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The Refusenik Exodus From Slavery to Freedom United the Jewish World and Brought Down the Soviet Union

What lessons can we learn from them today?

Izabella Tabarovsky
April 08, 2020
Esaias Baitel/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Soviet Jews arrive in the West Bank city of Ariel, 1990Esaias Baitel/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
This article is part of The Many Meanings of Freedom.
See the full collection →︎

The story of the refuseniks—Soviet Jews who were refused permission to emigrate and were often jailed and persecuted for having asked—and the global struggle for their freedom is one of the most momentous chapters in recent Jewish history. Rich in biblical symbolism, it is filled with drama and heroic action. It culminated with victory: a triumphant exodus of 1.5 million Jews from the Soviet Union. Yet in the three decades that have passed since then, efforts to transmit the story to the next generations have come to naught.

Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, an Israeli filmmaker and the daughter of celebrated refuseniks Sylva Zalmanson and Eduard Kuznetsov, first became aware of this failure as she began to tour with her award-winning 2016 documentary Operation Wedding. The film documents her parents’ participation in a daring 1970 plot to hijack an empty Soviet plane from an airfield outside Leningrad and fly it across the border to Europe. She noticed that the teens who showed up at her screenings lacked any historical context that would help them understand the film. “I had to explain everything from scratch—including the fact that people were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union,” she said.

Zalmanson-Kuznetsov, 40, remembers how the story gradually faded from public memory. As a child growing up in Israel, she experienced the glow of her parents’ fame firsthand. Just walking into class felt like a ceremony: “My teachers had been protesting for my parents’ release just a few years earlier,” she said. Yet when she began to research her parents’ story as a young filmmaker, she found that not a single film had been made about them.

Exactly why this story, which touched millions of Jews around the globe, has been so thoroughly forgotten has puzzled many over the years. Misha Galperin, interim CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, which is home to the exhibit Power of Protest: The Movement to Free Soviet Jewry, and which before the coronavirus crisis had planned to host a talk by Natan Sharansky on the lessons of the Soviet Jewry’s movement for today’s fight against anti-Semitism, thinks the reason may be that the participants in those events are still with us. “It was such a part of my life, it didn’t occur to me that it was part of history or something I needed to tell my children about,” he said. Echoing his musings, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov recalled having to push her parents to speak about their experiences. “Many of these people were heroes, but they didn’t know how to tell their story,” she said.

Refusenik women and their children, Moscow, Ovrazhki, 1979
Refusenik women and their children, Moscow, Ovrazhki, 1979Courtesy of Remember & Save

Part of the problem, though, is most certainly a failure to make the story of Soviet Jewry relevant to new generations of Jews, who have an obvious need for a story of an extraordinary rebirth of Jewish identity in a part of the diaspora that many had assumed was destined for cultural and spiritual annihilation. Behind the heroic grand narrative of a resistance struggle in a country that no longer exists on maps is a story about the why and how of the process of Jewish rediscovery which is both inherently powerful and also worthy of present-day reexploration and transmission. While American teenagers today might find it difficult to relate to a story of harassment of activist Jews by Soviet state police and imprisonment in the gulag, for each refusenik who experienced those ghastly hardships there were dozens whose drama was seemingly more prosaic yet more relatable. Kicked out of their jobs and familiar social circles, pushed to the margins of society, stuck in refusal for years and even decades, these largely assimilated Jews had to reinvent their lives in their newly narrowed circumstances.

What is so compelling about the refusniks’ story today is that so many of them chose to define themselves by delving into their Jewish identities and finding sources of strength, motivation, and optimism there. From friends of friends, they dug out the addresses of old men who had the secret knowledge of the Torah. They studied with them, then in turn taught others. Under the guise of camping, they organized expeditions to Holocaust mass graves and Hasidic sites and reported to others on what they saw. “It meant something to them to recover that sense of their Jewish selves, their Jewish identity and this connection with the tradition and the values, and to relate to one another on that basis,” said Ann Komaromi, associate professor of comparative literature at the University of Toronto, who worked with prominent refusenik activist Yuli Kosharovski on the English edition of his seminal work “We Are Jews Again”: Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union (2017).

It is this process of Jewish rediscovery that makes this story so important and relevant. “This is not just the story of Soviet Jews. It’s the story of our nation,” said Zalmanson-Kuznetsov. After she finished Operation Wedding, she realized that her mission was not yet over. “It’s about the whole story,” she said. “At the age of 15 or 16, children ask themselves questions like, how would I behave in that situation?” When you learn about it at that age, she said, it creates an impact.

Which is how the Refuseniks Project was born. The project is a collection of 30 lesson plans designed to help Jewish educators teach a variety of age groups. The lessons include video and music links, photographs, slide shows, and ideas for interactive learning. “With every lesson, I asked myself: How can I make it more engaging for the kids?” said Zalmanson-Kuznetsov.

The lessons, which are in English and available for free, in partnership with Bar Ilan University’s Lookstein Center for Jewish Education, are built around contemporary universal themes that students can relate to, such as social justice, political protest, women’s rights, or popular culture, as well as specifically Jewish and Israel-related topics that guide students to reflect on their own stories and Jewish identities. For example, the lesson “Present, Protest and Inspire” includes biographies of 16 Prisoners of Zion—prisoners of conscience who were punished with jail terms for Jewish activism—including a 9-month-old baby and a teenage girl whom the KGB kidnapped to prevent her from emigrating to Israel with her father. Students are asked to work in small groups to plan a protest on behalf of one of the refuseniks, then present the protest—which may be in the form of dance, a collage, or a song—to the rest of the class.

This article is part of The Many Meanings of Freedom.
See the full collection →︎

The lesson “Brainwashing and Fake News” includes a brief video of a 2004 interview with a former KGB official. In the interview, the official insists that the Soviet Union did not have a Jewish emigration problem and estimates the total number of people refused permission to emigrate at around 20. (The actual number is estimated at 30,000–40,000.) The lesson plan prompts students to consider how to “tell the difference between truth and a lie,” setting up a conversation about the very contemporary issue of fake news.

A number of educators have already given Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s curriculum a try. Nick Greene, who splits his time between acting and teaching at Valley Beth Shalom Conservative synagogue in Encino, California, picked two lessons to teach his eighth-grade students. They began with “Women of the Refuseniks.” The group watched a video about well-known female refuseniks such as Avital Sharansky, Ida Nudel, and Raiza Palatnik, and Western women’s campaign for Soviet Jewry including film stars such as Jane Fonda and Liv Ullman. “I thought it was a wonderful, modern sort of look at this,” said Greene. The lesson kicked off a discussion about what it would have meant to be not just a Jew but also a woman at that time in the Soviet Union.

Everybody knows six million died in the Holocaust. Everybody should know who a Prisoner of Zion is.

For the second lesson, Greene chose “Sing in Hebrew: Songs sung by captive Soviet Jews and by free Jews in Israel.” Students learned a well-known Israeli song, ”Kachol V’Lavan” (“Blue and White”), which was written in the 1960s by a 21-year-old refusenik, Israel Rashal. The song, whose lyrics express (in a simple and easily graspable Hebrew) a longing for Israel, became the refuseniks’ anthem. “The song is wonderful, and their being eighth-graders right now in this world, pop culture is so influential, and music is a big part of that,” said Greene. The lesson evolved into a discussion of the role of artists in today’s American society and the power of music as a means for personal and political expression. At the end of the lesson, the students performed the song together.

The universal themes of the lessons, such as political protest and artistic freedom, can be explored in other contexts, but exploring them in the Jewish context made it more personal for his students, Greene explained. “A number of our congregants’ ancestors were the Soviet Jews. A lot of them participated in the Soviet Jewry movement, so they have a personal experience with that.” But the material created points of reference for students of other cultural traditions as well. Students from the synagogue’s Persian families, who had their own family history of social upheaval, displacement and emigration, also could relate to it, Greene told me. Echoing his observation, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov recalled an Israeli teenager of Ethiopian descent who approached her after a lecture to tell her how much the story touched her and inspired her to work to bring her Ethiopian family to Israel.

Another way to create a personal and emotional link for students with the material is to invite a participant in those events to class. This was the approach that Debbie Chessin, educational director at Cleveland’s Reform Beth Israel-The West Temple synagogue, intended to take before the coronavirus pandemic put her plans on hold. Their synagogue had been at the forefront of the Soviet Jewry movement, and she had invited Herbert Caron, one of the leading activists in the movement, who is now 97, to come and share his story. “The stories will always be there, but to hear them from individuals, whether it’s a Holocaust survivor or someone who was a refusenik, it’s impactful,” said Chessin. (Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s “Bring Refuseniks or Activists to Class” lesson makes it easy to find such a guest speaker—including for a video link, if one doesn’t live nearby.)

The refuseniks’ stories teach lessons of courage and resilience, as well as commitment to one’s Jewish identity. Sharansky himself indirectly made this point in a recent lighthearted video in which he offered tips for handling a quarantine, based on his experience of spending nine years “quarantined” in a Soviet prison (half of them in solitary confinement). His tips—remember that you are part of a larger whole; don’t expect your circumstances to change for the better immediately; use your time productively—offer a model of endurance and mental strength under circumstances beyond one’s control that have obvious relevance to the experiences of billions of people around the world today, whether they are suffering under authoritarian regimes, or are victims of war, famine, or pandemics.

It is Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s belief that the refuseniks’ stories need to become household knowledge among Jews the same way that Holocaust is. “Everybody knows six million died in the Holocaust. Everybody should know who a Prisoner of Zion is.” Moreover, she emphasized the strong historical link between the Holocaust and the story of the Soviet Jewry movement. Her mother, for example, was part of a group of Jewish youth that used to gather decades after the war in the Rumbula Forest, where tens of thousands of Jews had been shot, to pick up litter from the abandoned graves. In Ukraine future refuseniks began their path by gathering at the site of the Babi Yar massacre in Kyiv, in defiance of official orders. Memory of the Holocaust is what prompted a rebirth of Jewish consciousness for them, and also was an important mobilizing factor for Jews abroad.

“It’s the last event that united practically all Jews, independent of their political interests and religious views,” said Nati Cantorovich, head of the Research and Information Department of Nativ, an Israeli government agency that played a critical role in the movement. Nativ is working to declassify some of its documents related to the era and to translate Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s site into Hebrew.

To stimulate further interest, Zalmanson-Kuznetsov has established a giveaway for educators who teach one or more lessons on the Soviet Jewry movement: prizes of $300, $700, and $1,000, to be awarded in an online raffle on June 7. (Jewish LearningWorks, a San Francisco Bay Area Jewish learning organization, is acting as a fiscal sponsor for the award.) Applications are due June 4, so teachers have several weeks to teach a lesson and enter the competition. Teaching this material while we all find ourselves in forced confinement may bring it even closer to home.

Izabella Tabarovsky is a Tablet contributor. Follow her on Twitter @IzaTabaro.