Category Archives: Soviet Jewry

A Taste

Over the last few weeks the Forward has run three excerpts from the book. They are nice introductions for those who want a taste before going ahead and dropping $30 (or $19.80 here!)

  • The first one tells the story of Meir Kahane and his brief but flamboyant rein over the Soviet Jewry movement, one that ended with a bomb that killed a Jewish secretary from Long Island.
  • The second involves this gentleman here to the right, Vladimir Slepak, one of the refusenik activists who became very well known in the West. It’s about a risky protest that he took part in which involved flying a banner from his balcony. It lead to three years of exile in the far eastern reaches of the Soviet Union.
  • The third is about Avital Shcharansky, the beautiful wife of the activist Anatoly Shcharansky (someone even called her the “Israeli Audrey Hepburn”). This is the story of how she turned her husband’s imprisonment into a global cause.

Enjoy. Each is also accompanied by some video of me talking about the book…

Human Rights Twilight Zone

Here’s another of my posts from this past week for the Jewish Book Council’s blog.

There is a strange irony in having worked on a history of the Soviet Jewry movement at a moment when Israel often sees those who most cherish the upholding of human rights and international law as its enemies. The recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza happened while I was researching and writing the book, conflicts that were followed by allegations that Israel had committed war crimes, and then by Israel’s defenders fiercely denouncing the NGOs and other international bodies who made those claims.

I say ironic because during the period I examine in the book – the early 1960s to the late 1980s – it was Jews who spoke most often about the respect for human rights. It was the Soviet Jewry movement that made such effective use of the language of international law. It wasn’t so long ago, but attitudes have so clearly shifted, that the years I wrote about now seem like a Twilight Zone inverse of today. Setting aside that there are those who see extreme bias (and even anti-Semitism) behind the claims of Israeli human rights violations, the reality is that Israel appears to be on the opposite side of these universal principles, not the force that is defending them. And that is a real change.

Back in the 1960s, Israel helped clandestinely to foment an international movement to help Soviet Jews, and they specifically focused on what they saw as the trampling of minority rights as the cause’s main argument. Throughout the years of the struggle, there was nothing more effective for both refuseniks (Jews who were refused emigration permits) and their American friends than to point to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” In one samizdat journal, these words sat comfortably on the masthead next to Psalm 127, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” Soviet human rights activists like Andrei Sakharov supported the movement passionately and his photo still hangs on Natan Sharansky’s office wall. He looked up to him as a hero.

And most importantly, when the Helsinki process started in 1975 – a series of multilateral meetings that consistently put the Soviets on the defensive about their internal policies – it was the condition of Soviet Jewry that most clearly illustrated the problem. There was almost complete overlap between the goals of those focused on defending universal principles and those who cared about what was also very clearly a Jewish cause.

Barbecuing with the Hijackers

This is the first of three blog posts I’m writing this week for the Jewish Book Council’s blog.

Writing history that is recently past always carries with it certain challenges. Most obviously, the competing versions of what happened or who did what aren’t fought out through yellowed letters in an archive but are argued by living, breathing, often highly invested people. In the five years I spent working on my book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, I can’t count anymore the number of late night phone calls I got or angry emailed screeds claiming that I was clearly not going to give enough credit to so-and-so or put enough emphasis on what some long forgotten activist who was really, truly, the sole person responsible for saving Soviet Jewry had done. For those who had been the protagonists of this story, this was their first – and for some, last – chance to make sure they were remembered the way they wanted to be, or at all.

At first this proved a real challenge to me as a historian – could it be that the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry was really single-handedly responsible for ending the Cold War? But as I gained confidence that I knew the story I was telling, I was also able to better balance these competing narratives and tease out something close to what I thought to be the truth.

But in spite of what was difficult – or even annoying – about this reality, I never once regretted that I was writing about a period with living witnesses. Without them, I would have lost the rich detail you could never get from a document – the color of the Moscow sky above a protest, what it really felt like to fear that any day a conscription notice from the Red Army would come for your son, or how exactly a phone call was made from Cleveland to Leningrad in the 1960′s. Lost would be also the countless hours spent sitting in living rooms in Israel, drinking tea, and watching the “characters” in my book recount their own lives, with both the emotion and subtlety that can only come from oral history.

And then there was my barbecue with the hijackers.

The hijackers were a group of Jews from Riga and Leningrad who after my early research had come to seem superhumanly brave and almost mythic in their unwillingness to accept an unjust status quo. In the summer of 1970, they decided to steal a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union after being denied exit visas. I wrote about them recently in The New York Times on the 40th anniversary of their attempt, which ultimately ended in failure. They were arrested on the tarmac, put on trial, and sentenced to years of imprisonment – though they managed to turn enormous world attention to their cause.

In 2005, when I met them, they were in their fifties and sixties. Some had remained closer to each other than others, but they made a point of reconnecting every June 15, the day of the hijacking. The gathering they invited me to would mark the 35th anniversary – someone had baked a cake on which the number was written out with grapes. They had brought hamburgers and hot dogs to grill at the home of Boris Penson, one of the hijackers who is a painter and lives in a farming community just south of Haifa.

The first shock was just seeing them in person, come to life before me in their older, very human forms. There was Sylva Zalmanson, the only woman among the main organizers. She had bravely stood in court and recited Psalm 137 (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”) before being dragged away to serve a few years in a prison camp. I described her in the book as “girlish,” petite, curly-haired, and easy to giggle. Now she was older, bespectacled, heavyset, but still just as gregarious. Then I saw Mark Dymshits, the pilot – the lynchpin of the plot – now a taciturn man in his early seventies who wore enormous tinted glasses and couldn’t hear very well.

I sat squeezed between the two of them in the backseat of a car on our way to the barbecue, with Sylva talking up the virtues of her twenty-something daughter, Anat (whose father was Eduard Kuznetsov, the former dissident maybe most responsible for the hijacking) in an obvious attempt to set us up. It only became more surreal from there. I stood around the grill with the hijackers flipping burgers under the sun. The banality and utter normalcy of it all was difficult to absorb at first.

Only as the day continued – and the vodka was poured – did I relax and accept that it was even more interesting to consider that these people I had thought of as giants were actually just ordinary people who had done something extraordinary. Meri Knokh, another of the women plotters, who had been pregnant at the time of the hijacking, pulled out a guitar and started playing Russian folk songs from the 1960′s – Vysotsky and Okudzhava. I stopped gawking and – in truth – stopped understanding much of what they’d been saying. They had switched entirely to Russian, spoken boisterously between cigarette hits and gravelly laughter.

Seeing them as just a group of friends like any other group of friends, with their own dynamic, sense of humor, and loud characters, put their reckless act in a whole new context. If I was going to tell their story, I wanted to capture this as well. Not just the heroism of people stepping boldly into the stream of history, but all that was prosaic about them and their interactions, the human quality that no amount of written record could ever have communicated as well as just watching them together on a drunken, summer afternoon.

Q&A

I recently posted up a Q&A that I conducted with myself. It includes some thoughts on why the Soviet Jewry movement is still important today, beyond its Jewish context:

The story is still very relevant, and not only because Russia is behaving more and more like the old Soviet state in its suppression of dissent. One of the big questions the book poses is how a country like the United States balances its national security interests with moral imperatives. Soviet Jewry very much introduced this tension into the Cold War, turning it into a conflict that was about more than just who had how many missiles. This balance still poses incredible challenges for the United States. Take the case of China. On the one hand, the expansion of relations since the 1970s has had great economic benefits, but it has been accompanied by a deep undercurrent of discomfort about the censorship and repression that allows China’s nominally Communist authorities to stay in power. Iran is an even more dramatic example. The issue of how much and how publicly to support the growing democracy movement while also trying to stop their nuclear program strongly echoes debates from the 1970s surrounding Soviet Jews.

Times Op-Ed!

It’s been a very exciting day for me with my op-ed on the Leningrad hijacking appearing in the New York Times this morning. If you’re interested and get a chance, take a look at it in the paper itself. They’ve run it very big with evocative art. It’s one of those moments when you realize what gets lost when papers dissapear. Online it’s just one in a list of articles. In the paper, it’s been curated. Anyway, amazing news for me no matter where you read it.

Soviet Jewelry

My book tells a story that is, of course, a fairly serious one — persecution, redemption and such. But that’s not to say there’s no comedy! When have Jews even done anything without also laughing at themselves? When I mention the book to people of a certain generation, this is often the first association that comes to mind…the late, great Gilda Radner:

Forty Years Ago Today

It’s a fitting day to start this blog. On June 15, 1970, a group of Soviet Jews tried to hijack a plane in Leningrad – and failed. But their attempt and the Soviet overreaction to it ignited the movement that is the subject of my book. Seems like as good an excuse as any to write a first post.

I’m not sure yet exactly what this blog will end up looking like. I guess like most blogs it will have to evolve over time. But I know now that at the very least I want it to be a place for me to highlight and discuss some of my writing – both of the topical, weekly variety, and from the big history book of mine that will be out in September. I also think it will be nice to have a place to describe what it feels like to finally enter the publication phase of what has been a long, long process. I got the contract to write the book back in 2004. The prospect of finally seeing it out in the world is – to say the least – both exhilarating and terrifying.

Please feel free to comment or send me emails. I’ll try to update fairly often.