Yuli’s interview with Michael Sherbourne on May 20, 2004
Yuli: We are in Kibbutz Neve Eitan with one of the most outstanding activists of the Soviet Jewry Movement Michael Sherbourne.
My first question to you is: When and in which family were you born?
Michael: The family’s name was Sheinbaum. Both my parents were born in London. My father’s parents came from a small village outside of Warsaw. They were married in 1887 and came immediately to London. My father was born in 1888 in London. The name was Sheinbaum. My mother’s name was Benjamin. My mother comes from a Sephardi family who had been in England from about 1670. We have traced it back as far as 1705 but we’re sure it dates back to 1670. The reason we changed our name from Sheinbaum… First of all in England many Jewish people change their names from Jewish sounding names to English sounding names. It happened in Russia where Jews changed their names to Russian sounding names…For example Kosharovsky is not a specifically Jewish sounding name..
Yuli: Specifically Jewish!
Michael: In the 1st World War my father joined the Merchant Navy. On its first trip out from Southhampton to South Africa with the name like Sheinbaum he felt he would be thrown overboard anytime because it’s a German sounding name. In August and September 1914 there was a very strong anti-German feeling in England at the start of the First World War. As soon as he returned to England he looked in the Gaziteer which is a list of geographical names and he saw the name Sherbourne which is a small village in the west of England which is very close to Sheinbaum so he decided to change his name to Sherbourne but he never did it officially… I was one of four boys. We were all brought up as Sheinbaum. My three brothers changed their names in the middle to late ‘30’s but I didn’t because being a Zionist and planning to come as a he’halutz (pioneer) to Palestine I thought there was no point in changing my name. However, I came to Palestine in 1939 to join what later became Kibbutz Kfar Blum. It was then called Kibbutz Anglo Balti in Binyamina. Just before the war started my younger brother was called into the army and he was in the infantry. His unit was right in the front as the Germans burst through the blitzkrieg in April 1940. His unit of about 100 men were all caught by the Germans. Half of them were killed and half were wounded. He was then badly wounded and the only information we had from the War Office as it was called (today it’s called The Defense Ministry), my Mother received notification saying that he was missing, believed killed. It wasn’t until September 1940 just as the blitz on London was taking place that she received a letter from him that was posted in England. It was only after the war that we learned how it happened. The note said very briefly: “Don’t worry about me. I’ve been wounded. I’m in hospital now. I’m OK and I’m a Prisoner of War. Apparently he told us when he came back from the war maybe six years later that an Englishwoman had been going around the wards of the hospital taking a piece of paper and an envelope, giving it to each of the young soldiers who had been wounded and telling them to write a brief note and write your name and address on the envelope and I’ll see that it gets to your next of kin… We don’t know who she was but she was risking her life because if the Germans had caught her without any mercy they would have shot her. However it wasn’t until early 1941 that we knew where he was. All we knew at first from September that he was a Prisoner of War but by 1941 we knew he was in a prisoner of war camp is southeast Poland. I then wanted to write to him. I thought if I wrote to him with the name Sheinbaum and he’s Lance Corporal Sherbourne they will know immediately that he’s a Jew especially since I was writing from Haifa. So I changed my name then to Sherbourne. Otherwise today I’d still be Sheinbaum.
Yuli: When were you born?
Michael: I was born in 1917. Just at the time of the first successful Russian revolution, the Kerensky revolution. My mother said that’s why it happened because I was born.
Yuli: What month?
Michael: February 1917
Yuli: What day?
Michael: The 22nd
Yuli: The 22nd of February 1917…
Michael: Exactly when the revolution was taking place.
Yuli: What did your parents do in England?
Michael: We came from a very poor family. I was brought up in poverty. On my birth certificate it says my father was a baker’s journeyman. A journeyman in England does not mean someone who goes on a journey. It comes from the French – journes which means a day. He was paid by the day. He drove a horse and cart delivering bread. That was in 1917 during the war. But later he was supposed to be trained as a tailor and he was the lowest grade of tailor, Selling Hand I think it was called. He hardly ever made a proper living. And so he sold chocolates outside theaters. He stood outside theaters in the evening with a tray of chocolates about 2 feet long and 18 inches wide which he carried with him on a strap around his neck and he stood outside selling chocolates until 1930 when he became a taxi driver. From then on life wasn’t too bad. He died quite early in 1951 at the age of 61. We lived in the East End of London in the area just outside Whitechapel called Stepney Green. There was a great deal of poverty in those days and a great deal of unemployment. This is why when I passed the Civil Service examination (I was supposed to be a clever boy in school) and I was employed in the Government Armaments Factory called The Arsenal at Woolwich in South East London and we were making principally sixteen and fifteen inch naval guns. We were making heavy armaments for the Navy. I started with them in 1934 when I was 17. By 1935 when Hitler had been empowered for two years the government already realized that we would be at war with Germany again. So they began speeding up the armaments campaign. It was just about that time as well that they began to develop the Spitfire and the Hurricane fighter planes. I worked over-time almost every week from 8;30 in the morning until 8 at night. I was in the Storage Department and we were buying from large firms in England all the necessary materials for big guns. When I was 18 I became interested in Zionism.
Yuli: Why? Did this originate from your family or was this your own choice?
Michael: The family was not at all Zionists. In fact Zionism was not particularly popular in England in those days. Hardly anyone knew anything about Palestine. Remember this is 1934, 1935, 1936… In fact to be a Zionist is to be on the outside almost. There were quite a lot of Zionists in England but by no means a majority. Most Jews in England knew nothing about the yishuv and about Palestine. Living in the East End I had gone to a cheder called the Talmud Torah.
Yuli: Was it after school?
Michael: After school. We finished school at 4 o’clock and at 5 o’clock we went to cheder – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – four nights a week from 5 to 8. How we found time to play football I don’t know but we did. We managed to play as well as to learn. This was the basis for my learning Hebrew originally because we learned in the Askenazi accent – ivris b’ivris. We were not allowed to speak any English. If we spoke in English, you got a cane across your fingers. If we wanted to go to the toilet – we’d put up our hand and asked the teacher –Moreh I chafetz latses… I’ve got to go out.. He taught us about Zionism. I became interested in Habonim but Habonim was merely a social club. Then I came across a group called Hehalutz. And I could see they were serious and I joined Hehalutz with the intention of coming out here to join a kibbutz to become he’halutz (a pioneer in Palestine) in fact.
Yuli: How did your parents relate to this?
Michael: They were furious about it and when I told my Mother that I was giving notice to leave my work at the government armaments factory, Woolie’s Arsenal that I was going to go to the hachshara farm (preparation for agricultural work in Palestine) which was in Kent all hell let loose…In fact, I’m sorry that I have to say this but my mother never forgave me for it – even 20 years later…when we had an argument about something.. She said: “I’ve never forgiven you for what you did to me in 1937”. That was unfortunate but there you are..
Yuli: Were they keeping a Jewish home?
Michael: Oh yes. My parents were not particularly religious but they kept all the chagim (holidays) . We had a seder on Pesach. We fasted on Yom Kippur. But the majority of Jews in England were not religious. There were some but not very many. In fact in that time we never had seen a Hasid in England. There were no Hasidim in England. There were no Lubavitch or anything like that. The first time we saw Hasidim in England was after the Hungarian revolution in 1956 when the Soviets invaded. Lots of Hungarian Jews who were Hasidim came to England. That’s the first time we had ever seen Hasidim – the long beard, the payot and so on… black coats, black hats… We had never seen them before. However I went to the farm in October 1937. That was where I met the girl who became my wife later. She came from Leeds.
Enid: Where was the farm?
Michael: In Harrietsham in Kent on one of the highest points of Kent. Every winter there was very heavy snow there. We don’t get much snow in London. In that part of the country it’s quite high and we have a lot of snow every year. It’s really near Maidstone, a well-known town. There were about 2,000 of us at first. When a group went on aliya shortly after I joined them, they arrived in Palestine in September 1937. They went to Degania first, then to Kinneret. Then they were moved to Afikim where they met the group that came from the Baltic states. Then they moved together with them to Binyamina where they called it Kibbutz Anglo Balti. That was where I met the man who was later called Nehemia Levanon. We knew him as Neumka Levitan. We knew him as Neumka. Obviously his name was Nehemia.. That was the first time we met. We immediately took a dislike to each other but that might only be in hindsight. I’m not sure. Then in the beginning of August 1939 we were told that certificates for some of us to go. There were seven certificates for individuals and one certificate for a married couple. None of us were married but my girlfriend and I were going together. So they said well you’ll have to get married. We went down to the registry office in Maidstone – the whole group of us and we gave special notice because you couldn’t do it immediately normally. But if you paid for a special notice, you could have a wedding immediately. At the registry office we went in and we paid the special fee because we were due to leave on the third of September 1939. This is rather funny… The registrar said who has the ring? We said “what ring”? We had to get a ring and I went across to Woolworth’s and bought a ring which later went black. (it was brass or some other metal) We were married then. Muriel phoned her mother and her mother said I’d like you to have a Jewish wedding, a chuppah. She came to me and she said my mother wants us to get married under a chuppah in Leeds. Would you mind? She thought I’d say no but I didn’t because my attitude in life has always been if I can do something that will help someone else and they’ll feel better about it and it doesn’t harm me, why shouldn’t I do it? So we had a Jewish wedding in Leeds. It was all arranged in one week. Muriel said I’m laying down two conditions: I don’t want a big wedding. I’m not going to wear white. So we had a big wedding and she wore white.
Yuli: After the wedding did you go immediately to Palestine?
Michael: Almost immediately after that… That was on the 27th of August 1939… There were two little incidents. Beforehand at the chuppah… At a normal wedding the Rav (Rabbi) would say to the chatan (bridegroom), say after me please: “harei” ; “harei”; “at” “at” “mekudeshet”, “mekudeshet” etc. I had been told by my brothers-in-law who were very well versed in Hebrew to say “Harei at mekudesheshet li” and so on… So when it came to the wedding and I said that..and the Rabbi said, say after me, Harei At Mekudeshet Li B’tabat Zo Kedat Moshe V’Yisrael…there was a gasp. They never heard a chatan (bridegroom) do it before in England… Also my new brothers-in-law said after the dinner and there was a big spread… and they were very well known… There were about 25,000 Jews in Leeds and they were very well known in the community… They asked me to say a few words in Hebrew and I did and translated it into English.. When we began to serve dinner, Muriel said to me there’s something here on my veil just after we’d been served. A portion of chicken had fallen off the tray onto Muriel’s veil. I put the chicken on my plate and then I had an extra portion of chicken. Afterwards one of Muriel’s cousins who later became Lord Mayor of Leeds Nelson Walsh, said he’s been to very many weddings in his time, but he’d never seen a bridegroom eat such a hearty meal at his own wedding… That was the 27th of August and we planned to leave on the third of September but on the morning of the 1st of September we heard that Hitler had invaded Poland. We knew we had to leave very quickly and we went to the Zionist Federation to get all our documents and papers in London. The General Secretary of the Zionist Federation refused to give us anything.. He said you can’t go to Palestine now… A war is breaking out… We insisted. We paid everything that was needed – We paid for what was called kupat aliya. We had to pay 10 pounds at the time which was a lot of money – equivalent to several hundred pounds today. We had to pay for clothing and our travel expenses and so on.. In the end he relented to the extent of saying look I’m not taking responsibility for you. I’ll give you tickets as far as Paris and from Paris you make your own way.. It’s up to you entirely. He gave us money which was the rest of what we paid in which was our own money which he gave back to us… We got together and we left that same evening, Friday evening the 1st of September 1939…
Yuli: They didn’t help you financially to go to Palestine.
Michael: No. We had to pay our on expenses completely. Before we were allowed to go on hacshara we had to have paid in what was called kupat aliya which meant paying our own expenses. The night that we left was the first night of the blackout in London. Car headlights had to be completely covered with a dark blue paper so you could hardly see where you were going. All street lights were out. Every window had to have black on it. You couldn’t see where you were going. We got to Victoria Station and we left. We went the cheapest way from London to New Haven. The long journey across the channel took five and a half hours. From Calais to Dover then took 55 minutes exactly. Today they’ve progressed. It takes about an hour and a quarter. That’s progression in seventy years. But then it took about five and a half hours to Diep. From Dieppe we got the train to Paris where we arrived on the morning of September 2nd 1939 when Poland was already suffering from the German invasion but Britain and France were not yet at war. We knew, of course, there was going to be war. When we got to Paris we could see there would be war. 24:30 Bear in mind as long as I live there were millions of people fleeing Paris, literally millions because they came from further north as well into Paris and they were all trying to go south because they had memories of Verdan where France lost over a million young men and the war in general from 1914-1918 where the French lost over two million young men – killed. Britain lost about a million then. Germany lost nearly three million in that war. There was panic on the faces of everyone we saw. They were all trying to go south. We had to go from 25:20 north of Paris to Garde de Leon. I was only one in the group who spoke any French. It was school boy French which I had learned. I remembered quite a bit of it and we eventually were able to get two taxis. There were nine of us all together and we got to Garde de Leon in the south of Paris and there we qued for many, many hours at the ticket office and eventually we got on a train that was going to Marseilles from where we hoped our ship would be leaving. Eventually we got on a train that was going to Marseilles from where we hoped our ship would be leaving. This was on the 2nd of September and it’s normally a six to seven hour train journey in those days. Now it’s much less. Now it’s about four hours. But it took us fourteen hours on the train because it was a slow train and it was so packed that not only we couldn’t get seats we couldn’t sit down or lie down in the corridors. We had to stand all the way for 14 hours. Eventually we got to Marseilles and there we looked for a bed and breakfast. We found a place. The following morning, the 3rd of September we went down to the docks and we were told the ship we were due to go on 26:50 a luxury Mediterranean liner had been commandeered and was going to be used as a troupe ship so we had to try and get on to some sort of ship. We didn’t know what to do but there we had a bit of good fortune. We met a group of young Palestinians as they were called in those days. Palestinians in those days meant Jews, not Arabs. They were a group from the Macabbi who had gone to the Macabia in Monaco and they were also trying to get back to Palestine. Most of them came from Haifa. Their leader was a Welsh Jew, a Jew from Wales and he spoke with a very pronounced Welsh accent. He said to us: “Don’t worry boys, we’ll look after you” in a sort of sing-song voice that the Welsh have. “You stick with us and we’ll look after you”. He helped us and eventually we all got on to a ship that was called Andre le Bon. (which meant the good Andre). We called the ship the bad Andre because it had been taken out from the breakers’ yard 28 and you can imagine what state this ship was in. Normally it was a four and a half days journey from Marseilles to Haifa. We zig-zagged across the Mediterranean because we thought that Italy was coming into the war and we were afraid of Italian submarines. Italy didn’t come into the war until the following June. But it still took us a long time. It took us 14 days to go from Marseilles to Haifa. Before we had actually gotten on the ship after we booked our passage, we went back to collect our things from the lodging house where we stayed that one night. The man who owned the place called me and spoke to me in French and he told me that morning at 11 o’clock Neville Chamberlin, the Prime Minister had declared war on Germany. We knew Britain was at war and he said France is expected to follow suit at 5 o’clock this afternoon. By 5 o’clock we were already on the boat but we knew that Britain and France were at war with Germany.
This will take me a long, long time to tell you all my life story.
Yuli: I would like to stay closer to our topic. Let us make it more in a telegraphed way. You came to Palestine. How many years were you here?
Michael: Throughout the war. We first went to Binyamina to Kibbutz Anglo-Balti and then for several reasons we decided to leave at some point. First of all we didn’t feel comfortable with the Latvians who tended to sneer at us as not being good workers. We lacked the feeling of hevretiut (friendship) which we can talk about. Also my brother had been taken prisoner.
Yuli: How many brothers?
Michael: We were four. I was the second. He was the third. Two of us are alive today. He died of cancer a few years ago. My older brother died about three years ago of a heart attack. I didn’t know any Russian at all. My Hebrew was quite good. Also I had learned some Arabic. One of our Hebrew teachers on the farm in England came from Damascus. His name was Gamliel Douer. They were a Sephardi family from Syria. He taught me to read and write Arabic. I can still read and write it but I don’t know what I’m reading. During the war I used what he taught me and I spoke colloquial Arabic quite well at the time. I was employed in the Royal Navy – in the naval base in Haifa. Today it’s the Haifa harbor. After about a year I told the naval captain (which is equivalent to colonel in the army) that I thought I ought to join the Navy. He said: “I would rather you didn’t because as a civilian I know you’ll stay here with me and I can use you. Your knowledge of Hebrew, your knowledge of Arabic and your knowledge of English is very useful to me. He said I’d rather you didn’t because if you join the Navy probably before long you’ll be moved from here, from there, who knows where… So I didn’t actually join the Navy but I worked with the Navy. He actually called me the chief clerk of the Naval base. Then at the end of the war, I came back to England.
Enid: Were you living in Haifa with Muriel?
Michael: Muriel was there. Norma was born in Haifa in 1943. Her birthday was a couple of days ago. We went back to England. I wanted to see my brother who had come back from being a prisoner of war for five years. The family house where they had lived in the East End had been destroyed in the bombing. Fortunately they were in the shelter at the time. So we went back to England. I couldn’t settle back in England. We decided to come back to Palestine at the end of 1947 just in time for the start of the Arab attacks, Britain leaving and Milchemet Hashichrur – the War of Independence. We were only back here a short time and I joined the army. I was in Hativa Sheva and we were stationed outside Latrun which at the time we never took because we were under heavy attack. It was held by the Arab Legion. They were based mainly in the monastery which they had fortified. There was a big long slope in front of it and we couldn’t get up that slope at all because of their attacks. However in the meantime Muriel, my wife was having a very difficult time. By now we had two small children and she got hardly any food to eat because food was rationed very strictly. She became quite ill. At the end of 1948 we went back to England again. There I was told that she had tuberculosis in both lungs. They told me at the time. This was in 1949. They told me she wouldn’t live more than two years.. maximum. We tried to get her into hospital. They refused to take her into hospital because they said they only had beds for people who had a chance of survival. “Your wife doesn’t have a chance of survival at all”. You can imagine what life was like then. As it happens fortunately her two brothers helped me. There was a Councilman who was very helpful. We went from one doctor to another. We found one specialist who thought he could help her. She was taken in hospital eventually. She was in hospital for nearly two years. She made quite a good recovery. Imagine in 1949 she was given two years to live. I then went to a Teachers Training College. I had been critical of the Soviet Union for a very long time. When I had been about 14 I went to a meeting in the East End of London which was being addressed by four people who had just come back from the Soviet Union. It was 1931. Remember the date. 1931. Two people who you probably never heard of named Sidney and Beatrice Webb who later became Lord and Lady Passfield. They wrote a book called Soviet Communism… I forget. It was a big thick book saying how wonderful everything was in the Soviet Union. HG Wells, the author, and George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, they spoke about the wonders they had seen; how marvelous everything was in the Soviet Union. It was a workers’ paradise – Gan Eden. At the end of it one man stood up and asked them if they could say something about famine because he heard there was famine in the Ukraine. I heard this with my own ears. George Bernard Shaw said: “Famine – nonsense!! I’ve never eaten so well in all my life”. This was a time when it’s considered by all experts that at least 15 million people died of famine when Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks was taking place. At least 15 million… He said “nonsense”. That made me suspicious of the Soviet Union. I was only a boy of 14. Later when the trials started…Bucharin and Ralik and all that lot.. I used to argue with my uncles who were socialists… Most people in England thought the trials were genuine and the confessions were genuine. I did not believe it… Then the facts 38:26 came for me on August 23rd 1939 – the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact… Hitler-Stalin pact of non-aggression. For me that was the end…
Yuli: It was secret.
Michael: Part of it was secret but the treaty was public. They announced it publically. What was secret was the way they were going to divide up Poland between them. Stalin was going to take the Baltic states. That was the secret codicil. But the main thing was non-aggression which Stalin believed which Hitler of course did not believe. Stalin was stupid. He really believed it. That for me was the end. When we came back after milchemet hashichrur – the War of Independence and Muriel was either in bed at home or in hospital, I went to Teachers Training College. This was about 400 men there. Of the 400 men, about 30 were Jews. Of the 30 Jews, 28 were active members of the Communist Party. I and one other were not. He didn’t care at all – Ralph Cohen. I was anti-Soviet. I had tremendous arguments with them. Because it was a shortened course of one year instead of normally three years we had to undertake to do a course of study after we graduated from the college and started work as teachers. I thought that I would work for a degree in mathematics because that that had been my major subject at the college. But on one of the last days in the college I was with one of these communists, a man named Jack Veltman 40:32 who was a Stalinist until the day he died about six years ago. He saw on the shelf – Teach Yourself Russian, a book. He said to me: “I bet you can’t learn Russian”. I said “I bet I will!” It was a challenge. I didn’t know a single word or a single letter of the alphabet at all. I didn’t know anything about Russian. I didn’t even know Da and Nyet. I decided I would study Russian.
Michael: In evening classes while I was working. I was fortunate that it was a small class. It was a privately owned building called The Working Men’s College which was started in 1854 by William Morris and a number of other philanthropists. It was done to help the working men of England become educated. The teachers were voluntary. They were not paid. Ordinary evening classes run by the London County Council, they insisted a minimum of 12 students or they’d close the classes. It wasn’t worth it because they paid the teachers. Here the teachers were not paid so it didn’t matter how many students there were. We started off with six in my class and within two or three weeks there were four; shortly afterwards there were two and then there was one. I had individual tuition fortunately. First of all from an Englishman whose knowledge of Russian was somewhat limited but he was quite a good teacher. The classed were twice a week, Thursday night and Friday night. On Friday nights the teacher was a Pole from St. Petersburg. His name was Anton ??42:45 He hated the Soviet Union because all of his family’s property had been taken away. He was a graduate of the Gorny Institute, the Mining Institute of St. Petersburg University and he taught me a tremendous amount of Russian. He taught me to love Pushkin and Lermontov particularly. I’ll tell you a funny incident. I’m diverting slightly. Many years later in 1962 I took the first school party to go from England to the Soviet Union. There were 46 boys and girls and 9 teachers, of which I was one. I was the leader. I was the only one who spoke any Russian. I had very little experience of colloquial spoken Russian but we managed. It was a long journey by train almost all the way. From London to Harwich which is on the east coast. From Harwich on a boat to the Hook of Holland. From the Hook of Holland we drove on a train which went through Holland, Belgium, West Germany, East Germany, This was 1962. The Wall in Berlin had been completed in 1961. We had to go over the Wall. From there into Poland. From there we went through Plonsk, to Warsaw.. Then we came to the Soviet border at Brest. That’s a long story in itself which I’ll tell you another time. From there to Smolensk to Mosckva. At Moscow we were met. I’m not going to tell you all about this experience because it’s a long story. I’ll only tell you one little incident. After we’d been in Moscow two days I suggested to some of the teachers they come with me. The children were all in bed. The youngest one was 14. The oldest was 18. There were 46 of them. We went into Red Square and we watched the soldiers at the mausoleum. Stalin’s name was still to be seen on the top there. It was defaced but you could still read Lenin and Stalin. Stalin was now in the grave behind the mausoleum but Lenin was there of course. We watched the soldiers changing guard and there was a crowd of about 200 people. Amongst them were a number of soldiers and sightseers. One of my colleagues said to me what are the badges the soldiers are wearing? I talked to one soldier and asked him and he told me what it was. Engineering; artillery; torpedoes.. I can’t remember. I asked several of the soldiers and translated their answers into English for my friends. The soldier then said to me: “What’s that badge on your jacket”? I have here the badge of the University of London. Michael explained in Russian. The soldier couldn’t believe it. This was 1962 when hardly any visitors from the West came in. “How do you speak Russian?” “I like it!” “Do you know any literature?” “A great deal: Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky… Michael then recited Russian poetry… At that moment the floodlights came on from Gum opposite. Michael said Spasciba/ Thank you and I got a tremendous applaud from the crowd. Then I continued reciting poetry… I got tremendous applause… I must tell you that… I studied Russian but never thought it would become useful until we heard something was happening in the Soviet Union, that Jews were trying to get out… We didn’t know this at all.. When you mention 1962, we met a few Jews. You realized that there was a certain amount of suppression. My wife always wore a magen david. On one occasion we saw a man in a shop that was selling records in one of the branches of Gum I think. He pointed to it and whispered: “Are you Jewish?” We realized that they weren’t happy to announce they were Jews. I arranged a meeting the following day. We had two or three experiences like that.. We also went into the synagogue in Leningrad in 1962. First they thought we were Americans and then they asked us questions about America and Israel. When they found out we were from England, they weren’t all that interested.. We went into the synagogue and there were about 50-60 men and we could see they hardly had any siddurim (prayer books). And what they had was tattered and torn.. We sat in the back.. just Muriel and I, just the two of us.. I started talking with the man in front of me in Russian. Then I noticed that Muriel began talking in Hebrew with the man in front of her. When I heard that, I began speaking Hebrew and asked the man where he learned Hebrew. He responded that he learned Hebrew years ago and that he came from Riga. When he was there it was an independent country. It wasn’t part of the Soviet Union. I asked what is the situation of the Jews here? Tell me. He responded saying we’ll speak later. Two minutes later he was in three rows in front. Two minutes after that he was in the front row. Two minutes after that he disappeared completely. He was scared obviously. He was frightened. I had two or three experiences like that.. But even then we still did not know what was going on. 1967 – 1968 we didn’t know… We heard there was something.. Then two Jewish women from Leningrad who were English teachers sent from Israel and they addressed a meeting in Quaker House (Friends House) on Houston Road which is a very well known meeting place in London. That was the beginning for me of my interest in what was happening in the Soviet Union. Because until they had spoken we just did not know what was happening at all…
Yuli: Were they olim hadashim? (new immigrants)
Michael: They were new immigrants. They came to England from Israel just to talk. They came for three or four days and then went back to Israel.
Enid: What year was this?
Yuli: Were you teaching in school at this time?
Yuli: What were you teaching in school?
Michael: I was teaching metal work and engineering drawing.
Yuli: Technical work.
Michael: I taught boys how to use riveting, to join two pieces of metal together, and shape metal and so on.. I also taught woodwork. Carpentry, Cabinet making… and Technical Drawing.
Yuli: Where did you learn those skills?
Michael: At school. They needed a metal work teacher. I began to learn. I was one step ahead of the boys all the way.. Eventually I became quite a good metal worker.
Enid: What did these women say when they came from Israel?
Michael: They told about the desire of Jews to get out. I can’t remember very much of what they said. It started in 1967 after the Six Day War although there were Jews coming out before then… A few hundred.. This is where Nehemia Levanon’s policy also came from because his predecessor Shaul Avigor had been the Israeli representative in the Soviet Union until 1967 when the Embassy had closed down… He had managed to get out a few hundred by secret diplomacy. Levanon thought he must follow that way and everything must be secret. Everything they did was secret and they sabotaged our work terribly.
About these two women… Afterwards discussing it with friends I felt I ought to do something. So I searched about and I found there a committee in an area of London not far from where we lived. It had been formed by Jewish x-servicemen who had been in the army and the navy, air force during the war. It was called AJEX – the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen. AJEX had formed a Soviet Jewry Committee. I asked them could I join them. When I said I spoke Russian, they said: Of course! My Russian was very poor at the time. But what really got me going, was shortly after I joined, they had a big meeting in a synagogue hall. There were over 400 people. The hall was packed. By now the news was beginning to filter through… This was about 1970 I think. Probably 1971. Just before this meeting I was given a letter written by a girl in Mukachevo to her father in Holon. Her father named Tuvia Meisels came from Mukachevo which had been Hungary but was now inside the Ukraine when Stalin altered the borders after the war. He had been working for the Joint – JDC and they were doing some very valuable work. But in 1951 or 1950 shortly after the murder of Solomon Mikhoels, Stalin closed down the work of the Joint expelled all the Americans, and the Jewish Soviet citizens were all arrested and sent to the Gulag for 10 years. Tuvia Meisels was one of those. What happened to his wife, he never found out. But he had two little girls. When he came back from the labor camp, he searched for quite a while and found these two girls in an orphanage. He looked them up. He began to apply to go to Israel. He got permission to go to Israel in May 1967. Then came the June war before he could leave… He couldn’t leave and his visa was cancelled. He applied again in 1968 and he was given permission for himself and the younger girl. He was told that he older girl Eva was to continue at school until she finished school. Once she received her school leaving certificate, she could leave. She finished school and of course they refused to give her permission to go to Israel. The letter that she written to her father was saying she was in despair because she had no relatives in the Soviet Union. She was living entirely among goyim, non-Jews and if she didn’t get permission by the time she reached 19, she’d commit suicide. I was very moved by this letter. I asked the Chairman of the meeting, could I read my translation of this letter to the meeting because I felt so deeply and could convey the feelings expressed in this letter and I did. Unknown to me there were a number of reporters in the front row and the story of this man and his daughter appeared on the front page the Daily Telegraph the next day which was an important paper in England. The BBC overseas service picked it up. They broadcast it in the Russian service and it was heard in Mukachevo. She didn’t hear it but the neighbors heard it. They told her and afterwards she said I knew as soon as I was told that, that very soon I would get permission to leave. Within a week or so she was called to Moscow, to OVIR and she got a visa. I never met her but I met her father and the younger daughter several times because Norma and Peter when they first came to Israel they were living in Bat Yam in a Mercaz Klita after finishing their ulpan (Hebrew study program for new immigrants).
Yuli: How did you get this letter?
Michael: I forgot to mention the letter had been sent by Tuvia Meisels to a relative of his who lived in Stoke Newington, a district in London. She heard about this AJEX Committee so she took it along to them to see if they knew anyone who could translate the letter. Fortunately I was with the committee then and they said can you translate this? I translated the letter…
Yuli: He wanted to help his daughter.
Michael: Yes. This to me was a catalyst. From then onwards I said I was prepared to make telephone calls. This was 1971. I was given the name of a man in Kharkov named Alex Gorbuch who lives now in Haifa. He was being harassed by the KGB in Kharkov because he applied to leave. He had eye problems and immediately he went into hospital to have an operation. The KGB followed him into the hospital. When he came out, they arrested him. This happened two or three times. I was given his number.
Yuli: By whom?
Michael: Colin Shindler. At the time Colin Shindler worked for the Board of Deputies and the Board of Deputies must have gotten the name either from the Jewish Agency or Israeli Embassy. Probably from the Embassy.
Yuli: Probably Lishkat Hakesher.
Michael: At that time it had no name at all. I gave it the title: The Office with No Name. I tell you about that when I had a fight with Levanon. That was 1978 when we saw Begin. I made mincemeat of Nehemia Levanon and he never forgave me for that.
I spoke to Alex. He was astonished. A call from England. I said I would call him back again. Next time I called back, he was in hospital again. Next time after that I tried, a neighbor answered the phone and said he was in prison. The fourth time he was at home. After the fourth time I phoned and the second time I spoke with him, he got permission to leave. So I began to realize that the phone call was important.
Yuli: You began to save lives.
Michael: At first we just didn’t realize the effect it had. Lev Ulanovsky said to me in January when I met him in Jerusalem this year. He said to me: “Your phone calls were our lifeline”. Another refusenik, maybe Victor Polsky but I can’t remember – “Your phone calls were a glimmer of light in the blackness of night” . When they told me these things, to me it just seemed poetic. I began to realize how true it was.
Then after Gorbuch, I was given a name.
Yuli: Did AJEX give you a name?
Michael: AJEX was giving me the names. They adopted a man named Valentin Prusikov who had applied and been refused permission. He claimed his jaw had been broken in prison which could well have been true. I don’t know if it was or not. I spoke to him. How did I get through to him? He didn’t have a telephone. I spoke to Gavriel Shapiro. Do you remember Gavriel Shapiro?
Michael: I spoke to him a number of times. He was from Moscow. I spoke to him originally in Russian and then I realized he spoke ivrit (Hebrew) and then we spoke in ivrit only at first. In one of my conversations with Gavriel Shapiro, he used the word otkaznik. I didn’t know what he meant. So he translated it into Hebrew – Seruvnik. So that evening I sat down – how do I translate otkaznik, seruvnik? After a lot of thought I came up with REFUSENIK.
Yuli: You came up with the word refusenik!
Michael: I coined the word “refusenik” in 1971.. It’s in most dictionaries today but today it’s used completely wrongly. Instead of using it as someone who has been refused they use it as someone who refuses to do something. I’ve written to the newspapers but they don’t take any notice of me. Speaking to Gavriel Shapiro, I gave him the address and the name of Prusikov. Can you get him to the phone? I want to give information from him to the committee who was working on his behalf. I had several conversations with Prusikov. Not long after this, early in 1972, maybe February 1972, I’m not sure. A young man joined the committee. This young man was a graduate in cybernetics. This was a word that most people had never heard in those days. I said “What’s cybernetics”? He began to explain. I said “never mind… I don’t understand a word you’re talking about. I said: “Why did you study cybernetics”? “Because I wanted to find out what the word meant”. That was his joke. Peter Geller I think it was… A nice young man…
Yuli: Cybernetics in information science.
Michael: I think it’s a science of communications really, isn’t it?
Yuli: Information and communications… Computers.. Norbert Weiner introduced the term. You introduced “refusenik”. Norbert Weiner introduced “cybernetics”.
Michael: This is important. Peter Geller wrote to 30 well-known journalists in England asking for an interview to talk to them about the problems the Jews were suffering in the Soviet Union. He only got one reply from a Jew named Bernard Levin who at the time was the most well-known journalist in England. Today unfortunately he’s very ill. But in those days he was very important. And he an article in the center page of the Times of London twice a week. Everybody read his articles. Everybody of any intellectual standing.. He was looked upon as the best journalist in England. He was interested. He asked Peter to see him. Peter didn’t know much about the background so he asked me to go with him. We went to see Bernard Levin in his private home. In the end after we spoke to him about the situation and how I was talking on the phone to Prusikov, he said “I would like you to phone him from here and I’d like to record the conversation and your translation”. I said I can’t do it immediately as I have to make an appointment through somebody else to get him to come to the phone. Alright he said, let me know when you have the appointment. I made the appointment fortunately for two days later. I went back to him again in his home. He said this is what we’re going to do. We sat at a table. We each sat on one side. He put a tape recorder in between. He said I’m going to give you a list of 10 questions. I want you to ask these 10 questions. Then translate his answers into English. Then we’ll have the Russian and the English on the tape recorder. The 10 questions were, I don’t remember exactly… When did you apply to leave? Why did you apply to leave? When were you refused? Why were you refused? The usual sort of questions… I asked Prusikov these questions and I translated the answers into English for Bernard Levin. Then he said there’s another question I’d like you to ask him in addition to these questions. Ask him what is the attitude of the neighbors when he talks to them about his problems? I put this question to Prusikov. He said, “what is he talking about? I don’t talk to the neighbors. They’re all anti-semites”. Bernard Levin’s jaw dropped open. He never imagined that sort of thing. He wrote the most marvelous article in the Times. I was in touch with him for quite a while, for several years in fact. He kept writing articles which were very influential. This is why I wanted to bring this in about Bernard Levin. He had a very big effect on the campaign, certainly in England. He probably affected some of the journalists he knew in the United States because he was very influential. In October of that year, I had a phone call from Doreen Gainsford who at the time was the leader of the 35’s. (She lives now in Herzilia.)
Yuli: When was the ‘35’s created?
Michael: In 1971. It was founded by Barbara Oberman. I can give you Barbara Oberman’s number. I think you should talk to her. She was the actual founder of the ‘35’s. In fact she and her husband and a couple of friends from Herut (later became Likud) were going to the Soviet Embassy to protest about the treatment of Jews from about 1960 long before there was any proper campaign in England. She’s in her late 60’s now, almost 70. She’s a very beautiful woman. She was a model. She deliberately put on big flowered hats and phoned the press to send a photographer. Her photograph quite often appeared in the newspapers – Jewish woman protesting outside the Soviet Embassy. Several times she actually got inside the Soviet Embassy. She actually founded the ‘35’s.
In October 1972 Doreen Gainsford who by then was the leader of the ‘35’s phoned me late at night. I was already in bed. Muriel said: Doreen is insisting on talking to you. I crawled out of bed and came down. I was very tired because I was making phone calls as soon as I came home from school. By late 1971-1972 I was phoning immediately when I got home. I would phone throughout the whole evening. Then I would have to translate whatever I’ve been told. So I was very tired. I came down and she said: “Prusikov has permission to leave”. I was delighted! The first thing in the morning I phoned to Bernard Levin and told him. He said: “What I know of the Soviet Union I won’t believe they’re out until they are out. Bernard Levin was quite a smart man. He said how will we know when they’re actually out. I said: Why don’t you go to Vienna to meet him? He said: “That’s a very good idea. I’ll ask my editor to send me to Vienna. In those days, the immigrants went to Vienna and from there picked up El Al and were flown to Israel. Astonishing thing he went to Vienna and he put it in the article he wrote: I took my case off the conveyor belt. I stood back and I bumped into somebody. I turned around and it was Prusikov. He said: “This sort of thing only happens in fiction. It doesn’t happen in real life but it actually happened to me”. I think the article he wrote was “Farewell to a labored snow and ice” or something like that. He was very good. He was on radio and television also.
Yuli: Did he publicize your name as well?
Yuli: He never wrote about his source of information.
Michael: I don’t think so but my name was mentioned particularly about the trial of Mikhail Shtern. Do you remember the trial of Mikhail Shtern?
Michael: I probably know more than most of the Refuseniks. Mikhail Shtern was arrested in 1974. He was an endocrinologist. He was arrested because he refused to refuse permission to his sons to leave. His two sons had applied to leave. The KGB said to him that you ought to refuse them to leave and he would not refuse them permission to leave. So they arrested him. They charged him with bribery and corruption. It was a very big trial.
Yuli: He didn’t apply.
Michael: He himself didn’t apply.
Enid: He was accused of bribing patients.
Yuli: He was a Prisoner of Zion.
Michael: That’s when my name appeared in the newspaper. I wrote to the Times and they published my letters. Then the head of TASS in London wrote attacking me, accusing me of perjury, and slander. So I wrote another letter which they wouldn’t print because Bernard Levin had an article saying all I wanted to say on the facing page. I wrote something like this… It was very sad to read the announcement by TASS about the trial of Dr. Mikhail Shtern because it reminds me of a critique who writes a review of a play which he has not been to and did not realize the main actor was sick and did not take part in it because he’s writing what the witnesses are supposed to have said but in fact the witnesses who were there said exactly the opposite. The witnesses he’s quoting refused to testify in the court. Then I went on to give details about Mikhail Shtern. It was a long, long letter. They printed it in full. I was surprised.
He was given 8 years in prison. His sons were allowed to leave and he was sent to prison. This is the strange thing why we could never understand the Soviet Union. They let the sons leave. You know what Churchill said about the Soviet Union – a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle… It’s so true and true of Russia today… Dr. Shtern was released before the end of his term. They realized a mistake had been made. It was partially because of it but also because two days after his release, they arrested Sharansky. We knew is one’s coming out, another one’s going in and we knew it must be Sharansky. We obviously knew he was going to be arrested.
Yuli: How did the 35’s find you?
Michael: Laughing… That’s a very interesting story…
Yuli: You worked for the ‘35’s a long time…
Michael: For a long time. In fact I stopped working with AJEX and I worked entirely with the ‘35s.
Yuli: When did it happen?
Michael: About 1972 I think. What happened was shortly after the Leningrad Trial was announced on the morning of the 25th of December 1970. In February 1971, the Chief Rabbi of England Emanuel Jacobowitz called a meeting in London in the synagogue of all the leaders of synagogues, the wardens, the three honorary officers, the ministers, and all chazzanim (cantors) of all the synagogues in London. I showed this to a warden with whom I was friendly and he said he would go and I said I would like to go as well. He said: “Yes, let’s all go together”. We went to the meeting together which was in the synagogue in St. John’s Wood, quite a big hall and it had been snowing that morning. There were about 30 people in the audience. On the stage there were about 10 all important people sitting on the stage including the Chief Rabbi. Then six more people came in. Three went on the stage. Three joined in the audience. People were standing up and saying things for the sake of their voices being heard. You know what that’s like. They were saying nothing. I was getting more and more irritated. After about 45 minutes, while the Chief Rabbi was speaking, I stood up. I said I’m sorry to interrupt you Chief Rabbi, I apologize.. But I feel I must say something. We’ve been here now for about 40 odd minutes and people have been saying nothing. People have been talking a lot but saying nothing. There has been no tachlis. There is no one suggesting what we should do. Apart from the defense of Israel for which we can do nothing here, this is the greatest issue at present facing world Jewry. We’re sitting here talking rubbish, nonsense.. For God’s sake, tell your ministers, tell your wardens, tell your honorary officers to do something. There was dead silence. One woman applauded. It was Myra Janner, Greville Janner’s wife. She has since died of cancer. She came over to me and she said to me: “Who are you?” You sound like one of us!” I said: “Who is us?” She said: “The ‘35s”. I said: “Who are the 35’s?” She told me who the ‘35s were. “What do you know about all this?” I told her a little. I told her I spoke Russian. She said: “You can be useful. Katya Palatnik is coming here next week.” I said: Whose Katya Palatnik? “We were founded in the name of Raiza Palatnik. Katya Palatnik is her younger sister who is living in Israel and coming to England to speak on behalf of her sister. We’re going to have several meetings where she’s going to speak. She doesn’t speak any English. Can you translate for her?” I said: Why not? I went along. At the very first meeting I met George Evny.
Yuli: Was Greville Janner a member of parliament at that time – in 1971?
Michael: Yes. Well before then… He was a member of Parliament for a very long time. His father had been a member of Parliament in 1935-1960’s. Greville Janner in now in the House of Lords. He’s now Lord Janner. He was very helpful to us.
Enid: What happened at the meetings with Katya Palatnik? George and I translated. George knew very good Russian. When we got to the first meeting, Katya was being interpreted by a young woman who was the daughter of a Daily Telegraph journalist, David Floyd who was very good, a non-Jew. She was doing reasonably well until someone in the audience asked Katya: “What language did you speak at home”. She said; yevreski. This was translated as Hebrew. There was astonishment because very few people in England spoke Hebrew. I said that’s not what she means. I asked her. She means Yiddish of course… In Russian there’s no difference in the same word. You have to say ivrit if you mean modern Hebrew. Evreski is the same word as Hebrew. Evrei is a Hebrew. Evrei is a Jew. After that George and I did it between us. After that I did a lot of the translating. I interpreted when Raisa came to England as well. I did a lot of interpreting. Today I couldn’t do it because my hearing is so bad. I can’t hear what people say properly. But I did a lot of that… After Prusikov got out, AJEX took up Valery Panov. I was still with AJEX. This is interesting. It took quite me quite a while to get through to Valery Panov. He had a lot of support. Bernard Levin was friendly with the New York Times Art Critic. I forget his name. Panov was in Leningrad. In those days you couldn’t just pick up the phone and dial. You had to call the London operator who booked the call. She would say it would take two hours, one hour, three hours… She then had to book the call through the Moscow operator even if was Lengrad, Kharkov or Vladivostok. It was much more difficult. I took a long time. By the time I got through that evening, the first time I spoke to Panov in late 1972. It was late at night – round about 11 o’clock or later in London – about 2 in the morning in Leningrad so I apologized to him about the late hour. Valery said: “It’s always nice to hear from friends”. I shall never forget that. I spoke to him a number of times and eventually they got permission to get out. By now in the summer of 1972 I’ve been speaking to a lot of people in Moscow. A couple came out Larissa and Grisha Volokh. They went to the Mercaz Klita in Michmoret.
Yuli: I have met them just a week ago at the wedding of the son of Kukui.
Michael: She used to work in the Dubek factory. Nice couple. We met them in Michmoret and she gave a list of people to phone. She gave me a few details about them. One of them was Ida Nudel. Before I tell you about my contact with Ida Nudel, I‘ll tell you that she said that they were going to be in Jerusalem in a few days. They were going to stay with a cousin of Grisha’s who also came from the Soviet Union and had been here about two years or so. This was 1972. We went to Jerusalem as we had people to see there as well. We went to this apartment where they were. I was introduced to this man, Grisha’s cousin. He was very interested in the fact that I came from England because he said to me that he had been part of the group which linked up with an English group and were now in Kfar Blum. I said: What are you talking about? That’s the group that I was with. I know that group. He said: “Really! In 1938 with a group of others from Latvia and Lithuania, we went to a camp in Czechoslovakia and there were English people there. One of them shared a tent with me. I don’t suppose you would know him. His name was Jack Ross. I said Jack Ross was my closest friend. We used to go cycling together. Astonishing coincidence. He said that he was due to leave in October 1939 to join the group of Anglo-Balti in Binyamina. Unfortunately the war started in September and he couldn’t get out of the Baltic States especially since the Soviet Union took over very shortly thereafter so he couldn’t get out.. He was one of those who were arrested when the Soviet Union took over in June 1940. He was sent to Siberia to the Gulag. He was there for 10 years. After a long time he came back to Moscow and from there he began to apply. He only just managed two years ago to get out after all that time. I found it to be a most interesting story. I will tell you about Jack Ross, a close friend of mine who was in England during the war. He worked with evacuated children mostly. After the war he came here. He was working for the Keren Kayemet. He was sent to America to do some work. He was traveling about there. In 1955 he had a call to go back to Jerusalem for a conference or something. He came via London. Muriel and I were with him and his wife and two other friends. The following morning he flew from London on and El Al Constellation, a Constellation being one of the big four engine ones in those days in 1955. It was shot down over Bulgaria and all the people on it were killed. In fact they sent up fighters to shoot it down. When it crash landed, they then machine gunned it to make sure there were no survivors. The Americans had been sending a Constellation, exactly the same model, a spy plane over the Bulgarian border and were photographing. The Bulgarians warned them if they did it again, they’d shoot the plane down. This time unfortunately, it was exactly the same model plane. It must have strayed slightly out of course. They thought it was the American plane and they shot it down. He was killed. That’s briefly the story of Jack Ross.
Yuli: I’d like to understand the reason why you left AJEX and turned to the ‘35s.
Michael: The 35s were doing much more work. They were a group of women and they were demonstrating during the day. They did all sorts of things.
Yuli: You were the only man among them.
Michael: I was considered to be the only honorary male member of the 35’s. Whereas the AJEX group was doing it more in their spare time. They were men who were working and didn’t have a lot of spare time. I spent my time mainly with the 35s. At the end of 1972, when Nixon went to Moscow, a large number of Jews were arrested in Moscow. You may have been one of them. Slepak was sent to a prison in the south of Moscow. They were distributed in prisons all around the periphery of Moscow. A lot of Soviet Jews were demonstrating in Moscow and the demonstrations were being broken up. Most of the phones where I had contacts had been cut deliberately except for one – Dan Roginsky. Dan Roginsky’s phone was not cut. Probably deliberately I think. I was in contact with Dan Roginsky all day long. The whole day I was talking to him on the phone. He was giving me details of what was happening: there was a demonstration broken up here; this one was attacked and arrested… He gave all sorts of details. He was very good – this Dan Roginsky. I wanted to publish this.. I didn’t know who to give this to.. Not much point to give it to Israeli Embassy. They won’t do anything with it.. I realized already by then they didn’t do anything very much…Izzu Rager at the time was our representative. I told him but he didn’t seem terribly interested. Then I phoned to Emanuel Litvinoff who was the brother of a very close friend of mine, Barney Litvinoff. Emanuel Litvinoff wrote a publication for the Office with No Name. (Lishkat Hakesher) I phoned him and he said: “Why are you telling me this for? You’re a journalist. You publish it!” I said I’m not a journalist. I’m a schoolteacher. He said: “It’s not my business”. He only wrote particular articles on specific themes. I made my own circular. I went to the ‘35s to get it copied off. I typed it out myself. I posted them at my own expense to about 50-60 people in England. I did this three or four times. Then I went to the man who was in charge of the treasury of the Soviet Jewry department of the Board of Deputies. I said: “Could I have some reimbursement? This is costing me a lot of money. He said: “Who authorized it”? I said: What do you mean – who authorized it? This is important news!! He said: “I want to know who authorized it first”. I said I’m the authority. He said: “You’re no authority”. I went to the ‘35s. Doreen Gainsford said: ‘We will publish it”. That’s when they started their bulletin and their bulletin is still continuing to this day. It started then.
Yuli: Were you reimbursed for your phone calls?
Michael: I didn’t get anything back from them at all. Not a penny. Out of my own pocket.
Enid: When you began working with the 35’s, did they help you?
Michael: The 35s then took over all the expenses. Incidentally I must tell you that apart from that which I paid for myself, I didn’t pay for any of my phone calls because they were very expensive in those days. Now it’s very much cheaper of course. Then it was quite expensive especially because I was making long calls sometimes 20 minutes. With Ida Nudel it was never less than half an hour. Once I started with Sharansky, his calls would last 45 minutes – 1 hour sometimes. There was a man in London named Cyril Stein, a very wealthy Jew. He was then. He’s not so wealthy now. Since he couldn’t do anything personally himself, he could help by financing. He paid first of all – all the 35’s expenses and he paid all my telephone expenses.
Yuli: Did he cover your call with AJEX?
Michael: With AJEX, they paid for the calls. Once I started with 35s, Cyril Stein paid for all my calls. All of them. I would get my phone calls at the end of every three months, give it to his accountant and they would pay the phone bill for me. Without Cyril Stein’s help, not only could I not have made all those phone calls but also the 35s could not have functioned. They were very important.
Yuli: But the first calls you did on your own expenses.
Michael: The posting of the circulars. I don’t know how much it cost me. But because it became so expensive I realized I can’t continue like this..
Yuli: How did you manage with your job when you were calling all day to Refuseniks for example to Dan Roginsky?
Michael: I think I took off the whole day from school.
Yuli: In 1972 before Nixon’s arrival, they began to cut off all the telephone lines. You were lucky to have Dan Roginsky but after Nixon left, they disconnected the telephones from time to time. It was very difficult to reach Refuseniks.
Michael: Each time I had to find another phone. This is what was happening with Ida Nudel. Her name was given to me by Larissa Volokh. I phoned her immediately when I got back to England. I remember it was a Tuesday. I phoned her and explained who I was. At the time she didn’t speak any ivrit (Hebrew) or English. I explained what we were doing and that we were trying to help them. Could you confirm the details I have about you – that you’re an economist, when you applied, when you were refused, your birthday? I remember the 27th of April 1931. I remember that. After about 10 minutes perhaps which is quite a long time, I said I have to ring off now. She said: “No.No.No – hold on. Let’s talk more:.. I said these calls are expensive! “You English Jews have plenty of money”. We spoke for about 25 minutes. Then I thought this is ridiculous. I must stop. I said I have calls to make to other people in the Soviet Union. I must call them. I’ll call you again soon. When can I call you? What do you think she said? “Tomorrow”! From then on I spoke to her three times every week until the day she was arrested. But she gave me a tremendous amount of information.
Yuli: About prisoners.
Michael: It was through her that we got all the information about prisoners. People we never heard about sometimes… She used to follow them. She did some marvelous work. What’s unfortunate is that she never contacted me since she came out…
Enid: I told her you’re coming to the wedding and she’s very excited..
Yuli: Ida did a tremendous job for the prisoners.
Michael: Tremendous! She did a job that no one else could have done. We got all sorts of information. She used to follow them when they were first arrested. She’d get on the next train, sometimes on the same train. Then she’d go to places where they were in temporary prisons and she’d stay in a hotel nearby; talk to them and give them parcels. Even if it took a couple of months sometimes, she’d follow them. She was amazing! Really amazing! She was full of information. She gave me different telephone numbers as well. This is funny. She gave me a number. It took me quite a few minutes to understand the number – 00… I will never forget that.. There was another very funny incident with Ida Nudel. There was a man named Natanson in Itkutsk. Irkutsk is a hell of a long way away… The time difference between London and Irkutsk is about 9 hours. If I call in the evening it was early morning there. She gave me the number and I remember the number she gave me ended in 455. I remember that. I phoned this number and got through and a woman answered: “He’s not here”. Where is he? “He’s gone out”. Where? “I didn’t ask him. Not my business”. When will he be back? “He’ll be back soon’. When you see him would you give him a message? “Maybe”. Tell him I’m phoning from London and I’ll call him tomorrow morning. The following morning in London, evening their time I phoned and a man answered. He said he’s not here. I said: “Where is he”? He’s gone away. When is he coming back? “He’s not coming back”. I just didn’t know what to say. Can you give him a message? “No. I can’t give him a message. He’s not coming back”. I put the phone down and I was laughing then. By now we had direct dialing. I could phone direct. I was able to get through quickly to Ida, immediately. “They’re lying. I know he’s there”. Could you check the number. The number you’ve given ends in 455. She looked and came back and said it’s the wrong number. It should 454. She said who have I been talking to? Ida said: “ I checked. You’ve been talking to a hotel”. I can never forget that…
I always got on very well with Ida.
Yuli: I wonder if we were talking by phone.
Michael: Yes. I spoke to you a number of times. I remember that.
Yuli: What topics did Sharansky cover?
Michael: All sorts of things…
Yuli: Did he pass dissident things through you?
Michael: Yes. In fact he passed to me all the documents that were published by the Helsinki Monitoring group. They all came to me. I translated them. Not the New York Times. I translated all those which went to Capitol Hill to the State Department. They were all my translations. He sent me all those documents. He also sent me letters to pass on to Avital. In fact after I had been speaking to him for some time. They were married in 1974, the 4th of July – Independence Day. The following day I spoke to him. He said to me: “Can you phone to Israel and pass a message to my wife?” I said your wife. I didn’t know you had a wife! He said last week I didn’t have a wife. I didn’t know I had a wife yesterday but now I have a wife.” So he gave me Natasha’s number. She must have been working for the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) or something. Or she was in the Sochnut. It was just after they were married. It was just after she arrived in Israel. She must have been in a Mercaz Klita (Absorption Center). She answered the phone. I spoke in Hebrew and I said I want to speak to Natasha Steiglitz. Then I spoke to her in Russian. She said: “How do you know my husband”? She didn’t know I was phoning then.. From then on quite frequently I sent messages from him to her and her to him for a couple of years…almost until he was arrested. I used to speak to him. He gave me all sorts of information, not only about the Helsinki Monitoring group but about various dissidents who were arrested. I gave that to the newspapers. I can’t remember now all the things he gave me.
Yuli: I do remember that you were mentioned in a Pravda article.
Michael: No. It was Pravda and it wasn’t Izvestia. It was Moscow Broadcasting in English.
Yuli: I remember that I read your name in some article as well…
Michael: Maybe it was in the paper as well. Irene Manekovsky sent me a transcript in English that had been picked up at the State Department and it was about the Soviet Jewry campaign. It said there are three men in the West who are the chief villans in this respect. There is a Senator from Florida named Dante Fascell of Italian origin. There is an Irish Catholic Priest named Robert Drinan and he’s a member of Congress. There’s an English lord – Michael Sherbourne. She said: “Your highness, look down below”.
Yuli: What were the mechanics? How did you transmit texts to the Congress, the White House, to the United States. I understand you were working with the 35s.
Michael: I’ll explain that. Early in 1972 I had a phone call from Detroit. That was Rae Ann Sharfman. She was very active in the campaign in Detroit. She had been phoning several people and someone had given her my name and phone number. (the Poltinikovs in Novosibirsk). I was phoning her several times and shortly thereafter it was Bella Palatnik in Moscow to whom I was phoning said: “I wonder if you could do something for me. There was an American Jewish couple who have just been here. I’m a bit worried about them because they were taking something out. I’m afraid they may have been stopped at customs on the way out. I haven’t heard. I don’t know what’s happened”. She gave me Enid’s phone number. I phoned. I was answered by a little boy. Tell your mother I’m calling from London, England. This was Elie. It was about 1973. I heard him call out. “Mommy, mommy, there’s someone from London, England on the phone”. I met Glenn Richter in the summer of 1972 as well. (the same summer I met Lara and Grisha Volokh)
Yuli: The Volokhs were already in Israel in 1972. The Ainbinders came in October 1973 at the same time as Alexander Tiomkin, the astronomer. Lara and Grisha – I’m absolutely certain that I saw them in the summer of 1972. I was given by one of the 35s the name of a woman in Givatayim, an American woman named Ann Shenkar. Ann Shenkar was married to a Jew from Kharkov. She had been publishing details of phone calls that had been made by several people particularly Aron Bogdonovsky. He died a couple of years ago. He was one of the very first callers from Israel to the Soviet Union. Aaron Bogdonovsky. He lived in Haifa. Ann was publishing all the details of all the phone calls that were being made from about 1968 onwards. Of course Ann was being attacked viciously by the Office with No Name which didn’t have a name then. Levanon was doing everything possible to stop her.
Yuli: They wanted a monopoly on the information.
Michael: Yes. Of course. They wanted a monopoly. There were several reasons. First of all Nehemia Levanon was trained by Shaul Avigur – “quiet diplomacy”. Secondly and much more important he wanted to control everything. Thirdly he was a typical Israeli. We know best! You can’t tell us what to do. Eventually it became the case of the tail wagging the dog. Do you understand that expression? Normally a dog wags its tail. In this case the tail wagged the dog. We got them to do what they didn’t want to do of all sorts of things.
At Ann Shenkar’s place I met Glenn Richter and Lenny Shuster of Philadelphia. Glenn Richter was a good contact. I used to speak to him quite a lot and pass on all the information I had. In 1975 when I was already phoning to you (Enid), to Rae, and to Glenn Richter. They were the only three contacts that I had at first in the United States.
Yuli: How many contacts did you have in the Soviet Union at this time?
Michael: Hundreds. Each one was giving me another phone number to contact. I phoned to Riga, to Vilnius, to Petrozovosk, to Itkutsk, to Kiev, to Kharkov, to Odessa, to Lvov – all over the place I phoned. They were all giving me different numbers. I was regularly in touch with Kishinev.
Yuli: With a full time job, how could you manage to do all this?
Michael: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Yuli: To type, to translate, to call other activists and pass on information. How did you transfer the information?
Michael: By sending as well. My wife helped me. Without my wife I couldn’t have done all that. Fortunately my children had already left home. They were already married. My older daughter Norma married in 1965, and my second daughter Lana married in 1968. They weren’t at home.
Yuli: In 1975, thirty years ago you were 57 already.
Michael: I’m 87 now. I’m still going. I shall keep going. I’ll send you an invitation to my hundredth birthday party. I was phoning all over the map. With Slepak I was speaking at least once a week. With Lerner. With Slepak on one occasion he told me he was speaking to Anna Levina in Sverdlovsk and he gave her some information. She said: “ Are you sure? Where did you get it from?” “From Michael Sherbourne”. She said in that case it’s OK. That’s what Slepak told me. I phoned Sverdlovsk. Do you know Luba Bar Menachem?
Yuli. Yes. I was from Sverdlovsk. I know everyone.
Michael: Of course you were. You and somebody else left there to think you could get permission easier somewhere else.
Yuli: I left in 1971 when I felt threatened. I was arrested in Sverdlovsk in March 1971.
Michael: I was in touch with Dina and Issac Zlotver.
Yuli: I have seen Anna a week ago and Mark, her husband. They’re excellent. They still play tennis.
Michael: I used to talk to Anna. Mark is her husband. I still have my memory.
Yuli: You have an excellent memory. Astonishing!
Michael: Ida Nudel on one occasion I think it was about 1975, she said I want you to phone to Vienna to the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) to speak to a woman named Luba Bar Menachem. I said: “What is it about?” She has something to send on to you. I realized it was some sort of important information. I phoned to Luba Bar Menachem. We spoke in Russian until I realized that she spoke Hebrew as well. Then she said she had this parcel to send on to me. The parcel only had my name. I gave her my address which is not an easy address. Cissbury Ring South. I said: What is it? “I don’t know.” I said: “Could you open it and have a look?” So she opened it and it was a set of chess. You better send it on to me. I thought there must be something hidden in the package. Luba sent this chess set on to me. I very carefully unwrapped it. I took hold of each piece and carefully examined each piece, turning it over. I shredded the paper. There was nothing. I phoned Ida Nudel. Luba Bar Menachem has sent me a set of chess. I can’t find any information in the package. What is there in the package? Ida said: “It’s a set of chess.” I said why did you send it? “Can’t I send you a present without your complaining?” Ida sent all sorts of messages with people arriving in Vienna or messages from them. Luba said to me: “I understand that you make a lot of telephone calls to the Soviet Union. Could you phone my parents?” I said: “Who are your parents?” Issak and Dina Zlotver. Luba, I’ve been speaking to them for the last three years. I didn’t know they were your parents. It was interesting. She died first of cancer and then he died of cancer. Luba has given me an album of some of his photographs – marvelous photographs taken in the woods and in the countryside. Beautiful photographs.
Yuli: A wonderful family!! Luba’s parents were just outstanding.
Michael: I was in touch with Novasibirsk particularly with Irma Bernstein and Issak Poltinikov. You know the story about them how they cut themselves off… Irma started it. There was Irma, her husband Issak and their daughter Victoria. Eleonora was out… In fact she came in 1972 to London and she went on hunger strike outside the Soviet Embassy. That was when I first got to know her long before she married Avraham Shiffrin. (he was the one who lost a leg in the camp. You’ve got a lot to learn about Avraham Shiffrin. He was a great man and he a tremendous amount of work on behalf of the prisoners. A great man! He was one of those also who very quickly came up against Levanon. About 1969 he had arranged with a number of people to send in a lot of Hebrew books. A van was going to go into Odessa by ship with a false bottom which would be filled with literature. He got permission from Levanon to do this and as soon as the van got off the ship it was stopped by the KGB and they ripped up the boards. They knew exactly where all the literature was and they took all the literature away. I wonder how they knew. Levanon was seeing the KGB regularly.
Yuli: You don”t suppose he betrayed people who sent the books
Michael: Of course he did. He told the KGB the books were there. They just didn’t know through the air. You don’t know Levanon. He’s a villain of the worst type. He was rather..
Yuli: Lets make this clearer.
Michael: You don’t have to publish this. Levanon went deliberately out of his way to sabotage our campaign and in fact I said this openly at the meeting in Van Leer Hall in Jerusalem in 1978.
Yuli: Levanon was organizing sending people to Russia for many, many years.
Michael: He was controlling who came here. Why do you think that Ida Nudel was held back for so long? Because the KGB wanted her there? Levanon arranged for her to be there.
Yuli: I don’t think Levanon had such major influence on the KGB
Michael: You didn’t know Levanon. I knew Levanon very, very well.
Yuli: I knew Russians very well. I don’t think Levanon had this kind of influence.
Michael: He was from Estonia originally. He spoke fluent Russian.
Yuli: I have heard that every year he was meeting with the KGB.
Michael: I’m sure of that.
Enid: Michael – you felt that he kept certain Refuseniks in Russia besides Ida?
Michael: I’m sure of that. I couldn’t prove it. Like Ida Nudel. I’m quite sure it’s because of Levanon. He didn’t want her in Israel. He knew she’d be a nuisance. Actually he was right. She has made a nuisance of herself actually, hasn’t she? But not in the way that he thought.
Enid: Tell Yuli what Nehemia said about Sharansky
Yuli: If you permit me, I will publish it.
Michael: I could not prove it. It was told to me by a Member of the Knesset. He and several other Members of Knesset were going to visit Refuseniks in the Soviet Union. Maybe in Moscow or Moscow and Leningrad. Levanon briefed them. He gave them details of whom to see. One of them said Sharansky’s name is not on here. Should we go to see his family? His reply was: Sharansky has nothing to do with the State of Israel.
Yuli: Slepak told me that he was told that Levanon briefed people that Slepak is not desirable in Israel.
I understand you were not only the primary source of information to the 35s, to the Union of Councils, to Student Struggle. Did you get information from them?
Michael: I was telling the Refuseniks in the Soviet Union what was happening in London, in Washington, and in New York
Yuli: I remember that. Now when you were talking to Rae, were you also getting information from the Union of Councils?
Michael: Of what was happening… Yes.
Yuli: How did you share this information? Did you create a pool of information?
Michael: No. I used to pass it either to Ida Nudel or to Slepak or to Sharansky. They were my main contacts I think.
Yuli: Before that there was Dan Roginsky
Michael: Dan Roginsky and Boris Ainbinder who came out in 1973. After that I was more in touch.. I didn’t start talking to Sharansky until very late 1973. Soon after he was refused. Then he was nobody important. He wasn’t anybody important even in 1974. He was merely one of the hevre.
Yuli: He was one of the hoolibins.
Yuli: He participated in demonstrations. When he entered the Helsinki group
Michael: He became more important when he became Sakharov’s secretary. Then not only was he giving me a lot of information, he had regular meetings with Western journalists. There was Bob Toth from the Los Angeles Times, David Shipler from the New York Times.. about five or six of the most well-known American journalists from the big newspapers.
Yuli: He became the spokesman for the Refuseniks.
Michael: He was interpreting for Sakharov and he was giving further information to the journalists. He got on very well with all these journalists. The Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, the New York Times – all well-known newspapers. One of the most tiring experiences I had was in 1979
I must come back to 1975 when we first went to America, when we first met you.(Enid) In 1979, I just retired from school and we decided to go on holiday to the United States. Regina Waldman arranged for me to do a series of lectures in various towns. But she arranged it badly because I went from Washington to Minneapolis, from Minneapolis back to Norfolk Virginia, across to Phoenix, Arizona. It was terrible. It was very badly arranged – traveling a tremendous amount but in Denver was the worst of the lot because Denver is 5,280 feet high. Exactly one mile high. I felt at first I couldn’t breathe in the atmosphere. It was not all that high but for me it was high. Did you know Lillian Hoffman. She was the head of the group in Denver. She was a wonderful woman, seven years older than me. She was full of energy. She took me to so many different interviews – radio, television, the Denver Post, and other places the whole day long for about three days – doing nothing but interviews. I was exhausted. This was 1979. 1975 was the first time we went to the United States. I mentioned about my friend Jack Ross. His widow stayed on in the United States because she had a lot of financial arrangements to sort out. She had two young children about the same age as my children. About 10 years later she married another Jack, Jack Adler and she said every time she phoned me or I phoned her why don’t come along to America. You’ll love it. Come and stay with us. They lived in Queens, New York and they had a small cottage in Maine on the edge of Lake Sebego. Eventually in 1975 we received an increase in our pay as teachers with back pay. We both agreed. Let’s spend it. Lets go on a holiday to America. We landed first in New York. We had a wonderful time. We spent 8 days in Maine at this little cottage. One of the persons I contacted was Glenn Richter and he said it you’re going to Washington where we were going, you must contact Irene Manekofsky. We contacted Irene Manekofsky. When we went down to Washington with Jack and Dora, my old friend’s wife, and my friend too I was told by Glenn Richter I should contact Irene Manekofsky. I didn’t get the opportunity.
Yuli: Was Irene the head of the Union.
Michael: At the time Enid and Stuart were the presidents of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. Afterwards Irene Manekofsky became the president. She was the leader of the Washington group, the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry. When I said I was going to Philadelphia, we arranged to meet in Philadelphia. We stayed with you at the time (Enid and Stuart) and we went to Joe Smukler’s house- Connie and Joe and we met there with Irene and Sidney Manekofsky. Six of us. Joe mentioned that he was given by Nehemia a film because he was going to go into the Soviet Union very shortly. I don’t know whether it was you (Enid) or Irene suggested perhaps that we should see the film first. Joe put up the screen and took out the projector and began to show this film. After the title, we saw a man picking his nose. This was a film to be sent into the Soviet Union to influence Jews to apply to come to Israel. Then it went on to a market that we recognized as Carmel Market in Tel Aviv. You didn’t see the market generally. You saw a close up of the stall and then quickly it went down to the foot of the stall where you saw all the muck and the dirt, the orange peels, the banana peels and so on. It was really filthy. Then we saw a pregnant woman screaming. Then it went back to the man whose finger was deeper into his nose. Then we saw some more filth. The more we saw of the Carmel market, more dirt and more horrible it looked. Then we saw a woman screaming and screaming. These scenes were repeated over and over again for about 25 minutes at the end of which the man has his finger right into his nose. The stalls were empty and all you could see was the filth and muck from the stalls. Then the woman had her baby. This was a film that was to be sent in by the Soviet Jewry office of the Israeli government to encourage Jews to come to Israel.
Yuli: It was a mistake.
Michael: Nechemia Levanon didn’t make mistakes like that. It was deliberate. You didn’t know Nechemia Levanon like I knew him.
Yuli: I didn’t meet with him. I know very well Aryeh Kroll.
Michael: He was a villain.
Yuli: I knew Aryeh Kroll. I knew quite well Yasha Kedmi.
Michael: I knew him when he was Yasha Kazakov. I knew him very well.
Yuli: It’s very interesting to me. Can you explain this kind of approach. I’m reading now Nehemia Levanon’s book in Hebrew. I’m at the end of this book where he describes the Israeli government back to 1952 began to take care about Soviet Jews.
Michael: I think I mentioned earlier he believed in Shaul Avigor’s policy of quiet diplomacy.
Yuli: Sha-shtil also described as analysis-paralysis… I have heard this version.
Michael: Shaul Avigor did get a few hundred out. Maybe even a few hundred each year. I don’t know. He certainly did manage to get some out by quiet diplomacy. At the time – his policy may have been correct.
Yuli: It may have only been elderly people.
Michael: That I don’t know. In the 50’s and 60’s the climate in the Soviet Union was different than the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – Brezhnev’s time. When Avraham Shiffrin applied to go to Israel it was just after Stalin’s time when Khrushchev was in power. The immediate response was not only refusal but he was given 10 years in a labor camp. In Khrushchev’s time. In the camp he lost a leg. But it still did not deter his Zionism. I first met him when he was living in Zichron Yakov. He was a very fine man.
Yuli: Lishkat Hakesher (Liason Office) was created especially for one purpose – to get out the lost tribe of Soviet Jewry back to Israel. It was the purpose. They were getting a lot of funds for this purpose. They were creating a network in Europe and America.
Michael: That was their stated purpose. But that was not what they did. Their main activity seemed to me to be to sabotage the campaign of the grassroots activists. For example at this meeting which took place in 1978 at the Van Leer Foundation in Jerusalem when in public I openly said to Nehemia I openly accuse you deliberately of sabotaging our campaign. For example we had lists of Refuseniks and we were not able to get them brought up to date because we were not getting the information from the official body in Israel. I said to him why don’t you give us the corrections so we know what to do and who to contact. He said: “Don’t make lists and you won’t need to correct them.” Is that the way to answer when were so active? Here in Tel Aviv in the office that I call the Office with No Name they decided this Soviet refusenik will be dealt with by the United States; this one by Canada; this one by England; this one by Australia; this one by France. I said to him who made you the authority to decide which Jews I may or I may not support? Has God almighty in his omnipotence given you the authority to decide which Jews I can support and which Jews I cannot support. I’m not going to support this particular Jew because you’ve given him/her to the United States. At time God almighty makes my neck very hot. I don’t accept it. You’ve got no right to do this sort of thing because we are all one body of Jews whether we’re Americans, Australians, or British or French or Chinese. We all need to support all the Jews in the Soviet Union. He had no answer. I’m quoted as saying that in the book The American Struggle for Soviet Jews. He was a villain. I’ll give you another example. Victor Polsky was involved in a fight with a KGB colonial over a taxi. The KGB colonial fell and cracked his head on the curb and died. Victor Polsky was arrested. I was speaking to Yelena Polskaya regularly getting details of what was happening I was told by Yakov Yanai that we should not publish any details. I said “Why?” Because Victor does not want then published. I said I’ve been speaking to Victor and his wife Yelena and they want the information published. How can you tell me they don’t want it published? They want the information published because they know publicity will help them. He said: ‘No, publicity will harm them.” Our experience has been since we started the campaign that Soviet Jews want publicity. We will give them publicity whether you like it or not. They deliberately tried to hush it up. They knew if they hushed it up that Victor Polsky would be sent to prison for 10 years or more. So many examples like that.
Yuli: Michael I wonder if there is an element of politics entering the struggle for Soviet Jewry. I mean first of all Herut. They were supporting grass roots. Socialist government
Michael: That’s exactly what we thought first of all. We thought that because the Jews who come out of the Soviet Union will be anti-Communist and therefore anti-Socialist. When they get to Israel they won’t support Labor but they’ll support Herut and Likud. In fact that thought caused me quite a bit of problems because in 1977 Begin was elected as Prime Minister. I had a phone call from Cyril Stein, the man who paid for all my calls, and all the 35’s expenses. He was also one of Begin’s financial supporters. He phoned me and said Begin’s been elected and now Levanon will be on his way out. I want you to give me a letter that I will give to Begin personally because he was a friend of Begin’s. He said: “I want you to detail all the complaints you have against the officialdom in Israel. I typed out seven pages – explaining how they were damaging our campaign. I heard no more. He told me he’d given it to Begin. In 1978 at Irene Manekofsky’s suggestion we including Enid we went to see Begin. There was Irene and Sidney. I don’t think Sidney came in with us. The Sandbergs, Glenn Richter, Enid and Stuart. The first thing we saw when we went in to Begin’s office, the Prime Minister’s office was Levanon sitting there. Begin said: “Nehemia will now give us a rundown”. He then started waffling. He spoke at least 15 minutes saying nothing. He gave us no information and certainly nothing new. Before we went in Irene Manekofsky knowing what I’m like said: “Michael, when you go in, I want you to behave yourself. I don’t want you to have any outbursts because this interview with the Prime Minister is putting the Union of Councils on the map – this interview with the Prime Minister of Israel.” I promised but I could not stand it… After he had been speaking for about 15 minutes, I interrupted him and said: “Mr. Prime Minister, Nehemia has been talking for the last 15 minutes and he’s told us nothing. “Wait a minute, you haven’t let me finish,” Nehemia says. He went on for 5 or 10 minutes and still said nothing. We all had a few words with Begin. I then gave him a copy of the letter which I gave Cyril Stein. I said this letter was brought to you last year by our mutual friend Cyril Stein. “Very good man” said Begin. I said: “You probably haven’t had time to read it. At Cyril’s suggestion, I wonder if you’d care to read it now. I gave the letter to Begin. He put it on the table behind him. He said: “I will certainly read it and with interest.” Ten minutes later we were outside Begin’s office and I met Levanon with the letter in his hand. He said: “Your trouble is you never know when you’re wrong. You won’t admit it.” You prove me wrong and I’ll admit it. There are all complaints proving that you’re wrong.” He walked away from me. That’s Nehemia Levanon.
Yuli: During the campaign, was there political competition – say the Likud party
Michael: I didn’t finish. Nehemia was not only supporting that the policy not change but Nehemia had more support from the government than he had before. You say you’ve been reading his memoirs – Kod Nativ. In his book he says that before Begin was Prime Minister, he had meetings with the Cabinet. He had lots of difficulties with the Cabinet but the one who gave him the most support after the Yom Kippur War – was Begin. Begin was his main supporter.
Yuli: Nehemia created good relations with Menachem Begin before the first Brussels Conference which took place in March 1971. He asked Begin 2:37 sha-shtil? regarding independent grass roots which took part in the conference.
Michael: You must have read in his book when people from the Leningrad trial arrived in Israel he was with them on the plane. Kadashai was standing next to Begin when they were being welcomed in Israel. Begin turned to Kadashai and said: “All this is due to Nehemia.”
Yuli: Michael – I didn’t see it in the book.
Michael: It’s in the book. He says the people from the Leningrad trial that managed to get here is due to Levanon.
I didn’t translate the whole book (Kod Nativ). I translated all the parts that are connected with the Union of Councils because Zev Yaroslavsky in Los Angeles asked me to translate them. I only did parts of it as it’s quite a long book.
Yuli: The Labor?2;38 government adored the system built in the Soviet Union. They only thing they didn’t like was that they wanted these Jews to be in Israel so they were looking always for a ways to get an agreement with the Soviet authorities and that’s why sha-shtil..
Michael: You won’t change my mind.
Yuli: It’s a question really. What do you think about it? I’m sure Israel was needing this aliya. I’m sure the Israeli government wanted these people in Israel.
Michael: British and French generals in the first world war were leading from the back…
Yuli: I’m sure that the state’s reasons demanded new people. Israel was at war. Israel was in a very difficult situation with Arab neighbors. There was a huge aliya from Arab countries which should be balanced somehow.
Michael: There could be all sorts of things that could be attributed to their thinking. Maybe they thoughts these Jews who have been in the Soviet Union are so alienated from anything Jewish, they won’t be any good to us since from about 1924 they had no contact with anything Jewish.
Yuli: That’s right.
Michael: They definitely did not work to get Jews out of the Soviet Union and they definitely tried to sabotage our campaign.
Yuli: This I can understand because they viewed you as troublemakers.
Michael: Lou Rosenblum started work for Soviet Jewry in 1963 before there was a movement in Moscow for Jews to apply to go to Israel which began after 1967.
Yuli: It started even earlier. You know how it happened. The creation of Israel had provoked the campaign against ruthless cosmopolitans.
Michael: Certainly. What happened in 1948 when Israel was established and Golda Meir went to Moscow, she went to the main synagogue Arkipova and there was a photograph of her surrounded by a lot of men. All those men who were recognized were sent to the Gulag for a minimum of ten years.
Yuli: This was the beginning.
Michael: This was the beginning. What did she do afterwards? She was approached by a lot of Jews who wanted to come to Israel to fight in the War of Independence. She gave that list to Stalin. When she met Stalin, she gave that list to him. How naïve can you be? She gave that list to Stalin and all those men on that list were arrested. Almost all of them were shot.
Yuli: But part of those people succeeded to go through Poland to Israel immediately.
Michael: Those who previously had Polish citizenship.
Yuli: Or bought Polish documents. Thousands of people succeeded to do so.
Michael: A lot of them went to Poland and stayed in Poland. Most of them wanted to go to Israel and they managed to get to Israel.
Yuli: Then it began. But the new wave, our generation who didn’t know Stalin almost, who didn’t know purges, who didn’t know sentences of 25 years for nothing, our generation was more lucky from this point of view. To tell you the truth I think the Soviets were capable of cutting off several thousand heads easily. They could cut off millions of heads. With your help and the help of Americans, with the help of world Jewry, followed by politicians, and the campaign in our behalf all over the world, our fate was very different.
Michael: The very first indication we had of anything was when Elie Weisel wrote the Jews of Silence and it was quite a revelation to us. This was about 1964 or 1965. He was the first one to open our eyes to the fact that Jews were being prosecuted in the Soviet Union. Until then we really believed that Jews had equality.
Yuli: More than equality – that Jews were like any other citizens in the Soviet Union – educated. You sell your soul for free education.
Michael: Let’s get back to Lou Rosenblum. He’s a scientist who worked for NASA, the Space Agency. He worked on rocket fuels. When he met Levanon, Levanon was quite unpleasant to him and told him to stop his activity. I know Lou Rosenblum very well. He’s a good friend of mine. He was so astonished, at first he didn’t know what to say. Of course not.. If these are Jews who want my help, of course I will help them. Levanon said to him, pointing his finger to Lou’s nose, “my government will smash you.”
Lou showed me correspondence from 1963-1964 from Cleveland Ohio on Soviet Jewry.
Yuli: Levanon behaved like a Bolshevik, a Soviet Bolshevik. Oh my God. I also thought that maybe because after the Second World War, the Soviet Union emerged as a super power making a decisive blow to Nazi Germany and the West was really afraid of the Soviet Union.
Michael: What happened in 1948 when the State of Israel was declared one or two countries immediately recognized Israel. The Soviet Union was among the very first ones de facto which means because this thing exists. De jure is because it’s legal. The Soviet Union recognized Israel very early on de facto because Stalin thought, one of Stalin’s many mistakes, he thought that if this country is opposed to Britain, they be pro-Soviet Union. If it’s against the interests of the imperialist powers, then it must be in our interests. So he immediately recognized Israel. But Stalin soon realized it was a mistake. It wasn’t very long before they began to change. These were the black years of Soviet Jewry. In 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was assassinated. From 1948 – 1952 – 400 leading intellectuals were arrested. In 1952 was the trial of the poets when they were all shot.
Yuli: The Soviet Union was cutting Soviet Jewry from the rest of the world. It was cutting off Soviet Jewry because they had seen the Jews had feelings of loyalty to a foreign state. For Stalin – it was intolerable. It was not only about Jews but about everyone.
Michael: Of course. In 1953 was the Doctor’s Plot where he planned to kill all the Jews in the Soviet Union.
Yuli: They tried to expel the Jews from the Western part of the Soviet Union to the East…
Michael: I have seen a copy of the plan. Stalin had plans. When the Doctors were found guilty and then shot, very shortly afterwards there would be spontaneous uprisings on the streets. They reckoned they would about 1 million Jews killed in the various towns in the Western Soviet Union and the rest of them would be deported for their safety to the middle of Siberia with no houses, no tents, nothing. That was the plan to wipe out the whole of Soviet Jewry.
Yuli: I didn’t hear about 1 million to be killed. I heard from a witness. I spoke to the writer Achsonov, a very famous Russian writer, a few months ago who was talking to Alexin* who was a member of the committee where Jews were assembled. The letter was an appeal of the Soviet authorities to extradite Jews from the Western regions of Russia.
(*Alexin lives in Bat Yam)
I tried to understand this point maybe because the Soviet Union emerged as such a Super Power, did the Israeli establishment try not to make it angry because of the Jews? Israel is a little country, a very little country… America is afraid of the Soviet Union.
Michael: This is one of the reasons they believed in quiet diplomacy.
Yuli: What I tried to see – you consider Levanon as a villain who was trying to sabotage aliya from the Soviet Union and action of organizations who were not connected to the establishment. I cannot believe it. I try to understand why such a feeling was created and second what was real motives of those who founded the State. I’m not a socialist but I don’t believe socialists were enemies of Israel.
Michael: Of course not. The country was founded by Socialists – Israel.
Yuli: I know that. I understand everybody is a little tired. I’m really fascinated by your answers. I understood that there was an establishment part of it. Did you take part in the Brussels Conference?
Michael: I was at the second Brussels Conference in 1976.
Yuli: Were you impressed? Was it valuable? How did you see it?
Michael: I don’t think conferences of that sort every do very much except bring people together. Decisions aren’t made at large conferences like that. Decisions are made in the inner circles.
Yuli: Of course – yes. They can influence politicians after that.
Michael: Yes. That’s possible.
Yuli: You were not impressed by what decisions were taken at the Brussels Conference.
Michael: Were you (Enid) at Brussels in 1976? I don’t think special decisions were taken there.
Enid: We enjoyed meeting other activists from around the world.
Michael: Exactly. I think that’s the main success of conferences.
Yuli: Another question. How did you relate to the activities of Rabbi Kahane of the Jewish Defense League?
Michael: I never thought about it quite frankly very much.
Yuli: He was a violent activist. They were hooligans.
Yuli: I mean the kind of dissidents among Jewish circles. Michael was a dissident. Michael was a personality in his own right who deliberately and voluntarily was active for Soviet Jewry for over 20 years.
When did you feel your mission was completed?
Michael: Difficult to answer that. Maybe when Gorbachev opened the gates. I don’t know. I can’t really say.
Yuli: When did you stop calling?
Michael: About 1981.
Enid: Why did you stop calling then?
Michael: We came to live in Israel for a year in 1980 -1981 and then 1982-1983 we were here. Probably about 1980. I have a good memory but I can’t remember very much about that time.
Enid: When you returned to England, did you go back to the 35’s?
Michael: Oh yes I did. From 1981-1982 I was working with the 35’s. Probably later. I had an interval between 1980 – 1983 I should think when I was here. Then in 1983 I broke my leg. I lost my eye. In 1984-1985-1986 we were both working in the 35’s office. Probably the late 80’s. When did Gorbachev come to power?
Yuli: 1985. You continued… (I want to check with Norma – Enid)
Question before the last. Did you work with Greville Janner?
Michael: Of course. Very often on a Friday evening he would phone Professor Benjamin Levich. His two sons- Sasha lives in London. Genya lives in Israel. Every Friday Greville would phone him and I acted as interpreter. Very often, he’d phone Slepak as well on a Friday evening. They used to invite Muriel and me around for a meal. We became very friendly. I met him on all sorts of occasions at different meetings when we’d be on the platform together. We used to disagree. He and June Jacobs used to start off by saying it’s not part of our program that we are anti-Soviet. We are not anti-Soviet. I would say with all due respect to my dear friend Greville Janner and to you June Jacobs I disagree completely with you. I start off by saying: I am anti-Soviet. I will be anti-Soviet as long as the Soviet Union is persecuting Jews and not allowing Jews to leave freely or to live as Jews. Quite plainly, I said I’m anti-Soviet.
I’m still friendly with Greville Janner.
Yuli: He was a genuine and very clever man.
Michael: A clever man and he’s a nice man. He’s a good man. I say there’s no such thing as an honest politician. A contradiction in terms. But the nearest approach to it is Greville Janner. He’s a nice man and his wife was a nice person but a bit unstable. I think she had some mental problems. She died of cancer quite a few years ago. Myra. She was a nice person. He made one funny remark on one occasion. After we had the meal we’d have birkat hamazon and he said to me on one occasion: “You know Michael on most of what we say – you say in a modern accent but every now and then you slip back into an Ashkenazi accent.” “Because those are the things that I remember when I was a boy in Cheder.” He noticed it but I hadn’t noted it myself.
Yuli: Are you a happy man? Are you at peace with yourself inside?
Michael: No. Since my wife died, my life has been difficult.
Yuli: When did she die?
Michael: She died nine years ago here in Neve Eitan. She had breast cancer. We were at the seder and on the morning of the 8th day of Pesach, she died.
Yuli: Your personal life…
Michael: I keep myself busy. I still do a lot of translations from Russian and from Hebrew. I get all sorts of things sent to me. Two days a week I go to a Jewish Old Age Home in London and I help there. It’s a short bus ride from my home. I organize once every two weeks outside speakers to come to address a small group of about 30. There are 120 residents. Only 30 are capable of attending this sort of thing and taking it in. I arrange for outside speakers to come in and address them – all sorts of people including a Christian leader; the leader of a campaign for nuclear disarmament.
Yuli: All kinds of elderly, not only Jewish elderly..
Michael: Most are Jewish. Quite a number are not Jewish. We’ve had a Judge from the High Court from the Old Bailey. We’ve had a man, a Jew who walked the width of England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea at the age of 74 as a challenge. He spoke about his experiences.
Yuli: You can do it now
Michael: With a bit of practice I’d try
Yuli: You promise to invite me to your 100th birthday.
Michael: I promise to invite you to my 100th birthday party.
Peter: Michael’s mother died two days before her 100th birthday.
Yuli: It’s written here…
Michael: My great-grandmother died at the age of 99 in London. I was 22 at the time. Her mother died at the age of 104.
Yuli: Michael you had such a complicated life story.
Michael: You’ve heard nothing yet. As Al Jolson would say…
Yuli: If you now had a choice would there be something you would change in your life? Was there a crucial mistake you’ve made or crucial achievement you have liked to have made?
Michael: That’s too complicated a question to answer in one word.
Yuli: I will phrase it differently. It was very hard work with Soviet Jewry Would you choose to go for all this trouble again? It’s very hard work with Soviet Jewry – ungrateful, egoistic Russian Jews who don’t always remember who helped them. 20 years of your life…
Michael: The majority of the Jews whom we worked for in the Soviet Union were certainly worth it. The majority. We mainly worked mainly for the first 280,000 who came out which included the refuseniks. Since then, the gates have been opened. I don’t know how much credit I can take for that. Most of the credit can go to the Jews in the Soviet Union. Since Gorbachev opened the gates and more than a million came here I understand that a lot of them are not the most desirable of people. But they’re not the people we worked for. There are a lot of good people who did come out since then. Apart from which it’s all very well saying what if. The French have a very nice expression – If my aunt had some – she’d be my uncle… Literally we’d say if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.
Yuli: I understand. I really wish you at least until 120… 100th birthday – we’re invited.
Michael: Will I have a second Bar Mitzvah at 113 then?
Yuli: 133… Thank you very much!
Michael: There’s a lot more I can tell you. Next time.
Edited by Enid Wurtman