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Caged

Lena Keis's story posted by Naomi Keis on July 28, 2014 at 10:56 am. Lena emigrated from Leningrad, Soviet Union (USSR) to Tel Aviv, Israel in 1989

My grandmother’s story is both tragic and amazing. The trials she went through reflect the reality of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. Every ill that a Jew in that time could have experienced befell her family with crushing force.


Elena Markovna Leikina was born at the end of World War Two, in a small town in Ural where her family evacuated to from Leningrad. Her father, Mark, was a violinist and her mother, Maria, an architect. She had an older sister, Anna. When the war ended, her family moved back to Leningrad, where her sister began to learn to play the violin, and Lena, surrounded by her parent's love and attention, believed she was growing up in the best country in the world. Whenever her parents discussed political issues, they spoke in Yiddish, thereby sparing their two daughters the trouble and disillusionment.


Lena made her first acquaintance with reality soon after Stalin’s death, when her schoolyard friends accused Jews, people like her, of killing Stalin, and of being evil murderers. When Lena, in tears, told her mother of this, Maria was forced to explain to her daughter the disadvantages every Jew must face in Soviet Russia. Also, she said, that in order to achieve anything at all, Jews must work harder, longer, more than anybody else.


My grandmother took her mother's advice to heart. Anna was already practicing her violin for hours every day, so Lena decided to excel at school. All of her studying paid off, and she managed to get into a prestigious technical institute, which she also completed with honors.


However, her achievements were not enough to get her the job she wanted. Good students like Lena should have had first pick of jobs, but she overheard the admissions inspector for one of her prospective careers say that they did not accept Jews.


In 1965, Lena married and, five years later, my father Andrei was born.


In 1974, her sister left for Israel. The breaking point was when her own daughter was not allowed into the Conservatory Anna taught in due to "an already too high percentage of Jews attending". Anna was informed of this before the entrance exams were even held.


She was not allowed to bring her violin, which was very unfortunate - Anna loved her music and could not live without her instrument. Her mother figured out a way to ship Anna a violin through a Yugoslavian friend of hers. At the same time, my grandmother decided to apply to OVIR (a government agency that determined whether one could leave the country or not) for documents to move to Israel. She was adamant that her family must live together. Her application was accepted, but she was told to bring in other necessary documents.


In 1975, the KGB found out about the illegally sent violin. They searched Maria's apartment, finding a rough draft of the letter she sent to Anna informing her of the plan with the violin. My grandmother was inadvertently involved with the affair, as the letter was penned by her.


In March of 1975, my great-grandmother was arrested. Lena was involved in the investigation: she was called in for endless interrogations, and subjected to constant searches and intimidation. All their things of value were confiscated, including violins that had been in my grandmother’s family for generations. Lena was constantly threatened with imprisonment. The KGB wanted to know the name of the contact the violin was sent through. Lena's unwillingness to cooperate made them very angry.


Maria was placed in the Leftoforskii prison, and there was no contact allowed.


In May of 1975, she was given an amnesty in honor of the defeat of Germany thirty years ago. However, with her release, the KGB would have been forced to return the confiscated objects, something they had no interest in doing. Also, they wanted to make a demonstrative case involving Israel. They did not release her under the amnesty.


After this, my great-grandmother was held without any legal justification whatsoever. My grandmother herself was constantly called to the KGB in the hopes of scaring her and learning some information.


In September of 1975, Lena was told that her mother had depressive psychosis. Her court case was held without her, but Lena was present for the sentence: Maria was to be moved to a prison psychiatric ward for mandatory treatment. The entire procedure lasted little more than two minutes.


It took my grandmother a year to figure out which hospital Maria was being held in: Kazan psychiatric hospital, a closed facility where visits were allowed only once a month. Every month, Lena visited her mother without fail. At first my grandmother didn't even recognize Maria - imprisonment had aged her severely.


After Maria's arrest, Lena's husband utterly refused to even entertain the idea of moving to Israel. However, the thought of Israel was placed on the second plan - there were other troubles to take care of. My grandmother was fired from her job because of her conflict with the government. She was left without employment and with no way to make ends meet to provide for her son.


In 1976, Lena's father, Mark, was allowed to leave to Israel.


In 1978, after pressure from multiple organizations, the KGB was forced to admit that there wasn't enough evidence and released Maria. When Lena brought her home, she was completely ill - she refused to eat, paced the rooms incessantly and washed her hands constantly, causing them to develop cuts and blisters. Lena, desperate in the face of her mother's instability, decided to place Maria into a hospital. However, the hospital had received the information from the court case, and Maria was kept as though in prison. Lena then fought to have her mother released from the hospital she herself put her in.


My grandmother understood that there was no way Maria would receive decent treatment in the USSR. She had made a private arrangement with one of the nurses from Maria's hospital: the nurse would come to their apartment every other day and administer drugs that would calm Maria down in order for her to eat. Obviously, this was far from ideal care.


Therefore, Lena began the battle to have her mother move to Israel. It was a difficult process, as the documents had to be personally taken to the OVIR, but in 1979, Maria boarded a flight to Israel, to her husband and eldest daughter.


However, when Lena wanted to leave the country, she encountered significant difficulties. Not only did she have to divorce her husband, who was categorically against moving to Israel, but Soviet forces had entered Afghanistan, heightening tensions worldwide. Emigration to Israel was almost completely closed for Jews.


That year, Lena began her ten year struggle to leave the USSR. She learned and then taught Hebrew. Many international Jewish organizations helped her and her fellow refusniks (people who were not allowed to leave the country). In March of 1987, my grandmother participated in a demonstration to protest the government’s denial of her right to emigrate. She also was a part of two more demonstrations that year.


In 1986, Lena received the news that her father had died. She did not have the opportunity to see him or say goodbye to him.


In May of I988, US President Ronald Reagan arrived to the Soviet Union, and my grandmother received an invitation to a dinner at the American embassy. However, a policeman came to her house the day before the dinner and warned her not to come. My grandmother didn't listen, and was set to leave but was detained at the train station.


The next day, Lena found out that Richard Shifter, the assistant secretary of US for human rights, was meeting with refusniks in Moscow. My father, Andrei, who was at the time only eighteen years old, was able to meet with him in his mother’s place.


Also in 1988, Lena had a meeting, organized by her sister Anna in Israel, with maestro Zubin Mehta, a famous conductor. A couple of months later, Lena announced a hunger strike that lasted for sixteen days. During that time, she received many calls and a lot of support from organizations all around the world.


On the seventeenth day, Lena was summoned to the OVIR office in Moscow. She was sure she would get permission to leave to Israel, but her hopes were crushed - her application was once again postponed, till 1992!


However, in 1989, my grandmother was finally allowed to leave the USSR. Very soon, she, her second husband, and her son were in Israel. After ten years of struggle and so much pain and loss, my grandmother was free from her cage.


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