The British housewife who took on the Soviet Union

“I started hearing from friends in Israel that there was this issue of Soviet Jewry. I thought the British establishment would do something about it,” said Barbara Oberman.

BARBARA OBERMAN with three granddaughters and a great-grandson at a recent family wedding (photo credit: KFIR HARBI)
BARBARA OBERMAN with three granddaughters and a great-grandson at a recent family wedding
(photo credit: KFIR HARBI)
Once she got married at 23 and began to settle down to housekeeping and motherhood in London, Barbara Oberman thought her days in the spotlight were over.
She had done some fashion modeling following six difficult years during World War II when her family endured bombings, evacuations, a scarcity of food and the death of her beloved mother.
But 10 years later, “I started hearing from friends in Israel that there was this issue of Soviet Jewry. I thought the British establishment would do something about it.”
That did not happen. The plight of Jews behind the Iron Curtain was nobody’s priority in the early 1970s. So Oberman made it hers. “I was forceful and passionate and a bit bossy, which was unusual for a British woman in those days,” she says.
Oberman tried to persuade the Board of Deputies of British Jews to commit to helping Soviet Jews. “They more or less told me to go home and bake cakes,” she recalls.
She next met with then-chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits and didn’t get much further. “He told me he was under the aegis of the Board of Deputies.”
In May 1971, Oberman began recruiting women brave enough to go against the grain and form a grassroots movement that came to be known as “The 35s.”
The name referred not only to the approximate age and number of the women involved, but more importantly to Raiza Palatnik, a 35-year-old Jewish woman who had been imprisoned in an isolation cell five months earlier in Odessa.
Palatnik’s case galvanized the young mothers. Dressed in black, they demonstrated outside the Soviet Embassy in London demanding Palatnik’s release. (That finally happened in December 1972.)
At first, The 35s were a thorn in the side of the Jewish establishment. “I was pilloried for going against them and my family was very brave to endure it,” Oberman says.
Oberman and her three children hand-painted posters in their kitchen. Her husband, Cecil, made huge linen banners in his dress factory. The number of marchers steadily increased.
Interestingly, the chief rabbi’s wife, Amélie, “came to every demonstration because her heart was in it,” Oberman relates. “Eventually the Board of Deputies accepted our way of doing things.”
Oberman’s style of protest was headline grabbing. For a demonstration against Soviet Communist leader Alexander Shelepin, who was in England for a visit, Oberman declared that the ladies would haunt him. Her husband’s factory made them white “ghost robes,” which they wore outside in the freezing cold. “It was raining, and the red lettering on our signs ran, and that was very effective in the photographs,” she notes.
Oberman started a spontaneous chant –“Shelepin schlep him out!” – that was broadcast that night on all the news shows. Years later, Winston Churchill Jr. told her that he would never forget that scene.
The movement took over Oberman’s every waking hour; she says she feels grateful that her kids didn’t run in the other direction but rather joined her enthusiastically. The Oberman home became a nucleus for activists and was visited by leaders, including prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.
“Years later, a Russian Jew came to our house and said, ‘I’m happy to be in 63 The Ridgeway, Golders Green, London,’ because according to Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, our address was the center of Zionist activity,” Oberman says.
“While the part I played in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry was not on the scale described by Pravda, I look back with enormous pride,” she wrote in The Jerusalem Post in a 2007 op-ed titled “Skirts against the Kremlin.”  
“We were nonworking, middle-class Jewish housewives, with the support of husbands and children, and the hours to give to what was then a unique form of public protest… We combined vision with a stubborn determination to put the plight of refuseniks on the world agenda, and we believed passionately that we could make a difference. This proved a potent combination. In the end, we and others like us did indeed show the mighty Soviet Union that Jews could not be denied their human rights because they were Jews.”
When Oberman was 40, she wrote a script about refusenik Ida Nudel and sent it to Anglia Television for a segment called “Women Who Matter.” The presentation was popular and she was asked to write and present another 20 programs about Judaism.
The Obermans were major supporters of organizations, including United Jewish Appeal and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. In 1973, their eldest son, Anthony, was on a program in Israel and enlisted – without his parents’ knowledge – to fight in the Yom Kippur War. His younger brother, David, then moved to Israel, too.
“I said to my husband, ‘There is no way I can sit here in London.’ We wanted to follow our kids, and also it seemed ridiculous to stand on street corners demanding people’s inalienable right to go home and yet we didn’t go.”
They arrived in 1978 and stayed in the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion for eight months. Then they moved to Herzliya. Cecil passed away in 1988.
Oberman continued her advocacy for Russian Jews until her husband’s health declined. Among other pursuits, she worked with science and development minister Yuval Ne’eman to help find jobs for Russian immigrant scientists.
She is still in touch with former refuseniks, including Sylva Zalmanson. Zalmanson’s daughter, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, used Oberman’s home to film some of her 2016 documentary Operation Wedding about her parents’ attempted escape from the Soviet Union in 1970.
“Today, Oberman is kept quite busy with her children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Anthony is a doctor, David is in hi-tech and Judy is a computer scientist.
“I live near the sea, so they all love to come visit,” Oberman says.
Thinking back on The 35s, later called the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, she reflects, “In our small way, maybe we did change the world.”