How We Freed Soviet Jewry
Twenty-five years ago today, a rally of 250,000 people changed the fate of Jews worldwide. An oral history.
Green: We wanted to let the Soviet government know that this was our issue, and we were fighting and we weren’t going to stop. We wanted to let the American government know that this was important not just to the Jewish community, but to the American community—that this was a human rights issue that we cared about. And the message was also to Soviet Jews themselves, who always heard about the rallies, always, either on Voice of America, or they saw pictures of it, and they could know that they weren’t alone and that people were working for them.
Sam Kliger (former refusenik): It was broadcast on Voice of America and Radio Liberty, but only a very few people could listen to it. I did not know it would be broadcast, because of course Gazeta Pravda didn’t report that this march was happening, and there was no Internet at that time, no cell phones, in many cases even no regular telephones. But one person told another that there was this huge march in Washington, and it was a big, big boost.
Cohen: In the end it was definitely celebratory. Peter, Paul and Mary were there, Pearl Bailey was there. For me, I was swept up by the fact that Natan was there, and Vladimir Slepak was there. We’d never met, until that day.
Zacks: I was on the dais, and I introduced the vice president. He came to this rally, and he knew the political tension that would exist between his role as vice president and his role as a citizen. The following day he was going to be part of the group meeting with Gorbachev and President Reagan, but the vice president elected to come because he wanted to be there.
Goldstein: The only thing that’s not memorable was the speeches. It was all the usual stuff, except when Sharansky spoke. I was on the dais for some of it, but then I got down and stood with my family. There was no place for the wealthy and the rest of it—that was one of the beauties of the thing.
Sharansky: When I was speaking, I was improvising, because I never wrote speeches. That day was easy for me. I said, Look, how many times did we hear there will be rain, there will be no demonstration, and now there is sun, and you are all here.
Saperstein: People would say, Who did the opening narration? I used Gunter Hirschberg, who had been cantor at Temple Rodeph Sholom. He had a magnificent voice, an extraordinary basso profundo voice, and having been born in Germany but raised in Britain, he spoke in a British accent. So, you had this guy who looked like Cesar Romero and to many people sounded like the voice of God.
Cohen: From the podium, it looked like an endless sea of Jews. It was as if the horizon ended with the crowd. There was nothing else. It was a huge, huge, huge crowd. And it was cold! It was a very cold day, and people were all bundled up and wearing earmuffs and jumping in place and huddled together, and you could see their breath. But there was this tremendous, tremendous electrical excitement that warmed everybody. And I don’t think anyone wanted to leave.
Leonard Fein (author and former editor of Moment): There was a certain point where I was up near the mike, and I announced this was a reunion for the Jewish people. “Let it begin here and now—there is a tent here by the stage for lost children, so please go reclaim them now.”
Zeidman: We were staying at a little place, a Holiday Inn or something on the other side of Independence, so we walked across the Mall to where the march was, and our 7-year-old kid wanted a popsicle, and then the New York Times got him. We made the whole march, and then we got on the buses with everyone else from Houston for the plane ride home.
Osadchey: We timed it so we got back in time for a community rally that evening in Houston. Pete Yarrow had been at the march, and they played his song “Light One Candle” as we all came into the sanctuary.
Sharansky: Afterward, there were some receptions, the American Jewish Committee gave some prizes, the UJA had some things for donors. I didn’t really understand these things yet. And then I went back home. I felt my mission—frankly, I thought, that’s it. Now it’s enough to be a Soviet Jew, and I can start a normal life.
Goldstein: Reagan said to Gorbachev, “Yesterday I had 250,000 people in my backyard saying, ‘Let my people go.’ Until you do what they want, nothing will happen.” And after that, things changed. So, to me it ensured Israel’s survival and it brought down the Soviet Union. It was the high point for my generation’s lives as Jews.
Davis: I didn’t think at the time that it was such a big deal. It seemed to me that the movement had won. History is such a funny thing—all you can say is that these things all happened at the same time, and the Jews got out of the Soviet Union. I do know that what it did for us was probably more than it did for them in terms of creating a sense of unity, of pride, and a feeling that Jews around the world were responsible for doing something and that they could do something for each other.
Sharansky: It was the final act in this long, long struggle of American Jewry. A whole generation of American Jews lived and fought this issue. It was their struggle.
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If the past few weeks are any guide, it looks like the open feud between Jerusalem and Washington is over