It is sad that the youth of today know so little about the “heroic story” of the exodus of Soviet Jewry, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein said at a special ceremony in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall on Monday.
The event marking 25 years since “the opening of the gates” in the former Soviet Union was attended by some 350 people, many of them former refuseniks. It featured speeches from former Prisoners of Zion, including Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Edelstein, as well as Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Limmud FSU international steering committee chairman Matthew Bronfman.
“I see great importance in commemorating the struggle to Let My People Go,” Edelstein said, paying tribute to the heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement. “The younger generation has no idea what happened behind the Iron Curtain, and that’s why it is important to have such an event.”
Edelstein, who called it both a sad and happy occasion, noted that in recent years many former refuseniks met one another at funerals of their friends from the period of the Soviet Jewry struggle three decades ago, and said it was important to find a way to keep the memories alive.
“We need to think together how to preserve this heroic period,” he said. “What else can be done before it’s too late?” Elkin, who noted that he had made aliya 25 years ago from the former Soviet Union, paid tribute to the Jewish heroes who endangered their lives and spent time in jail to enable more than a million of their brethren to move to the Jewish state “and change the face of Israel.”
“I landed in Israel on a night that there were 11 or 12 planes with 4,000 olim on board,” Elkin said. “I hope that I can see, as immigrant absorption minister, with God’s help, another night like that.”
He proposed that the government do something to commemorate the struggle for Soviet Jewry, such as establishing a museum.
“Yuli [Edelstein] asked how we keep the memories alive and convey them to the younger generation,” Elkin said. “I have to say we haven’t excelled at this so far.... The time has come that the subject be included in the educational curriculum, and that we do something serious to tell the story, perhaps through a special museum. There’s no doubt that the time has come to do something.”
Elkin pledged that during his term as immigrant absorption minister, he would find a way “to memorialize and preserve this story for the generations to come.”
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who served nine years in Soviet jails for leading the refusenik movement, said he was thrilled to see so many of his “comrades in arms” in the audience.
“The Jewish Agency works every day on seeking to interest Jewish youth around the world in their Jewish identity,” Sharansky said. “As the other speakers have said, it’s a pity that today’s generation doesn’t know the stories of the former prisoners of Zion and refuseniks.”
Sharansky paid tribute to the Limmud FSU organization for working in Israel and abroad to preserve the Jewish identities of Russian-speaking Jews. To mark the occasion, Limmud FSU and The Jerusalem Post exhibited 50 historic photographs from the Soviet Jewish exodus in the Knesset.
Bronfman, whose late father Edgar Bronfman played a key role in the Soviet Jewish struggle when he served as president of the World Jewish Congress, said it was “humbling” for him to speak in the Knesset after “these three heroes.”
“We all stand on your shoulders,” Bronfman said to the former prisoners of Zion and refuseniks. “We stand on the work you’ve done, the heroism you’ve displayed throughout your career. To be here with you, the Speaker of the Knesset, the head of the Jewish Agency and the minister of immigrant absorption is really a testament to all those who fought on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and that the Soviet Jewry movement has transformed not only the State of Israel but the Jewish people.”
Bronfman, whose grandparents had moved from Moldova to Canada, said that for him personally to have “sat at the knee of my father” while he and others struggled for Soviet Jewry had served as a great lesson that continues to resonate, which is why he had accepted an offer from Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler a decade ago to become involved in the organization.
Chesler, who organized the event, took part in “Memorializing the heroic struggle of prisoners of Zion,” a fascinating panel discussion that also included Ephraim Kholmyansky, a leader of the Russian Jewish revival movement, as well as prominent refuseniks Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich and Sylva Zalmanson from the dramatic Soviet Jewry hijacking plot of 1970 known as The First Leningrad Trial.
Zalmanson told the Post that her daughter, Anat Kutznetzov- Zalmanson, was in the process of making a film on the story of how she and her husband, together with Mendelevich and others, carried out what is now known as the failed Operation Wedding. They were all arrested and given harsh sentences, but later released in prisoner exchanges by the Soviet authorities.
At the conclusion of the event, members of the audience viewed the 50 historic photographs from the Soviet Jewish struggle curated by Asher Weill.
The exhibition includes a photograph of Sharansky and his wife Avital meeting former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev after he had been released from prison in February 1986. Sharansky, who at 67 is the most famous former prisoner of Zion, was the first political prisoner freed by Gorbachev.
He told a story of how his neighbor in Jerusalem, an immigrant from New York, had once told him that the Jewish people had never been so united in their struggle for Soviet Jewry when Sharansky had been in jail.
“So you want me to go back to jail?” Sharansky quipped.
On a more serious note, he said that a way must be found to “enthuse Jews in the Diaspora and unite them in a way that they were united when we were behind the Iron Curtain.”