A Former Prisoner of Zion Speaks

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FS: What did the KBG do to you subsequent to your arrest?

RYM: They tried to break our resolve by threatening us with the death penalty and by doing so, they thought we would condemn Zionism and urge other Jews in the Soviet Union not to be involved with Jewish causes and Israel. We were interrogated for six months until our trial and the goal of the KGB was to have us perform like puppets in the courtroom. We saw a stunning victory at our trial which happened on Chanukah. Rather than being manipulated by the Soviets and used as a propaganda tool, we did not rail against Zionism but rather we declared in no uncertain terms that we are loyal to the Jewish nation, to Am Yisroel and we demanded free Jewish emigration to Israel. As we began chanting “Let My People Go” in the courtroom it is as if we experienced our own Chanukah miracle.

FS: Do you think your actions served as an impetus for the Soviets to relax their emigration policy as it pertained to Jews?

RYM: They were very worried about the tidal wave of international pressure and knew that they could not withstand an economic boycott. Eventually they started to allow more Jews to emigrate to Israel and within a year of our trial 17,000 Jews left. I think the Soviets never thought that all these Jews would actually leave if given the opportunity. The year after that 35,000 Jews emigrated and I think the Soviets were totally shocked.

FS: You were sentenced to 15 years in Soviet prisons. What was life like for you and the others?

RYM: I was in eight different labor camps and prisons in Siberia and Moldavia in the European mountain region. It was always a struggle as a Soviet prison is tantamount to a work camp. Before my arrest, I was becoming a religious Jew and I did not give up on my commitment to being a believing Jew while in prison. Even though it was illegal to do so, I exhorted other Jewish inmates to observe Shabbos, to daven, and to learn Torah. I knew that my time in prison could be well spent having an impact on my people. As a result, I was punished severely by the authorities and for three years of my sentence I was imprisoned in brutal conditions. I was transferred from the labor camp to a closed prison called Vladimir and I was essentially closed up in my cell. I eventually concluded my term back in the labor camp and was with other nationalist groups such as Ukrainians and Lithuanians who were fighting for freedom.

When Natan Sharansky was arrested in 1977, I spent time with him in the Gulag and came up with original ways of communicating which I speak about in my book. Even though we had very little news from the outside world, in 1978, Sharansky told me that things were being done for us by American Jews. We were only allowed to read the government-run newspapers such as Pravda and Izvestia and Russian newsletters. It was not easy being a “Prisoner of Zion” in Soviet camps and news of those helping us in America and other places bolstered our spirits in immeasurable ways. I speak about the interrogations and hardship we endured in my book as well.

FS: Did you know when you would be released?

RYM: Not at all. I was taken from the labor camp to Moscow and no one told me why. I had thought it was yet another attempt to break my spirit and resolve. After two weeks, they told me that my Soviet citizenship had been permanently revoked and that I never deserved to be a citizen of the USSR. They told me that I was being deported and then I boarded a plane for Israel. I can’t even begin to tell you how the tears of joy streamed from my eyes.

FS: Since your release from prison in 1981, what kinds of activities have you pursued in Israel?

RYM: I spent much time learning Torah as my commitment to an Orthodox life grew exponentially and I eventually received my rabbinical ordination. I was involved in the Russian department of Arutz Sheva and went on to teach Russian students at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In my early days in Israel, I founded an organization called the Soviet Jewry Information Center. In 1988, Sharansky founded the Zionist Forum, which worked towards a successful absorption of those immigrating to Israel from the Soviet Union and its activity was based on the database that I formed. I have constantly been involved in the Israeli political scene and have spoken out for the freedom of Jonathan Pollard on numerous occasions and have been vocal about my opinions on the role of Russia in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Educating young Jews about the beauty and majesty of Judaism is at the core of my being. Just being a Jew living in an independent Jewish state affords us so many opportunities to reach the highest heights, and I share my knowledge and narrative with others in the hopes that they too will feel the bond between themselves and their G-d and fulfill their destiny as Torah Jews.

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  • RonaldCarnine

    One man's story of struggle and eventually freedom is a story not just for Jews but for all who need to be reminded of freedom from tyranny. Rabbi, I hope you enjoy your last years in a land dedicated to freedom and surrounded by those who would destroy that freedom. Israel is a land that I love but have never been able to visit. May God bless you and I look forward to reading your story when I am able to find it in our local book stores.