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
Each year on Israel’s Independence Day, usually in May, the Israeli Ministry of Education awards the prestigious Israel Prize to individuals who have made contributions of great significance in various fields of endeavor. Ten years ago Aryeh Kroll was a recipient of the Israel Prize for his clandestine campaign to reach out to Soviet Jews. He remained anonymous until he received the Israel Prize. His story is chronicled in Chapter 3, “Secret Operations Sponsored by the Israeli Government”.
Copy and paste the text beginning here and insert photo 280 pixels wideAryeh Kroll and His Army of Tourists
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also upholds the right of an individual to return to his country, and that’s exactly what Aryeh Kroll did in 1965 when he boarded a steamer in Istanbul bound for Odessa. He thought he was going on a brief vacation with forty Israelis of Russian origin who wanted to visit their relatives, but what he saw in his native land would change his life forever.
Aryeh Kroll was born in a small town called Kholopinichi, near Minsk in Belarus, in 1923. His father, a rabbi and shochet (ritual slaughterer) – two professions that were not valued by Yevsektsia and the Communist regime – managed to emigrate to Palestine in 1933 and was joined there by his wife and Aryeh two years later. The older children remained in the Soviet Union. Aryeh’s older brother was killed during the German siege of Leningrad and his sisters integrated into Soviet society; one became a doctor in Minsk and the other an electronics engineer in Leningrad.
Kroll inherited a religious Zionist orientation, in contrast to many young Jews in Palestine who were secular. He became active in Bnei Akiva, an international religious Zionist youth organization, and led its branch in Jerusalem for four years. He later helped rebuild the Biriya settlement (near Safed) that had been demolished by the British in 1946, and then moved to the Negev where he was one of the founders of Kibbutz Sa’ad, ultimately becoming the secretary of this religious kibbutz.
For over thirty years Kroll had not seen his sisters. Having had no contact with them other than occasional letters from Leningrad, he jumped at the chance of traveling to Russia to see them. He described the scene at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow where his sisters and relatives of the Israeli visitors had gathered: “There were people who hadn’t seen each other for over forty years. It was a terrible scene, with much weeping. It seemed that even the stone pillars under which we were standing were weeping with us.”
One of the Israelis came to Kroll that evening and said with great emotion, “Aryeh, you must help me! My brother traveled for two weeks from Siberia to see me. He carried a tattered, blood-stained tallit, and he wants a new one.” She related how her brother had this tallit while serving in the Red Army, and how it helped him escape captivity, and enabled him to survive while fighting in the woods. “If he gets a new tallit,” she continued, “he will cover himself with it and say to God Almighty: ‘Now I am ready to be taken to your place.’ All he wants is a clean tallit.” Without hesitation Kroll gave her his own tallit.
The next morning Kroll was determined to start acting in support of the deprived Soviet Jews and persuaded the group to go to the Israeli Embassy, where. they were received by Ambassador Yosef Tekoa. Kroll related how he “knew that in Russia walls have ears even in diplomatic missions, and therefore I wrote him a note asking him to collect whatever Israeli souvenirs they had at the embassy, as well as religious objects and Hebrew books, so that we could distribute them to our relatives, and to other Jews we may meet during the trip.”
Returning to Israel, Kroll resolved to create networks of support for Soviet Jews. He revealed his plans to interior minister Moshe Chaim Shapira, the leader of HaPoel HaMizrachi, a religious party. Shapira replied: “My friend, I am really excited about your story, but it is Mapai [the Labor Party] that is in charge of Russian Jews, and only Histadrut members can get jobs there [the Lishka under Avigur].” Not easily discouraged, Kroll simply went to Sde Boker in the Negev, the home of former prime minister Ben-Gurion, who had known and respected Kroll for two decades. Though they differed ideologically they had a common interest in developing the Negev. Kroll told Ben-Gurion, “We must send tourists there [to the Soviet Union] and have them carry Hebrew textbooks, Scriptures, prayer books, song books and records. If we persist in this activity, we will be able to bring about a real revolution; we will stop the assimilation, and then the great aliya will not be far off.” Ben-Gurion replied, “You know that I love you, but in my opinion, your optimism borders on madness.”
Disappointed, Kroll returned to his work at the kibbutz. Two weeks later he received a phone call from Shaul Avigur, who said, “You have a great friend. I want you to come see me in Tel Aviv.” Avigur then sent Kroll, loaded with books and religious articles, on missions to the Soviet Union. A $25,000 loan from industrialist Yosef Mirelman enabled additional Israeli emissaries to travel to the USSR.
Days after Israel’s decisive victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six Day War (June 1967), the Soviet Union branded Israel the aggressor and severed diplomatic relations. Travelers with Israeli passports were no longer welcome in Moscow. Kroll had to change his modus operandi; instead of going to Russia himself and sending Israelis, he would go to Western Europe and the United States to recruit volunteers for missions under cover of innocent tourism. After selecting Jews who were knowledgeable in Hebrew and Jewish religious practices, he trained them on what they should and should not do in their missions to make contact with Soviet Jews. In this new role, Kroll spent about 120 days each year outside Israel. He kept his activities secret, even from his wife and daughters.
He established a hierarchy of recruiters in major cities. Veterans of Bnei Akiva, including Itchie Fuchs in New York and Seth Jacobson in Stockholm, did the initial searches for possible emissaries, but for the first few years Kroll would travel to several cities in one day and book flights with sufficient layovers so that he could meet candidates and recruiters in the airport coffee shops. The candidates who were selected as emissaries would then get more detailed instructions from the recruiters and would often schedule their travel to coincide with holidays when Jews could be found at the few functioning synagogues in the Soviet Union and could be met without creating too much extra attention. In addition to bringing in books and religious articles the emissaries took out the names of Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel and needed letters of invitation from “relatives.”
In 1969, when he was twenty-one, author and radio talk-show host Dennis Prager was briefed by Kroll and sent on a mission. Because he was fluent in Russian, Prager was sent to Baku, Azerbaijan, in addition to the usual destinations of Moscow and Leningrad. He recalls that it was a harrowing experience. “You knew you were being followed but you didn’t know what they would do. I lost eighteen pounds during those four weeks because I never met anyone sitting down; we always walked, usually in public parks.”
The emissaries were instructed to avoid involvement in any secret activities initiated by Soviet citizens. They were to avoid acting or speaking against the Soviet regime, contacting dissidents, staying in Jewish homes, taking out incriminating documents, and playing “James Bond”. Kroll trained them how to behave during interrogations; if they were asked about the origin of the books and materials they carried, they should just say that the rabbi of their community had asked them to deliver the items to Jews.
Jews whose exit visa applications were rejected by OVIR were summarily fired from their jobs. As refuseniks they were treated as outcasts and lucky to find menial work. Kroll soon learned those out of work were becoming destitute and that it was necessary to provide material help in addition to cultural and spiritual support. Some money from supporters in the West would trickle in to trustworthy refuseniks in the form of bank transfers that could be converted to coupons for use in “Beriozka” shops.
Similar to the hierarchy of recruiters in the West, there was a hierarchy of distributors of materials in the Soviet Union. Yuli Kosharovsky, a refusenik Hebrew teacher in Moscow, held a seminar in 1976 for Soviet and foreign visiting Hebrew teachers. Kroll’s emissaries attended and then placed Kosharovsky in a key position to channel goods to refuseniks whom he knew and trusted. Similarly, Yosef Radomiselsky (now Yosef Raday) became a coordinator in Leningrad.
Zale Anis of Boston went on a mission in 1977. Upon his return he was able to obtain funding from his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to purchase cameras and sheepskin coats at low cost for distribution to refuseniks. Kroll at first allowed his Nativ travelers to carry these items, but was furious when Anis became active in Boston Action for Soviet Jews and also started giving the goods to “unauthorized” travelers. These individuals often delivered their valuable hand-carried cargoes to refuseniks outside Kroll’s channel of control, some of whom, he suspected, would prefer to emigrate to the United States rather than Israel.
When a refusenik coordinator such as Raday received permission and finally arrived in Israel, he would be brought from the absorption center to a Lishka office, and there Kroll would identify himself and debrief the new immigrant, over glasses of vodka, for an update on the status of the refusenik community.
Looking back on his twenty years in Nativ/Lishkat HaKesher and his role in sending several thousand volunteers to make contact with Soviet Jews, Kroll said: “I thank God Almighty that all the operations ended peacefully. Not a single emissary was imprisoned. Not one of them was killed or died. Some were detained, questioned and expelled, and the things they brought with them were confiscated, but there were no crises that could endanger the entire operation.” The story of Kroll’s operations was revealed when he was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for 1999.