Fighting for the three million

Saving the Jews of the Soviet Union and bringing them to freedom, especially to Israel, was, for Elie Wiesel, the most important mission of his life.

UNCHAINING THE people. ‘Elie Wiesel’s conclusion was that the Jewish people throughout the world had to mobilize in a united campaign to save the Jewish soul of the three million Jews who were still in the USSR.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
UNCHAINING THE people. ‘Elie Wiesel’s conclusion was that the Jewish people throughout the world had to mobilize in a united campaign to save the Jewish soul of the three million Jews who were still in the USSR.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A meeting with two young Israeli diplomats, Meir Rosenne and Ephraim Tari in 1965, led to a major change in the life of Elie Wiesel. At the time he was living in a one-room apartment overlooking the Hudson River in New York, writing in Hebrew and Yiddish, giving lectures and working as a correspondent for Israeli newspapers, especially Yediot Aharonot. At the age of 37, he had already written five books, Night, Dawn, Day, The Gates of the Forest, and The Town Beyond the Wall.
Wiesel was not short of work but the two diplomats proposed a mission which he had not experienced during his 15 years as a journalist. He was offered an opportunity that he had never contemplated. Because he had become an American citizen and in 1963, already had an American passport, in 1965 he was invited by a semi-official Israeli government body to fly beyond the Iron Curtain and to visit Jewish communities in the USSR, something that no Israeli journalist had been able to do. After careful deliberation and not a few doubts, he decided that he would spend time with the Soviet Jews during the Jewish festivals of the month of Tishrei in the autumn.
Wiesel spent a month visiting these communities, with KGB agents following him every step of the way. He visited Moscow, Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Kiev and Tbilisi. The encounters along the way, the scenes he witnessed and the conversations he held with the Jews, both openly and clandestinely, sometimes in cemeteries among the gravestones, brought him to believe that the Jews of the Soviet Union were facing a spiritual catastrophe. The man who had been a leading exponent of Holocaust remembrance, now foresaw a new existential holocaust.
His conclusion was that the Jewish people throughout the world had to mobilize in a united campaign to save the Jewish soul of the three million Jews who were still in the USSR. Above all, he was encouraged by the younger generation, especially those who had gathered in their thousands and danced with the Torah scrolls to celebrate Simhat Torah at the Great Synagogue in Moscow.
For him, the young dancers singing songs in imperfect Hebrew were the surest proof that the people of Israel lived. In his memoirs, he wrote, “If, one day, I will appear before the celestial tribunal and am asked, ‘What did you do that was worthy of benevolence.’ I will reply, ‘I was present at the dance of Jewish history in Moscow.’”
His impressions of the visit were first published as a series of articles in Yediot Aharonot, and shortly after in book form, The Jews of Silence. The book was soon translated into English and French, and many other languages followed. The book brought the attention of the whole world, and not just the Jewish world, to the plight of the Soviet Jews. On his return home, Wiesel was determined above all, to pursue the cause of freedom for the Soviet Jews, especially the younger generation, so that they would not become distanced from the Jewish people and its heritage.
The possible loss of Jewish identity stirred him to immediate action. That the elderly had to pray under the watchful eyes of KGB agents, the impossibility of visiting Jewish memorial sites such as Babi Yar, the restrictions on speaking Hebrew or Yiddish, lit in his mind a red warning light on any Jewish future in the USSR. What he had seen was translated into actions which, it can be stated confidently, changed the future of Jewish life in the USSR. Wiesel became the champion of the oppressed people he had met. He had neither troops nor commanders – he had no weapons or ammunition.
The struggle was based on one single man who was consumed by a passion.
I once asked Meir Rosenne, who had served as Israel’s ambassador to France and then to the United States, and who was a close friend of Elie Wiesel, if he could have imagined the consequences of the visit to the USSR. He replied, “In my wildest dreams I could not. Wiesel did the impossible and to this day I cannot fathom how one individual could do what he did. The credit for the eventual salvation of the Soviet Jews is almost entirely his.”
In the late 1960s, Wiesel was in open conflict with the Jewish leadership in the US and Israel, who thought the campaign should be conducted secretively with no press coverage. Wiesel insisted on writing on the situation as he saw it and the Jewish establishment tried to minimize its impact. During the course of a guest lecture at the annual meeting of the Council of Jewish Federations, he said, “If I shall ever be remembered, it will be because of one phrase I coined: ‘The Jews of Silence.’ Unfortunately, it has been misinterpreted, misunderstood. The ‘Jews of Silence,’ in my book were not the Jews in Russia, but the Jews here, all of us in the free world.”
That same year, during the first Brussels Conference on Soviet Jewry, he said, “If I will be remembered in the future, I would hope it would be as a messenger of the young Jews of the Soviet Union.” For him, the struggle to save their spiritual existence took precedence over the struggle for Holocaust remembrance.
In the 1960 and ’70s, Wiesel set up in the Jewish communities of dozens of cities throughout the US, twinning with Jewish communities in the Soviet Union.
The activities included American members visiting their adopted counterpart in the USSR, political and legal intervention with senators and members of Congress on behalf of the refuseniks and sending letters and parcels. All of this had an impact on the US administration. The American communities met once a year and produced reports on their activities. All of these reports are in the archives at Boston University.
For six years this writer worked on establishing the Elie Wiesel archives at Boston University. Six years of reading more than one million pages of articles, lectures, books; a quarter of a million letters and thousands of press cuttings from all over the world. Among the wealth of documents, tens of thousands relate to the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Wiesel once told me that in 25 years, there had not been one day when he did not devote at least an hour to the struggle. One man, first in his private apartment and then in his modest office at Boston University, ran a worldwide operation. The letters in the archive reveal a relentless international correspondence, appeals to world leaders, to the Russian ambassador in Washington, as well as voluminous correspondence with Prisoners of Zion and their families still in Russia. After one lecture of mine in Jerusalem, a woman, speaking with a heavy Russian accent, approached me and said, “I want to show you a copy of a personal letter that Elie Wiesel sent to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, in which he appealed for the release of my parents, my brother and I: ‘May I add my voice to others who have spoken on behalf of Mikhail and Larissa... and their two children.’” Another such former Prisoner of Zion, the current speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein, wrote to Wiesel after his release, “I can now finally express my feelings of deep gratitude to you.”
Six years after his first visit to the USSR, as a result of which Wiesel wrote The Jews of Silence, he published in Yediot Aharonot an open letter to the Soviet Jews in which he wrote, “The fact that there are still in Russia, 50 years after the Russian Revolution, young Jews who sing in the streets about their desire to forge their own destiny and express their desire to reclaim their heritage and who study secretly that which is forbidden, is an untenable situation.”
It is only natural that Limmud FSU, a voluntary organization that was set up in order to strengthen and preserve Jewish culture and identity among Russian speakers, who today can be found in the four corners of the earth, should have adopted as a model the pathfinding work of Elie Wiesel. Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, who was himself secretary-general of the Public Council for Soviet Jewry, got to know Elie Wiesel well already in the 1980s. Chesler recalls, “I can bear witness to the fact that Wiesel was deeply engaged in the struggle both after his first visit in 1965 and even more in his second visit a year later. For him, the struggle to ensure the spiritual survival of the three million remaining Jews took precedence over his concern for remembrance of the Holocaust itself.”
Those young people of 1971 are today among the parents of the 45,000 Russian speakers who have participated in Limmud FSU conferences across the world over the last decade. One of the spiritual leaders of Limmud FSU is Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, a former Knesset member and chief rabbi of Romania who was a close friend of Wiesel. They met when the Elie Wiesel Memorial Center was established in Bucharest in 2002. In addition, an Elie Wiesel Museum was established in the basement of Wiesel’s hometown of Sighet, Romania, in 2013. Chesler emphasizes that Wiesel’s legacy is a paramount constituent of the Limmud FSU lexicon. “I met Elie for the last time a few months before his death and his request was that we continue our work; that is the legacy that guides us.”
Dr. Yoel Rappel is a historian and founder and director (2009-2015) of the Elie Wiesel Archives at Boston University.
Translated by Asher Weill.