HomeOctober 2013Undaunted by Danger

Undaunted by Danger

While centenarian Helene Iberall was never a Russian Refusenik, she made it a mission of hers to help them in any way possible — at great risk to her own safety.  Having the opportunity to visit Russia in July, 1974, Iberall shared her story and thoughts on this part of her very interesting life devoted to helping others.
It all started when Iberall kept reading about Jews in Russia and how their homes were being bugged, because the government didn’t want anyone speaking Yiddish.  Many of them wanted to emigrate.  Because they held high positions in the world of scholastics, science and the government, they were refused exit visas and then were fired from their jobs.  Then these highly educated Russians were left either without jobs or forced to be street cleaners.
These Jewish citizens were also finding their mail ripped up and censored. “Eyes of children were being poked out! I can’t stand to see and hear of cruelties being done to other human beings. I made it my mission to find a way to help,” said Iberall.
One of the Refuseniks, Alexander Lerner, was a fellow scientist whom Iberall’s husband knew from meetings held in the late 1950s.  Helene was active in the American Jewish Congress and had asked the organization to sponsor Lerner.
Then came a fantastic opportunity – her daughter and son-in-law were going to a scientific meeting of the Society of Mammology at Moscow University.  They asked her to join them.  Without telling them, Iberall decided this was what she had been hoping for: the chance to find and help the Refuseniks!
“At the Soviet Jewry office in Philadelphia, where we were living at the time, I got names and Moscow addresses.  They gave me money for the Refuseniks, and I went to stores to collect personal items, books, pens and even chewing gum.”
“When we arrived, we were asked how much money we were carrying.  They promptly converted what we had into rubles.  I had only told them what was in my purse.  They had no idea that I had hidden money in my bra!” exclaimed Iberall.
With her list of names and addresses and knowing the dangers of being caught, Iberall knew that her mission had to be carried out at night, because the police would always be watching.  As she explained, “I knew how to read Russian, so I bought a Moscow map and looked for the streets trying to find the synagogue.  You couldn’t take a taxi.  I saw a young woman who looked Jewish; she was also looking for the synagogue.  We found it.  They were a lot of people outside, and I hoped they could help me find the Refuseniks.  Inside there was a KGB agent pretending to be Jewish by wearing a huge Star of David!  When she started asking about how many Jews were in my academic party, I knew she was a plant!
Iberall added, “I was scared to death, but I knew I had to do this!”
The next day she went with the scientists to the Natural History Museums in Kiev and to the Black Sea.  She felt her chance was passing her by, and it depressed her a great deal.
On the last night in Moscow the group members were told to have their luggage in the hall by 6 a.m…  Iberall overheard a young man saying he wanted to eat Chinese food, and she asked to join him.  He was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  After she grilled him to be sure he was not a KGB spy, they realized that they were practically neighbors in the states.  In addition, he was carrying money for the wife of a Refusenik he knew who had been put in jail.
Pooling their bravado, they waited until it got dark.  The two left the hotel, walking and taking a city bus.  In one of the apartment buildings, they ran into an elevator so fast that a guard in the lobby couldn’t catch them.
“At the apartment, we were shocked when a woman just opened the door,” Iberall said.  “When we asked why, she told us if she didn’t that the guards would break it down!  She was also a professor who had been fired.  My escort gave her the money.”
She added, “I told her I was anxious to see Alexander Lerner.  The woman said she would take us.  This was quite a risk to her as well.”
Keeping her word, the woman took the two first by bus to the Metro and then a streetcar back, disappearing to get back to her apartment.  Finally, after meeting up with Lerner and his son, the small group was soon joined by several other Refuseniks in the building.  They were warned to whisper as all the lamps and lighting had been bugged.
“I gave Lerner everything that I had brought,” Iberall said.
“Soon we were joined by the people I was hoping to meet — Natan Sharansky and Ida Nudel,” she said.  “We talked the night away.  I did my best to let them know that Jews in America were truly trying to help.”
As Iberall and her companion left, Lerner’s son took them to a taxi.  They feared for the young man as it was several blocks away.  They got back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning.  Upon arriving, Iberall realized that they had been watched as they entered the lobby.
Iberall could hardly wait to get on the plane.  She literally ran to the gate and boarded.  Her daughter chastised her greatly, fearing that she could have been arrested.
For Iberall, the experience was one of the most political events in her life.  Although it was scary, it fits her personal philosophy of stopping cruelty to a tee:  There’s always hope.    Dwell on human kindness.

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  1. Certainly sounds like the gutsy Helene Iberall that I have been privileged to know for the last few years in Laguna Woods Village. I didn’t know she had met Natan Sharansky. I lived in Israel at the exciting time when Natan Sharansky was finally allowed to move to Israel.


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