The Sochi Olympics: Remember the Refuseniks

At the end of World War II, three million Jews were stranded in the Soviet Union. Pariahs in their own country, they were required to carry “internal passports” identifying them as Jews. Although not wanted, simply asking for a visa led to demotions from highly educated positions to junior and menial jobs, loss of their homes, constant anti-Semitic abuses and  jail in the Gulag.

These were the Refuseniks; Soviet Jews who requested visas and were denied, some trapped for twenty years, but who fought from within while Jews and non-Jews around the world fought to get them out.

I remember attending Bar and Bat Mitzva “twinnings” in the 1980’s, here in Toronto. While celebrating the event in Canada we were reminded of those denied the right to be Jews and their right to emigrate from a country that was corrupt and morally depraved.

There are many heroes in this story. I was reminded of this in an excellent article by Robert Fulford in the National Post in Canada. People from around the world traveled to the former USSR, despite the risks, in order to meet Refuseniks, contribute to the struggle of making emigration possible, and remind them they were not alone. I am going to introduce you to a few of those Canadian heroes.

“Never Again” became the battle cry of grass roots organizations that grew into protests outside Soviet embassies and consulates until governments began to exert pressure on the Soviets to release the Refuseniks-one of the most famous, Natan Sharansky. Arrested in 1977 on charges of spying and treason and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor, he was released in a trade in 1986 and came to Israel to be with his wife Avital who had fought for his freedom. Canadian Irwin Cotler, then a McGill University law professor, acted as a lawyer for Sharansky.

The late Genya Intrator, born in Moscow, emigrated with her family to British Mandate Palestine, then fought with the Haganah, eventually moving to Toronto, Canada. In 1970 she joined the ranks of those fighting to free the Russian Jews, and according to her daughter, she was one of the first visitors who brought out information to the West. Natan Sharansky and his wife, Avital, wrote in the “1970s and ’80s, the years of the most intense struggle of Soviet Jewry, the name Genya Intrator was both a symbol of the direct link and strong bond of world Jewry to our daily lives.” Genya spoke to Sharansky’s family in Moscow every week and  organized petitions, demonstrations, sit-ins and hunger strikes with his wife, Avital.

The “Group of 35” a Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry established in London England in 1971, arranged meetings between Refuseniks and Jewish visitors to the Soviet Union, who smuggled in material and spiritual support. Brought to Montreal, Canada in 1973 by the late Andrea Cohen (Bronfman) the group included Wendy Eisen, a veteran of the Refusenik campaign. Advocating for sixteen years on behalf of freedom for Soviet Jewry reinforced her belief that the power of a few could change the course of history. She is also the author of the 1995 book Count Us In. With Elaine Dubow-Harris and Barbara Stern this chapter was the most active  of the Group of 35 in North America.

The members attended international meetings in Washington, New York, Brussels, and Israel, wrote letters of protest, delivered them to any Soviet Union delegations coming to the West and secretly supported the families imprisoned in Russia. They alerted both the Canadian government and the public at large to the plight of Soviet Jewry keeping the names of the “prisoners of Zion” alive and let the U.S.S.R.’s totalitarian regime know should anything happen to those innocent people, the whole world would be watching.

The late Montreal Rabbi Martin Penn, director of the Canadian Committee for Soviet Jewry for many years and considered an honourary member of the “35” women, played a critical role in the movement to free Jews from the former Soviet Union. According to Wendy Eisen, the Rabbi “helped to create slogans, paint signs and banners, initiate and even participate in many of our zany demonstrations that were all geared to draw public attention.” To their credit more than 1000 Refusenik families resettled in Montreal.

In 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall came down, six Canadians went on a two week trip to Moscow to participate in campaigns to free the Russian Jews: Professor Irving Abella, Rev. John Erb, John Oostrom, a former Tory MP, Wendy Eisen, and Robert Fulford, now a writer for the National Post and a man I consider a friend through the world of email. Amongst other actions, the six joined a demonstration held by Refuseniks outside the Lenin Library.

I was blessed to have Irving Abella as my professor when I returned to university in the 1990’s. He along with Harold Troper have written the seminal book on anti-Semitism in Canada: None is too Many.

Robert Fulford, an officer of the Order of Canada 1984 and a senior fellow of Massey College wrote about his worry at passport control because of the computer he was bringing to a Refusenik group in Moscow to keep their records.

“In 1988, I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. What if the border guards asked me to demonstrate how it worked?”

What struck me most was Mr. Fulford’s conclusion: “My talks with the refuseniks made me realize, on an emotional level, that you are never even slightly free when you do not have the right to leave your country without official permission.”

The extraction of more than 1.5 million Russian Jews proved one more time that the power of a few can change the world. And it also goes to the values of the Jewish people. The sanctity of life requires that we save our people: from the Soviet Union to Entebbe, Yemen to Ethiopia and the willingness, however painful, to release savages to save Israeli soldiers.

Am Yisrael

About the Author
Diane Weber Bederman is a multi-faith, hospital trained chaplain who lives in Ontario, Canada, just outside Toronto; She has a background in science and the humanities and writes about religion in the public square and mental illness on her blog: The Middle Ground:The Agora of the 21st Century. She is a regular contributor to Convivium: Faith in our Community. "