A Leningrad Seder 1977

A Leningrad Seder 1977

The following story is a translation of a post Jenia Frumin posted on Facebook. I simply could not resist.

On 2 April 1977, Leningrad’s refuseniks planned to celebrate the Passover seder together. That was a rather bold plan given the political conditions in the Soviet Union at the time.  […] About 100 people agreed to participate in this collective Passover seder.

The organizers rented a cafeteria room on a side street, saying that they were planning a silver wedding of an old couple (it would not have been wise to admit that they were planning Passover Seder, of course). They prepared matzah in advance, and even a record player and records of Jewish music.

It was all very secretive. It was not mentioned in phone conversations, and the participants did not know the address of the dining room until the evening of the event itself, when outside a nearby subway station two of the organizers were waiting giving out the address. When the guests arrived, they found the dining room closed. Standing on a snowy Leningrad street, the participants knocked on the door for quite a while. Eventually one of the workers came out and announced that because of technical difficulties in the kitchen, the dining room was closed and the event will not take place.

The message and the presence of police officers with walkie-talkies near suggested that the KGB had discovered the planned event and had it cancelled.

Some of the participants began to disperse when police officers asked the “respected Jewish citizens” to go home. But organizers would not surrender. They went to several nearby restaurants on the famous Nevsky Avenue and asked whether it would be possible to bring a few dozen people to dine. They were rejected, probably because the restaurants received a KGB warning in advance.

The organizers returned to the entrance of the closed dining room where a crowd of about 72 people gathered, including a visiting Canadian couple, and together they decided to go to the restaurant of the famous Hotel Oktiabrskaya. They entered in small groups of four or five people and occupied separate tables, so as not to arouse suspicion. A delegation from East-Germany and a group of Hungarian tourists were dining in the half-empty hotel restaurant. A band played and several dozen soviet Jews began celebrating Pessah in an unusual atmosphere. In exchange for a nice tip, the band began “Hava Nagila.” About 30 people danced and sang the Hebrew words, 20 tables were joined together to make one long table on which the matzah was scattered.

The management of the restaurant responded immediately: it was forbidden to join tables, the kitchen was closed and everyone had to leave. The band was instructed to pack up. But it is not easy to remove people who cause no problems. The participants managed to get some bottles of wine, fruit and sandwiches (you can imagine that this seder did not follow halakhic law), and began to sing Jewish songs. The Hungarians tourists inspired by celebrating Jews joined their tables as well to the desks and began singing in Hungarian. […]

Given the extraordinary situation in one of most famous hotels in the city and the presence foreign citizens (Hungarians, Germans and the Canadian couple), the restaurant’s management received new instructions: Waiters began to put drinks and food on the tables. The orchestra began playing again, and performed the song “Vologda” which was wildly popular at the time. Ironically but not surprisingly, the song — which was considered traditionally Russian — was written by the Jewish poet Mikhail Mtosovsky.

The seder was declared a success: Ironically, the regime’s attempt to prevent it moved it from a godforsaken dining hall to a hotel at the center of Leningrad in the presence of foreign guests.

Chag Sameakh

By | 2015-04-03T13:16:00-04:00 April 3rd, 2015|Blog|0 Comments

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