Special to the JTA on Being a Refusenik in the USSR

“I have no idea why I am here and my friends are in prison. It could be just the opposite.”

Feliks Kushnir, a former Soviet Jewish refusenik, was recalling the fate of Alexander Kholmian-sky and Yuli Edelshtein, two of the many well-known Hebrew teachers and other Jewish cultural and religious activists sentenced to prison terms in the Soviet Union in the past year. Kushnir himself taught Hebrew during the four years he was “in refusal” — denied permission to leave the Soviet Union.

Now living in Israel, Kushnir joined another former refusenik, Olga Levinson, in separate three-week tours of the United States this month, during which they detailed the plight of Soviet Jews to more than two dozen communities. The tours, which coincided with events held on behalf of Soviet Jewry in more than 100 American communities during the first two weeks of December, were sponsored by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC).

During their appearances, Levinson and Kushnir talked about their experiences as refuseniks. That was the case with Kushnir, who is now 29 years old and living near Tel Aviv. In 1979, he had become interested in Jewish matters and, with his parents, applied to emigrate. His parents received permission, but he was refused and had to stay behind.

Kushnir, who had worked in a thermal physics institute in Siberia, was told he was being denied permission to leave because he had access to secrets. “I tried to find out what secrets I knew,” he says now, “but I did not receive any answer. They never explain it.” But suddenly, in 1983, he was allowed to leave for Israel, again without explanation.

AN UNSETTLING SITUATION

Levinson, 38, also says she doesn’t know why she was forbidden the right to emigrate in 1981 — or why she was suddenly told she could go in March, 1985. But she didn’t hesitate; given eight days to settle her family’s affairs, the language teacher and tour guide finished in three.

“You have your visas today, but it can happen that you won’t have them tomorrow,” she explained. While her husband and daughter are with her now in Israel, Levinson’s parents chose to stay behind, wary of a new life style in the West.

That family tragedy, and her friendship with imprisoned activists, helped Levinson give an added emotional dimension to her speaking engagements in the United States.

“It was personal for me,” she said. “I tried to make people understand what it means to be in prison, and how for other refuseniks, families get destroyed. I tried to explain what happens when a visa is denied.”

VIEW OF THE SUMMIT CONFERENCE

Both Levinson and Kushnir said they found a keen interest among Americans concerning how the Geneva summit might affect Soviet Jews. But they warned against undue optimism. “The Soviets will never pay for something they already have,” Kushnir said. “We never hoped that at the summit, human rights would be linked to a disarmament agreement. But we did hope it would be linked to improvements in relations.”

Noting that new cultural exchanges and other improvements in bilateral relations had come out of the summit, Kushnir questioned whether any concrete benefits for Soviet Jews can be expected in the near future. And Levinson said she, too, is not optimistic the summit will bring a major change in the status of Soviet Jewry.

Both plan to remain active in the cause of Soviet Jewry in Israel, where Levinson, who lives in Netanya, is now a school teacher, and Kushnir works in computers.

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