Film screening & discussion – Operation Wedding documentary
Updated: Oct 6
“It is not a just-the-facts documentary, as it wears its heart on its sleeve, and the emotional pull will leave the audience breathless.” — Bobby LePire ,Film Threat
Length: 62 minutes
Ages recommended 12+
Languages: English, Hebrew, Russian
Subtitles: English, Hebrew, Russian, Latvian, Spanish
The 2016 award winning 62 minutes long documentary “Operation Wedding” tells the personal story of the Filmmaker’s parents, Sylva and Edward, leading characters of a group that in 1970 tried to escape the USSR to Israel by hijacking an empty plane. This event was the first effective act that kickstarted the Soviet Jewry Movement and cracked open the Iron Curtain for approximately 254,000 Soviets Jews in the 70’s, compared to only 3,000 in the 60’s. The group members were held back to pay the price of freedom for everyone else.
Show the film in your class or show it ONLINE to your students (request an educational screening license from the filmmaker)
Relation to Hanukkah: The sentences were announced in Hanukkah 1970. Most group members received 8-15 years but two members, the pilot Mark and the group’s leader Edward - received death sentences.
After 7 days of world pressure, the death sentences were commuted to 15 years in Soviet labor camps under harsh conditions.
Relation to Passover:
At the trial, Sylva Zalmanson, the only woman at the trial, said, "Next year in Jerusalem." Though she knew that she would receive a much harsher sentence by saying that. Indeed she received 10 years imprisonment.
The first major aliyah from the USSR following the trial was called "Let My People Go."
Relation to Israel’s Independence Day: On Independence Day 1979, five members of the group were released, after 9 years in the Soviet labour camps, and came to Israel to celebrate with the entire country.
View an exciting CBS TV article of the group's members on Independence Day 1979 (Hebrew subtitles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FwB_gYGZRHM
We learn through the story of Sylva Zalmanson and Edward Kuznetsov, about the power of the citizen to change totalitarian regimes, and the importance of solidarity (their struggle would not have been successful without the struggle made for them in the free world). We also learn about the heavy price you have to pay in order to achieve the change and about the difference between heroism and terrorism.
Download/print full lesson:
Screening the documentary Operation Wedding requires a license. Please fill in the screening request form at:operation-wedding-documentary.com/request-screening
The Soviet Union was one of the two superpowers in the world (along with the United States), but this power did not last and disbanded in 1991, only after 74 years of existence.
The occupying government tried to erase any non-Russian communist identity.
In the Soviet Union there were 3 million Jews, but the policy was against religion, any religion.
The Soviet regime banned Jewish life, but on the other hand prevented Jews from entering Israel.
From the point of view of the Soviet leadership – the exodus of the Jews was a symbol of the failure of propaganda that the Soviet Union is a paradise on earth. Therefore, any expression of Judaism, Zionism, sympathy for Israel or the desire to immigrate to Israel was considered treason. Many were arrested without actual crime, and sent to jail for espionage or treason.
The Soviet government treated citizens as state property, and it was forbidden to leave the country without special permission: not for a trip and certainly not to leave the USSR.
Anyone who wanted to leave had to go through the Interior Ministry, and usually get a refusal. In the Soviet Union, unemployment was prohibited by law, anyone who was marked as a “traitor” (= whoever wants to leave is a “traitor”) was also usually fired from his job and thus became a criminal.
The event that was considered a major turnaround in the departure of Jews from the USSR, happened in the late 1970s thanks to a group of young Jews who decided to do a daring act – to “hijack” a small empty plane and flee. The idea was of a Jewish pilot, Mark Dymshits, who wanted to escape. The members of the group bought all the tickets for a flight inside the USSR, claiming they were flying to a local wedding, and the plan was to change the flight route in the air. The code name for the operation was “Wedding.” This event affected all Jews in the Soviet Union.
45 years later, the daughter of the group’s leaders, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, directed a documentary film titled “Operation Wedding” that reveals her parents’ personal story.
Leningrad, 1970. A group of young Soviet Jews who were denied exit visas, plots to “hijack” an empty plane and escape the USSR.
It started as a fantasy, Operation Wedding, as outrageous as it was simple: Under the disguise of a trip to a local family wedding, the “hijackers” would buy every ticket on a small 12-seater plane, so there would be no passengers but them, no innocents in harm’s way.
The group’s pilot would take over the controls and fly the 16 runaways into the sky, over the Soviet border, on to Sweden, bound for Israel.
Caught by the KGB a few steps before boarding, they were sentenced to years in the gulag and two were sentenced to death; they never got on a plane.
While the Soviet press writes “the criminals received their punishment”, tens of thousands of people in the free world demand “Let My People Go!“ and as the Iron Curtain opens a crack for 254,000 Soviets Jews wanting to flee, the group members are held back to pay the price of freedom for everyone else.
45 years later, filmmaker Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov reveals the compelling story of her parents, leading characters of the group, “heroes” in the West but “terrorists” in Russia, even today.
A letter written and signed by members of the "Wedding Operation" group before leaving for the airport in June 1970. It was written for the U.N.
They called it: "The Will." The letter did not reach its destination.
(Selected excerpts from the letter):
We are nine Jews living in the Soviet Union. We have been trying to leave the country without a permit for some time now, after years of being denied our right to leave this country.
We are part of tens of thousands of Jews who for many years declared before the USSR institutions the desire to immigrate to Israel. They (the authorities) mockingly told us that we would rot here but would never see our homeland.
Authorities denied our right to leave while ignoring international and Soviet laws.
Jews who declared their desire to become Israeli citizens became the object of persecution and were imprisoned. As a foreign body in this country we are under the constant threat of the events of the 1940s, when a policy of spiritual extermination would have led to the physical extermination of Jews. The future that awaits us, at best, is spiritual assimilation.
The Communist government's claims to solve the Jewish problem are false claims. They must finally understand that they will have no escape and that the fate of the Jews is not in their hands.
With the help of this operation, we hope to draw the attention of the leaders of the USSR to the tragic plea of the Jews of the USSR and declare "Let My People Go!”
We turn to the international organizations and first of all to the UN Secretary-General, Mr. O-Tan: The Jews of the Soviet Union have often turned to you for help but you are probably indifferent to the fate of an entire people. You are constantly evading this problem. You did not respond to letters we sent, contrary to our expectations .You condemn Israel's policy, even though its perpetrators condemn its existence. You have no time for us, or you do not care about us, or you are simply afraid to harm the interests of a great power. So, who needs you? And what right can you speak for the peoples of the world?
We demand that you make every effort to stop the violation of human rights, in order to alleviate the plight of three million Jews in the Soviet Union. Enough of the bloodshed of the Jewish people.
Jews all over the world! It is your sacred duty to fight for your brother's freedom in the Soviet Union. Know that the fate of the Jews depends on your actions. We have a deep jealousy for freedom, which for you is a routine. And we turn to you to take advantage of the freedom he has given you to try and help us and as long as we do not have that freedom you must build our country in the Jewish home and bring us there, where we were and want to be. What motivates us is the desire to be in the homeland and share the fate of the people of Israel.
We appeal to all of us please: In case we fail in the attempt - make sure our loved ones and relatives are not punished because of our operation. The dangers we take are only on ourselves.
Signed: Mark Dimshitz, Edward Kuznetsov, Boris Panson, Anatoly Altman, Israel Zalmanson, Wolf Zalmanson, Yosef Mendelewich, Mendel Budnia, Arie Hanoch
Note: There were sixteen people in the group. Why did only nine sign?
The group consisted of three women and two girls: the pilot's wife, Mark Dimshitz, and his two daughters who really only went after him.
Mary Hanoch and Sylva Zalmanson who were prominent members of the Zionist underground (and Sylva was also the connecting thread between the pilot and the members of the group in Riga), but the men in the group still tried to save the women from heavy punishment.
And there were two non-Jews in the group, dissidents, Edward Kuznetsov's best friends from the previous prison term (he receive 7 years for publishing an underground anti soviet newspaper), who joined the fate of the Jews, but their goal was to leave the USSR, unlike the group members who specifically wanted to live in Israel.
Let the students read the background before watching the film, or tell them about it in class.
Show the film online or in class
See below discussion points throughout the film. It is suggested that you pick a few main points to discuss after the viewing:
00:10:03: “Sylva Zalmanson: People who fight against an unjust regime, for freedom, must be prepared to pay a heavy price.”
Discuss: Would you be willing to give up your freedom or even your life in order to make a difference? Whom else can you remember in history that made the world a better place but he/she himself had to suffer for it?
00:13:01: KGB General “If someone learns that you listen to the foreign broadcasts regularly, they would report to the KGB, and the KGB would start investigating. ‘Maybe he’s getting some intelligence instructions “from the West or something?'”
Discuss: People were arrested for spying simply because they listened to foreign radio, or learned other languages. Why do you think the Soviets were so worried about their citizens listening to news or being exposed to cultures from other countries?
00:13:08: “KGB Deputy: What if they were planning an attack like 9/11?”
Discuss: What is the difference between a terror attack like 9/11, and operation wedding?
00:20:04: Were you terrorists, Dad?
Discuss: What is the definition of “terrorist”? Do you think this group were terrorists?
Clip from film: https://youtu.be/IvjW3bi9kRo
00:23:28: “Edward: our interests were in line with the interests of the KGB. The KGB also wanted to arrest us at the airport to show the world that the people who fight for free immigration to Israel are criminals and thugs.”
Discuss: Both the group and the KGB wanted the arrest to be in the airport, so that people around the world hear about it. Why did the group wanted the world to hear about it? Why did the KGB want the world to hear about it?
00:23:57: “KGB Deputy: Also, there was no problem of emigration…There were maybe 20 people who were denied exit visas.”
Discuss: Do you believe Bobkov for saying there were only 20 people? How many Jews were in the Soviet Union? This interview is from 2004, 13 years after the USSR collapsed and everybody already knows that people were not allowed to leave. Why do you think Bobkov is still saying that there was no problem of emigration” ?
00:52:44: “Edward: I don’t know of any worthwhile ideals that justify chopping off heads. There were many ideals considered the absolute truth, and many heads chopped off in their name. Time passed by, the ideals were refuted, but the fallen heads were never restored.”
Discuss: What do you think Edward meant? What is his message?