Four days ago New York commemorated the 18th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It is a heart wrenching ritual repeated every year. Family members and first responders return to ground zero to remember the loved ones lost on September 11 of 2001. The names of all people who died are read one by one.
In August 2001, I was sent on assignment by the UNDP to Vladimir, a city in Russia. The city has a very large Jewish community. The Jewish Cultural Center is called Hesed Lev and they got a grant from UNESCO, in response to their request for funds to promote Jewish culture through the performing arts. The Soviet Union was very rough with the Jews and many were killed during his regime. The younger generation in the country had been growing up without any knowledge of or sensitivity to their rich heritage. Hesed Lev wanted to tour the country with a variety show including plays, dances and music, especially folk songs. The grant would help underwrite the expenses but they wanted someone to put the program together an=d organize a festival which could be taken on the road. I was assigned the task.
Needless to say, I was quite excited. Even more so when I discovered that they had picked Fiddler on the Roof as one of the two plays.
I was seriously involved in the Grande Prairie production of the play; I had a bit part as well. (I know, I know, Stanislavsky did say that there are no small parts, only small actors.) The members of the Center were also quite excited after reviewing my resume. The Center did not want to spend precious dollars for accommodation in a hotel. I was given room and board in the house of one of the staff. I had no problem with the arrangement. In fact, I offered to underwrite the cost of food.
Putting the program together, supervising rehearsals, planning the tour etc. were quite fascinating. The enthusiasm of the cast and crew was very exhilarating.
Here I want to take a slight detour and go back in history. 16th of January 1989 was an important day in the history of the erstwhile Czechoslovakia. On that day Vaclav Havel, playwright and political activist, was inaugurated as the first democratically elected President, thus toppling the communist government backed by the Soviet Union.
The interesting fact is that Havel, along with many activists, including students, was in a jail in Bratislava on the day he was elected. On the 8th of September I got a surprise call from Alexander Sergeev of the Russia desk in Moscow. He had a request from UNESCO. Three Israelis would be arriving in Vladimir on the 9th of September. They were journalists who wrote articles of protest against the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. At that time they were operating independently from Moscow, Odessa and Kiev for different news organizations. They were arrested and sent to Vladimir central prison which is the largest in Russia. It was (perhaps still is) the most notorious prison in the country and the most dangerous criminals or those who needed to be taught a lesson were sent there.
The three men spent about six years in the jail and when Czechoslovakia became a democratic republic, they were released. They moved to Israel. But they were returning to Vladimir after many years to see the prison where they had been incarcerated, where they withstood indescribable torture, but survived simply because of their indomitable spirit.
I was the only UN presence in Vladimir and so I was requested to interview them and submit a report. I arranged for a meeting on the 11th of September.
The journalists–Benyamin, Isaac and Menachem—had horror stories to tell.
One particular punishment is worth mentioning. Every Friday was silence day. From 5 in the morning when they were woken up until 5 a.m. the next day, the prisoners in the ward were not to make any sound. Food was served on paper plates, the toilets were not to be flushed, and if anyone felt like sneezing, he had to stifle it. In fact, one day Isaac sneezed and he was beaten up for that. He said that was the most brutal in the Russian repertoire of torture.
It was extremely disturbing to listen to the three people describe their experiences. It was inconceivable what a human being can do to another!! I had to ask them why, in the name of God, they came all the way to Vladimir! They said they wanted to see once more the place where they had withstood the brutal machinery of the KGB and beaten it. They were writing a book, describing their experiences, and they wanted to see the city which they had not had the opportunity to explore, having spent all the time in the prison. As I said they were incarcerated for six years and when Czechoslovakia became independent, they went from Vladimir to Haifa in Israel.
I came home around 6 in the evening and since the lady of the house had not come home to fix me supper, I turned on the TV. Russian TV more often than not showed Hollywood movies, dubbed in Russian. My Russian was not good enough to understand the dialogue. Even if I did, Clint Eastwood saying, Make my day, you punk, in Russian had no appeal for me. I used to look at the pictures and tune out the dialogue.
What I saw initially surprised me. One of the stations was showing the Twin Towers under siege. I did not understand the commentary that went with it. I assumed that it was a new movie that Steven Spielberg was shooting! Or John Cameron.
In a few minutes my hostess called to apologize for not being home at supper time, but she asked me if I knew what was happening. Of course, I did not. And when she gave me the news, my heart sank. Many weekends I had gone to the Windows on the World on the 106th floor. They had a very attractive restaurant called Wild Blue. It was also known as the Greatest Bar on Earth! I spent time reading; writing, just looking at the river…….It was an ideal place to spend a quiet afternoon. I kept on watching the repeated images of the plane ramming the towers, the resultant damage, confusion…
About half an hour later the President of the center called me and said that I should immediately shave my beard because I looked like one of the guys responsible!! I had no idea how she got the image to begin with.
The next thing I knew, Alexander asked me to pack and be ready to leave the next day. In the morning three soldiers came to the apartment and literally surrounded me and took me to the railway station to catch the early train to Moscow. The soldiers were with me throughout the journey. Once in Moscow, I was whisked off under strict military protection to a hotel somewhere out of Moscow. The next day I was put on a flight path which took me to Helsinki. Before I reached Edmonton I touched Glasgow, Paris and Frankfurt. The usual route would have been Moscow-Frankfurt-Edmonton. The UN does take care of their staff, I tell you!!
I was very disappointed to leave, with my job half done. I was told that the Center did put together a program which they toured with around Russia.