25th Anniversary Event ‘Happy and Sad’: Hundreds Celebrate Success of Prisoners of Zion, Worry about New, Disconnected Generation of Jews

Knesset event, sponsored by Limmud FSU and The Jerusalem Post, marks 25 years since “the opening of the gates” in the former Soviet Union


By Maayan Jaffe
eJewish Philanthropy

“When we do things together, we can find solutions to our major problems,” said Ephraim Kholmyansky.

Speaking to eJewish Philanthropy at the end of a two-hour event on Oct. 19 marking the 25th anniversary of the opening of the gates of the Former Soviet Union, Kholmyansky added that the falling of the Iron Curtain was “a miracle. Miracles only happen when we do our utmost.”

Kholmyansky said these are just a sampling of the important lessons the new generation can glean from the collective plight of the Jewish people to bring down the Iron Curtain 25 years ago, a mission that spread from the former Soviet Union to Israel, to America and Europe. But he said that many in this generation are disconnected and apt to forget these and other lessons.

Knesset event panel Opening the GatesKholmyansky’s concern was the theme of the day at the ceremony, which took place at the Knesset in Jerusalem, as former prisoners of Zion took the stage – along with several MKs – to tell their stories and implore the audience to help them find a way to keep the past alive in the minds of the next generation. Today, most young people know very little, if anything, about the Prisoners of Zion, who fought for their human rights and permission to emigrate to Israel or freedom of religion from behind the Iron Curtain.

“People are going to forget who these heroes were,” said speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, himself one of the former prisoners of Zion. “We need to think about doing something so people remember what they went through, so it won’t happen again.”

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch told his story of how he was a prisoner in Siberia for 12 years, but during that time he reconnected with his Jewish tradition, which “gave me strength.” In prison, he did his utmost to influence other Jewish prisoners to keep Shabbat, study Torah and pray – all of which was illegal. He even taught Hebrew to the now famous Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, via the pipes of the toilet or radiator.

Sylvia Zalmanson explained how she and 13 other Jewish people attempted to hijack a plane from the USSR to Sweden on June 13, 1970 in a desperate bid to attract the world’s attention to their plight. They called it Operation Wedding – and it failed. Zalmanson was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor. Zalmanson finally made Aliyah in in Sept. 1974.

“Every day I feel blessed that we are here and we live in Israel and that we have a state for the Jewish people,” said Zalmanson.

Kholmyansky, too, shared part of his story. He became a prominent Hebrew teacher in the late 1970s and 1980s in the USSR, heading a clandestine network of Hebrew teachers in different cities across the country. At its peak, there were 20 cities in the network and contacts in an additional 10 cities. He was under close surveillance by the KGB and eventually arrested in 1984. He spent a year-and-a-half in prison.

Kholmyansky said he didn’t know he was making history when he started his network.
“I didn’t know about the future collapse of the USSR,” he said. “Sometimes you just do what you feel it is necessary to do.”

Minister of Absorption Zeev Elkin was a successor of Kholmyansky.

“I was a result of this project,” Elkin told eJP. “Kholmyansky students taught me and then I became a teacher in ’89/’90. I am a grandson of this project and it really special to have that background in my role as minister of absorption.”

Addressing the former prisoners of Zion, Matthew Bronfman, chair of Limmud FSU’s Steering Committee, said: “We all stand on your shoulders. We stand on the work you’ve done, the heroism you’ve displayed throughout your career. To be here with you, the Speaker of the Knesset, the head of the Jewish Agency and the Minister of Immigrant Absorption is really a testament to all those who fought on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and that the Soviet Jewry movement has transformed not only the State of Israel but the Jewish people.”

Referencing the current overall tense mood in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, told the guests, “Despite all the difficulties and uncertainty, we all were confident that people will come to this unique and important occasion. The event here is real, and so the true heroes that are with us today, and people always come to see the real things.”

Edelstein described the event, which included performances by singer Irena Rosenfeld and pianist Leonid Ptashka, as “both happy and sad.” Happy, he said, to see all the people who are success stories. Sad, he explained, because so many of them are passing away.

“We need to be proactive before it is too late,” he said.