A week ago today, Vladimir (Volodya) Slepak was buried in Jerusalem. I am well aware that for my generation, his passing may not mean much. But back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, “Slepak” was a household name around the Jewish world.
Volodya Slepak and his wife Masha applied for an emigration visa from Russia to Israel after the Six Day War. Like so many others, they were refused. Slepak spent the next seventeen years leading other Russian Jews in their struggle to emigrate. Patient, knowledgeable, and warm, he inspired his comrades in arms with his vision and dedication. His apartment was always open to would-be immigrants and seasoned refuseniks, political dissidents, foreign journalists, supporters from Russia and activists from abroad. They flocked to Slepak in their quest for information and advice, turning his apartment into what David M. Shribman recently described as “a book-choked headquarters for Soviet dissidents hoping for liberty and for Soviet Jews hoping for the exit visa that would liberate them.”
Just as his comrades flocked to him in his life, the veterans of the struggle for Soviet Jewry gathered around Slepak in his death. Refuseniks, English-speaking Jewish activists and prisoners of Zion came to honor their friend and bask in his memory. The speakers at the funeral talked about Slepak’s achievements at length, but what truly made us cry and laugh were their stories about Slepak’s personality.
Sanya, the Slepaks’ son, talked about the challenges of running the unofficial headquarters of the refusenik movement. His mother would cook a huge batch of buckwheat every morning. Volodya used to comment that she was going overboard, and Masha would ignore him, saying “a crowd will come.” She was always proven right. In fact, so many people came to the apartment that Masha often had to cook a second batch. In their rare moments alone, recalled Sanya, his father would sit quietly and ponder. He would consider all the different cases that were brought to him that day, trying to supply the best possible advice.
My father, Nathan Sharansky, spoke about Slepak’s reliability. He never compromised or negotiated with the KGB. In fact, when they tried to talk to him, he would sometimes fall asleep.
These stories made me feel as if Slepak was still very much alive. I half expected to hear his booming voice or see his famous beard. And I suddenly realized that we often misrepresent heroism, and short- change ourselves in the process. When we imagine the heroes of the past, we may strip them of their unique personalities. We focus on the sacrifice and the glory, and forget that they were people, just like us. But how can a hero without a human face truly inspire us?
When I think about a hero fighting for seventeen years, I feel awe. But when I recall that this man was funny and warm, that he had likes and dislikes, I feel moved and empowered. Slepak the indefatigable hero is someone I can only admire. Slepak the man, who liked his dog and gave great hugs, is a person I can try to emulate.
Slepak wasn’t the only refusenik to die in recent weeks. The veterans of the struggles for Soviet Jewry buried two other heroes in less than a month: Mark Nashpitz and Volodya Prestin. Like Slepak, Nashpitz and Prestin dedicated themselves to lofty goals and sacrificed their own safety in the process. Nashpitz lived “in refusal” for fifteen years and spent five of them in exile in Siberia. Prestin taught Hebrew and Judaism and spread texts through samizdat despite the risks. But like Slepak, Nashpitz and Prestin were great people before they were heroes. Prestin was remarkably modest despite his brilliance. Nashpitz was extremely loyal to his friends. When he was exiled in 1975 he was forbidden to practice his profession, dentistry. Yet when my father happened to have a toothache while visiting him, Nashpitz defied the rules to care for his friend.
Slepak’s funeral made me contemplate my responsibility as a parent. As Nathan and Avital Sharansky’s daughter, I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by the heroes of the struggle for soviet Jewry, and thus knowing them as real people. I learned from them that heroism is achievable for us. I only hope that as I pass this heritage on, I wouldn’t strip my heroes from their humanity, and deprive my children from models they can actually relate to.
The funeral brought home another realization. The struggle for Soviet Jewry was pulled in different directions by factions that often clashed. Slepak, for example, led the “Politiki” (political) camp that fought for the right to emigrate from Russia. Mark Nashpitz belonged to a group that thought the “Politiki” were too passive. The “Hong Weibing”, as their critics called them (after the Red Guard of the Chinese Cultural Revolution), called for active defiance, organized demonstrations (all anti-regime demonstrations were illegal in the USSR) and openly clashed with the KGB. Volodya Prestin led the “Kulturniki” group that focused on reviving Jewish identity.
Yet the people who gathered to bury these men no longer cared about their differences. At the end of the day, their diverging methods and priorities were set aside, and what mattered was that they all worked towards the same goal. As my father put it, “All these camps were parts of one body, and all of them had very important functions in the same struggle.”
We face many disagreements in our own struggles today. I hope to learn from the very human heroes of the struggle for Soviet Jewry to look beyond them. I hope to always remember the underlying unity of cause.