Walt Secord reveals deeply personal visit to Israel: spouses reunites with Refusenik family members

February 28, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel deputy chair and Shadow Treasurer Walt Secord has given a deeply personal speech to the NSW Parliament about his recent visit to Israel – where his spouse was reunited with her former Soviet Refusenik family members.

Walt Secord [in yellow} and Julia [glasses on head]

 “It was both – a deeply sad and uplifting visit,” Mr Secord said.

 On February 26, Mr Secord spoke at length in the NSW Legislative Council on his “Israel study mission”. Mr Secord recently gave a similar speech to the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies’ February plenum.

As well as speaking about formal meetings and briefings, Mr Secord detailed his Moscow-born spouse, Julia Levitina reuniting with family members who were famous former Soviet Refuseniks and their emotional visit to Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre.

Ms Levitina’s family members were the subject of the famous 1980s Australian campaign for Soviet Jewry by former Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Isi Leibler and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

“This mission was deeply personal. This was because I was accompanied by my spouse, Julia, who is a member of the Emanuel Synagogue and has close family scattered throughout greater Tel Aviv,” Mr Secord said. 

“I will always remember our Yad Vashem visit and the absolute horror on her face when she happened upon massacre panels of the Ukraine. It turned out to be actual photographs of her mother’s family’s district. In total, more than 300 of Julia’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were slaughtered there. Incredibly, the district has had a documented Jewish presence since 1458. Before the Shoah, it had a large synagogue, a yeshiva and a strong Bund tradition.

“The panel was next to another one quoting Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar. I know the poem well, but the connection was far too personal this time. I wept.

Mr Secord said they completed the trip on an “uplifting note”.

“I had the privilege of seeing Julia reconnect with her cousin Pavel Abramovich, his wife and their son Professor Felix Abramovich. They were famous Refuseniks. Pavel had been trying to get an exit visa for Israel since 1971. He taught Hebrew and Torah study in Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s. 

“I did not know fully of their existence until Julia mentioned them at the Bob Hawke memorial service, which we attended together. They were contemporaries of Natan Sharansky and were released in early 1988 due to the efforts of Australian Jewry and activists like former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and former ECAJ president Isi Leibler.

“Pavel Abramovich was part of a famous May 1988 delegation of former Soviet Refuseniks who came to Australia.” 

Their story was chronicled in Dr Suzanne Rutland and Sam Lipski’s book Let My People Go.

“When we met, Pavel pulled out a picture of himself with Naomi and Isi Leibler and Bob and Hazel Hawke in their tiny Moscow apartment. Pavel says he and Mr Leibler still keep in contact.”

As for the overall trip, Mr Secord said, “No matter how many times one has visited the Middle East, as I have, each visit is like a refresher course. These study missions are worthwhile. They are important. They are thoroughly fascinating. 

“Each visit is an update on the daily security and terror threats that Israel faces and the realities of a very unfriendly neighbourhood. Each visit also reminds us that the Palestinians have a human right to self-determination. As naive as it feels, I still pray for a two-state solution.

“I would say that I feel like I know less and less about the region every time I visit.”

Since 2011, Mr Secord has visited the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Oman, the Palestinian Territories, Iraq and Israel.

Mr Secord who has been deputy chair of the NSW Parliamentary Friends of Israel since 2011 and has previously made three lengthy visits to Israel and the West Bank.

He also has visited Yad Vashem four times and made pilgrimages to Shoah sites around the world, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. He has also visited Jewish and Islamic sites of the Inquisition in Spain, including Cordoba, Granada and Toledo; Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; and national genocide museums in Armenia and Iraqi Kurdistan.

“In the face of rising anti-Semitism globally I find these trips worthwhile as they remind non-Jews about the need for a Jewish homeland as history and anti-Semitism repeat. To say this is happening is not alarmist—sadly it is not so.

“Physical attacks on a person on the way to prayer, swastikas at Bondi Beach and a Nazi flag flying in Wagga Wagga are all symbols of a despicable shift in our community. I note the Executive Council of Australian Jewry [ECAJ] logged 368 anti-Semitic incidents nationally in 2019.

(While the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies provided local assistance, all flights and accommodation were paid for by parliamentarians.)



2 Responses to “Walt Secord reveals deeply personal visit to Israel: spouses reunites with Refusenik family members”
  1. Paula Seligman says:

    Thanks for the above moving post, Mr Walt Secord. I was intrigued to learn about Julia’s family’s Refusenik history.
    My family, too, had Russian cousins living during this time. My great Aunt would be in contact with them by letters, written in Yiddish, appealing for assistance. My parents would then tell us of the circumstances under which they were living.
    Parcels would be sent to them regularly. Most of the time they were not received.
    They were finally allowed to leave in 1973 and they made Aliyah to Israel.
    Sadly anti-Semitism will exist forever.

  2. Dennis Hulse says:

    An inspiring story indeed, thanks for sharing it. Dennis

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