We didn’t understand how OVIR made its decisions. There were people, seemingly simple people who were not under any suspicion, who were turned down for years. Then there were people who, as soon as they submitted their first request, received immediate permission to leave. Those who did not receive permission were sure that the KGB was holding something against them.

We went to the OVIR office in Samarkand and dared to ask for exit visas. “How come in other places they are giving dozens of exit visas and you are refusing us?” we asked. We didn’t dare to say, “How come you gave so-and-so and you didn’t give to me?” but we asked in a general way. The officials in Samarkand said they did not know of any changes in the emigration laws.

In 1970, an international convention was held in Moscow for communist parties. This convention took place every five years and was attended by communist leaders from all over the world. We figured that since the Russians would not want the guests to see demonstrations of Jews in Moscow, they would approve requests for exit visas made at this time. Many people planned on demonstrating during the convention in the hopes that the government would want to get rid of them and would grant them exit visas.

R. Moshe Katzenelenbogen, who lived in Moscow, called my brother Berel and said that he should come to Moscow, and although he couldn’t guarantee anything, there was a good chance that he would receive an exit visa. My brother, together with his neighbor R. Aharon Makovitzky, decided to travel to Moscow. The day after they arrived there, my brother called and said that spirits were high in Moscow and that I should come there too.

That evening I walked over to R. Moshe Nissilevitch, told him what my brother had said and suggested that we travel together to Moscow, for there was a hope that we would be granted permission to leave. R. Moshe stood still, thought for a moment and then said, “Oy, oy, how can we leave and abandon all of the underground classes we have arranged and the rest of our communal work?”

In the meantime, his wife overheard our conversation. It was she that dealt with the bulk of the chinuch of their children as she was home most of the day, and if someone came to see where the children were, it was she that had to think of an excuse. She did not agree to let an opportunity to leave Russia pass, and she urged R. Moshe to go along with me to Moscow. R. Moshe listened to his wife and asked me when I planned to go. I said that there was a plane to Moscow that very night. He immediately packed his belongings and we left for the airport.

We arrived at the airport and discovered that due to poor weather conditions, no planes had left Samarkand in the past 24 hours and hordes of people were waiting for a flight. We also saw a large group of pilots who had to get to Moscow but were stuck in Samarkand and were waiting for an improvement in the weather.

At one of the ticket counters I noticed a gentile woman by the name of Tamara whom I recognized from my time in public school. I went over to her and asked whether she could use her connections and put us on a flight that night. She said that it wasn’t possible that evening but the next morning the weather would improve and then she could help me.

We decided that R. Moshe would not return home and he slept at my house. We woke up early and rushed to the airport. We wanted to get on the first flight so we could daven in Moscow where it was two hours earlier than in Samarkand. If we left at eight in the morning, after a three and a half hour flight it would be nine-thirty in Moscow.

I went straight to Tamara but she said there was no room on the first flight because the thirty delayed pilots had to be in Moscow that day and the first flight would take them, but there might be another flight later that day. I told her we had to get to Moscow urgently. She pointed at someone sitting at the next counter and said, “Go over to him. Maybe he can help you.”

I went over to him and told him that I had to get to Moscow. He told me to wait and said he would try to assist me. I was happy about this and immediately gave him ten-rubles. In those days, when a monthly salary was between 80 and 100 rubles, this was a considerable sum. To my surprise, he refused to accept the money. I tried to convince him but nothing helped. I finally said that when I returned, I would bring him a nice gift from Moscow.

He examined my passport carefully, wrote something in his ledger and after a few minutes of effort on his part, I received a boarding pass. I didn’t suffice with that, of course; I asked for another pass for R. Moshe who was sitting a distance away, waiting to see if I’d be successful. He hadn’t wanted to come over with me at first, since his long beard made him rather conspicuous.

I pointed at R. Moshe and said that I needed another pass. The clerk looked at him, marked something down again, and asked for his passport. Then, to my surprise, I saw him go over to an old woman and convince her to give up her ticket! He then returned to the counter and wrote R. Moshe’s name on her ticket. I ran over to R. Moshe and told him that Hashem had sent us an angel….

I was so overjoyed that I offered the clerk a bribe again, this time, twenty rubles. He continued to refuse. I asked Tamara what the man’s name was. At first she didn’t want to respond but when I asked again she replied that his name was Vassily Vachidovitz. I asked what his job was and what he was doing at the last counter and she evaded me again. She finally winked and hinted in a way that only someone living in the Soviet Union would understand. He was a KGB agent who worked at the airport, and was therefore capable of pulling strings others couldn’t pull . . .

I gasped. I was certain that the KGB agent knew that Jews were flocking to Moscow in order to demonstrate during the communist convention. Who knows! We might be arrested or worse!

When I told this to R. Moshe, the blood drained from his face. In the meantime, we saw a group of tourists from abroad who had come to the airport and the man at the last counter immediately began following them. It was clear that he was a plainclothes agent whose job was to keep an eye on foreigners at the airport.

When it was announced that it was time to board the plane, we began heading toward the exit, our hearts anxious with worry. Thank G‑d, we boarded the plane without mishap and breathed a bit easier, relieved that we hadn’t been arrested. But we didn’t know what awaited us in Moscow. Would they arrest us there? We strengthened our faith in G‑d and hoped for the best.

Three and a half hours later we landed in Moscow and to our great relief, nobody approached us or arrested us. We traveled immediately to Malachovka and were hosted by R. Yehuda Kulasher (Butrashvili), my brother’s father-in-law, where my brother and R. Aharon Makovitzky were staying.

When we met my brother Berel, even before I managed to tell him what had happened to us, he told us that a certain individual in the airport in Samarkand had checked their passports and they suspected that he was a KGB agent. We told them that he was definitely an agent and related what had happened with us. We found it all quite surprising.

Berel and Aharon, who had been in Moscow for a few days already, relayed to us about where things were holding in Moscow. All sorts of demonstrations were taking place to draw the attention of the authorities to the emigration issue.

They told us that a day before we had arrived, a baal teshuva by the name of Tzvi Epstein had decided to perpetrate a demonstration. He went to the Red Square near the Kremlin and took out a large sign that read in capitalized letters “Allow me to go to Israel.” He hoped that he would be arrested and it would make such a commotion that he would be thrown out of the Soviet Union. However, to his misfortune, no one paid attention to him at all. He stood out in the cold Moscow weather until he was frozen stiff. He then folded his sign dejectedly and returned home.

Berel suggested that we go to the main OVIR office that was located in the chief KGB headquarters on Lubianka Street and present our request. He himself, said Berel, had been there the day before and there were two high officials there, one from the Interior Ministry, General Shubov, and one from the KGB office, General Verein.

My brother said that the protesters claimed that it was a suitable time to display one’s Jewishness, so he had told them that he wanted to go to Israel solely because he was religious. They considered his request seriously and proceeded to verify whether he was indeed religious. They asked him whether he had tzitzis and he showed it to them. They asked him whether he had a yarmulke and he took off his cap and showed them his yarmulke.

To his disappointment, they said that since he lived in Samarkand, they were not authorized to issue an exit visa to him and he had to present his request to the office in his hometown. When he tried to insist, they frightened him with the words “Over here nobody insists. It’s only because you are a father of young children that we didn’t arrest you now.”

Berel’s story motivated us and we decided to try our luck. We did not have to make an appointment, as there were set hours and everyone who came waited their turn on line. We shivered when we arrived at Lubianka Street and peered at the domineering KGB building, recalling the thousands who had been shot in the cellars of this despised building or sent from there to the northern confines of Siberia. A mere ten years earlier, people were deathly afraid to pass the building, and now here we were, willingly going in and asking for permission to leave the Paradise of the Soviet Union for the despised Zionist state. A few years earlier, this would be considered a crime of treason. To a certain extent, it seemed like the “End of Days” to us….

We entered the waiting room and saw that the line wasn’t long at all. We sat down on one of the benches and began to discuss what to do. R. Moshe asked me to go in first and relate to him what would transpire. (As I mentioned earlier, his long blonde beard drew much attention.)

As I entered the room, I immediately recognized the generals sitting there by the precise description my brother had given me. They sat there with their uniforms and their epaulets, with cold apathy in their eyes, instilling fear upon those present.

In the secular world, it is considered a sign of respect to remove one’s hat, but I did not take off my hat on purpose, to show that I am religious and that it’s hard for me to live in the Soviet Union. As I expected, they asked me why I didn’t doff my hat as is customary. I replied that for us it is not respectful to be bareheaded.

One of them asked, “What do you mean by ‘us?’” I said that I was referring to religious Jews. He pressed: “Are you religious?” I said that I was.

One of them asked, “Did you study the Bible?” I said that I had.

“Who taught you and what does it say there?” I said that my uncle Boruch, who had died in Israel, had taught me when I was little. It says there that G‑d created the heavens and earth, etc.

“Did you also study Talmud?” I said that I had and I added, “I didn’t come here to be tested on my Torah knowledge. In a little while, the time allotted to us will be over and I will have to leave. Please deal with my request.”

They asked to see my passport and when they saw the name “Zaltzman,” they asked, “Was the Zaltzman who was here yesterday your brother?” I responded that he was and they said, “He was impudent and we wanted to arrest him but we had mercy on his children. As for your request, the decision has to be made where you live. Go to Samarkand and we hope they will give you permission to leave.”

I left the room and repeated the conversation to R. Moshe. He then went inside and I waited for him in the waiting room.

When he returned, he told me that R.when they saw his long beard they were taken aback and they said, “Ho! How long did it take to grow it?” Then they commented, “We don’t understand why all of you want to go to Israel when it’s a blazing inferno there.”

R. Moshe answered that we trust in G‑d that everything will be okay and there will be peace. They told R. Moshe the same thing, that he had to go to OVIR in Samarkand and they would decide.

Although we left empty-handed, we felt that something had been achieved, and we hoped that the tide was turning for the good.

When we returned to Samarkand, we immediately went to OVIR and said that we had been in the main office in Moscow and they promised us that in Samarkand they would give us exit visas. The officials said there was nothing to discuss. They had not received orders from Moscow about this and the emigration laws hadn’t changed so it wasn’t likely that we would receive exist visas.

A short while later, I received an invitation to a meeting at the Soviet national employment ministry. This was a central department which oversaw all of the factories and workshops in the city. The head of the department, a Muslim Uzbeki, welcomed me with honor and asked me to sit down. He said, “I heard that you want to immigrate to Israel. Why?”

I explained that my aunt lived there and gave some other silly reasons (I knew that the KGB had given him the job to talk to me). He tried to convince me why I shouldn’t consider such a move. He said, “Imagine what happens if they will draft you into the Israeli army and they will send me to Egypt as a volunteer, will you shoot at me and kill me?”

What could I say in response to this ludicrous question? I said, “Heaven forbid. I know you and I wouldn’t shoot you.”

That is how our preposterous conversation came to a close. It seemed that he had done his duty and carried out the job given to him by the KGB. When I told my friends about it they were excited and we realized that something strange was definitely going on.