Ida Nudel had a dream. For a long time it was dangerous to do more than just think about it. She secretly studied Hebrew and listened to clandestine radio broadcasts about Israel. She had to be careful because Nudel was not a first-class citizen of the Soviet Union, not even considered a Russian. Nudel is a Jew.
She and her sister Elena applied in 1971 for visas to emigrate. Elena received her visa and left for Israel. Nudel's was denied. It would be 15 years before they would see each other again.Ida Nudel was a government economist, but as she began writing letters and contacting officials about emigrating she was fired and then blackballed in her profession. The KGB entered her life. Her telephone was monitored, her mail opened. She was under constant surveillance.
Nudel's home became a meeting place for dissidents. She wrote literally thousands of letters to prisoners offering hope and encouragement. She became the "guardian angel" of the prisoners of conscience.
After a demonstration in 1973, Nudel was arrested, interrogated and briefly imprisoned. In 1978 she hung a banner from her Moscow apartment that read, "KGB, Give Me My Visa." She was arrested for "anti-Soviet activity" and sentenced to four years in exile in Siberia.
From her home in Israel, Nudel's sister Elena organized letter-writing campaigns in Ida's behalf. She visited schools and universities, went on television and radio and entreated any visitors of import to help.
Support for the Soviet dissident spread across the world from members of Congress to the "Israeli Women for Ida." When Mikhail Gorbachev asked industrialist Armand Hammer for help in solving the Afghanistan problem, Hammer said, "I will, if you promise me one thing - give me Ida!" She flew to Israel's Ben Gurion airport in Hammer's private jet in 1986.
During a telephone interview from Chicago, Nudel proudly said, "Former Secretary of State George Schultz once told that only among Russian Jews, not a mother, not a wife but a sister would work so hard on behalf of a loved one."
After arriving in Israel, Nudel stayed as a guest for three months at a kibbutz in the north of the Negev desert. The KGB had confiscated her diaries, so she began a book reconstructing her struggle. Her book was published last November and is titled "A Hand in the Darkness: The Autobiography of a Refusenik."
There was that incredible day when she learned she could go to Israel. She remembers the emotions totally overwhelmed her. "I learned there is a limit to how much excitement a human being could absorb. Flying to Israel, it was above my limit. There is a psychological barrier to how much excitement you can stand. But my feelings jumped again when I landed and met with my sister. I was melting like a snowball!" she said.
Nudel spoke about the need to write about her 15 years as a "refusenik." "I cried more writing this book than when I lived through it. But it was a great opportunity for me to express myself. I wanted it to be a great tribute to all the people who took part in my struggle - my sister, my friends," she said.
Life in Krivosheino in Siberia was the ultimate test of Nudel's resolve. Conditions were primitive. She was isolated - a lone woman among violent criminals. "Some days it was like hell," she recalled. "You know the books of Kafka? It was mostly like Kafka."
Her health deteriorated during the last of her Siberian exile, but when asked how she was now, Nudel spoke warmly about her life in Israel. "There is excellent food and I am surrounded by love. Now that I am not under the constant surveillance of the KGB I am no longer tense, I'm not under such a strain."
She continues to be a spokesman for Soviet Jews awaiting their turn to emigrate to Israel. She worries about the Ethiopian Jews who are not being allowed to leave. She has combined her book tour with speaking engagements because she feels this is a crucial time for Jewish people.
"I want people to know that an ordinary person can do whatever he or she decides to do. You can set noble goals. It is ordinary people who are moving society forward," she declared.
Ida Nudel lecture
- WHO: Ida Nudel, who spent 15 years fighting the KGB for a visa so she could emigrate to Israel, will give a public lecture.
- WHEN: Tuesday, March 19, at 7:30 p.m.
- WHERE: The James L. White Jewish Community Center, 2416 E. 1700 South.
- SPONSORED BY: The United Jewish Council, the Jewish Community Center and Congregation Kol Ami.
- TICKETS: Tickets may be purchased in advance at the JCC for $5 per person or at the door for $7.50.