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In July 1931, an article was published in the "Haaretz" newspaper, which was issued in Mandatory Palestine, about the political processes taking place in the Soviet Union. Among other things, the foreign delegation of the ZS party ("Zionist-Socialists") in the USSR, which published this material in the newspaper, wrote about the arrests of Zionists in Saratov. One of the arrested was named Sofia Rolnik. This young woman was already being tried for the second time. However, the authors of the article were mistaken: Sofia Rolnik was sent for three years not to Kazakhstan, where she had already been, but to a much harsher region – Eastern Siberia.

In total, the heroine of the Zionist underground, Sofia Rolnik, spent 22 years in imprisonment and exile. Defying the bloody Moloch, she survived so that we could learn her story, as well as the story of those fighters for the Jewish state who could not witness its birth.

Prisoner of Zion Sofia Rolnik was born in Nikolaev in December 1904 into the family of Hertz Rolnik and Gitel (Katy) Segal. In addition to Sofia, the Rolnik family had sons: the eldest, Mikhail, and the youngest, Vladimir.

The girl's mother was a piano teacher by profession. The father, Hertz Rolnik, was once a yeshiva student, but then he was captured by the idea of Haskalah – Jewish Enlightenment, from which he later distanced himself, becoming a Menshevik and a staunch assimilationist.

However, there was a convinced Jewess in the family – her paternal grandmother. Very religious, this elderly woman spent all her free time reading the Torah in Yiddish translation. The grandmother often spoke about the history of the Jews, their sufferings, especially about the pogroms that she personally experienced. It was this grandmother who significantly influenced Sonia Rolnik's attitude towards her roots, as well as her views on the fate of the Jewish people.

Since childhood, Sofia spoke only Russian with her parents, but at the age of thirteen, she persuaded her mother to hire a Hebrew teacher for her. The lessons did not last long, but the girl managed to master the basics of the language and basic vocabulary. Her national education continued in the company of the hired teacher, who prepared her for admission to a commercial school, where there was no quota for Jews. The teacher was a patriot of Eretz Israel, and every Saturday, instead of regular lessons, she arranged a day of Jewish history for her ward.

The enthusiasm for the national movement did not bypass the girl's older brother. In 1920, he became a member of the Zionist youth circle "Maccabi," which appeared in Nikolaev with his direct participation.

The Nikolaev organization "Maccabi" was a small circle not connected with other organizations. Its members studied Jewish history, the geography of Palestine, and the history of Zionism. The young men and women were staunch Hebraists, but they decided to start with Yiddish, which they mastered just as poorly.

One day Misha approached his sister with a conspiratorial look and told her that the youth of Nikolaev were planning to emigrate to Palestine and build a country for all Jews there. Sonia did not need to be told about Zionism; such thoughts had long been on her mind. "You should think carefully, because there may be serious complications, there may be arrests, and everything else..." warned Mikhail about the possible hardships of underground life. But this did not scare Sonia at all. Without hesitation, she agreed to join the circle.

In 1921, her brother Mikhail and several of the most active members of the Nikolaev organization decided to make Aliyah. Considering themselves prepared for hard work for the benefit of Eretz Israel, they secretly crossed the border and set out for the Middle East. Although the Nikolaev circle lost its organizers, the remaining youth did not give up. Especially since the Zionist movement in southern Ukraine began to gain momentum. Sofia Rolnik, left behind by her brother, and her comrades began energetically recruiting supporters into their ranks. Soon, more knowledgeable comrades from Odessa came to learn about their successes. The Nikolaev residents received an offer to join the organization "Jugend ZS," which was the youth wing of the party "Tseirei Zion – Zionim-Socialistim."

The Socialist Zionists pledged to help with instructors, literature, and even sending the most worthy members to Palestine. The members of the "Maccabi" circle agreed: their views fully corresponded to the program of the left Zionists. If they were to build a Jewish state, it would be through hard work on their own land, with their own hands! With unprecedented perseverance, backed by a large movement, Sonia Rolnik and her comrades began to agitate for "Jugend ZS" among the youth of Nikolaev and nearby Jewish agricultural colonies. In addition to lectures and conversations, the young people had the opportunity to teach their members the necessary skills for life in Palestine. In Odessa, the "Jugendists" organized gardens, locksmith workshops, and even a sewing workshop, where preparation for Aliyah was conducted day and night. The Zionists also had an underground publishing house that printed magazines with information about Eretz Israel and the latest news of the movement.

In 1924, the young people took to the streets for the first time, releasing leaflets to spread in the cities. To confuse the "organs" and throw them off, it was decided as follows: the residents of Nikolaev would take responsibility for Odessa, and the Odessans would be responsible for the action in Nikolaev.

Before heading to the city by the Black Sea, Sofia Rolnik was given packets for the Odessa leadership – lists of addresses where leaflets could be sent, as well as the printed program of the party. The youth conducted a brilliant propaganda campaign in Odessa. Leaflets were distributed even at theatrical performances, communist meetings, various official conferences, and other large gatherings. The whole city learned that the Komsomol was not the only youth organization in the USSR, and that Jewish boys and girls dreamed of their own free country.

The authorities' reaction did not take long. In September 1924, mass arrests began in Odessa and Nikolaev. Sofia Rolnik managed to evade the Chekists at that time, but the next year things did not go so smoothly. While studying at the Nikolaev Pedagogical Institute and working with teenagers with great pleasure, Sonia Rolnik decided to organize a "Jugend ZS" cell in the Yefingar agricultural colony.

After several meetings in the colony, Sofia Rolnik was detained during the next meeting. They found nothing suspicious on her, but she was given a summons to appear at the Nikolaev regional branch of the GPU. Arriving in Nikolaev, she saw several of her comrades, who informed her that she urgently needed to leave for Odessa. It turned out that uninvited guests had already visited her home, and the only salvation from the Chekists was to flee to another city.

In Odessa, her comrades welcomed her with open arms. There was a shortage of professional instructors from the ZS party in the city, and living without registration allowed a party activist to fully devote themselves to the movement. Illegal workers could not work anywhere, so they automatically became professional party workers living at the party's expense. However, Sonia did not even have enough money for a modest breakfast, and she had to spend the night at the apartments of party members, often met with sour faces from parents who understood the danger their children were getting into.

On May 1, 1926, the ZS party decided to mark the holiday with agitation again. Sofia was responsible for the action, which was supposed to take place in the Odessa Botanical Garden. Distributing leaflets to the young Zionists on the long-awaited day, Rolnik went towards the French Boulevard. Suddenly, two plainclothes officers approached her at the park's exit. Presenting an arrest warrant and conducting a search, the Chekists immediately began searching Sonia's pockets. She managed to discard the plan of the May Day procession and the one remaining leaflet, but her wards were caught in the park red-handed. As minors, they were soon released, but Sonia Rolnik was taken to the local OGPU office.

The girl was interrogated liberally. Obviously aware from the agency who was before him, the investigator patiently listened to Sonia's stories of her complete innocence. A few days later, Sonia's mother came for a visit from Nikolaev. Sonia did not hear any reproaches, but she received a coded message from her fellow party members: the leadership officially allowed her to apply for a "substitute."

With the assistance of the organization "Assistance to Political Prisoners" and personally by Ekaterina Peshkova, the wife of Gorky, many Zionists were allowed to replace their exile with emigration to Mandatory Palestine. However, independently arrested Socialist Zionists usually did not submit applications for replacement, obeying party discipline. Despite the decision of the party's Central Committee, Sofia Rolnik refused. As a frail and sickly young woman, she feared she would be a burden to the actively developing Eretz Israel. On the other hand, Rolnik believed that exposing the party ranks in the USSR would be a mistake. After several waves of arrests in Odessa and other cities, the movement found itself decapitated. After serving her sentence, Sofia Rolnik planned to return to the underground.

After four months of interrogation and two months of the transit stage, the girl found herself in Alma-Ata. For Zionist activities, she was given three years of exile. In exile, Zionists lived very poorly, with no job opportunities. They were saved from starvation by forming small communes, a practice adopted by exiles of all ranks and professions. Occasionally, they received remittances from relatives, even less frequently – parcels from completely unknown individuals from Palestine. The latter greatly inspired Sofia and other exiles, realizing that friends and comrades from sunny Tel Aviv were sending them parcels. Three times a week, exiles had to register with the GPU, and those who did not show up immediately began to be sought. This is not counting the surveillance of "political" figures and harassment such as constantly delayed money transfers. Cases of suicide were not uncommon in exile, including among Zionists.

In 1927, the commune where Sofia Rolnik lived was disbanded. The Zionist was transferred to Kokshetau in northern Kazakhstan. And six months before the end of her exile, the girl was sent even further – 90 kilometers from the city. This was due to her principled stance and bold behavior at the GPU. Shortly before her release, Chekists usually summoned people for a conversation to check the results of the "re-education" of political opponents. The conversation with Sonia did not go well. The cunning GPU officer was initially very polite: "You see, I am not afraid to express my views, but you are afraid." To this, Rolnik responded provocatively: "You know, under the old regime, your comrades in the gendarmerie did not talk about their political views." – "So, according to you, we are the gendarmerie?" The girl did not hesitate to respond: "In relation to us, you play the same role." That was the end of the conversation with the Chekist. Early in the morning, Sonia was put on a sled and taken even further away from civilization in forty-degree frost.

Sofia Rolnik was released from her first exile in July 1929. She was prohibited from living in Ukraine and several other regions, so she decided to go to Saratov, where many of her comrades had gathered. In the city, she found work as a statistician at the hydrometeorological bureau. Quickly realizing that repression in the Soviet Union would only intensify, Sofia decided to leave for Palestine after all. Surprisingly, the paperwork from Peshkova arrived quickly: the Soviet government allowed Rolnik to leave. However, the process with the British entry certificate dragged on extremely slowly. And soon, this certificate became unnecessary. On December 24, 1930, Sofia Rolnik was arrested for the second time.

As it turned out during the investigation, the Zionists – a group of 10 people – were reminded of their regular meetings in Saratov. Their political discussions, debates, and reports, even jokes about party members, were carefully documented by someone and immediately reported to the authorities. After four months of harsh detention and interrogations, by the decision of the Special Meeting at the Collegium of the OGPU on April 20, 1931, Sofia Rolnik was sentenced to three years of exile in Eastern Siberia.
In Yeniseysk, Sofia met many comrades from the movement: Isaac Elkanovich from Odessa, Motl Belotserkovsky, Hirsh Smilansky, Wolf Lvovich, who later perished in the camp, and the real legend – "Mikita," a member of the Central Committee of the ZS, Misha Weisbein, who returned under a false name from Palestine but was caught by the authorities.

Moishe Weisbein was supposed to revive the Zionist-Socialist movement in the USSR, but most likely, he was being watched even from Palestine. His time in the underground was destined to be short. Mikita was a true leader and soon won Sofia's heart after their meeting. The Zionists did not bother with formalities in such conditions; they lived together in a civil union, but everyone considered Sonia and Mikita as spouses.

Having served her second term of exile, in 1934 Sofia Rolnik was released with a "clean" passport. Moishe Weisbein initially lived with Sofia in Kherson, but then the couple parted ways. Sonia registered with her aunt in Dnipro, where she found work as a planner-accountant in the pharmacy management office. Moishe Weisbein moved to Kremenchuk, and along with another prominent member of the ZS, Yakov Vigderzon, began writing a new program for the ZS party. The group of the most determined, including Sofia Rolnik, had no intention of deviating from the Zionist movement. Weisbein, Vigderzon, Sofia Rolnik, and several other Zionists distributed the new program among trusted individuals, thus attempting to restore their movement in the Soviet Union.

However, the daring individuals failed in their endeavor. In 1937, the NKVD arrested Isaac Elkanovich, Moishe Weisbein (known to the Chekists as Solomon Kofman-Vygodsky), many comrades in Tver – almost all the Zionists who had once been in exile with Sonia in Yeniseysk.

Sofia Rolnik was arrested again on February 27, 1938. During the search, nothing was found on her: the new ZS program was securely hidden under the floorboards. However, the interrogations in 1938 were significantly different from the previous ones. The first interrogation lasted for four days without sleep for Rolnik, the second lasted twelve days, with the investigator demanding names of her associates: "Speak! Speak!" From her cell, Sofia heard terrible screams, but she herself was not beaten, except for one occasion when the enraged interrogator wanted to hit her on the head with a typewriter, but accidentally hit her hand, which turned blue within minutes. Investigators kept changing, but Rolnik was not allowed to sleep. If Sofia closed her eyes, she would instantly hear the command: "Don't sleep!"

The charges against the detainees included not only anti-Soviet agitation and membership in a counter-revolutionary organization but also espionage in favor of England. Sofia remained steadfast during the interrogations, admitting only to her Zionist beliefs but not to any underground or espionage activities.

In September 1939, Rolnik announced a hunger strike, since there were still no decisions on her case. The arrested woman was immediately transferred to one, terribly dusty, with a dirty mattress on the floor. The investigation was clearly trying to disrupt the protest, to which Rolnik quite calmly stated: “I will strangle myself on my own scarf or open my veins with my nails. It's better to die than go crazy.” They cleaned the cell and even gave Sonia a normal mattress and bed, although they tried to feed the Zionist through a tube. After 13 days, the head of the prison came to Sofia. Fearing that her death took place personally, the “commodity chief” changed the regime of Rolnik’s detention. Finally, in October 1939, Sonia was sentenced to five years in a camp.

A Zionist had to serve her sentence in Karaganda. Rolnik first worked there on a farm, and then, as an accountant – a profession she had acquired yet in Yeniseysk. Because of the war, conditions in the camp were especially difficult. Having suffered from brucellosis and malaria, Sofia then almost died from pellagra. She was saved from inevitable death by parcels from her uncle, who managed to leave Dnepropetrovsk to the east at the beginning of the war.

In 1943, when Rolnik’s sentence was ending, she was sent a piece of paper: “Detained until further notice.” This was taken in September 1946. After living for two years in Fergana, Uzbekistan, the prisoner of Zion received a letter from the same uncle who helped her in the camp. He returned from evacuation to Dnepropetrovsk and offered to go to him. She did not have any relatives left in Nikolaev. By this time, Sofia Hertzevna had already known about the death of her mother and brother Vladimir at the hands of the Nazis. However, it was not possible to register in Dnepropetrovsk, just as it was not possible to settle with the family of her deceased brother Vladimir in Kherson. The former political prisoner was only lucky to get a job as an accountant on a mobile bridge train, which moved to a new location every couple of months.

This is how the Zionist Sofia Rolnik would have worked, helping to restore the destroyed country, but one fine summer day, on August 9, 1949, she was called to the board of a construction trust. The conversation should have been about her transfer to another facility. But in the boss’s office there were two people with protocol faces: “Are you Rolnik Sofia?” - “Yes, it’s me.” - “You are under arrest.” On the way, the security officers, who turned out to be employees of the 5th department of the Dnepropetrovsk department of the MGB, explained that throughout the country there were repeated arrests of political figures who had already served their sentences. This time, the security officers were especially interested in Rolnik’s correspondence with her brother Misha, who lived in Israel. She communicated with him in the thirties, and continued to correspond with him after the war, after leaving the camp.

At the end of November 1949, she received a sentence – lifelong exile to the Karaganda region. This time, Sofia Hertzevna’s place of exile was the workers’ village of Churbay-Nura, 40 kilometers from Karaganda itself. In comparison with the camp, the place was tolerable: in the position of deputy chief accountant, Sofia Rolnik received a good salary, and the mining town was supplied in the best way – almost like the capital of a Union Republic.

In 1954, after Stalin's death, Sofia Rolnik was released. Freedom came unexpectedly to the Zionist, and it was difficult for her to take advantage of it. She had no apartment, and she had not heard anything about her husband since 1938. She was sure that Mikita had not survived with his tuberculosis. Sofia was right: in that same year, in 1938, Misha Weisbein died in Kiev. Ultimately, Sofia Hertzevna remained in Karaganda as a freelance worker. In 1957, she fell seriously ill: her back, which she injured while sitting on a stool during interrogation, started to bother her.

After spending five months in the hospital, Rolnik went back to Dnepropetrovsk. This time she managed to settle in the city, all thanks to the intervention of her uncle's acquaintance, a deputy of the Supreme Council of the USSR.

In Dnepropetrovsk, Rolnik did not associate with former Zionists. Once, by chance, she met one of her old comrades with his wife, who had also been involved in the Zionist movement in her youth, and she invited them over. The acquaintance had been in exile but miraculously escaped arrest in 1937. The couple did not show up for the meeting; later the acquaintance confessed that she was afraid to maintain a relationship with Rolnik not for herself, but for her husband. The only friend of the former prisoner was an anarchist named Maria Petrovna, who had been imprisoned with Rolnik in Dnepropetrovsk in 1938. A fanatic of her own ideas, Maria Petrovna passionately argued with Sonia, harshly criticizing Zionism, but remained a loyal friend to Rolnik.

Remaining no less convinced herself, Sofia Hertzevna Rolnik persisted. Having settled her life through decades of arrests and wanderings, the woman was suffocating from Soviet lies. Despite the fact that Stalin had been taken by the devils, Rolnik observed no fundamental changes in the USSR. The unfree society not only silenced all dissenters but also tried to present itself on the world stage as an example to follow. This also applied to the treatment of Jewish citizens deprived of any rights. In 1956, Sofia Hertzevna went to apply for documents to leave for Israel. The official refused to accept them, saying that the package was incomplete. In 1964, there were enough documents, but Rolnik was again denied.

Without hope of seeing her sister, her brother Misha decided to travel to the USSR, taking his son Dan and his daughter-in-law Zamira with him. The meeting with his sister, whom he had not seen for 44 years, took place at the port of Odessa and was very touching. The group of Israelis and Sofa Hertzevna also visited Kiev, Leningrad, and Moscow. The family trip was only marred by constant "tails" – KGB surveillance. Seeing off her beloved brother and his family to Israel, Sofia Rolnik finally decided: anyway, she would still make it to Eretz Israel!

Over the years, she once again, as she did in her youth, began to agonize over the question: what can I, a sick pensioner, give Israel? But ultimately, she decided that even her own story could be of use. Not everyone in Israel knew what had happened to Soviet Zionists, what fighters for the idea were among them!

Three years later, after persistent demands to let her go to Israel, Sofia Hertzevna got permission. She had already packed her bags, bought a plane ticket, when suddenly the radio announced the start of the Six-Day War. Coming to the savings bank, where the pensioner had to deal with bonds, Rolnik learned that she was asked to come to Visa and Registration Department. Leaving a note to the aunt – "look for me in the KGB if I don't return by evening" – Rolnik went to Visa and Registration Department. The clerk immediately asked about the presence of an Israeli visa and, receiving an affirmative answer, declared: "The permission is canceled." Due to the rupture of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel, they refused to let the Zionist go. Sofia Herzevna's constant trips to Moscow began again: to the Dutch embassy (after the rupture of diplomatic relations, the Netherlands represented Israel's interests in the USSR), to various authorities, and lavish receptions.

In 1969, Sofia Rolnik achieved victory: she managed to repatriate to Eretz Israel. In her country, she was immediately recognized as a prisoner of Zion: there were still people alive who remembered her from the underground movement and places of exile and imprisonment. The Israelis even allocated her a special pension, which greatly surprised Sofia Hertzevna: she had joined the Zionist movement not for material benefits. Settling in Kiryat Haim, Sofia Rolnik volunteered at Rambam Hospital three times a week. And she published her memoirs. They serve as an important source of information on the history of the Zionist movement in the USSR.

In Israel, Sofia Rolnik learned from her comrades that her beloved, Misha Weisbein, a member of the Central Committee of the Zionist-Socialist Party, bravely accepted his arrest. For many months, he remained silent during interrogations, claiming to be non-partisan and having long ceased anti-Soviet activities. The prisoner allegedly gave his confessions on March 31, 1938 – during his last interrogation. Soon after this, the brave emissary from Palestine passed away. According to investigation documents, on April 19, 1938, Mikita died of tuberculosis in the lungs in the Kiev prison of the NKVD.

In the last years of her life, Sofia Rolnik lived in Nahariya, in a nursing home. At the age of 93, Sofia Hertzevna amazed her relatives with her mind and memory: she could quote entire passages from "Eugene Onegin" on a dare. She cherished every day spent surrounded by her family, her people, her country. The prisoner of Zion passed away on January 16, 2000.


Bibliography and sources:

Materials of the investigation case No. 7766 on the accusation of Maryasin M.G. et al. // State Archive of Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Dnipro, Fond 6478, Inventory 2, File 594.

Reporting notes on the exposure of the Zionist underground and interrogation protocols of Zionists, 8.01‒15.07.1938. – State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, Kyiv, Fond 16, File 224(234).

Archive-investigation case of the Poltava Regional Directorate of the NKVD of the Ukrainian SSR on the accusation of Arkave I.E., Naftulovich E.M., Kesselman Sh.K. et al. (total of 22 individuals) under articles 54-10, part 1; 54-11, 54-6, Vol. 1, 1937–1938, 30.12.1937–7.05.1938. – State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine, Poltava, File 3388s, Vol. 1.

Operation of the NKVD of the Ukrainian SSR against Zionists. 1937–1938 / Ed. Board: G. Boryak, V. Vasilyev, Z. Galili, S. Goldin, A. Kogut, M. Panova, N. Petrov, R. Podkur;. – Kyiv: Publisher V. Zakharenko, 2021. – 864 p.

Interview with Sofia Rolnik // Oral Documentation Section of the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1975 (interviewer – Michael Segev)./

Ronen, Dan. Stories of the Dreamers Who Were and Remain: The History of Roots (Misha Rolnik, Vera Dushkina-Rolnik, Sofia Rolnik), in Hebrew.

Sofia Rolnik

1904 – 2000

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