I am a man who dreams his freedom makes to dream neat balanced lives solid to escape surviving to soar above my prison The hope for freedom Inhabits my empty chairs
excerpts from "The Empty Chair" by Sand Churchill, member of the Beth Sholom congregation
The Beth Sholom congregation in Potomac has dedicated an empty seat on the sanctuary alten to a Soviet Jewish activist, Eduard Kuznetsov, who is serving a 15-year sentence in a Russian prison. The congregation has adopted Kuznetsov as part of the "Adopt-a-Prisoner" program coordinated by the Soviet Jewry Committee of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.
On June 15, 1969, Kuznetsov, a 30-year-old assistant in a Russian psychiatrie hospital, his wife Sylva, her two brothers and seven others attempted to hijack a small 12-seat plane destined for Sweden in the hope of eventually reaching Israel and freedom.
The Kuznetsovs are Jewish and repeatedly had been denied permission to emigrate by the Soviet authorities. They were subsequently tried in Leningrad in 1970 and Eduard was sentenced to death by a firing squad and Sylva to 10 years in prison.
Adverse world reaction to the sentencing was loud and clear and Eduard Kuznetsov's sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison. Although his wife eventually was pardoned and released, Eduard Kuznetsov still sits in a Soviet prison and is scheduled to remain there until December 1985. But he is not forgotten.
On the altar in the sanctuary of Beth Sholom sits an empty chair, draped in ribbons and supporting a photograph of Kuznetsov. It is a constant visual reminder to the congregation of Kuznetsov and of their obligation to help him in all possible ways.
Beth Sholom, an orthodox congregation that is a branch of its parent synagogue in northwest Washington, is one of the many area synagogues participating in the "Adopt-a-Prisoner" program, which grew out of increased interest in the problems of Soviet Jews after the Leningrad trials, generally considered a watershed in the struggle for cultural and religious freedom for Jews on the Soviet Union.
The congregation has undertaken the mission of keeping up regular attempts of correspond with Kuznetsov in prison and with his family in addition to writing letters to Soviet officials and government officials in this country to press for his release. Their efforts also include participation in the Soviet Vigil, which is held at noon daily across from the Soviet Embassy on days of importance in the Kuznetsov case, such as his birthday and the aniversary date of his imprisonment. Members distribute leaflets and speak out individually on the case.
Commenting on the likelihood of such letters ever reaching Kuznetsov, Samuel Sislen, director of programs for the Jewish Community Council, said that former prisoners have said, after their release and eventual arrival in Israel, that many letters reached them but only a small percentage of those sent.
"They were very much aware that for every card and letter they received there were many others written, and this realization was a considerable morale booster," Sislen said.
One former prisoner told Sislen that he could tell when letters arrived at the prison because suddenly his treatment by guards would dramatically improve.
Sislen said it could be inferred that guards were sensitive to a heavy flow of mail from the United States.
This is why, Sislen continued, dissidents and activists repeatedly stress that their only safeguard is communication from the West.
The Beth Sholom congregation plan to continue its efforts on Kuznetsov's behalf until his release from prison.