'When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone' Recounts the Story of Soviet Jews

Ben Wieder
Newsday (MCT)
One of the first signs that Gorbachev’s liberalization was affecting the refuseniks was this protest in March 1987. (book excerpt)

The first public face of Soviet Jewry was a 30-year-old radio engineer from outside Kiev; one of 90 people interviewed by Gal Beckerman for this comprehensive book.

When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 598 pages
Author: Gal Beckerman
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-09

The first public face of Soviet Jewry was a 30-year-old radio engineer from outside Kiev. After Boris Kochubievsky was arrested in 1967 for publicly supporting Israel, his face adorned "Free Kochubievsky!" buttons and posters distributed by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, a New York student group founded by Yaakov Birnbaum, a British spiritual seeker. He and Kochubievsky are two of the nearly 90 people interviewed by Gal Beckerman for his comprehensive and readable book When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.

Beckerman's narrative shifts primarily between the US and the Soviet Union, from 1963 until the fall of the Berlin Wall. We see Birnbaum's Washington Heights bedroom office, crowded with stacks of books, newspaper-stuffed manila folders and one malfunctioning typewriter. We hear "the screams from the electroshock rooms" in the mental hospital where Kochubievsky was sent between his arrest and trial in 1969. We enter the prison cell of human rights activist Natan Scharansky, as he weeps "out of hopelessness and grief" on the floor after learning of his father's death. His prison neighbor, another Jew, waits three days for the opportunity to toss him a crumpled scrap of paper containing the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, over the barbed-wire-topped wall.

The Soviet Union was "schizophrenic" in its handling of Jews, writes Beckerman, a reporter at the Forward. The socialist ideal was to eliminate all religious, national and ethnic differences. Yet Jews were labeled differently on identification cards, effectively barring them from certain universities and professions. During the post-Stalin "thaw" of the '60s, Jews who began applying in large numbers for exit visas to immigrate to Israel were even further stigmatized. The majority were rejected, earning them the nickname "refuseniks".

To escape, some Leningrad and Riga Jews plotted to hijack a plane in June 1970. Beckerman uses recently declassified Soviet documents to show exactly what the KGB knew about the plot and when. Details were still sketchy in April; KGB head Yuri Andropov wrote that something was discussed at a Leningrad meeting, "the nature of which is being kept in strictest confidence and for the implementation of which Jewish nationalists living in Riga are being enlisted." When the KGB ultimately figured it out, two of the plot's leaders, Eduard Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits, were sentenced to death.

The verdicts triggered global protests, drawing unprecedented attention to the movement. In New York, Birnbaum's group demonstrated peacefully, while Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League took to the streets, charging police barricades in front of the Soviet mission to the United Nations and smashing the building's glass front doors with a can of red paint. The Soviets bowed to the pressure and commuted the death sentences, a major victory for the movement.

The genius of Lou Rosenblum, a Cleveland scientist and activist, was making known the less dramatic plight of hundreds of other refuseniks by providing phone numbers and addresses where American Jews could contact them. Lynn Singer of East Meadow ran the Long Island branch of Rosenblum's grassroots network and called Moscow and Leningrad daily. The self-admitted loudmouth organized rallies, pestered local politicians and offered up her couch to Soviet Jews passing through New York.

Beckerman documents the gradual ascension of these and other grassroots groups and their increasing political clout. During Gerald Ford's presidency, the movement scored its first major domestic triumph, with passage of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, granting the Soviet Union most-favored nation status in exchange for issuing at least 60,000 exit visas for Jews annually. The amendment was never actually enforced, but the legislative groundwork empowered young congressional staffers with ties to the movement. The amendment's key driver, Richard Perle, was named assistant secretary of defense in Ronald Reagan's administration, while Morris Amitay, another supportive staffer, took over the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 1974 and transformed it into one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.

The inner workings of the Israeli government remain the only mystery in Beckerman's otherwise thorough account. We learn about Israeli agents and influence abroad but never go beyond public speeches and secondhand accounts of top Israeli brass. The movement continues to shape politics in Israel, where Soviet Jews, more than a million strong, compose the largest immigrant group.

But it's our intimate knowledge of the US and Soviet leaders that makes us care about the relative outsiders in both countries who successfully made their struggle central to the decades-long showdown between the superpowers.

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