The code name of the operation was "wedding."
The operation: On June 15, 1970, a group of 39 Soviets, mainly Jews, would hijack a Soviet domestic flight in Leningrad, a flight headed for Murmansk in the north of Russia. The hijackers would demand that the plane be flown to Sweden. If the crew resisted, one of the hijackers was prepared to fly the plane. They would carry starter pistol, the kind fired at racing meets, which looked and sounded like real pistols.
Only the 39 would be on the plane -- this they accomplished by buying all the tickets for the flight when they went on sale at various places in Leningrad. And if, when they all boarded the plane and took their seats, someone one among the crew thought it strange that all 39 knew each other and that almost all were Jews, they had an explanation for whoever might ask: They were all going to a wedding.
It was, Hillel Butman would say later, an act of despair -- an act to publicize the fact that many of them -- and the rest of the Soviet Jewish community -- were not being allowed to emigrate to Israel.
They sent word of their plan to Israel. Don't do it, the message came back.
There were three other good reasons not to do it: 1. If they made it to Sweden -- the flight to Israel would be too long -- they might be imprisoned. But the world would know of their emigration problems. 2. If the Soviets shot them down as they flew off, they would all die. But the world would know of their emigration problems. 3. If they were caught, they would be imprisoned. But the world would know of their emigration problems.
They went ahead. They got caught. (Soviet authorities were waiting for them at the airport.) Some were put in prison. Two are still there. But the world was forced to take notice of their emigration problems. Groups around the world launched a campaign to allow the emigration of Soviet Jews. Since that year -- 1970 -- a quarter of a million have left.
And Hillel Butma, a short man with a set countenance and piercing eyes, was sentenced to 10 years in prioson for his part in organizing the mission, even though he wasn't at the airport. Those years were spent in various Soviet prisons. At times, he was put in solitary confinement or fed meager rations. He spent nine years in prison -- during which Jewish and non-Jewish groups and members of the U.S. Congress lobbied for his release. Supporters wrote letters to him -- some of which he got -- and the B'nai Israel Congregation in Rockville adopted him, like a prisoner of war, setting an empty chair in the pulpit of the synagogue in his honor. One 13-year-old Israeli boy pledged to write every other day until Butman was released. "I wrote my wife and told her to tell him not to," says Butman. "He is a little child. He has his lessons. He changed it to once a week."
Butman was released in April 1979, along with five others, and was allowed to emigrate to Israel. He arrived to a hero's welcome and the embrace of the 13-year-old boy, now grown up and wearing a uniform of the Israeli Army.
Butman came out thinner, grayer, with less hair, and given to pacing rooms, hands in pockets, as he did in a tiny office at the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, the sponsor of his recent visit here to speak.
"It is my habit from the cell," he says, "to pace. Four steps back. To put out from me my psychological strain. Even today, I cannot avoid it." t
He is 48, with two children -- one result of a prison meeting with his wife in 1973. Russian is his native tongue; he learned English and Hebrew in prison. "People in the Soviet Union do not have books, only letters," he says. "So many people who almost do not [know] Hebrew taught it. I was one of the few who had a textbook. I got it through illegal ways. I would learn Lesson 10 one day and the next day, I would teach Lesson 10. That was the kind of teacher I was."
Butman says there are 1,000 Hebrew root words that must be learned. "I recollected 961 of them" in prison, he says. "And I had no pencil and no paper. So I only forgot 39."
He smiles a little smugly. He has come back from prison anything but a broken man. He has written a first-person account of the hijacking attempt and imprisonment called "From Leningrad to Jerusalem," which he expects to have published shortly. During the last two years, he studied law in Israel and passed the bar; he plans to take a job with the Comptroller's Office in Israel. His smile is strong, almost defiant, and he has a well-honed sense of irony.
During the months before the hijacking, he says, "many nights I couldn't sleep thinking about it." He grins ruefully and touches a patch of hair over his ear. "If today I am a little white, it is from before the investigation, not from prison."
He was cocky in prison when he dared to be. "All political prisoners had an education officer," Butman says. "Once a week he would come and tell us, 'Such a good country, the Soviet Union.' "Butman laughs at the remembrance. "He was so stupid. We would say to him, 'If it's such a good country, who did you vote for in the last election?'"
The Jewish prisoners were separated and not allowed to talk to each other. So they sometimes bailed water out of the toilets and yelled to each other through the pipes. They smuggled notes to each other and to the outside. Sometimes their runners were Russian criminals who took on the job for adventure.
"Criminals distributed the food," says Butman. As they handed the food through an opening in the door, they rolled their sleeves down to their fingertips, Butman says, demonstrating by stretching his sweater sleeves down. "When he put his hands in with the soup," says Butman, "We put a message up his sleeves. He pulled his hands out with the message." By this method, Butman sent a postcard from the Vladimir prison to scientist Andrei Sakharov in Moscow. It was Sakharov's birthday. "I congratulated him on behalf of the Jewish people," says Butman.
Criminals were paid for their help. "We gave them postcards with pictures of women on them," says Butman. "They liked that very much."
He is practiced at telling his story, and he relates some of the funnier tales with great relish and giggles -- like the time one bumbling prison guard accidentally locked a Soviet political officer in a cell. The political officer had come to lecture to the prisoners -- "political propaganda," says Butman. "First, when he got locked in, he knocked politely," Butman explains, going over to the door to demonstrate a polite knock. "Nobody came. So he knocked harder and then he beat on the door and he kicked it," says Butman, giggling and demonstrating. "He was a prisoner for an hour."
Butman speaks constantly about his experiences and the plight of Soviet Jews to "whomever it is we can find who will listen to us," says Samuel Sislen, director of international affairs at the Jewish Community Council. "He considers it his mission." Sislen shepherded Butman for 18 days last month through this city -- "a piece of paradise," as Butman calls Washington. "For nine years, I who like nature didn't see trees. Here I see squirrels almost in the street. It is very beautiful."
Butman was one of the first people to report having had contact in prison with Soviet political prisoner Anatoly Scharansky, a cause celebre in the West.
In August 1978 Butman was in the Vladimir prison. "They tried to isolate political criminals from one another," he says. "I was sitting in my cell alone, thinking. Suddenly I put myself in a dream. It was in a dream, I thought, that I heard a voice: 'Butman . . . Butman . . .' Somebody wanted me to come to the window. The window was high. I could only see a little of the sky, never earth or trees. I figured it was just a thief who had nothing else to do. It was a Russian criminal who lived the floor above me. He cried out 'Butman, Scharansky will be in contact with you.' Scharansky was in a cell to the right of the thief. He knew I was there. I didn't know he was there."
Toward the end of Butman's prison term, he was in a Leningrad prison for one day. "A couple of cells down was the same cell that Lenin had been in," Butman says. "So Lenin and I were neighbors. But his conditions were very different. He wrote in this cell. He wrote such a book." Butman holds fingers and thumb out to designate the thickness. "If I was found writing anything . . ." it meant time in the punishment room, he says. "They feed you a piece of bread only the second day. The other day it is soup -- not very good. More water than soup." Regular prison diet outside the punishment room was "porridge and fish. It is such a little piece," he says, grimacing. "The only thing you would dream is that it wouldT be the head of the fish, because you have so litle to eat."
Ironically, Butman had decided against going through with the hijack attempt himself, because he feared too many people knew about it. He was found later that day and arrested anyway. Was there an informer in their ranks?
"No, no," Butman says, frowning, hands still in pockets, eyes scanning the floor. "We weren't careful enough. People go to their best friends and ask advice. So many people were aware of teh situation. And so many people are agents. Maybe one agent heard one word of teh plan on the streets. It is from this point that these things start."
In the end, he made it to Israel to be greeted by friends and his wife and children and taken by car to the Na'an kibbutz between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Another car drove alongside and the passengers inside sang songs for him as they went. About a kilometer away from his destination, kibbutznids lined the highway. They carried flowers and signs that read "We greet you, Hillel Butman."
"It was like I was a premier," Butman says. "It was an unforgettable day, an unforgettable event."
At the kibbutz he planted a tree and worked in the fields until he left for Jerusalem about a year ago. I thought maybe they would pull the tree out after I left," he says, grinning. "I saw it recently. It is up to my head now."
But sometimes the question of the attempted hijacking and how conscionable it was still flickers in conversations and interviews. "In 1968, [emigration] was impossible. Seven families were permitted to go from Leningrad to Israel. And the youngest person was 56. Two others were younger, but they were missing limbs. We would be allowed to go to Israel only for our pensions."
He explains it this way: "Our aim was not to transfer a certain number of people to Israel. We wanted to do what Moses did -- when he led the people out againist the wishes of the pharaoh."