Israel's Last Moscow Envoy Had a Hint

Times Staff Writer

Katriel Katz sensed from his Russian-language teacher that his tour as Israel's ambassador to the Kremlin might be running out earlier than planned.

He had asked the instructor--who, like all Soviet citizens employed by foreigners in Moscow, was especially selected by the KGB, the secret police--for translations into Russian of terms that diplomats need in their official contacts. As examples, Katz listed "different points of view," "pre-condition" and several others.

But when he got the list back soon afterward, it was headed by a phrase he had not asked for: "rupture of diplomatic relations."

That was in December, 1966. Six months later, on the final day of the 1967 Six-Day War, Katz became Israel's last ambassador to Moscow when he was summoned to the Kremlin and informed that in view of "continued aggression by Israel against Arab States," the Soviet Union had decided to break relations. The sooner he left, Katz was informed, the better.

Now 77 and retired, the former envoy recalled his 21 months in Moscow during an interview at his home here, refreshing his memory with a diary he kept at the time.

Katz's official communications from his post in Moscow are still classified as secret, but his personal recollections, oral and written, depict a life lived under a microscope. It was a life peopled with cowed and sometimes corrupted rabbis, who deliver crude warnings dictated by the Communist authorities, and with frightened Soviet Jews, who sidled up in a crowd to discreetly exchange a few phrases of Hebrew.

It was a life in which the first discovery about a new home was the tunnel that the KGB had dug beneath it; a life where rundown synagogues formed the backdrop for the greatest joys and deepest heartaches of a Polish Jew turned Israeli diplomat.

New Overtures

Katz has been thinking more about his Moscow experiences lately in the wake of recent Soviet overtures toward Israel.

At Soviet initiation, the two countries have agreed to their first formal contact in 19 years to discuss "consular issues" in Helsinki on Aug. 18-19. And Soviet officials have hinted that the contacts could lead to a resumption of consular relations.

Katz, however, thinks that Israel should hold out for restoration of full diplomatic relations, which would mean the reopening of shuttered embassies and a new exchange of ambassadors. "I don't know of any case where renewal of relations started with a consulate," he said. "In my view it's denigrating."

Katz was sensitive to Soviet denigration from the beginning. Shortly before his arrival in Moscow on Sept. 6, 1965, his staff discovered a tunnel leading from the newly acquired embassy quarters to a house on the opposite side of the street. There had been "skirmishes" with Soviet security police when the staffers filled in the tunnel.

Meeting With Rabbi

Five days later, on the Sabbath, Katz first visited the Moscow synagogue, a building which, according to his diary, "still shows traces of its past splendor, but its present state is gloomy enough." After services, which ushers insisted the embassy staff view from a special box separated from the main congregation, the new ambassador met with the rabbi in the latter's office.

After toasts and pleasant small talk, the rabbi suddenly "murmurs something to me in an embarrassed way, opens the drawer of his desk, and takes out a piece of paper" which he refers to as complaints that some members of the embassy staff have violated their status by handing out prayer shawls and books on the premises.

Wrote Katz in his diary: "I thought to myself, 'Dear God above! How low a rabbi's position is in this country if, after his genuine words of welcome from the bottom of his heart, he feels obliged to add this message from the drawer of his desk.' "

Katz was to have similar experiences with rabbis and other officials in synagogues spread over much of European Russia during his time in the country.

Feast Day Crowds

Balancing those were the special Jewish feast occasions when, instead of the usual few hundred, mostly old people who visited the synagogues, thousands of all ages would come.

Katz recalled his first Yom Kippur in the Moscow synagogue when, at the closing prayer, "all eyes were turned to our 'isolation box' beside the dais . . . and then, in a mighty voice from the thousands of worshipers facing us, the cry, 'Next year in Jerusalem!' shook the synagogue in a great shout like a peal of thunder."

Two weeks later, on the joyous Festival of the Law (Simhat Torah), Katz wrote of emerging from the crowded synagogue into a "spectacle . . . that redoubled my worked-up emotions. The street was swarming like a beehive. The 5,000 persons leaving the synagogue were swallowed up in the enormous crowd, many times more numerous, that filled the whole length and breadth of the street.

"The crowd was made up mostly of youngsters of undergraduate age. They collected together in noisy bands in the chill evening, singing, dancing, exulting. They had not come to demonstrate against something. They came to demonstrate for something. They came here together on this festival eve to give voice to what they were, to express their suppressed Jewish consciousness, their national feeling, which they sense every day but cannot come out with except on this one night in the year."

Sporadic Outside Contact

Katz said that Israeli diplomats were even more isolated in the Soviet Union than other foreigners, and outside of the synagogue, their contact with Soviet Jews or other citizens was sporadic at best.

He frequented both Russian and Jewish theaters in Moscow and also met people who visited periodic Israeli industrial or agricultural exhibitions in the Soviet Union.

A typical encounter was with a cashier in a carpet store. When Katz asked the price of his selection, the cashier responded quietly in Hebrew.

"I learned it once," he explained. "I am a mountain Jew from the Caucasus."

Then he switched to Russian as more customers entered the shop.

Katz recalled his early contacts with Soviet officials as relatively "fair, and even friendly." But an entry in his diary less than a month after his arrival recalled a talk with "a very, very high official" who protested "undesirable" behavior by Israeli diplomats.

" 'Wherever they go they look only for Jews,' " Katz quoted the official as saying. He noted that "here he bent double in his chair, scanning the floor and groping with his hands, as if to illustrate how they look for Jews even underground.

'Achievements of State?'

" 'Aren't Israeli representatives interested in getting to know how other nationalities live in the U.S.S.R.? The achievements of the state? The Soviet people and its institutions? We get a lot of complaints about this from all over the country.' "

A few hundred Soviet Jews a year were emigrating during his time in Moscow, Katz said, and in his official contacts, he pressed Israel's desire to see the number increase. But he didn't foresee the huge emigration movement in which about 250,000 left during the 1970s and early 1980s, and 400,000 more were frustrated in their desire to leave.

Katz said that relations turned sharply for the worse after the 23rd Soviet Communist Party Congress in April, 1966, during which Moscow decided to increase support for Syria. An Israeli diplomat was expelled, allegedly for spying, and the Kremlin began what Katz described as "a deliberate pattern of discourtesy, an open demonstration of contempt" intended "to humiliate us." Soviet officials shunned their Israeli counterparts not only in Moscow, but in Jerusalem and at the United Nations as well.

Then, with tensions rising between Israel and Syria, came the incident with the Russian-language teacher and other not-so-subtle hints about a possible break in relations.

Israel Denounced

When war broke out in the Middle East on June 5, 1967, Katz and his staff stayed glued to their radios, which carried hourly Soviet reports of Arab victories and mounting Israeli losses. But by June 7, the Soviets were denouncing Israel as the aggressor, and the envoy knew "it meant that it's we who are advancing."

Then on June 10, the same day the war ended, Katz was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and was read the diplomatic note severing relations.

Back in the embassy later, he and his staff watched from the windows as what foreigners in Moscow sometimes call a "Russian rent-a-crowd" formed outside--about 300 factory workers, secretaries and other citizens ordered into the streets for a "spontaneous" anti-Israeli demonstration.

"A line of policemen, their arms linked, separated the demonstrators from the (embassy) gateway," Katz recalled. "At given moments, a wave of the demonstrators could be seen advancing a step toward the police, and the police could be seen withdrawing the same small distance at the same rate. . . . At once the demonstrators would retreat to where they were before, and the police would move a pace forward. From the window, this simultaneous and parallel movement of the two lines to and fro looked for all the world like a carefully choreographed ballet."

Flag Finally Lowered

Only after it was all over did staffers lower the Israeli flag, lock the gate, and begin planning their departure from Moscow.

While the embassy quarters have been empty ever since, Katz revealed that Israel has continued to pay rent on the premises, monthly, in dollars, through the Netherlands Embassy. A Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed the disclosure.

"It's a matter of principle," said Katz. "By this we demonstrate that we are going to come back."

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