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Subdued but Grateful Planeload of Soviet Jews Arrives in Israel

January 24, 1990
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Four hundred Soviet Jews, the biggest group to arrive on a single flight, flew to Israel early Tuesday morning aboard a chartered El AI Boeing 747.

“Shalom Moscow, shalom Eastern bloc,” a stocky man of about 40 exulted on the tarmac at Budapest’s international airport, as he prepared to board the plane.

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency predicted that 1,500 Soviet Jews a week would soon be passing through the Hungarian capital, which has replaced volatile Bucharest as their main gateway to the West.

“The potential is much greater,” said the spokesman, Gad Ben-Ari. “As more Soviet Jews pour into Budapest from Moscow, we shall bring more planes here.”

Israel hopes that the Kremlin will soon formally approve direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv. “That,” said Ben-Ari, “would certainly be the best solution.”

At a conservative estimate, Israel expects 250,000 Soviet Jews to arrive here in the next three years.

Twelve of the party on the El AI jetliner were from Baku, capital of the strife-torn Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

One of them, Nathan Sherinoff, a trumpet-player in the local symphony orchestra, forecast that all 100,000 Jews in Baku would leave within three years.

Sherinoff left his home two weeks ago, before the current clash with the Red Army, but he reported escalating hostility by the Azerbaijani nationalists toward the Jewish minority.


Slogans painted on the walls of the capital read: “We give the Armenians one year, the Russians three years, the Jews five years.” The Jews are getting the message.

But at the same time, Moslem nationalists are pressing Jews to join them in fighting their Armenian and Russian foes. “We gave you homes and jobs,” Sherinoff quoted them as saying. “Now it’s time to repay us.”

Some Jews complied, he said, but the vast majority refused. “It isn’t our war,” he insisted.

Ukrainian Jews on the flight said they feared that the nationalist movement there, too, was turning against them.

Bella Kogan, a 52-year-old civil engineer traveling with her husband and son, said: “In the Ukraine, I had a home and a job, but I felt we had to go. We were afraid of civil war.

“The Jews are already being portrayed as the enemy — in newspapers, in magazines and on television,” she said.

Bella and her husband, Alexander, also an engineer, admitted they would have preferred to settle in the United States.

“I know English,” she explained. “At my age, it is hard to learn a new language. I’m also worried about finding a job in Israel.”

But 23-year-old their son, Leonid, who served two years as a marine in the Red Army, said Israel is his first choice. Though he wants to study law, he apparently is not perturbed at the prospect of being conscripted into the Israeli army. “I’m not afraid,” he asserted.


The 400 were a mixed batch: elegant city-dwellers from metropolitan Russia, Yiddish-speaking Lithuanian and Ukrainian survivors, mustachioed mountain Jews from the Caucasian republics.

About two-thirds were young families, some wheeling babies onto the plane in strollers and even full-size baby carriages.

An arthritic grandmother struggled up the airline steps on crutches. Another babushka was handed up by her son in a tan leather trench coat. A third, blue-rinsed in a fake fur coat, would have looked at home in a shopping mall.

A young musician lugged a cello as hand luggage. A folk singer, who recorded an instant audition for the Israeli army radio station, plucked a guitar.

Almost every family was toting its duty-free ghetto-blasting cassette recorder. Coca-Cola, the ultimate liberation, was the treat of the three-hour flight.

But it was a subdued, phlegmatic homecoming: no prayers, no incantations.

All those interviewed an airline pilot who was invited up to the flight deck, an economist, a doctor, a lawyer, the engineers and musicians plan to settle in big cities, where they have friends and relatives. There were no takers for the West Bank.

Hardly any spoke Hebrew. These were migrants, not activists. After anything from two days to two weeks on the road, they were too weary at 3 a.m. to join in the patriotic songs relayed by El Al as the plane descended on Ben-Gurion Airport. No one kissed the runway.

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