The Heroic Soviet Jewish Activist You Never Heard of
Hillel Butman played a key role in exposing the plight of Soviet refuseniks to the world.
Most Jews have heard of Natan Sharansky, but few know of Hillel Butman (pronounced Boot mahn), a giant of a man who recently died at the age of 87.
“Hillel Butman was the first, before the rest of us,” Sharansky said. “Already in 1966, a year before the Six Day War, he founded the Zionist Youth Movement in Leningrad. Who thought about Zionism back then, before 1967? It was very rare. He established an underground organization; taught Hebrew, literature and Judaism; established secret ‘ulpanim’ in which the young people met; and he tried to scream to the world the cry of the Jews in Russia who wanted to go home to Israel. Dozens of people, and then hundreds of people and then thousands of people got carried away by this movement.”
Butman was born in Leningrad in 1932 into a typical Jewish Russian family. His family was neither religious nor Zionist, nor did they know anything about Jewish history or Palestine. But they were not assimilated. His father had a seat in the Leningrad synagogue where he attended High Holy Day services. He enjoyed singing Yiddush songs. The family ate matzah during Passover.
When World War II broke out, Butman was a young boy. He and his family were evacuated to Siberia. When he returned to Leningrad in 1945 and completed school, his life changed dramatically. “I came out of the walls that defended me,” he recalled. “I began feeling antisemitism from two sides—‘above,’ meaning the government, and ‘below,’ meaning the streets.”
Even though Butman was the best student in foreign languages, he was not accepted to study to be a translator for the army or the police. He applied to be a journalist and stood in a line to present his documents. A woman took the documents from someone who was standing in front of him and from someone who was standing behind him. He understood what that meant. Eventually he was accepted and then pushed out of military school. These experiences with antisemitism were his best teacher to become a Zionist.
He soon met a Russian Jew named Lilly who he described as his “Zionist Mother” . She taught Butman Hebrew and introduced him to other idealistic Jews. After Lilly’s passing in 1960, Butman became a Hebrew teacher for those who were brave enough to learn it.
In Leningrad 1966 he and five like-minded Jews formed the Leningrad Underground Zionist Organization. By 1970 the group had grown to 39 members. The organization had two goals: to break through the walls of isolation for Soviet Jews and force the Soviet government to permit Jews to make aliyah, and to fight against assimilation. “When there is no Jewish culture, no Jewish press and no Jewish schools, there are no Jews,” Butman said.
The Israeli government played a part behind the scenes with its lishka (“bureau”). It maintained contacts and provided resources throughout the USSR during the 1950s and early 1960s. The lishka used “agricultural attaches” from the Moscow embassy to travel throughout the Soviet Union to deliver Jewish mementos such as miniature Jewish calendars and Star of David pendants, which were usually handed off in a handshake. These tokens meant a great deal to the Soviet Jews.
Israel also had writers in other countries who brought the persecution of Soviet Jews to the fore. The hope was that journalists, policy elites and ordinary citizens would do what Israel could not risk doing on its own. Outside the Soviet Union, activists mainly employed conventional means of protest, including mass rallies in New York City of up to 250,000 participants.
But in the USSR and in the US, it was really the passions and commitments of individuals that really launched the struggle to free Soviet Jewry.
Remembering a story that he had read about a Portuguese ship that was hijacked by anti-Fascists and that led to public awareness of their struggle, Butman thought that the Leningrad Underground Zionist Organization could come up with a similar plan to publicize the plight of Soviet Jews.
Butman met the late Mark Dymshitz, a Jew who had been thrown out of the army and who wanted to make aliyah. They formulated a plan in which they would hijack a plane in Leningrad and fly it to Sweden. On board would be Zionist Jews who sought to move to Israel. Their cover story was that they were flying to a large family wedding. They decided to take control of the cockpit without any arms in order to avoid harming the pilots. If the pilots refused to fly to Sweden, Dymshitz planned to fly the plane himself. They would carry a starter pistol, the type fired at racing competitions that looked and sounded like a regular pistol. The plan was known as Operation Wedding.
Butman and Dymshitz presented their daring plan to the cell in Leningrad. The initial excitement of the cell’s members gave way to fear. The operation’s failure could put the Zionist movement out of business in the USSR. They decided to ask the Israeli government in a clandestine manner. The answer came back, “The professor who is the leading medical authority does not recommend the use of the medication.” Dymshitz then turned to a cell in Riga, and its members agreed to take on this challenge.
Butman knew that there were three possible outcomes: The KGB would arrest them in Leningrad before they boarded the plane; it would shoot the plane down if it took off; or they would be arrested in Stockholm for hijacking the plane. Butman figured that all three scenarios would work because the goal was to bring attention to the plight of the Jews in the USSR.
The 12 members of the group arrived at Smolny Airport near Leningrad at dawn on June 15, 1970. (Butman had decided not to be part of the group because he feared that too many people knew about it.) They realized that they were being followed, but decided to walk toward “the noose,” as Butman called it in his book From Leningrad to Jerusalem, which describes the days of his struggle and that of his friends.
A few steps before boarding the plane, Dymshitz and friends were arrested by the KGB who had known about the plans for months. Later Butman would say that it had been an act of despair to publicize the fact that Soviet Jews were not being allowed to emigrate to Israel. “We wanted to say that we are not silent. We are crying, but nobody is listening to us.”
The same day Butman was approached by three KGB agents. “We are waiting for you,” was all they said.
Leningrad Trial I, began on December 15, 1970. The defendants were charged with high treason. Some were sentenced to prison; Dymshitz and Edouard Kuznetsov each received a death sentence. Butman received a ten-year prison sentence. In response to international protest, the sentences for Dymshitz and Kuznetsov were reduced from death to imprisonment. Dymshitz was released in a prisoner exchange after serving nine years.
For years I had worn a Soviet Prisoner of Conscience necklace--- a large Star of David with Mark Dymshitz’s name on it. I remember attending a rally for Soviet Jewry in New York City in which recently released Dymshitz addressed the crowd before boarding a plan to Israel. There was an electrifying excitement in the air. It was wonderful to finally take off the necklace.
Butman spent time in various Soviet prisons. Jewish and non-Jewish groups and members of the US Congress lobbied for his release. Supporters wrote letters to him, some of which he actually received. One 13-year-old Israeli boy pledged to write him every other day until Butman was released. Butman wrote to his wife Eva (who had made aliyah on July 12, 1973) and told her to tell the boy not to write him so much. “He is a little child. He has homework. He changed it to once a week.”
The Jewish prisoners were separated and they were not allowed to communicate with each other. Sometimes they bailed water out of the toilets and yelled to each other through the pipes. They smuggled notes to each other and to the outside world. Sometimes their runners were Russian criminals.
Criminals distributed the food. As a criminal handed the food through an aperture in the door, he rolled down his sleeves to his fingertips. When he would put his hands through with the soup, the prisoners would put a message up the sleeves of the criminal. The criminal would then pull out his hands with the message.
In August 1978, Butman was in the Vladimir Prison. “They tried to isolate political criminals from one another,” he related. “I was sitting in my cell alone, thinking, dreaming. I thought I heard a voice, ’Butman…Butman…’ Somebody wanted me to come to the window. The window was high. I could only see a little of the sky, never earth or trees. I figured it was just a thief who had nothing else to do. It was a Russian criminal who lived on the floor above me. He cried out ‘Butman, Sharansky will be in contact with you.’ Sharansky was in a cell to the right of the thief. He knew I was there. I didn’t know he was there.”
Later on, Sharansky sat in the prison cell adjacent to Butman’s cell. Butman would pass notes to Sharansky.
Butman insisted that serving nine years in the Soviet Gulag was a small price to pay in exchange for Soviet Jews being able to live freely. While he was in prison, he was unaware of the mass aliyah that was taking place.
Unlike Jews in the free world, Soviet Jews were in the domain of a Soviet power that supported and armed the Arab armies, and the Soviet government worked indirectly to destroy the State of Israel. The question of their dual, civic loyalty as well as the daily threat of the KGB nearly made a Zionist Jew in the USSR into an oxymoron. Perhaps that is why “Operation Wedding” is considered one of the most heroic events in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry.
“When Butman was released from prison together with his cellmate, Prisoner of Zion Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch,” Sharansky recently told an Israeli journalist, “they handed me the scepter in a certain sense, but in fact if to think big—Butman handed the scepter to our entire generation, and then to Yuli Edelstein’s generation (presently a Knesset member who had been imprisoned in the USSR for his Zionist activities) and to the whole glorious movement of Soviet Jewry.”
Butman came to Israel on April 29, 1979, greeted with a hero’s welcome. He was embraced by that 13-year-old letter writer, who by then was grown up and wearing his Israeli army uniform.
After living on a kibbutz for a year, Butman and his family moved to the neighborhood of Ramot in Jerusalem. He studied law in Israel and passed the bar. He was rarely recognized on the streets of Jerusalem, but his neighbors know his story.
Once a year he would get together with some other former Prisoners of Zion and they would eat and remember.
Upon learning of Butman’s passing, Yuli Edelstein wrote, “In the introduction to his book From Leningrad to Jerusalem Butman asked the question: ‘Did we do our job in a good way?’ We will answer him today: You did well, very well. The Soviet Union no longer exists, the Iron Curtain is only a historical concept—but your perseverance, your breakthrough, will be engraved forever in the annals of the Jewish Nation.
“Hillel was the symbol of a whole generation of young people, me included, who felt that the time to take the Jews of Russia from slavery to freedom had arrived…In the utter darkness that prevailed behind the Iron Curtain, he succeeded to light the candles of Judaism and Zionism,” wrote Edelstein.
In a 2014 interview, Butman declared, “I am proud that in my life, 80 generations of my family that came here before me were here in Jerusalem until the Romans threw them out of the Land of Israel. I was chosen to be the face, the one chosen to close the circle. I, Hillel Butman, after 80 generations, came back.”