Triumph Over Tyranny: The Heroic Campaigns that Saved 2,000,000 Jews

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photo of Shual Avigur

Unsung Hero of the Month

February 2009

Each month, we will identify an “Unsung Hero” - someone who, while living, made significant contributions to the Soviet Jewry Movement. This is my attempt to recognize and celebrate their efforts even though they are no longer with us

Shaul Avigur

In February 1948, Shaul Meyeroff was leading the Mossad l’Aliyah Bet, an illegal smuggling of Holocaust survivors into the British Mandate of Palestine. Five months later his only son, Gur, was killed by an Arab sniper is Israel’s War of Independence. Grieving, Shaul took Avigur (father of Gur) as his new family name. In 1952 the Doctor’s Plot served as a wake-up call to Israel and the West that Soviet Jewry was in danger, and emigration was a possible solution. Ben-Gurion called upon his intimate confidante, Shaul Avigur, to form a small group called the “Office with No Name” that would nominally be part of the Foreign Ministry, but would actually report to the prime minister.

Golda Meir recalls that “whatever he did, or ordered to have done, was carried out with maximum secrecy, and everyone was suspect, in his eyes, of possible indiscretion.” Avigur was described as one of the most influential yet least known men in Israel. Personal anonymity and tight control were hallmarks of his managerial style.

Avigur instructed the Israeli legation in Moscow to carefully make contact with Jews in Russia but to absolutely avoid saying anything that could be construed as anti-Soviet or probes into the plight of Soviet Jews. The staffers were encouraged to hand out literature, including a rudimentary Russian-Hebrew dictionary, and talk about Israel, Jewish history and Jewish culture. In 1955 Avigur’s office broadened its scope by seeking travelers to Russia from Western nations who would be willing to bring up the issue of Soviet Jewry with Soviet leaders. Avigur had three goals in mind for Soviet Jews. They should be allowed to express their Jewishness, contact Jews in other countries, and repatriate to Israel. Binjamin Eliav, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official and multilingual publicist, joined the group to disseminate information on Soviet Jewry to appropriate people in the West as a first step in pressuring the Soviet government to affect these goals. Avigur’s group felt the time was right to bring the issue to Western leaders who were confronting a post-Stalin Soviet Union that wanted to improve its image in the free world. However, the World Jewish Congress, headed by Nahum Goldmann, denied that there was discrimination against Jews in the USSR, and advocated improved Israeli-Soviet relations, rather than emigration of Soviet Jews.

The Office with No Name took on a code name Nativ (path) and was publicly called Lishkat HaKesher (Liaison Bureau) and often shortened to “The Lishka.” Arie “Lova” Eliav, who served as First Secretary of the Israeli Embassy from 1958 to 1960, subsequently headed Nativ operations in the USSR. He traveled throughout the Soviet Union meeting Jews and found estimated that over a million of them, especially those residing in republics outside of Russia, would gladly leave for Israel if they could.

In addition to Moscow, Nativ agents operated in Israel’s embassies behind the Iron Curtain in Bucharest, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. The main goal was to achieve aliyah of Jews to Israel from the Eastern Bloc, in contrast with the Jewish Agency that promoted aliyah from the West. In 1957, Meir Rosenne, fresh out of the Sorbonne with a Ph.D. in International Law, began working in the Paris office of the World Jewish Congress. He was one of a few associates posted by the Lishka in New York, London and Paris to publicize the plight of Soviet Jewry as a moral issue. Their operation outside the Soviet Union was called Bar (open field) and was kept separate from Nativ.

In 1960 when Binjamin Eliav became Israel’s consul general in New York he continued to pursue support for Soviet Jews and asked William Korey who headed the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League office in Washington to look into the question of emigration as a human right. Korey worked with Jose Ingles, a Philippine judge and statesman, to prepare a document based on case histories of Jews in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe who wanted to leave. The document was submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights -- the first time the issue of emigration was raised in an international forum. It stated that the right to leave one’s country was clearly enunciated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and could be traced back to the Magna Carta and the writings of Socrates.

Avigur retired in 1969, leaving a legacy of a smoothly operating secret organization using dedicated people from America and western Europe (in lieu anyone with an Israeli passport after the Soviets broke diplomatic relations with Israel) as tourists who would visit the Soviet Union and make contact with Jews. Avigur passed away in 1979.