Surviving Siberia

Ida Nudel beats the odds

Ida Nudel, the courageous woman known throughout the world as the “guardian angel” of Soviet Jewish Prisoners of Conscience—men and women imprisoned for their activities in the emigration movement—has survived four brutal years in Siberian exile only to be refused permission to leave for Israel.

In the ten years since her application to emigrate to Israel was denied by Soviet authorities, Nudel, now 51, waged an extraordinary one-woman campaign on behalf of the Jewish prisoners, providing them with both moral and political support. She was sentenced to exile in Siberia in June, 1978 on charges of “malicious hooliganism” for her part in a demonstration by Soviet Jewish women refuseniks, Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate to Israel.

Released from exile in March, Nudel has been refused permission to live in Moscow. To date, there is no indication that she will be permitted to leave the Soviet Union. Said Soviet officials: “267 million people have made lives for themselves in the Soviet Union” and Nudel is advised to do the same.

Ida Nudel was born in the Crimea in 1931, the child of assimilated parents, both Communist Party members. Her love of Zion may be traced to the influence of her grandparents. In their youth, both were members of Hashomer Hatzair, the Socialist Zionist pioneering movement, and dreamed, in vain, of settling in what was then Palestine. The two grandparents, as well as the family’s aunts, uncles and cousins, were all murdered by the Nazis in a single day in 1942.

Ida’s father, Yakov, a Communist Party official and officer in the Red Army, fell in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. Ida’s mother, Anna, managed to support Ida and her sister Elana by working as a kindergarten teacher.

At the time of the infamous “doctors’ plot” of 1953, in which Jewish physicians were accused of attempting to murder Soviet leaders, Nudel, the only Jew in her university class, felt the sting of suspicion. Rather than give in to fear, she began reading whatever she could find on Judaism and Israel, and secretly listened to Kol Israel shortwave broadcasts from Israel.

According to Elana, Ida’s developing Jewish consciousness was strengthened by Israel’s miraculous victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Thousands of Soviet Jews applied for exit visas. Among them were Ida, Elana, Elana’s husband Arieh Frid-man and their seven-year-old son Ya’akov.

Within a year, Elana and her family received the coveted visas, and left the Soviet Union in April 1972 for Israel. Ida was consistently refused a visa on the grounds that she had “access to state secrets” at her job as an economist-engineer at the Institute for Planning and Production, where she checked hygienic standards at food stores.

Ida became a member of the community of refuseniks. She began to devote her considerable energy to the Jewish emigration movement and especially- to relieving the prisoner’s plight.

Our Ida Nudel, a collection of testimonies of former prisoners and refuseniks, published in 1980 by Israeli Women for Ida Nudel, chronicles her efforts on their behalf.

Former Prisoner of Conscience Ya’akov Suslensky said that Nudel “was the first person to publicly demonstrate her total identification with the prisoners and to wage a campaign for the right of emigration to Israel.”

Nudel collected information regarding each prisoner in a card file; sent cables to Soviet officials and Western leaders urging better treatment, particularly improved medical care, for prisoners; and publicized their plights, often by sitting outside the prison walls for days at a time.

On a more personal level, Nudel sent letters of encouragement to prisoners, informing them of the latest news from Israel and other Jewish communities; sent them fancy postcards and other items that they could trade for food; gave of her own meager financial resources to help prisoners and their families; housed prisoners in her tiny Moscow apartment once they were released; established contact between prisoners and visitors from outside the Soviet Union, and ensured that letters and food packages from the outside reached the prisoners.

Amy Schuman, who visited the Soviet Union with her mother in April, 1980, reported in the Cleveland feminist paper What She Wants:

“Ida collected and distributed clothes, food and other articles to the prisoners. She devised schemes for smuggling valuable items into prison so that prisoners could bribe camp personnel. She concocted a faultless method of baking vitamins into cakes, and sending prisoners boxes of white chocolate which was not recognizably edible.. .Ida’s apartment served as a headquarters for all Moscow efforts on behalf of Jewish dissidents serving prison terms.”

As a result of her activities, Nudel lost her job at the Institute and was forced to earn a meager living as a cleaning woman, maid and nanny.

She was frequently followed, interrogated and beaten. Her phone was confiscated, and a KGB microphone hung from an openly gouged-out hole in her apartment. On several occasions, she was arrested and thrown in the so-called “drunk tank” with other activists. Her diary describes one of these episodes in passionate and eloquent language:

October 25th: I leave the house in the morning. Within minutes 1 hear foot-steps behind me. Two men strike my back. 1 fall down. They grab me and drag me into the gutter. A car arrives. I am shoved inside and we leave. They ignore me when I ask them to identify themselves.

They physically assault my body. Dirty hands touch my breasts, my whole body, lifting my skirt and crawling into my pants. They find no atom bombs or guns.

They put me in a cell and leave me. I am cold in body and soul. From time to time I fall into a dreamlike state, then again awaken.

October 26th: My back hurts from lying on naked boards, my arms hurt from being hit and used as a pillow. My coat is too short to cover me entirely, and I try to move it in stages to warm my legs and then my back. It seems to me that it must be day—but I was not given either a drop of water or a piece of bread.

I lie there and think. I think of Jews being kept in camps and that each day of their lives is like mine yesterday and today. J think of Sylva Zalmanson {sentenced in the Leningrad trial and subsequently released—Ed.}. Yesterday was her birthday, the fourth she has spent in prison and there are many more such days awaiting her, a whole eternity. I think of Jews who emigrate, not experiencing the ‘friendly kick in the teeth,’ without realizing how lucky they are.

I think of my friends who today are in cells. I think of my Jewish nation, how open-handedly it has given and still gives its genius to Russia, and how inhuman is the Russian desire to stifle our national consciousness. I think of myself. I open my eyes and the walls reflect the shadow of the gratings. I hear outside the door the measured steps of- the guard.

What awaits me?

On June 1, 1978, Nudel and other Russian Jewish refusenik women and their children planned to hold a peaceful demonstration to mark International Children’s Day, and call for exit visas. The KGB imposed a curfew on all the women and surrounded Nudel’s building, preventing her from leaving her apartment. In response, she hung a banner from her balcony which read, “Let Me Go To Israel.”

After some KGB men on the next balcony destroyed the banner, Ida placed a large Star of David in her window. The KGB promptly shattered the window.

Former refusnik and neighbor Abram Nizhnikov recalled the scene:

There were plainclothesmen on the next balconies and windows, poking long sticks at the innocent sign. One of them from the upper floor had a long rope with a heavy metal thing at the end. I became very fearful for Ida’s life. But they ended up breaking her kitchen window. These actions caused a crowd near the house. Somebody shouted: ‘Jews are rebelling! I wish Stalin and Hitler were here.’

Ignoring a charge of “malicious hooliganism,” Ida joined another protest for exit visas three days later in Trubnaya Square near the Kremlin, during which she wore sandwich boards protesting Soviet emigration policy. Once again she was accused of disorderly behavior and disobedience to the authorities. On June 21, 1978, she was brought to the People’s Court of the Volgograd District of Moscow.

During the trial, Ida was not permitted to have legal representation or witnesses testifying on her behalf or friends in the courtroom. She declared before the court:

Tor the past seven years, I learned to walk proudly as a human being and as a Jew. These were years of constant, daily struggle for myself and others. My heart was filled with sublime, incomparable emotion each time I managed to lend a helping hand to yet another victim of oppression. This feeling may be akin to that of a woman creating new life. Should the rest of my days be gray and regimented, these past seven years would warm my heart with the knowledge that my life was not lived in vain.

Nudel was sentenced to four years of internal exile in Siberia for her actions on June first.

The slow train ride to Siberia was deliberately lengthened. The journey, which ordinarily takes two days, lasted a month because Ida was transported along with women criminals and the train stopped many times en route to pick up passengers at various prisons. The women beat Ida until her face swelled up and her glasses were broken.

Ida was brought to the swampy hamlet of Krivosheino in the Tomsk region of Siberia and placed in a tiny, unprotected room of a male hostel housing some 60 hardened prisoners—and other criminals, murderers considered too dangerous to return to society. The men were armed with knives and almost constantly drunk.

The physical conditions were deplorable. The temperature often reached 60 degrees below zero Centigrade in her 12-square-meter room. She had to walk long distances in all-weather to get water, which was filled with rust. The hostel’s one washroom was covered with drunks’ vomit, and rats ran freely throughout the hostel.

The only food she was able to get was stale bread, some canned foods and milk once a week from the village store. Ida’s job as a night guard required her to walk outside even during the bitter Siberian winters, when the temperatures reached 40 degrees below zero degrees Centigrade.

Ida wrote to other prisoners but for a year refused to accept mail from abroad, even from her sister. She requested, instead, that petitions be sent to those in power to free all the Prisoners of Conscience. An American woman who visited the Soviet Union last year was told that food packages sent to Nudel by those working on her behalf were often passed on to other prisoners. “Even in her Siberian exile, she continued to act as a rescuing angel for other refuseniks,” the tourist reported.

Although she was permitter one visitor every month or two, very few managed to reach her. Former prisoner Sender Levinson described Ida’s surroundings:

I walked past Krivosheino. After a couple of kilometers there were no longer any houses; even the muddy road had disappeared. I was in the forest. I stood in front of an old barrack with small windows. The first people I met were two drunks arguing about something, unleashing a string of obscenities.

I knocked at the door, whose missing lock was replaced by a catch. A thin little woman appeared. Her wide-open eyes sparkled feverishly. She pressed herself against my chest, her shoulder quivering as she cried.

It grew dark, and we lit a candle. It was Rosh Hashanah eve. “Next year in Jerusalem.” Tears filled Ida’s eyes. Through the cracks in the window the wind was blowing and the candlelight flickered. Behind the door, the drunks’ argument had turned into a fight. We could hear the sounds of a chair being broken. Someone was calling for help.

“There are mostly former criminals here,” Ida said, “murderers and bandits. They’re not permitted to live in the cities. They’ve lost their human face. They’ve tried many times to break into my room. When I go to bed I always have a knife under my pillow. Of course, I won’t be able to kill them, but at least I can kill myself,” she whispered.

I know Ida has a heart disease and permanent trouble with her stomach. When I asked her about her health she didn’t answer, but once when she believed I wasn’t watching she took a pill. She’s not accustomed to complaining.

These conditions were also documented in a 20-minute silent film secretly taken by a fellow prisoner and smuggled out of The Soviet Union.

As a result of Western pressure aroused by the film and other reports smuggled out of Russia, Ida was finally given permission to live alone in a wooden hut. But psychologically she was given no rest by the townspeople, who attacked and ostracized her. In a tape smuggled to the West in 197°, Nudel said:

I am all alone in my little room, which is my fortress, my bedroom, my kitchen, my toilet, my washroom and even my laundry…. Even Kafka could not have dreamed up such a situation. Village people nearby are afraid to speak to me. They are afraid of any contact at all with me. Even children who touched and petted my dog were later questioned by the police.

In 1980, the local press charged that she was poisoning the town’s wells. On April 27, 1981, her 50th birthday, she was detained at the village police station.

Ida’s already frail health—she suffered from kidney disease and a heart problem — deteriorated sharply under these harsh conditions. She was hospitalized in the city of Tomsk in Siberia in August 1979, where local doctors recommended that she go to Moscow for diagnosis. In October 1979, she addressed an open letter to the Soviet authorities demanding permission to travel to Moscow for medical care; the Soviets responded that she was not ill. Finally, she suffered a severe heart attack that same month and her sister feared Nudel would not be able to survive another Siberian winter.

Despite such fears, Nudel survived her four years in exile and completed her sentence in March 1982. Members of the Columbia University chapter of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) who spoke with Nudel by phone shortly after her release said the Soviets have refused her permission to live in Moscow. She was instructed to “rejoin the mainstream of Soviet life.” To date, there is no indication that she will be granted an exit visa. Since her release, according to various reports, Nudel visited a Moscow synagogue and spent some time in a hospital.

According to recent information received by the SSSJ, in early May Nudel was officially denied a residence permit for Moscow, despite the fact that she owns an apartment there. (At the present time, Nudel remains in Moscow, but could be forcibly expelled to the city’s outlying areas at any time.) Dr. Isai Goldstein, a fellow refusenik, reported that, although Nudel is very weak and requires medical tests, she has been refused permission to enter Moscow hospitals because she is a non-resident.

Just as Nudel’s sentence ended in March 1982, members of the Swedish Parliament nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether or not she receives the award, she has already won the love of many thousands of people throughout the world. In her four years of exile, Ida received some 10,000 letters of support, and realizes that many more were sent but never reached her.

After more than a decade, Nudel is back at square one: seeking approval of her exit application to Israel.

For Ida Nudel, the cherished dream of “Next year in Jerusalem” cannot come a minute too soon.

Glenn Richter is National Coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry; Reena Sigman Friedman is News Editor of Lilith.