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The Great Escape

The Great Escape

The Soviet Jewry hijacking plot of 1970, soon to be a film.

Associate Editor

In the Orwellian Soviet Union, the 1970 hijacking of a plane by Soviet Jews was the crime of the century, its masterminds sentenced to death, although the hijacking never happened. It was a time, as Dylan sang, when too much of nothing could make a man abuse a king, sleep on nails or eat fire, and Soviet Jews had too much of nothing, routinely sent into — and lost within — the gulag “archipelago” of icy Siberian labor camps for simply teaching Hebrew or requesting a visa to Israel. And so a handful of Soviet Jews dreamed of hijacking a plane, flying over the Iron Curtain to freedom. They were caught in the airport, in the early morning fog, sentenced to years in the gulag and two were sentenced to death for hijacking — sentenced for dreaming; they never got on a plane.

It was the stuff of movies, an international sensation, and now the filmmaker daughter of two of the hijackers, Anat Kuznetzov-Zalmanson, 34, is working on a documentary about it, one of the most dramatic, pivotal chapters in the Soviet Jewry movement. Kuznetzov-Zalmanson was recently in New York, attempting to raise the estimated $200,000 she needs to complete the project.

The film, “Next Year In Jerusalem,” not only includes remarkable archival footage and interviews with the “hijackers,” but Kuznetzov-Zalmanson — two magical names in the movement — even interviews two of the KGB agents that broke the case that saw her mother, Sylva Zalmanson, sentenced to a decade in Siberia, and her father, Edward Kuznetzov, sentenced to death.

All the while, the KGB knew everything. There was a parallel hijacking group in Leningrad. Too many Jews were invited to be on the planes, and too many were talking. Says Anat, “If more than two people were talking, the KGB was listening. During the interrogation, the KGB was even telling the [hijackers] what wine they were drinking at their meetings.”

The film takes its title from Zalmanson’s plea at the group’s trial: “If you would not deny us our right to leave Russia, this group wouldn’t exist. We would just leave to Israel with no desire of hijacking a plane or anything else that’s illegal. Even here, on trial, I still believe that someday I’ll make it to Israel. I feel I’m the Jewish people’s heiress so I’ll quote our saying in Hebrew, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ and ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.’”

Sylva and her two brothers (both in the plot) never said goodbye to their widower father. Brother Zev left a letter for his father in the transistor radio, to be found when he changed the batteries. (The KGB found the letter the very next day.) Sylva cleaned the house for her father, one last time, and cooked his favorite meal, a “goodbye” she left on the stove.

It started as a fantasy, “Operation Wedding,” as outrageous as it was simple: The hijackers would buy every ticket on a small 12-seater plane, so there would be no passengers but them, no innocents in harm’s way. The plane was scheduled to fly from Smolnoye, near Leningrad, to Priozersk, 10 minutes from Finland. When the plane would land in Priozersk, one passenger, Mendel Bodnya, an amateur wrestler, would tackle the pilot. A second passenger, Yosef Mendelevich, with brass knuckles and handcuffs, would jump the co-pilot. Both pilots would then be thrown off the plane and into a forest near the Priozersk runway. Four more Soviet Jews were waiting in the forest, ready to jump on board. Then Mark Dimshitz, a former pilot in the Soviet Air Force, would enter the cockpit and fly the 16 runaways (14 Jews and two non-Jews) into the sky, over the Russian border, over Finland, on to Sweden, bound for Israel.

No one really knew what would happen. It was the season of the “white nights.” There was no sun in the pre-dawn but a gray, whitish color, dim like fog, the color of something vague. It was as romantic as it was political. Kuznetzov, then 30, and Zalmanson, 25 at the time, were newlyweds, the hijacking was to have taken place on June 15, 1970, their six-month anniversary.

Anat, while in New York, recalled, “I asked my mother how they first fell in love, and she said, ‘We were talking about Israel.’ They were both brave, fighters, and could not be broken.” Anat’s mother was so sure they would be successful that when she left home for the last time she carried a suitcase packed for Israel. Anat’s father, who had previously served seven years of hard labor for publishing an anti-Soviet paper, was more hardened. He packed for prison – a Bible and cigarettes. He, nevertheless, believed in the symbolic power of trying. He later told his daughter, “It’s better to [try to] leave it [than just] rot here and never see Israel.”

“The minute he was released,” from his first prison sentence, said Anat, “he started to think about how to escape the country. They wanted to do something dramatic. They felt they couldn’t live a normal life anymore.” Mendelevich prepared a manifesto, to be published if they were killed or captured, prefaced with a verse from Zechariah, “Come, Zion! Escape, you who live in Babylon.” Mendelevich later wrote, “I felt with every fiber of my being that I was fulfilling the commandment of God.”

The hijackers were jumped, beaten, arrested before takeoff. The hijacking never happened but the death sentences were real enough. The sentencing came on Christmas Eve, a slow time for news, so Walter Cronkite reported it at the top of his CBS Evening News, which had never before covered the Soviet Jewish awakening or repression. (Footage of Cronkite’s broadcast, a stunning moment for the Soviet Jewry movement in the United States, is typical of the rare archival broadcasts that Kuznetzov-Zalmanson has already obtained for the film). Cronkite reported, “In emergency session of the Israeli parliament today, Prime Minister Golda Meir, dressed in mourning, appealed for world intervention to save the lives of two Russian Jews [Kuznetzov and Dimshitz] sentenced to death for trying to hijack a plane out of Soviet Russia.”

Around the time of the Soviet case, Spain had sentenced several Basque terrorists to death. With demonstrations in Europe for the relief of the Basque and Jewish prisoners, the Israeli government sent a backdoor message to Spain’s ruler, Generalissimo Franco, who was rumored to be descended from Marranos and had a record of occasional kindness to Jews. Israel asked Franco to commute the Basque sentences as a way to pressure the Soviets to commute the Kuznetzov-Dimshitz sentence. Franco had mercy on the Basques, and within days the Soviets commuted their death sentences, as well. Kuznetzov and Dimshitz eventually served nine years before being sent to Israel.

The international fury and spotlight on human rights in the Soviet Union is credited with a temporary but significant thaw in Soviet oppression. In the decade before the trial, less than 5,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to leave; in the decade after, that number ballooned to 160,000.

After lengthy sentences for the others (10 years for Sylva and her brother Zev; eight years for her brother Yisrael; 15 years for Mendelevich and Yuri Fuderov; the rest sentenced from four to 14 years) all the hijackers made it to Israel, but left their youth in Siberia. In Israel, Sylva and Edward reunited, married for 10 years but nine of those in prison. After Anat’s first birthday, they divorced, in sorrow without hostility.

The hijackers still have proud reunions. Anat’s father is now 73. He worked for Radio Free Europe and Russian-language newspapers. Anat’s mother is now 70 and worked as an engineer before taking up painting. When Anat was in her mid-20s, after graduating the London Film School and directing music videos, her mother would laugh and say, “You know at your age I was already in prison.”

The prison years were hard on Sylva, once spending six months in solitary during a Siberian winter. “It was freezing,” said Anat. “My mother found a mouse in her soup, cockroaches were normal. She’d jump up and down, so as not to freeze to death. She put papers inside her dress to keep warm.

Anat added, “The KGB said, ‘If you ask for forgiveness we will let you go to Israel.’ She said ‘No, I will never ask anything from you.’ They told her, ‘Tell us you’re sick and want out and we’ll let you go.’ She said, ‘I will never ask anything from you.’ After years, in terrible conditions, sick and alone, she still wouldn’t surrender anything. She couldn’t be broken.”

Growing up in Israel, recalled Anat, she’d go walking with her mom or dad and “People in the street would stop and talk to us. Then they looked at me and said, ‘Do you know who your parents are?’ Every year since the first grade, my teachers used to ask me to stand up in class and tell my parents’ story. Back then, I didn’t know how to tell it, but I knew that someday I would.”

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