top of page

“I open the newspaper with anxiety and listen to the news on the radio. The desire to be with you is stronger than ever... You cannot even imagine my state of mind. All the best. The holiday of freedom is approaching. The time has really come,” this is how the simple Soviet builder Hillel Kaplinsky described his experiences in a letter about what was happening in Eretz Israel. He sent the letter, dated March 29, 1948, from Kursk, without any fear of Soviet censorship. He, who was very familiar with Soviet penitentiary institutions, was tired of being afraid. And there was no particular point, since the USSR Ministry of State Security was already aware of his views and repeated requests to leave for Palestine.

The fearless Zionist Hillel Kaplinsky was from Myrhorod in the Poltava region, vividly described by Gogol in his stories. Myrhorod was not a typical Jewish shtetl, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews constituted a large and influential community in the city. Hillel's father, Joseph Mendelevich, a native of the town of Dyatlovo in the Grodno region, in his youth exported Ukrainian agricultural products to Western Europe, and around 1904 he finally moved from Belarus to Ukraine, choosing Myrhorod as his place of residence. Kaplinsky Sr. was a believer who strictly observed the laws of Moses. Some time ago, he even studied at the famous throughout the Jewish world the Slobodka yeshiva. His wife, Hilya's mother, was called Feiga Arievna Ioselevich. She took care of her family, raising her daughters Sarah, Hana, Shifra and Haya, as well as four boys: Moses, Aaron, Hillel, Elya.

Since childhood, parents had instilled in their children a love for Israel. Eretz Israel was the center of all conversations, dreams and ideas of the Kaplinsky family. When Moses, Hillel's older brother, was born in 1907, a tree was planted in his honor by the Jewish National Fund in the Herzl Forest, near Rehovot. This was the wish of his parents, who generously donated to plant the tree to the Jewish National Fund, which was engaged in the acquisition and development of land in Eretz Israel. The Kaplinskys also had shares in the Jewish Colonial Bank, which the head of the family was forced to burn in an oven during the Civil War.

The Kaplinskys always had plenty of books: both grandfather Mendel and father had two bookcases with literature in the holy language. At the very beginning of the revolution, Hilya's father seriously expanded his library: he brought several cartloads of books from Poltava. Hillel Kaplinsky read these several hundred volumes in Hebrew, mostly original and translated fiction, throughout his childhood.

At the age of six, Hilya Kaplinsky began his science. One fine day, grandfather Mendel solemnly entered his room, wrapped the boy in a tales and carried him to the cheder in his arms. He apprenticed his grandson to melamed, so to speak. At the same time, he rewarded the boy with handfuls of coins, which, according to the grandfather, were poured out to him from heaven by angels. Hilya came to cheder with a lot of knowledge, so he studied with the older boys. For some time, the header operated legally, but then it was closed. Melamed, a wonderful teacher and great expert in Tanakh, began to gather a group secretly in the synagogue, but these activities soon stopped.

Hillel Kaplinsky started Soviet school directly from the fourth grade. He graduated from the seven-year school in 1928, never having become a pioneer. His heart had belonged to Zion since childhood, not to the Bolshevik-Leninist party. Even before his school graduation, Hillel Kaplinsky joined the youth Zionist movement "Hashomer Hatzair."

In those years in Myrhorod, there were no non-partisan children: some of Hillel's peers belonged to the right-wing "Hashomer Hatzair," others to the more left-wing but also Zionist "Jugend CS," and there were active members from the United All-Russian Zionist Youth Organization (EVOSM). Initially, Hillel Kaplinsky was a "tsofe" (scout), and at 17, in 1929, he joined the "bogrim" (adult "shomrim"). Their "snif" (branch) had about 35 active members. They were led by Berta Svechkova, an energetic girl who was a member of EVOSM, which at that time supervised the "shomrim" in the right-wing "HeHalutz."

The youth of Myrhorod from the right-wing "Hashomer Hatzair" published their own magazine, regularly gathered for discussions and lectures on the history of the Jewish people and the developing Palestine, and studied Hebrew. They also had labor and craft lessons, as well as collective gardening, which they organized right within the city.

Unwilling to tolerate the current state of affairs, Jewish communists and OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate) officers decided to strike at the "counter-revolutionaries." In 1927, Berta Svechkova was arrested and sent into exile in Shymkent (Chimkent), Kazakhstan. Most of those who had sworn loyalty to the ideals of "Hashomer Hatzair" before its banner withdrew from the movement, publishing a statement in the newspaper declaring that they no longer wished to have any connection with the Zionist movement.

Hillel Kaplinsky managed to avoid arrest, but he neither sat idly by nor cowardly joined the Komsomol. The young man decided to take the initiative and eventually reorganized the cell. Now it consisted of about a dozen of the most resolute activists.

Almost immediately after the re-establishment of the "Hashomer Hatzair" circle in Myrhorod, the activists managed to connect with the Moscow Gdud. This was the name of a cell of the organization based right under the nose of the Soviet authorities in Moscow and the surrounding region, consisting of the most steadfast Zionists who had come to the capital. Soon, a young emissary arrived in Myrhorod from Moscow and suggested that the Myrhorod members go to Moscow to strengthen the Gdud.

The most active member from Myrhorod, Hillel Kaplinsky, was sent to the Moscow Gdud. In early November 1929, the seventeen-year-old Kaplinsky set out for Moscow. Everything went smoothly: at the designated place, Hillel met a contact who settled him in a safe house. A few days later, the same person took Kaplinsky to his new underground residence.

The secret location was at the Perlovka railway station on the Kazan direction. It was a suburban area where Zionists, posing as students and applicants of Moscow universities, rented apartments together. Hillel was assigned to one of these communal apartments. After settling in the suburb, Kaplinsky's first task was to go to the labor exchange to find a job. Soon, a position was found for him as an oiler in a railway depot. The job involved adding axle oil to the train bearings and carrying out minor repairs on the cars. Life in the Gdud fully aligned with the ideals of the young Zionist: acquiring labor skills, he contributed his earnings to the common fund, and all the group's leisure time was dedicated to intensive preparation for Aliyah.

After some time, Kaplinsky was informed that the main headquarters of "Hashomer Hatzair" was organizing a seminar for training counselors, or "madrichim." The organization's leadership decided to gather a group of the most capable activists and prepare them to work with Zionist youth in cities and towns throughout the Soviet Union. Among the candidates selected for the training were Hillel Kaplinsky, Israel Lizenberg, Mikhail Glezer, Benzion Ginzburg, and another girl, a member either of the " HeHalutz" organization or the cultural-educational movement "Tarbut." It should be noted that there were two groups, and Kaplinsky was among those listed above.

Soon, several shipments of books in Hebrew arrived from abroad, along with funds to conduct a seminar. Every day, teachers, members of "Tarbut," came to the students of the courses. The seminar, called the "ulpan," was led by the writer Avraham Krivoruchko (Avraham Kariv), who taught Hebrew and Jewish literature. The pedagogy lecturer was Yosef-Leib Tsfasman, editor of the Zionist newspaper " HeHalutz" and author of popular "halutzian" songs. Civics and the history of the Zionist movement were taught by a man nicknamed Boris, a member of the Zionist Labor Party (STP) – Tze'irei Zion. The students were also taught world literature.

Kaplinsky, who had worked a shift on the railway, did not feel tired and listened to the seminar lecturers with pleasure. He was obsessed with literature, so he considered the opportunity to study with real writers a gift of fate. He himself wrote poems in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian – some of his poems were later published in Eretz Israel in the newspaper of the labor youth movement "Be-maale." Sometimes, at a youth party or even while working on a construction site, Hillel would suddenly step aside and quickly write something down –this is how a poem was born. Avraham Kariv and other teachers recognized the young man's talent, but soon the grateful student and the benevolent teachers had to part ways forever.

The classes were scheduled for a year, but ended early due to arrests among members of the illegal " HeHalutz," which began in January 1931. The graduation was expedited, and the listeners who completed the seminar in February were sent to underground work in the regions. This was the first and last course organized by the VAAD "Tarbut."

Hillel Kaplinsky was sent to Kyiv. Several other shomrim, including Moishe Lempert, an activist from one of the suburban communes near Moscow, were also transferred there. Together with Lempert, a girl named Manya Shtram, and a Zionist named Rafael, Hillel Kaplinsky drew up a plan for underground work. The first thing they did in Kyiv was to start a magazine in Russian, which published news from Palestine. To avoid suspicion, Hillel posed as a completely apolitical worker by getting a job at the Lepse factory.

The activities of the "Hashomer Hatzair" emissaries continued until the fall of 1931. Late in the evening on November 10, 1931, uninvited guests from the OGPU came to Hillel Kaplinsky's apartment on Basseynaya Street. During the search, issues of the underground magazine published by his group, as well as "shomer" magazines from Moscow, were found with the Zionist.

At the first interrogation, Hillel Iosifovich admitted that he was an activist of the Zionist organization "National Labor Hashomer Hatzair," but refused to give any testimony about his activities. He called the self-published magazines found in his possession the result of his interest in literature and social issues. "Are you a lone craftsman?" asked the OGPU officer, the Jew Aglitsky, mockingly, finally losing his temper. "Call it what you want, but I acted alone."

Then Aglitsky informed Hillel that his comrades were in the hands of the OGPU. "Who is Krasnoshtein?" the OGPU officer asked the young man. Hillel Kaplinsky replied that Krasnoshtein was a like-minded person he often met with. "And how do you know him?" Aglitsky continued to ask. "I met him in the library." Kaplinsky, trying to hide his comrade's identity from the investigation, did not know that the intelligence had long reported to the authorities: under the name Abram Moiseevich Krasnoshtein, one of the most active Zionists, Moishe Lempert, was hiding in Kyiv.

"And who are Shilman and Rachel Gleizer?" Aglitsky named the arrested comrades. "Krasnoshtein introduced me to these girls. I don't know anything about their political beliefs," Kaplinsky continued to deny.

A month later, the Zionist Rachel Gleizer, the daughter of a rabbi from the town of Kupel, was released as no evidence of her anti-Soviet activities could be found. Kaplinsky and the others continued to be interrogated. Finally, during one of the meetings in Aglitsky's office, Kaplinsky suggested, "You already have enough data to pass a sentence. What I consider unnecessary, I won't tell you even if you shoot me!" Indeed, the interrogations abruptly ceased. Only six months later, on February 19, 1932, Hillel Kaplinsky was informed that the Special Meeting of the Collegium of the OGPU had sentenced him under Article 54-10 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR to three years of exile in Eastern Siberia.

He had to serve his political exile in Yeniseysk, Krasnoyarsk region. Exiles belonging to various parties and groups that existed before the revolution usually arrived there. In exile, Hillel Kaplinsky quickly became friends with two other Zionists: Mendel Beylin and Shmuel-Yosef Lyabok. Together with his friends, they engaged in intellectual self-development, and Hillel instilled in them his love of poetry. He also actively engaged in sports. Despite physical limitations due to a severe bone disease he had suffered in childhood, Kaplinsky was fond of swimming and gymnastics.

The young Zionists were also cared for by their senior comrades, of whom there were dozens in Yeniseysk. Among them, Hillel Kaplinsky particularly remembered Zalman Lokshin, who had come from Poland to revive the old cells of the left-wing Zionist party Dror. Experienced fighter and excellent theoretician, Lokshin gave lectures on current issues, captivating the youth with stories about building a Jewish Palestine.

Kaplinsky spent his entire term in exile in Yeniseysk. Hilya was incredibly lucky: he was released just before Kirov's assassination. Another couple of weeks, and he would have remained in Yeniseysk or perhaps been sent even further away. From Yeniseysk, he went to Kursk, where his family had moved from Myrhorod. Kursk was a gathering place for many Zionists who were not allowed to live in big cities and capitals.

In June 1935, Mendel Beylin, Hillel's friend from Yeniseysk, also freed from exile, arrived in Kursk. The comrades rented an apartment together, and soon they were joined by another friend—Moshe Vinogradsky, an expert in Hebrew and a former exiled Zionist. He worked in a large financial office, while the former "shomrim," Hillel and Mendel, faithful to the ideals of "Jewish labor," got jobs at a construction site.

Among the Zionists living in Kursk was Shabtai Volodarsky, a prominent figure in the left-wing Zionist party Tze'irei Zion, as well as a married couple, Nahum Berger and Malka Esrig, with whom Hillel constantly communicated. There was no talk of continuing organized Zionist activities, but Kaplinsky simply could not sit idly by, passively waiting for his fate to be decided. The Red Cross Political Department, the only human rights organization in the USSR to which Kaplinsky repeatedly appealed for permission to emigrate to Palestine, was powerless in his case. He tried to maintain contact with former comrades. Once, Kaplinsky went to Chernihiv to see Avraham Galperin, a former member of Gdud, who had returned from exile and was trying to revive the Zionist network in the Jewish towns of Ukraine.

No sooner had Kaplinsky returned from his trip than the situation in Kursk began to change rapidly. In the spring of 1936, rumors spread among the Zionists about a wave of arrests among former activists. On the night of April 30, 1936, these rumors were confirmed: OGPU officers raided the apartment of Hillel and his comrades. The arrested were placed in solitary confinement in the Kursk prison for political prisoners. At first, the guys thought it was the usual "preventative measure" before May Day, but their hopes were not fulfilled.

During the investigation, Hillel Kaplinsky and his friends were accused of intending to create a Zionist movement that would engage in subversive activities against the Soviet government. About a month later, the friends were transferred to an ordinary criminal prison. Soon, Moshe Vinogradsky, Mendel Beylin, and Hillel Kaplinsky were sentenced to exile.
And once again, Kaplinsky, if one can put it that way, was lucky. He received his sentence before Nikolai Yezhov, the bloody executioner, became the General Commissar of State Security of the USSR. Hillel's comrade from Chernihiv, Avraham Galperin, was arrested a year later and soon executed by the NKVD troika's sentence.

Hillel Kaplinsky was exiled to the village of Sinegorye in the Kirov region, where he was the only Jew in the entire settlement. Sinegorye was mainly inhabited by dispossessed Russian peasants who also did not have any love for the Soviet government. The exile found work at the mechanized logging site of the Sinegorye forestry enterprise. Hillel Kaplinsky managed to maintain contact not only with his family but also with his comrades in the struggle. As Mendel Beylin recalled, while working in the camp on the construction of main roads between Lake Baikal and the Amur River, he was deeply touched to receive a letter and a small package from Hillel Kaplinsky. In letters to Palestine, Kaplinsky wrote that the office job at the forestry enterprise did not suit him: his athletic muscles, of which he was so proud, had now completely "rusted" without having worked for the benefit of the labor Palestine.

At the end of 1940, Kaplinsky was released again and returned to Kursk. However, the joy of reuniting with his family was almost immediately overshadowed by the arrest of Iosif Mendelevich, Hillel's father. For many years, Iosif Kaplinsky had been a member of the community at the Kursk synagogue. A yeshiva operated secretly at the synagogue, where ten young men studied, constantly risking imprisonment. But the authorities had not bothered the observant Jews for a long time. One day, a visiting Jew came to the Kursk synagogue seeking help. Iosif Kaplinsky immediately offered the man, who had no residence permit or money, a place to stay at his home. Soon, the visitor was arrested. Along with him, the elderly Kaplinsky, who had sheltered him, was also arrested. The old man was exiled to Uzbekistan.

A few weeks before the Germans entered Kursk, Hillel Kaplinsky and other members of his family managed to leave for Saratov. Hillel's mother, Feiga Aryevna, planned to evacuate to the Uzbek city of Urgench, closer to her husband's place of exile, but just before their departure, they received a telegram: Iosif Kaplinsky had died in exile. Hillel's mother and his brother Moisei with his family turned to Samarkand, where Kaplinsky's uncle had been living since the late 1920s. In 1943, Hillel Kaplinsky also settled in Samarkand, from where he left after the war.

In 1946, Kaplinsky attempted to move to Riga. Life in Latvia was much freer than in the "old" Soviet Union. Additionally, many local Jews, who had fought in the Latvian Rifle Division, continued to hold Zionist views. His comrade-in-arms, Shmuel-Yosef Lyabok, who had managed to register there, also lived in Riga. However, nothing came of this "Riga epopee." Kaplinsky had to return to Kursk again. In that city, he started a family. Hillel's wife was Miriam, a doctor by profession, and the daughter of Rav Avraham Yehoshua Ha-Eshil Shumyatsky, the former rabbi of the town of Yahotyn in the Poltava region. The couple had a daughter, Feiga, and a son, Iosif.

The Kaplinsky home in post-war Kursk was a well-known place. Since 1946, a synagogue for the city's Jewish community had been operating there, where Hillel Kaplinsky's father-in-law served as a rabbi. Over time, Hillel Iosifovich, a former left-wing Zionist, also began to return to religion, re-evaluating many of his views. Only one thing remained unchanged – his desire to repatriate to Israel.

In 1949, the Soviet authorities remembered Kaplinsky again. As a "repeat offender," he was sentenced to permanent settlement in the North Caucasus. He was able to return only after the death of the "red monarch" – the executioner Stalin.

After the war, Hillel Iosifovich even managed to obtain a visa from the authorities of Mandatory Palestine to enter the country. He attempted to leave the USSR again, but Soviet bureaucrats repeatedly denied his requests. He applied for emigration again and again. In October 1956, during the height of the Suez Crisis, Kaplinsky was informed that his departure to Israel was considered inexpedient. In 1967, during the Six-Day War, Kaplinsky didn't even bother going to the OVIR (Visa and Registration Office).

His only connection to Israel was through the broadcasts of Radio Kol Israel in three languages: Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Starting from 1967, the wave was jammed, but sometimes broadcasts in Hebrew could still be picked up, especially if one had a radio receiver with an expanded range of shortwave frequencies. Around 1973, listening to radio in Kursk became practically impossible. The only help was correspondence with friends in faraway countries.

In 1974, Hillel Iosifovich applied for emigration one last time. He did it more out of formality, but this time everything went quite smoothly. The Soviet authorities waited until the Zionist reached retirement age. The OVIR official, however, rudely stated that according to the points of the Soviet constitution, the authorities were not obliged to grant Kaplinsky permission to leave. The old Zionist responded that no point of the Soviet constitution prohibited emigration to Israel. Despite more harassment of his son and daughter, permission to leave was granted.

Hillel Kaplinsky was lucky enough to live in Israel for three long decades. Visiting the kibbutzim where he once dreamed of working, he reunited with former comrades from the Zionist movement. He was even fortunate enough to see those aging scouts who were with him in the "Hashomer Hatzair" cell in Myrhorod.

The old Zionist passed away on October 13, 2004. He died in Or Yehuda. In the Land of Israel, where his grandchildren and great-grandchildren live – this is exactly what he once dreamed of in Yeniseysk and Sinegorye...


Bibliography and Sources:

Case against HilLel Kaplinsky // State Central Archive of Public Organizations of Ukraine (SCAPO), Kyiv, fond 263, op. 1, file 47044, volumes 1-2.

Case against Mendel Ikhilevich Rosenthal (Bentsion Gershkovich Ginzburg), Maria-Basy Davidovna Shternshis, and Mikhail Petrovich Ioshpe under Articles 54-10 part 2 and 54-11 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic // State Archive of Kherson Region (GAHKhO), fond P-6193, op. 12, file P-25627.

Survivor in the Gulag: Biography of Menachem-Mendel Beylin, written by Yakov Feiglin, Israel, 2006 (manuscript).

Interview No. (129)1 with Hillel Kaplinsky, Center for Oral History of the Jewish University (interviewer – Michael Segev; 21.04.1975).

Tova Perelstein (Rubman). Remember Them, Zion. Library-Aliyah: Association for the Study of Jewish Communities, 2003.

Binyamin Vest. Ben yeʼush le-tiḳṿah: mikhtavim shel asire-Tsiyon be-Rusyah ha-Sovyeṭit, Reshafim: Arkhiyon ha-ʻavodah, ha-Maḥlaḳah le-ḥeḳer Yahadut Rusyah, Tel-Aviv, 1973.

Hillel Kaplinsky

1912 – 2004

bottom of page