From the History of
the Jewish Movement
What Was Written
about Us by the Press
Interview with MARVIN VERMAN
Marvin Verman: My family background suited me perfectly for the Soviet Jewry movement. My parents, Sam and Rose, immigrated to America and Canada in their twenties in the twenties. My father was from Soroka, a large town in Bessarabia, then Romania, and my mother came from a Ukrainian shtetl, Velikaya Kosnitza, just across the Dneister River from Bessarabia. My mother's maiden name was Kisnitzer, evidently named after the town.
One of the most ironic experiences of my life occurred in 2003. The University of Pennsylvania has a Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Every year this Center has a theme and invites scholars from all over the world to do research and discuss their work. That year the theme was "Eastern European Jewry: 1600-2000." In attending many of the scholar's seminars, I became friendly with several. One was Zvi Gitelman from the University of Michigan, an excellent historian of Russian Jewry. I told Zvi about my unsuccessful informational searches, such as Yad Vashem and the computer, to locate Velikaya Kosnitza. Zvi generously offered to help after he left Philadelphia and I enthusiastically told my mother of this new possibility. She was very excited.
Zvi Gitelman left Philadelphia to teach in Leningrad. In a used book store he found a small book, "100 Shtetls", which included Velikaya Kosnitza. His translation sent to me mentioned the mill owned by my grandfather. Zvi's information arrived the week after my mother died. I just couldn't believe the timing after all these years. The irony continues to haunt me.
Aba Taratuta: How old was your mother?
M.V.: She was almost 95. My parents both died in their 90's. I know very few people whose parents both lived into their 90's. I consider myself very fortunate.
My mother's father, Solomon Kisnitzer, was killed in a pogrom, approximately 1920. Evidently, it was during the White Russian pogroms which were widespread in the Ukraine during this time. My mother, about twelve years old, still vividly remembers the soldier's shouts, "KILL THE JEWS AND SAVE RUSSIA". At times my mother said her father was killed in front of her and at other times that he was taken away never to be seen again. Late in life, when she was about eighty, she told me if her father hadn't been killed she could have been a pharmacist. The traumatic event of the pogrom never left her consciousness. For example, the Scud attacks on Israel during the Gulf War and a partial viewing of "Schindler's List" caused her to have panic attacks.
All her life my mother was never able to forget the enormously painful crisis of that period. She had to flee her home town with her mother and younger sister and brother across the Dniester River to Romania. I believe they fled in a hay wagon. Upon arrival her mother bought a boarding house where they struggled to make a living. Money was devaluated and the situation became untenable. At sixteen, my mother was the first to leave, alone, for Halifax, Canada and then on to Toronto to live with a relative. Her mother and sister followed to Toronto but her brother had to be left at the Belgian port due to a misdiagnosed case of glaucoma. He survived the Second World War immigrating to Pittsburgh with his family in 1950.
My father, faced with being drafted into the Romanian Army, applied for immigration to Palestine. No permission was received. However, at the age of twenty, he left for the United States settling in Pittsburgh where his uncle had preceded him. Two weeks after arriving in Pittsburgh he received the permission for Palestine.
My parents met at the Soroka Maccabee Sports Club when they were fifteen and twelve. It was an early romance. Later, though separated in Pittsburgh and Toronto, distance did not quell the attraction. My father went to Toronto for their 1931 wedding and they both returned to Pittsburgh to start a new life together. As an aside, the boy who played the violin at their wedding came to visit my mother a few years before she died. I was there and it was such an emotional experience.
The Soviet Jewry Movement fit me perfectly for three main reasons:
My parents were active Labor Zionists. Having gone to an overnight Zionist camp since the age of five, I was oriented toward Israel from an early age. Since getting people to Israel had always been an integral part of our family's core beliefs, my Philadelphia involvement with the Israel Aliyah Center and Philadelphia Volunteers for Israel organizations focused on getting Jews to Israel, was a natural evolution.
Therefore, when the opportunity to be directly involved in the Soviet Jewry movement was presented, I was prepared. In 1977 my wife and I were asked if we would go to the Soviet Union as shlichim. We agreed and were accepted. We were to leave in August but two weeks before our departure my father-in-law was hospitalized with a heart attack. He knew we were to leave shortly for the Soviet Union and why. He told us, "No matter what happens to me, you must still go on the trip". A few days later, he died. In a week and a half, we left for the Soviet Union. The representative from the State of Israel asked us to go to Moscow, Leningrad and Minsk. My father still had relatives in Kishinev, his mother's sister, her son and his family. The daughter and her family had emigrated to Israel. I asked to go to Kishinev and it was agreed. I said, "Thank you very much for sending us to Kishinev". He replied, "Thank you very much for wanting to go to Kishinev."
The two week trip to the Soviet Union began in Leningrad August 5, a Friday afternoon. Our three contacts were: Ginsburg, Epshtein and Taratuta. That night we visited our first refusenik, Eleanora Ginsburg. We were to check on a book delivery system which used the ferry between the Baltic States and Leningrad. We had to transport these books to Kishinev and also learn if they were being transported to Minsk. "We've come to take the books to Kishinev". Eleanora replied, - "I've never been to Kishinev so I'm going to take the books". Our first major responsibility came to an end in the first minutes of our first visit.
Saturday morning we went to the Leningrad synagogue where I had a most unusual experience. The first individual I ever met who had visited the Soviet Union, in the fifties, was my father's friend, Mitchell Kaufman, a clothing store owner. (When Ben Gurion first came to Pittsburgh in the 30's to speak, several Pittsburgh leaders thought he must be better dressed so they outfitted him at Kaufman's store.) Upon his return he related this experience in the Leningrad Synagogue.
Shortly after entering the synagogue he was approached by a man who engaged him in conversation. During this talk the American visitor was warned to stay away from that man over there with the red beard. "He works for the KGB". Later the man with the red beard began to talk with Mitchell. "I hope you didn't tell that man you were just talking to anything. He works for the KGB." Approximately twenty years later, I had the same experience in the Leningrad Synagogue.
We met Epshtein in front of the Synagogue after services. He was leaving for holiday and could not see us again.
Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening was spent with the two of you, Aba and Ida Taratuta, the beginning of a friendship to this day. We reviewed the current situation, discussing refusenik needs, dissension due to blue jean distribution, and the appearance only a week earlier of “Oleh Hadash Wants to Know”, a book in Russian which you warmly praised and wanted more copies. In addition, “Elef Milim”, any of the Aliyah series and maps of Israel in Russian were also requested. Finally, you complained of Israel's lack of support. Here we were, citizens of one country, sent to a second country by a third country. Unfortunately, we couldn't say a word about who sent us.
We also met Michael Nosovsky in your apartment. He felt the taped interviews with recent Russian immigrants are effective in informing Soviet Jews about life in Israel. He suggested letters by new immigrants would also be useful.
Additional visits, at your request, were to Felix Aronovich who was depressed due to separation from his family and the Furmans who were moving in with Aronovich. Their son, Lev, was away. Finally, you sent us to the Knokh family for an evening visit. We were the first Americans to visit them and they requested more visitors. Husband was very committed to aliyah and had traveled to Moscow to participate in an Autumn, 1976 demonstration.
Tuesday we arrived in Kishinev where our contacts were Yakubovich, Shwartsman and Starkman. Since my relatives lived near the Intourist Hotel, we went first to his apartment and then with him to the Yakubovich apartment which was filled with refuseniks. Discussion in Yiddish was general with strong emphasis on supporting only those who will go to Israel. “Oleh Hadash Wants To Know”, in Russian, would be helpful plus additional material for teaching Hebrew. There were five ulpanim with 5-15 students though they are not meeting over the summer.
The warm evening in the Yakubovich apartment required the windows to be opened. My cousin was terribly frightened. "This is a meeting. It is forbidden." The refuseniks were all calm. The contrast was very revealing.
Friday we arrived in Minsk where our contacts were: Ovsisher, Goldin, Khess and Luk. All, except Luk, had just been interrogated by a KGB agent from Moscow to connect Shcharansky and the aliyah movement. Ovsisher believed the Shcharansky case was a challenge to President Carter's human rights policy.
The first evening in Minsk we went to Ovsisher's apartment where he opened the door with Goldin standing next to him. We discussed the situation of Minsk refuseniks which numbered 20 families, 15 of whom intended to go to Israel. Previously, after weeks of discussion, a decision had been made to help only those who will make aliyah.
Ovsisher said he was carrying Minsk aliyah effort himself but now Goldin, who had excellent relationships with the 20-30 year old group, was being very helpful. Goldin arranged a meeting for us at Avraham Markman's apartment. There were 18 people present and these were some of the questions:
Goldin took us on a Jewish tour of Minsk. First stop was the synagogue, a shteibl. In the courtyard was a wood shed storing the winter's firewood. He said, "This is our power plant"!!! Gathering around us were a number of Jews who began to ask questions. I said, - "It is better to go to Israel than to sit on your tuchis in Minsk". After that remark, Goldin said I should be more careful of the KGB.
The tour continued down the main street in Minsk. We walked past an impressive building of Greek architecture, columns and portico. Goldin said this is now the Russian theatre but it used to be the Synagogue. As we walked by the building a couple walked toward us and then passed us. Goldin said that was a Jewish couple. I turned to look at them and they were looking up at the building.
Books which would be helpful were “Oleh Hadash Wants to Know”, and “Shlomo Kodesh” for the more religious. Goldin suggested a strong outside effort be made to help Ovsisher receive permission.
Rabbi Yaacov Rosenberg of Philadelphia, and later Jerusalem, had visited Minsk during Pesach, 1977. He was frequently mentioned as an important visitor who educated and was also good for morale. He was a unique role model of what a rabbi should be.
Monday we arrived in Moscow where our contacts were: Prestin, Abramovich and Essas. We had to work out a book distribution system from the pending first Moscow Book Fair to the refuseniks. It was a very primitive effort compared to the sophisticated efforts which evolved over the following years.
The first evening was spent with Essas who made arrangements for us to meet Prestin the following evening. Abramovich was out of town. Essas also arranged meetings with Benjamin Bogolmony and Vladimir Lazaris, both refuseniks.
Essas had great concern about the large numbers of Soviet Jews going to the United States. He called it "a tragedy for the Jewish people and for Israel". Characterizing these "nasherim" as "not Jews", he believed they would assimilate by choice in whatever country they lived, USA or USSR, etc. He urged us to request HIAS not to support Jews who do not want to go to Israel. In addition, he believed Voice of America broadcasts singling out Jews, not just other Russians, as adapting to American life is also very harmful to Israel's cause. The most effective books would be about absorption in Israel and “Oleh Hadash”.
Prestin discussed the problem of the "nasherim" though he disagreed with the Kishinev-Minsk policy of exclusion and helping only those who choose Israel. He agreed it is a problem but believed refuseniks cannot be treated differently because of their destination. He was struggling to find another way, his "dream" of legally challenging the Soviet state secrets policy so refuseniks could learn their rights as citizens of the USSR.
Bogolmony's parents, his only relatives, were in Israel. His priority was the separation of families. Copies of booklets on the subject were taken from his apartment by the KGB who continued to harass, follow and question him. He protested to Brezhnev about his treatment. Please write Congressman Peter Rodino about his separation of families' case was his plea to us.
Lazaris, a patent lawyer, was the only legal advisor for Moscow's refuseniks. Expressing skepticism about Prestin's "dream", saying it was an old idea to use former Soviet lawyers now in Israel. Lazaris expressed strong feelings about Soviet Jews emigrating to the USA where "American Jews are under the illusion they are saving Jewish souls". They go to the USA not because they want to be Jews but because they "hear the American Jewish community gives them so much material help".
A report of this August, 1977 trip also included these general observations:
I returned to Philadelphia determined to remain involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. Having learned on the trip of the growing number of Soviet Jews emigrating to the USA instead of Israel, I resolved to learn more about this issue. I began to attend meetings of the Philadelphia Soviet Jewry Council. Eventually I was asked to brief travelers and my responsibilities began to evolve.
A.T.: Were you on the Board?
M.V.: Yes, and I was also Vice-Chairman of the Philadelphia Soviet Jewry Council in charge of the travel program for about four years. Although I was asked to be Chairman of the Council, I refused. Some thought I could be more effective outside the Chairmanship. I never felt the personal need to be Chairman.
My experience in charge of the travel program was a positive one. Prioritizing travelers who could greatly benefit Soviet Jews became a main interest. Our travel committee's joint efforts placed Philadelphia in a respected position among other American Soviet Jewry groups. We were efficient and effective in our efforts. I believe that from your end in the USSR you recognized that also.
I finished my responsibilities in charge of the travel program in 1985. At that time I decided to return to the Soviet Union to learn how effective I had been and to learn more.
Once again, as on the first trip, we were briefed by a representative from Israel. However, this time the focus was the status of current discussions with the USSR on Soviet Jewish emigration. I was, once again, prepared and well informed.
My wife and I returned to the Soviet Union October 3-14, 1985 visiting Moscow, Leningrad, Kishinev and Kiev. In addition to the usual Soviet Jewry travel items we were to fulfill an unusual request. A Jewish woman in Baku, Azerbaijan was to marry but would do so only in a bridal gown made in Israel. We were to deliver the gown to refuseniks who would see that the gown would be delivered to Baku. At Kennedy Airport we were given the "package" and told that the dress buyer in Israel said, "I didn't even do this for my own wife."!!
The Moscow portion of this trip was focused mainly on the Prisoners of Zion, the Hebrew teachers and the refusenik scientists. In addition, there were meetings with individuals met previously in 1977 plus new contacts.
An intense discussion in the apartment of Misha and Oxanna Kholmiansky lasted from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. with Tanya Edelstein, Inna Begun and Mila Volvovsky regarding their Prisoners of Zion husbands and the Kholmiansky son, Misha. The main emphasis was on the common agreement that only the prisoner's relatives can speak for the prisoner. Therefore, discussion necessitated complete separation of each prisoner's families' presentation and requests. Their appeals were personally conveyed the next day to Dan Grossman, U.S. Consulate in Leningrad, who then sent the information to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
This dramatic experience with four prisoner's families at one setting was an emotional one. It resulted in my conviction that their situation must be an even higher priority in our actions on their behalf. Refuseniks constantly referred to the prisoners as the first priority. No doubt it was because anyone of them could be a prisoner tomorrow. We in the West, not vulnerable, had to understand and act appropriately on this priority.
The status of the Hebrew teachers was discussed at length with Yuli Kosherovsky. A detailed review of the present discussions between the West and Soviet officials regarding Soviet Jewish emigration was conveyed. I had been well briefed on the subject. Finally, I raised the issue which had plagued me since my first trip in 1977, the destination of Soviet Jews. Yuli said they had also been divided on this issue but were now united on Israel. However, he did not want this controversy to sap the strength of the movement though he did raise the issue of shtadlanut, the intercession of American Jews with their free emigration/human rights beliefs against the Soviet Jews, united with Israel, on repatriation to the historic homeland. He wisely said, - "There is enough to do for everyone".
Several refusenik scientists, Victor Brailovsky, Alec Ioffe and Mark Friedland met us in Yaacov Alpert's apartment to discuss a proposed scientific seminar. This was to be held in Tel Aviv in September, 1986 and to be co-chaired by Voronel and Azbel, former refusenik scientists now in Israel. In preparation for the Tel Aviv seminar they wanted to enhance their Moscow scientific seminars and prepared for us the following statement:
Note: The refusenik scientific seminar in Moscow was visited by 42 scientists this past year. However, only 2 were from the United States. How painful it was to hear that report.
Reunions from the 1977 trip were held with Vladimir and Elena Prestin and Benyamin Bogolmony while new contacts were established, in addition to those already mentioned, with many others: Yelena Dubianskaya and Eric Hassin, Andre Lifshitz, Vladimir and Masha Slepak, Valery Lerner, Mark Tarshis, Alexander Messerman, Mikhail Khaikin, Vladimir Lifshitz Boris Klotz, Victor Fulmacht, Pasha and Marta Abramovich, and Lev Blitstein.
Moscow Experiences of Special Interest
Simchat Torah in 1985 once again attracted a mass gathering of Jews in and out of the synagogue.The refuseniks drifted in and out of the smaller synagogue where the more orthodox, Shifrins and Essas, were involved while Inna Begun served refreshments.
In the packed main sanctuary the fervor was expressed through the vigorous singing of Am Israel Hai, Mazel Tov and Simen Tov and others. However, the most intensity was reserved for the carrying of the Torah around the synagogue's interior. I have never seen such desperate lunging to touch the Torah. It remains an image for a lifetime. Outside Jewish music lightly floated out of the shadows next to synagogue steps. In the packed street a guitarist played the full range of Israeli songs surrounded by many familiar with all the words. Another, holding a tape recorder playing Israeli music, was a focus for dancing. The street was a place for Jews to see their fellow Jews and to be seen in return. The refuseniks said that this year, for the first time, Jews began to congregate outside the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.
The Slepaks hosted a dinner for six refuseniks and we brought houmous, techina, pita and felafel. After this dinner, Slepak leaned back in his chair and said, "After such a wonderful dinner I have decided to go to Israel".
Boris Klotz was a new contact on this trip and I had a special interest in meeting him. During my responsibilities with Philadelphia's travel program I learned that he discovered his Jewish identity by reading Issac Bashevis Singer. I was briefing a young man who wished to visit refuseniks but I was having difficulty finding what benefits he could bring to his trip other than his Beatles interests. "Well my cousin is Isaac Bashevis Singer's secretary" - opened up the opportunity and he took several autographed books to Klotz. Years later during a Philadelphia visit Boris added a new insight into our travel efforts. He said refuseniks met other refuseniks that they had not known due to the visits of western tourists and it helped to strengthen them.
"Did you also feel the same way?" - I asked the Taratutas.
A.T. & IDA T.: Yes, that is one of the reasons.
IDA T.: We also felt ourselves defended because of the American visitors. Therefore, the Soviet power could not do everything to us that they would have liked because we were known through you. So it was very important.
M.V.: That is one thing we knew, that if the Soviets knew that the West knew, then you had some protection.
Tuesday morning, October 8th, we arrived in Leningrad after an overnight train ride. The first stop was the U.S. Consulate to convey the Moscow Prisoners of Zion families' pleas with emphasis on the pending Volvovsky trial. I left the consulate full of pride in the American government's commitment to aiding Soviet Jews by placing the able Dan Grossman in his diplomatic position.
The afternoon was spent with Lev Furman who we missed on our first trip. Plans were made for a gathering at his apartment the next night, among other things.
That evening, in the midst of all the pain of being in refusal, a spirited event took place, the Bat-Mitzvah of Rahel Genusov in their apartment. Rahel presented a discourse on the holidays using Israeli slides as a focus. It was a very mature effort. Sharing the event with her were 6-7 of her peers plus a number of other refuseniks: the Zeligers, Radomisilskys, Karolins, Taratutas, Nelly Speizman, Sasha Roseman and Lev Furman. Dan Grossman of the U.S. Consulate was also present with the Vice Consul, also a Jew, his wife and child.
The celebration was warm and caring, a special event. A lavish meal was served more typical of American food availability than anything we had ever seen in the Soviet Union.
We left Rahel an American Indian made ring with a Jewish star belonging to our daughter.
Dan Grossman offered to drive us back to the hotel but cautioned us about conversing in his car. Mikhail Beizer was also offered a ride but declined. I thought at the time that he knew better.
The next morning and afternoon was spent with the two of you, the Taratutas. You told us the most wonderful story which has stayed with me all these years. As you know, I love to tell it, though you may have also placed it somewhere in the archives, I will repeat it.
In 1963 the Taratutas had not the slightest Jewish consciousness. Ida had just received a job promotion so they decided to celebrate with another couple. They went to a restaurant and were seated at a table for 4. Next to them, though separated by a large table plant, was a table for 2. A man and his 14 year old daughter were seated here for dinner. As the evening passed conversations began between those seated at the two tables. It was discovered the man was from the Israeli Embassy in Moscow and he was showing his daughter the city of Leningrad. At the evening's end he gave the Taratutas an Israeli key chain and a cigarette lighter. At this point in the story, Aba got up, went to a cabinet and produced the cigarette lighter. It still played "Hatikvah".
The Taratutas asked that travelers bring Magen Davids, maps of Israel, calendars and modern Israeli music. They believed these items are "seeds" sown to plant Jewish consciousness as the key chain and cigarette lighter were for them in 1963.
The evening was spent at Lev Furman's apartment conveying the latest political developments regarding Soviet Jewish emigration. In attendance were: Josef Radomisilsky, Sasha Roseman, Boris Vainerman, Yuli Karolin, Lev Shapiro, Speizmans, Gregory Genusov, Leonid Raskin (doctor for refuseniks) and Alexander Kogan from Kishinev. In addition, Joe and Debbie Briscoe who came from Dublin to visit refuseniks, were also present.
The last day in Leningrad was spent with Lev Furman in the morning. We had to drop off a walkman and five music tapes for Ida Nudel. He was leaving to visit her. The afternoon was spent in Evgeny Lein's apartment and then onto Yaacov Gorodetsky's apartment. A visit to Abram Kagan and Lev Shapiro were scheduled for the evening but it never happened as the KGB intervened.
Late in the afternoon, after three full days, we were summoned to the office of the Europeskaya Hotel director by two English speaking service bureau women. The director, speaking in Russian and translated by one of the women who remained, asked:
- How do you like Leningrad?
- How do you like the Hotel?
Referring to the only piece of paper on his desk he said essentially the following:
- We know you were here in 1977 visiting Jews (I had never been warned before so they evidently checked my visa application). - The Jews are political and not good to visit. We have no evidence that you are doing this now but wanted to advise you against it.
The director distinctly said KGB but the translator never mentioned it. I thanked him for his advice and assured him we wanted good relations between our two peoples. I added that I believed he also wanted the same good relations. I shook his hand and we parted. The woman accompanied us out and in the hallway regretfully said there were so many other good things to talk about instead of this. We agreed. I returned to the translator at the service bureau
15 minutes later to see if I could gain a better insight into the situation. I asked if it were not permitted to visit Soviet citizens. She answered: "It was permitted but I don't know what kind of citizens you were visiting". Pushing it further I asked if I could visit my last night in Leningrad. She said maybe it was only a light warning.
I called Dan Grossman of the U.S. Consulate at home to see if he was free to spend the evening. He had said to call anytime if there was a problem. He was not free. We reviewed the situation and his advice was to desist due to recent other warnings and the recent expulsion of a Swiss tourist. I agreed and he offered to convey the necessary explanations to Lev Shapiro and I called the Kagans.
Simchat Torah in Leningrad according to refuseniks attracted a greater crowd than ever with the largest increase in young people. The tradition, since 1977, of holding up a sign announcing the number to be called for Hebrew lessons was continued this year. However, there were two additions: the ad for Hebrew lessons covered the sign's top half while underneath was the announcement of Chanukah and its date. Second, small pieces of paper were passed out in the crowd announcing day, time and Metro station where one could sign up for Hebrew lessons. The following day 20 new students appeared at the designated Metro stations.
The next morning we flew to Kishinev. My relative, not a refusenik, lived nearby on the same street as our Intourist Hotel. My father had written weeks before that we were coming but no one was home. We wandered the street around their apartment building and I noticed a young woman different than the others. Dressed in designer jeans and better groomed, she was standing still while all others were moving. At our second attempt to find anyone home she entered the building ahead of us to identify the apartment. I made no attempt to deceive as there was nothing to hide.
Shortly thereafter my relative appeared on the street and we waited for him to enter the building before ringing his bell. In less than an hour a uniformed policeman appeared at his door to inquire about us. I was not surprised. He asked for everyone's passport and announced that we had been followed from Moscow. He proceeded to write a report. My relative then really went after him demanding where it is written that Soviet citizens cannot have foreign visitors. The official began to back down and my relative insisted on adding his own version to the report before signing it. At the end the policeman meekly asked if the neighbor's were also good citizens like him. He said he might knock on a few doors just to check and left. My relative said, "It is just a game".
This Kishinev experience, added to the Leningrad warning, was a clear indication that any Jewish activity on our next stop, Kiev, would possibly result in our expulsion from the Soviet Union. I did not want this to happen. Therefore, Kiev was wasted and my desire to meet Lev Elbert, a refusenik I admired, was not to be. However, we did finally meet several years later, after he received permission, when he visited Philadelphia from Israel.
The final day of this trip was a return to Moscow where, without any incidents, we completed shopping at the Rossiya Beriozka for Hebrew teacher supplies and delivered all items to Yuli Kosherovsky and Tanya Edelstein in the evening.
My last trip to the Soviet Union, without my wife, was in December, 1989 when I attended the Moscow convening of the first Va'ad since, I believe, the 1917 revolution. I was part of a five person delegation from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. On the previous trips I felt myself a player in a great Jewish drama but here, unfortunately, I expected to be only an observer. However, unusual events unfolded which added, surprisingly, to the special significance of the trip.
The first surprise was the arrival at the Moscow Airport. Previously, in 1977 and 1985, all our efforts were to be as "innocent" as possible while we tried to pass through Soviet customs with Jewish items in our luggage. This time I could not believe what I saw. There were individuals carrying large signs: "JEWS WELCOME TO THE VA'AD MEETING, WELCOME TO MOSCOW" and the greatest surprise of all, a sign by the Human Rights Organization of the Ukraine, "RUKH WELCOMES JEWISH VISITOR'S TO THE VA'AD".
The next surprise, also involving signs but expressing a completely different message, occurred outside the Va'ad meeting hall on the first day. The right wing Soviet group, Pamyat, was picketing. One sign showed the swastika = Zionism. I was infuriated.
Several days later four members of our group met in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Deputy Foreign Minister Adamishin and Minister of Human Rights Reshetov. They were seated on one side of the table each with a staff member. Opposite sat the four of us, Shoshana Cardin, Chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and Martin Wenick, its Executive Director, Richard Maas, the First Chairman of the National Conference and myself. During the meeting I asked the Soviet Ministers about the Pamyat demonstration and especially the swastika=Zionism signs. No answer. To this day I remain surprised about my next comment because it just came out of me without any forethought. "Our two peoples suffered more than any other people in the Second World War. How can you allow this kind of thing, these signs in the Soviet Union?" I expected the usual answer, that is, "We have freedom of speech". They said nothing. For me, at that time, it was very revealing of their beliefs. Years later I told this story to several academics of Soviet history. Their answer was not what I expected. "The reason they did not answer you was that no one had ever talked to them that way".
We came out of the meeting with the Soviet Ministers and Shoshana Cardin said to me, "Marvin, you were really good in there". I said, “Shoshana, you were good too". She said she wanted me to be on the Board of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry though she did not know that I had been attending both Executive Committee and Board meetings for several years as a guest. I wasn't looking for titles.
The Va'ad provided several emotional moments for me. During a resolution debate focused on how to survive in the Soviet Union with Anti-Semitism, an individual stood up and proclaimed, "We don't want to survive, we want to live". It was a high point. Several former refuseniks were present including Begun and Slepak. When Slepak first appeared on the stage, a continuous rhythmic clapping began, the only time in the Va'ad.
One day during the Va'ad we went to Sakharov's funeral. Held in a large open field with the display of many Russian, not Soviet flags, the speakers begged his forgiveness for not defending him when he was alive.
I remain happy that I never returned to the Former Soviet Union.
My participation in the Soviet Jewry movement also extended to an active involvement in The National Conference on Soviet Jewry, the more establishment organization of engaged American Jews. Though my intense commitment to Soviet Jewish emigration to Israel was never embraced by the NCSJ, I did, however, achieve some success in presenting my views. I was tolerated. Invited to address the Executive Committee of the National Conference I used the opportunity to draw the clear distinctions between their viewpoint, that is, free emigration, freedom of choice and human rights with those of the refuseniks and the State of Israel, that is, repatriation to the historic homeland. It was, I felt, an "American" point of view clashing with a "Jewish" point of view. After my presentation, Morris Abram, the respected and able Chairman of the National Conference, gave me a warm compliment to which I quickly replied, "Thank you but what's next?” "We will have to form a committee" was his reply but it never happened.
This experience directly relates to a discussion which occurred a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the Israeli Center for Special Studies, a unique "living monument" originally created to honor those who died in intelligence, there was a briefing by the head of Military Intelligence. It was late getting started. I was sitting with David Bartov, former head of the "Lishkat". He leaned over to me and said, "You should be very proud to have been involved in the Soviet Jewry movement. After the establishment of the State of Israel, getting the Jews out of the Soviet Union was the second greatest accomplishment of the Jewish people in the 20th century". I replied, "I am very proud of having been involved but you should also be very proud for what you did. However, the one thing that bothered me in all my efforts was that I was never able to convince any American Jewish leader or organization of the priority of the Soviet Jews going to Israel. None ever stood up publicly in America to say this". David Bartov said, "You are wrong". Shocked when he said one American Jewish leader did, I asked "Who?", and he replied, "Morris Abram".
My response was, "David, I had a very good relationship with Morris. During our time together in the National Conference he wrote me a note that I should stay close to him, that he learns from me". Then I asked, "Where did you hear Morris say the priority should be emigration to Israel?" Bartov said, "I heard him say it in London". I quickly responded, "He may have said it in London but he never said it in New York or Washington". This remains very revealing for me.
The irony in this contentious discussion on Soviet Jewish destination is that one American leader, a non-Jew, did publicly advocate priority emigration to Israel, Secretary of State George Shultz. No American Jewish leader would do the same.
The large decline in Soviet Jewish emigration after the 1979 high introduced a confusing period into the movement. How can the "gates" be opened again? My thought was to send a special negotiator to the Soviet Union and I discussed this idea with Morris Abram and Jerry Goodman, Executive Director of the National Conference. They agreed and it is my understanding that they, in turn, also discussed this possibility with Lawrence Eagleberger, former Assistant Secretary of State and then Secretary of State in the first Bush Administration. I do not believe he ever undertook this responsibility.
A proposed special negotiator was also proposed by me in writing to the Israeli government. I later learned that a well known Jewish leader did ask to be sent as this special negotiator securing the approval of Prime Minister Shimon Peres. David Bartov was against this appointment but Peres went ahead. After this individual returned from the Soviet Union, Peres told Bartov, "You were right".
An early 1980's experience with the National Conference on Soviet Jewry has relevance even today. Richard Pipes, head of the Russian desk at the National Security Council, was invited to give his first public speech. America's policy was to democratize the Soviet Union and then the Soviet Jews can get out was his main point. This was not well received. There was hostile questioning revolving around waiting for this collapse of the Soviet system. Today over one million Soviet Jews have gotten out but the FSU is still not a democracy. A similar expectation is being promoted today, that is, peace between Israel and the Arab nations will be possible when these Arab nations become democracies.
A.T.: What about Student Struggle?
M.V.: Student Struggle was associated with the Union of Councils which evolved into more of a human rights organization. Their joint priorities were free emigration, freedom of choice and human rights, worthy American issues. However, the Jewish/refusenik issue was also a worthy issue but something else: Jewish identity expressing itself in "aliyah", a return to the historic homeland. Therefore, I felt the American Jewish Soviet Jewry organizations were "Americanizing" somebody else's movement. It was "shtadlanut" as expressed by Kosherovsky in Moscow in 1985. This "Americanizing", nevertheless, played very well in the American Jewish community.
A.T.: How did you manage to be so educated, that you understood Russian policy, Russian government?
IDA T.: You were the only one who understood this system of being in refusal and all this Soviet system. Even Russian Jews who wanted to leave did not understand what was happening. But you were the only one. People asked rather silly questions about the system.
M.V.: My understanding of the Soviet System came from two sources. First, my experience with you and other refuseniks. You both explained to me that "the Soviet Union has laws but it is not a nation of laws". Second, was the Soviet policy of repatriation. This policy, in existence since the end of the Second World War, was created by the Soviets to return to their homeland Soviet citizens displaced by the war. In contrast, human rights, free emigration and freedom of choice were alien and hostile policies, a perceived threat to their system, but the West was determined to impose them.
"We do not want to change the Soviet Union but only to leave it" was the clear refusenik position. Therefore, the challenge for the Soviet Jewry movement was not only to respect this position but also find the "key" to their emigration. Repatriation to the historic homeland, a recognized non-threatening Soviet policy, was the "key" for me.
The pressure for Soviet Jewry activism, of course, always came first from the courage of the refuseniks. However, additional pressures for immigration to Israel were also rooted in the needs of the Jewish people, an important priority for me. The two main questions were: What are the priorities of the Jewish people, and second, how can we assure the Jewish future of Soviet Jews? Since Lenin Soviet policy was to replace Jewish identity with Soviet ideology, an effort which was, unfortunately, somewhat successful. Soviet Jews were thought lost to the Jewish people until the Six Day War changed the dynamics and began the drama of the Soviet Jewry movement. "Aliyah" would restore Jewish identity with life in a Jewish nation which possessed the necessary "spiritual renewal power". In turn, this long sought "Aliyah" would greatly improve the demographics and, therefore, security of Israel.
IDA T.: Are you in contact with refuseniks from your former visits?
M.V.: We had a Jerusalem apartment a few years ago at the time of the elections. "Israel b'Aliyah" had won eight seats and we made a small party to celebrate. David and Esther Bartov, Yuli and Tanya Edelstein, Yuli Kosharovsky, Mark and Eleonora Tarshis, Enid and Stuart Wurtman, and a Canadian named Weinberg who won the 8th seat came.
I kept in touch with Ilya Goldin for we got along very well. I used to call him "The Minsk Mapamnik" because he was on the left. Not many Soviet Jews were in that political category. I haven't seen him for many years but I intend to reconnect.
I value the friendship with the two of you, the Taratutas, and try to stay connected. In addition, I have been in touch with Yuli Kosherovsky and the Slepaks.
There were two unusual experiences with the Slepaks which bear repeating. The first, an emotional one, occurred during a visit to Philadelphia's Independence Hall with a mutual friend, Norman Leventhal. A B'nai Brith youth group was also visiting the historic site. As we all emerged into the fading light, Norman introduced the Slepaks to the youth group. Immediately, many members held up their arms revealing their inscribed bracelets with names of refuseniks. Then a most remarkable event occurred as they all spontaneously began to sing "Hatikvah".
The second experience, in Jerusalem, was a lunch in our garden for Volodya Slepak and Tel Friedgut, our next door neighbor. A Professor of Russian History at Hebrew University, Ted had received permission to visit the Moscow Soviet Archives which had just opened. Would Ted use his opportunity in the archives to research why Slepak's father was protected all those years? How did he survive against all odds? A stimulating discussion that lasted from 12 till 5 explored the subject. Ted agreed but the night before departure his daughter was rushed to the hospital and his trip was aborted. The mystery remains as does Tel Friedgut's interest to pursue the subject and write the story.
A.T.: Now, please explain about your wife's background and experience.
M.V.: Leila does not have the family background that I have but she was very willing to go. Even when her father in the hospital said that no matter what happens, she was prepared to go. She hated the Soviet Union but I don't know anybody who loved the Soviet Union. However, she understood the importance of what we were doing and was not scared. She handled herself very well. Upon return to Philadelphia, she never became fully involved in the Philadelphia Soviet Jewry movement.
Events have occurred and insights have been gained since the end of the Soviet Jewry movement that also have a place at the end of this interview.
1. My beliefs regarding the priority of Soviet Jewry emigration to Israel never gained any support in the Soviet Jewry movement, either in Philadelphia or in the National Conference. Why couldn't I have been more effective continues to annoy me. Looking back, had I been smarter, I should have reframed the discussion as follows: In the Soviet Union to stand up and say you wanted to go to Israel was all risk. You could never know what would happen to you. Some Soviet Jews suffered terribly for this belief. In contrast, in America to stand up and say that the Soviet Jews should go to Israel, as they wanted to do, was no risk. Not one American Jewish leader or organizations would do it.
Here you have two Jewish communities. One, standing up with enormous courage, greatly admired by the other community, to do what was impossible in their own environment, and the second, failing to stand up and do what was possible in their own environment. All risk and no risk is worth a historian's attention as it is very revealing about the American Jewish community.
2. A two day review of the Soviet Jewry movement took place in New York City in June, 1995. Convened by Murray Friedman, Director of Temple University's Feinstein's Center for American Jewish History, all the major organizations were represented and many of the principal activists were also present. Periodically during the conference several individuals long aligned with the Union of Councils and Student Struggle continued to berate the National Conference just like years ago. Each was still trying, once again, to assert their opinions. These outbursts led me to introduce the question of lessons learned to the conference in the following way:
The Soviet Jewry movement gave the American Jewish community a second chance at rescue after the failures of the Holocaust. I referred to the concluding chapter, "Responsibility", in “The Abandonment of the Jews”, where David Wyman wrote:
"American Jewish leaders recognized that the best hope for rescue lay in a strong effort to induce the U.S. government to act. The obvious approaches were two: appeals to high government officials and a national campaign to publicize the mass killings with a view to directing public pressure on the Roosevelt Administration and Congress. Jewish leaders made progress in both directions, but their effectiveness was severely limited by their failure to create a united Jewish movement and by their lack of sustained action".
The Soviet Jewry movement was also not a completely united Jewish movement. However, there was a new found ability to produce sustained action which more than compensated for the lack of total unity. As Yuli Kosherovsky had wisely said, "There was enough for everyone to do".
This lingering question from both the Holocaust and now the Soviet Jewry movement regarding the unity and effectiveness of the American Jewish community was discussed at the conference lunch. It was a private conversation between myself and Richard Shifter, Head of the Human Rights office in the U.S. State Department. Raising the question of American Jewish influence on U.S. policy regarding Soviet Jewry, I was completely stunned by his answer. "We were just doing what the American Jewish community was asking us to do". What a change from the Holocaust years.
During the conference, in an open discussion, I raised a subject regarding the movement that I had never heard mentioned. Grass roots and establishment groups, both desiring to influence U.S. government efforts regarding Soviet Jewry, lobbied their Senators and Congressmen to visit refuseniks. These visits not helped protect the refuseniks but enabled American elected officials to personally experience the Soviet Union. They returned with a better understanding of America's adversary, the Soviet Union. Therefore, the Soviet Jewry movement also served America very well.
Nehemiah Levanon, former head of the "Lishkat" was also present at this New York conference. He was asked about the long conflict between the American Jewish community and Israel regarding the destination of Soviet Jews. "Can't we all be happy instead of still fighting with one another?" - was his answer. He seemed to feel that it was all over and he didn't want to deal with it any more. Finally, he said, "Can't Jews be happy".
3. Anita Shapira, respected Israeli Historian on Zionism, spent the 2004-5 academic year at Philadelphia's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. How best to write the history of the Soviet Jewry movement was the subject of several discussions with her. She correctly said that the appropriate writing of this dramatic struggle depended upon access to the Soviet archives. In addition, success depended upon former Soviet citizens now in Israel who were trained historians and would be comfortable in the Soviet archives. Furthermore, she said most former Soviet Jews in Israel, unfortunately, were not attracted to the humanities but to engineering. She believed this would change in the next 3-5 years and qualified historians might appear.
4. Finally, after all these years and all these words what remains in memory as the most fulfilling? There are two, personally and collectively.
Personally, the comments of Aba and Ida Taratuta and Yuli Kosherovsky to other Americans visiting them in Leningrad and Moscow that I was the most informed visitor to ever come to their cities. I am both humbled and proud of their comment.
Collectively, David Bartov's comment that the success of the Soviet Jewry movement was the Jewish people's greatest accomplishment, after the creation of the State of Israel, in the 20th century. I was very proud to have been a player in this great Jewish drama.
It is my hope that all who contribute to and use these archives will experience the same pride of purpose.
(Corrected by MARVIN VERMAN in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
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