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Last Exit

In Gal Beckerman’s telling, the story of the Soviet Jewry movement becomes one of modern Jewish history’s great dramas

Adam Kirsch
November 02, 2010
An iconic photo of the most famous refusenik activists, taken in 1976: Front row, left to right: Vitaly Rubin, Anatoly Shcharansky, Ida Nudel, and Alexander Lerner. Second row: Vladimir Slepak, Lev Ovsishcher, Alexander Druk, Yosef Beilin, and Dina Beilin.(Beit Hatfutsot Archive)
An iconic photo of the most famous refusenik activists, taken in 1976: Front row, left to right: Vitaly Rubin, Anatoly Shcharansky, Ida Nudel, and Alexander Lerner. Second row: Vladimir Slepak, Lev Ovsishcher, Alexander Druk, Yosef Beilin, and Dina Beilin.(Beit Hatfutsot Archive)

One way of thinking about 20th-century Jewish history is as the steady depopulation of Eastern Europe, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry since the Middle Ages. In 1880, the Jewish population of the region was close to 7 million, representing more than 80 percent of the world’s Jews; today, Russia is home to just 200,000 Jews, and Ukraine another 80,000. This dramatic decline did not take place steadily or easily, but in three historical convulsions. The first was the huge wave of emigration that lasted until World War I, turning America into the world’s largest Jewish community and planting the seeds of Jewish settlement in Palestine. The second, of course, was the Holocaust, which killed 6 million European Jews, most of them from Eastern European countries under German occupation—Russia, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Hungary, Romania.

Both of these stories are extremely well known to Jews today—they are our twin origin myths, one a story of great good fortune, the other an unfathomable tragedy. But there was also a third stage to the Eastern European Jewish exodus, comparable in scale to the first two, yet much less central to our historical imagination. In 1945, after all, there were still some 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union—the world’s second-largest Jewish population, after the United States. Today, almost all those Jews and their descendants live in Israel or America. But as Gal Beckerman shows in When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), it was anything but guaranteed that this huge remnant of Eastern European Jewry would survive as Jews. At times, it seemed possible they would not survive at all.

Beckerman’s riveting and important book shows that it took the grass-roots efforts of Jews around the world, as well as the power of the American government, to bring this story to a happy ending. If the movement to “save Soviet Jewry” is not well remembered, Beckerman writes, it is because “it is a victim of its own success.” Now that he has told the story so well, however, it will surely take its rightful place as one of the greatest dramas in modern Jewish history.

Beckerman is a reporter at The Forward, and When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone is, in the first place, an impressive work of reporting. The story he chose to tell spans four decades and three continents: from the 1950s through the 1980s, activists in the USSR, the United States, and Israel were all working for the cause of Soviet Jewry. What’s more, their campaign intersected with Cold War politics at the highest level: The struggle ended only with the fall of the Soviet Union and may even have played a minor role in causing that fall. This means that Beckerman has to braid together hundreds of individual stories, large and small. The characters in this book include Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and Scoop Jackson and Richard Perle, Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev, Anatoly and Natasha Shcharansky, Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner.

But we also hear about less famous figures, whom Beckerman brings dramatically to life. The book opens in 1963 with Yosef Mendelevich, a Latvian Jewish teenager who joins an unofficial pilgrimage to Rumbuli, the wooded area outside Riga where the Nazis massacred 25,000 Jews in 1941. The mass grave was unmarked and untended, and a group of local Jews took it upon themselves to turn it into a memorial. It was Mendelevich’s first public Jewish act, and it would lead to a quarter-century of activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry—including a long stretch in prison. That was his punishment for taking part in one of the most dramatic and unlikely episodes in Beckerman’s epic: the attempted hijacking of a small plane, in 1970, in order to take 16 Jewish activists to freedom in Sweden. It was a mad undertaking, and the plot was broken up by the KGB before the plane was even boarded. But it sent a clear message to the world about the desperation of the refuseniks, Soviet Jews who had been denied permission to emigrate to Israel.

The link between the memory of the Holocaust and concern about the future of Soviet Jews, so pronounced in Mendelevich’s story, can also be seen in the American half of Beckerman’s tale. Lou Rosenbaum, a NASA engineer living in Cleveland, was politicized by reading Perfidy, Ben Hecht’s indictment of “the leaders of world Jewry” for their passivity in the face of the Holocaust. To Rosenbaum and Herb Caron, a local psychologist, guilt over what they perceived as American Jewish inaction—combined with admiration for the right-wing Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky—led them, in the early 1960s, to interest themselves in the plight of Soviet Jews. Here was a cause that would allow American Jews to redeem themselves by asserting themselves. It is no coincidence that the organization Rosenbaum and Caron founded—the Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism, the nucleus of what would become the nationwide Union of Councils for Soviet Jews—was conceived as a goad to the American Jewish establishment, a militant grassroots alternative to the cautious American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry.

In general, Beckerman sees the growing concern for Soviet Jewry in the 1960s as part of a generational shift in American Jewish identity. For Jews alienated by the militant later stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the cause of Soviet Jewry offered another way to fight for human rights, this time in a specifically Jewish context. For Jews troubled by the blandness and assimilation of postwar suburban life, it offered a new, more active and public Jewish identity. For young people navigating the counterculture of the 1960s, it offered a mass movement with charismatic leaders like Yaakov Birnbaum, the eccentric, unworldly founder of Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and Shlomo Carlebach, the “singing, dancing hippie rabbi” who composed the movement’s anthem, “Am Yisrael Chai.” Then there was Meir Kahane, whose quasi-fascist Jewish Defense League switched from driving “around black Brooklyn neighborhoods swinging chains out their windows and yelling through megaphones about the schvartzes” to picketing the Soviet consulate in Manhattan and vandalizing the offices of TASS and Aeroflot. Finally, JDL thugs bombed the office of Sol Hurok, a Jewish impresario whose crime was to have done business with the Bolshoi Ballet. (The sole victim of that bombing was a Jewish secretary from Long Island.)

Cleverly, Beckerman counterpoints Kahane’s self-aggrandizing and reckless violence with the deeply disciplined resistance of the Soviet Jews themselves. To become a refusenik, Beckerman shows, was to make a frightening leap outside the boundaries of Soviet society. The process of emigrating was turned into a diabolical ordeal, built around a set of catch-22s. To get a visa to go to Israel, you needed a character reference from your employer; but when you told your employer why you needed the reference, you were certain to be fired; and once you were fired, you could be sent to jail for the crime of “parasitism.” Anyone who had ever worked for a scientific or defense agency—and a good number of Soviet Jews were scientists and engineers—could be refused a visa on grounds of national security. In time, the Soviets introduced an “education tax,” requiring anyone with a higher education to reimburse the state before emigrating—the fees were prohibitively high and functioned as an effective ban. And the most vocal activists, like Shcharansky, could be given long jail terms for conspiring against the state.

That so many Jews persisted to trying to emigrate to Israel, despite the obstacles, was a testament both to their heroic resolve and to the awfulness of conditions in the USSR. Yet among Soviet Jews, too, there were divisions and rivalries. To the politiki, the best way to serve the Jewish community was to fight the state for the right to emigrate. To the kulturniki, it seemed more urgent to instill Jewish identity, for instance by teaching Hebrew, and if possible to get the state to accommodate these activities. (Only a tiny handful of the refuseniks were interested in becoming religious Jews. Ironically, Beckerman notes, they were treated more leniently by the state, probably because the USSR could not take Orthodox Judaism seriously as a threat.)

And during the unpredictable periods when the USSR decided to let out thousands of Jews, it became clear that many of them did not actually want to go to Israel at all. Once they got to Vienna, where Soviet refugees were processed, increasing numbers renounced their Israeli visas and chose to go to America, instead—to the consternation of the Israelis, who looked at Russian Jewry as an essential demographic resource. But when the Israeli government tried to force the so-called “dropouts” to go to Israel, the reaction from American Jewry was indignant. Wasn’t the whole campaign for Soviet Jewry based on the idea that freedom of emigration was a human right? And if the Israelis really thought that a Jew was obligated to live in Israel, what did that imply about American Jews themselves?

As Beckerman shows, these cross-cutting tensions—between religious and secular Jews, Americans and Soviets and Israelis, establishment and grassroots, even between the U.S. Congress and the State Department—never went away. But they also never stopped the movement from pressing towards its goal. To Beckerman, in fact, one of the most important lessons of the “struggle for Soviet Jewry” is that American Jews should not be embarrassed to use their voice, and their influence, on behalf of specifically Jewish goals. In “this triumphant story,” he concludes, “Jews grabbed history and changed its course.” Today, when American Jews seem “too fractured to ever rally together again,” When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone is a timely reminder of how much can be achieved by a community united in the pursuit of justice.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.