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Voices in the Silence

By S.Z. Sonnenfeld

During Communist-era Russia, learning about Judaism was a dangerous, illegal activity.

...Although all we did was get together in one of our homes to talk and study Torah and the Hebrew language, in Russia that was a serious crime, so it was either secrecy or Siberia. Actually, we knew perfectly well that no matter how careful we were, keeping our doings secret was next to impossible. Everything was under surveillance, and KGB agents might pop up out of anywhere...

We never met except in a building that had a back door, so that we could escape in case of a raid. We concocted our own dictionary of code words. For instance, if the next meeting was scheduled at seven in the evening on Shakovitzkaya Street, in our code that would be "at two in the afternoon on Fedorovskaya Street." This way, even if someone were listening in, through a hidden microphone or a telephone tap, he would still know nothing.

We came up with endless schemes and ruses -- there is nothing like necessity to stir your imagination. We couldn't use a ploy more than once; you never knew if the KGB had been watching, and if they had been, they wouldn't be fooled twice. But then, there were a million innocent reasons why I might have to make a trip to a certain street on a certain day. Once I was there and approaching my friend's house, I would scan the area thoroughly before actually stopping and going in. Of course I had to avoid making it obvious what I was doing; but that sort of thing was part of every Russian citizen's survival skills.

Another thing I watched for when I got to the house was our private danger signal. You see, even if I had there without arousing suspicion, there was always a chance that the government had a surprise waiting for us inside. So If I saw a doll sitting in the window frame, meant that I had better walk away -- slowly, and looking innocent...


One of our meeting places was an apartment owned by an elderly couple in a large apartment building. The gentile children who played in the yard had been trained to spy on everyone, and it didn't take them long to notice the big, beautiful doll in the old couple's window. That's funny, they thought; those old people don't have any children at home, so what do they need a doll for? So they started keeping an eye on that window, and soon noticed how the doll would sometimes appear and disappear several times in an evening. That was enough for these loyal, patriotic children to go down to the police station and betray their neighbors. You might laugh at the picture of policemen solemnly listening to a child's story about a doll in a window, but the KGB didn't laugh. They wrote it all down and sent out some men to keep watch on the apartment. They spotted us gathering for our next meeting, and burst in right in the midst of our Torah study. All the time, they found nothing suspicious anywhere in the apartment.

You're wondering why? Because we were ready for them.

Everyone in Russia knew that the police might descend at any time, day or night, hell-bent on finding "evidence." It was simply a survival tactic to be ready for them at all times. That is why there was no Jewish educational material in the house, not even a single scrap of evidence. Even on the table where we sat, there was nothing but yesterday's edition of Die Sovietisch Hevniand, a government-authorized Yiddish newspaper. (Naturally it trumpeted the official government views, and finding it on our table was for the police what finding a kashrut stamp is for a Jew.)

No books, no pencils and pads, no notes. How did learn, then? By word of mouth. I taught my friends all the Torah that I had learned, and reviewed it with them until they too knew every word by heart. We learned a smattering of Hebrew the same way. And of course we exchanged news and chatted together over a cup of tea, and kept each other up to date with our various doings. But we never wrote anything down.


We had been careful, and although the agents searched the entire apartment they found nothing incriminating -- that is, nothing they could conceivably twist into evidence of illegal activities. But all the same they could smell that something was going on here -- and the KGB had keen noses for underground organizations, especially for Jewish ones. So they decided to hold us there under arrest while a team was sent around to search our parents' houses for incriminating material.

When I heard that, I almost died of fright. For just then I had at home a list of refuseniks, which I was supposed to send on to Israel. If that was found, not only was I done for, but all the people on the list were, too. Still I put all my strength into keeping a stiff upper lip. Who could know? They might not find it. But if I showed even the slightest sign of being upset, they would be down on me like a pack of wolves, and that would certainly be the end.

We sat there for hours, not knowing what was happening to our parents. Then suddenly the agents told us that we could all go home. For me it was a double relief -- I understood that somehow they hadn't found the list. All the same I went home puzzled. How could they have failed to find it? I knew how these searches were done. They wouldn't have left a single inch of our house without turning it upside down.

Worse yet, while one man searched from place to place, the other would hold his hand over your pulse. The idea was that when the searcher got "warm," your pulse rate was bound to go up, and then the man holding you would call to the searcher to check especially thoroughly there. It's a well-tried method, utterly diabolical, and quite effective.

Where was the list hidden? I had wrapped it in plastic and pushed it down to the bottom of the jar of chocolate syrup. Oh, perhaps you wouldn't think of looking in a place like that, but I was quite sure that the KGB would. What wonderful luck that Mama didn't know anything about the list! If she had, her pulse would surely have given us away.

When I got home, I found Mama lying half-conscious on the sofa, shaking like a leaf, with an ice bag on her forehead, while a neighbor sat by her trying to calm her down. As for the house, it looked as if a pogrom had just passed through...

Excerpted with permission from
Published by Feldheim Publishers.

Presented in cooperation with Heritage House, Jerusalem. Visit



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