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
April 21, 2009 is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. While people generally associate the Holocaust with Auschwitz and gas chambers, it is important to realize that the initial genocidal murders of Jews by Nazis and their collaborators took place in killing fields where masses of Jews were shot and thrown into pits or ravines. Rumbala in Latvia is one of these fields of horror. Rivka Alexandrovich worked tirelessly to memorialize Rumbala and to lead a renaissance of Jewish life in Riga, Latvia. Her story appears in Chapter 7, “I am a Jew and Israel is My Homeland”.
Just as Babi Yar was sanctified for Kochubievsky and the Jews of Kiev, the Rumbala Forest, near Riga, Latvia, was revered by the Jews of that city. It was the site of the murder of over 20,000 Jews from the Riga Ghetto by Germans and their Latvian collaborators on November 30 and December 8, 1941. After twenty years had elapsed with no memorial to mark the mass grave, Rivka Alexandrovich and other Riga Jews walked through the forest to search for the site. Attracted to spots where there were flowers in bloom that seemed unnatural in a pine forest, they started digging and found bones. They dug in the forest every Sunday for three years and eventually built a makeshift memorial. The authorities tried to prohibit the activity and briefly arrested some of the activists. Nevertheless, Rumbala became established as the meeting place for the young Jews of Riga, a city that had been home to a vibrant Jewish community until 1941. It should be noted that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia did not become part of the Soviet Union until 1945 so the Jews of these three republics were more familiar with Judaism and Jewish culture than Jews in the rest of the USSR.
There were strong Zionist aspirations among the Jews of Riga, and the Alexandrovich family submitted applications to emigrate to Israel in 1965. They were refused and Rivka’s teenage daughter, Ruta, was expelled from the Young Communist League. Undeterred, Ruta became active in collecting, duplicating and distributing leaflets on Jewish history. In 1969 she, along with twenty-one other Jews whose exit visas had been refused, signed a letter to UN secretary general U Thant. The letter invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own.” It further stated:
We are being kept forcibly. We are not allowed to go. Such treatment is an act of lawlessness. It is an open violation of the rights of man. We consider that to hold us forcibly is against the most elementary concepts of humanity and morality. We demand free exit from the USSR!
On June 15, 1970, Ruta’s twenty-third birthday, the homes of Jewish activists in Riga and other parts of the Soviet Union were searched by KGB agents. Hebrew books and dictionaries, Israeli postcards, copies of petitions, letters and personal correspondence were confiscated from the Alexandrovich apartment. Ruta was called in for interrogation but she refused to cooperate. On October 7 she was arrested and whisked off to an isolation cell on the pretext that she had just returned from Odessa where there had been a cholera epidemic.
Ruta was put on trial at a workers’ building outside Riga on May 24, 1971, along with three young men who were active in the Riga Zionist community. The Riga Four, as they were called, were accused of producing anti-Soviet literature and working to undermine the Soviet regime. Ruta admitted her role in distributing literature about Israel and Jewish culture, but denied that she had acted to undermine or weaken the Soviet regime. All four were found guilty and Ruta was sentenced to a year in prison.
Her fiancé, Sanya Averbukh, and her mother launched a campaign of writing letters and getting support from the BBC and other Western media. The authorities gave Rivka Alexandrovich an exit visa for Israel to get rid of her because they knew she had been frequently communicating in fluent English with supporters in Israel, the United States and Europe. One treasure she brought to Israel was a matchbox filled with tiny bones from Rumbala that she turned over to Yad Vashem. Rivka, an articulate English teacher, then embarked on a speaking tour of the United States asking Americans to write to officials in Latvia requesting amnesty and an early release for Ruta.
Ruta was forced to serve her entire term but was allowed to emigrate with her fiancé and her father in October 1971. Sanya and Ruta were married in Tel Aviv a month later in a huge wedding attended by prime minister Golda Meir, Israeli government officials and hundreds of immigrants from the Soviet Union.