TWENTY- FIVE years ago, the gates of the Soviet Union were flung open to free emigration for those that chose to leave. The three authors of this article were involved for many years in the struggle for freedom of the Soviet Jews and are now, once that campaign was won, just as deeply involved in educational and cultural activities for the Russian-speaking Jewish community wherever they may live – in all the countries of the former Soviet Union, in Israel, the US, in Canada and in Australia, through the activities of Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union), the Russian-speaking offshoot of the UK-based Limmud International which this year is celebrating 35 years of educational activity.
As we approach the centennial of the Russian Revolution and the demise of the Tsarist Empire, a brief look at Jewish history may be appropriate. From 1917, Jews were able to leave the Pale of Settlement and move freely within Russia, and many moved in masses from the small villages and shtetls to which they had been largely restricted, to the large cities in the hope of bettering their lives. But quite quickly, the Soviet authorities started actively to discourage the practice of religion – any religion – and Jewish education and culture were suppressed, both actively and passively, in an attempt to bring the whole Russian population under the wing of Communism, and repress the expression of individual national identities, a movement that gathered momentum during the 1930s and the iron fist of Joseph Stalin.
The repressive nature of the regime relaxed somewhat during the Second World War (known to the Russians as the “Great Patriotic War”), when hundreds of thousands of Jews – men and women – joined in the national defense effort, including serving as soldiers in the ranks of the Red Army. One and a half million Russian Jews perished during the Holocaust, although in the years after the war, the Communist regime denied any specific religious ethnicity of the dead. For example, the memorial to the infamous mass murder at Babi Yar near Kiev, when nearly 34,000 Jews met their deaths – once it was erected and that only after several years after the publication of Yevtushenko’s celebrated poem in 1961 – commemorated the atrocity as a crime committed against the Soviet people in general and not the Jews.
But the candle of Jewish religion and culture, although flickering, was never totally extinguished. In 1948, when Golda Meir, the newly appointed ambassador to the USSR, visited the Great Synagogue in Moscow during the Succot holiday, she was mobbed by thousands of Jews, defying the intimidation of KGB infiltrators and the very real danger of being arrested.
Repression of Jewish culture and overt anti- Semitism increased; show trials such as the trumped-up so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” when a group of Jewish doctors were falsely accused of plotting against Stalin, were one of many anti-Jewish incitements at the time.
Synagogues were closed down, studying Jewish texts or learning or teaching Hebrew was forbidden, and most important, the right to leave the Soviet Union was denied.
But the Jewish spirit persisted. The 1958 novel “Exodus” by Leon Uris was passed from hand to hand in disintegrating copies in English or in samizhdat (underground) Russian translations, and became a sort of talisman of Jewish heroism and national resurgence.
In 1965, Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, writer and later Nobel prizewinner, visited the Soviet Union and conducted a series of interviews. The result was his groundbreaking book, called in his immortal phrase, “The Jews of Silence.” First published as a series of articles in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, it was then translated and published all over the world.
In the words of the book’s introduction, “The picture emerges of a society suffused by an insidious fear and discrimination, yet defiantly preserving its identity.” At the conclusion of the book, Wiesel wrote, “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence that I met in Russia but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”
The great turning point for the Jewish population of the Soviet Union came with the Israeli victory in the Six Day War of 1967.
Suddenly Russian Jews had something tangible in which to take pride. A strong and gallant small nation had overcome all its enemies and proven victorious against all odds! The Soviet government could not conceal the extent of the Israeli victory and Russian Jews could hold their heads up high. Agitation among the Jews grew and grew; more and more people sought a return to their Jewish roots and to try and learn Hebrew – in secret – and to hold Jewish celebrations in private apartments and in the forests. A group of 18 religious Georgian families wrote an open letter to then-prime minister Golda Meir, demanding the right of repatriation to their ancestral homeland.
This turned out to be the spark that galvanized the international campaign to free Soviet Jewry – as a response, as it were, to Elie Wiesel’s tormented words.
Established Jewish organizations such as the World Jewish Congress, led for some of the time by Edgar Bronfman, and in America, B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and others, turned the focus of their activities to Soviet Jewry. Dedicated movements grew in the United States, like the National Conference for Soviet Jewry and Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry.
In Great Britain, the National Council for Soviet Jews and a women’s group known as the 35s (that being the age of the founders) formed; others in Europe and in Latin America, and the Public Council for Soviet Jewry in Israel.
Thousands of Jewish visitors applied for tourist visas and traveled to the Soviet Union armed with lists of addresses of dissidents; many of them bringing with them reading material, prayer books, and ritual objects like mezuzot, tefillin and talitot.
Synagogues across the world “adopted” refuseniks, thousands of people kept a seat empty at their Passover seder, symbolizing a refusenik or a “prisoner of Zion,” marches and demonstrations took place across the world, including protest demonstrations opposite Soviet embassies and institutions. In Israel, every visiting foreign dignitary made a point to visit and give support to the family of a refusenik. Also in Israel, a clandestine organization, called Nativ (“Pathway”) was set up in the Prime Minister’s Office with agents across the world to try and facilitate immigration.
While the Jewish world began to sit up and take notice, in the Soviet Union more and more people were refused permission to emigrate because of the very fact that they were applying, often on the trumpedup grounds of being privy to state secrets; others were condemned to long periods of imprisonment and in many cases to internal exile or to a gulag in Siberia. Prominent among their number, of course, was Anatoly Shcharansky, who had worked as a translator for Andrei Sakharov, the dissident and nuclear physicist, and had acted as a spokesperson for the Moscow Helsinki Group. He had been accused and then condemned to 13 years imprisonment and forced labor on the false charge of being a spy for the American Defense Intelligence Agency. Eventually, under huge pressure from inside the country and the West, first secretary of the Communist Party and later president Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a series of political changes. Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), as well as summit conferences with United States president Ronald Reagan and his reorientation of Soviet strategic aims, contributed to the end of the Cold War, removed the constitutional role of the Communist Party in governing the state, and eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Already in 1990, the gates for the Soviet Jews were flung open, and the exodus from Russia and the renascence of Jewish life within the former Soviet Union began.
Some 1.5 million Soviet Jews left the Soviet Union and the countries that emerged after the implosion of the Soviet Union.
Approximately one million have settled in Israel and the others across the world – mainly in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia. Estimates vary as to how many Jews have remained by choice in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus – as many as 900,000 eligible for aliya under the Israeli Law of Return – where today they are able to live a free Jewish life, practice their religion, teach their children Jewish culture and history and freely travel.
They have unrestricted access to synagogues, community centers, Jewish day schools and Sunday schools; the elderly of the community are cared for; universities have departments for Jewish studies; and adults have access to informal educational opportunities, central among them the widespread activities of Limmud FSU.
I n 1991, “ Let m y P eople G o” b ecame “Let my People Know.” Seventy years of Communist repression had left their mark in massive assimilation and two generations who did not at all, or barely knew, they were Jewish, and who knew virtually nothing of their heritage and history. It is this vacuum that we of Limmud FSU are attempting to redress, and the 30,000 Russian- speaking Jews in the FSU and worldwide who have participated in our events are the evidence of the success of our mission and give us the motivation to continue and expand our involvement and support.Aaron Frenkel is president of Limmud FSU, Diane Wohl is its secretary-general, and Matthew Bronfman is chairman of its International Steering Committee