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Grueling First Weekend for Nudel

October 19, 1987
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Ida Nudel, who proclaimed, “I am a free person among my own people” when she arrived from Moscow Thursday night, spent a grueling first weekend in Israel after being reunited with her sister, Elana Fridman, whom she had not seen for 16 years.

The seemingly endless round of official visits and media interviews was physically and emotionally exhausting for the diminutive 56-year-old former refusenik and Prisoner of Conscience. She let it all out on her first visit to the Western Wall Friday where, comforted by her sister, she pressed her face to the massive stones and wept.

Every step of her way has been dogged by reporters and television camera crews since she landed at Ben-Gurion Airport board the private jet provided by American industrialist Armand Hammer. On Friday she called on Premier Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and former Premier Menachem Begin. On Sunday she was to meet with President Chaim Herzog and Secretary of State George Shultz whom she telephoned earlier in Washington.

Shultz said on his own arrival in Israel Friday that Nudel’s first words to him were “I’m home.” Shultz added, “It was a most moving moment.”

Nudel spent her first night in Israel at the Tel Aviv Hilton. She told reporters the next morning she was amazed by the color of the sky — Mediterranean blue, not Moscow grey — and the masses of food available.

Asked what she had brought with her from the Soviet Union, Nudel replied, “My faithful dog, Pizer, who has been my constant companion since she was brought to me in Siberia as a five week-old puppy; my books, and the very warm blanket which I cannot do without.”

She said her immediate plans were to learn Hebrew and continue working for the freedom of other Jews seeking to leave the USSR.


Nudel’s most moving words were spoken when she descended from her plane and set foot for the first time on Israeli soil. “A few hours ago I was almost a slave in Moscow. Now I’m a free woman in my own country. It is the moment of my life. I am home at the soul of the Jewish people. I am home at the soul of the Jewish people. I am a free person among my own people.”

On hand to embrace her were Elana; her husband and son; Shamir; Peres; and Hollywood screen star Jane Fonda, who has worked hard for the cause of Soviet Jewry in recent years, especially in behalf of Nudel.

Also on hand was Hammer, the head of Continental Petroleum, who told of his part in effecting Nudel’s release.

Hammer said he had met Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in New York in September “at the same time Shimon Peres was meeting him” and had been asked by the Soviet official to fly to Afghanistan in a bid to settle the problem there by negotiating with both sides.

Hammer, who has been friendly with all Soviet leaders since and including Lenin, told the audience: “I said I’d go, but you must give me Ida Nudel in return. He (Shevardnadze) immediately replied: I promise to.”

Two receptions awaited Nudel at the airport, and the emotional proceedings stretched for three hours, despite appeals for short speeches due to the late hour and Nudel’s fatigue.

The first was an official welcome, including the presentation of an Immigrant Certificate and Israeli Identity Card by Absorption Minister Yaacov Tsur. He said: “Welcome home to Israel. Your years of loneliness are over.”

Shamir and Peres both stressed that the nation’s joy at seeing Nudel step onto Israeli soil was coupled with anguish at the plight of Soviet Jews wishing to leave for Israel. The Premier said that the fight for freedom was not just a fight for the rights of individuals, but a Jewish struggle for the return to their homeland.

Peres noted that Nudel’s struggle had united Israelis of all walks of life and in all generations.

Fonda, who came with her husband Tom Hayden, from Los Angeles especially to welcome Nudel, explained how and why “a Protestant like me” had become involved in the struggle to effect Nudel’s exit from the Soviet Union. She learned of Nudel’s case during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem some eight years ago, when she had met Elana Fridman.

“I took material home, read up extensively, and went to Russia to meet with her. Her courage and boundless hope inspired me. Ida Nudel has become a role model for me,” Fonda said. “I always hoped, but never believed, she would ever be allowed to leave and come to Israel. She was most hated by the KGB. She was a woman fighting not just for herself but for all Jews in the Soviet Union who want to leave,” the actress added.

“She would not stop despite ill health and terrible difficulties. Ida is little, but she is beautiful,” Fonda said as the two women held each other in a lengthy embrace.

Messages of welcome were read from British Premier Margaret Thatcher and French Premier Jacques Chirac.

On the airport dais, Nudel sat flanked by her sister and Shamir, a broad smile on her spectacled face showing a number of typical Soviet style metal teeth. She looked tired, but did not show signs of the 16 years of hardship she had undergone. Her greying hair was tied in a ponytail.

Speaking in halting English, and apologizing for not speaking in Hebrew “Which I promise to learn quickly,” she said that only the night before, at a farewell party in Moscow, her friends were happy for me, but they were also a little sad about my leaving because they were a bit disappointed that it wasn’t their turn. I promised them that their moment will come, and I will put all my strength into winning their freedom. I will try in every way I can.”

Hundreds of local and foreign reporters were present at what had been described as an “official reception and press conference,” but the late hour and Nudel’s fatigue allowed for only a few questions.

To the first, about how she had found her sister after a 16-year parting, she replied: “My little sister has grown up, but it’s the same eyes and face.”


From the official reception in the airport’s VIP lounge, Nudel and some of the official hosts went to the nearby parking lot of Israel Aircraft Industries, where a mass “Reception and Salute to Ida Nudel” had been organized by the Israel Women’s Committee for Ida Nudel and the Public Committee for Soviet Jewry.

Despite appeals by Avraham Harman, president of the Soviet Jewry Committee, for brevity because of the late hour, spokespersons for a number of organizations made speeches intermingled with folk singing by the largely religious crowd.

An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 people turned out for the “public reception — far less than the up to 100,000 who had been hoped for by the organizers.

The proceedings were broadcast live by Israel Army Radio, which is not affected by the on-going strike of the Israel Broadcasting Authority radio and TV journalists.

Nudel told IDF Radio Friday morning that she did not remember much of the proceedings Thursday night. “But I slept better last night than I have for a long time,” she remarked.

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