Archive for December, 2012

My Mom And Dad, The Would-Be Zionist Plane Hijackers

December 29, 2012

This article was first published in The Times of Israel.

Israeli activists dramatize Sylva Zalmanson’s imprisonment in the Soviet Union by protesting in a cage with a sign that reads, “Zalmanson, the people are with you.” (Courtesy of Anat Kuznetzov-Zalmanson)

Israeli activists dramatize Sylva Zalmanson’s imprisonment in the Soviet Union by protesting in a cage with a sign that reads, “Zalmanson, the people are with you.” (Courtesy of Anat Kuznetzov-Zalmanson)

Anat Kutznetzov-Zalmanson’s parents hijacked a plane, and she wants the world to know about it.

Sylva Zalmanson and Eduard Kuznetzov’s only real crime was that they wanted to leave the USSR and live freely as Jews in Israel.

To their daughter, a filmmaker, they are heroes who jumpstarted the movement to free Soviet Jewry, not the criminals the Soviet government made them out to be, sentencing one to death and the other to years of hard labor.

When Kuznetzov-Zalmanson, 32, was a child in Israel, people would approach her parents in the street and embrace them. Teachers would ask her to tell their story in class. But now, several decades later, most people, especially young ones, know very little, if anything, about the Prisoners of Zion who fought for human rights and permission to emigrate from the behind the Iron Curtain. If they are asked about refuseniks, the only name to spring to mind is often that of former Israeli politician Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

They almost certainly have no knowledge of the 16 people (14 of them Jews) led by Zalmanson and Kuznetzov, who attempted to hijack a plane from the USSR to Sweden on June 13, 1970, in a desperate bid to attract the world’s attention to their plight.

The attempt, known as “Operation Wedding,” failed, and all the members of the group were arrested. Most were tried Dec. 15 of that year, and on Dec. 24, Kuznetzov and Mark Dymshits, a Red Army pilot from Leningrad who was going to fly the plane, were sentenced to death. Zalmanson was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor, and the others were sentenced to between four and 15 years.

Kuznetzov-Zalmanson, a graduate of film schools in Israel and London, has always wanted to tell her parents’ story cinematically. Ultimately, she’d like to make a feature film, but for now is focused on getting a documentary off the ground.

“I’ve been trying to make the film for the past three years,” Kuznetzov-Zalmanson told The Times of Israel by phone from New York, where she‘s working to drum up financial support for the project, to be called “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Click here to read more and view the film project’s promo video.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Moses On The Mesa

December 28, 2012

This review was first published as “Jewish Immigrant Who Became Acoma Governor” on The Arty Semite blog at The Forward.


There were many 19th-century Jewish immigrants to the United States who made their way to the Wild West to seek their fortunes. But only one, Solomon Bibo, became the governor of a Native American tribe. The Indians called him Don Solomono; for filmmaker Paul Ratner, he is “Moses on the Mesa.”

Ratner, a 35-year-old recipient of a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, discovered this obscure piece of Jewish history while visiting his parents in Albuquerque, New Mexico and he was determined to make a film about it. “I’d heard about the story for years and had visited the Acoma Pueblo up on the mesa several times,” he told The Arty Semite. “I was surprised that nobody had researched it or talked about it more.”

Ratner, himself an immigrant to the United States (he arrived from the Former Soviet Union at age 13), was fascinated by Bibo, who set sail for New York from Bremen, Germany in October 1869. Shortly after, Bibo, only 16 at the time, continued on to Santa Fe to join his older brothers and family friends.

Click here to read more and view the trailer.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


A Daughter’s World

December 26, 2012

This review was first published in the January 14, 2013 of The Jerusalem Report.

watchmakers_finalcoverThe burden of being the child of Holocaust survivors is a heavy one to bear. Many have written about it, but few have done so as artfully as Sonia Taitz.

With her new memoir, “The Watchmaker’s Daughter,” she takes us on a post-World War II American coming-of-age journey that differs from most. This is obviously because of the genocidal shadow cast over it, but it is also thanks to Taitz’s extraordinary ability to turn a phrase and draw us in to the intense world of a daughter who knows too well that in crucial ways, her life is not completely her own.

It is possible to split the second generation into two groups: those who were told nothing and those who were told too much. Thane Rosenbaum, one of the preeminent literary voices of the second generation, once told me, “My parents never said a word to me, not one word… I knew we were Jewish, but I didn’t know a thing. Nothing. Less than nothing. I found out everything after they died.” He is clearly part of the first contingent. Taitz, a New York-based essayist, playwright and author, most definitely belongs to the latter.

We are pulled into Taitz’s personal narrative from the first sentences of the prologue: “You could say that my father was a watchmaker by trade, but that would be like saying that Najinsky liked to dance. Fixing watches was not only his livelihood but his life. This skill had saved him when he had been imprisoned at the death camp of Dachau, during the Second World War, and he continued to fix watches until the day he died. Simon Taitz was nothing less than a restorer of time. And I was his daughter, born to continue in his life work – restoration and repair.”

Throughout most of the memoir, which reads as a collection of vignettes presented in chronological order, Taitz understands and relates to her father better than she does her mother. Simon, the watchmaker, is a mercurial, intense and dominating figure who has managed to emerge from the horrors of the Holocaust with his faith in God and Jewish tradition intact.

Taitz’s mother Gita, on the other hand, is a more simple and straightforward person who takes pleasure in pretty things, keeping a tidy home and helping her husband in his watch repair and jewelry shop. For years, her greatest wish has been for her daughter to take after her and want to spend hours in the kitchen learning the finer points of being a balabusta. As might be expected from a girl born in New York in the 1950’s and growing up during the 1960’s counterculture revolution, Taitz did not fail to disappoint her (or so it seemed to the author at the time).

The daughter tries to sort out her allegiances and her own identity as her parents meanwhile spare no detail in recounting to her the horrors they experienced at the hands of the Cossacks and later the Nazis. Simon, in particular, makes sure his daughter knows that the future of the Jewish people rests on her slight shoulders.

With keen insight, humor and obvious love, Taitz takes us from her parents’ early immigrant years in a tiny, dark Washington lived with the family until she died), to their move to a slightly nicer apartment further north in Manhattan on Fort Tryon Park, and finally to Gita’s move southward to the Upper West Side, to be closer to Taitz and her family after Simon dies.

Along the way, Taitz goes to Jewish day school, Barnard College, Yale Law School, and spends a year at the University of Oxford. She dates and breaks the heart of a nice Jewish boy, and marries a different Jewish man. Then she leaves him to marry the love of her life, a non-Jewish man named Paul she meets at Oxford who converts to Judaism.

There are visits to other survivor friends who have moved to the outer boroughs and suburbs, summers at a Revisionist Zionist day camp, trips to Israel, Taitz’s older brother Manny’s move out to California, and time spent helping out at Simon’s watch repair shop (which he reconstituted as a booth in the Diamond District after the store was razed to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center in the 1960’s).

Later, there is the birth of Taitz and her husband’s three children and the daily challenges of being a mother. And eventually there is Simon’s death, and then Gita’s.

It is her parents who perceive more clearly and quickly than Taitz that she is no longer the ungrateful, rebellious daughter she once was, or considered herself to be. They send her off with tears of hope in their eyes as she returns to England to reunite with Paul. Once the young couple returns to settle in New York, Simon and Gita fully embrace their new and newly converted son-in-law. “…They shower him with hugs and plant money in his pockets… My father cannot get enough of this man, who listens, in return, to all his stories.”

Now able to look at her parents through a mature lens, Taitz is overwhelmed by their unconditional love for her. Ashamed to think back on times when she was arrogant and insensitive toward her mother, she is amazed to hear a near-death Gital tell her, “Sonialeh: Du hast nicht keine shlechte bein…” (You do not have one mean bone…).

All this adds up to a life. But this is a memoir that not many of us could write.

© 2012 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.