In January 2020, a prisoner of Zion, violinist Ephraim (Froim) Shestun died in the Israeli city of Dimona. He lived a long life, there will be a long memory for him. They tried to break him, destroy him and win him over to the side of evil – but the faith of his fathers and loyalty to his mission helped him to withstand and remain a man, a Jew, and a minister of muses.
According to the Soviet passport, he was Froim Srulevich Shestun. In the Ukrainian town of Litin, Vinnitsa region, where he was born on February 17, 1930, the majority of the population was Jewish, and Yiddish sounded in every home. The Shestun family was not religious: they visited the synagogue only on Passover, bringing from there matzah secretly wrapped in a pillowcase, and fasted on Yom Kippur.
Before the war, he began to study at the Vinnitsa Music School No. 1 on Kotovskogo Street. The violin was taught to him by Efim Brondz, a favorite student of the People's Artist of the Ukrainian SSR Pyotr Stolyarskiy. Maestro Stolyarskiy, being in Vinnitsa, noticed the unique talent of the little violinist and advised Brondz to send Shestun to a specialized music school for gifted children in Odessa. But the boy's mother, despite the prospects of giving her son an excellent musical education, still refused to be separated from Froim.
When the war began, the bakery where Shestun Sr. worked continued to operate until the last second, supplying units of the Red Army and the townspeople with food. The family delayed the evacuation and got out of Vinnitsa in the last train. Under constant attacks from German aircraft, the Shestuns arrived in Odessa.
From Odessa, the family ended up in Pyatigorsk in the Caucasus, then evacuated even further – to Tashkent. In the capital of Uzbekistan, Froim had to help a seriously ill Israel Mordkovich. The boy first worked “for the owner”, then traded matches and whatever he could get at the local market.
After the liberation of Ukraine from Nazi troops, the family remained for some time in Central Asia, and in 1945 they were able to return to Vinnitsa.
Froim continued his studies at school and resumed his music studies. After graduating from a music school in 1947, he went to the largest city in western Ukraine, where he entered the Lviv Music School without any problems.
The young man liked to study, but in his second year his life changed dramatically, and the reason for this was an incredible event – the Jews had their own state! It turned out that somewhere far away, in Palestine, other Jews live, and they are fighting for their ancient capital - Jerusalem. And in the Soviet Union at this time, the pressure on local, Soviet Jews is increasing.
In Lviv, Bolshevik “internationalism” was noticeable like nowhere else: in the city recently annexed to Soviet Ukraine, on the site of a Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Germans, the city authorities set up a bazaar, and the courtyard of the NKVD prison was paved with tombstones.
The Lviv Jews who survived the war were in a hurry to leave the USSR and repatriated to Poland. They were “replaced” by Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union. Both “Easterners” and immigrants from Bessarabia, with the light hand of Soviet propaganda, easily became “cosmopolitans”, “Jewish bourgeois nationalists” or “Zionists”. Along with the everyday anti-Semitism, that has always bloomed in Galicia.
When Golda Meir, the first envoy of the State of Israel in the Soviet Union, arrived in Moscow in September 1948, Froim and his friends, who had already become acquainted with Soviet anti-Semitism at the age of 17-18, got the idea to leave for Israel. Gathering at the apartment of their friend Mikhail Shiltz, the young people decided to create the Union of Jewish Youth (CEM).
At the meeting, a proclamation was invented by the young people, which they later typed. The “Union of Jewish Youth” proclaimed its goal to seek permission to leave for Israel to fight for the freedom of the Jewish state. Like real Komsomol members, schoolchildren and students emphasized that the social and political system of the Jewish state should be socialism. There was a heated debate about religion: some agreed that Judaism could be a “companion” in the struggle for an independent state, others put the question bluntly: is this correct from the point of view of Komsomol morality?
“We are confident that Jewish youth wants to fight for the right to live, we are confident that our organization – the Union of Jewish Youth – will serve as a center around which all Jewish youth and then the entire Jewish people of the Soviet Union will rally”. Jewish boys and girls set themselves ambitious and certainly dangerous tasks. Indeed, in the conditions of the total Stalinist terror, any hint of nationalism ended in prison for those convicted of it.
The appeal reached even the Kazan Aviation School. Several copies were posted in Lviv in the form of leaflets. In their other proclamations, young people sharply criticized Soviet reality: “The eternal oppression of the Jewish people in the national question must end... You can list as many cases as you like when a Jew does not have the rights of a Russian...”
Some suggested writing to Stalin, naively believing that the “brilliant leader and teacher” knew nothing about the anti-Semitism of his subordinates. After all, the Soviet government immediately supported the proclamation of Israel's independence – and Joseph Stalin must be about to send Jewish Komsomol members to build socialism in the Middle East!
Lviv schoolchildren and students were not particularly worried about conspiracy. One of the girls from CEM arrested later was dating a guy who turned out to be connected with the MGB. When asked where she disappears in the evenings, the girl innocently said that people gather in Lviv who talk about Jewish culture and history, try to learn Hebrew and are preparing to repatriate to the land of their ancestors - to Israel.
...On Thursday, February 17, 1949, the first arrests took place among the members of the group. One of the leaders, Izya Drak, was also detained. Froim, coming home from the music school, saw the Chekists spinning there. Without giving a sign, Shestun climbed the stairs and hid on the landing as close to the attic as possible. After waiting for the uninvited guests to finish the search, the guy went down to the apartment, packed his things and went to Vinnitsa to his parents.
In Vinnitsa, Froim sat out until the end of spring break. No information was received from Lviv, and the young man was sure that everything worked out. After the holidays, he returned to study in Lviv ... He was arrested almost immediately and held as an ordinary participant.
The interrogations in the Lviv MGB prison were difficult. To ensure compliance, criminals in the uniform of investigators turned over the stool and allowed the arrested to sit, leaning only on one or two legs. The interrogation took place day and night, during the breaks the guard constantly looked into the cell. And God forbid you fall asleep – they immediately knocked on the metal door with a truncheon, waking up the exhausted person under investigation.
In response to the all-Union campaign against the Jews, the EMG tried to make the case of the Union of Jewish Youth as serious as possible and to link it with the case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (EAK). The main evidence was the acquaintance of the CEM members with Mikhail (Munya) Spivak. Munya Spivak, founder of the Jewish youth organization “Einikite” (“Unity”) in Zhitomir, came to Lviv to study. There he met Felix Berger and attended one of the CEM meetings, where the texts of the new leaflets were discussed. A distant relative of Munya was Professor Eli Spivak from Kiev, a corresponding member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, who participated in the activities of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Munya Spivak became a link between CEM, EAK and “Einikite”.
Froim Shestun spent several months in the dungeons of the Lviv MGB prison. The investigation tried to press, and then to persuade. But he never betrayed anyone, including the last free member of the organization Vilya Gonikman, his fellow student, who remained in Vinnitsa.
From the Lviv prison Shestun was transferred to Zolochiv. There he and his comrades awaited the verdict, which was to come from Moscow. Three weeks later, in July 1949, Shestun was summoned to the office of an officer who read out the verdict of the Special Meeting under the NKVD of the USSR – 10 years in forced labor camps.
Operatives of the Lviv UMGB so much advertised their operation to capture especially dangerous Jewish nationalists that information about the case of the Union of Jewish Youth even got into the official brochure of the Higher School of the KGB under the Council of Ministers of the USSR “Anti-Soviet activities of Jewish nationalists and the fight against it by state security agencies” 1956 year.
All his life Froim Srulevich recalled his transfer. In the “Stolypin” carriage, he fell asleep, leaning against the wall – and by morning his sweatshirt was so frozen that he could not move. In the carriage were the crime bosses, who knew in advance who was “s-ka” (traitor), who was a thief, who was political. Shestun was lucky: he was accompanied by Jews who had been serving time “for politics” for more than one time. They took patronage over the young man, and no one touched him until Zhezkazgan of the Karaganda region, where they arrived.
Yesterday's student of the music school was expected to do hard labor on the construction of the railway. Wake up at half past five in the morning. Working day was 10-12 hours, for lunch – a bowl of gruel of fish heads and bran. Froim went to work every day as if it was the last time. Once, together with three other prisoners, he carried a heavy railroad tie along a narrow mountain path. There was very poor visibility, and one of the prisoners, walking in front, stumbled and fell into the gorge. The whole burden fell on Froim, who was the last. Thanks to incredible tension, he was able to stay on his feet, although in his thoughts he had already said goodbye to life.
In Steplag, as in all similar zones, special skills were valued, therefore, when the “boss” once asked which of the prisoners played musical instruments, Froim volunteered immediately. Shestun took a violin in his hands and began to play in a way that, he later admitted, had never played. Life was at stake. And the boss was imbued with: the young man was really immediately transferred from unbearably hard work, on which health and life were very quickly lost, to lighter ones.
After three and a half years in prison, Froim was even more fortunate. The administration official couldn't find a good barber for his stubborn beard. It occurred to someone that the skillful hands of the musician would cope with this task. And Shestun tried himself in the unusual role of a barber. It worked out well, but... it was not only the leadership of the camp that had to shave and cut a haircut. His responsibilities included shaving hardened criminals with disfigured skulls and deep scars on their faces. Still, it was much better than driving piles into frozen clay or carrying heavy bags of cement.
In 1951, in the same place, in Steplag, Froim met the violin virtuoso Alexander Yakulov, in the future – the musical director of the Romen Theater. Yakulov worked in the camp bath and also played the violin for the authorities. Together with Shestun, they began to give concerts for staff and prisoners.
In 1954, Froim Shestun, who served 5 years and 8 months, was released “for lack of proof of the crime”. The prisoner returned to Vinnitsa.
After the camp, Shestun decided that he did not intend to tie up with music – fortunately, and in the camp he almost did not interrupt his studies. The violinist and teacher Kogan, who came specially to listen to the young man, invited the former political prisoner to return to the Lviv Music School. Shestun recovered in the first year and after six months transferred to the second. It was possible to take exams as an external student, and the oldest student on the stream graduated from the school much earlier than his classmates. At the same time, Froim was finishing the 7th grade of the evening school. In the same school, in his first year, he met his future wife, also a violinist, Lyudmila Belaya.
Two years later, in 1957, Froim already worked at his alma mater, Vinnitsa Children's Music School No. 1, with his wife Lyudmila and sister Rosa Berkul, a piano teacher and accompanist.
Subsequently, he graduated from the Vinnitsa Pedagogical Institute, worked there at the Faculty of Music and Pedagogy, at the same time performing the role of accompanist of the orchestra of the Vinnitsa Music and Drama Theater and the musical group of the 45th Experimental Mechanical Plant. In the mid-1970s, he was promoted to head of the string department at Music School No. 1.
In 1972, KGB appeared again – to recruit. Many Jews worked in the educational institutions of Vinnitsa, and the authorities, as usual, tried to make an informant out of the former prisoner who is respected by people. Shestun's student at that moment was leaving for the United States and suggested that he and his family also apply for an exit. Either the “office” listened to their telephone conversations, or looked through the archives, but one “fine” day a “business proposal” came from the committee. But several meetings with the musician were completely unsuccessful, and Froim was left alone.
In 1989, when the family applied to leave for Israel, an investigator came to Froim from Lviv. For three days they sat on the CEM case. As a result, permission to leave was obtained.
In Israel, the family was divided: the daughter and son-in-law went to Bnei Brak, and Froim with his wife, father-in-law and mother-in-law, son and daughter-in-law went to the city of Beer Sheva in the south of the country. Then we moved to Dimona.
There was only one music school in Dimona, but work for professional musicians was soon found – in 1994 the Camerata-Dimona chamber ensemble was formed, in which Froim Shestun and his wife Lyudmila Belaya became the first violins. In the same 1994, Froim Shestun was recognized as a prisoner of Zion.
...Once a letter came to Shestun's address from an Israeli woman living somewhere in the north of Israel. The author was the same girl who, back in 1949, met with an MGB informant and blabbed about the group. She insisted on her innocence...
Until the end of his days, Froim did not part with the violin. Over the long years of his creative activity, Froim Shestun played many concerts, gave way to life for people who later reached noticeable heights in the profession. Among his students can be found the famous violin maker and teacher A. Sergienko, concertmaster of the Opera and Ballet Theater in Krasnoyarsk V. Pokotylyuk, I. Gorin from the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, L. Strakhova from the chamber ensemble in the Italian city of Rivoli.
Children and nieces followed his footsteps – they also make music. Unlike Froim's generation, neither the Ministry of State Security, nor the camp “urks”, nor state anti-Semitism stood in their way to their beloved work. Naive boys and girls from the distant post-war years nevertheless brought a bright future closer – although they paid for it with sweat, tears, and blood.
1930 – 2020