World flight a mission of hope

Left to right: Marty and Evy Lutin, with Bernie and Renny Shapiro stand in front of the twin-engine Cessna with packages and emergency supplies they took to Siberia on their transglobal fight across the former Soviet Union in 1993.

Malibu resident Renny Shapiro recaptures the transglobal flight across the former Soviet Union that she took with her husband and two friends.

By Pam Linn / Staff Writer

Malibu residents Renny and Bernie Shapiro’s transglobal flight across the former Soviet Union in 1993 with friends Evy and Marty Lutin was the culmination of a long held dream. But it was born out of glasnost and perestroika. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian airspace, historically closed to flights from the West, was once again open, and they jumped at the chance.

The new route would shave 6,000 nautical miles off the distance and put them in the company of famed fliers Wiley Post, Harold Gatty, Howard Hughes and only a handful of others who have flown around the world via Russia.

It’s taken almost 13 years for Renny Shapiro to complete a book about their globe-girdling flight in the Lutin’s twin-engine Cessna. At 375 pages, including photos, diagrams of the plane and maps, “Eastbound; Our Flight-Our Mission” is part travelogue, part chronicle of Russian Jews and what has happened to them both under Communist rule and after the collapse of the USSR.

All four flyers had roots in the lands where Jews had suffered centuries of pogrom, oppression and ultimately the Holocaust, and all had been involved in the cause of Soviet Jewry, traveling in the 1980s to Russia to show solidarity with Jewish refuseniks.

“This was a historic moment . . . a chance to use our wings to connect with people and places whose long-buried seeds of Jewish life and memory were beginning to flourish again,” Shapiro writes.

With help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, (to which proceeds from the book will go), arrangements were made to meet key people in Kiev and Odessa, once centers of Jewish life and culture in Ukraine, and all the way across Siberia to Irkutsk and Magadan.

“We were incredibly fortunate, not one problem with the airplane,” Shapiro said of their travels. “Once in Russia, mechanics are scarce but we were in touch with other flyers. Help was available. We had good weather and facilities were as we expected. And we never had to take on a Russian navigator as we had been told we might.”

She describes leaving the snowy flats of Goose Bay-Happy Valley climbing toward the Atlantic Ocean: “The four of us have experienced more times than we can remember the special feeling that comes with breaking free of the earth and rising into the sky. Such moments are at the very heart of why we fly. Never have we felt this more than on this morning as the gear comes up and we start the climb that is the true beginning of our world flight adventure.”

Weeks later, when they landed in Odessa, a group of men, who turned out to be pilots and mechanics, met them. They asked if they might see inside the plane. They hadn’t seen many light aircraft and were fascinated with the controls. This scene was repeated almost everywhere they landed in the former USSR.

But their mission didn’t end with bringing gifts and hope to Jews in remote outposts. Though many of the contacts they met have disappeared over time, one showed up at the Shapiro’s Malibu home several weeks ago, before this story went to print.

“Tamara Lachter, the young woman we met in Ukraine, was here with her son Anthony,” Shapiro said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “They had moved to Israel when he was 12. Her husband was a dentist in Russia but can’t work in Israel. [This happened to many professionals who emigrated and may be why some scientists and professors went to Germany instead.] Anthony went to school in London and is now living in Toronto. Tamara was so inspiring and so brilliant in what she’s doing. She continues to work for the Jewish agency, traveling to Belarus to lecture to young people on the Holocaust. She almost single handedly invigorated the community.”

Everybody there has a story to tell: Older people lived through the Great War and their struggles just to survive, to take care of themselves, are extraordinary, Shapiro said. “We found them all really awesome with all they’ve been through. Despite their hardships and economical and political uncertainty they still found it within themselves to recapture their identity and their heritage.”

Though many things have changed in the years since their flight, Shapiro said, “As far as the people we met, I don’t feel their lot has changed much. At least not for the elderly, those who can’t leave because they’re too old.”

Now, with the help of JDC and other world organizations, conditions in Russia have improved somewhat. Even so, ongoing instability and ever deepening poverty feed into an underlying current of anti-Semitism.

“On the brighter side, welfare, education and training programs, and especially JDC’s outreach programs in remote areas are growing. People in frontier Siberian regions no longer have to fly thousands of miles to Moscow for training and assistance,” Shapiro said. “The Synagogue of Odessa, which the Soviets had turned into a sports center, has been returned to the Jewish community. And in Magadan, the number of Jews who have declared themselves has jumped, and they are receiving supplies and have opened a welfare center. JDC and others continue to provide not handouts but the tools for self-sufficiency.”

Shapiro said the four flyers will remember the men, women and children they met as unfailingly courageous. “We will never forget their hopes and dreams and we will never forget our promise to tell their story.”