People walk near St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in central Moscow last week..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The entire Jewish world is saddened by the news of the death of Vladimir Slepak, the leader of the Refusenik Movement in the Former Soviet Union. He died Thursday night in New York, where he spent the past few years to be closer to family.
His loss is also a personal one. In the winter of 1976 my former wife Judy Finkelstein Taff and I met Vladimir and his wife Masha in Moscow on a special visit to the FSU to give hope to hundreds of Soviet Jews who had been denied exit visas because of the government’s policy of anti-Semitism. It was common at the time for Russian Jews to be summarily fired from their jobs and harassed by the KGB after applying for an exit visa to leave for Israel or other countries. They became known as “refuseniks” and Vladimir became their spokesman and leader.
When we arrived at the Slepak’s apartment at 15 Gorky Street we were immediately embraced in the warm bear hugs for which Vladimir was known. When you looked into his eyes you felt that you were in the presence of a modern-day prophet, in the mold of Moses or Isaiah. On the wall of his apartment was a large map of Israel, the Jewish homeland which he and many other Russian Jews yearned for. As I glanced at his bookshelf I noticed the book The Russians by New York Times Moscow correspondent Hedrick Smith. It bore a personal inscription to Vladimir and Masha from the author, who spent many hours with the Slepaks and included their plight in one of the book’s chapters.
Ironically, that same title, which I had been reading on the Aeroflot flight from New York to Moscow, was confiscated when we went through customs at Lefortovo Airport, along with my Sunday edition of the Times.
During that visit to the Slepak apartment, Vladimir arranged for us to meet the following evening with over 75 Jews, including Natan Sharansky and Ida Nudel at the apartment of Professor Alexander Lerner. I had purchased a Russian accordion in Moscow for 45 rubles and brought it with me on our visits to various cities in the FSU with the sole purpose of teaching and singing Israeli songs to the Jews we met.
At the Lerner’s apartment Judy and I began singing a Russian song called “Otpusti Narod Moy” (Let my people go), which was recorded many years ago by Theodore Bikel on an album called Silent No More. I noticed tears in Vladimir’s eyes as Judy and I sang, but when we stopped singing Sharansky explained that the reason Vladimir and others were emotional was that Vladimir was one of the composers of the song’s lyrics. The song was recorded secretly along with other such freedom songs in Russian and then smuggled out of Russia, where Theodore Bikel made professional recordings of them. It was the first time they had ever heard that song sung by Westerners – it had come full circle. When we left that gathering we told everyone that if they were to some day to receive their exit visas, we would try to be at the airport in Israel to welcome them home.
Three years after our trip to the FSU, Judy and I were blessed with our firstborn child, a son. We named him Avi Slepak Taff. We chose the middle name so that even if Vladimir and Masha could not realize their dream of living in freedom, at least their name would. In 1987 when we received news that Vladimir and Masha would finally be granted exit visas to Israel, Judy and I (armed with an accordion) and our three sons (Avi, Josh and Ari) were at Ben-Gurion Airport to greet them, and after the hugs, we showed them Avi’s passport.
When I was studying for the rabbinate in Israel during the mid to late ‘80s we visited the Slepaks at their apartment in Kfar Saba. Vladimir was finally home and felt blessed to have the freedom to live in a country where he was now able to celebrate his Jewish heritage without KGB interference. Maybe it was no coincidence that he died on the very day Israel celebrated its 67th year of independence.
Vladimir was an inspiration to all and he will be remembered as a determined, proud hero of the Jewish People. But his legacy is one which extends not just to Jewish people, but to all people throughout the world who are denied freedom: to never lose hope and to find the strength and courage to stand up to those who deny them the basic rights to live their lives free of oppressive regimes which haven’t yet learned the lesson which Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently proclaimed: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
May Vladimir Slepak’s memory be for a blessing.The author is a past president of the Greater Sacramento Board of Rabbis, a rabbi and the spiritual leader of the Mosaic Law Congregation. He can be contacted at [email protected] mosaiclaw.org.