because Tibbets had a definite opinion on the subject: To the last, he believed the operation was justified, and he never had any regrets on that score. He continued to serve in the Air Force until 1966, and then went into business. Tibbets lived with this story until his dying day. In his will, he instructed that his body be cremated and the ashes scattered to the four winds: he was afraid his funeral would attract anti-bombing protesters.
The assassin Pilpel's descendants
Last week in this space I mentioned the possibility that Abraham Ber Pilpel left his city of Lemberg, or Lwow - today's Lviv, Ukraine - and settled in Safed. Pilpel was apparently the assassin of Rabbi Abraham Kohn, a leader of the nascent Reform movement. The murder occurred in 1848. It turns out that there are quite a few Pilpels in Israel, among them judges and lawyers, who trace their origins to Safed. The journalist Yaron London believes that one of his wife's forebears was the Pilpel from Lwow who murdered the rabbi. The assassination affair has helped him understand a number of things about members of the family, which until now were not clear to him, London says.