How they let our people go

The inspiring story of a grassroots struggle to free the oppressed.

Natan Sharansky arriving with Peres 521 (photo credit: Adam Teitelbaum)
Natan Sharansky arriving with Peres 521
(photo credit: Adam Teitelbaum)
“We are leaving Mother Russia,
We have waited far too long.
We are leaving Mother Russia,
When they come for us we’ll be gone.”
When Safam’s Robbie Solomon penned the lyrics to “Leaving Mother Russia” in 1978 as a tribute to Russian refuseniks, he named just one, Anatoly Sharansky, as a symbol for all the rest. The imprisoned future head of the Jewish Agency actually wouldn’t win his freedom for another eight years.
But it was not for lack of trying on the part of the massive movement to save Soviet Jewry. Despite tactical disagreements and political roadblocks, the grassroots effort of US Jews proved to be the biggest key unlocking the doors of the Iron Curtain.
As much as this acclaimed book is a rich chronicle of that two-decade-plus struggle and a detailed portrait of protesters and refuseniks alike, it is also the story of how Jews in the US found their collective voice.
Beckerman demonstrates that this voice, barely a whisper during the Holocaust, gained volume during the 1960s fight for civil rights and matured into a proud shout following the Six Day War: “Jews needed to stop thinking about everyone else’s rights and start defending their own.”
Most Jews, that is. Though Beckerman’s book came out months before the December 11 revelation of Henry Kissinger’s tape-recorded remark to president Richard Nixon (“If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern”), it explains how the Jewish national security adviser’s 1970s détente policy “threatened to pave over the problems of Soviet Jews with a new amicability that would be blind to such moral questions as the right to emigrate.”
Beckerman’s expertise in these matters is such that his commentary was sought after following the tape’s exposure. He shared his insights with Tablet magazine, gleaned from his book, including how Kissinger strategically suppressed a letter from Andrei Gromyko rejecting a deal under which the USSR would be waived from the Jackson- Vanik Amendment, which Kissinger opposed, in exchange for allowing 60,000 Jews to emigrate.
After reading this definitive work on the movement to free Soviet Jewry, it is clear that Beckerman earned his pundit’s stripes through five years of thorough research. Just as impressive is his journalistic ability to present a huge quantity of complex material, spanning 1963 to 1987, in engaging and comprehensible prose. The Forward reporter examines and elucidates one of the most monumental human-rights achievements of the century. Every facet is carefully contextualized, such as the rise of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League in the wake of escalating tensions between blacks and Jews in 1968.
It is in the pages on Kahane – who is described as playing a vital if controversial role in propelling the Soviet Jewry movement forward – that the reader first notices the author’s tendency to inject personal value judgments. Granted, Kahane elicited either passionate love or hate, but it is not necessary for readers to know in which camp Beckerman falls.
His remarks and conjectures concerning Kahane and the activist Rabbi Avi Weiss are particularly pointed. He states, for example, that during Sharansky’s first trip to New York, Weiss wanted the famous refusenik by his side “to boost his own ego.” He also slips in many gratuitous adjectives about others. Jimmy Carter is “the toothy Georgia governor.” Congressman Dante Fascell “was a short Italian American.” Yosef Mendelevitch “found a home among the rightwing settlers.” Mayor Ed Koch is “loudmouthed.”
Perpetuating a common misunderstanding that food is somehow rendered kosher by being blessed, Beckerman writes that Soviet religious activist Ilya Essas taught workers at a Moscow fish-packing plant “how to pick out certain fish, like carp, that could be blessed as kosher.” This error is of no great consequence, but it betrays an ignorance that one hopes did not pervade any fundamental aspect of the book.
Nevertheless, Beckerman masterfully brings the reader into the hearts and minds of key figures on both sides of the ocean. Among the unimaginably brave souls introduced here, who sacrificed so much in their quest simply to learn Hebrew or emigrate to Israel, are Yosef Mendelevich, Gilya Butman, Yasha Kazakov, Mark Dymshits, Boris Kochubievsky, Ida Nudel, Eduard Kuznetsov, Volodya and Masha Slepak and Dina Beilin.
Without taking away from these and the many other refuseniks described, for songwriter Solomon and for many people who grew up during the struggle, Anatoly Sharansky and Natasha Stieglitz – the couple kept apart at the whim of the Soviets for 12 years following their wedding night – are the emblematic faces of Soviet Jewry.
Beckerman fixes warranted attention on this couple, who wed hurriedly during the brief window when the groom was released from his first detention and the bride’s exit visa valid for just one week was about to expire. “See you in Jerusalem” were Anatoly’s parting words to Natasha in December 1974. Knowing that Natan and Avital Sharansky not only live in Jerusalem but have been privileged to see a grandchild born here is especially poignant after reading the account of their extraordinary tribulations. Knowing there are many others like them is equally remarkable.
Anyone in search of Jewish heroes and role models need look no further than this superlative volume. The story of those who saved and were saved is nothing less than inspirational.