The Jew­ish Move­ment in the Sovi­et Union

Yaa­cov Ro’i, ed.; George P. Schultz, epilogue
  • Review
By – February 20, 2014

More than a mil­lion Jew­ish emi­grants emerged from the for­mer Sovi­et Union in one of the most remark­able, even mi­raculous, events of mod­ern his­to­ry. A mir­a­cle decades in the mak­ing, it involved numer­ous actors in many places, moved by a vari­ety of emo­tions and cal­cu­la­tions, to under­take the effort to release the mass­es of Jews behind the Iron Curtain.

Edit­ed by a vet­er­an and pro­lif­ic Israeli schol­ar, the book con­sists of four­teen chap­ters writ­ten by tal­ent­ed schol­ars immersed in the vast sec­ondary lit­er­a­ture and the wealth of pri­ma­ry sources that have become avail­able, as access to Sovi­et and oth­er archives improved. Fig­ures involved in the Jew­ish Move­ment have pub­lished their own mem­oirs and oth­er writ­ings. More­over, a new genera­tion of schol­ars, who are chil­dren of the Sovi­et Jew­ish dis­si­dents and emi­grants, has arisen to inter­view their par­ents and grandparents.

The book opens with three chap­ters provid­ing an overview of the gen­e­sis, strat­e­gy and tac­tics, and achieve­ments of the Jew­ish Move­ment that some argue has­tened the demise of the Evil Empire.” There are fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ters on the impact of the Holo­caust and the State of Israel on Sovi­et Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and the phe­nom­e­non of dis­si­dence in the final decades of the USSR. The atti­tude of the Sovi­et regime toward Jew­ish emi­gra­tion was also affect­ed by the con­tentious issues of human rights and nation­al rights that the Sovi­et lead­er­ship per­ceived as threats to their reign.

Oth­er chap­ters look at the grow­ing litera­ture of mem­oirs by Jew­ish activists, as well as at Jew­ish samiz­dat, clan­des­tine­ly pub­lished Jew­ish texts, start­ing with the elec­tri­fy­ing nov­el Exo­dus. The appear­ance and prolifera­tion of illic­it and increas­ing­ly pub­lic Hebrew lan­guage instruc­tion, along with the deci­sion of some Sovi­et Jews to become more intense­ly engaged with tra­di­tion­al Judaism, are also explored. Michael Beizer’s chap­ter on how the Jew­ish move­ment was fund­ed is fas­ci­nat­ing, as he fol­lows the mon­ey,” reveal­ing how sub­stan­tial aid was clan­des­tine­ly pro­vid­ed by the Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions. The book clos­es with for­mer Sec­re­tary of State George P. Schultz describ­ing the role of the US in the movement’s tri­umph. Notes, name and sub­ject index­es, photographs.

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Discussion Questions