Unlikely chronicler of Soviet Jewry receives award

Beckerman’s book on Refuseniks took Jewish America by storm, but author says Israeli publishers "not interested in Russians."

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
April 11, 2012 22:50
3 minute read.
Soviet sympathizers wave flag

Soviet sympathizers wave flag 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Gal Beckerman, by his own admission, is an unlikely chronicler of Soviet Jewry. The journalist, who received the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature at a ceremony in Jerusalem on Wednesday, has no direct ties to the community. He was born in New York to Israeli parents from Givatayim, not Russian emigres from Gorky, and they were not particularly involved in the struggle to free their Soviet brethren during the 1970s and 1980s.

Nonetheless, his interest in the Refuseniks – members of the predominantly Jewish movement which sought to emigrate from the Soviet Union – began at the tender age of 8. He was paired in school with Maxim Yankelevitch, a Russian Jew his age whose family was denied the right to leave Leningrad. They never met, but the simple schoolroom exercise that taught Jewish kids in America about the plight of their coreligionists in foreign lands had a lasting effect on the young Beckerman.

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“It got me thinking and bewildered that there was a Jew like me who was being deprived of his rights,” he said in an interview over the phone. “He was not in a situation of life or death like the way it was during the Holocaust but he also wasn’t allowed to do something as schmaltzy as having a bar mitzvah.”

Many years later Beckerman was traveling to Moscow and St. Petersburg, as Leningrad had by then been renamed after the collapse of Communism, conducting research for a history of the Refuseniks. Information came from two main sources: documents a researcher gleaned from the KGB archive when it was still open to the public in the 1990s, and more importantly, from holding hundreds of interviews with the men and women who were at the forefront of that battle.

“The people leading this movement did not take minutes of meetings or form an archive so I spent months and months doing interviews in Hebrew mostly,” said Beckerman. He thanked Sam Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University and New York Times columnist, for his help during the writing process.

When Beckerman’s book, When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone, finally came out in 2010 it received positive reviews from The Washington Post and The New Yorker. Both cited its animated storytelling and fast paced plot that was full of twists as Jewish activists and KGB operatives tried to outwit each other at every turn. In Jewish circles it was particularly well received for being one of the first serious histories of the Refusenik movement, though the author emphasized in the interview its universal appeal.

“I did not necessarily have a Jewish audience in mind,” he said. “It is a Jewish story and a human rights story and a 20thcentury history.”

Surprisingly, for a history of Russian-speaking Jews, a majority of whom nowadays live in Israel and also speak Hebrew, the book is available only in English. Israelis are simply not interested in Russians, the author said Israeli publishers told him bluntly.

“It’s perhaps the bubble that literary Tel Avivians live in because it seems to me Russian Jews have had a huge impact on Israel for better or worse,” he said.

He said he still hopes translations in Hebrew and Russian will come out in the future. Of course, the battle of Soviet Jews for their freedom that eventually led to their exodus, first as a trickle in the 1970s and then as a massive wave of emigration in the 1990s, is only the beginning of their story. What happened when they reached the promised lands of Beersheba, Brighton Beach or Berlin is its continuation. But while Beckerman admits interest in their fate he says has no plans of penning a sequel.

“I’m fascinated about the story of Soviet Jewry,” he said, “but I was really interested in the political trends of the ‘60s and ‘70s and how they converged with others. I’ll leave that book for someone else.”


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