The ProsenPeople


Thursday, June 22, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi, the editor of "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union, has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Alexander Smukler presents a samizdat copy of Exodus in Russian to
author Leon Uris. Moscow, November 1989. Collection of Inna and Yuli Kosharovsky.

Jewish activism in the Soviet Union, supported by a movement to free Soviet Jewry abroad, resulted in a massive exodus. As Yuli Kosharovsky noted, concerning the late Soviet period and early 1990s, “In the years of mass emigration, the overwhelming majority of Jews—more than 1,500,000 people—left the borders of the former Soviet Union. The majority of those who left—around 900,000—settled in Israel.” The struggle and its outcome were of massive historical proportions, and it seemed natural to many observers and advocates to use Biblical language when they demanded that the Soviet leaders “Let My People Go!” and when they spoke about the liberation of Soviet Jews from the grip of the “Red Pharaoh.”

Certainly, there were important geo-political factors at work in the events that unfolded leading to this massive exodus, many of which are detailed in "We Are Jews Again". Against the backdrop of those forces and the high-level decisions and negotiations that took place, there was a core of more modest and incremental efforts that made the huge Aliya and revival of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union possible. Such grassroots initiatives included the work to make texts like Leon Uris’s 1958 novel Exodus available to Soviet readers in so-called “samizdat” (self-publishing). An early Zionist activist, David Drabkin, talked about translating Exodus with fellow activists Viktor Polsky and Vladimir Prestin for readers of Russian. At that time, in the late 1960s, Moscow was, as Kosharovsky wrote, a center for production and distribution of samizdat:

Moscow was a clearing house for samizdat distribution. Some books and printed material, including Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, were produced simultaneously in a few places. The quality of the translations and of the production work and the scope of samizdat distribution varied greatly. The movement was ripe for more effective coordination and division of labor.

The variety of translations of Uris’s novel – which appeared in samizdat editions as both Iskhod and Eksodus – may have been inevitable, given the powerful appeal it had for Soviet readers. Viktor Polsky recalled in his interview with Kosharovsky:

We received literature from the Baltics. Lea Slovin would come to us. David Drabkin had a channel. We … translated, copied, bound, and disseminated the novel Exodus. This book transformed my mother from a woman who had been intimidated by relentless persecution into a Zionist. For me, this was incontestable proof of the novel’s power to exert a strong emotional effect.

People recalled doing and reading 600+ page translations of Uris’s novel. The amount of labor that would have gone into producing that kind of samizdat text at home, with a typewriter and/or a photographic camera and prints developed in the bathroom, speaks to the feelings Uris’s novel inspired in Soviet readers. Others were moved to produce their own translations or slimmer adaptations. All accounts agree that Exodus was a central text of Jewish samizdat for activists and non-activists alike. Evidently, Uris’s tale about building and defending the state of Israel resonated profoundly with Soviet Jews who felt anxious for and then proud of Israel during the Six-Day War. That pride counterbalanced the often vicious anti-Israel propaganda from Soviet authorities. Moreover, Uris’s portrait of muscular, modern Jews resonated with qualities many Soviet Jews wanted to see in themselves, as it counteracted persistent negative stereotypes of cowardly Jews who shirked military service.

Alexander Smukler, pictured above with Uris, was one of those who helped expand the variety of material available to Soviet Jewish readers. Soviet Jewish samizdat included fictional works and poems from home and abroad, Hebrew language-learning materials, news bulletins and journals with articles and commentary on world events and administrative affairs. For example, the samizdat journal Jews in the USSR, initiated by Alexander Voronel and published from 1972-79, provided a crucial forum for Soviet Jews to reflect on their identity and concerns, in their own words and without the burden of official censorship. Smukler and a handful of others published the Information Bulletin on Issues of Repatriation and Jewish Culture, which appeared between 1987 and 1990, in Moscow. Foreign help – including the imaginative charge of Uris’s novel – mattered a lot for Soviet Jews. However, without the networks of readers and writers Soviet Jews created for themselves, working together to share stories, information, news and reflection, the revival of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union and the massive aliya would not have been possible.

Ann Komaromi is the editor of the recently published "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union.

Friends From Abroad

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi, the editor of "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union, has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

This 1975 photo, used on the cover of "We Are Jews Again", shows noted refusenik activists Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, Yuli Kosharovsky, Vladimir and Maria (Masha) Slepak and Vitaly Rubin along with a number of Israeli wrestlers and weightlifters who came to visit the Soviet Union and spent time with Soviet Jews. The photo acts as a window onto one of the brightest moments of Jewish life at that time. The smiles and relaxed poses of the people shown here – notice the way Masha Slepak leans her head familiarly onto Zeev Rom’s shoulder! – suggest that informal Jewish life in the Soviet Union was animated by happy social events and that it benefited from mutual support among members of the community and the friendship of allies from abroad. Unofficial Jewish life was warm and supportive in those ways, but such events took place under the malevolent gaze of KGB officers, who were certainly keeping an eye on this gathering. The possibility of persecution always haunted those involved in unofficial activities. Not too long after this celebration, in March, 1977, Sharansky, would be arrested on false charges of spying and imprisoned for nine years. The police would arrest the Slepaks in June, 1978, after they unfurled a banner from their apartment balcony with the demand for the right to leave and join their son in Israel. For that action the Slepaks were sent to Siberia. The Slepaks were able to leave the Soviet Union, like many of the activists, only after perestroika was well established, in 1987. Those were far from the first arrests for “Zionist” activity, and that hostile environment gives this seemingly ordinary moment the aura of the extraordinary.

People risked coming out with their families for unofficial Jewish celebrations, and foreign visitors made the long journey to see fellow Jews in the Soviet Union and bring them messages of encouragement and support. Such extraordinary efforts resulted in a profound feeling of solidarity and deep ties among people. Recently, work on identifying the people in the photo underscored the tenacity of connections created at that time. Enid Wurtman, a former American activist for Soviet Jewry and a research assistant working with Yuli Kosharovsky on "We Are Jews Again" since 2003, went to great lengths to identify and contact the people shown in this photograph. Enid located Solomon Stolyar, shown here in the back row, who is today head of the Israel Wrestling Federation. He helped put her in touch with the Israeli athletes who had been in Lunts Meadow on that fall day more than 30 years ago. Then-child Ephraim Rosenstein, seated at front with Yuli Kosharovsky, turned out to have been the bar-mitzvah “twin” for Enid’s son in Israel. Bar-mitzvah “twinning” was a common means for raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews who could not provide their children with that kind of celebration. In addition, Oksana Iablonsky (also spelled Oxana Yablonsky), standing on the right, was identified by Enid’s friend, Shoshana Fain, widow of the refusenik leader Benjamin Fain. Oksana, it turned out, is an acclaimed pianist who like Enid and like many other refuseniks made aliya to Israel. She played in a Chamber Music Festival in Eilat which Enid’s other son was involved organizing. There was something magical about the connections created and sustained for so many years over the course of this history of the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews.

The warm support and enthusiasm of all those contacted about the publication of Yuli Kosharovsky’s history of the movement testify to what that movement has meant to Jews both inside and outside the USSR.

Check back tomorrow for Ann Komaromi's final post for the Visiting Scribe series.

Photo Caption: Cover Photo. Refuseniks celebrate Succot with Israeli sportsmen in Lunts Meadow outside Moscow, 1975. First row, seated, from left: Anatoly Sharansky, Zeev Shakhnovsky, Ephraim Rosenstein (child), Yuli Kosharovsky. Second row: Isakhar Aharoni, Michael Bronstein, Menachem Berkowitz, Shlomo Fried. Back row, standing: Rami Miron, unidentified, Solomon Stolyar, Zeev Rom, Vladimir Slepak, Maria Slepak, Vitaly Rubin, Lev Gendin, Oksana Iablonsky.

It's Personal

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 | Permalink

Ann Komaromi is the editor of Yuli Kosharovsky's "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Inna and Yuli Kosharovsky with son Moty, Moscow, 1981. Collection of Bill Aron.

Yuli Kosharovsky (1941-2014) wrote a history of the Jewish movement that is intensely personal. The book We Are Jews Again is punctuated by Yuli’s conversations with fellow former activists as well as passages recounting his own experiences and reflections on them. In the first set of recollections, Yuli remembers the tensions he felt as a highly-trained and privileged Soviet specialist working in strategic weapons development living amidst anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda following the Six-Day War. He describes a moment of revelation:

…I was walking along a noisy street and my head was buzzing from lack of sleep. Suddenly everything around me vanished, it became quiet, and the passersby and cars disappeared. A bright light illuminated my consciousness and I saw with piercing clarity who I was, where I was going, and what I wanted. I knew that this was not a fantastic trick, that I was seeing my path. It was a divine beacon to my atheistically educated soul.

I don’t know how long this lasted, but then once again the street became noisy and the cars were moving.

That moment ended all doubts.

Until my departure, another long twenty-two years would pass. It would be difficult and hard to endure because of fear, pain, and exhaustion. There would be children who would grow up in the midst of all this.

At the most difficult moments, I would return in my mind to that spark of consciousness, to that clarity, and my strength would return.

It is stunning to realize that Yuli struggled after this insight for twenty-two years in the Soviet Union, sustained by the dream of leaving for Israel. For eighteen of these years, he was a “refusenik,” a status that came from applying for an exit visa and being refused and which meant no more privileged job in the weapons laboratory, ostracism from general Soviet society, and intermittent persecution by the authorities. Yuli was like many refuseniks, in that he took what jobs he could to survive and feed his family, turning to the Jewish community around him for social life and support. Unlike most other refuseniks, Yuli’s early moment of clarity and the force of his conviction propelled him to become a leader. He learned and taught Hebrew despite the de facto ban on the language, organized other Hebrew teachers in an underground network, and helped coordinate and support a host of unofficial activities designed to support Jewish education, identity and the movement for the right to emigrate and make aliya. Details about the extent of this organized activity in the Soviet Union help make this book a real contribution to the history of the movement.

This photo [see header] of Yuli, his wife Inna and their son Moty show the personal side of this activity – these were not activists working in isolation. The activists had family and friends who shared the risks they took because they all believed that to live as Jews with dignity and rights was a noble cause. They aimed to teach their children to live that way, despite the resistance of the society and State in which they found themselves.

Read more about "We Are Jews Again": Jewish Activism in the Soviet Union here and check back tomorrow to read more from Ann Komaromi.