Reflecting on the impact of a Russian Jewish pilot’s plot to hijack a Soviet plane to freedom
By Jonathan Feldstein
I’m relaxing on the beach in Tel Aviv reading a book that I’ve been enjoying. More than enjoying, it’s an important piece of our history as a people, specifically related to the struggle to free the Jews of the Soviet Union of which I was active in my teens and early adulthood, and which is so important to remember.
“Hijack for Freedom” is the memoir of Mark Dymshits. Unlike other memoirs with the writer’s intention to be published, Dymshits’ writing was only discovered after he died, and only then published.
Mark Dymshits was a former Soviet Air Force pilot who, discriminated against as a Jew, sought to leave the USSR which was nearly impossible in 1970. He and others planned to hijack a plane and fly themselves out of the USSR to freedom, eventually to be able to go to Israel. It’s a compelling read.
Unlike many of the most prominent refusenicks and Soviet Jewish activists of the time who became a household names, Dymshits’ personal history was different. From being a loyal Soviet citizen he would in time resent the increasing discrimination until he realized that the Soviet Union was not his true homeland and could never be. This pilot ‘plotted’ a course of action that went beyond a flightpath and would change the course of how Soviet Jews looked at their own identity. Unlike many others, Dymshits did not spend years learning or teaching Hebrew in secret, studying or practicing Judaism, nor was he particularly involved with any of the Zionist groups and leaders at that time. He only wanted to leave the USSR and immigrate to Israel.
As a pilot, he spearheaded a plan – “Operation Wedding” – to hijack a small plane that would be filled with other Soviet Jews, and fly himself and them to the west and freedom. Perhaps, because he didn’t spend years hiding his identity as a Hebrew teacher or live the lives of other Jewish or pro-Israel activists, he was less sensitive to the dangers of h the KGB and how it had effectively infiltrated these groups. Dymshits and his co-plotters were caught, arrested, and tried and in December 24, 1970, a Leningrad municipal court sentenced former military pilot Mark Dymshits, age 43, and a dissident Eduard Kuznetsov, age 30, to death by firing squad. Seven defendants, ages 21 to 30, were sentenced to 10 to 15 years in labor camps, with two receiving shorter sentences. With two exceptions, all the defendants were Jews.
This case of the “Leningrad hijacking plot” caused an uproar in the west, and was a catalyst for other Soviet Jews to begin their own ‘flight’ to freedom. In a way the Dymshits case was not unlike that of the case Alfred Dreyfus that had such an impact on Theodor Herzl to “hijack” the complacency of Jews in “enlightened” countries and set a goal to establish a Jewish state.
Fifty years after Herzl, the dream of establishing a Jewish state was realized and 50 years after Dymshits and the others involved with “Operation Wedding”, the majority of Jews who wished to leave the USSR were able to do so.
BACK ON THE BEACH
As I wiggled my feet in the soft sand, I became aware of a family speaking Russian behind me, clearly three generations: grandparents, their children, and their grandchildren. I understand some basic Russian from teaching myself in order to get by on my own in the USSR back in the 1980s. One of the little boys had a unique way he rolled his ‘R’s which I attributed to his growing up in Israel but speaking Russian at home among his immigrant family.
At one point as they chatted behind me, I read the following passage related to Dymshits’ arrest, trial and imprisonment and how in many ways that was a catalyst in the USSR to inspire Jews to try to leave, and a catalyst in the west to advocate on their behalf.
“The KGB had a choice to make between (charging us with violating Soviet laws of) article 83 with short prison terms, or article 64 with long prison terms and even execution. If the KGB had chosen article 83, and given us prison terms of up to three years, they would have made themselves look humane in the world’s eye. After serving our short sentences, we would have gone off to Israel without causing a fuss, but without a fuss there would have been no large scale aliyah. They would have given exit visas to a few thousand Jews, and everything would have gone quiet for a few years.”
As I’m reading these words and hearing the Russian behind me, I see Dymshits’ vision being fulfilled. Eventually, the Jews of the Soviet Union would have come home. But if the high-profile nature of the bold plan, then the trial, and subsequent protest of the verdict had not taken place, it is indeed possible that at that point there would have not yet been a large scale movement, or exodus, of Soviet Jews.
Friends who are former Soviet Jews who live in Israel have articulated what a hero and how pivotal Dymshits was. His book is a personal memoir, much about his early life and leading up to the hijack plan, and then the imprisonment, trial, sentence, and serving his time in successive prisons. Spoiler alert, he was not killed. The sentence was commuted to fifteen years in a Gulag, and he was free after nine years thanks to an American-Soviet prisoners exchange in 1979. He then emigrated to Israel where he lived until the age of 88.
As much as Dymshits and the other defendants were pivotal in changing the dynamics, I’m sure that if I had asked the Russian speaking family sitting behind me on the beach who Mark Dymshits is, they’d probably have no idea.
Today, it is not uncommon to see planeloads of new immigrants landing in Israel from different parts of the world. It’s important to know and never forget that only 50 years ago the Jews of the Soviet Union were prohibited from leaving and discriminated against. It is the heroism of people like Dymshits who changed the paradigm.
Especially as this week, I celebrate my 18th anniversary of making aliyah, thank God we’re all home.
Hijack for Freedom. The Memoirs of Mark Dymshits: Soviet Pilot, Jew, Breacher of the Iron Curtain
About the writer:
Jonathan Feldstein - President of the US based non-profit Genesis123 Foundation whose mission is to build bridges between Jews and Christians – is a freelance writer whose articles appear in The Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, Townhall, NorthJersey.com, Algemeiner Jornal, The Jewish Press, major Christian websites and more.
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