Our Journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, and Ashkelon, Israel

by Mary and Nick Eoloff

Our second visit this year did not lead us directly to Ashkelon Prison, but diverted us on a rewarding journey to St. Petersburg, Russia. We were invited by the Nuclear-Free Future Society of Munich, Germany, to receive, on Mordechai's behalf, its 2002 award in the resistance category. Mordechai received the award for "his selfless and courageous act of ethical obedience to a power higher than the state by blowing the whistle on Israel's secret nuclear weapons program".

Claus Biegart presents Mary and Nick Eoloff with Mordechai Vanunu's Nuclear Free Future Award, St. Petersburg, Russia, October 5
Photo by Dick Bancroft
Russia's Green World Coalition hosted the October 5 event. After formal ceremonies, with award and gifts from our Russian hosts in hand, we then headed to Israel and to its infamous Ashkelon Prison where we were granted two visits with Mordechai on October 8 and 9. Interestingly enough, there seemed to be an easing of restrictions. We noticed that the body searches were perfunctory, we did not have to wait for long periods to get into the prison and the English speaking prison personnel engaged us in polite conversation. Mordechai also observed that the guards were less confrontational, and in any event, he studiously avoids confrontation and ignores insults.

Mordechai is well, remains in good physical rig, and even lost some weight, he says, by eliminating chocolate from his diet. He has a deep suntan and has cropped short his graying hair. After hugs and kisses, we settled down at our usual table in the visitors' room where Mordechai treated us to cherry juice and cookies that he was able to buy in the prison canteen. He also brought a bag of candy for our grandchildren.

We were so excited to tell him that we had brought the award from the Nuclear-Free Future (NFF) group, and a bright sunshine yellow t-shirt with the Green World's emblem on it - a green frog surrounded by the words "Green World" in Russian and English - a gift from the Russian group. You can imagine our sadness when the guards returned everything to us at the end of our visit. We learned the next day that Mordechai did not receive the first Sam Day Memorial Peacemaker Award that we gave to prison officials before our last visit in May notwithstanding an express understanding that they would give it to him. In addition, we were not permitted to give him a silver neck chain for his cross and a small souvenir from St. Petersburg. He was very pleased at having received the award and gifts and expressed sincere thanks to friends of Sam Day, to the Nuclear-Free Future jury for selecting him and to his Russian friends for their gift and moral and active support.

His thoughts and entire being now focus on his pending parole hearing with the prospect and hope for early release. He yearns for the day when he can walk out of the prison a free man and exercise his right of free speech that is guaranteed to every human being. Without any doubt in his mind, he wants to leave Israel and come to the U.S. He continues to express interest in teaching American history. We talked at length about the ceremonies in St. Petersburg and the Russian commitment to nuclear abolition. We told him about a press conference held the first day in the Hall of Journalists at which Claus Biegert, founder of NFF, spoke as well as Oleg Bodrov of the Green World Coalition and the two recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award. We were thrilled to see 14 journalists in attendance plus two women from the American Consulate who had never heard of Mordechai. Many Russians in attendance at both the press conference and award ceremony were young people in their 20s, so the future looks bright. Sadly none of them had even heard of Mordechai but were fascinated by his story. Many of them expressed interest in writing to him.

Polaroid photo of Nick, Mordechai, and Mary, taken by a prison guard during their October 9 visit.
A highlight of the award ceremony was the performance of creative skits, songs and artwork by Russian high school students who had participated in a contest to win a trip to St. Petersburg for the event. They came from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and all over Russia, some traveling 20 hours by train. Other soloists and a choral group performed to make it a very elegant ceremony. Each awardee spoke in their own language without translation so we had to imagine what was being said. But the enthusiasm was contagious. We spoke on behalf of Mordechai, in gratitude for the acknowledgment of his heroism and in sorrow that he could not receive his award personally. We also described for Mordechai the tree planting ceremony on the Baltic coast during which the award recipients donned garden gloves to plant 5 pine trees. We planted a small two-foot pine tree that we named the Mordechai Vanunu Tree in honor of Mordechai. He was moved to hear about these events.

Mordechai told us of a visit from an Anglican priest during which he read from the epistles and received communion. This sort of special occurrence breaks the utter boredom of daily prison life that Mordechai so deeply abhors. He greatly appreciates letters, books and magazines that his supporters continue to send him. He keeps abreast of current events via a small radio, listening to BBC World, and also by reading newspapers and magazines that the various campaigns and friends provide him. We talked a lot about the threat of war with Iraq and its possible consequences.

The discussion on our second day's visit centered on his daily life, and his dreams and aspirations. The greatest surprise of the day was when the prison personnel granted our repeated requests that we be allowed to have a picture taken with Mordechai. So a prison guard took a picture of the three of us with the prison Polaroid. We treasure this photo memory of our last visit. And we pray that hearts will be touched and that he will be released before 2004.