Remembering the Work of Soviet Jewish Activists
Last week, I was deeply saddened to learn that Volodya Slepak passed away. A week earlier another giant among the heroes of Soviet Jewry, Volodya Prestin, also died, preceded a few months ago by Yuli Kosharovsky.
They were members of a group of a few hundred heroic Jews who brought about one of the Jewish people’s most glorious achievements since the creation of the state, and demonstrated how a handful of courageous Soviet Jewish activists, facing overwhelming odds, stood up against the most powerful totalitarian regime, paved the way for the liberation of their kinsmen and also made a major contribution toward the ultimate downfall of the Evil Empire.
I retain vivid memories of my intense involvement in the struggle which began in 1959 and became the dominant feature of my public life for 30 years.
During this time I spearheaded a campaign that resulted in Australia being the first country to raise the plight of Soviet Jews at the U.N. in 1962. Three years later, I published my book Soviet Jews and Human Rights, which served to split the Communist Party of Australia and ignited a fierce global debate within the ranks of the Jewish Left, which until then had been slavishly defending Soviet anti-Semitism.
In 1978, my company Jetset Tours was assigned to handle the travel arrangements of the Australian Olympic team to Moscow, obligating the Soviet authorities to provide me with entry visas.
My visits to “the dark side of the moon” remain the most surrealistic experiences I have ever undergone. I would have daily meetings with the Soviet tourist authorities, and then, despite their outrage — and thanks to the personal intervention of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser — embassy cars would transport me to the homes of refuseniks and dissidents, frustrating the KGB, which constantly followed me but was constrained from intervening. I also had formal meetings with senior Soviet government officials with whom I tried to leverage the case for the refuseniks and raise the issues of state-sponsored anti-Semitism and discrimination.
Most of the Soviet Zionist superheroes were nurtured in an atheistic environment and had been brainwashed into rejection of all Jewish values. It was in the wake of the Six-Day War that many of these thoroughly assimilated Jews suddenly emerged. Despite marginal chances of success, they were willing to sacrifice privileged positions and endanger themselves in their strenuous efforts to renew their Jewish identity and obtain the right to live in freedom among their own people.
I was privileged to befriend many of the principal activists. To this day, I remain in awe of their sacrifice and sheer determination. In a report prepared for the Soviet Jewry Presidium in 1978, I conveyed this emotional message: “In the midst of stagnation, helplessness and gloom, the incredible refuseniks stand out… they represent the salt of the earth, the last great Zionists, the torchbearers of Jewish heroism. … We spent every moment of our free time with this colony. We talked, we listened, we learned and we cried. … Their faces will continue to haunt us. They are unlike any Jews we have ever met.”
They were willing to sacrifice everything for what then seemed to be an impossible dream. Slepak, one of the bravest and most charismatic of the refuseniks with whom I developed a close relationship, was actually disowned as a traitor by his own father, a former American who had settled in the Soviet Union out of idealism and remained an unreconstructed Stalinist.
The late Professor Alexander Lerner, one of the great Jewish aristocrats of our generation and one of the noblest Jews I was ever privileged to encounter, remained a close friend after his aliyah. He was a renowned scientist until he applied to immigrate to Israel in October 1971, when he was instantly dismissed from his job and accorded pariah status. I recorded how he tried to cheer me up at the time by saying: “Even if I am not able to realize my dream of returning to my homeland in our lifetime, we are still happy to take part in this biblical event. Don’t be too concerned about us. Please remember we are much happier today than we were prior to our application for immigration — despite the danger. We feel we are involved in dedicating ourselves to our people and our country.”
I spent time with Yosef Begun, the iron man who spent the better part of his life in Siberia and Soviet prisons; with Pavel Abramovitch, whose release was achieved thanks to the intervention of Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke; with the extraordinary Eliyahu Essas, Ari Volvovsky and Sasha Kholmiansky who sparked a religious renewal among Soviet Jews under the nose of the KGB, and many others — all of whom became virtual members of my family during those dark years.
My visits to Moscow terminated abruptly when Australia joined the boycott of the Moscow Olympics and I was arrested and expelled for “consorting with Soviet citizens denied exit permits to Israel due to having had access to state security secrets.”
Although told that I would never again set foot on Soviet soil, incredibly, only seven years later in 1987 with the dawn of the glasnost period, I became the first international Jewish leader invited to evaluate the Gorbachev reforms. My wife and I were invited by Rabbi Adolf Shayevich, the KGB-appointed chief rabbi of the Moscow Choral Synagogue, to be his guests over Rosh Hashanah and address worshipers from the pulpit. Giving a Zionist address in broken Yiddish to a packed synagogue in the presence of refusenik friends who had previously refused to set foot in this KGB-controlled center was an emotionally surreal and unforgettable experience.
That was followed by a series of visits which culminated in the establishment of the first Jewish cultural center since the revolution, named after Solomon Mikhoels, the famous Yiddish poet murdered by Stalin in 1948. The grand opening and celebrations climaxed with the first Hebrew Song Festival, in which Dudu Fisher and Yaffa Yarkoni performed in major Russian concert halls. The tears streaming down the faces of the Jewish audience remain forever etched in my mind.
Alas, the extraordinary contribution of these heroic people is not sufficiently recognized in Israel, and the epic struggle of Soviet Jewry is largely unknown to the younger generation of Israelis.
When the refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion ultimately arrived in Israel, they were treated as celebrities as politicians scrambled to be at the forefront of airport welcoming committees. But sadly, beyond that they were largely ignored.
More importantly, despite efforts by many people, the government failed to provide refuseniks and former prisoners with decent pensions or recognition. When Slepak, Prestin, Kosharovsky, Lerner and others died, not a single government spokesman lauded their contributions to the Jewish people.
Only two members of this group achieved major public roles in Israel after making aliyah. Natan Sharansky, who headed a political party, served as a government minister, and now heads the Jewish Agency, and Yuli Edelstein, the current Knesset speaker, whose extraordinary struggle as a youngster in the Soviet Union is largely unknown to the public.
The State of Israel has an obligation to perpetuate the memory and contribution of those Soviet Jewish heroes whose efforts led to the miraculous opening of the gates for a million Jews — most of whom were unaware of them.
The dramatic Soviet Jewry struggle should be highlighted in core school history curricula. It represents a miraculous saga of how a few hundred determined idealists willing to confront a powerful totalitarian system, backed by a united Jewish people in both Israel and the Diaspora, successfully overcame seemingly impossible odds.
In these difficult times with the formidable challenges confronting Israel and the Jewish people, we can learn a lesson from the seemingly impossible goals we achieved by displaying unity in the struggle to free Soviet Jews. Were we to do likewise today, we would undoubtedly succeed in dramatically reducing the international pressures currently directed against us.
Isi Leibler may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was originally published by Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.