Operation Wedding drew world attention to Soviet Jewry
Operation Wedding drew world attention to Soviet JewryWikimedia Commons

Former Prisoner of Zion and Jewish dissident Marc Dymshits - one of the major leaders of the struggle to free Soviet Jewry - passed away Wednesday, aged 88.

Dymshits was a key player in Operation Wedding, a plan by 16 refuseniks to hijack a Soviet plane and fly it to Israel, at a time when the communist regime refused to grant visas to Jews wishing to make aliyah. The plan was to buy up all the seats on a 12-seater Antonov An-2 local flight on the pretext of traveling to a wedding and to force the crew off just before takeoff, at which point Dymshits - a former air force pilot - would fly it instead to Israel.

But despite the rigorous planning the group was arrested by the KGB at Smolny Airport, near Leningrad.

What followed became known as the First Leningrad Trial, which resulted in death sentences for Dymshits and fellow mastermind Eduard Kuznetsov.

Their death sentences were commuted after mass international protests, and they were instead jailed for 15 years each along with nine others, two of whom were not Jewish, who were handed sentences of between 15 and eight years.

Despite failing to achieve their primary objective, the refuseniks succeeded in drawing global attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry, and increased pressure on Moscow to relax restrictions on Jewish emigration.

Whereas between 1960-1970 just 4,000 Jews received visas to emigrate to Israel (not counting those smuggled out illegally), the next ten years, following the high-profile trial, saw a full 300,000 Jews receive visas to leave the USSR for the Jewish homeland.

Several of the convicted activists were released early in prisoner exchanges with the US, including Dymshits, who was freed along with four others in 1979 in exchange for two Soviet spies, Rudolf Chernyaev and Valdik Enger.

Marc Dymshits was laid to rest on Wednesday in Israel.

Israel's Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze'ev Elkin (Likud) paid tribute to the heroic activist, noting his passing coincided with the 25th anniversary of the mass-aliyah from the USSR.

"We all owe him a great debt" of gratitude, he said.