From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Hanukkah in a Soviet Prison

It was in the grim Russian winter of 1971 that I celebrated my first real Hanukkah, in prison.

I was confined in the notorious Moscow prison, Matroska Tichina, in the company of a rather large number of fellow Jews. Needless to say, a Moscow prison is not the most auspicious place to celebrate a Jewish holiday. But first, let me explain how my cellmates and I came to be in prison that Hanukkah.

In late November 1971, a group of Refuseniks staged a public hunger strike in Moscow to demand exit visas for Israel. About twenty men—most of them artists, writers and scientists—gathered in the large hall of the Central Telegraph building. It was the only public place that was open twenty-four hours a day, so it was the ideal location for them to carry out their protracted demonstration.

I was a novice Refusenik and did not take part in the strike. With some other friends, I tried to help them. It was common practice in our struggle to help our comrades when they were in trouble. It was the most potent weapon of “the weak” and “the few”—as the Al hanissim prayer, recited on Hanukkah, refers to the battle of the Hasmoneans’ army—against the all-powerful regime, “the strong and the many.” We positioned ourselves near them in the building to give them moral support. We also supplied information about the strike to foreign journalists. This demonstration became a sensation in the foreign mass media, so the Soviet authorities put a stop to it by arresting the hunger strikers. Without any trial, they were summarily sentenced to fifteen days in prison on a typical charge of the time, “petty hooliganism.”

The next day, to protest against the arrest of the demonstrators, six of us went to Central Telegraph to stage another demonstration. We sent a telegram to Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Communist Party, informing him that we had begun a hunger strike to protest the arrest of our friends—Jews who wanted to go to Israel. I don’t know whether they actually transmitted our telegram to Brezhnev, but within three hours, a police unit came and arrested us.

We were placed in custody overnight. The next morning, the judge sentenced us to fifteen days in prison, without benefit of counsel. We were taken to Matroska Tichina.

When we entered the cell, we almost began to dance with delight, for there were two of the hunger strikers who had been arrested the day before. It was rare in those days for them to put Jewish prisoners together, even though they were arresting Jews left and right on all kinds of trumped-up charges. Altogether, there were twenty-three of us in three neighboring cells; we kept in touch with each other by knocking on the walls and shouting. What a wonderful gift to balance out the atrocious situation of having to spend fifteen days there. This was my first incarceration, at the beginning of my career as a dissident.

In my seventeen years of refusal, I would spend a total of ten years in prison, solitary confinement and exile in Siberia. In that first arrest, I must confess that I was frightened, but at the same time, intrigued. Until that point, I had only read in the papers about dissidents and political prisoners. Now I was one myself.

Despite the appalling conditions—no beds, no blankets, vile food—we were privileged because we were together as fellow Jews. Among us was a man who knew Hebrew very well—which in those days was very rare— so we quickly established a “prison ulpan.” We had engrossing discussions about subjects such as Jewish history, philosophy, and Israeli and Middle East politics. It was a kind of Jewish seminar, which provided many of us an excellent opportunity to learn more about the fascinating Jewish heritage of which we had been deprived.

Hanukkah was approaching. Getting into the spirit, we enthusiastically discussed battles and the ultimate triumph of the Maccabees. One of our more Judaically advanced cellmates gave us insightful lessons about the laws and customs of the Festival of Lights. It goes without saying that we had no prayer books or other items with which to celebrate a Jewish holiday. Hanukkah is supposed to be a holiday of gift-giving, family gatherings, dreidels and songs. We had no practical means of celebration, and that saddened us deeply.

Fortunately, we had among us a man who was a wizard at handicraft. Valery Krijzak—now an engineer living in Jerusalem—had truly golden hands. From the first days of our imprisonment, he amazed us with his skill. He sculpted an entire chess set out of stale prison bread. Each king, queen, rook and pawn was a little masterpiece. Someone suggested that after our release we send the set to chess champion Bobby Fischer, but the guards later confiscated it.

For Hanukkah, Krijzak made a wonderful dreidel out of bread, engraving the four Hebrew initials for ness gadol haya sham (“a great miracle happened there”). But it was the day before Hanukkah and we still didn’t have any candles with which to fulfill the mitzvah of the Festival of Lights to commemorate the Jewish victory of over two thousand years ago. And without those lights, Hanukkah is not Hanukkah.

But then the miracle of Hanukkah took place in our days in our cell.

Without saying a word to us, Krijzak began to bang on the cell door, calling for the guard. When the small aperture was opened, he began to wail, “Call the doctor. I’m in terrible pain.” Within ten minutes, the prison medic arrived. Krijzak moaned, “Doctor, I am having a terrible hemorrhoid attack. Please give me some suppositories.”

Fifteen minutes later, Krijzak received several suppositories. Now we had the material from which to make candles. The rest was purely technical. We pulled out threads from our prison garb and rolled them together to make wicks. Then we placed the wax-based suppositories on our aluminum spoons and lit them with matches (prisoners were permitted to have cigarettes and matches) and melted them down. We placed the makeshift wicks into the wax, which we then shaped into candles. We stuck the candles on a plate, which we then placed on the table.

Filled with pride, we sat around our glowing table and sang Maoz Tzur. We sang more Hanukkah songs, talked about the Maccabees’ revolt and spun the dreidel. We all had an immense feeling of closeness to each other and a strong sense of unity with our fellow Jews.

We may have been cut off from the rest of the world, enclosed behind thick steel doors, but we were still with our people.

Yosef Begun

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