What was the Soviet Jewish exodus like? One woman's story told in new book

The stories of the American and Israeli efforts to break the hold on Soviet Jewry are told in a new book.

 Natan Sharansky addresses the book launch of ‘Hidden Heroes’ in Jerusalem on August 31 as author Pamela Braun Cohen looks on. (photo credit: HALLEL SILVERMAN)
Natan Sharansky addresses the book launch of ‘Hidden Heroes’ in Jerusalem on August 31 as author Pamela Braun Cohen looks on.
(photo credit: HALLEL SILVERMAN)

One night in June 1970, 16 Soviet citizens attempted to hijack a small commercial plane from Leningrad to Sweden. The plane never left the ground that night, but the campaign to free Soviet Jewry took to the skies and soon crossed the Atlantic to America.

The Leningrad hijackers must have known that the plan was doomed, says Pamela Braun Cohen, author of Hidden Heroes and ex-president of the grassroots organization the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ), who was galvanized by the events of that day. At the inevitable trial that followed their arrest, Soviet judges meted out harsh punishments, including two death sentences for Mark Dymshits, a military pilot, and Edouard Kuznetsov, at 30, a seven-year veteran of the gulag. Nine others received long jail terms. But international pressure brought a reduction in the sentences. That was the first victory.  

Yosef Mendelevich from Riga, the youngest conspirator, served 11 years. When Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky was convicted of espionage  in 1976 he and Mendelevich shared some time together in Vladmir maximum security prison where today Alex Navalny, Vladamir Putin’s most prominent political opponent, is incarcerated. 

Sharansky said Mendelevich used to communicate with him by banging the toilet seat down in his cell and then talking through the toilet bowl. Once they found themselves in the exercise yard together apparently due to a guard’s mistake and instinctively embraced though they had never met before. They were separated and returned to their cells. 

The mistake was not repeated. But by now the Soviet Jewry movement was cruising at a high altitude. Though the KGB did not yet know it Sharansky had taken over the cockpit controls and the destination was Washington.

In 1981 Mendelevich left prison and the USSR which was still under Brezhnev’s stolid rule, and was permitted to emigrate. He soon arrived in Washington, a guest of President Reagan and Vice-President Bush snr. alongside Avital Sharansky. 

Pamela Braun Cohen had a lot to do with it. Anatoly – she still calls him that – recalled that his jailer once sought to demoralize him by showing him a video of a small demonstration in Washington, she had organized. “You think people care about you in the West? Just look at who is supporting you, students and housewives.” And there at the head of the demo was Avital whom he hadn’t seen since his imprisonment. He asked the guileless jailer to play the video again and again. Sharansky appointed Pam Cohen “the five-star-general of the army of students and housewives.”

“General” Pam sent the intrepid journalist Louis Rapaport, whom she met in Jerusalem, into the front line from where he returned with a brilliant 12-page spread in The Jerusalem Post on the Prisoners of Zion in Moscow and Leningrad. 

No mention is made here of Rabbi Meir Kahane and his own violent campaign to free Soviet Jewry. This is not surprising. Seemingly inspired by the Leningrad hijackers two well armed Jewish Defense League activists were arrested in a plot to hijack an Arab airliner in October 1970. A month later the JDL blew up the Manhattan office of Aeroflot, blasting its name across the media upon its initiation into Soviet Jewry affairs. 

The Leningrad hijacking was a brilliant ploy. It demonstrated the moral difference between the way of the refuseniks and the way of Kahane. The Leningrad hijackers wanted to attract international support for their right to return to their professed homeland, but they endangered only themselves. The whole purpose of the Leningrad attempt was to force the Soviet authorities to respond in the way they were expected to do but to retain the moral high ground. 

If the plane had taken off it would likely have been shot down. But someone leaked the plan to the government of Golda Meir, Cohen told me after her recent book launch. Who and with what purpose in mind was unclear. 

The Soviet Jewry movement, the UCSJ and the Israeli government did not have the same aims, Cohen writes. The UCSJ was for freedom of movement. Indeed, two non-Jewish dissidents joined the Leningrad hijackers, but the Israeli government, through Lishkat Hakesher, was interested only in freedom for Jews to immigrate to Israel and via diplomatic means. 

The Soviet Union agreed for its own reasons with Israel and demanded that any emigration applicant receive an invitation from Israel. Permitting freedom of movement to Jews would have meant in principle permitting freedom of movement to all Soviet citizens and where would that have led? 

The Israeli vysovs of course were a sham. There had to be coordination between Jerusalem and Moscow on this matter, perhaps going all the way back to the night of the hijacking in June 1970. 

Since there was no direct Soviet air connection or diplomatic relations with Israel, emigration was via Vienna, from where many emigrants, maybe most, opted to continue to the United States, under Israel protest.

In hindsight the mission to free Soviet Jewry turned out brilliantly. Israel received its immigrants and those who wished, Jews or Gentiles, went elsewhere. It could have led to harsher Stalinist-like repression of “rootless cosmopolitans.” 

Instead, it led to Mikhail Gorbachev, through a generational time warp, leaping twenty years ahead in under three, following the deaths in short order of Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko between 1982-1985. 

Unimaginable in 1970, the former general secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union received an honorary award from Yeshiva University, New York in 1992, a year after the dissolution of Reagan’s “evil empire.” Mikhail Gorbachev said of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), “The reason why I’m no longer the president of the Soviet Union which no longer exists is because wherever we went there you were. We had to give in.”

So reported Yossi Abramowitz, Pam Cohen’s successor as president of the UCSJ, He was awed by what “housewives and students,” under their five-star general had accomplished, but acknowledged that Gorbachev deserved some credit too.

At her book launch in Jerusalem on August 31, Cohen said that Hidden Heroes is the story of how each former refusenik and Prisoner of Zion “courageously struggled against the full might of the Kremlin, the relentless KGB surveillance and the threat of years of exile in Siberian labor camps to live here in Israel, to live a free life with Jewish dignity.”

At the same time, she said, the refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion knew that in those dark years, the “small strike force of volunteers” in the grassroots movement to free Soviet Jewry were their dedicated partners – transmitting every one of their acts of resistance to the seats of power in Washington and European capitals. 

“We transcribed your words and transmitted them to the free world,” she said, addressing the former refuseniks attending the launch. “Our prisoners and refuseniks were part of our lives, our consciousness. We didn’t just cut you out at the end of our day. We took your hopes, your pain, your plans and your needs home with us weaving endless strategies to deliver to you what you needed, to fight with you in the halls of Congress, the White House, State Department, Helsinki Commission, taking your struggle to the press and in the end we forged a partnership that changed history.”

 Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union  (credit: Courtesy) Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union (credit: Courtesy)
 Pamela Braun Cohen (credit: Courtesy) Pamela Braun Cohen (credit: Courtesy)

Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union Pamela Braun CohenGefen Publishing 2021393 pages, $28