Unsung Hero of the Month
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
On March 14, 1986 Moscow cellist and Hebrew teacher Alexei Magarik was arrested in Tbilisi, Georgia on trumped up charges of hashish possession. His father, Vladimir, living in Israel immediately launched an international campaign to plead for Alexei's release. His tours of Europe and North America convinced many supporters that, in spite of Glasnost, Soviet Jews were still in danger and it was vital to continue demanding human rights and freedom for Soviet Jews. The story of father and son is told in Chapter 9, “Teach Hebrew Go to Prison”.
Alexei's wife, Natasha Ratner, believes the KGB was really after her because of her zealous activism in the refusenik community, but didn't want to arrest the mother of an infant. Magarik, on the other hand, a cellist and amateur woodcarver, was an easy target as he traveled from Moscow to Tbilisi to visit friends. He was carrying pipes that he had handcrafted for smoking tobacco and it was easy for KGB agents to plant some hashish in his suitcase and claim that he was transporting the contraband.
Two men who were with Magarik when he packed his bag said they were willing to testify that there were no drugs in it before he left for the airport. Vladimir Magarik, Alexei's father, who had been living in Israel with his daughter since 1982, sought help from the Lishka. He couldn't believe it when they suggested that if Vladimir kept a low profile, his son would get "soft" prison conditions and maybe an early release. Vladimir instead, embarked on a worldwide campaign to appeal for his son's freedom. He asserted, "Alexei found his hope in Jewish culture; he did not need drugs." Natasha Ratner joined Tatiana Edelshtein in appealing to the Soviet Supreme Court in behalf of their husbands.
On June 9, 1986, after claiming to be innocent and having never used illegal drugs, Alexei Magarik was sentenced to three years in labor camps, the maximum term for possession of drugs. The Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center accused the Soviet authorities of "turning Jewish activists…into scapegoats in the drugs war".
A month later Magarik's appeal was denied and he was moved from Tbilisi to a labor camp in Omsk and treated as a criminal, rather than a political prisoner. Natasha was able to visit him and reported that he was beaten all over his body by cellmates and kept for two weeks in a special unit for "backward detainees". She requested that the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews undertake a campaign to protest the lack of protective clothing and equipment for prisoners who were forced to work with dangerous materials and to bring attention to the brutal and lawless administration of the Omsk prison camp.
A bipartisan group of sixty-four US congressmen wrote directly to Gorbachev requesting that he commute or reduce Magarik's sentence. Vladimir and his daughter, Hannah, traveled across the United States by bicycle and car to publicize their campaign for Alexei’s freedom. Vladimir then went to Vienna and started a hunger strike during the November 1986 meetings between Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and US Secretary of State George Shultz. But the t-shirt Vladimir wore with Alexei's picture on it was considered too provocative by Austrian authorities so the Viennese arrested, detained and fined him. Vladimir's next stop was Reykjavik, Iceland, with Chicago activist, Sister Ann Gillen, in time to protest at the Reagan-Gorbachev summit.
In Moscow activists held daily demonstrations during February 1987 in behalf of prisoners of Zion including Begun, Edelshtein and Magarik. Participants were beaten and some equipment belonging to foreign correspondents was damaged. In May the Tblisi City Court cut Magarik's term in half and announced that he would be released in September 1987. Natasha and 131 other Moscow refuseniks sent a letter to Gorbachev protesting this half-way measure, and demanded Magarik's immediate release. There was no response and Magarik remained in Omsk until September, hailed by supporters as the "Last Prisoner of Zion".
In a telephone conversation from Moscow after his release and four months before he and Natasha made aliyah, Magarik declared:
"I cannot be and I am not the last of the prisoners of Zion. Even in my moment of release from jail it has been known that there is at least one other, Yosef Zisels, who is still kept in confinement in the labor camp... in the sea of arrests it is very much unlikely to know all the names, and we can never be sure what is the reason behind any of the prison sentences of Jews in this country. For sure there are Jews who are being confined and exposed to sufferings, who undoubtedly deserve to be called prisoners of Zion, but whose names are not known to us, not known to anybody at all. Their fate is more frightening than mine, and their plight is more tragic than that of the well-known prisoners of Zion. We knew that there was a struggle on our behalf, that our names were known in the West, and that everything that was happening to us would be immediately reported to the free world. But those people are not known to anybody. That is why they are mocked and humiliated in every possible way, and there is no one to stand up for them. I want to say that these people need more courage to carry on. And I know that despite all kinds of pressuring, despite the fact that their names are virtually unknown, they bravely deny their alleged guilt and bear their sufferings with admirable endurance. That is why, in connection with the above, I cannot be the last prisoner of Zion. I wish that people in the West would understand this and raise their voices on behalf of those prisoners of Zion, known to nobody, who are still tortured in the Soviet jails."