Watching Sylva Zalmanson put finishing touches on an oil painting, it’s hard to imagine that this pleasant, plumpish woman with the paintbrush once had plans to hijack an airplane.
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In June 1970 she was arrested outside Leningrad just hours before she and 11 accomplices were to take control of a small Soviet plane and fly it to Sweden to escape from the USSR. In a trial that focused world attention on the plight of Soviet Jewry, Zalmanson, a newlywed from Riga, was sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet labor camp, while her husband, dissident Eduard Kuznetsov, was to face the firing squad.
“At first, I hoped there would be a miracle and we’d succeed in our plan: The Swedes would arrest us, we’d serve time in Swedish prison and then, upon our release, fly to Israel,” says the retired engineer of 68. Zalmanson, sitting in her red-roofed stucco home in Gan Yavne, a small town near Ashdod, continues: “But people who we tried to get to join the plot warned us that we had a 50 percent chance of being caught beforehand, and a 50 percent chance of being shot down from the sky.”
That didn’t faze her.
“I was ready to die – we all were. It was better than the alternative,” she says, explaining that in the Soviet Union they had no real life. As Jews, they could neither live openly nor leave.
The only woman among the 12 defendants, she was tried for high treason and was the first to be put on the stand in the Leningrad Trials.
“I think they believed that since I was a woman I would break down easily and cry, and that would set the tone for the rest of the trial,” she says with a sly smile.
That didn’t happen.
“I’m convinced that the law ought to bring to court those who unlawfully deny our right to live where we want to…” she declared defiantly in court. “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither away…”she concluded, reciting the ancient psalm in Hebrew until the judge shouted at her to stop.
She was sentenced to 10 years in a forced labor camp, an experience she describes as “like being buried alive.”
“After I went through that, I knew I could face anything,” she says. (The steely nerves she acquired then have helped her cope, decades later, with the missiles launched from Gaza that have fallen near her home. “The windows shake, but I just continue painting,” she shrugs.)
After four years in the gulag and a worldwide campaign on her behalf, Zalmanson was freed. Arriving in Israel in 1974, she fought for the release of her two brothers, her husband – whose death sentence was commuted to 15 years hard labor – and other Prisoners of Zion, raising the cause with world leaders and holding a 16-day hunger strike at the United Nations.
Eventually her pressure, and that of numerous other activists and world leaders, bore fruit, and most of the defendants were released before the end of their terms.
In 1979, after nine years apart, Zalmanson and Kuznetsov reunited in Israel; a year later the couple had a daughter, Anat, who is now a filmmaker. Kuznetsov became a journalist and co-founder of the popular Russian-language Israeli daily Veste. But after just a year and a half together the couple divorced.
“We didn’t connect after the long separation,” she sighs. Zalmanson went on to work as a mechanical engineer, retiring six years ago. She took up painting in 1992 on a whim, with the encouragement of a friend and was soon selling and exhibiting many of her figurative oil and acrylic paintings.
On an easel in her home stands a nearly complete painting of a flamenco dancer, frozen in a dramatic pose, her brilliant scarlet skirt fluttering in mid air.
There is a striking incongruity between the artist – affable, ordinary looking, matronly – and her flamboyant subject. But Zalmanson sees a kindred spirit in the dancer. The woman's movements, she says, are “like mine – grand not gentle.” In her art, and certainly in her life, Zalmanson has demonstrated that she, too, possesses more than a dash of panache.
Once the perennial globetrotter meeting with leaders in world capitals, Zalmanson now spends most of her time within a radius of about 50 meters, moving “from the TV, to the fridge, to my easel,” she says – without a trace of regret. “I thank God every day that I’m here, where I can live a normal life as a Jew,” adds Zalmanson, who describes herself as “completely secular.”
And that botched hijacking so many years ago? She considers it “one of the most important things I did in my life – it was a turning point in history. We helped make the first crack that eventually led to the crumbling of the Iron Curtain .”