Prisoner of Zion Pinchas Rudashevski immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1971. The life of our hero is a graphic illustration of the fate that befell the Lithuanian Jewry, who suffered a heavy blow in the grand catastrophe of the 20th century.
Pinchas Rudashevski was born in 1900 in the family of a small trader and housewife in the ancient Lithuanian capital – Vilno. The Rudashevskis and their numerous relatives were considered one of the first Zionists in the city. Pinchas' uncle, Yehuda Leib Epel, was a prominent member of the Hibbat Zion movement.
Even before the First World War, Pinchas's parents planned to repatriate to Eretz Israel. Realizing the complexity of moving to a country far from Western Russia in terms of opportunities and comfort, they tried to give their children a good education even before leaving. Pinchas managed to graduate quite successfully from the Vilna Russian gymnasium, when the world war was already raging in Europe. The young man began to prepare for entering the university, but the plans had to be shelved. The Vilnius region was in a fever both from constant hostilities and from constantly changing political regimes.
At the end of April 1919, when Polish units drove the Bolsheviks out of Vilna, a terrible pogrom began in the city. Rudashevski, sick with typhus, lay at home in a delirium and was completely unaware of what was happening around.
Having slightly recovered from his illness, Pinchas was forced to flee from Vilna, occupied by the Poles, to independent Lithuania. It was extremely dangerous to remain in place: the Poles were trapping young Jews throughout the city. In addition, the locals were convinced that the battle for the city has just begun. They turned out to be right: Vilna was passed from hand to hand several times. Finally, on October 9, 1920, the 1st Lithuanian-Belarusian division of Żeligowski brought the city back under Polish control.
Relations between Lithuania and Poland, which were arguing over Vilna, deteriorated to the point of breaking diplomatic relations. The mailing was also unavailable.
In Lithuania, Pinchas first worked as a teacher in Jewish schools. In 1923, wanting to continue his education, interrupted by the war and the unrest that followed, Rudashevski entered the Physics and Chemistry Faculty of Kaunas University. During his studies, he continued to keep in touch with the Kaunas Jewish Gymnasium, pulling up the lagging students in mathematics and other subjects.
In July 1929, Pinchas married Ita Mirvis, a native of the Lithuanian town of Kroki. When soon it was time for Rudashevski to hand over his thesis, he did not do this, but decided to go to work as an accountant. The economic crisis was raging in Lithuania, and this profession was much more in demand. The issue of work was especially acute in 1930, after the birth of a daughter. For almost ten years, until 1940, Pinchas worked as an accountant at the famous Kaunas brewery Wolfas Engelman.
Although life in interwar Lithuania was quite prosperous and calm, Rudashevski did not abandon his Zionist views. After the birth of their son Micah in 1938, the Rudashevski’s began to actively prepare for repatriation to Eretz Israel. Since 1934, Pinhas's father and sister lived there, looking forward for their relatives. Soon, the family had all the documents for leaving for mandated Palestine. But the plans for an early Aliyah were not destined to come true.
In September 1939, World War II broke out, and the path from Lithuania to Palestine was practically blocked. The last hopes of leaving were dashed in August 1940, when independent Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union.
With the outbreak of war, in the summer of 1941, Rudashevski, his wife Ita, 11-year-old Golda and 3-year-old Mikha managed to evacuate to the east. At first, the family ended up in the Saratov region, but with the approach of the front, in early December 1941, with a train of refugees arrived in Uzbekistan, in the city of Jizzakh, Samarkand region.
A large number of emigrants from occupied Poland were in Uzbekistan during the war years. The NKVD conducted a very careful observation of all “Westerners”.
Rudashevski, who worked as an economist in one of the small local organizations, was also tirelessly watched. The informers did not like the fact that the refugee from Kaunas was actively making acquaintances among the former Zionists.
In January 1945, Rudashevski returned with his family to the city of his childhood, which during his absence became the capital of the Lithuanian SSR. In Vilnius, they did not find anyone close to them. Later, Pinchas learned that his nephew, Yitzhak Rudashevski, had ended up in the Vilnius ghetto and kept a diary there, one of the most important written records of the Holocaust in Lithuania.
Not finding relatives in Vilnius, Rudashevski decided to go to Utsiany, the place where his father was born, and in the family cemetery there were the graves of his ancestors. On the way, Pinchas met an elderly Lithuanian woman who remembered his grandfather well, but refused to accompany Pinchas to the old cemetery – the Lithuanian “forest brothers” were active in the district, who, like the Poles in 1919, could easily kill a Jew without going into his political convictions.
On May 13, 1947, peaceful life came to an end: Pinchas Rudashevski was arrested by employees of the Ministry of State Security of the Lithuanian SSR on suspicion of organizing an illegal transfer of Soviet citizens to Poland.
Rudashevski was held in the internal prison of the MGB in the very center of Vilnius. Once it was the Palace of Justice of the Vilna province, then various Lithuanian and Polish institutions of this kind were successively moved in there, and, finally, the headquarters of the Chekists settled.
Already at one of his first interrogations, on May 16, 1947, the arrested man confessed that he had helped Jews escape from the “Soviet paradise” to the West.
During the investigation, Pinchas admitted that, as a convinced Zionist, he tried to leave with his family for Palestine, and was happy to help other Jews who were planning to leave the USSR. Moreover, these were mainly former exiles, Zionists, hiding from the authorities.
It all started when Rudashevski in February 1946 came across an old friend in Vilnius who was talking to a stranger in the middle of the street. It turned out to be the former manufacturer Joseph Ashkinazi, who had returned from exile. A friend introduced Rudashevski to the exiled, recommending him as a reliable person. Ashkinazi did not hide that he was going to illegally leave the USSR for Poland. Jewish organizations were still openly operating in the neighboring country, and the Poles did not pose any special obstacles to those wishing to leave for Palestine. This idea captured Rudashevski so much that he decided to join Ashkinazi and work together with him.
Many indigenous inhabitants of Vilnius – both Jews and Poles – left for Poland immediately after the war. However, the right to repatriation was granted only to those who, as of September 1, 1939, had Polish citizenship. Rudashevski, who left Vilna in 1919, and his wife, a native of central Lithuania, did not have such a right.
The Stalinist government did not let its citizens go anywhere, pretending that the Jews had no reason to leave the USSR.
In July 1946, together with his new friend, Pinchas Yankelevich met people who volunteered to help with the illegal crossing to Poland. They immediately warned that it was useless to ask about their methods, but at the appointed time the Rudashevskis and Ashkinazi would be sent from the Vilnius station under the guise of Polish citizens. This plan failed. Two men suddenly disappeared somewhere, probably they were arrested. Then the Ashkinazi family disappeared from the city without saying goodbye.
Pinchas Rudashevski continued to look for the possibility of illegal travel to Poland. An old acquaintance pointed out his lodger, 25-year-old Boris Ilyutovich, who was associated with other ferrymen. In January 1947, Ilyutovich told Rudashevski that he had the opportunity to transport people to Poland through a filtration camp in Belarusian Grodno. Rudashevski agreed with Ilyutovich that he would look for other Jews who were ready to leave under the guise of family members of the repatriates.
The documents of the fugitives were fictitious: Red Army books and pass certificates of the demobilized were used for men. Women were given fake marriage certificates. After preparing fictitious documents, the group proceeded to a filtration camp for Polish repatriates in Grodno. There, the ferrymen had connections, which they managed to establish thanks to a resident of Vilnius Shahnitsky, who worked in the Polish diplomatic mission.
On April 5, 1947, a group of people took the train to Grodno, but were arrested at the Lososno station. Neither Rudashevski nor his associates knew where the group had gone. Soon they themselves were detained.
It is not known for certain how many "moles" were working on the Rudashevski case, but the Principal Officer of the MGB of the Lithuanian SSR on the Jewish underground – the agent "Kazantsev", definitely had a hand in the disclosure of the Zionist underground. He himself organized the canal for transporting Jews to Poland, and people uninteresting to the authorities were indeed transferred abroad. Kazantsev won the confidence of the Zionists in this way.
At first, investigator Vasev was going to ascribe Rudashevski a relatively mild article – 84 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR – which was given for going abroad without an established passport or permission from the authorities, but almost immediately changed his mind. Known for its provocations, the Ministry of State Security of the Lithuanian SSR, which itself pushed people to flee, and then caught the unfortunate, was going to imprison the Zionists for a long time.
Pinchas Rudashevski not only ferried people, but himself was about to prepare to flee to Eretz Israel. On reflection, on August 1, 1947, Captain Vasev reclassified the criminal case to Article 58-1 “a” – high treason in the form of flight abroad.
In the end, the investigation ended and monotonous weeks began in the dungeons of the MGB Internal Prison. Under guard, Rudashevski was put into the back of a truck and transported to the famous Vilnius prison Lukishki.
At the time of the announcement of the verdict, Rudashevski was in the prison hospital awaiting surgery. There was no court hearing. 10 years in prison with confiscation of property.
From the hospital ward, Rudashevski ended up in a huge cell for 150 people. The majority are Lithuanians, convicted on political charges. Many of them actively aided the Germans in the extermination of the Jewish population. With this kind of audience, it was necessary to keep a distance.
In March 1948, Rudashevski was sent on a convoy deep into the Soviet Union. His companion and comrade in misfortune was another prisoner of Zion who received 5 years of imprisonment for illegal border crossing – Zalman Salitan.
In the camp, Pinchas Yankelevich almost immediately met two Jewish doctors. One of them, a native of Kaunas, Moisey Kotlyar, had lived in the Union for a long time and was imprisoned for a political article. Another, Zoltan Bernard, was a Hungarian Zionist.
After some time, Dr. Kotlyar conveyed important news to Rudashevski: the family of Pinchas Rudashevski was exiled to Siberia.
After Pinchas Rudashevski was sent away, the family lived in terrible tension. A rumor spread throughout the city that at night the family members of the “public enemies” would be taken to Siberia. The soldiers took all the property from the apartment, and the family was taken to the station. Then there was the distant Murtuk, where his wife and daughter began working on a collective farm, and his son went to a rural school.
Thanks to a chance of meeting the famous Zionist from Kaunas, Shlomo Gefen, Rudashevski managed to become a laboratory assistant for medical analyzes in the camp. The chemical education received at the university became an additional argument for the camp leadership. Thanks to this specialty and poor health, Rudashevski managed to survive after several changes in the camp “registration”.
After serving his term, on June 26, 1955, Rudashevski was informed in the Voslyansk department of the MGB that he was being sent to his family - to an eternal settlement in Siberia. There was not a word in the verdict on eternal settlement, but in the USSR no one paid attention to such “minor” inconsistencies.
Together with his family, Pinchas Yankelevich settled in the village of Narva, Mansky District, Krasnoyarsk Territory. There was a first-aid post in the village, which was crucial for Rudashevski, who suffered a heart attack in the camp. Before 1957, there was no question of returning to Lithuania, let alone going abroad. But once, when his daughter Golda was traveling to her friend in Minusinsk by train, one of the fellow travelers said that he knew Pinchas Yankelevich. He, too, was a Jew, and was also imprisoned “for politics”. A fellow traveler shared the news: the exiles were finally allowed to go home.
In Vilnius, former exiles were almost never given a residence permit. In August 1957, the family managed to register in a village near Vileika, which became part of the Byelorussian SSR, but was located not far from Vilnius. After a long correspondence with the prosecutor's office and the KGB, on December 27, 1958, Rudashevski was amnestied, and the resolution of the Special Meeting at the USSR Ministry of State Security of November 15, 1947 was canceled. The crime committed by Rudashevski, according to the prosecutor's office, should have been qualified under Article 84 of the RSFSR Criminal Code, for which they were given “only” three years without confiscation.
While still in Siberia, in 1957, Pinchas Yankelevich received a call to Israel from his father, Zvi-Yankel, who lived in Petah Tikva. In 1964, the family applied to leave, but year after year, the Rudashevskis received a response from the Vilnius Department of Visas and Registrations: you have no reason to leave the USSR.
During the 1967 Six Day War, the desire of Jews to leave the USSR increased a hundredfold.
Pinchas Rudashevski decided to take a desperate step – he began to write to all international authorities. Golda Meir, UN Secretary General U Thant, to the UN Human Rights Council.
The pensioner convicted of Zionist activity was not to be left out of the country. Rudashevski’s archives were carefully studied by the KGB officers, and many years later, even when his daughter went to Finland as part of a tour group, but more often for the operational development of another Jew disliked by the authorities.
But in February 1971, Pinchas Rudashevski became one of five dozen activists who gathered in the building of the Central Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party and demanded that people be released to Israel. After the sensational rally in Vilnius and the mass trip of Lithuanian Jews to Moscow, the authorities decided to get rid of the troublemakers.
On March 9, 1971, the Rudashevskis finally received permission to leave. Three generations of the Rudashevskis – ten people – left Vilnius three days later. A whole crowd of people saw off the family on their way home, they danced and sang “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” at the airport. On March 17, 1971, Pinchas Rudashevski became a free citizen of his country.
Pinchas Yankelevich carried through the years and hardships a firm belief that sooner or later he, his family, the entire Jewish people, will be at home – in Eretz Israel. His generation had a chance to spend most of their lives in Galut, fighting for the right to their own country. The Lithuanian prisoner of Zion passed away on March 7, 1978. He was buried in his native land.
1900 – 1978