Israeli Filmmaker Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s
“Operation Wedding” (A documentary about how her parents escaped from USSR)
The full article by Beth Sarafraz
(Edited story was published at the Jewish Press and San Diego Jewish World in February 2017)
“Ever since I was a little girl, people always asked me:
‘Do you know that your parents are heroes?’ Growing up, everybody knew who my parents were, but in the last 15 years, their story has been forgotten.”
So begins “Operation Wedding,” a new documentary film by Israeli filmmaker/director Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov. On motzei Shabbat, December 10 -- designated United Nations International Human Rights Day -- it opened to a packed house at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue. There, Israel Zalmanson – former Prisoner of Zion/Jewish refusenik who participated in the desperate escape described in the film, and Glenn Richter -- former Soviet Jewry protest leader, were reunited. Warmly welcomed by an audience comprised of many young Jews and Russians, Zalmanson and Richter stood for over an hour answering questions.
Some were absolutely incredulous to learn that in addition to the original Passover Exodus from Egypt, there was a miraculous “Second Exodus” in 1970.
As shown in Operation Wedding, trapped Soviet Jews had reached a “tipping point” – willing to risk death rather than life in a totalitarian state, where they were forbidden to live openly Jewish lives. Incredibly, almost all of those who took the most dangerous path of escape didn’t even know the most basic tenets of the faith they were forbidden to study, yet willing to die for. Unlike Torah scholars studying the Book of Exodus, these were Jews by birth who sensed that this fact alone implied an obligation to live up to some higher, Divine Standard. Deprived of any Jewish yeshiva education, they instinctively sought out ways to teach themselves at least the basics, despite fear of being discovered by KGB investigators. Poring through every page of another book entitled “Exodus,” a work of fiction by writer Leon Uris, made the hair stand up on their arms, made every shattered spark of Jewish pride ignite. On the basis of such stories about post-Holocaust Jews putting up the fight of their lives to found the modern State of Israel, Soviet Jews were inspired to try – or die trying – to escape and join their brothers and sisters in the Jewish homeland.
Set in the 1970s behind the former USSR’s impenetrable “Iron Curtain,” the film is the first full length historically accurate English language documentary account of what is called “the Dymshits-Kuznetsov Hijacking Affair,” a daring, but doomed escape attempt by fourteen refuseniks and two non-Jewish dissidents who bought every seat on a small plane, pretending they were travelling to a wedding inside Russia – hence, the title, “Operation Wedding.” In reality, the group intended to take control of the plane during a stopover at an airstrip near the Soviet-Finnish border, fly 15 minutes to cross that boundary which put them out of danger, and then another 90 minutes or so to finally land in Sweden. Upon disembarking, they hoped to call a press conference, appeal to the conscience of the free world, and then, somehow, some way, fly like birds in the song “Over the Rainbow” -- to Israel!
Focusing on the specific personal memoir of her own parents – Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov effectively presents the big picture as well -- the 1970 Soviet Jewish freedom movement. Avoiding melodrama, making no judgments, the London trained filmmaker/director and daughter of courageous refuseniks lets people speak for themselves in plain, clear language. Family history and Russian Jewish history, past and present, are juxtaposed, swinging back and forth from black and white newsreels, film clips, and archival footage of the 1970s to present day interviews with aging survivors. Recalling the past in incredible detail, the refuseniks actually seem to go back in time – physically and mentally -- to the place where Jews were once trapped behind a so-called “Iron Curtain".
From the film: Sylva and Anat at the airport were the group were arrested in June 1970
Courtesy of Israel Broadcasting Authority
Anat, the loving Jewish daughter born in freedom, revisits the past with her family, always returning to that one fateful day when they tried to escape, but ended up imprisoned. Camera in hand, Anat films it all, the whole rich, hair-raising tale of desperation, chutzpah, courage, faith and suffering. The film, presently being screened all over the world, has won Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards for 2016 – Best Story and an Award of Recognition.
Its “official” NYC premiere will be on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at Columbia University, organized by ARYEH -- the school’s largest pro-Israel student public affairs committee which aims to educate the campus community about Israel. Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov will be there herself, ready to answer questions and greet more Jews who’ll surely react as did the audience at LSS -- uplifted and astounded by this story of heroism and Jewish pride.
In the backdrop of Operation Wedding, plot lines similar to the biblical Exodus, show how point by point, Jews in the anti-Semitic USSR were trapped – persecuted for being Jews (considered the lowest form of human beings). While no law specifically stated this, it was against the Soviet philosophy to lead a Jewish lifestyle, learn Hebrew, study Torah, bake matzoh for Passover, and circumcise their newborn sons. Jews who secretly did these things risked being falsely charged with contrived offenses. Government ordered punishments ranged from intimidation and harassment to imprisonment in cells, work camps and mental institutions. Conversely, Jews forced to assimilate and live foreign, non-Jewish lifestyles weren’t granted true equality with other, non-Jewish citizens in the Soviet “paradise.” Worst of all, under the Soviet regime, emigration was almost entirely forbidden.
We see that the KGB caught and arrested the would-be escapees before they even boarded the plane. Branded “criminals” by the Russians and “heroes” by the western press.
On trial in Leningrad in 1970, Kuznetsov and Dymshits, the pilot, were condemned to death by firing squad. The others received lengthy prison sentences in the Soviet Gulag.
INTERNATIONAL OUTCRY / SECRET DIPLOMACY
After news of the Leningrad Trial leaked to the entire world, those formerly referred to as “The Jews of Silence” (by Elie Wiesel in his 1966 book by that title) were seen as heroic. The film dramatically documents the international outcry in Europe, the United States, and Israel, with 24 governments and the Vatican intervening officially on behalf of the defendants, demanding their freedom, using Moses’ exact words to Pharaoh: “Let my people go!” dubbing the Free Soviet Jewry movement as “the Second Exodus.”
In the film, we see Walter Cronkite on CBS News announcing the arrests of the 16 refuseniks/dissidents. We see an assortment of Americans protesting in the streets, among them the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, 35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, and Jewish establishment groups.
Explaining the backstory about how and why a young, new generation of Jews decided to risk “annoying” the American government by taking to the streets on behalf of their jailed brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union, Glenn Richter said:
“Our generation of young American Jews promised ourselves that we would not be quiet, as largely was our parents' generation during the Holocaust. We did not have their psychological limits of self-restraint. Several of us who began the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry in 1964 had previously been involved in the American civil rights movement. We saw that strong, nonviolent action achieved results. Our parents were concerned, much of the Jewish Establishment remained low-key during the 1960s, but we saw silence on behalf of our Soviet brethren as a sin.
“We felt we achieved some victory when -- after intense international protests, both on the streets and in corridors of international power -- the Kremlin canceled the death sentences for two of the Leningrad Trial defendants and reduced the sentences of several others. The mighty Kremlin walls were cracked.”
GOLDA MEIR’S SECRET RESCUE PLAN
Regarding those “corridors of international power,” hidden from protesters and Walter Cronkite’s news broadcasts, “Operation Wedding” reveals Golda Meir’s secret effort behind the scenes to save Kuznetsov and Dymshits from death. In a voiceover narration, Anat tells us:
“Golda saved my father’s life and it was a state secret for many decades. In order to save the lives of two Jews, my father and the group’s pilot, the Prime Minister of Israel asked for help from Spanish dictator, Franco.
“How is it related? Well, at the very same time, six Basque terrorists in Spain were awaiting a death sentence for killing two policemen. Golda sent a message to Franco, saying: We know that you are descended from a Jewish family that was forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition, so we are pleading with you to help. You can save the lives of two innocent Jews by sparing the lives of six killers. If you do that, Brezhnev the Communist will try to prove that he is more humane than Franco the Fascist.”
According to Israel Zalmanson, “Even locked up in the Gulag, we knew there was a struggle on the outside to free us. I didn’t mind – as much -- to be in jail once I learned that the gates were opening for other people. This was a morale booster, that at least whatever we did was not a complete failure. That was my initial feeling, especially since I had also learned that the KGB had used our hijacking attempt to crush the Jewish movement for emigration and cracked down hard, arresting many Jewish activists, our friends.”
Franco cooperated. Brezhnev followed suit as Golda had predicted, commuting the “death by firing squad” sentence previously ordered for Kuznetsov and Dymshits to long years in the Gulag. Despite being a closed society, the Kremlin had some concern for its international public image.
There were other reasons, as well, for the Kremlin’s sudden display of “compassion.” These reasons, which came into play more than two years later, were economic – the Soviets wanted and needed a trade deal with the West. In a post-Holocaust world grappling with guilt and shame over six million Jews murdered by evil Nazis while the civilized world looked away, the Americans wouldn’t negotiate such a deal without considerable human rights concessions – a quid pro quo of trade credits for emigration. This meant the Soviet Gates of Hell would have to open for the ¾ million desperate Jews who managed to leave Russia between then and the end of 1991, when the USSR dissolved.
PRICE OF FREEDOM PAID BY HEROES
But there was a price to pay. The refuseniks convicted at trial were held back, serving long prison sentences. The fearless and foolish youths who ran ahead of everyone else, armed with rock solid faith and courage, opening the eyes of the world and thus opening the pathway out for Jews escaping tyranny in this “second Exodus” were forced to stay behind.
Edward Kuznetsov, who has the soul of a prizefighter, understood all this from the beginning. It is almost axiomatic, at least to most heavyweight champions of the world, that boxing matches are won, or lost, before anyone even steps in the ring. It’s a mind game, in other words. Kuznetsov speaks to this point in the film, confessing that he knew the flight to freedom was “doomed,” and he’d actually packed for prison (as opposed to Shabbos in Tel Aviv).
Edward & Anat at Operation Wedding Tel Aviv Premiere l Credit: Jane Kravchik
He refers to the group, with classic tough guy modesty, as “idiots like us” who decided to go up against an entire state with all its combined weaponry devoted to crushing dissent. What chance did the average person have in such a situation?
“In any case we would be arrested. It was better to be in prison for a cause that might make a difference, than to be in prison for no reason, with no result.”
Kuznetsov, brilliant and courageous, actually authored a book – “Prison Diaries” – during his first four years in prison, smuggled to the West and published in several languages since 1974. His method: writing microscopically small on paper smaller than a credit card. He would then roll up each note and attach it with thread to his back tooth. If danger presented, he could simply bite the string and swallow that day’s “chapter.” If not, he’d smuggle it to the outside world.
Perhaps his determination to document everything he saw and experienced was the thing that kept him sane. Think of it: He and Sylva were newlyweds when arrested, very young, very much in love. She’d been sentenced to 10 years, some of it in solitary confinement.
Edward writing book in prison - reenactment
Courtesy of Lina and Slava Chaplin
Her new husband was aware that after four years, Sylva was exchanged for a Soviet spy and flown to Israel. She admitted feeling “guilty,” because her husband, two of her brothers and friends were still in the cruel Soviet jails and camps. Were they aware of her 16 day hunger strike to protest for Edward, Israel and Wolf conducted in front of the U.N., until she lost consciousness and was rushed to a hospital?
Kuznetsov, for all his posturing as a tougher than nails sort of guy, is also endearing, funny, and “all in” to help Anat make her film. He refrains from shmaltzing up stories of what he went through. His interviews with Anat are punctuated by chain smoking and pouring vodka shots from time to time, announcing, “A vodka a day keeps the doctor away.” When Anat shows him the KGB website on her laptop, he grins incredulously: “The KGB has a website? Maybe also the Gestapo has a website!” As he laughs on the screen, the audience is relieved to laugh along with him.
Sylva & Anat at Operation Wedding Premiere in Tel Aviv l Credit: Adi Adar
But Edward was not the parent who went back to Russia with Anat to film the inside of a typical cell. It was Sylva who agreed to go, kidding Anat, “When I was your age, I was already in prison.” But 45 years later, on a filmmaking visit to the KGB cells, she is clearly nervous, fearful, cannot bear to be near Russian soldiers. It is only her deep love for this daughter and deep commitment to help see this project through that permits her to endure a trip back to the former Soviet Union. They visit her parents’ graves, placing stones on them. They tour Smolny Airport where the group was caught. The last stop is into the former KGB headquarters where the paint peeling filthy cells look like hovels run by slumlords.
Sylva has a wry sense of humor. Seeing the horror on Anat’s face, she smiles and comments, “What, you expected the Champs-Elysees?”
In a particularly poignant scene with Anat filming inside the cell – barely enough room for a bed, Sylva points out the slot in the door to slide a food tray in, the only opening in the entire room. Anat asks, “Mommy, where are the windows? There are no windows in here.” When Sylva remains silent, Anat turns her face to the wall and sobs uncontrollably. In a walled-in solitary outdoor “exercise” area, Sylva demonstrates how she kept her sanity – listening to music in her mind and waltzing in circles. Anat is deathly quiet, clearly shaken to her core.
From the film Operation Wedding: Sylva Zalmanson in prison yard l Courtesy of Israel Broadcasting Authority
In a voiceover, Anat whispers, “I wish I could go back in time and whisper in my parents’ ears, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay.’ I wish I could tell them the exact date and time they would separately be freed.”
The truth is, she actually did succeed to go back in time to the unchanged rundown hard-faced former Soviet Union, choosing to film the reality instead of using a stage set. People in the audience viewing this wiped their eyes and bit their lips watching mother and daughter walking through a nightmare, with Sylva whispering to Anat, “Be strong.”
Yosef Mendelevich, now a rabbi in Jerusalem, describes in the film what happened when it was Sylva’s turn to give her “statement” at the Leningrad Trial. She stood up and said, speaking in Hebrew: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning.” She then translated and repeated the statement of Jewish faith in Russian. This was not well received by the “Seed of Stalin” judges over there. But her words, reported back to the free world, inspired Jews and non-Jews protesting on the streets, reaching the sympathetic ear of the Prime Minister of Israel and the heart of the President of the United States.
NACHSHON BEN AMINADAV
It is worth remembering that when the ancient Hebrews, in the original Exodus, were trapped between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s advancing armies, a man named Nachshon jumped into the sea and proceeded to walk through the waves until the water was up to his nostrils. Only then did God split the waters. Only then could three million Jews rush in after him, to freedom.
The fourteen Jews and two non-Jews featured in the film and in the history – Sylva and Edward among them – stepped into the breech, the abyss, the deepest primordial waters that could have closed over their heads -- filled with this rarest, highest, almost unheard of type courage and faith -- like Nachshon, who “entered the water first” (Exodus 14:22) while everyone else “entered first on dry land” (Exodus 14:29).
Edward Kuznetsov’s strategy had worked better than he ever imagined. The escape attempt failed, but the noise it triggered was deafening and circled the globe, pushing Jews and non-Jews to action – and surely reaching the heavens as well. Seeing a world of people committed to saving the Soviet Jews was a magical miraculous window in time -- perhaps the likes of which we shall never see again. However, we can look back by viewing Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s powerful, heartfelt film about the “Second Jewish Exodus” and experience a measure of hope.
Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov is the filmmaker daughter of Sylva and Edward. Her birth, one year after Edward was allowed out of the Gulag to join his wife in Israel, was an affirmation of life and honor, as well. When in an archived film from 1980, the camera moves in for a close up of three day old Anat’s baby face, you sense that the soul gazing out through those serious eyes has a story to tell and a mission to be carried out as soon as she grows up.
Backstory about Anat: At 29, while she was driving down an Israeli highway, another driver ramned into her car, causing a serious collision. “I thought I was dying,” she recalls. “When he crashed me, my car was spinning at least four times and during that time, I thought: Is this how I'll die? How is that possible, I didn't make the film about my parents yet..."
For young Israelis and American Jews who aren’t learning this story in school, it is unfinished business for Anat, now a grown up professional, to suggest that Jews who don’t even know her parents exist, should honor them. True, this is “yesterday’s news,” but like the biblical Exodus, once learned -- unforgettable. Ask yourself how many truly honorable people are out there, anyway, whose courageous actions both impact and make a positive difference, up until this very day? This reporter has recently learned that Israeli educators, after viewing Operation Wedding, are considering adding the Soviet Jewry struggle for freedom to their curriculum, inserting another chapter into the textbooks which documents the fact that this particular persecution ended in a “Second Exodus,” instead of another mass murder of innocents, another recitation of the Kaddish by whoever survives.
This young Israeli filmmaker, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, properly honors her parents by presenting to the public what core integrity really is -- unshakable belief in God, justice, mercy, human freedom and dignity – and why those souls who know its true value will fight to the death for the right to live their lives in accordance.
Simplistic variations on this theme overflow in fictional fairytales, where unnamed handsome princes or armored knights on horseback ride to the rescue of fair maidens and other downtrodden people in unnamed faraway kingdoms. The bad guys are always quickly vanquished and fairytales always end with everyone living "happily ever after."
But If you are looking for the Jewish version of a fairytale, forget about princes wearing gold crowns or knights in shining armor arriving on the scene to rescue downtrodden enslaved Jews. For Jews, the rescuer in chief is always God and other Jews brave enough to risk certain death by defying their oppressors. For Jews, “fairytalish” stories in our collective memories never end with a line about “living happily ever after.” Rather, the standard next to last line would be: “living happily till the next enemy of the Jews comes on the scene intending to kill us all.”
But hold on! There’s one more line, the one written in the Haggadah recited every year at Passover, commemorating the first Exodus from Egypt when God saved us from Pharaoh and his armies. This is a true Jewish story, and thus it ends in a bittersweet Jewish way, with a warning and a promise from God:
“In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”
NOTE: Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov will tour the USA with “Operation Wedding” from February 2017 onward. Visit the website to watch the trailer and for a list of upcoming screenings: