Vladimir Slepak spent his most vital years struggling for the freedom of his own people – Jews locked in the Soviet Union. He and his wife, Masha, lived 17 years “in refusal,” waiting for the Soviet government to grant them exit visas so they could emigrate to Israel. It is strangely significant that he left this world on Independence Day.
Humble and warm, this larger-than-life hero was like a modern-day Moses, a natural leader who helped deliver his people from slavery in a 20th century exodus story. His presence always filled the room – accentuated by his stature and signature curly beard that parted down the middle, completing his impression of a biblical prophet. At the same time, his all-encompassing hug made him seem like a big, lovable teddy bear.
“Volodya,” as he was called, was born in 1927 to Solomon and Fanya Slepak, and spent the first seven years of his life in China, where his father, a staunch communist, worked as a Soviet news correspondent.
A radio electronics engineer, Slepak worked in the defense industry designing control rooms for the Soviet military.
In 1951 he met Masha, a beautiful medical student, who would become his wife.
It was during the period of “anti-cosmopolitan” Stalinist purges and the infamous Doctor’s Plot, bogus charges brought against a group of Jewish doctors, that the young couple began to question the Soviet system.
“They pulled the doctors up on the stage, who were mostly Jews, and they were forced to say that Jews were traitors, that they wanted to poison the government and that they were enemies of the people,” Slepak recalled.
“[Masha] used to say: ‘How is that possible? I know many professors of medicine, many medical scientists whose courses I took. I know them very well. They cannot be enemies and spies…. This is nonsense.’ “My father answered: ‘Well, maybe there are many honest people among those arrested, but it is better to arrest 100 persons and one enemy among them than leave this enemy at large.’ “I answered to this, ‘I will never be in your Communist Party. There is too much blood on your hands.’” Slepak regarded this as the turning point in his life. “I realized that there was no future for Jews in this country.”
He and Masha joined other young Jewish couples who began to develop an interest in Israel. On weekend trips to the forest, they tuned in to Voice of Israel.
“Slowly we realized that a free world was out there, and that our place was there,” he said.
When the news of the Six Day War exacerbated Soviet anti-Semitism, the Slepaks took more drastic measures.
They formed a group, quit jobs with security clearance, and began to get in touch with other dissidents. They applied to the government for permission to leave.
“And we realized that by ourselves we would not able to escape. And we started to look for ways to get in touch with the Jewish organizations in the West and with Israel,” Slepak said.
Contacts with Western journalists and Jewish activists began. Over the years the individual clandestine meetings turned into a movement – much of the activity centered around the Slepaks’ central Moscow apartment on Gorky Street, where they hosted an endless stream of activists from the West. Other “refuseniks” came from all over the Soviet Union to seek Slepak’s advice about aliya.
For 17 years, bravely and boldly, the Slepaks continued the fight. Microfilming lists of prisoners and sending it out rolled into Matroyska dolls, communicating in special code in order to avoid bugs placed in their apartments, printing secret Hebrew educational materials, meeting with visiting American congressmen – the list of activities reads like a James Bond playbook.
He fearlessly participated in demonstrations against Soviet authorities. On one occasion, Slepak and his group marched through Moscow and stood in front of the government agency that issued visas, wearing yellow cloth stars pinned to their lapels.
He was repeatedly thrown in jail and beaten.
For holding up a sign out of his apartment window that read, “Let us join our son in Israel,” Slepak was convicted on charges of malicious hooliganism and served five years of exile on the Siberian- Mongolian border. Masha would repeatedly make the unbearably long trip so he wouldn’t be alone.
Thinking that they would never be freed, the Slepaks hoped that at least their children could live in freedom.
When their two boys, Alexander and Leonid, received exit visas, they made the ultimate sacrifice. The Slepaks sent them abroad – not knowing if they would ever see them again.
Finally, in 1987, two days before Slepak’s 60th birthday, they were freed. After an emotional reunion with their son in the Vienna airport, they popped a champagne bottle as their plane crossed into Israeli airspace.
Arriving to crowds of adoring, cheering friends at Ben-Gurion Airport, his incredible humility shone through.
“I am just a simple Jew,” he protested. “I am sure that many of you, if you had been in my position, would have done the same.”
But probably Slepak’s favorite story was about Akbar, the family’s beloved, huge, shaggy black terrier. Slepak loved to recount how his son Sanya (Alexander) begged to let him keep the tiny puppy, and then the dog grew to be the size of a calf.
“He had an interesting quality: he could pick out, or sniff out, KGB people in any crowd. Somewhere from the inside, from his belly, came out such a ‘rrrrr.’ He never barked. When a door bell rang, he was the first to run to the door, and he put his nose to the keyhole. If his hair was standing on end, it meant that the KGB were outside.”
Slepak possessed an undying sense of humor which must have helped get him through some of the darkest of days. All of his stories were told with a dancing glint in his eye, and a deep, husky laugh. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him.
A memorial service for Slepak was planned for Sunday in New York City. His remains will be flown to Israel and buried in Jerusalem on Monday.
The author is a filmmaker who made the 2007 documentary
Refusenik, which chronicles the struggle of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ’70s. Her latest film is
Rock in the Red Zone.