An interview with Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, a graduate of the London Film School, a film maker who produced the award-winning docufilm Operation Wedding, also known as Dymshits-Kuznetsov Hijacking Affair.
Anat is the daughter of Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov, two of a group of fourteen dissident Jews who lived in the Soviet Union, who, unsuccessfully, tried to escape life behind the Iron Curtain to become ‘Soviet prisoners of Zion.’
We sat for an interview in a small trendy café in Santa Monica, California, and the conversation was riveting.
I saw the docufilm and had many questions about the unusual parents who brought up and helped shape Anat’s character.
“My father is fighter at heart for a principle he believes in. He sat in the Soviet Gulag twice. Seven years for writing, publishing and propagating an anti-Soviet newspaper called Phoenix. For his Operation Wedding plot, he was first sentenced to death, a sentence that was commuted to imprisonment in the Gulag, in which he served nine years prison time. My father is also a talented writer and he authored the book Prison Diaries, a compilation of his notes, the only notes ever smuggled out of the Gulag which he managed to get out of his prison cell,” Anat tells about the father she claims to be so much alike.
“When he was in the Gulag my Dad managed to write, on tiny pieces of paper that could be read only with the use of magnifying glass, what he was living through. It was important for him to pass to the West what was taking place in the darkness of the Gulag and beyond its walls,” Anat continues.
Nurit Greenger: “How did he manage to get these notes out of the prison walls and to the West?”
AZ-K: “Once a year, Yelena Bonner, the bluntly honest and courageous human rights activist and dissident in the former Soviet Union and the wife of the noted physicist Andrei Sakharov used to come visit my father in the Gulag. She managed to hide and bring out his writing that was published in the West and translated to a few languages. In Israel, before retiring, my father was the chief-editor of Vesti (in Russian it means ‘News’), an Israeli Russian-language daily newspaper for the many Russian speaking people who arrived in Israel after the fall of the Soviet Empire.”
NG: “I read that your mother, Sylva Zalmanson, is an artist. When did she discover her artistic side?”
AZ-K: “My mother, a very modest person whom, Studio Magazine named the Rembrandt of Israel, was 45-year-old when she found her artistic calling, 15 years after she arrived to Israel from the USSR. She spent four years in the Gulag and was released and freed as part of a secret Israeli-Soviet prisoner exchange of the spy Yuri Linov that took place in 1974 in Berlin, after which she immigrated to Israel. In the following years my mother advocated for the release of my Dad, her husband, Edward Kuznetsov, and other Prisoner of Zion dissidents.”
There were five women in total in the ‘hijacking’ group. Sylva was the only woman to stand trial while the other four were let go. She was ordered to stand trial and state her case. At the trial she proclaimed: “If you would not deny us our right to leave the Soviet Union, this group wouldn’t exist. We would have just left to Israel with no desire of hijacking an empty plane or any other thing that’s illegal. Even here, on trial, I still believe that someday I will make it to Israel. This dream, illuminated by 2,000 years of hope, will never leave me. Next year in Jerusalem!“
And naturally, the Communist court, the antithesis to the term freedom, was infuriated when Sylva went on to recite, in Hebrew, Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” This is who was and is Sylva Zalmanson.
NG: “Your parents got divorce soon after their reunion and your birth. Can you talk about it? Why after they fought together and for so long for the same cause? After all, your mother went a step farther putting her life on the line carrying a 16-days hunger strike in front of the United Nations building in New York City!”
AZ-K: “My parents knew each other for only ten months before Operation Wedding was to take place. During their time together they worked on their escape plan with little time to live as a normal married couple. Then they were separated for many years, each one with his/her own struggle. They grew apart and marriage was impossible. These days I am their main common subject.”
NG: “Tell me about the screening, the holocaust denier and exposure.
AZ-K: “A closed, private screening, put together by the State of Israel, attended by members of the Israel government, Israeli and other embassies’ staffers, historians and media, took place in 2016, in the Latvia KGB jail, today serving as a museum.
One member of the Latvian parliament who attended the screening, got engaged in a discussion with someone claiming to be a Russian historian. Apparently the historian accused Operation Wedding’s participants of could have been murderers, if their plane crashed and killed people on the ground. This historian was a Holocaust denier and their discussion exchange amassed 300 comments, giving the docufilm much exposure.
NG: “what is the purpose of telling this heroic story apart from the obvious?”
AZ-K: “I would very much like to recount and bring to the public’s focus the history of the Soviet Jewry, their struggle during Communism time.
“Today many young people in Israel and beyond do not know what the term ‘Prisoners of Zion’ mean. They were not told how difficult it was for Jews in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, abbreviated USSR. Essentially it was illegal to practice Judaism; violators would be visited by the KGB and be punished. The ‘unofficial’ illegal activities included: attending synagogue, learning Hebrew, studying Torah, celebrating Jewish holidays, eating kosher food, circumcising newly born baby boys, reading or owning Jewish books or books whose content is Jewish and Israel related. Jews who objected to being national scapegoats, like my parents, were targets for beatings and worse and were denied exit visas to leave the country. Jews who merely applied for such permissions were considered traitors, enemies of the state, put under KGB surveillance, harassed, ridiculed, not accepted into universities and fired from their jobs. Many were arrested, put on ‘show trials’ and imprisoned in the Gulag network of Soviet forced labor camps.”
Soviet Jewry History
What Anat would like to accomplish is for the history of the Soviet Jewry to be taught. Her docufilm was selected to be part of Israel’s Education Office library for high school students. She is now working with the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy on making it part of an extra curricular project, in English, and the path to accomplish this goal is already showing positive results are underway.
In his writing, during the time he was imprisoned in the Gulag, Edward Kuznetsov swore that should he be freed, he will never put his foot on Russian soil. However, in 1999 he traveled to Post USSR Russia with an official Israeli delegation but did not agree to travel to Russia to help in the making of Anat’s docufilm.
Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov is in the process of putting together all the elements needed to produce a full feature fiction, spy and adventure film, based on her parents and their comrades’ story. Maybe the full feature will solve the mystery why Edward Kuznetsov traveled the Russia once but will not travel there again. Being the daughter of two determined parents, we will be soon attending this film on the big screen.
The 4th USA screening tour will take place during February and March, 2018, and is now open for screening requests.