From Soviet Red to Red Tape

We first met about a month ago, at the memorial for Lena, Vladimir Prestin's wife. In Russia, the group had given him the nickname "the Graff," because of his aristocratic appearance and the nobility of his deeds. All the friends who were able to come were there at the memorial. Here, in exactly the same way as there, they go to considerable lengths to share their moments of joy and their moments of pain.

How symbolic that they are meeting at a cemetery, said one of them, Aharon Gurevitch, on that occasion. A sad statement. This is "the Moscow Group." Throughout the former Soviet Union there were other such groups, and they all have one common denominator: All of them were refused permission to immigrate to Israel and all of them were prepared to pay a high price to do just that. Most of them did indeed come here, most of them are now living among us, some of them in poverty and wretchedness.

Recently they have organized again, this time in order to issue a petition entitled "Help the refuseniks from the former Soviet Union!" The exclamation point, which appears in the original, hints at the gravity of the situation. In the petition, which was addressed to President Shimon Peres, they bring up an interesting request: to recognize the many years that they were refused permission to emigrate for purposes of civil service seniority, a recognition that would entitle them to a live-saving pension.

The thinking behind this request is that being refused was not a passive situation of waiting but rather hard work that for most of them replaced the senior jobs that they lost because of their Zionist activity. After long deliberations, they chose to turn to the president because of his status, but also on the basis of the assumption that he knows what they are talking about. Still emblazoned in their memory is the picture of Peres accompanying Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky after he arrived in Israel from prison.

They also know that Peres knows the names of many of them, who through the entire period were known to the people from the liaison bureau that acted clandestinely in the Soviet Union. Twenty-four people signed the letter to Peres; there are some who refused to sign out of shame, and there are some who refused to appeal to the man who brought the Oslo agreement.

We held the second meeting in the lovely home of Marta and Pasha Abramovitch in the center of Tel Aviv. It was also attended by Mark Labovsky, a friend from there who has remained a close friend here. Gurevitch also took the time to come from Kfar Sava, after completing the afternoon prayers. He is their "saint," who has become religiously observant.

Labovsky's daughter is named Avital because back in Russia Sharansky's mother demanded that she be named after her daughter-in-law. Gurevitch's daughter is named Geula, after right-wing activist Geula Cohen.

All of them are in their 70s, more or less; all of them arrived in Israel in 1988, a bit before the large immigration wave, after spending about 20 years as refuseniks. On the table in the Abramovitch home, Gurevitch spreads pictures of them years younger at not entirely secret meetings in forests. Also clearly seen in the pictures are KGB people who tailed them. In one picture there is also a tractor that the tails brought with them to interfere with their singing in Hebrew.

Crisis breeds dreams

Once, related Gurevitch, the KGB came to his home in Moscow to confiscate the photo album. At the end of the operation, they forgot it on the table. In the end, the album also immigrated to Israel.

As is the wont of dreams, the realization of immigration entailed a crisis. In particular a crisis in status and occupation. They were nearly 50 years old when they came and had difficulty reintegrating into the job market. Some of them had been cut off for many years from developing fields like chemistry and physics, but for others too, there was no great demand. Gurevitch, for example, an expert on the computers that were in the Soviet Union at that time, found work in a computer shop and at the pinnacle of his career was earning NIS 4,000 a month working full time. He knew that he was being exploited by an employer who was aware that he had no alternative and did not grant him pension rights.

In their estimation, there are about 300 refuseniks in exactly this situation. They lost their pension in Russia because of the refusal and they did not manage to accumulate a pension here.

Now they are trying to repair the distortion by means of creating a continuum that will recognize the Zionist activity they organized there, teaching Hebrew, meetings with foreign journalists, the arrests and the imprisonments, as a kind of work. They feel that they also have a part in the bringing the million immigrants who to Israel came after them, as if they were emissaries of the Jewish Agency, for example.

It turns out that even people with such rich life experience can sometimes be naive. They were certain that their letter would go straight into the president's hands. When a letter came from the public relations bureau at the President's Residence with the reply that their application had been forwarded to the proper authorities, Gurevitch phoned to find out what that meant.

A polite official clarified to him that the reference was to the Absorption Ministry. The astonished Gurevitch wondered what the connection was. After all this, they received a reply that the letter had been forwarded to the Social Affairs Ministry, and they also sent him their best wishes.

Perhaps by Sukkot, when when they convene for their annual meeting in the Ben Shemen Forest to celebrate their glorious past, they will receive a final answer. The Kermans from Carmiel haven't come to the gathering. They don't have enough money for the trip. Never mind. They can always take comfort in the old photographs from the meetings in the Russian forests, most of which were taken by the talented Kerman.