On 9 May 1975, at 12 noon, on the thirtieth anniversary of the victory over German fascism, a Jewish anti-fascist meeting took place in Minsk. War veterans, former partisans and young people gathered in the former ghetto district. About five hundred people were present, including Jews from Moscow, from a number of towns in Belorussia and from the Baltic states.
Wreaths were laid at the foot of the Obelisk.[Note] They bore inscriptions in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian: “To the Martyrs and Heroes of the Jewish People, from the Jews of Minsk”. The first wreath was carried by Colonels Lev Ovsishcher and Yefim Davidovich.
Colonel Yefim Davidovich, 1924-1976
Officials tried to prevent the meeting taking place. Many policemen and KGB officials were brought into the district for the meeting. The deputy chairwoman of the district Soviet executive committee expressed her dissatisfaction at the Jewish inscriptions on the ribbons adorning the wreaths and did not want to allow Davidovich to speak. When she asked what organizations he represented, Davidovich replied: “I represent the dead who lie in this grave, and the living who have come to this meeting.” The indignation of the assembled Jews forced the local authorities to retreat. The meeting took place.
Yefim Davidovich made a speech, in part of which he said:
“On this momentous anniversary of victory over German fascism, it is not by chance that we have gathered here in the ghetto, by this modest memorial. Under this monument, erected by donations from Jewish widows and Jewish soldiers who returned from the war, lie those near and dear to us who were tortured to death by the fascists. Five thousand lie in this grave. There are many such graves. 200,000 Jews perished in the Minsk Ghetto …
“We were not, however, only victims and martyrs. The Jewish people made a worthy contribution to the destruction of the German war machine. Over a million Jews fought in the ranks of the anti-Hitler alliance; of these, about half a million fought in the ranks of the Soviet Army. 170,000 received Soviet decorations and medals for their actions in battle; 133 Jews received the title “Hero of the Soviet Union”; 150 Jewish generals led Soviet troops into battle, from the first fighting in 1941 to the victorious storming of Berlin. The heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising shook the whole world… The underground anti-fascist organization of the Minsk Ghetto and its fighting groups made a significant contribution to the defeat of the enemy. In particular, it organized the escape of women and children from the ghetto to the Jewish partisan unit of Semyon Zorin. The lucky ones who managed to escape from the ghetto fought and died in partisan units in the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Yugoslavia and other countries…”
At the end of his speech Yefim Davidovich asked for “a minute of silence to pay respect to the memory of the martyrs and heroes of the Jewish people”.
During Davidovich’s speech, which he delivered with enthusiasm and fervour, complete silence reigned among those who had come to the meeting, only sighs were to be heard. When Davidovich stopped speaking, lots of people thanked him, kissed him and blessed him: for many years Soviet Jews had not heard a good word spoken publicly about their people. After Davidovich’s speech, Shmaya Gorelik and a few other older men read out a prayer for the dead, in spite of an attempt by the authorities to prevent it. On 16 May 1975, Davidovich was informed that he had been deprived of the title of retired Colonel, and of the corresponding pension and medical services.
In the middle of January 1976 Yefim Davidovich came to Moscow. On the morning of 21 January TASS put out the following report on teletype:
“Mrs Bonner’s Anti-Soviet Show“
“Moscow, 21 January (TASS). Mrs E. Bonner, wife of the well-known anti-Soviet figure Sakharov, received an enviable training during her recent voyage abroad. During her lengthy tour of Western European countries, she not only learned to humbly thank her masters for various ‘prizes’ and financial hand-outs, but she also learnt the basic principles of how to put on an anti-Soviet show.
“Mrs Bonner has decided to put on her next such show today, for which purpose Sakharov’s flat has been chosen as the stage. The active Zionist Yefim Davidovich, who has specially come from Minsk for the occasion, has been invited to play the star role in this anti-Soviet revue. The culmination of the spectacle is to be a so-called ‘renunciation’, when Davidovich plans to renounce his Motherland and all it once gave him, in front of film-cameras …”
On 22 January E.G. Bonner made the following reply:
“Colonel Davidovich, who fought against fascism and received for this a number of Soviet decorations, has no need to renounce his motherland, where his family perished. Two years ago, when he applied to emigrate to Israel, he rejected the Soviet state, but the motherland and the State are not identical in meaning. No matter where a man lives, his motherland remains the place where he was born. Unfortunately, the TASS statement does not state why Colonel Davidovich has not yet received permission to emigrate, although during this period he has been deprived of his military title and pension…”
On the same day, Davidovich himself replied to the TASS statement:
“I was amazed to hear that TASS had given more attention to my visit to Moscow than to the visit of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in that it has put out a special statement about me.
“My conversation with Academician Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner was interpreted by TASS as a preparation for a public, anti-Soviet renunciation of my motherland. This TASS statement, which does not correspond to reality, proves only an indisputable fact — that the listening devices in Academician Sakharov’s flat are in bad working order. There is no other source for this information, nor could there be. These devices enabled the KGB to establish the fact that we had a conversation and, apparently, certain individual words could be distinguished. But the KGB did not manage to make out the meaning. Not wishing to look like fools to their bosses, the operators of this Moscow ‘Watergate’ put together some sort of rubbish.
“I have never had any intention of renouncing my motherland — the state of Israel — while my Soviet motherland has already renounced me, eradicating all I did for this country in peacetime and at the front during the war.
“My visit to Moscow springs from the necessity of obtaining a qualified medical diagnosis which I have been deprived of in Minsk.
“As for my public protests, there have been quite a few of them in the past, and I shall not end them while the USSR is still illegally and forcibly detaining even one Jew out of the thousands who are now prevented from exercising their inalienable right to emigrate.”
On 1 March 1976 Davidovich had another heart-attack, his fifth. When this became known in Moscow, ten Moscow Jewish activists (D. Beilina, V. Rubin, A. Shcharansky, A. Lerner, V. Slepak, M. Azbel, V, Brailovsky, V. Prestin, P. Abramovich and V. Fain) wrote the following telegram of appeal to Brezhnev:
“Former retired Colonel Yefim Davidovich has had five heart attacks and is now in a serious condition. Though he showed great courage in the Second World War, was wounded more than once and received many decorations, Davidovich is living in a state of persecution which results from his desire to emigrate to Israel.
“Davidovich’s condition is desperate, a matter of life and death. We call on you to show humanity, to intervene at once and allow Davidovich to emigrate to Israel. This is the only way now left to save his life and it depends on you.”
There was no reply to this telegram.
On 7 March 1976, the following appeal was sent by the Jews of Moscow and other towns in the USSR to Jewish societies, war veterans and people of good-will all over the world:
“Yefim Davidovich, one of the leading fighters for the rights of Soviet Jews, has had a fifth heart-attack and is in a serious condition. Davidovich began his campaign against anti-Semitic articles in the press when he was already a sick man, and he defended the dignity of the Jewish people with the same courage he showed when fighting during the war.
“Soon the persecution of Davidovich began. In December 1972, a criminal investigation case was initiated against him and his friend Ovsishcher for “anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation” [Article 70]. Davidovich was arrested, but the Belorussian KGB obviously feared to take the responsibility in case of Davidovich’s death in prison and soon released him, having obtained from him a written undertaking that he would not leave town [Minsk]. Continuous interrogations began, after which Davidovich was brought home in a serious condition. In May 1973, influenced by numerous protests from world public opinion, above all from army veterans, the Soviet authorities were forced to close the case. After this, convinced that anti-Semitism in the USSR was State policy and that the only way out for a Jew who did not wish to renounce his people was repatriation to Israel, Davidovich applied to emigrate.
“Permission for his emigration was not granted, on the pretext that Davidovich was in possession of state secrets. A repressive atmosphere was created around him: the KQB threatened people who came to visit him; libellous articles were written about him. In January 1976 TASS put out a special statement asserting that Davidovich was about to publicly renounce his motherland. Davidovich replied that his motherland was Israel, which he would never renounce, while his other motherland had itself rejected him.
“In May 1975 Davidovich — who had shown great courage in the Second World War, had been wounded more than once and received many decorations — was deprived of the title of retired Colonel, of his pension and medical services. The doctors whom Davidovich later consulted in Moscow concluded that his heart condition was the result of nervous strain which arose from the persecution to which this seriously ill man had been subjected for years. What is happening to Davidovich cannot be defined otherwise than as conscious and systematic murder.
“We appeal to all people of good-will: save Davidovich before it is too late. Ask the Soviet authorities to give him immediate permission to emigrate to Israel. It may depend on your energy and persistence whether Davidovich will ever see the land of his dreams.”
This appeal was signed by 112 persons from 15 cities.
In an open letter to European and American doctors, Academician Sakharov, Yelena Bonner-Sakharov, Yury Orlov, Nina Strokata (Karavanskaya), Alexander Ginzburg, Ludmila Alexeyeva, Larissa Bogoraz and Malva Landa appealed for help in obtaining permission from the Soviet authorities for Yefim Davidovich’s emigration to Israel.
“Our appeal on this matter is addressed to doctors”, they write, ” because the case of Davidovich involves not only the usual violation of the right to emigrate from our country, but also the torture of a seriously ill man.”
[Yefim Davidovich died in Minsk of a heart attack on 24 April 1976.]
THE OBELISK AT THE PIT MEMORIAL, MINSK
2 March, late 1970s (photo, Dima Aizenshtat)
“The Obelisk at the Pit Memorial in Minsk was the first and for a long while the only monument to the victims of the Holocaust on the entire territory of the Soviet Union,” writes Vladimir Volozhinsky (14 December 2015). “It was the first Soviet monument, moreover, on which permission was granted for an inscription in Yiddish.”