The tiny gray-haired woman looked out of the dining room of the Capital Hilton and watched the screaming motorcade of black Soviet armored limousines race toward the Soviet Embassy. The woman watched and then she turned and said rather pensively: "They are so fearful."
Ida Nudel has a profound understanding of the dark side of the Soviet system: It tried to destroy her and failed. Since 1970, she has been one of the most prominent Jewish activists in the Soviet Union and was known in the movement as the guardian angel of the prisoners of conscience. Until her arrest in June 1978, she badgered Soviet officials to provide humane treatment for imprisoned Jewish activists. She sent them food, pictures, reading material, chocolates and clothing. She gave them, and their families, hope, and that was unforgivable. An economist, she lost her job and was repeatedly detained for 15-day stretches by the KGB. After she held up a sign on the balcony of her Moscow flat -- "KGB, give me my visa" -- she was sentenced to four years of internal exile in Siberia.
It was a descent into hell that began with a 40-day train ride to collect prisoners bound for Siberia. She was given a room in a male barracks. "It was an old building with wooden walls," she says. "It was so cold because the wood was so thin. It was 50 degrees centigrade under zero. You cannot breathe, it is too cold."
The barracks housed hardened criminals, many of whom had served sentences but been unable to return to their homes because their families had rejected them. They worked in the village on a project to drain the marshes. "I lived among them, a woman alone. They were very primitive. Their mentality was if you are a woman alone, you belong to them. I went through an experience that was very difficult to make them understand that I was not for them. I needed to protect myself. I behaved toward them like they were human beings. They were not accustomed to being treated that way. In the Soviet Union, punishment is very cruel. The goal of the punishment system is to break you as a human being, to break your spirit. I needed to explain to these men that they are human beings like me. I succeeded. I lived in this men's barracks a year and they began to respect me."
Later, the police allowed her to buy a one-room peasant hut. "They understood I could not survive in the men's hostel. My life became a little better." She grew vegetables in the short growing season and raised chickens, which surprised the villagers who knew she was from the city. "I put all my heart into this. I read books. I shared my knowledge with the village women. In this way, I earned their respect."
The townspeople knew she was a political prisoner and they avoided her. Police pressured anyone who had contact with her. She had a collie, however, that played with the village children and they told their parents "who began to feel more warmly to me." Gradually, she was able to establish some human relationships. Her plight became known internationally after an activist visited her and smuggled out a 16-millimeter film about her exile. She received 12,000 letters from people in 51 countries before she was released in 1982.
Her ordeal after that was far from over. The Soviet authorities would not let her live in Moscow. They would not let her be registered as living anywhere else, and for months she wandered homeless. "They said you did not change your behavior. This is why they did not want me back in Moscow to be active. I was an outcast from society."
Without a registration stamp on her passport, she could be arrested at any moment. She knew that anyone who helped her would be harassed by the KGB. Finally, she was able to settle in Bendery, in the Republic of Moldavia. She lived there until she was allowed to leave the Soviet Union on Oct. 15 after industrialist Armand Hammer appealed for her release. She and her collie flew out to Israel on his plane.
She endured nine years of loneliness, ostracism and deprivation. "I had no choice. It is my character. I cannot go left, right. I felt myself in a tunnel as wide as my shoulders. It is straight. I believe that my people have the right to be equal among all nationalities. I believe that now that Jews have our own homeland we have the right to be resettled there. We paid a terrible price to be a nation."
Nudel, who is 56 now, gives meaning to the word courage. "I was saved by working with the earth. The more emotionally I was drained, the more time I spent working with plants and flowers. But sometimes even this work doesn't help." She spoke of her loneliness. She never spoke of fear.