Yosef Begun, the old
prisoner of Zion,
Yosef Begun, 78, one of the great refusenik “outlaws” of the last century, walks with a gentle lope through the streets of big cities, as out of place as an old cowboy after the frontiers got civilized. Others his age might think of themselves in life’s twilight but his twilight was long ago, when he was in his 30s, in the half-light of prison cells, where he’d remember a song about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, fearing nothing. Now, growing old, outlasting the Soviet Union, even the valley of death becomes another escape story worn smooth from re-telling, told with a smile.
His dimples have deepened into crevices. His place in Jewish life has gone from myth to among the missing. Heroes have a short shelf-life. Kids don’t know him; adults vaguely remember. He walks unrecognized in cities where protesters carried his mug shot on placards, and presidents and the politburo knew him by name.
The other week, Begun, in the halls of the SAR yeshiva high school in Riverdale, happened to be standing near the school’s poster for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli held captive in Gaza. As Paul Simon sings, “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” and Begun was once that hero, exiled into the wilds of Siberia for teaching Hebrew and requesting an emigration visa to Israel. For 16 years the Kremlin refused, catapulting him into the refusenik underground.
Ronald Reagan kept a silver “Prisoner Of Zion” bracelet, engraved with the name “Yosef Begun” on his White House desk. On Solidarity Sundays in Manhattan, tens of thousands demanded his freedom. When Elie Wiesel accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Yosef Begun was the only Jew that Wiesel mentioned by name: “Andrei Sakharov’s isolation is as much of a disgrace as Yosef Begun’s imprisonment,” said Wiesel, “as is the denial of [the Polish freedom movement] Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa’s right to dissent, and Nelson Mandela’s interminable imprisonment.”
Sakharov, Solidarity, Walesa, Mandela — that’s pretty fast company.
And yet, a few years ago, when we saw Begun in Moscow, he was sitting alone in the last row of Chabad’s large Marina Roscha shul. The Russian Jews in the room didn’t know who he was.
In 1974, a Moscow court found Yosef Zisselovitch Begun guilty of violating Article 70, Part 1, of the Russian Federation Criminal Code, for being “hostile to the Soviet system under the guise of promoting Hebrew,” promoting “slanderous fabrications which defamed the Soviet state.”
Begun was sentenced to seven years of hard labor in a prison camp, and then five subsequent years of internal exile in Siberia, in a settlement so remote it was beyond the last railroad track, beyond a flight in a small plane, beyond a turbulent river in a small boat.
He was freed from prison in 1987, “following a week,” reported the Washington Post, “of [Moscow] street demonstrations... on his behalf that were violently dispersed by Soviet plainclothesmen.”
When he stepped off the train and into freedom at Moscow’s outdoor railway station he was greeted by dozens of Russian Jews, faces pink in the February cold, singing “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem,” and “L’Shana Haba B’Yerushalayim,” (“Next Year in Jerusalem”). As they picked him up on their shoulders, Begun balanced himself with one hand and whipped his other arm in the air, conducting the music, empowering the singers.
It’s all in a superb documentary film, still in the rough editing stages, with the rough title (translated from Russian), “Through Struggle You Will Gain Your Rights.”
The Kremlin took notice of Begun. In 1972, when President Nixon visited Moscow, Begun was among the “undesirable elements” swept off the Moscow streets, imprisoned until Nixon left the country.
He was arrested so often, he couldn’t keep a job, branded a “shirker.” In need of pocket change, he tutored other refuseniks in Hebrew. Another arrest, another exile, one time imprisoned for visiting his wife and children when as a criminal he wasn’t allowed within 101 kilometers of Moscow.
Like McMurphy, in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Begun became a hero to the other Russian prisoners for his outrageous defiance.
“I demanded my Hebrew books from the prison administration,” recalls Begun. “I demanded to share my cell with a fellow Jew.”
He’d tell Bible stories to the other prisoners, how the mother of Moses defied the state; how Moses killed the taskmaster; how the haggadah teaches that in every generation you had to believe you could leave your Egypt.
He told the students at SAR that one of the younger criminals in his cell was particularly inspired. “When I finally arrived in Israel,” said Begun, “that prisoner met me at the airport, now in the uniform of an Israeli soldier.”
Begun admits that he wasn’t always brave. He remembers that “in the first hours of my first arrest,” being frightened, “imagining what awaited me in the labor camps, being beaten, being like a slave. And then, in my cell I began to remember a song by Shlomo Carlebach, from Tehillim, ‘though I walk in the valley through the shadow of death I shall have no fear.’ I became strong. I felt the walls of the prison replaced by the warm embrace of the Jewish world. I was ashamed of my lapse into weakness. I began to understand that there was meaning in what I was going through, to be arrested for Jewish activity. I knew I was not alone. My people would not abandon me.”
Aside from the film, Begun says he is working at Da’at (Knowledge), his small Russian-language publishing business that annually translates three or four books on Jewish philosophy and history.
Glenn Richter, one of the leaders of the New York-based Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, says, “Yosef is still one of my heroes. He has kept to his dream of teaching his fellow Russian Jews about their Jewish identity.”
Richter believes that the documentary “can be an important tool for jogging both the fading memories of the Soviet Jewry movement here and for his fellow Russian Jews who may not know of the brave Nachshons who jumped into the Red Sea to achieve a collective freedom.”
A few weeks ago, adds Richter, “Yosef spoke to a gathering of the Russian division of UJA-Federation. The warm reception Yosef received is a heartening sign that, once informed, Yosef’s heroism will not be so quickly forgotten.”
“Sometimes,” says Begun, “people cry, the old Russians, who tell me I help them remember that terrible time.”
“Here in America,” he says, “I tell people, we have to be united now as we were united in that time. We have a very great danger, great enemies now — the Islamists, the Palestinians, the anti-Semites all over the world.”
Additionally, he warns, “We are in danger of being assimilated away. People are not bringing their children to Jewish schools, giving them basic knowledge. In Russia we were forced to assimilate by politics and we fought back. If I can do anything, it is to remind people of the personal struggle that it takes to be a Jew.”
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