Interview with Yuli Kosharovsky and Pam Cohen – February 15th 2010
Yuli: I am speaking to Pam Cohen, an angel of the refuseniks for many years.
My first question is: what is your family background? Where? What were your connections to “Jewishness”, to Israel and so on which ultimately brought you to play an important role in the Soviet Jewry Movement?
Pam: These questions have been asked many times and I’ve thought about the answers many times. I came from a very typical family for that generation. It wasn’t a religious family. It wasn’t an observant family. My parents were first generation Americans. Their parents came from Eastern Europe. My parents were very, very identified Jews. We knew we were Jewish. Being Jewish was our primary identity. Our parents told us we should behave well because we were Jewish: our behavior would reflect the Jewish people, which would be judged by the outside world. As a very young child, I lived in Maywood, Illinois, a small Jewish community in the suburbs of western Chicago. I was sent to a Baptist pre-school, the only one in the area. My paternal grandfather started a paint business and was invited to join the Klu Klux Klan, which of course, he didn’t. I was brought up to know it was a responsibility of a Jew to act properly, dress properly, behave properly. Every time we opened our mouths, every time we appeared in public we were conscious of the fact that we were representing the Jewish people.
Yuli: Can you specify from where in Eastern Europe?
Pam: I can tell you exactly. My father’s family came from Poland. My great-great Grandmother, my maternal grandfather’s family was from Shaulai – from Shavel which is very close to Telz in Lithuania. My maternal Grandmother’s family was from the Jewish town of Truchenbrod., but it’s northeast of Lvov.
Yuli: It’s western Ukraine. It was earlier Poland. During the war it went from hand to hand…
Pam: It was, also, called Slavyanski. Recently people have organized groups from Truchenbrod and they’re going back and they’re doing historical research – and said it was one of the only entirely Jewish communities outside of Israel.
Yuli: What’s important to me it’s all Pale of Settlement. In America Jewish behavior was typical behavior of the Pale of Settlement. You brought the Pale of Settlement to Chicago.
Pam: Probably. Although my father was very successful, he never went to university. He graduated high school and sent all his siblings to university. He worked with his father in their paint store. They sold paint for houses and, “warmish” as my grandfather pronounced varnish. When my father was 50, he opened a bank; and maybe when he was 70, he opened a Federal Savings and Loan Association. He was a very successful businessman and entrepreneur. My mother was a college graduate. My mother graduated from Northwestern summa cam laude – one of the tops in her class. We didn’t have the feeling we were coming from a shtetl, but my Grandmother lived with us. We knew we were Jews. My mother was very identified.
Yuli: Was it typical in America – you should overdo – you should clear your mouth…
Pam: Yes.. When I grew up – yes… The way I grew up and where we grew up because there were very few Jews where we were… We were representatives of the Jewish people. We had to carry ourselves with dignity. Put it that way… If something happened that was in the paper that someone was shot, my mother would say “I pray it’s not a Jew that shot him.”
Yuli: You are visually not so Jewish. When we met the first time, you were typically Western…
Pam: Absolutely right.
Yuli: How did your personal life develop?
Pam: When I was 15 years old, I was a great reader. I started to read everything I could about the Holocaust. I was born while the trains were transporting Jews to Auschwitz… I was born in 1943. When I was 15 – 16 years old in the mid-50’s – there were books being published about what happened – historical books and historical fiction. I read everything… One book, Andre Shvartzbartz’s “Last of the Just” was a life-changing experience. I simply could not understand how American Jews could let one million Jewish children go up the furnaces… As a child I couldn’t understand how American Jews had betrayed and abandoned their own people. I could understand even at 15 –that it wasn’t so much the question how Europe let it happen and why it happened in Germany…or what the Germans… The question is why our own people abandoned European Jewry. It was a question for me at 15.
Yuli: Did you study in a Jewish school?
Pam: I did not study in a Jewish school. Frankly, I didn’t know there were “Jewish” schools. If I did, I would have chosen to go but I declined my mother’s suggestion that I go to a “private finishing school” in the East. We celebrated Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and Pesach but that was it, really. I wanted to light candles when I was young. My grandmother told me I couldn’t light unless it was sundown so we didn’t. I couldn’t imagine lighting candles when I came home from school just before dark. We really had no Shabbas but those books did it for me Yuli. I could not understand what had happened.
Yuli: Did you come from a big family?
Pam: I had a brother who subsequently passed away at a very young age. I had a big extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins and we were all very close.
Yuli: You are blessed with many grandkids.
Pam: Right, we are, B”H.!
Yuli: You were reading a lot about Jewish matters.
Pam: A lot – about Zionism; about 1948; about the settlers. I read everything I could get my hands on about aliya after 1948. I was very identified in high school. Then I went to university. I was a normal university student. I wasn’t so interested in Jewish matters. I was studying and doing what people do in university.
Yuli: You were more interested in boys.
Pam: Exactly…than in Jewish things…
Yuli laughs and says I understand. What did you study?
Pam: I studied English literature.
Yuli: Shakespeare and great America poets.
Pam: And English poets. Also, I studied history.
Yuli: When did Jewishness return to you?
Pam: After we married, Yuli… By the time we were married and I married young at 21… I realized that I had a great inheritance that didn’t reach me… that I was the “poor” child that never was given the vast treasure house due her and —that was yiddishkeit… Then I had no idea how to formulate those words and I didn’t know where or how to retrieve it …but I felt that something didn’t get transmitted. I started when I was first married to light candles on Friday night. Then I put on a white tablecloth; then I bought a non-kosher challah.
Yuli: Just a moment… Was it imperative for you to marry a Jewish boy?
Pam: Yes. It was an absolute imperative. My father was one of the only Jewish businessmen in Maywood and even later when he went into banking. He wasn’t observant. He was very close to me Yuli. He never reprimanded me. He never criticized me. I was always “his little girl.” One day when I was about 16 years old, in a very harsh, cold voice that I only heard once in my life, he told me if I ever married a non-Jew he would forget that he ever had a daughter.
Yuli: Oh my G-d. In university you dated Jewish men…
Pam: Only Jewish men… My maternal grandfather died when my mother was 6 years old. His instruction to marry Jewish were his last words to her. She imparted that to us with our baby food so to speak. My father told me when I was a teenager that if I married “out”, he would forget he ever had a daughter. It was the greatest gift my father ever gave me. He just died a year ago in Adar just short of his 97th birthday.. At his funeral a year ago, I mentioned my father’s words and I said of all the gifts he gave me that was my greatest gift… because I could understand, Yuli, that if he was willing to give up the thing he most loved in his life which was me— out of principle, I realized that this principle was more important to him than anything else… and for that he would be willing to give me up. …It was a gift I didn’t understand at the time.. But over my lifetime I understood…
Yuli: He wasn’t especially religious…
Pam: He wasn’t observant, but religious… When I read Dostoevsky the first time and announced to him at about 17 years old that there was no G-d, my father stopped what he was doing and spent four hours arguing G-d’s existence with me. It was inconceivable to him that his daughter was going to have a world view that excluded the idea of a Creator of the universe who is personally involved in your life…even though he was not observant.
Yuli: We are in 1964 and you are married…
Pam: We started this very slow process of creeping yiddishkeit…
Yuli: Was your husband religious?
Pam: No. He was from Lima, Ohio which is a tiny town in Ohio.. His father was born in London on the way to the United States. They were immigrating. They were very much like my family. They were identified Jews but Reform Jews, identified but not practicing.
Yuli: I understand. They combine modern science and religious tradition which explains Reform Judaism more or less.. You are married and returning to Yiddishkeit.
Pam: I am married and slowly returning to Yiddishkeit. We had no idea how to do it. We lived in Chicago in a secular world. We didn’t know anyone religious… never saw anyone with a kippa on their head…
Yuli: As I remember when we first met in 1987 or 1988..
Pam: Yuli – the first time we met – I have a picture of you in 1978. I have to bring it to you.
Yuli: We met in the first time in 1978??
Pam: In front of the Choral Synagogue.
Yuli: Oh really.
Pam: My sister-in-law is Lessa Roskin. Lessa and Michael were close friends of the Markmans; and Hanna and Mark Levin.
Yuli: When we met, you were still very secular.
Pam: Yes. We became observant about 17 years ago. We became shomer Shabbat; shomer mitzvot.. It took a long time to get there… but finally. It’s been a journey..
Yuli: Let’s return back to 1964 and further… When did you decide to save Russian Jews?
Pam: Yuli. It never occurred to me. It wasn’t my idea. I can’t take credit for it. I was simply in a situation where I saw a letter from a Soviet Jew. It might have been from Mikhail Shtern from Vinnitsa. I saw that the Soviets were arresting people who are Jews. It was like a lightning bolt that they’re going to start this again.
Yuli: 1975 – right?
Pam: Yes, exactly. 1974-1975 – they’re arresting Jews… It’s going to be again? Something inside me yelled No – a screaming “No”! I started searching for information. The idea of “saving” Jews never occurred to me. I didn’t think about that. I just thought what can I do? I started looking for information but I’m a young mother. I‘m living in the suburbs. I don’t have any connections. I don’t know where to find information. I started looking and somehow was led to a Jewish paper that was published in Philadelphia. Philadelphia Defendant or Observer. (Jewish Exponent, E.L.W.) It came out every week. I discovered they ran a column on Soviet Jewry. I subscribed to the paper. It offered directions: to write letters; try to organize letter writing campaigns. So I organized a letter writing campaign with young suburban mothers like myself. One thing led to another… finally after some time of doing this on my own without any contacts other than this newspaper, I discovered there was an organization downtown Chicago, Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry. A woman named Laurel Abarbanel Pollack ran it. I called her.
Yuli: Did your readings on the Holocaust have a strong affect on you? They didn’t do it.. How can I stand aside now?
Pam: Those are my words… Your words are my words. That’s exactly right. There was no choice. I had no choice. I felt I had no choice. This was in front of me. It was a package I was compelled to pick up. I had no interest in public activity. I was extremely shy and I didn’t like speaking in front of people. I wasn’t looking for that kind of attention…
Yuli: But it was burning in your bones..
Pam: I had no choice. Whatever I had to do, I was going to do. It didn’t make any difference what it was.
Yuli: It is interesting that you tell us our own story.
Pam: I’ll tell you something Yuli. I have always been more or less an independent thinker, a “salmon—swimming upstream,” living according to personal values, a little bored with vacuous conversations … But when I went to Russia the first time, I found people whom I felt I really understood. (Refuseniks) What you said is exactly the truth. I understood that they had the same compulsion, that they also had no choice, that they felt it and this is what they were going to do. I understood them. I understood them as if they were actually a part of me. I felt that they were “soul mates”. I can’t explain it from the first time. On many trips, I sat in apartments and I saw people – the faces of Jews. When I returned to the United States and spoke to groups, those faces never left me…
Yuli: Who did you meet the first time?
Pam: Let’s see. I met Yuli Kosherovsky! Here’s how it happened. After I connected with Chicago Action, Lorel (Pollack) put me in touch with the Union. (Chicago Action was part of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, one of the founding members of the Union, maybe in 1972 they joined the Union.) Chicago Action existed for four or five years at that time – led by Lorel, a very strong woman like the others of the UCSJ: Irene Manekofsky, Selma Light, Rae Sharfman, Lynn Singer and Lil Hoffman and Enid Wurtman to name a few.
Yuli: Enid and Stuart were presidents of the Union in 1977-1978.
Pam: In 1978, I “inherited” Chicago Action after Lorel stepped down. Then I became a member of UCSJ’s national board about a year later. While I was “training” under Lorel, I took on a number of refusenik cases and when one of them received permission and we brought him to Chicago from Israel to speak, I asked what else I could have done to help him, he answered, “Why didn’t you come to see us? Why didn’t you come?” Immediately I booked our trip to Russia.
Yuli: It was 1978.
Pam: It was 1978 and Michael Sherbourne had just come to Chicago. He briefed me.
Yuli: He’s over 90 and sending emails every day. He’s very active.
Pam: He’s very active. At that time Irene Manekovsky wanted to know what was going on with the Gan in Moscow, which had been raided by the KGB several times. We needed accurate data on the closing of OVIR offices throughout Ukraine because it was 1978. We went to Kharkov, Kiev and Odessa, Moscow and Leningrad.
Yuli: It was the end of 1978. They closed OVIR in Odessa. They demanded invitations from direct relatives only.
Pam: Exactly right. In the West the Jewish Establishment was claiming that the high emigration warranted a waiver of Jackson-Vanik. However, our refusenik sources were telling us that while the numbers were in fact high, beyond the scope of the Western press, in a number of Ukrainian cities, the Soviets were putting in place obstacles to emigration to actually restrict the process. By closing down OVIR offices, opening just a few days a weeks, the lines of potential applicants were enormous and growing daily. UCSJ needed a fact finding trip. We went to Moscow, Leningrad and of course, Ukraine. It was right after Kennedy left Moscow and Leningrad and gave the Kremlin his list of 18 refuseniks
Yuli: We met with him.
Pam: We met with Paritsky in Kharkov before he was arrested; Lev Roitburd in Odessa just after he came out of prison; in Kiev, Kim Fridman and Michael, Lev and Chana Elbert.
Yuli: It was after the Sharansky trial.
Pam: We met with Leonid. (Sharansky) I was standing with you outside the Chorale Synagogue when Leonid Sharansky approached us.
Yuli: We met at the synagogue.
Pam: Lerner was there.
Yuli: It was after the trial. It appeared that they did not want to do a wide circle of people in prison but they limited themselves to Sharansky.
Pam: Right. I remember Leonid said the Sharansky case is a fishhook in the throat of the Soviets – and it won’t go up and won’t go down….
Yuli: I think the decision to close emigration was taken at the end of 1978 and the beginning of 1979.
Pam: That’s exactly right.
Yuli: According to my research now, it’s a clearly established fact that they decided to close emigration because they couldn’t control it anymore… They have seen that whatever they do – with all their anti-Zionist propaganda and with all their efforts to paint Israel in very dark colors, the more people wanted to leave… it was snowballing… By the end of the year the Sharansky trial was over…
Pam: I was there right before or after Rosh Hashana.
Yuli: It was after the Sharansky trial. He was arrested March 15th 1977 and the trial was 16 months later in July 1978.
Pam: We were there after the trial, you are correct.
Yuli: You saw many refuseniks. You felt very close to them. You felt you belonged to the same tribe who had this burning in their bones. You returned back and then? You had three kids..
Pam: I had three kids and they were still young. I had moved the Chicago Action office to Highland Park, to the suburbs, where I was living and where I hoped I could find other volunteers to staff the office and carry out the work. My husband helped us a lot. We started to build a strong viable organization from the grassroots. Lorel left. She retired. I brought in Marilyn Tallman, a teacher of Jewish history, a widely recognized speaker for national UJA. About 20 years older than I, with a sterling reputation, experience in the Jewish world, great connections. She is indomitable, energetic, and funny. She worked in the war years with Abraham Sachar at the Hillel program at the University of Illinois to get student visas for Jewish refugees. She instinctively understood this process of rescue. I on the other hand was young, inexperienced, without any particular background in Russian studies or experience either in the Jewish communal world or in rescue activities. We were a great team. I was her student and brought refusenik information to class. I would announce arrests in the Soviet Union, make suggestions for action and Marilyn took on the issue as a personal commitment.
Yuli: Were you working at this time? Can you explain about your classes?
Pam: In those years I studied with Marilyn who developed and taught a 7 year curriculum for adults on Jewish history. She’s a very bright woman who continued learning history throughout her life. Her classes served also as a springboard to talk about contemporaneous persecution of Jews in the USSR.
Yuli: You were campaigning for Soviet Jewry in your classes – writing to Soviet authorities. Can you explain what kind of programs you had in Chicago at this time? You had a personal adoption of some refuseniks and you were following up.
Pam: This is how it happened. I was very interested in collecting information about what was happening in Russia, because I had none. When I inherited the organization, there were no files.
Yuli: Were you the head of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry?
Pam: No, Lorel Pollack was the head of Chicago Action. She retired in 1978 right after I came back from Russia. I had no choice: I didn’t want to but I couldn’t let the organization close.
Yuli: From 1978 you were the head of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry. (a branch of the Union)
Pam: Yes. I moved the office from the city to the suburbs near our home. I wanted it accessible to young mothers who could volunteer time. I wanted a professional office, run efficiently and systematically. The first thing I needed was to collect information. It was before computers so created a system of cards to catalogue essential refusenik data:– address; phone number; needs; year of refusal; if they were Hebrew teachers, scientists, when and how often they applied; if they lost their jobs, whether or not they wanted phone calls and visitors from us. With this scrupulously collected data and I created biographical profiles—for our “adoption” program, but an ever-increasing amount of information was reaching us with news of more Jews being refused permission and activists arrested – and there were only two or three of us working in the office. Three people cannot handle so many refusenik or prisoner cases. It just couldn’t be done.
Yuli: How did you organize everything? Was it all voluntary?
Pam: Completely voluntary. I began in 1977 by enlisting help. We were three co-chairmen: myself, Marilyn Tallman and Carole Boron, who was active in the letter-writing group I originally began under the auspices of National Council for Jewish women before I connected to CASJ. Marilyn handled the tourist briefing and really carried the brunt of the fundraising in the early years while she was teaching. Carole handled the financial responsibilities. Carole left CASJ in 1979.
Yuli: Not even one professional working in the office?
Pam: Not one professional plus we had little money. Lorel didn’t leave me a fundraising infrastructure and we were paying rent for our first tiny office. We had to raise the money for the office, our phone calls to the USSR and our news bulletin, “Refusenik” which was edited by another volunteer, Linda Opper. Marilyn used her contacts to raise some money. It was all voluntary. After Carole left, Hetty Deleeuwe, a hidden child from the Netherlands took on all our financial responsibilities which later included handling banks, transferring money into the USSR, purchasing cameras and the long list of items for our travelers to carry in by hand, as well as other complicated financial issues. We didn’t hire anyone until a few years later when we brought on a secretary. In the beginning, I had to do all my own typing. I didn’t know how to type. It was a nightmare. I had to create a newsletter. I didn’t know how to produce a newsletter. I had to do publicity. I didn’t know how to do publicity. As our refusenik data increased, I couldn’t handle the case-load out of the office. I realized the only way I could provide protection for people in Russia is if I could make a kesher (connection) between America Jews and Refuseniks and so I started an “adoption” program in Chicago. Marilyn and I would speak in Synagogues and harness Synagogue groups to “adopt” refusenik cases. For example I spoke to a Federation program called “Young Dialogues”. After I spoke, a young attorney, Harvey Barnett, asked what he could do? I gave him the name of one of the refuseniks and asked that he be responsible for them. He would be a “case manager” . He would be responsible for publicity, for contacting his Congressman, for raising their case, and whatever was necessary to get their visas. I’d keep him supplied with a biographical information, data, and information about them as I received it. Additionally, he would reach out to them by mail and phone. Ultimately, Harvey was instrumental achieving their release, helping CASJ’s financial grounding, traveling twice to the USSR, and served under my presidency on the UCSJ Board where he made additional invaluable contributions to the movement.
Yuli: Were your meetings held in synagogues or clubs?
Pam: Synagogues, private homes… in this case it was a federation program at a private home. I created case sheets, like a doctor would create for a patient –with all the relevant information that an adopting group needed to know about the refusenik family.. For phone calls or travel, I only gave refuseniks who spoke English. By the way, in those years there were enough people who spoke English… Can I tell you a very nice story? Just for you – a beautiful story. Harvey Barnett asked what he could do. How could he help? The case I gave him happened to be Yitzchak and Sophia Kogan from Leningrad. He’s the Chabad schochet in Moscow now. In those years he was an engineer. Yitzchak and Sophia were just becoming religious themselves. He wrote them; sometimes he called them. He sent them a newspaper article about Mendelevich’s release and incredibly, they received it. Harvey went to Russia in 1982. He went with Betty Kahn, one of our volunteers, a photographer who brought back excellent quality pictures for publicity. Harvey was in Leningrad, looking for Kogan’s building while Betty Kahn was holding the taxicab with a pack a Marlboros on her lap to encourage him to wait. Finally Harvey sees a man with a black fur hat. The refusenik with the hat sees an obviously American tourist and quietly motions to follow him up the stairs. Harvey gets Betty and they go up the stairs.
Our tourists used the code words “We’re from Pam and Marilyn” - indicating they were from Chicago Action. Yitzchak welcomes them and takes their coats.
“You’re from Chicago?” he says.
Harvey replies affirmatively.
Yitzchak asks, “Tell me, do you know Harvey Barnett?”
“I am Harvey Barnett”.
They stayed into the late night talking.
Yitzchak asks, “Tell me Harvey, where was your family from?”
“My family was from Vitebsk”.
Yitzchak responds, “Interesting, my family’s from Vitebsk too. What’s was your family’s name?”
“Itkin,” Harvey answers.
“Itkin? That’s my family’s name.”
Harvey and Yitzchak, “strangers” from two sides of the Jewish world were in fact, cousins.
There were so many stories like that.
Yuli: The Smuklers found they were distant relatives as well, not so distant by the way. Alex Smukler. Do you know him?
Pam: Sure. Sasha. I saw him in New York two years ago.
Yuli: Do you know what he does?
Yuli: He’s the President of National Conference for Soviet Jewry.
Pam: Sasha is? Wow!
Yuli: He’s on the board of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
Pam: Which I pulled the UCSJ out of…after it held a reception welcoming with honor Karimov, the president of Kazakhstan who had arrested and persecuted innocent Jews.
Yuli: He’s establishment like Joe and Connie Smukler. You were always in the opposition. We’ll talk about this later – about the politics. I understand that personal adoption was your program.
Pam: The Refusenik Adoption Program’s objectives were to create and sustain a wide grass root infrastructure of refusenik support. The system in fact created a network – a deep network. This grass root “adoption” program was very effective in reaching and influencing the Congress. All you need is one Harvey Barnett, a synagogue, a Jewish organization, or a physicist who could be motivated to work for a refusenik physicist, a psychiatrist motivated to champion the issue of Soviet psychiatric abuse and given the case of refusenik committed to a psychiatric institution, a Hebrew school or Jewish studies program willing to “adopt” a refusenik Hebrew teacher in each of the various Illinois congressional districts. It results in 10 Congressmen each with a refusenik caseload taken from their constituency. That’s how we worked it. CASJ reached individuals like Harvey Barnett, institutions like Spertus College of Judaica and provided them with the data they needed to approach their congressional representative on a case by case basis. Our CASJ volunteer staff person, Jean Freed, was in regular contact with the Illinois congressional delegation, educating them on the fundamental issues of non-compliance. It was a multi-faceted approach: We found “adopters”, most frequently after having sent them or encouraging them to travel to the USSR. We provided them with case documentation. They advocated within the community, the press and their congressional representative. This grass roots approach demonstrated CASJ’s political muscle to the congressional offices. A deluge of post-cards from a campaign or a system of phone calls made clear to the office that we had access to their voters. Cynically, for the congressional office it was not a difficult way to please their Jewish constituency.
For us, for CASJ, our sister councils and the UCSJ, the activity required a sophistication and competency that was not apparent on the surface. We were volunteers, briefing and advocating members of the House and the Senate. Ultimately, Micah Naftalin and I were briefing the White House, the State department, State department’s Soviet Desk, Condi Rice when she was National Security adviser, CIA, Commerce Department and testifying before a host of congressional hearings: postal hearings, agricultural committee hearings, where I testified on behalf of Jackson-Vanik against a number of oppositional forces, the most striking of which was Dwayne Andreas, chairman of ADM corporation which was pursuing significant business opportunities in the USSR. In addition, the UCSJ leadership attended and provided valuable evidence of Soviet human rights abuses at all the international meetings of the Commission of Security and Cooperation in Europe, a function of the Helsinki process.
The data we collected, the documentation of Soviet non-compliance of international agreements, such as the Helsinki Accords, was the foundation on which our educating techniques (as a 501C3 non-profit organization we were unable to “lobby”) rested. This documentation had to be presented professionally and it had to be absolutely accurate. Everything we said had to be absolutely accurate. A loss of credibility would invalidate our activity. For that accuracy we had to build the trust of the refusenik leaders. Without that partnership we couldn’t function reliably in their interest. It was an awesome responsibility and we carried the responsibility with a sense of deep humility and deference to those on whose behalf we were working.
Yuli: Was this at the end of the ‘70’s or later when you became the leader of the Union of Councils?
Pam: I was elected president in 1986 when my responsibility shifted to a national level but even in the ‘70’s my work with the Illinois congressional and Senate representative had national impact. I’ll tell you how: At that time Charles Percy from Illinois was my Senator. Chuck Percy held the most important foreign policy position in the U.S. Senate, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I developed a very close relationship with his executive assistant, Scott Cohen, who was sympathetic to our issue. In fact, later, after becoming UCSJ’S president, I hired Scott to act as temporary national director for UCSJ while I was conducted the search for our permanent director. Incidentally, Scott traveled with the UCSJ delegation to the Iceland Summit. I really can’t think of a request we made that Percy refused. I remember calling Scott late in the day after I learned of an arrest and that he immediately went to the Soviet Embassy to make a “demarche”. Percy’s incentive to work for Soviet Jewry resulted from the fact that he had incited his Jewish community by publicly calling Arafat a “moderate”. He wanted very much to prove to the Jewish world that he wasn’t an anti-Semite.
The truth was Percy’s office and I used each other. I was willing to give Percy the opportunity to let him do something to help Jews. As long as he was in the Senate, he could demonstrate he wasn’t an anti-Semite by using his powerful position to confront the Soviets on behalf of my people, Soviet Jews. That’s how I felt but not everyone agreed. Carole Boron, one of CASJ’s chairmen couldn’t make that compromise and quit.
Yuli: It was a second direction – lobbying in the Congress cases of Refuseniks on a personal and common basis.
Pam: And “lobbying” was directly tied to another dimension, which we haven’t spoken about yet: publicity. We had to manage the media. Though Chicago didn’t have a national news service or paper, we felt the Soviets were keeping an eye on the city because of its very large Polish population in Chicago. In 1978, we assumed KGB watched the Poles for “anti-Soviet” dissident groups. They would be watching and listening for–anything they considered anti-Soviet, probably not from Jewish groups, but maybe from the Poles.
Yuli: Can you estimate the number of Poles?
Pam: No. I know for sure that’s it was and may still be the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw.
We were compelled to capture the Soviet’s attention by making press. It wasn’t easy. We had no Soviet consulate where we could demonstrate, like our councils in New York and San Francisco. There was no Aeroflot office. There was no official Soviet presence anywhere in or near the city. There were two Jewish news journals in Chicago. The Jewish Federation printed a monthly “paper” but boycotted any and all news released by CASJ. The Chicago “Sentinal” was published by an extreme leftist, a Soviet sympathizer, who wouldn’t print our news releases either. So desperate were we at times to get the news out, that we purchased advertising space in his paper to print our information. In addition the general press didn’t print hard news releases: Papers depended on their Moscow Bureaus for hard news. For example, before the news hit the AP (Associated Press) wire service, I learned from a phone call to a Moscow refusenik that Mendelevich was released from prison camp. I called the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Sun Times, and TV news to release the information but they would not report it because the news didn’t originate in their Moscow News Bureaus. That alone was a frustration. We consistently had more information than was being reported. In fact, two newspapers’ bureau chiefs living in Moscow telephoned me to find out what was happening in Moscow and beyond when they went to Helsinki to shop at Stockmann’s. But that’s another story. The point is we had to create media events to get press coverage. We were in the “business” of creating media events.
Yuli: What kind of?
Pam: For example, when Edelstein was arrested. How to mobilize a public protest? How to mobilize the Jewish community and the press on the merit of the incident? We conducted a mock funeral to bury apathy. Apathy, not caring, insensitivity – was our deadly enemy and we sought to bury it. We hired an old-fashioned wagon, which was tethered to a horse. The horse-lead the hearse, bearing a coffin, down the main street of Skokie. The mayor of Skokie led the procession that followed it. Our spokesperson was Linda Edelstein Opper, who wrote our newsletter, “Refusenik”. I told the press that, prophetically, she was Edelstein’s cousin. She then of course described the events leading up to his arrest. Yuli Edelstein made the papers the next morning. During Sharansky’s protracted hunger strike, facing the same challenge, CASJ worked with the mayor’s office to dedicate the Sharansky Free Speech Public Forum in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Beneath a formal canvas tent, the press recorded speeches of commitment by both senators, a host of congressmen, the mayor and other elected officials. We had to come up with new things all the time. One time for Volvovsky, we had a public event where on a summer Sunday afternoon, families came out for Volvovsky Day and inflated helium balloons printed with his name and sent into the air with messages to him in Moscow. We organized Rabbis, carrying Sefer Torahs in demonstration in front of the Chicago municipal building. We organized circulating rabbinic hunger strikes to coordinate with Sharansky’s hunger strike. We organized a very effective petition drive at the Chicago branch of the American Bar Association protesting the agreement between the ABA and the Association of Soviet Procurators, and then a petition signed by attorneys on behalf of Sharansky and delivered the petitions with hundreds of signatures to the Soviet Embassy in Washington which was carried on all the wire services. Those were just a few examples of our media events.
Yuli: Third direction – media coverage in Chicago.
Pam: There were two other things. Our advocacy demanded a flow of accurate verifiable information without which we were ineffective. We needed information to feed to the Congress. We needed information to feed to the press.
Yuli: Here we are coming to your conflict with the establishment.
Pam: Well yes. We certainly didn’t get it from them.
Yuli: The non-establishment organizations, not all of them felt they were getting much information from Israel where there was a big data base.
Pam: I know.
Yuli: They didn’t release too much information.
Pam: Certainly not to UCSJ. Very occasionally, Glenn and Lynn were able to negotiate with them to obtain their Refusenik lists, which were comprehensive, but we wanted to create our own, to build our own data bank that we could verify independently. We collected our own information and built our own Refusenik list, first painfully typed and then computerized, which we submitted to the State department. When Micah and I were in the USSR in 1986 or 87, we transferred the responsibilities for our Refusenik lists to Natasha Stonov and Yuri Cherniak in Moscow and Edward Markov in Leningrad.
Yuli: What year are we talking about?
Pam: From the 70’s to Afghanistan and later.
Yuli: When did you take over the whole organization?
Pam: Not until 1986.
Yuli: You then became president of the whole national organization – the Union of Councils.
Pam: Right. But even before 1986, I wanted to create our own independent information system. I worked with Rita Eker in London (the ‘35’s) and David Selikowitz of the Comite de Quinze (Committee of 15) in Paris. Marilyn and I went to London and Paris to meet with them to secure a tight network of briefers, those responsible for preparing tourists to visit refuseniks, which would circulate trip reports between the three organizations. It was a more formalized agreement, which resulted in better verifiable information and a quick response network for refusenik needs.
Yuli: Did you exchange information with Student Struggle?
Pam: Yes, of course. They were part of our network. They were an integral part of our network and provided a lot of information.
Yuli: But not with National Conference.
Yuli: Michael Sherbourne was independent.
Pam: For sure. He was part of our network and was with the 35’s.
Yuli: The Israelis? Earlier it was Ann and Yisrael Shenkar. In the ‘80’s – did you have some kind of group in Israel?
Pam: When Yuri Shtern and Sasha Shipov immigrated, UCSJ brought them to our annual meeting in D.C. and they traveled to our grassroots councils. They recognized the demand for an independent grass roots movement in Israel to push the government and the Lishka. As a result the Union and the 35’s started to help fund the new Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center.
Yuli: With Yosef Mendelevich and Shtern and Azarkh.
Pam: Oh yes. At first Yuri Shtern, Sasha Shipov, and Shmuel Azarkh and then Yosef when he arrived. We worked very closely with them. Much of the funds came from Lynn Singer at the Long Island committee and Rita Eker, the 35’s and Chicago Action.
Yuli: The Soviet Jewry Education and Information Committee started in about 1985.
Pam: Before the SJEIC, the UCSJ had a Jerusalem representative, Yael Sofios. We needed a grassroots movement here in Israel. When Sasha and Yuri came – it was electric. We knew we could work with them and we helped to set them up in business.
Yuli: I see. What about Golda Yellin? Maoz?
Pam: I read about Maoz but we were not in touch with them.
Yuli: These guys were calling Russia. They had no language barriers. They were distributing information into your informational network.
Pam: Additionally we had very close working relationships with other former refusenik activists in Israel. I worked very closely with Lev Utevsky who did brilliant analyses for us in English and expended enormous time, energy and funds translating important refusenik letters from Leningrad as well as anti-Semitic articles and other data. I was in very close touch with him for many years and relied heavily on his expertise. Edward Ussokin, formerly of Leningrad, provided a lot of expertise and actually put me in touch with a group of Christian Finns who were traveling into Russia and helping us a lot.
Yuli: You had five basic points. Did you have any connections with Canadian activists?
Pam: We developed a relationship with Genya, and the ‘35’s in Montreal – Barbara Stern, etc. I had a working relationship with Albert Reichman’s key person on Soviet Jewry who actually arranged for me to accompany Reichman to a meeting with Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudat Yisrael in New York to discuss the Jackson-Vanik waver. They helped me deliver computers and other technological needs to refuseniks when it became possible. Through another group, I became closely connected with Martin Gilbert.
Yuli: Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry became international as did the ‘35’s but the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry remained US based.
Pam: SSSJ wasn’t international; it was national as was the UCSJ. There was no need for expansion. We had trusted colleagues abroad. Furthermore, we were willing to work with anyone who worked with us. We had close colleagues in England and France and Brussels and Switzerland. Our refusenik contacts connected us to like-minded people and organizations where we could cooperate on specific issues, policies, and cases. Through one group of refuseniks, I developed a mutually helpful relationship with Ezras Achim, the Chabad office in New York.
Yuli: You didn’t feel the need to go global.
Pam: No. We had collegial coordinates abroad who we were in touch with systematically. Information travelled by a radiating phone network which always originated in the USSR and then in various streams to London, Paris, New York. Boston, Long Island, Chicago, Omaha, San Francisco, Washington, Miami, Toronto, Cincinnati.
Yuli: How often?
Pam: The phone calls? At least daily…sometimes I spoke to Lynn 2-3 times a day. Fax machines connected us. There were numbers of us making calls to Russia, debriefing tourists, generating information which needed quick action, so the phones rang constantly in our offices and our homes, day and night. This information was channeled at once across the ocean and the country. Within the grass roots, there was a structure for international meetings. Every autumn there was UCSJ’s annual meeting in Washington attended by our councils, the 35’s of England, the Committee of 15—that is the British, and French, Canadian and Belgians who also attended the UCSJ’s biannual meetings in Israel. We held congressional briefings after national congressional elections every two years to brief the new congress.
Yuli: Twice every year you had meetings in Washington.
Pam: Yes. UCSJ’s annual meeting in Washington, congressional briefings ever two years in D.C., a meeting in Israel every other year. Periodically we held meetings in other cities: San Francisco, Chicago, Boston. The national board met at least 2-3 times a year. There were executive committee conference calls whenever needed…every other week, or monthly.
Yuli: What do you mean by “we”?
Pam: The Union. UCSJ.
Yuli: Let’s take another direction. There were three main connections – personal connection – personal adoption; lobbying in the Senate and Congress; and creating informational coverage. Now you have a forth direction which is serving the third one which is called an international informational data base.
Pam: Exactly right.
Yuli: A network which included five major organizations – Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry; ‘35’s; the Union of Councils; Information Center; and the Comite de Quinze. An international communications network was set up. It was organized by having an annual meeting in Washington; meetings every other year in Israel; and briefing Congressmen twice a year.
Pam: Not exactly. The foundation of the informational structure was undeniably our briefers. A limited number of us had access to the sensitive trip reports coming out of the USSR. There were only a limited number of people who were responsible for information regarding tourists. Tourist reports were considered “highly confidential” since they revealed sometimes sensitive information about people, underground activities, and sometimes questionable subjective viewpoints, or personal information that shouldn’t have been written, let alone, released. Trip reports were the essence for us to understand the mechanism of the movement inside the USSR. Refuseniks opinions, perspectives, expertise, needs, dedication to the wider community, leadership, as well as the direction of the various groups: Hebrew teachers, culturalists, history teachers, “poor relatives”, aliyah activists, secrecy refuseniks, the lawyers committee, group to establish trust, women’s committee, OVIR monitoring committee, children in refusal, separated families. I could go on and on.
Furthermore, it was a transfer system. Information and also goods were channeled through our information network. If something that had to be in Moscow by a certain date we need methodology to assure delivery. We set up a delivery system between all these five or six sources which was considered very confidential because it involved material assistance. That was a tremendous amount of work.
Yuli: It was the fifth direction to create a briefing structure for tourists and even sending tourists to the Soviet Union.
Yuli: To all this was connected a system which insured that everyone in Russia would get what he wanted at a time when he needed it. You should have another data base for this purpose for all the needs in Russia e.g. Material needs; medical needs etc.
Pam: Exactly. Look. We couldn’t and didn’t supply “everyone”. We established relations with competent reliable refusenik partners. One of my refusenik partners kept detailed records accounting for what we sent in. Often we established reliable ties with refuseniks who took responsibilities for specific refusenik groups as mentioned above. There were some humanitarian cases that we helped simply because their situation was so terrible….loss of family members, certainly supplies and money for prisoner support and their families were a priority. We provided material assistance, but we also provided information desperately needed on Judaism, Zionism, information on Israel, Torah tapes in Russian, Hebrew language books, tapes, dictionaries, someone once wanted trop tapes, shiurim—whatever was needed for a hostaged community. We used to send you Hebrew tapes sent from Israel to Chicago; and then hand carried by a tourist to you in Russia. We also sent in medicine, insulin—even a heart valve.
Yuli: Did you have a unified briefing system?
Pam: It was very unified briefing and it was very sophisticated.
Yuli: Who was working it out?
Pam: The hub was Lynn Singer, Rita Eker, David Waksberg, Hinda Cantor and myself.
Yuli: You are very scientifically minded.
Pam: We ran a very professional program. It was mind-boggling.
Yuli: It sounds as though you had six or seven directions. You mentioned that you organized telephone calls to Soviet officials – to bother them – to make Soviet officials who weren’t used to calls from abroad – that you have eyes on everything they are doing..
Pam: We wanted to create an illusion that we are an octopus with many hands. They needed to feel our reaction with every repression they undertook. If they took action against a refusenik, I wanted them to feel a fist in their face within hours. An immediate sharp reaction was an attempt to prevent them from taking another step. Perhaps a KGB “action” was a warning; maybe it would be the first of string of actions leading to a trial, or the first of a round-up of activists. Our strategy was to initiate an official reaction to force them into desisting.
Yuli: It’s like medicine, the sooner you discover it, the greater are the chances you’ll succeed.
Pam: Well said. At the heart of it, we ran a very systematized set of telephone calls into the Soviet Union. We were calling into Russia all the time.
Yuli: You had calls to Soviet officials and to refuseniks.
Yuli: You had to find people who could speak to them in their own language as well as writing to them.
Pam: Correct. With a few exceptions, Michael Sherboune and Genya Intrator, we spoke on the phones to English speakers. We were also conducting letter writing campaigns to refuseniks, post-card campaigns to Soviet officials.
Yuli: I have difficulties to understand how you could manage all this without professionals working for the organization.
Pam: It was in retrospect quite remarkable. That is what we mean by a “grass roots” volunteer movement. Chicago Action (CASJ) did not employ professionals. I did hire a secretary in 1983. All the UCSJ councils were run by volunteers who operated mostly out of their kitchens. Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry was an extremely professional organization. They operated with businesslike systems and I used it as a prototype for running CASJ. David Waksberg was their professional director, although his dedication and intensity was like a volunteer. He raised the level of professionalism in the whole organization. The early presidents of the Union operated the UCSJ from the home cities. When Lynn became president she opened a office in D.C..
Yuli: Which year did Lynn become president?
Pam: I don’t remember. Irene Manekovsky hired Dmitri Simes as our Washington representative. He worked the Hill. 1979 was a tricky time because while the Soviets were restricting the function of the OVIR offices, National Conference was pushing for the waiver of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. We were in a very big struggle with them.
Yuli: Did National Conference wanted to waive or close?
Pam: To waive it. They were advocating for the President of the U.S. to waive the restrictions denying Soviets Most Favored Nation Status.
Yuli: For a year?
Pam: For a year, but once waived, it would be very difficult to re-impose.
Yuli: I see.
Pam: We were opposed to it because we knew the closing of OVIR offices would restrict emigration. We already knew of long lines of Jews in front of OVIR in Ukraine. Refuseniks told us about the internal constriction of emigration even though it had become apparent to the western public. We didn’t want to reward the Soviets. At that time we hired Dmitri Simes on the Hill to help us mobilize the Congress.
Yuli: Was he a professional lobbyist?
Pam: Not really. He emigrated from Moscow in 1973 and was a noted Kremlinologist, who became an informal policy advisor to Richard Nixon and was associated with Carnegie Endowment and various Russian programs and University Russian Studies departments.
After Dmitri, we expanded the Washington office to include an executive director; a bookkeeper and various office support staff. Ultimately the Washington Rep morphed into the position of National Director. It operated under the lay leadership. UCSJ always had very strong lay leaders who strictly controlled the director’s activities, ensuring that the organization was run by the grass roots lay and usually volunteer leadership. The board – the executive committee was very strong. Stabilizing the office was an issue for the board for a number of years and we had “revolving door” directors until I found and hired Micah, an extremely good and talented man who just passed away just a few months ago.
Yuli: Micah Naftalin.
Pam: Yes. Micah was an attorney, had worked for a Congressman, and Elie Wiesel at the Holocaust Commission. He was experienced, a deliberate strategist, and a supreme negotiator. Plus he had such a good heart. He remained with the UCSJ from 1987 until his death in 2009. In contrast, Chicago Action never operated under a director. We always functioned with volunteers.
Yuli: Tell me the differences between you and the establishment. Why were you strongly opposing them?
Pam: We didn’t oppose them. We had enough on our plates. They opposed us. The big issue was Jackson-Vanik. We never were on the same side on the Jackson-Vanik Amendment though historical revisionists claim they were great supporters of the amendment. It’s simply not true. All the evidence is sitting in the Soviet Jewry Archives in the American Jewish Historical Society in New York along with the rest of UCSJ’s, CASJ’s and my personal archives which testifies to their soft position on the waiver. They acted on behalf of the Lishka, as you know, and wanted to make concessions. They were offering carrots in the “carrot and stick equation”. We didn’t advocate rewarding arrests, repression, and emigration restriction.
The other issue was where Jews were going – the direction of emigration.
The third issue was the issue of silent diplomacy over public diplomacy. Shah shtil – be quiet – don’t make waves vs. more confrontational strategies.
The fourth was the fact that they did not like the fact that the Union advocated on behalf of some dissidents, for example, Sakharov. I had reports from refuseniks that the Lishka sent tourists to them with the message: “don’t work with Pam Cohen because she works with dissidents”…
Yuli: When did this happen?
Pam: 1986…1987… 1988…
Yuli: You were open-minded about the struggle.. and they wanted to limit you to a completely Jewish framework.
Pam: It was more than that Yuli. It wasn’t that we just wanted to be open-minded. We had several problems.
On the issue of immigration, we believed that there should be a strong Zionist Movement in Russia. I once met with Sarah Frankel. I said to her: “We need a strong Zionist Movement in Russia. That’s your job. I’m sitting in Chicago. I can’t build a Zionist Movement from Chicago with credibility”. I’d be a hypocrite. We can and do support a Zionist movement. We can give information. We can send in information on Israel—all of which we did. We used to send tapes about Israel that we shrink-wrapped to look like fresh tapes: about life in Israel; how to make aliya etc. But the UCSJ cannot initiate a Zionist movement: I can’t be Jabotinsky in Chicago now that the State of Israel exists and has a supreme role to play. That’s their job.
Yuli: It’s a bit old-fashioned. After the creation of Israel, Zionism changed the color. Zionism today went through several stages. Zionism today is to help Israel be strong politically, socially and militarily.
Pam: I agree. We were already supporting aliyah, as I said….I’m talking about building, creating a movement.
Yuli: That’s it. You can be a Zionist any place on earth if you are helping Israel. In these ways.. or if you are fighting for Jewish identity which keeps our people together.
Pam: Absolutely. But understand, we weren’t against a strong Zionist movement. In Russia: we wanted it. However, we felt our job was to be able to help in the development of Jewish identity (we even had a program of sending Jewish materials by mail, called exactly that: The Right to Identity – RTI) but also we were not in favor of closing the gates to the States. After all, someone like myself who came to this work because of what American Jews didn’t do, could not tell the America government to close the gates.
It was clear to me in those years the Soviets knew which refuseniks were going to Israel. They knew where people were going. They may not have wanted a big aliya in 1979 or whatever year– but they might allow emigration to another country. Our leadership believed it to be morally wrong to advocate for America to close its gates to Jews.
Yuli: It’s a natural feeling being in Chicago. The essence of the problem was a little bit different. If you want, we can discuss it. I just began to feel like in the shtetl in the Pale of Settlement: that typical Jewish behavior was sha shtil – don’t make noise. Don’t alienate authorities. Israel – Nativ people (Lishka) were from these shtetls – and had the same shtetl mentality like people you were so miserable about who didn’t help Jews during the Second World War. They were still the first or second generation of Jews in the United States. They had a shtetl mentality. Most of them came from this Pale of Settlement. It was only the third generation who graduated from American universities who understood all the corridors of power; how things are done; mastered the language; had money for that and so on.. They could open their mouths and say in a loud voice what they really want. It was your generation really. I think that it comes through several stages all the time… About Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, the question was immigration was allowed officially only to Israel. It was based on Israeli invitations. Second, it was working on the basis of quota. There was never a situation where no one wanted to leave. The situation was they were limiting all the time by all kinds of means the number of people who could leave in a quota – people who wanted to go to the West took the place of people who wanted to go to Israel. That was the question.
Pam: I don’t see it that way.
Yuli: From Chicago you see it differently. You save Jewish souls.
Pam: I agree there was a quota but I maintain the Soviet strategy was to make emigration a concession to the United States as a result of U.S. bi-lateral pressure. Its “gift” to America would be Jews emigrating there whose numbers could be tallied by the American-based HIAS. In the early ‘80’s when something like a meager 62 Jews were given permission in one year, it seemed to me that the Soviets were manipulating not only the amount of visas, but the direction of emigration. If the Soviets were conceding exit permits to Jews heading for United States in order to win concessions from the U.S., we had to play that card. We were playing on Soviet motivation. If we could get people out of there – we wanted them to get them out. …
Yuli: For the Soviet Union, the only framework of emigration was from the Soviet Union to the national homeland. Germans can’t go to Canada as well, only to Germany; Polish only to Poland; Jews only to Israel. They wanted an understandable framework from inside. It was only in 1990 when direct flights were established they realized they will have to give up free emigration; then the whole issue of neshira from the Zionist point of view lost any actuality. Then it was only a moral question. You can persuade.. You can explain and so on but they didn’t take the places of aliya to Israel from the quota. It’s like the quota on immigration during the British Mandate, 15,000 a year.. Let’s invest 15,000 – some will go to the US instead of Israel.. You took the places of those in the quota..
Pam: The Soviets played the Jews differently. You are right, the Soviets did repatriate some national minorities…the Greeks to Greece, Germans to Germany, even I think Spanish to Spain. But Jewish emigration was set up as “family reunification” and the Soviets even expelled some dissidents with Israeli invitations. In actuality, an official policy on the repatriation of Jews to their national homeland didn’t exist. Emigration was based on “family reunification” evidenced by invitations from “family members” living in Israel. However, in the early 80’s UCSJ did make a strong bid to open the gateway for repatriation of Jews to Israel and we were the first organization and perhaps the only one to pursue it. It was the initiative of Grigory Vasserman and Yakov Gorodetsky in Leningrad who tried to generate momentum with mass appeals to Israel, to the Soviets and to the Jewish people. I fully supported that movement as did the UCSJ leadership. You remember, on a case by case basis, there were refuseniks who tried to pursue similar strategies, trying for force open Israeli support by giving up their Soviet citizenship and seeking Israeli citizenship so they attempt to be treated as foreign nationals kept hostage….Boris Chernobilsky went in this direction, but his support in Israel came only from the Soviet Jewry Education and Information Center, from the work in the Knesset by Sasha Shipov and Yuri Shtern.
Yuli: Why did the Soviet Union really disintegrate? In great part this disintegration happened because of free immigration. They understood it clearly and much better than Americans. They wanted to limit it at any price.. Free immigration to America was a terrible decision for them, believe me.
Pam: Yuli, I know they had a quota but I believed ….and I could be wrong… I don’t have access to Kremlin archives, after all, but I believed that at the same time they recognized they had to make a concession in immigration, they were also under pressure to keep back some kind of percentage of people who had applied. After all, Soviet client States in the Mid-East were pressuring the USSR to hold back the aliyah. The Soviet interest in opening the emigration flow to the U.S. is not unrealistic. It concedes to the U.S. demand which potentially unlocks the benefits denied by Jackson-Vanik while preventing the large aliyah that was not in the interest of their Arab clients. It was our view that if the Soviets wanted emigration to Israel, they would propel it by issuing visas to those activists seeking aliya. Finished. I believed and I may be wrong, they knew who was going where and furthermore they cleverly chipped away at our unity by pitting us against each another and we fell for it. They manipulated the score.
Yuli: They were talking to us. We will soon stop this whole Jewish gesheft because it’s not a national movement; it’s not immigration to Israel. Look what’s going on in Ladispoli. I really heard it from KGB men all the time.
Pam: Of course they will tell you that. Blame the Jews. But it was our strategy that worked. The immigration crushed the system.
Yuli: From another side in Arab eyes, they were critical of the Soviet authorities. Most of them are going to the West… Now-a-days, it’s after the fact.. Many people say the Soviets didn’t care. From inside I can say they did care… For them it was terrible and history proved it was terrible for them. A totalitarian state couldn’t stand freedom.
Pam: It was a crack in their armor.
Yuli: Yes. The example of choice became very attractive to other people as well. It became the disintegration process of Soviet society as a whole. While it was going only to go to Israel, it was at least clear that only Jews were leaving. Nobody expected Ukrainians for Russians to go to Israel.
Pam: Which they ultimately did. Once the Israelis convinced Reagan and Shultz to limit the immigration to 1st degree family reunification, the flow to the U.S. was governed by strict guidelines that precluded the premise of Jews as refugees. Not only did it change the emigration to the States, but it altered the emigration to Israel. Look what resulted: Barred from the U.S. a Jew, the anchor, did come to Israel, bringing with him family members who were not Jewish. By closing the doors to America, the “aliya” to Israel became bloated with non-Jewish Ukrainians, Russians and others.
The bottom line is I hold Soviets accountable for what the Lishka termed the “dropouts” and the Lishka accountable for letting them off the hook by placing the blame on the Union. Kremlin fueled the fires of that division. They understood psychology and knew how to use it. I didn’t like that. We should be smarter than that.
Yuli: Now I don’t think we can blame each other. Now it’s a question for historical researchers to verify.
Pam: I have to tell you something. I have to tell you how many times and I can name you the names of people who were so against neshira…
Yuli: I was strongly against neshira…but who…
Pam: I know you were but you never called me to ask for an invitation from America for your family members to get them to the US. There were refuseniks who fought us on the “neshira” issue, but privately made exceptions for their own families. I understand it’s an issue of principle and I respect it. I’m just explaining how I saw things…
Yuli: I have met many people who think likewise… The whole movement in America switched to a freedom of choice campaign. It’s natural for people who live in America. I understand their psyche. I understand their limitations from this point of view. At the time when I was sitting in the Soviet Union, I thought the limitations of Americans who helped us a lot; who saved us really, shouldn’t influence the natural Zionist process of immigration. I’m sure so far that if it wouldn’t be up to the seduction of America, most of the people who live in America would go to Israel. From Israel, maybe 10%-15% would go to America. We should really only take care of refugee status.
Pam: Yuli, the UCSJ, the whole grassroots movement, never influenced people to come to the U.S. We weren’t trying to “lure” them to come to America. We didn’t bring information on HIAS or from HIAS until the two track system began, resulting in denials of refugee status for refuseniks and the huge build ups in Rome. We provided help to refuseniks, activists. If I knew activists were helping others who wanted to come to America, I certainly would not withhold my help. That I didn’t do. Our help was directed toward achieving emigration permits, regardless of destination, as you know.
Yuli: In the moment the direct flights were established, the whole program lost its sharpness, its painful points, that’s all. It’s only one of the questions. We have differences with the establishment – on four points:
1 The sha-shtIl polIcy from their side; and your desire for an open struggle.
2 Neshira problem
3 Sharing information
4 Dissident movement
5 Jackson-Vanik amendment and other barriers to commerce, trade.
Yuli: Helping dissidents from time to time – not as part of the policy but from time to time… like Sharansky approach…he was like-minded.. What else?
Pam: Those were the big issues.
Yuli: Did you take part in the World Conferences on Soviet Jewry?
Pam: Yuli Kosherovsky, I am going to tell you a story that you may have forgotten. Here’s an example: There were two very notable world conferences which I attended and both upset me until this day..
Yuli: 1971; 1976; 1983 and 1987
Pam: 1987 – we could not get official status at these meetings. We had to protest and push to come..
Yuli: Were you in Jerusalem?
Pam: Yuli.. We came to that meeting and you were still in refusal. UCSJ was not issued invitations. After a significant protest by our leadership, we were finally permitted to attend with guest status. We arrive in Israel and I don’t remember who in the USSR I called but whoever it was gave me coordinates for a call the next day and told me to come to the call equipped with a tape recorder. Now, imagine this: Micah and I come to Israel. We’ve come to a meeting that we had to conduct a protest to be admitted as a guest. I make the call to Moscow. Yuli Kosharovsky, whose been in refusal something like 18 years, is on the line. Yuli, you dictated a 4-5 page letter to the World Conference in Russian. The World Conference on Soviet Jewry convenes the next day. We find a professional translator who we are happy to pay as long as he will do it overnight and we get it typed and collated and copied and on every single seat of the delegates to Presidium..
Yuli: I was calling..
Pam: You wrote the letter.. Don’t you remember that letter?
Yuli: I know that we prepared for the meeting a big analytical letter.
Pam: That was the letter! And I do know that the Israeli Establishment, the Lishka, or the Jewish Agency or the Foreign Ministry suppressed that letter and I’m telling you now just how that extremely significant document arrived at that meeting. I remember that letter until today. It used policy UCSJ language. It called for “non-paternal, not-patronizing approach to Soviet Jewry”. It was the single most relevant authoritative voice of Soviet Jewry and should have been the centerpiece of the entire agenda of the Presidium written and signed by those they had assembled to help and… they never published that letter. Your name appeared first on the signature list.
Yuli: Because I prepared it. Usually we transferred it to the Lishka.
Pam: Well, they never prepared. it. Honestly, if wasn’t for Micah and me, no one would have had this document, which should have been the basis for the agenda for the whole conference. It laid out the entire agenda for the movement and it was intentionally suppressed. I knew what was happening and I knew you didn’t know what was happening. I’ll tell you something.. You don’t remember…but one time you and I sat together in Moscow. I knew you had good relations with the Lishka. I didn’t know what they were telling you about UCSJ… but we would do anything that you asked.. Whatever you asked of us we did.. You took me out in a wooded area… I don’t know if you remember this..
Yuli: Which year?
Pam: You’ll tell me.. There was a big Vaad meeting. You took Micah and me to an apartment where there were people representing various subgroups of the movement sitting around the table. Then you took Micah and me outside in the woods.. Kislik was there. You told us you needed $10,000.
Yuli: I think it was 1988… It was a Mashka meeting, the coordinating organ of the movement.
Pam: You told us you needed $10,000 and needed it very quickly. Someone else from the Union had been in Moscow; you asked them for the money, and hadn’t received it..
Yuli, $10,000 in 1988….It was a significant sum of money and I said to you, “Yuli, I will get the money for you within 24 hours”. Do you remember?
Yuli: I do. I don’t remember now why I needed it but it was indeed needed very urgently.
Pam: I think it was for publishing… but I never even asked you what it was for. I trusted you. If you needed it, I was going to get it for you.. I want to tell you what happened: I so clearly remember saying to you: “You’ll get the money, Yuli, although when you get out, you’ll never do anything to help us”..
Here’s what happened: Micah and I got to the airport that night to find our flight cancelled and couldn’t get on another flight, but my visa elapsed so I had to get out. Giorgi Samolovich and Micha Chlenov took me upstairs and we found a flight to Holland. I got to the Netherlands a few hours later and immediately called one of America Jewry’s wealthiest men who had been helping us. I got his secretary and said: “Look, I’m Pam Cohen and I’ve just come out of Russia. I have to talk to Jay. Parenthetically, I had come into contact with Pritzker through Albert Reichman who was considering building a hotel in the USSR. His secretary apologized, but he was on the other line, selling Braniff airlines. I told her it was urgent and he got on the line. I told him refuseniks needed $10,000 immediately. Within 24 hours, as I had told you, the money was in Moscow.
Yuli: I remember that we have got the money. Usually we had enough money. I was leading the movement at this time. I was the Lishka representative in Moscow for about ten years at this time from 1980.
Pam: I knew you were working for the Lishka. I knew you had money from the Israeli government.
Yuli: It was very dangerous because we did a lot of delicate things then…
Pam: I watched you very carefully. If you asked for something…
Yuli: It was something urgent.. I don’t remember exactly now.
Pam: I think it might have been samizdat..
Yuli: Something to print..
Pam: Something to print..
Yuli: I had a lot of responsibilities at this time.
Pam: I was very worried about you.
Yuli: Around the clock work.. Very difficult.. You were so American then – a very beautiful woman with open burning eyes. You impressed all of us very strongly as a personality…as a very strong and responsive personality… I was very grateful to you then…
Pam: I didn’t want gratitude.. I wanted partnership.
Yuli: We did. I should tell you that we were growing up in isolation behind the Iron Curtain.. I didn’t have a hint of the real struggle which was going on among Jewish organizations in the West.
Pam: When did you learn what was happening?
Yuli: When I came to Israel - only. I was completely pre-occupied with things going on inside. I was relying on the Lishka.
Pam: Didn’t you have contact with Chlenov?
Yuli: Chlenov was a member of Mashka.
Pam: When did Mashka start?
Yuli: In 1983. At the end of 1983. Very difficult years.. I started it.
Pam: Micha called me and said he had a meeting in Vienna and asked me to meet him there.
Yuli: It was 1989 or even later…
Yuli: He left for the first time after the Riga meeting in 1989.. around June. He went with Smukler and Spector to a follow-up meeting for Helsinki.
Pam: I’m talking before that…It was private.. He went out for something private…
Pam: It was the 80’s.
Yuli: In the middle of the 80’s he was abroad?
Pam: In Vienna and I flew with Micah Naftalin to meet him. I told him everything about the Union. I explained everything about the Union, about the structure of the grass roots movement so that refusenik leadership should understand the difference between organizations. I didn’t believe Jews in the USSR should be paternalized or patronized. I believed they should know everything about the differences. I opened everything up to him.
Yuli: We met with Union. I met with Enid and Stuart in 1973 and 1974; and with Enid in 1976. The Wurtmans were in good relations with the Smuklers who were National Conference. I have met a lot of students who were sent to Russia by the Lishka. Some were working for Student Struggle. Some were working for both. Some were sending reports to the Lishka and giving a copy of the reports to Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
I was never given orders by the Lishka. They listened. If I asked something, they responded. There were some organizations that made trouble but they never said specifically to meet or not to meet this one or that one. I never remember once this thing. Even Micha Chlenov – in spite of the fact that they claimed he was a KGB agent after I left which was, of course, foolish. But I don’t understand how he could be in the ‘80’s in Vienna..
Pam: Micah was there —so it must have been after 1986–maybe 1987, or even later. I’m not sure.
Yuli: I know he went abroad previously as an ethnographer of delegations.
Pam: That’s what it was… He was out… I don’t remember how he reached me but I was visiting my son in Scotland and flew to Vienna where Micah Naftalin met me and we met Chlenov.
Yuli: I will ask him. We are friendly so far.
Pam: I haven’t seen him in a long time. I, also, was friendly with him.
Yuli: Micha comes to Israel every couple of months. He will be here soon for the governing board of the Jewish Agency on February 22nd – 24th.
Pam: I heard that he and Roman Spector were at the opening of the exhibit at the Museum of the Diaspora but I didn’t see him. I was very disappointed not to see him.
Pam: Beit Hatefutsot. You were there. I saw you there…
Yuli: Roman Spector is my friend as well. Even with Stonov now I’m in cordial relations.
Pam: Do you see him?
Yuli: I saw Stonov five or six years ago or maybe longer when there was a meeting for Russian speaking Jewry and he came here as part of an America delegation. Now it’s normalized. We spoke without hostilities. Now I’m living in Israel 21 years. Israelis are free people, working abroad often. 500,000 Israelis are working in all kinds of different countries; even Russians who are returning to Russia to work sometimes. This doesn’t arouse in me strong negative feelings. If they didn’t find work here and the kids are growing up here, it’s ok. Let them go to make money outside. It’s a Western approach already.
Pam: Can I ask you a question? How has your life been in Israel? You were a representative in a sense of the Israeli government in the Soviet Union. You did so much for people there to help build their Jewish identity, their Zionist identity. You were a major figure. You tied communities together. You did so much. How has it been to be here?
Yuli: I did it without any expectations that someone would say thank you. I did it because of my internal drive to do it and I feel it’s still there.
Pam: Were you raised religious?
Yuli: No. I had a completely assimilated family. It was approximately the same consequences of thinking as you had. First of all I couldn’t understand what happened in World War II – why our people could be killed and our fathers didn’t help despite of the fact that in Russia they couldn’t help at all. They were fighting. They had a different approach to the Holocaust. We didn’t feel ourselves as victims. We were part of 500,000 Jews serving in the Soviet army. Many of them were decorated. We don’t feel we were victims. We feel we were part of the force that destroyed the devil. It’s a different approach to the war than among Jews in Western countries. Still I didn’t understand how Jews could go like sheep to the slaughter; and how the Jewish people couldn’t organize themselves in such a way that it couldn’t happen. It was a trauma.
Pam: How old were you?
Yuli: It was growing slowly inside coupled with anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union; parents’ behavior – a deteriorating state which humiliates the human soul. When the Six Day War happened, my only desire was to be in Israel, even before the war when it was dangerous, that there was a feeling that Israel was going to be destroyed. Then I wanted to be there. I understood that my feelings were so strong that I wanted nothing to do with this country – just get out, and go to Israel. Being in Israel is the main thing. I fulfilled all my dreams. I didn’t expect someone to thank me. I didn’t expect to be compensated for 20-plus years in the movement. It’s different. When I arrived I was greeted and met by the Prime Minister and six other ministers at the airport. Yuli Edelstein was there too. Lishka people selected various jobs for me to choose. I was treated well. I was proposed a job in a very good company in Cable TV. I was treated well in my early years in Israel. The problem arose when I was seduced by the Jewish Agency to help them to enter RussIa. It’s a long story.
Pam: I’d like to hear it someday.
Yuli: One day in good circumstances I will tell you all this. I have eaten everything a newcomer experiences – negative things as well. Every immigration is painful. It’s natural.
Yuli: The only place in the world I feel really at home is Israel.
Pam: Me too!
Yuli: In Russia and every other country they may have good physical conditions but home is here.
Pam: You’re right!
Yuli: That’s it..
Pam: I want to add one more thing. You asked me the state of my Jewish identity when I began and I told you. I see how the whole experience that I had – the whole panoply – the whole length and breadth of the refusenik movement which affected us; and affected me personally. We were involved with people who were religious and not religious. If I remember correctly I think the Yuli Kosharovsky I saw in Moscow wore a kippa. Wasn’t that right?
Yuli: I wore a kippa as a sign of Jewish identity. (at the synagogue; sometimes among the guys)
Pam: If you think I affected you, you must know that you affected me because I saw someone wearing a kippa in Russia when I didn’t see men wearing kippas in the freedom and security of Chicago. That was an extremely powerful statement to American Jews. What you were doing in the Soviet Union on many, many levels affected us tremendously—the Zionism and the people involved in building Jewish identity and those who were teaching— I don’t know if you know Grisha Vasserman. Everyone put their imprint on my neshama. As a result, I felt, after the fall of communism, that was my turn – I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn and read Hebrew. I wanted to learn to study; I wanted to study Torah; I wanted to be able to have a home in Israel. I wanted to make aliya. In a way, I am too a Russian Jewish activist and I, also want my permission papers. I want to be with my people. You know Yuli – I have a very beautiful family.
Yuli: How does your family relate to all your activities?
Pam: Oi..ya ya… It depends who you ask. My kids I think… We have three children. The youngest one was small when former refuseniks came to our house… Yuri Shtern was at our home several times. It seems like a constant stream of former refuseniks.. Avital . It was difficult to balance… …I think our youngest one took the brunt of It …I am still afraid and worry that he felt marginalized …However, hard it was for all of them, in the long run, they weren’t sheltered from Jewish history, from Jewish events and they all developed a strong feeling of Zionism. All our children are very strong supporters of Israel. They love this country and their Jewish identity is powerful. They have strong links to Am Yisrael. They are connected and their spouses are connected. I think in retrospect they realize Soviet Jewry gave them a strong Jewish identity and put them in contact with the issues of Jewish survival. I think that all in all, it was positive for them. Lenny and I have 15 grandchildren, bli ayin hara! Nine of them are dati. Three are going to a reform Jewish school. They’re all on their path. Lenny and I are waiting for them here in Yerushalayim where Lenny and I have an apartment. It’s our toehold. It’s more: our real home. We believe there is no future in the West. I feel like you must have felt many years ago. I feel the anti-Semitism in the West. I don’t feel there’s any future for Jews anywhere other than here. I want them all to be here. All we can do is lead by example. We come and we wait for them and pray and we hope… Otherwise there’s no future..
Yuli: If Jewish identity is strong enough… Of course here is better.
Pam: I see what is happening among my friends who didn’t become observant. They are very assimilated and their children are inter-married.
Yuli: That’s a problem.
Pam: The inter-marriage in the States among people who were active in Federation and involved in all kinds of Jewish organization is still high…. Unless you study Torah—are connected to Israel, the assimilation leads to inter-marriage. There’s no reason for them to remain Jewish. The only hope is to begin a path.. That’s what I wanted to tell you…After Yeltsin faced down Gorbachev and everything broke apart, there was a need for a different kind of activity in the Soviet Union and I stepped back. Other people were needed for humanitarian aid. Other people were need for kiruv. My husband and I started a Torah center where we lived, in Deerfield. We started to learn. We started to do what you did 40 years ago. We started to learn… We started to build and we changed our lives.
Thank G-d, we are very grateful. We gained so much from refuseniks. We learned so much from them. Now, so many Americans from the UCSJ are here. They’re people who became religious or not… but they bought homes in Israel. They either made aliya or they’re here many months a year. Those are my friends.
Yuli: We are really fortunate because we had very bold feelings and we succeeded to live up to them. We determined our own lives and no one dictated the terms to us. I understand this is the greatest achievement of every human being to find his own life and to live his own life. This is on a universal human dimension. On an international level, Jewish identity for me is very important; and important for you too. Jewish identity may not only be religious identity but it’s a much broader concept. For Russian Jews, very often religion doesn’t speak too much especially orthodoxy where you are limited in many ways. Jewish identity in their souls is not less strong than religious ones; especially all those who came here will, of course, remain Jewish. Gradually their children and grandchildren will be absorbed into a Jewish culture, Jewish history, Jewish language, Jewish religion, and Jewish tradition.
Pam: My perspective is a little different. My perspective flows from a family where Jewish culture and Jewish identity were very important. In the last generation it was universally important. I was no different probably than Enid’s family although she had a Jewish education. The people that I know in the States, who are not religious, can give you a verbatim history of their families. In three generations it’s gone… It just disappeared…
Yuli: In the Diaspora, it’s really so. You were rewarded by your devotion and religious approach. 15 grandkids…
Pam: All of whom are Jewish! B”H!!!!
Yuli: I would never dream in Russia to have more than two kids. Now I have 5 kids and five grandkids. It’s a kind of reward…
Pam: I want to tell you. It’s a pleasure talking to you. I always knew we had some differences but the differences in the last analysis are marginal and we share universal Jewish approaches. I just want you to know how much respect I have for you and always had for you – for what you did and what you accomplished; and mostly what you did for other people. You changed people’s lives.
Yuli: I really don’t think we have so many differences. Maybe formulating it differently but on the basics I understand your approach and realize we have the same destiny… I think religion is an interesting way to comprehend the world. I don’t think I should be limited to this. I want a wider angle of identity.
Pam: Tell me about your children. Where are they and what are they doing?
Yuli: Three of my sons are here. They are all in the computer business professionally in programming; communications, etc. They did not succeed to get a higher education in Israel. They were growing up by themselves mostly.
Pam: How old are they?
Yuli: One is 32, one Is 42, and third is 28. One is married with my first Israeli grandkid. I, also, have two daughters in Russia; the first one is from my first marriage..
Pam: I remember you were married before.
Yuli: She still lives in Yekaterinburg. My grandkids have Israeli citizenship but they are living in Russia because of business interests there. My second daughter…
Pam: Do you see them?
Yuli: They came to Israel several times. My first wife visited us as well.
Yuli: We have good relations. In January last year I was in Yekatrinburg for my daughter Anya’s second marriage. My second daughter, Sonia lives in Moscow and is working for the Israel Ministry of Tourism. She was dreaming about Israel. She will ultimately be here. She now has a Jewish boyfriend. My hope is that they will come here ultimately. My granddaughter from my first marriage met a Jewish boy in London where they are both studying. They come together to Israel. The boy is studying Hebrew and my granddaughter is too. I hope they will ultimately come here.
Pam: My gosh. We shared so many of the same paths in the past and we share the same hopes for the future.
Yuli: I want all my kids here.
Pam: Me too
Yuli: But if they’re abroad and help Israel, that’s, also good.
Pam: My only concern is, G-d forbid, they marry out.. if we lose them, … If they marry Jews there’s always hope that they’ll come. I’m like my father. I don’t want them to marry out.
Yuli: It’s very important of course.
Pam: That’s my bottom line.
Yuli: Pam I thank you very, very much.
Pam: Yuli, It was really a pleasure. Please G-d, we’ll come back in July and I hope we’ll have a Chanukat Habayit and we’ll see you…
Yuli: Hopefully yes… thank you. If you wish, I will print the interview out and send it to you. Maybe you’ll want to add something or delete something. When you approve the interview I’ll use it as basic material for my book.
Pam: Great! We’ll see you in 16 weeks. Send regards to Chlenov and tell him I’d like to hear from him.
Yuli: I think he would be very glad! He became very important. He’s General Secretary of Euro-Asian Jewish congress. He’s a member of the board of the World Jewish Congress. He’s still the head of the Vaad. There was a 20 year jubilee of the Vaad. He’s very much in demand. He’s coming to Israel.
Pam: What happened to Sasha Murinson? Remember him?
Pam: You introduced us to him. I wondered what happened to him. He played a role for a short time.
Yuli: Give me your phone number please and I’ll pass it on to Micha. He is often in the US.
Pam: Please have him call me. Stay in touch.
Yuli: Enid will help me transcribe our interview and I’ll send the interview to you.
Pam: Be well.
Yuli: Be well too. I’m very thankful to you. It’s a very interesting, emotional and touching interview.
Pam: We go back a long time. I remember exactly what you wore – your hats. I remember everything.. A long time ago…We should have many, many years..
Pam: We are acquainted a long time – first time in 1978… It’s already 32 years….and some were very hard…
Yuli: They really were…
Pam: They should only be bright from now on…
Yuli: From your mouth to God’s ears…
Pam: Be well Yuli. We’ll talk to you when we come back.
Yuli: My best to Lenny.
Pam: Thank you!
Yuli: All the best!
Pam: You asked how we felt we differed from the Establishment and I neglected one of the most fundamental aspects, which, you raised in that Open Letter: that we rejected the paternalistic, patronizing, condescension reflected in the Establishment’s relationhip with the Refusenik leadership.
Edited by Pam B. Cohen and Enid L. Wurtman
Pam’s address to a Core 18 leadership development program in Jerusalem – a group of outstanding young Americans and Israelis:
An Overview of the Soviet Jewry Movement
I was born while the trains were running to Auschwitz & as a teenager, I already saw that my parents’ generation had been ensnared by complacency, passivity & blind reliance on Jewish leaders that resulted in the lethal silence that condemned millions of Jews to horrific deaths.
Leap ahead to Soviet Union: It’s 1970, millions of Jews are being held hostage by the Kremlin behind an iron curtain. Not permitted to leave the country, they were also denied the right to live as Jews.
The same year, a group of Soviet Jews, inspired by their yearning for Israel & denied permission to emigrate, tried to hijack a plane from Leningrad to Sweden. (You have the privilege of hearing in a few minutes from one of the hijackers, himself.) That historic act ignited grassroots movement. Aware of the danger and the futility of their actions, they dared to send up a flare so that this time we couldn’t feign ignorance and say “we didn’t know”. This time, we knew.
Unable to deny knowledge, how could we deny responsibility?
If American Jews betrayed our people once, we would not do it again. In the 1940’s our parents didn’t know names of people who were fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto. But the Leningrad trials gave identity to the formerly anonymous body of Soviet Jews. Now we knew the names of Joseph Mendelevich and Sylva Zalmanson and Eduard Kuznetsov and countless Jews who were resisting.
The Soviet Union receded into history with astonishing speed. It’s already difficult to imagine a border that sealed in tens of thousands of Jews who had applied to leave but were refused permission- and then as “Refuseniks”-as they were called- were fired from their jobs, arrested for parasitism, sent to prison and work camps.
Refuseniks were convinced that their future depended on whether we in the West would struggle with them—together and with one voice and as one people. Kol Yisrael Areivein Ze L’Zeh…All Jews are responsible one for another…
The Leningrad defendants achieved their goal….the media coverage galvanized Jews–not organizations. We Jews, who took to the streets to protest the sentences, banded together…We differed in age, political & religious orientation, from various cities across the country with one goal…freedom for the Leningrad trial defendants and the Jews they were representing. Ultimately we organized into councils across the country and then these independent local groups consolidated into The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews we characterized by grass roots independence.
Media soon lost interest in the Leningrad trial. The only news I could find was carried in a Philadelphia Jewish weekly & from that I organized a small group of young mothers, ultimately connected to the one woman dynamo who chaired Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry & went to my 1st national UCSJ meeting in Washington DC where I expected to see hundred..thousands of influential power-wielding national leaders.
What I found was a small group 30-40 driven, dedicated, unyielding, and politically savvy activists from across the U.S., London, and Paris – each with the same vision.
Sometime leadership, as in my case, is created by history and circumstance. I was about your age and my leadership experience was limited to our 3 little kids and getting dinner on the table. I wasn’t connected to seats of power or finance, and I hated speaking publicly.
But I was equipped with perspective and vision. I innately grasped the complexities of the issue, knew how to reach out to our Refusenik constituents and they trusted me. I was also willing to depend on colleagues to compensate for my administrative shortfalls ..the business of running the movement and two offices.
So I returned home from that first meeting, took over the chairmanship of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, moved our office to where I could solicit volunteers; raised the funds & started making phone calls to Refuseniks.
Ultimately I served as the National President of the Union of Councils for 10 years..(presiding over the fall of Kremlin-but I don’t take personal credit for that.)
We built the movement in large part by targeting people like yourselves to travel to the Soviet Union to meet with Refuseniks. We sought out and sent doctors, lawyers, journalists, photographers, writers, rabbis, students, members of Congress and their aides–all of whom were extensively briefed. Almost everyone we sent returned inspired and ready to help grow the movement. Doctors developed a medical mobilization for Soviet Jewry, our lawyers wrote legal briefs in defense of Refuseniks, social workers and psychiatrists monitored Soviet psychiatric abuse, students took the protest to their campuses, journalists wrote. We made them part of our Speakers Bureau. We harnessed their abilities & their inspiration to drive the Refuseniks’ agenda. I can tell you now that people today tell me that their trips were one of the most transformative experiences of their lives.
The Union of Councils had 2 overarching and interrelated goals: to secure the right of every Jew to leave the county and to provide material and spiritual support while they were waiting. Millions of Jews were being held hostage to the Soviet’s bilateral relations with the U.S: we had to make freedom of emigration a component of American foreign policy.
Our activity was a spotlight of protection for Refuseniks & Prisoners of Conscience but protection depended on the dynamic flow of raw & anecdotal information. We needed the evidence of persecution, harassment, imprisonment and the abrogation of Soviet laws. When we got the call that a Refusenik was arrested or a house searched, we circulated the news immediately to all the councils and our Washington office and mounted an immediate protest.
Our ability to act depended on a constant flow of accurate data:
A tall order considering all this information was denied to us by Israel and the Jewish establishment and–remember—the complete isolation of Soviet Jews by the KGB who censored Refusenik mail, blocked phone lines, bugged apartments. Our first priority was then, to shatter that isolation. The interruption of every phone call, the non-delivery of every letter, the harassment of every tourist was a battle we had to win.
The Union of Councils wove together various strategies to achieve our goals.
First, to let Refuseniks and prisoners’s families know they were not isolated…they were not alone: To achieve this, we established an “adoption” program pairing Refuseniks with American families who then raised their Refusenik cases with their own Congressional representatives. Thus we were ever broadening our mandate at the grassroots level. American kids twinned their Bar Mitzvah’s with their Soviet counterparts. Those ties were deep, personal and lasting.
Secondly, we sought to impact public opinion: We constructed creative press-worthy and often ingenious events…Like Chicago Actions’ demonstration of Rabbis carrying Torah scrolls in downtown Chicago for Mendelevich and the establishment of the Anatoly Scharansky public speech forum in Chicago’s Lincoln Park–or the time we led with the Mayor of Skokie down it’s main street, a horse-drawn carriage bearing a coffin to in a campaign to “bury apathy” for Yuli Edelshtein, now speaker of the Knesset. This media put the Soviet embassy and consulates on notice that Americans knew the difference between what the Kremlin said and what they did.
And most critically, we needed to put the Soviet Jewry issue on the front burner of American-Soviet bilateral relations; to fuel the advocacy of the U.S. Congress, and work with our European partners to affect their governments.
The Union of Councils impacted the Administration and State Department through our Congressional briefings, press conferences. We testified before Congressional hearings, published reports, traveled to international human rights conferences to confront Soviet delegations, and briefed high level government officials including the Secretary of State and the President— all to provide verifiable evidence of Soviet non-compliance to international agreements based on their human rights violations.
But our strongest ally was the United States Congress. In 1974 with our grass roots pressure, the Congress passed the Jackson Vanik Amendment–directly tying Soviet trade to Jewish emigration.
You must know we were a small band of 35 councils …but we projected an image of strength that vastly magnified the reality of a national budget under a million dollars..
Our activists were not the paid professionals of the Jewish establishment who worked 9-5 . Our activists worked day & night..
And these non-professionals raised the funds to operate their own councils; raised the funds for our national DC office and funded the movement inside the USSR.
We operated independently from the establishment’s Jewish bureaucracy which we viewed as paternalistic, lethargic, and susceptible to competing interests.
We activists defined the Union of Councils by establishing a unique non-paternalistic, non-patronizing partnership with Refusenik leadership. We were their counterparts, their link, their voice the West. We were not about organization-building, we were about activism. We were creating a grass roots swell, a movement to identify with and support those in the Soviet Union who risked their lives for truth, for Israel, for Judaism, for freedom. I was inspired by Peter Kook, Rav Kook’s nephew, who tried to save European Jews from annihilation and was opposed by the Jewish establishment that attempted to crush his activities– as David Wyman documents in his book “The Abandonment of the Jews”—-Peter Kook was a small David in opposition to the Goliath of the Jewish establishment. After I became President of the Union in 1986 & was searching for a national director for our DC office, my candidate of choice was Micah Naftalin, whose mother was a member of the Kook Committee to Rescue.
Often, people who I tried to enlist asked “ You are trying to do what? Who do you think you are? You think you can take on the greatest military threat to the US. You think you can pit yourself against the machinery of the KGB?”
But in fact we were forced to conduct a battle on a second front: we opposed extremely powerful and deliberate efforts of the Establishment to silence us, co-opt us, and to detract our single-minded mission on both local and national levels.
Unfortunately, we had to maintain a protracted & particularly unnerving ethical resistance to the leaders of Jewish organizations who tried to undermine & control our agenda and methodology, absorb our movement into their infrastructure and, failing, tried to discredit the Union of Councils, compromise our very limited funding sources, and marginalize us with the government as a credible national grassroots movement.
Our response was to resist & just push ahead. Our collective, unified vision & single-minded passion focused on saving Jews….one nefesh, one Jewish soul at a time.
We rejected the historic approach of Jewish leaders who viewed the open opposition as “dangerous”. Our orientation always was based on the needs of Refuseniks …all our policies were made in consultation with them; they were our constituents; our partners; and more; they were our people and our families.
Once Jean and Mike Freed met Evgeny Lein they would have put a 2nd mortgage on their house to raise the funds in necessary to free him.
After the gates opened, I suddenly realized in retrospect, the enormity of the challenge we faced, the sheer amount of daily work we did and had no alternative but to recognize that it could have only be accomplished with… Divine assistance.
We’re in the 9 days and Tisha B’av approaches and it’s warnings of the destructive potential of sinat chinam…the baseless hatred that brought the destruction of the Beis HaMigdash and the exile we are still in.
I said that I recognized after the gates opened that there was something greater…something Cosmic or Divine that brought out the Jewish people from Russia…and in retrospect…I think that it was exactly the opposite of Sinat Chinam.. The Divine assistance perhaps was sparked by Ahavat Chinam….baseless love…love and the incredible unity between grass roots activists in the west and Refuseniks in the USSR…the shared worry, the shared pain, the shared burden, the shared responsibility, the shared joy..on very personal basis…..
After all is said this maybe the lesson we can all take away from the movement…