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The Nativ Liaison Office was established in Israel in June 1951 to communicate with the Jews of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This state institution appeared thanks to the Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion, who was well aware that Jews living under the conditions of Bolshevik totalitarianism needed special help in realizing their right to Aliyah.

But Israeli organizations could not operate openly in the early 1950s on the territory of the USSR. Soviet Jews, brought up in fear of mass repressions, discussed the topic of repatriation, if at all, only whispering. However, there were people who openly expressed their desire to leave for Israel and were not afraid to agitate their fellow believers to do the same. One such Jew, who was not afraid of “all-hearing ears and all-seeing eyes”, lived in Ukraine. He was smart, brave and dreamed of living in a free country – enough to sign his own sentence.

In the evening of February 12, 1953, a middle-aged man, a former chemist of the Khimshirpotreb cooperative ISAAK CHATSKIN (1893-1974), was arrested in Odessa. The arrest warrant, signed on February 10, 1953 by the deputy head of the 2nd department of the UMGB of the Odessa region, indicated that Isaak Chatskin, born in 1893, non-partisan, was actively working in the city near the Black Sea to “bring together anti-Soviet elements of the Jewish nationalist underground”. To prevent a dangerous political criminal from escaping, he was put in an internal prison of the Odessa Regional Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In dry clerical language, the documents said that a hunched, gray-haired old man treats his acquaintances in a nationalist spirit, prepares them to leave for Israel and takes measures to create an organization to wage an active struggle against Soviet power.

The investigation was primarily interested in the personal data of the arrested person. After all, a non-proletarian origin in the country of the Soviets was already a crime in itself. According to the materials of the case, Isaak was born in 1893 in Odessa. Once his surname sounded like Chachkes, but Chatskin's father Zisman-Zusya decided to “Russify” a little because of the persecution of the tsarist authorities on the Jews - to change the surname to the Russian manner. The Chatskins-Chachkes came from the second largest city of Galicia – Brod, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Communication with abroad is another typical lead of the Stalinist investigation. Chatskin also had problems with this.

Despite the declared working origin, Isaak Chatskin himself also studied at the gymnasium, not Russian, but the Iglitskiy Jewish gymnasium, known throughout Russia. He began his studies in 1905, with the beginning of the First Russian Revolution, and graduated right on the eve of the First World War. In September 1914, like his peers, Chatskin, who was in Russia on vacation, was mobilized into the tsarist army as a private in the 196th Infantry Regiment of Insar.

From spring to late August 1915, Isaak fought in Belarus against a German until half of the regiment was captured near Brest-Litovsk. Chatskin, like his fellow soldiers, was brought to a war prisoner’s camp on the territory of Prussia. When the Germans found out that he was a former medical student, they ordered him to perform the role of a medical assistant for Russian soldiers.

Returning to exchange prisoners in Odessa in 1919, Chatskin worked for his uncle at the factory until he was confiscated by the Bolsheviks.

Chatskin did not lose his thoughts of becoming a doctor, and in 1920 he again entered Odessa as a physician. But in the fourth year I realized that he was still more attracted to chemistry. In 1924 he entered the Institute of Chemical Technology: there it was possible to combine study and work. Chatskin received his diploma in chemistry of the main chemical industries only at the age of 37.

So, having checked the personal data immediately after the arrest, the Chekists began interrogation. The inquiry lasted from 10 pm to 5 am. Isaak answered all the questions in the negative: I am not a nationalist; I have never conducted any anti-Soviet activity. The dissatisfied Captain Zinchenko, head of the investigative department of the UMGB, finished on a minor note: “During subsequent interrogations, the investigation will require you to testify the truth”.

Zinchenko backed up the threat with a deed: the old man suffering was interrogated every night, not allowing him to sleep during the day. A week later, Isaak agreed with the investigator: if you call a supporter of his native culture and language, who wants to live with his people in Israel, a “nationalist”, then write down: “I, Isaak Chatskin, am a Jewish nationalist, but I have not done anything bad against the Soviet regime and I am not an anti-Soviet”.

In fact, the chemist Chatskin has never been a member of political parties and organizations, but he was a Jewish patriot or, in the terminology of Soviet punitive bodies, a nationalist, according to him, from childhood. This was facilitated by his studies at the gymnasium, where Chatskin was taught Hebrew and Jewish history. It was in the gymnasium that he heard the story of the Maccabees, got acquainted with the tragic fate of the Jerusalem Temple and learned that the Jews, it turns out, also have their own Motherland – Eretz Israel.

The main flow of immigration from the Russian Empire to Eretz Israel then went through Odessa, which was called the “gate to Zion”. Various Jewish parties and public associations operated in the city, an irreconcilable struggle was waged between the Zionists, Bundists and assimilators. Society did not remain indifferent to the “Jewish question”: pogroms swept through the Russian Empire in waves. One of the bloodiest events took place on October 18-22, 1905 in Odessa: after the suppression of the pogromists, martial law remained in the city until the autumn of 1909.

During the Great Patriotic War, Chatskin was first evacuated to Krasnodar, and from August 1942 he lived in Tbilisi, where, as a chemist, he purified water for the Main Military Sanitary Directorate of the Red Army.

After returning from Tbilisi to Odessa in June 1945, Chatskin began to meet his acquaintances, who had also returned from evacuation. All of them were dissatisfied with the Soviet policy towards Jews, all were horrified by the tragedy that happened in their hometown – at the time of liberation, only 600 Jews remained in Odessa.

The closure of the Odessa State Jewish Theater and the cessation of Odessa radio broadcasts in Yiddish, as well as the arrests of Jews in Moscow, further convinced Chatskin that a new round of persecution of Jews was unfolding in the country. The Bolsheviks did not provide Soviet Jews with any opportunities for self-realization – but this could be done in independent Israel. In addition, a large number of scientists among Soviet Jews could have a positive influence on the development of the re-established Jewish state.

It was necessary to take such actions that would force the Soviet leadership to allow the free exit of Jews. Someone had to take the initiative.

At one of the meetings over the maps in the spring of 1946, Chatskin shared his plan with his familiar citizens of Odessa.

From among like-minded people, it was necessary to create groups – the so-called “tens”, at the head of which should be a person who is responsible both for the group and for a certain direction of activity. Thus, at an opportune moment, the Jews could orderly appeal to the Soviet government with a request to allow them to leave for their historical homeland. If Jews en masse turn to the Soviet government, the relevant authorities will eventually give the go-ahead.

The idea of repatriating to Israel captivated Chatskin so much that he, neglecting his own safety, began to discuss this topic even with unfamiliar people. And, of course, he immediately caught the attention of the Soviet special services.

MGB agent “Markov”, aka Yakov Vernikov, a dental technician by profession, at the apartment of his father-in-law Lev Gitgarts constantly met Chatskin, who came to visit. In April 1946, Chatskin, in response to Vernikov's complaints about family troubles, invited him to join a group of Jews whose tasks were to fight for an independent Jewish state and to help Jews who want to leave for Palestine.

In 1949, the agent “Stroyev” began to work on Chatskin's undercover case (code name – “Pharisees”), and in July 1950 he was joined by a sexot named “Davyd”. Isaak, unsuspecting, told them in confidence that he had managed to assemble a group of Jewish self-defense of 5 people. If the war broke out, each of them could have fielded 20 fighters who, in case of the defeat of the USSR, could protect Jewish families from the pogromists.

The Jewish Self-Defense Group was very interested in the Ministry of State Security. But even more they were interested in the information about the terrorist plans of a chemical engineer. As early as July 23, 1950, Chatskin allegedly told Davyd that the Soviet government was very afraid of any publicity, therefore, purely theoretically, terror could be a very effective method of fighting.

Three years later, investigator Zinchenko, who had intelligence data at his disposal, considered the “terrorist group” and the “self-defense group” to be the main points of the charge.

On February 21, after a week of continuous interrogations, the investigative department decided to bring Isaak Chatskin into custody under Articles 54-10 of the Ukrainian SSR Criminal Code, Part II (anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation) and 54-2 (armed uprising).

Unprecedented pressure was put on Chatskin: the investigator demanded that he name the fighters he had trained for carrying out terrorist attacks. “I cannot testify about what was not in reality”, – Isaak flatly refused to slander anyone: Article 54 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code presupposed punishment up to execution.

The case of the Odessa underground organization continued to unfold. A wave of arrests swept through the acquaintances and former colleagues of Chatskin at the Odessa Mirror Plant.

Trying to concoct a “group case”, the investigators decided to consider all meetings of Chatskin with those under investigation at the Odessa Glass Factory, during the game of cards and dominoes and the feasts organized by him, to be considered “illegal gatherings”.

The case of Chatskin and his group was coming to an end. On May 30, 1953, Isaak got acquainted with the case and refused to petition the investigation. The indictment read: Chatskin admitted that he was the initiator and inspirer of the creation of an underground anti-Soviet organization, recruited like-minded people, carried out nationalist propaganda and expressed his intention to flee the USSR to Israel.

The meeting of the regional court was scheduled for June 27, 1953, but the head of the Odessa internal prison petitioned to postpone it for 8-10 days due to the poor health of the person under investigation.
Finally, on July 15-18, 1953, all six defendants appeared in a closed session before the Odessa Regional Court. At the trial itself, Chatskin did not plead guilty and in his explanation to the court noted that all Jews are interested in life in Israel, which the Soviet state recognized and helped. “I want... to leave Russia. I do not want to take anything with me from the Soviet Union, – said the elderly man at the trial. – Russians and Jews are two cats in a sack that need to be separated”. Chatskin publicly declared that the leadership in the USSR was anti-Semitic.

He also confirmed that after the war he tried to discuss with friends the departure of Jews to Palestine and during a game of cards in Lev Gitgarts’ apartment he really put forward the idea of creating Jewish groups. According to him, to all his proposals and conversations, those sitting with him either reacted negatively, or kept silent. Some of the testimonies in which he slandered other people, he signed due to the fact that during interrogation he “rolled on the floor”, and the text of the confrontations was written by the investigator in advance. However, the court did not take these confessions into account.

Isaak Chatskin was sentenced under Articles 54-10 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR, Part II and 54-2, to 25 years in forced labor camps with confiscation of property and 5-year disqualification. All those who were involved in the Chatskin case also received long sentences.

A week later, Chatskin's lawyer filed a cassation appeal, pointing out that the fact that Chatskin had organized an anti-Soviet group had never been proven. Some of the witnesses testified that no one listened to Chatskin with his appeals, considering the elderly person crazy. The lawyer did not hesitate to mention the suspiciously broken leg of the convict – he was sitting at the court hearings in a cast.

Isaak himself decided to write to the Supreme Court of the Ukrainian SSR. In the letter, he asked the question: what could be criminal in the desire to leave for the homeland of their ancestors? A patriot and a nationalist are different things.

The notebook that Chatskin found during a search contained a project of the Jewish-Arab Academy of Sciences, which he dreamed of organizing upon arrival in Israel. The academy was to be open not only to the two indigenous peoples of Israel, but in general to all the peoples of the world. Particular attention was supposed to be paid to the “laws of the world” and the Periodic Table of the Elements.

However, the Supreme Court was adamant and, having considered the complaints of Chatskin and his lawyer, upheld the verdict. In November 1953, 60-year-old Isaak was transferred to the Mordovian Dubravnyi camp of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – a special camp for political prisoners.

Two years after Stalin's death, the ice gradually broke, and the Chairman of the Supreme Court of the USSR granted the lawyer's petition. The court finally took into account Chatskin's statement about illegal methods of investigation and admitted that the court did not have evidence of any organizational work to create criminal groups, and Chatskin's meetings with convicted comrades were not organized. The sentence to the chemist was re-qualified and the term was reduced – 10 years without confiscation of property.

At the end of November 1955, his comrades were fully acquitted by the Judicial Chamber for Criminal Matters of the Supreme Court and the case against them was closed for lack of evidence of the accusation.

According to the chief accountant of Dubravlag, the “head of the underground organization” Isaak Chatskin himself was released by the end of January 1956 and left for his place of residence – Odessa.

Chatskin was not going to oppose the USSR with arms in hand – he just wanted to leave for the cherished Land of Israel along with all the other Jews. Under the conditions of the Stalinist regime, some considered him crazy, others – a criminal.

Chatskin's dream came true much later – hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union were given the opportunity to freely repatriate to Israel. It became completely legal to campaign for aliyah, and Nativ bureau, which was engaged in consular work and Sokhnut agency, which was responsible for the delivery of repatriates, opened their offices in the cities of the Union.

In 1992, Isaak Chatskin was posthumously rehabilitated. He did not live to see the powerful wave of the Great Aliyah from the post-Soviet space; he was never able to carry out his own “exodus from slavery”. But he fought, searched and did not give up. His faith brought closer the victory of Soviet Jews in the struggle for their homeland.

Isaak Chatskin

1893 – 1974

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