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August 16, 2013 10:52 am

The Wedding That Dented the Iron Curtain

avatar by Alex Margolin

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Poster for the film "Next Year in Jerusalem" by Michael Blank.

In the history of the Soviet Jewry movement, the most spectacular – and possibly most pivotal – episode was a plot to hijack a plane in 1970. A group of young Jews, desperate to escape the oppressive Soviet regime, bought up the tickets to a 12-seat plane on the pretense of attending a wedding. They planned to seize control of it in mid-air, fly it to Finland, and then travel on to Israel.

The plot to escape, known by the code name “Operation Wedding,” failed. The group was arrested at the airport and each member was sentenced to long terms in prison. Two of the leaders were sentenced to death by firing squad.

During the trial, the Soviets tried to brand the entire Zionist underground as terrorists no different from Arab hijackers. But the Soviets badly miscalculated the effect of the death sentences. News of the trial broke through the Iron Curtain and Jews began to protest like never before. The mighty Soviet Union was forced to back down and commute the death sentences to 15 year prison terms.

The trial put the issue of Soviet Jewry on the map and galvanized the West to fight for their freedom. Most importantly, it had a direct effect on emigration to Israel. During the sixties, only 3,000 Jews were allowed to leave. During the Seventies – and especially the first years after the trial -163,000 Soviet Jews arrived in Israel.

Film-maker Anat Kuznetsov-Zalmanson. Photo: Adi Adar.

“The Soviet Union wanted the world to see it as paradise, and as soon as the world realized it was not paradise, it got scared and started to release people,” said Anat Kuznetsov-Zalmanson, the daughter of two key members of the group and a filmmaker working on a documentary on the group. “They found the Achilles Heel of the Soviet Union.”

Her film, Next Year in Jerusalem, tells the full story of the plot, the trial, and what came after. Too often, she said, historical accounts stop with the Leningrad Trial. What’s often ignored, she said, is what came later as the members of the group coped with the hardships of life in Soviet prison.

“People consider them heroes, as they well should because they are heroes, but I understand the psychology a bit more as the daughter,” she said. “I grew up with these people, so I understand them. I see them as very brave people, but also as victims of life.

“My mother was in solitary confinement for six months, in Siberia, in the winter. She was only allowed to wear a cotton dress. She would be jumping up and down to stay warm, not to freeze, covering herself as much as she could with newspaper they gave her. For six months, she was completely alone. The last part of the film looks at the suffering, being alone, cold, and hungry, and still staying strong. And that’s the true heroic story for me,” she added.

Anat’s mother, Sylva Zalmanson, was the only woman in the group put on trial. Prosecutors had called her to testify first, expecting her to crack under the intense pressure of the trial. Sylva, however, maintained her composure and emerged as a folk hero for her testimony, which included a bold declaration of “next year in Jerusalem.”

During the protests, people carried placards with Sylva’s picture. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was released in a prisoner exchange after four years. She came immediately to Israel and worked as an engineer, specializing, ironically, in airplanes.

Her father, Eduard Kuznetsov, was one of the two who received the death sentence and the unofficial leader of the group. During his ninth year in prison, he was part of an exchange between the Soviet Union and America that freed him and Mark Dymshits, the other member of the group to be sentenced to death. Eduard then came to Israel and started the largest Russian language newspaper, Vesti, and served as its editor-in-chief from 1990 to 1999.

Eduard Kuzentsov, a life-long dissident, had already spent seven years in a Soviet prison for arranging public readings of subversive literature before his involvement in Operation Wedding. His life, in many ways, has been marked by the intense pursuit of freedom.

Anat said most of the group knew that the chances of successfully stealing a plane and escaping the Soviet Union were extremely low, but the fact that they tried says a great deal about how desperate they were to leave the country. At the same time, she said, virtually all of them were deeply hopeful that they would succeed.

“I asked them all what they packed with them on the day of the hijacking,” she said “All of them except my father packed for freedom. He was the only one who packed for prison.”

The entire episode, she said, testifies to the fact that you can always fight for justice, even against titan like the Soviet Union. “A small group of people can bring down a huge regime,” she said. “You can change things, but you will have to pay the price.”

She also said the history will ultimately judge the attempt to hijack the empty plane as a success because it led to freedom for so many people.

“It went completely wrong and also completely right,” she said, referring to the impact the operation had on Soviet Jewry. “If they didn’t get the death sentences, they wouldn’t have received the attention, and no one would have been released.

“But it’s hard for me to say it went right because it was my parents who suffered for many years in prison,” she added.

Visit the website here for more information about the film, Next Year in Jerusalem by Anat Kuznetsov-Zalmanson.

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