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Israel's Last Moscow Envoy Had a Hint

August 09, 1986|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — 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.

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