THE MITZVA THAT SMASHED THROUGH THE IRON CURTAIN
December 2, 2015
Avremele Rainitz in #998, Feature

The fascinating story of a refusenik, Boris Levitas, who managed to break through the Iron Curtain by carrying out an instruction from the Rebbe. * Part 1 of 2

Boris Levitas with his friends of the underground | Elliott Levitas, American CongressmanCongressman Elliott Levitas’ secretary greeted the members of the delegation on behalf of Russian refuseniks and ushered them into his spacious office.  As a Jewish congressman, Levitas was familiar with their work and tried to help them now and then.  But this time, they asked for a special meeting and stressed that it was an opportunity for a breakthrough.  He was definitely interested in hearing what they had to say.

The head of the delegation, Mrs. Irina Monikofski, emotionally said to Levitas, “Mazal tov! I am happy to inform you that we have located a relative of yours, Boris Levitas, who lives in the Soviet Union. He is on the blacklist there and they are refusing to let him out of Russia.”

The congressman was quick to point out that his family came from Spain, and despite having the same last name, he knew of no relatives in Russia.  But the delegation explained that the fact that he shared the same last name as one of the refuseniks would enable him to promote the cause better than any other Jewish congressman.

Levitas liked the idea and warmly adopted his “relative,” Boris Levitas.  In his speeches on the subject before Congress, as well as in personal conversations with the president, Jimmy Carter, with whom he was close (Levitas was a Representative from Georgia), he would mention Boris Levitas.  Although he did not say so explicitly, he allowed people to assume that Boris was a close relative of his.  He said things like, “Every refusenik is like a brother of ours, especially when someone like Boris Levitas who shares my name…”

Three years passed since Boris Levitas submitted his request to emigrate.  He starred in Congressman Elliott Levitas’ speeches, and was part of the documentary called A Calculated Risk, by Nathan Scharansky, which was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and created a media storm in the West.  But none of that helped and the KGB just dug in their heels.

Then came the fateful phone conversation in which he spoke with his parents in Eretz Yisroel and on the line he heard one of his closest friends, Zev Wagner, who excitedly told him that he had had yechidus with the Rebbe and after mentioning Boris’ name for a blessing, the Rebbe said he wanted to transmit an instruction to him.  After Boris would carry it out, he would receive his visa.

This summer, I met with Boris (Boruch Yosef) Levitas in the Beis Moshiach offices, together with his mechutan, R’ Nachum (Nochi) Gross, and we heard his fascinating story about how he, a refusenik, had left communist Russia thanks to the Rebbe’s bracha.  After he made aliya, he became a Lubavitcher Chassid.

PAINFUL PARTING AND A LIFE CHANGING GIFT

My personal story of redemption begins in 5733/1973.  Back then, I was living in Soviet Russia which was one huge prison.  Churchill coined the phrase “the Iron Curtain,” in order to express the huge chasm between the communist bloc countries and the western European countries.  The term accurately expressed daily reality for us, the refuseniks.

I was born in 5714/1954 in Lvov to a family descended from the Admur of Vilednik. Due to religious persecution, my parents were not religious and only observed some basic mitzvos.  My grandfather, who was still religious, asked my father to observe at least two things: brissin for the children and to see to it that they married Jews with chuppa and kiddushin.  My father obeyed and performed a few other mitzvos as well, such as eating matza Pesach night.

My parents longed to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel but since they knew how difficult that would be, they were afraid to start the process.  The turning point took place when I was nineteen, when my parents found out that my older brother was friends with a gentile girl and planned to marry her.  My father felt the ground burning beneath his feet and quickly started working on obtaining a visa.

In those days, the only way to get a visa was after presenting an official invitation for family unification.  To accomplish this, those active in aliya would find people with the same name who would appear before a notary and declare that they, the brother or sister, invited their relatives to make aliya.  After my parents sought the assistance of the aliya activists, they arranged an official invitation for them as though it was my father’s sister, and that paved the way for them to make their request.

The problem was that I was attending university in Kiev at the time and was registered as a resident in that city.  My parents lived in Lvov and since the request for the visa could only be made from where you lived, I could not join my parents’ request because my passport said I lived in a dorm in Kiev.

I could not leave university for I was of draft age, and it was only because I attended university that my military service was deferred.  I tried to switch to a university in Lvov, but I was unable to do so in the middle of the semester.  My only choice was to wait with my request for a visa for the next school year.  In the meantime, my brother was becoming closer with his girlfriend and my father knew that if he did not get out of the country immediately, he was likely to marry her.  So my parents decided to submit their request for a visa which would include him and my sister.

Fortunately, their request was speedily approved and they were able to leave shortly after.  Before he left, my father gave me a bag with a thick book inside and said: This is the book of the Jewish people; it was a Tanach translated into Russian.

We parted in tears, and I remained alone behind the Iron Curtain. I found consolation in reading the Tanach.  With every additional page that I read, I felt I was discovering a new world, a world created and run by G-d; a world with a Chosen Jewish People; a world in which you needed to fulfill Torah and mitzvos in order to be connected to the Creator of the world.  Step by step, I began keeping mitzvos as I understood them from reading the Tanach.

THE STUDENT COUNCIL DEMANDED MY REMOVAL

A few months after my family left Russia, my parents sent me an invitation for the unification of families. Since I had an official invitation, I could move on to the next steps.  First, I had to get a letter of recommendation from the university.  By communist law, there was nothing that made it illegal for citizens to leave the country.  On the contrary, it stated explicitly that they had the right to go where they pleased.  However, this was followed by a small clause which said that in order to leave, you needed a visa.  They made it so difficult to get a visa that most citizens forwent the pleasure.

The first obstacle I had to contend with was getting a letter of recommendation from my employer or the school I attended.  Since all businesses and institutions belonged to the government, the directors knew that when someone asked for a letter of recommendation for a visa, they were expected to fire that person from their job or expel them from the school.  Of course, this is exactly what they did and this was a major consideration of anyone who dreamed of making aliya.  As soon as the request was submitted, he would find himself unemployed.  Who knew whether he would even get the visa in the end? Maybe his request would be denied and he would remain unable to leave and without a job?

That is what happened with me.  When I asked the university administration for the letter of recommendation, they immediately called a meeting of the student council who then submitted an official affidavit to the administration of the university with a request that they immediately expel the counter-revolutionary student who wanted to move to Israel, the greatest enemy of the Soviet Union.

After I was expelled, I went to OVIR and submitted a request to leave.  They told me that if my request was approved, they would call me to receive the permit; if it wasn’t approved, I would not be called.  Sure enough, my wait was in vain.

THE DRAFT OFFICERS ON MY HEELS

The law in the Soviet Union required every citizen to carry an internal passport in which his current address was listed.  If you moved, you had to update it.  Since I was thrown out of the student dormitory, I listed my address as being my grandmother’s home in Kiev.  I did not actually live there but in my uncle’s house, because I knew that shortly after I left the university I would receive a draft notice.  Since I did not want to be drafted, I assumed the draft officers would be sent to the official address in my passport.

Indeed, a short time later, army representatives began looking for me at my grandmother’s home.  Of course, they did not find me, and my grandmother said she had no idea where I was.  When they started coming every day, my grandmother was under a lot of pressure and told me about it.

I decided to leave the city altogether and went to distant Tashkent where I lived with a relative.  Of course, I did not register with the local police and I thought I had managed to evade the KGB but later I learned that they were tracking me the entire time.

Half a year later, I returned to Kiev where I met with friends who were refuseniks like me.  From them I heard that the KGB had decided to put in jail all those who wanted to leave and who refused to be drafted, thus oppressing the young nucleus of refuseniks. We heard of at least five young people who were caught and thrown in jail.

When I returned to Kiev, I did not go to my grandparents’ home but to another relative.  However, after a short while, he was afraid to host someone the army was looking for so I had to find another place to stay. I moved to the home of one of the aliya activists whose children had already left Russia and who had also received a visa and was on his way to Eretz Yisroel.

THE KGB ON MY TRAIL

One day, he had to undergo a cataract operation and I was home alone.  In the morning someone knocked at the door.  I asked who it was and the person said he was from the gas company.  I believed him because I knew that according to the law, every citizen who wanted to leave Russia had to present a signed receipt from the energy company that he had paid all his bills.  I naively thought that was the reason he was here. He walked in and after checking the gas connection in the kitchen, he went to the other rooms and scanned my bed and belongings.  It looked odd to me, but I was not overly suspicious.  He wrote on a form he had brought with him that everything was fine and left.

Not five minutes passed and there was knocking at the door again.  Through the peephole I could see a well-dressed man with a tie.  I thought he must be a supervisor in the electric company.  I opened the door and to my dismay, he said he was a local policeman who wanted to examine my passport.  After seeing that the passport said that I live somewhere else, with my grandmother, he said I was arrested and had to accompany him to the police station.

From the local police station they took me to the police station in the district where my grandmother lived.  In the afternoon, a military officer and a KGB official in civilian clothes came and took me to the draft office.  I was brought to the office of the commander of the facility where KGB officials were sitting and deciding with him how I would be handled.  They seemed to be in the middle of the discussion, for when we walked in, the KGB men moved aside as though they had no connection to me and the commander of the facility motioned to the officer to bring me in later, after everything was decided with the KGB men.

The officer brought me to another room where he took my internal passport from me and gave me a receipt stating that the army had received my passport.  That was the procedure when enlisting – the soldier would leave his passport with the army and receive a military ID in exchange.  The officer told me to sign on the form that I was affirming my draft into the army, but I refused.  I knew that by signing, I was approving my being drafted into the army, so I refused to sign. 

He began yelling at me, but I insisted and said that I was not willing to sign.  He was upset and began cursing.  He went out to consult with his colleagues and came back and tried to pressure me.  When he saw that I wasn’t budging, he went out to consult again and when he came back he said, “Write here, ‘I Boris Levitas refuse to accept a military ID.’”  I agreed to that and he warned me that by signing to that wording, I was sending myself to jail for three and a half years for the crime of refusing to serve my country.

The KGB man and the officer ordered me to board a military vehicle and they began traveling to the central induction army base in Kiev.  On the way they stopped at a barber and had my hair shaved like they do for prisoners in jail or soldiers in the army.  Throughout the trip, I prayed that Hashem save me.  A heavy snow began to fall and the vehicle stalled.  But forty minutes later the snow stopped and they were able to continue.

When we arrived at the army base, they got off to discuss matters and left me in the closed vehicle.  They came back half an hour later and told the driver to go back to the enlistment office.  When we arrived there, it was late at night and the place was deserted.  A KGB agent tried to convince me to withdraw my opposition to enlistment.  “You have no idea how hard it will be for you in prison,” he said, describing the horrors.  At the same time, he promised that if I agreed to enlist, he would help me and see to it that I was given clerical work to do.

I told him that I did not care what job they gave me in the army.  I knew, from others’ experiences, that the moment you entered the army, you would never get an exit visa.  Even if someone was a shoemaker in the army, he was never given an exit visa, for they claimed that he knew military secrets because he knew where the base is.

After they gave up on me, he said: I can keep you here all night but I feel bad for you and so you can go home now, and later we will send you a notice to appear.

A PHONE CALL TO A MEMBER OF CONGRESS

I thanked Hashem for freeing me, at least temporarily, from the clutches of the army and I rushed to carry out two important steps:

The first step was to update the American member of Congress, Elliott Levitas, whose work on my behalf I had heard about through tourists who came to visit the refuseniks.  Through them I also got his contact information and I decided that I had nothing to lose by trying to reach him directly.

In the house I was hiding in there was no phone and in order to make the call I had to go to a branch of the post office and arrange for an overseas call.  I knew that when I requested an overseas call, the KGB would immediately be informed.  When they did not want to allow the phone call, the clerk simply said the number was constantly busy.  When they allowed a phone call, they would eavesdrop and if they didn’t like something, they would disconnect the call.

In light of all this, you might think that my attempt to call an American Congressman directly was doomed from the start.  But I had nothing to lose and I decided to try.  I went to the main operator and asked to make a collect call.  I gave her the phone number in the Washington office and to my surprise, she said the person I was trying to reach was not in his office but his secretary referred her to his office in Atlanta.  She asked me whether to make the call to Atlanta and of course I said she should. 

To my disappointment, he was in the middle of an urgent meeting and I could not speak with him directly, but I told his secretary what had been going on with me, including my arrest and the attempt to enlist me, and asked that he work on my behalf in the US.  It was a miracle that the KGB allowed me to have this conversation.

A FINAL ATTEMPT TO DODGE THE DRAFT

The second thing I did that night was to inform my fellow refuseniks. I went to the home of Kim Friedman, a longtime refusenik, and within a short time he had managed to bring together in his home a number of the veteran refuseniks for a consultation about what I should do next.

After I told them everything I had experienced the past day, they told me that top lawyers who were enlisted to work on behalf of five refuseniks who had already been sent to jail, had unanimously concluded that everything must be done to avoid getting sent to jail, because once you go in, it’s almost impossible to get out.  Kim Friedman suggested that I go to the draft office the next day and give them a signed letter requesting the deferment of my military service until I received the exit permit for my request to leave Russia.

Some of the people present laughed at this idea and indeed, in Russia of those days, it was risible to write a letter like that.  But I figured I had no better choice and would do as he suggested.

After I composed the letter, I went to the draft office in the morning.  The officer, who had seen me the day before, took my file and began going with me from doctor to doctor for them to affirm that I was in good shape to serve in the army.  When the doctors saw me in the company of the officer, they knew they had to sign and they did not even try to examine me.  With only one of the doctors, he had to leave before he managed to let her know that she had to sign.  She asked me where my parents lived and after I told her that they lived in Israel, she was excited and said, I will help you get out of the army. 

The officer suddenly came in and asked what was happening with the signature.  She tried to say I wasn’t fit for the army but he interrupted her and ordered her to sign immediately.  Of course she did not dare to argue with him and she signed.

After all the doctors certified my physical and psychological fitness, I was placed before the draft board.  Heading the board was the commander of the draft office and alongside him were civilian representatives.  I submitted my letter to the commander and after he read my request he showed it to the other members.  One of them, a simple Ukrainian gentile, innocently said: I suggest we agree with his request and give him a temporary deferment.

At first, the commander nearly fell off his chair in surprise.  Then he began shouting about how could one think about deferring a Soviet citizen from his obligation to serve in the army.  He ended the meeting with an order that I had to appear the next day at the draft office.

THE KGB KNOWS EVERYTHING

From the draft office I once again headed for the home of Kim Friedman.  He invited the other refuseniks again and this time, even those who were not there the night before showed up.  There was a lively meeting which ended with a difference of opinion.  Some of them said I should go to the army while others said I should run away and disappear.

When I left Kim Friedman’s house, I had nowhere to go to sleep.  My friend, Peter Kriksonov, who was also a refusenik, said to me: Come to my house and don’t go anywhere tomorrow.  I decided to do just that and hid in his house.

I stayed there for a while and although his parents held high positions, with his father a professor in a university and his mother the chief architect of Kiev, they supported their son and allowed me to stay in their home.  Then, one day, his father returned from university in the middle of the day with his entire body trembling in fear.  He said to me: You cannot stay here even one more second.  The KGB is after you!

He had been called to a meeting with the administration of the university and there was an unfamiliar person in attendance dressed in civilian clothes.  At first the heads of the university spoke to Peter’s father and censured him, saying how could a man in his position allow his son to leave Mother Russia and go to the enemies of communism in Israel.

They spoke very strongly and he tried to defend himself by saying his son was old enough to form his own opinions and despite all his attempts to dissuade him from the idea of traveling to Israel, he could not stop him.

The heads of the university were silent and then the stranger got up and yelled at him: Listen here Comrade Kriksonov. You claim that you cannot influence your son, okay.  But how can you explain the fact that you are hiding a political criminal in your home?

Peter’s father tried to get out of it by saying: What do you mean? I am not hiding anyone, but the KGB agent did not give up and laid out all his cards: You are hiding the political criminal, Boris Levitas, in your house and you are trying to deny it?!

Obviously, after that, he could not allow me to remain in his house and Peter and I went to a mutual friend by the name of Amik Gilman, who already received his visa, and whose parents allowed me to hide in their house.  Peter continued to visit me in my new hiding place and he encouraged me to go out without fear of the KGB.  By then I was aware that the KGB knew exactly where I was at any given moment, and for reasons of their own they decided not to stop me and to suffice with intimidation.  Peter thought that by continuing to sit in hiding, I was playing into their hands.

Since my hair had been shaven by the KGB, if I walked around in the streets I would look like a released prisoner or a soldier who had gone AWOL, so my friends bought a wig for me to wear and I went out now and then with Peter.

To be continued

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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