In closed city, Jews still afraid

OZERSK, Russia (JTA) — As the sun vanishes behind the Ural Mountains, Anatoly Feldman hears a faint knock on his apartment door. At the entrance stands an apprehensive-looking elderly Jew who gingerly has journeyed to Feldman’s apartment-turned-Jewish-community-center — but only after dark, to ensure secrecy. Here in Ozersk, the Jews come out only at night, if they come out at all. This is one of Russia’s 10 remaining closed nuclear cities, where religious life during communism was so suppressed that only a trickle of activity has resumed even after 13 years of freedom. Russia witnessed an outpouring of Jewish pride during the 1990s, but Jews in “closed cities” were too sealed off to take notice. Despite their dire material conditions, most members of Ozersk’s Jewish community, a majority of whom are elderly, remain so scarred by Soviet-era fear that they continue to shun the aid offered by world Jewry. “They’re dying and still won’t admit they’re Jews, and I can’t do anything,” says Feldman, 63, the lone Jewish force living behind Ozersk’s barbed-wire fence. “Others admit it but refuse to sign the form saying they received assistance. So I sign my name,” he says. “They’re all afraid. Fear is their whole essence.” Ozersk is a Soviet creation from 1945 designed to reprocess nuclear waste. Radioactive plutonium deposits still lie underneath the city and may forever jeopardize the population. Closed cities didn’t even appear on maps until the 1990s. Though their locations now are public, most remain impenetrable to all but pre-approved visitors like nuclear specialists, who must register in Moscow before they can pass a closed city’s border checkpoint. Feldman therefore has volunteered to take a bus for two and a half hours over snowy roads to the regional capital, Chelyabinsk, for an interview that was supposed to include several Ozersk Jews. But Feldman is alone: His colleagues were too afraid to come — and it wasn’t because of the roads. During a three-hour interview, Feldman sits upright, hardly fidgeting or betraying any emotion. His mouth seems stuck in a perpetual frown, and his teeth are so misaligned that one can’t help but wonder how he can chew anything more durable than applesauce. A Hollywood costume shop couldn’t turn up a more classic Soviet-era outfit: an old-school, horizontally striped wool blazer that clashes with Feldman’s black pinstriped pants and beat-up black shoes. Feldman repeatedly is asked to reflect on his confined life, but he evades the questions behind a labyrinth of science and politics. Finally, after relentless prodding, he issues a harsh sigh and says, in a raspy voice, “It was a horrible life for me, from Stalin’s secret nation to another secret nation of a closed city.” It’s nearly impossible to sit across from this man without being overwhelmed by pity. But Feldman wants no sympathy, only support for his dogged efforts to establish a legitimate Jewish center in this enclave of 88,000 people, of whom 5,000 are Jewish — double the percentage of Jews in Moscow. No one knows how many Jews reside in two nearby closed cities, where the combined population nears 100,000. “In the other two cities, Jews still don’t respond to us,” says Albert Rukhman, director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Chelyabinsk Hesed office, which helps the elderly. “The times may have changed, but the personalities haven’t. “They say, ‘It’s easy for you to speak and act because you’re on the outside,’ ” he says. “For 40 years, they couldn’t express anything, and those traces are left forever. Only patience and time can solve this.” Most Ozersk residents, it seems, still are waiting for the Communists to return to power. They may seem a bit removed from reality, but don’t mistake their intellect: These are the scientists, engineers and technicians who established the Soviet Union’s scientific prowess. In many respects, however, their expertise was their limitation, as state policy forced them to conceal their identities and avoid contact with international organizations. They even signed state documents pledging to keep silent on sensitive matters. In 1997, Feldman’s success as a teacher and judge in checkers games won him the Ozersk Man of the Year award. It also introduced him to a colleague who informed him of a novel idea: Jewish revival in Russia. Within a year, Feldman carried a business card as Ozersk’s representative of the JDC and the Chabad-affiliated Federation of Jewish Communities, even though he insists he “doesn’t feel Jewish.” “It was completely lost,” Feldman says of his Jewish identity, staring blankly. His assimilation is most evident when he unapologetically gives a Jewish visitor the gift of a Christmas calendar. Nonetheless, Feldman yearns to help those in Ozersk who have suffered economically since Russia began to democratize. Each month he unloads a JDC distribution truck at the checkpoint and hand-delivers food packages — containing sugar, grains, condensed milk and cabbage — to 13 brave recipients. “It may seem funny, but we take it quite seriously,” Rukhman says. “It’s a small victory for us.” In the rest of Russia, the challenge for international Jewry is to encourage Jews to open their prayer books. But standards are a bit lower in Ozersk, where the main task is convincing Jews to open their food packages: Like Holocaust survivors, many opt to stash away their goods instead of consuming them. “When I ask them why, they reply, ‘Have you ever been in besieged Leningrad?’ ” says the JDC’s Rukhman. Recently, Feldman managed to round up 40 Jewish youths for a checkers tournament, and 12 more attended a Jewish summer camp outside of town. But the city is still light years away from having a locus of Jewish life like that in Chelyabinsk, where 70 seniors convene every Shabbat. However futile his efforts appear, Feldman has stirred up enthusiasm — at least among his non-Jewish neighbors. “If we ever open a center, I’m quite sure they’ll outnumber Jews fivefold,” he says. “They understand Jews are very smart, and that’s why they take part — they purchase matzah and read about Jewish traditions. All of this while the Jews are afraid to say they’re Jewish.” An exceptional person in many respects, Feldman was taken from his family in 1963, when the Soviet distribution system placed exceptionally skilled scientists in closed cities. Feldman’s specialty was in construction. He never met his father, who died in the battle of Stalingrad in 1943, the year Feldman was born. His mother, brother and stepfather emigrated to Israel in 1963, and he didn’t see them until a family reunion in the 1990s. He was one of the only Ozersk residents with relatives abroad, a dangerous status within the highly secured zone. Ozersk’s scientific and military environment suppressed all religious activity. One woman, who painted the town church for extra cash, was labeled as a fanatic and deported from Ozersk. Feldman credits his progressive outlook to his unique opportunity to travel abroad during Soviet times as an expert checkers player. “I knew what was going on,” he says. “I had to tell fairy tales about how good life under communism was. I learned them by heart and could tell them over and over. I only told the truth to my wife.” Today he tells the truth to Ozersk’s Jews, hoping to ease their outdated fears. But to his suspicious audience, the truth may seem like fairy tales for many years to come.