NEW YORK (Aug. 22)
Former refusenik Lev Shapiro, who now lives in Tel Aviv, has come to the United States to thank those who helped make his story a priority case.
He is also here to warn against those helping Soviet Jews emigrate to America, help that he perceives as dangerous because it takes Jews away from Israel.
Shapiro, who arrived in Israel in March after a particularly harrowing 18-year waiting period in the Soviet Union, contended that “the fact that they can come here to the United States increases assimilation in the Soviet Union.
“Look, the fact that Soviet Jewry is assimilated is not their fault. But the fact that American Jews help them to assimilate is a shame. It is a very high price to pay.”
Currently, as many as 94 percent of the Soviet Jewish emigres who arrive in the Vienna transfer point “drop out,” or opt to travel to the United Sates rather than Israel.
“It’s immoral of those who don’t want to go to Israel to use the tickets of those who really do. The ones who get out and leave in Vienna for the United States are just changing one diaspora for another,” Shapiro said.
Israel, he continued, “is not only our hope. It is the hope of all Jews.”
Shapiro is on a tour of the United States sponsored by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. This Lev Shapiro interviewed in the offices of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency is not the same man visitors encountered in Leningrad years ago.
His sad eyes have brightened and his drooping posture has been clearly buoyed by his long sought aliyah.
NO ONE HEARD THE HEBREW
It was something of which even his parents dreamt. Shapiro, who described his family as “always very religious,” remembered preparing for his bar mitzvah during the period of Stalin. “My mother stood in the corridor to make sure no one heard the Hebrew.”
Shapiro remembers the anti-Semitic era of the infamous Doctors’ Plot in the early 1950s, when Stalin went on a rampage and ordered the executions of Jewish doctors he imagined were plotting to kill him.
“I was beaten in the classroom, and the teacher pretended not to see.”
For his children, things were only marginally better. Shapiro recalled reading in Izvestia in 1976 that all national minorities have the right to teach their own language and culture.
Testing this, he wrote a letter to the department of education of the Jewish Autonomous Region in Birobidjan, asking for material to teach Yiddish to his children.
Shapiro pulled from his briefcase the reply he received and saved, translating it word by word. It said there was no Yiddish school in Birobidjan, the Jewish language was not taught, and “therefore we cannot send you books.”
When his accomplished daughter Naomi was rejected by the special school her brother already attended, Shapiro brought a civil action in court.
He was told that she could not have been rejected because of anti-Semitism, because “anti-Semitism is outlawed in the Soviet Union.”
At this point he was bent on an unremitting course to look for the truth. In Moscow, he approached Samuil Zivs, Jewish member of the Soviet Anti-Zionist Public Committee. He spoke to him “as a lawyer.”
Shapiro asked Zivs to explain legally how a country that outlawed anti-Semitism could practice anti-Semitism, after having signed the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
As Shapiro recalls, Zivs replied, “Yes, it is a law, but the fact that they refused to hear your case is because every law protects only good citizens. If you want to leave the country, you are a bad citizen.”
Things became especially rough after “the film.” Shapiro speaks about it with a shudder even today.
Shapiro was an unindicted witness in the 1970 Leningrad trials of a group who had tried to steal a plane to fly to freedom via Sweden.
Never charged, Shapiro ironically became the one left behind, the last Leningrad witness to leave the Soviet Union.
In 1982, Shapiro was interviewed by French television. Two years later, the KGB, using footage from this interview, produced a film called “Hirelings and Accomplices,” which cast Shapiro as a “Zionist agent in the Western conspiracy against the Soviet state.”
Several weeks after the broadcast, Shapiro was featured on the evening news, his home referred to as central headquarters for “Zionist conspirators” in Leningrad. He was forced out of his position as an electronics engineer.
Shapiro waited seven years after the trial before applying to emigrate in 1977. He was refused on grounds of “state secrets.” His parents, however, were permitted to go to Israel.
Naomi sent a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in which she asked, “Why can’t I go to Israel to see my grandparents, whom I have never seen?”
Naomi’s letter was reprinted in The Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Chronicle of London and The Atlanta Constitution.
She started receiving letters of support from schoolchildren in Atlanta, in which they “wished her to have such a life as they have,” and described a life of freedom in America, said Shapiro.
‘PLEASE, MR. GORBACHEV’
An eight-year-old boy sent a letter to Gorbachev, saying, “Please, Mr. Gorbachev, let Naomi go to see her grandparents in Israel, or you will never be re-elected as president.”
Shapiro believes it was this kind of help, coupled with Gorbachev’s popular theme of “glasnost,” that finally won the Shapiros their freedom to leave the Soviet Union this March.
Shapiro does not believe in the number system currently in use for citing how many Soviet Jews wish to leave. “I think it is not so much as 400,000, but on the other hand, I think it could be much more.”
Shapiro believes the greatest catalyst for Soviet immigration to Israel is the direct flight.
Why? “The supermarket,” he explained.
After years of anti-Israel propaganda, Soviets are astounded to see the plentiful supply of food in Israel, especially the fresh vegetables.
“They will see the supermarket, and they will see the rest. And they will say, ‘It’s like in the United States.’ Even I was surprised.”