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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

IDA NUDEL, aged 90


Born Ida Yakovlevna Nadel in Novorossiysk, Russia, a port city which is on the Black Sea. She was part of a Jewish family.

Ida was a diminutive, very intense woman who trained as an accountant and got a job at the Moscow Institute of Planning and Production as a food analyst. Life was not easy as there was a lot of inherent anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union – and she hated discrimination of any sort.

In 1970, she heard about the ‘Dymshits–Kuznetsov Affair’ This was the hi-jacking of a plane by Soviet Refuseniks, in an attempt to get to Israel.

‘Refuseniks’ were people who refused to adhere to the Soviet Communist Party line and believed in independence of thought and freedom. In the USSR they were usually persecuted and often imprisoned.

Ida was inspired by this and decided she also wanted to emigrate to Israel.

She contacted Vladimir Prestin, a Hebrew teacher, well-known as being a ‘Mr Fixit’, who was getting Jews out of the USSR. He showed her how to apply for an exit visa.

Her application was rejected because as she was working for a government agency, it was claimed she knew too many state secrets.

Her sense of injustice was made worse in 1972 when her sister, Elena Fridman,and her family ( husband and child) were all granted exit visa and left to live in Israel. Ida had no close family left in the USSR.

Ida then organised a hunger strike at the Central Office of the Communist Party, to protest about the arrest of Refusenik Vladimir Markman. The strike lasted for four days before being broken up by the police who raided the building.

She then began a campaign to maintain contact with imprisoned Jewish protestors – ‘Prisoners of Zion’ as they were known. She spread information about them around the world, leading to the USSR government being inundated with letters of protest, and presents being sent to the prisoners e.g., warm clothing, food, vitamins, chocolate, cigarettes, pens – all the things they were denied in prison. The prisoners called her their Guardian Angel, or the ‘Angel of Mercy’.

She was sacked from her job. She had to take menial jobs to earn enough to keep alive.

In 1978 she draped a banner from her Moscow apartment which said, “KGB, give me my visa to Israel.”

She was promptly arrested. She was sentenced to four years ‘internal exile’. She was sent to Krivosheina on the River Ob in Siberia and was forced to work in a factory. She had refused extradition as this was only given to spies – and she said she wasn’t a spy.

She was the only woman in the factory. Initially expected to sleep in the factory dormitory, she found herself a log hut to stay in. She also got herself a new job, as a night guard at a local truck yard.

But she suffered from frostbite, inadequate clothing, lack of proper food and worst of all, isolation.

The KGB warned the locals to stay clear of her. Nevertheless, Ida kept up her Prisoners of Zion work and received thousands of letters of support from abroad. Her case was taken up by the British / Soviet Jewry campaign, who not only took up her case but made it very high profile.

She was released in 1982, on the condition that she had no contact with either foreigners or other Refuseniks. But she was not allowed to return home.

Instead, she was given a permit to live in Bender in Moldova – a place she had never been anywhere near.

But she kept up her fight, with a constant stream of letters being sent to world leaders.

Ida memorial before exile (courtesy Flickr)

The President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, led the campaign for her freedom. He always kept an empty place at his Passover table for her.

In 1984 both Jane Fonda and Liv Ullman visited her – and re-launched her exile campaign.

And in 1987, as part of his Glasnost policy, President Mikhail Gorbachev issued her an exit visa.

She flew to Tel Aviv on October 15th 1987, where she was greeted by a crowd of thousands which included her sister Elena, Jane Fonda, the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Her landing was broadcast live on TV and she was granted immediate citizenship of Israel.

The only thing she brought with her from the USSR was her old blanket which had kept her warm through the exile years and a few books. And her faithful dog Pizer, who had been given to her as a 5-week-old puppy when she was exiled.

Escape with Pizer (courtesy Wikipedia)

As she stood on the tarmac, surrounded by TV cameras, she said, “The moment came. I am on the soil of my people, at home.”

She was given a phone call with the US Secretary of State, George Shultz, who had campaigned tirelessly for her release. He told Ida, “Every once in a while something happens which is unambiguously good and gives you a feeling that at least some things are on the right track.”

She then went to live in Karmei Yosef, a small agricultural village in the Judean Hills, where she wrote her autobiography, ‘A Hand in the Darkness’. It was turned into a movie starring Ullman called ‘Farewell Moscow’.

Then Ida created ‘Mother to Mother’ a non-profit organisation that supported women who came from the USSR with their children and no money, enabling the children of these Russian immigrants to settle and achieve in Israel. It was funded by donations from abroad.

In 2001 she appeared in an Israeli court as a witness to defend former Refusenik Natan Sharansky who had been accused of being a KGB spy.

And she campaigned in the Israeli Supreme Court to save the lives of 15 Palestinians that PM Ariel Sharon had sentenced to death – with success.

She took the Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter to court for withholding visiting rights to Hamas and Hezbollah prisoners, supported by the Red Cross.

Despite this, she was politically a right-winger and despised socialism.

Meanwhile, she had moved to the town of Rehouot to be close to her sister and her family.

She remained an avid worker for improved relations between Russia and Israel. She admitted she enjoyed public attention in Israel and she had undoubtedly become a national heroine.

But she never talked about her experiences in the Soviet Union. She said it was time to ‘move on’. She admitted she never really settled in Israel. She said there was, “no drama, no cause, no fight, no risk – and no real need to help others. But she kept campaigning.

When her death was announced on Israeli TV, the headline was, “Short Stature – Giant Spirit.”

Jane Fonda said, “I thank her for teaching me one very important thing: to never lose hope.”

RIP – Refusenik’s Israeli Plan

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