A Refusenik’s Freedom


A few months ago I reunited with a stranger who was an important part of my life more than three decades ago. For a few years in the late 1970s, while I was working as editor of Buffalo’s weekly Jewish newspaper, I decided I wanted to personalize the plight of Russia’s imprisoned refuseniks, the Jews who lacked the freedom to live as Jews in their homeland, or leave for freedom elsewhere.

I decided to have my paper, the Buffalo Jewish Review, “adopt” one of them.

My choice was Hillel Butman, a Leningrad-born engineer who had been sentenced to a 10-year prison term for his role in an aborted 1970 plot to hijack an airplane from Leningrad, a dangerous and defiantly symbolic act that would alert the world about fellow silenced, persecuted Soviet Jews.

Inspired by a stainless steel prisoner-of-conscience bracelet I had picked up at Buffalo’s Hillel House, I ran a series of stories about Butman’s deteriorating health, about prison conditions, about his punishment for affixing a yellow Magen David to his prison uniform, about his attempt to compile a 12,000-word Hebrew dictionary, about any fact that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain. Some of my reporting was aided by New York-based Soviet Jewry organizations, and by letters sent by Butman’s wife, Eva, who had been able to immigrate to Israel in 1973.

Eventually, Buffalo Jewry considered him a member of the family.

In April 1979 he was one of five prisoners of conscience set free. He went to Israel, fulfilling a decades-long goal for which he had sacrificed eight years of his life and his health.

A month later, serendipitously, I was in Israel too, on assignment from my paper. I arranged to meet Butman and his wife at Kibbutz Na’an, near Tel Aviv, where she had settled with the couple’s two young daughters. I interviewed Butman about his first impressions of life in Israel (“My dream is fulfilled.”), and then I returned to Israel a year later, and got an update. (“I’m happy I married Israel.”)

Then I lost touch with Butman (pronounced BOOT-mahn); I was working in New York, and had other stories to report in Israel.

I followed the contours of Butman’s life (he had moved to Jerusalem, had worked as a lawyer, had retired, had written his autobiography and suffered a bout of poor health), but knew no details.

Last year I went back to Israel, and I decided to fill in the blanks. I phoned in advance, and arranged to meet him one morning at his townhouse apartment in Ramot, a neighborhood on the northern fringe of the capital.

At 85, he had not changed, save for his hair, which had turned white. Same grin, same impish sense of humor, same attitude of quiet strength I had documented and seen firsthand more than three decades earlier.

He was, he told me, still resolutely secular. “I still don’t believe in God even today.”

Though he was, at one time, an A-list Soviet prisoner — greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, his name nearly as famous in some Jewish circles as Natan Sharansky’s, his photo on the front page of Israeli newspapers when he arrived in the Promised Land — he settled into a largely anonymous life. Another aging immigrant with a Russian accent.

He’s rarely recognized on the street, he said. “My neighbors, they know” his story.

The émigré community, of course, knows him. Once a year he gets together with some other former Prisoners of Zion at a farm owned by one of them near Hadera. “We eat, we drink, we remember.”

His apartment is full of Israeli art. In the backyard he’s planted some grapes. “My grapes.” His Israeli grapes. “Very sweet.” His daughters are grown, living in other parts of the country.

He has, he beamed, four grandchildren. He pulled out a photo album.

I had one question: Was his life in Israel worth all the risks, all the sacrifices, all the time in labor camps away from his family?

Silly question. He repeated what he had told me 34 years earlier. “All my dreams are fulfilled. I am a happy man,” he said.

“For me,” Butman said, “the fact that an independent Jewish state exists is the most important thing. Everything else is commentary.” That was an allusion to the statement of his Talmudic namesake, Hillel.

My time back with this Hillel was over; he ordered a taxi for me.

Butman walked me to the corner, and then gave me a hug.

“I’ll see you again in 34 years,” he said.