The hidden heroes that helped save Soviet Jewry - book review

Soviet Jewry’s less famous saviors — How 35 volunteer activists made history behind the scenes.

 DURING A TV interview in Moscow  in 2009, Russian Prime Minister  Vladimir Putin said the JacksonVanik amendment hindered  Russia’s entry to the World Trade  Organization. (photo credit: Ria Novosti/Pool/Alexei Druzhinin/Reuters)
DURING A TV interview in Moscow in 2009, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the JacksonVanik amendment hindered Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organization.
(photo credit: Ria Novosti/Pool/Alexei Druzhinin/Reuters)

The story of the Jews of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) is familiar to most people, and they are aware of the fact that prior to the Perestroika and Glasnost there were clandestine operations providing information, literature, religious materials and support to the Jews and their communities. However, most of us were not aware or informed of the details behind the activities that were providing assistance to the people. 

After the Jews began leaving the FSU we learned about the famous people who were not allowed to leave the country for Israel, the United States and other Western countries. Names like Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, Ida Nudel, and others became familiar to us and we certainly heard about the efforts of the American Jewish community and its constituent organizations working to free the Jews.

However, we were not aware of what was going on “behind the scenes” and the efforts that were being made by grassroot local groups to maintain contact, give support, and work for the Jews to have the ability to leave the country and practice their Judaism in freedom. Hidden Heroes provides us with the opportunity to learn about Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ) and its efforts to recruit and involve hundreds of volunteer activists throughout the United States. They were writing letters to local and national politicians to gain support to apply pressure on the FSU to allow the Jews to leave and be able to live freely as Jews.

Simultaneously, they were supporting Jews who were labeled “refuseniks,” as they had applied for an exit visa and were refused one. As a result of the application for a visa they were often fired from their jobs and were unemployed. In fact many found themselves imprisoned or exiled to Siberia. Members of the UCSJ were writing letters, sending packages and calling refusniks when possible.

IN ADDITION to describing all of the activities carried on by the Councils, Pamela Braun Cohen details the struggles with the established organizations as well as the Israeli government and their reticence to get involved in political struggles at the beginning. Under Cohen’s leadership the grass roots activists were able to maintain ongoing contact with the Soviet Jewish activists and let them know there were people who were not only supporting their struggle but fighting for their freedom. Many of the activists let Cohen know how important her efforts were and how they gained strength from knowing they were not alone in this difficult conflict.

 HIDDEN HEROES By Pamela Braun Cohen (credit: Courtesy) HIDDEN HEROES By Pamela Braun Cohen (credit: Courtesy)

One of the truly beautiful aspects of the book is the underlying theme that the Hidden Heroes are both the Soviet Jewish activists and the grassroot members in the United States and the Jews in England, known as the “35.” Most of these people were not household names and were not featured in the newspapers or media reports. They were working quietly and diligently to secure the freedom of their Soviet brothers and sisters and the Soviet Jews who were without jobs or support and working hard not to be imprisoned because they were declared a burden on the society. 

In reading the book, one cannot help but wonder what drew housewives, mothers and retires to get involved in the work of the Councils. Over and over again there is the underlying theme that people did not want to repeat the mistake of the American Jews during World War II. The overwhelming feeling is that Cohen and her colleagues felt they did not want to see the destruction of another Jewish community and in retrospect they succeeded by fighting a strong political and psychological battle. 

They were able to be an active force in influencing both American policy as witnessed with the passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment that linked “favored-nation status” for the Soviet Union with the freedom the country gave to the Jews to emigrate and influencing Israeli policy to be more pro-active in supporting the efforts to free the Soviet Jews. Historically the Israeli policy had been not “to make waves” and to work quietly through the clandestine efforts of a little-known office, Nativ. The Councils certainly had an impact on both governments as well as on the establishment organizations of the Jewish community, e.g. the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

In 1966, Eli Wiesel wrote The Jews of Silence and most people thought the Jews of silence were the Soviet Jews who were suffering in silence but he was referring to both the Soviet Jews and the free Jews of the West who were silent in not supporting their brothers in the FSU. Cohen understood this and she took it upon herself to not repeat the mistakes of the previous generation. She devoted herself to be involved in the effort to ensure there were no more “hidden Jews.” She provides us with an exciting and comprehensive examination at how she and her colleagues accomplished so much on behalf of Jews who were suffering because of being Jewish, and were striving to live actively as Jews in a free society either in Israel or elsewhere.

We all owe a debt of great gratitude to the UCSJ for their efforts and their accomplishments, and in Israel and communities around the world where Jews from the FSU have resettled we can see the fruits of their labors. As we sing “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The People of Israel Lives”) we can see this in all actuality as the Jews who wanted to leave the FSU could do so and those who are committed to rebuilding Jewish life in the FSU now have the freedom to do so as witnessed by active communities in many cities. 

The Iron Curtain has fallen and the Curtain of the Torah Ark, representing the present and future of the Jewish people, continues to hang in its proper place. 

The writer is a retired member of the faculty of Hebrew University’s School of Social Work’s program in Management of Non-Profit Organizations.

HIDDEN HEROESBy Pamela Braun CohenGefen Publishing House384 Pages; $29.95