Canadian Soviet Jewry Movement


By Wendy R. Eisen    May, 2015

“Soviet Jewry — the modern-day exodus” is but a miniscule chapter in the history of the Jewish people.  Forty years ago however, rescuing Jews from the Soviet Union was a high priority on the world Jewish agenda.
A model of non-violent, civil disobedience, this advocacy campaign pried open the Iron Curtain, producing an Aliyah of historic proportions — one that has made a dramatic impact on Israel today — in politics, the arts, science and technology.

In the 1960s, three million Jews — one-quarter of the world’s Jewish population — lived in the Soviet Union under the Communist,  Anti-Semitic regime. 

We can trace Anti-Semitism back to 15th and 16th century Czarist times, when Jews were sited as the cause of all social and economic ills.  In the 1700s, all Jews were expelled from major cities and forced  to reside in an area in Western Russia called the Pale of Settlement that included Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, Moldova and the Ukraine. 

By the late 1800s, four million Jews lived in towns and shtetls in the Pale.

Raging pogroms and virulent anti-Semitism drove two million Russian Jews to North America and Europe.  100,000 were inspired by Theodor Herzl and emigrated to Palestine.  Among those ardent Zionists were Chaim Weitzmann, Levi Eshkol, Zalman Shazar and David Ben Gurion, who emerged as leaders of the Jewish state.

Shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, which overthrew the Czarist regime, the red flag, bearing the hammer and sickle, flew proudly over the Kremlin.

Under Lenin’s leadership, life for the Jews improved — until his death in 1924, when the ruthless dictator, Joseph Stalin, took power.   Stalin closed synagogues and Jewish schools and banned Hebrew and Yiddish publications.  The liberal emigration policy ended . . . and for the next 30 years, little was heard from Soviet Jews.  

It was Stalin’s euphoria over victory with the Allies against the Nazis, that prompted the USSR to vote with the West at the United Nations, in favour of a Jewish state in Palestine.  After Israeli independence  was declared in 1948, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion appointed Golda Meir as Ambassador to Moscow.        
On Rosh Hashona, when the Israeli delegation arrived at the synagogue, they were welcomed by 50,000 Jews on the street, shouting ‘Nasha Golda, Our Golda.”  All were expressing their  newfound connection with the State of Israel.                        

Stalin became paranoid about a Jewish capitalist conspiracy — and soon reversed his support for Israel.                                                                             
Life for Jews became intolerable, beginning with the 1948 murder of Yiddish theatre director Solomon Mikhoels, and ending in 1952, with the execution of twenty-six Jewish writers and poets.  Stalin’s death, a year later, prevented a group of prominent Jewish doctors from meeting a similar fate.
Israel’s foreign ministry established Lishkat Ha’Kesher — a “secret” office whose purpose was to send emissaries to the USSR to maintain contact with Jews.

ELIE WIESEL’S visit in 1965, prompted him to write “The Jews of Silence.” “I went to Russia,” wrote Wiesel, “drawn by the silence of its Jews and I brought back their cry.  What torments me most is not the ‘Jews of Silence’ I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”
Although the Communist doctrine of Atheism deprived Jews of their history, tradition and religion, the word YEVRAI, stamped in their internal passport, singled them out for discrimination.
1967 changed that.  Galvanized by Israel’s glorious victory in the Six Day War, a handful of proud Jews, curious about their heritage, rose in opposition to the Soviet regime and applied for emigration Visas for Israel.

Most were refused and dubbed “refuseniks.” 

They were fired from their jobs, their apartments were searched and Jewish books and Hebrew texts were confiscated. Some refuseniks were arrested on spurious charges and sent to prison, labour camp, or to exile in Siberia.  

Many refusenik leaders paid a huge price for their activity.   Anatoly Sharansky, went to Prison and Ida Nudel and Vladimir Slepak were exiled to Siberia.

In June 1970, Western consciousness awakened when 16 Jews plotted to seize an airplane in Leningrad and fly to freedom.   Arrested on the tarmac, they were accused of treason, brought to trial and sentenced to prison terms of between 8-15 years.  Mark Dymshitz and Edward Kuznetsov received the death penalty.
The Leningrad Trial sentences provoked world outcry. Canadian protests took place in sub-zero temperatures on the grounds of Ottawa’s Parliament buildings, in Nathan Phillips Square and outside Montreal’s Soviet Consulate. 

Days later, the death sentences were commuted to 15 years imprisonment and most other sentences were reduced.  Western voices were heard behind the Iron Curtain!
In October 1971, Soviet Premier Kosygin visited Canada as a guest of the Canadian government. 
Rabbi Gunther Plaut, led a march of sixty rabbis, wearing tallit and carrying prayer books, to the gates of the Soviet Embassy.

There he proclaimed: “Mr Kosygin: We accuse the Soviet government of persecuting Jews, of attempting to stamp out their identity, of fostering anti-Semitism.  We demand that you give the Jews their cultural identity, give them back their language, give them synagogues that can function, give them schools, give them access to their cultural treasures and grant exit visas to the thousands of Jews who have applied for emigration to Israel. “

Jewish protesters dogged every hour of the Soviet premier’s eight-day, cross–Canada tour.  The message was clear — Kol Yisroel arevim ze lazeh — all Jews are responsible for one another!! 
I was born when trains were barreling to Auschwitz — when lethal Western SILENCE condemned six million Jews to unspeakable deaths.  We dared NOT be silent again.  The case for Soviet Jewry was our second chance!

In 1974, when I was living in Montreal, I was invited to hear an Israeli diplomat speak about Soviet Jewry.  “Activists,” he said ”create a living bridge carrying voices of Soviet Jews to the free world. “ Then he declared: “One day, a plane from Moscow, via Vienna, to Ben Gurion Airport will carry the future Prime Minister of the State of Israel. 

Overnight, I became an activist — and along with a number of young  mothers, formed the 35s, modeled after a women’s advocacy group in Great Britain.  The 35s were named there, for the age the women had been when they staged their first protest for a 35-year-old female refusenik.
Like our British counterparts, we dressed in black and took to the streets with the ancient Passover cry:  “Shlach et ami: Let my People Go.”  
Our first demonstration was a third seder on behalf of Sylva Zalmanson, the wife of Eduard Kuznetsov, and the only female Leningrad Trial prisoner.  We were inexperienced — and very nervous standing outside the Soviet Consulate — but we gathered our courage.  Soviet Jews caught demonstrating could be arrested.  All we could catch was a cold.

Before long, the 35s became proficient at writing press releases, painting signs and banners and barraging the Soviets with letters, telegrams and petitions on behalf of individual Refuseniks and Prisoners.
The Soviets acted — the 35s re-acted — When a group of Moscow refuseniks appeared at their emigration office demanding explanations for their refusals, they were herded into buses, taken to a forest and brutally beaten.  The following day, the 35s, wrapped in bloodied bandages, protested outside Montreal’s Soviet Consulate holding signs reading: Visas, not beatings.

Yefim Davidovich, a highly decorated WW2 hero, died in Minsk, waiting for his Visa.  We borrowed a coffin and held a mock funeral for him in a downtown square.   

The Montreal Group of 35 soon became a sisterhood of Canadian 35s, with groups in Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg — all vowing to stay the course until every Soviet Jew who wished to emigrate to Israel was free to do so. 
Ottawa’s Soviet Embassy became a popular venue for protests.  

Media coverage was the most effective way to sensitize Canadians and embarrass the Soviets, so, we devised outlandish demonstrations at Soviet cultural events, when we knew that the Press would be there. 
In June, 1974, the Montreal 35s purchased a block of 40 orchestra tickets for the Bolshoi Ballet, performing at Place des Arts.  We dressed in black formal wear and marched along the concourse prior to the performance.
Then, we took our seats, and as the curtain rose, 20 couples stood — and slowly exited the concert hall, leaving a lone prisoner in the     empty rows.
The following evening, as ballet patrons approached Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, they saw fifty women chained at their shoulders, parading in  striped prison garb.                       Their placards read: “I bet they aren’t dancing in the Gulag.”

Several months later, the Toronto 35s protested against the Kiev Opera and Ballet at Massey Hall.       
Success was measured the next year, when a notice appeared in the press stating: “The Kirov Ballet has cancelled its 1975 Canadian tour due to public protests.”

The Jewish movement began as a trickle, but as it became a deluge, world leaders entered the arena.  An important US advocate was Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who along with Congressman Charles
Vanik, spearheaded, the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which became law in 1974.  It limited trade with countries that restricted freedom of emigration.

In June 1975, a chartered plane carried prominent members of the arts, sports, media, judiciary and clergy from Montreal to Ottawa to join four Members of Parliament outside the Soviet Embassy.  There, each VIP publicly announced the adoption of one of the 40 Jewish prisoners.                   

When the group attempted to deliver packages addressed to the prisoners, the gate remained shut; however, the MPs and two clergymen were invited inside to meet with Ambassador Yacovlev.   

“The Ambassador accepted our list of Prisoners,” reported MP Tommy Douglas after the meeting, “but he dismissed our concerns as “anti-Soviet propaganda” and noted that we were interfering in his country’s internal affairs.”

For many of us, advocating on behalf of Soviet Jewry became a career.  My four daughters, all of whom are present this evening, have a vision of their Mother lying on the floor stenciling signs, before taking them to rallies to “speak out for those who could not speak out for themselves.”                                              

KGB harassment increased. Refuseniks were dismissed from their jobs.  Their telephones were disconnected. There were more arrests.  This led to convening the Second World Conference on Soviet Jewry in Brussels, in February 1976. 

Seventy Canadians were among the 1,200 delegates who assembled for three days of meetings.  At the final plenary session, all eyes were on the Chairman, a 78-year old grandmother, who approached the podium. 

 “What is it that anti-Semites can’t forgive us?” asked Golda Meir. “What is the     greatest of our faults?  We refuse to disappear.  No matter how strong or ruthless the powers against us might be, here we are! Millions of bodies broken, buried alive and burned to death, but never was anyone able to break the spirit of the Jewish people.”
Then, Golda thundered: “If the Russians will not let our brethren be Jews in Russia, then let them come to their historic homeland. I guarantee you rulers of Moscow, the                             Jews of the Soviet Union will be free!!”

Anatoly Sharansky became the most celebrated refusenik.   His wife Avital had emigrated to Israel in 1974, one day after they were  married —  hoping that he would soon follow.  That was not to be.   

After being tracked mercilessly by the KGB, Sharansky was arrested in 1977 and held for 16 months before being charged with espionage and treason.  

In July, 1978, dozens of us, wearing “Free Sharansky now” T-shirst stood vigil on the dead-end street outside the Soviet Consulate for the duration of Sharansky’s 5-day trial.  We hauled out sleeping bags each night and slept there, until the verdict was announced: 3 years imprisonment plus 10 years hard labour.  

Courageous to the end, Sharansky turned to his accusers and declared: “For more than two thousand years, the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed.  But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now when I am  further than ever from my people, from Avital, facing many arduous  years of imprisonment,  I say, turning to my Avital:                   “LeShana Haba’a b’Yerushalayim.  

The mood of Soviet Jews and Western activists had reached an all-time low;  yet, innovative demonstrations continued, unabated, keeping the plight of Soviet Jewry in public view.                        
In downtown locations, we set up a cage with prisoners dressed in striped attire beside a sign reading: Daily in a Soviet Prison Camp, and we served cold potatoes, the diet staple, and asked the passersby to sign petitions.

This mock wedding for Igor Tufeld and his wife  took place outside Montreal’s Soviet Consulate, focusing on the plight of his bedridden refusenik father, unable to attend his son’s wedding in Israel.

When the Moscow Circus came to town, two Winnipeg 35ers dressed in Bear costumes, led a march of protesters down Portage Avenue.

Sharansky’s Birthday was marked each January by a demonstration held outside the Soviet Consulate.                                                                                       

The Canadian community was mobilized.  Under the aegis of Canadian Jewish Congress, the Soviet Jewry committees of synagogues, organizations, lawyers, academics, scientists and inter-faith clergy increased the pressure.   

The Ontario Legislature Committee for Soviet Jewry committee and the Canadian Parliamentary Group for Soviet Jewry, with 283 members, raised refusenik and prisoners’ cases through diplomatic channels.  It was the largest non-partisan parliamentary group in the world.

Canadian children twinned their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs with children of refuseniks — 
Day-school students marched outside the Soviet Consulate, chanting “1,2,3,4, — open up the Iron door; 5,6,7,8 Let my People emigrate.”

Critical to the movement were visitors from the West, who brought information in and out, helping these brave souls endure their dismal reality.   

In 1978, I traveled with a friend to Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev
We each wore a necklace made of 180 Stars of David, for distribution among the refuseniks. In addition to material items, like Levis, for them to sell on the Black  market, we packed two down-filled sleeping bags for stalwart leaders, Vladimir Slepak and Josef Begun, both of whom had been exiled to Siberia.

Dramas played out day after day, and night after night, in the apartments of scientists Victor Brailovsky, Alexander Lerner and Alex Ioffe — often in silence, as conversations between us and dozens of refuseniks were exchanged on magic slates, to avoid being detected by hidden bugs the KGB had planted in their apartments.

We held their hands — and as the tears in their eyes met the tears in ours, we promised them that they would NEVER be alone.

I carried out from Moscow, a letter from Sharansky’s mother giving Irwin Cotler, the authority to represent her son legally.  As a back-up, written in my  daytimer were the words:  “I hereby authorize Professor Irwin Cotler of Montreal Canada to act on     behalf of my brother, Anatoly Sharansky.” Signed: Leonid         Sharansky. 

Weeks after my return to Canada, I received a Letter from Josef Begun, postmarked, Magadan, Siberia, that opened with: “ I have received your very warm message.”   

1979 was a record year.  51,320 Jews received Visas — highlighted by the early release of most of the Leningrad Trial prisoners.   That summer, as an assignment for Keren Hayesod, I interviewed nine of the prisoners who were beginning new lives in Israel.  

In Edward Kuznetsov’s apartment, I removed from my wrist, the silver bracelet that bore his name and tearfully placed it on his. “The breadthat they gave us in      prison was so mouldy,”  he told me,  “that when squeezed, water would run out.  

One day, my cell mates and I pooled our bread and formed letters that we stuck to the wall spelling: “GIVE US BREAD.”

 “Jewish Voices from the Soviet Gulag,” published by Keren Hayesod for use  during UJA campaigns, contains excerpts of these interviews, copies of which are available for you to take home tonight.

In 1982, as diplomatic relations between the US and USSR deteriorated, emigration figures dropped dramatically.   Only 2,688 Jews were granted exit visas.

Western activists stepped up the pressure.  We were the reliable cable in the living bridge between Soviet Jews and the rest of the world.  Our ongoing activity ensured that the bridge on which their future depended, never crumbled or swayed.

In 1986, Yuli Edelshtein, a young Hebrew teacher imprisoned on false drug charges, sustained serious injuries in a labour camp accident.  

When Toronto friends, Selma and Gordon Edelstone, learned of his plight, they claimed Yuli as their adopted cousin and contacted every Edelstein, Edelshtein and Edelson in the Toronto phone book.  The “Edelstein clan” met,  formed “Edelsteins for Edelshtein” and began pressuring the Soviets to free their        adopted cousin.

When Yuli was released from prison, months later, the CBC filmed the celebratory party at the Edelstone home.

On his first visit to Toronto after emigrating to Israel, Yuli entered the Edelstone home for another celebration: “So many relatives all at once,” he joked. “Without this movement of ordinary people and public demonstrations, we wouldn’t have had a chance.”.

Today, Yuli Edelstein is the Speaker of the Knesset. 

In the early 1980s, the new Soviet leader, Mikhael Gorbachev introduced Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring).  Social and political reforms bestowed some rights and freedoms upon Soviet citizens . . .  and more Jews received permission to leave.

Meanwhile, in the Gulag, Anatoly Sharansky endured solitary confinement, hunger strikes, forced feeding and near starvation. 

His wife, Avital, circled the globe, attending demonstrations and rallies and meeting with world leaders.

After spending 3,255 days in prison and labour camps, on February 11, 1986, satellite television captured Sharansky’s release.  That morning, guards had confiscated his small book of Psalms.  Throwing himself into the snow,  Sharansky declared, “not another step until my Psalms are returned to me.” 

“My little book of Psalms” he explained later, “was my companion in all the years in the Gulag.  It kept me warm. Through the triumphant psalms of King David, God was bringing me the joyous news: ‘You are free, you have won, you are going to the land of Israel.”

Moments after disembarking from the plane that carried him to East Berlin, Sharansky was ordered to walk “directly” across the Glieneke Bridge to the West, to those waiting to begin the exchange of prisoners.  In his last act of defiance, he walked toward his liberators in a “zig-zag” pattern. 

Sharansky’s humour never left him. With a broad smile and open arms, his first words to Avital, after their 12-year separation were:  Sorry I’m late!”  

They arrived at Ben Gurion airport into the arms of Israeli dignitaries and a cheering throng of thousands. 

Sharansky adopted his Hebrew name Natan, and within a short time,  joined the Israeli government where he served in a ministerial capacity for a total of nine years.  

Since 2009, Natan Sharansky has served as Chairman of the Jewish Agency.

The nightmare did not end with Sharansky’s release in 1986.  Twoyears later, Elena Keis, an engineer and talented poet, was still waiting for Glasnost to reach her door.  

Elena’s tragic story began in 1974, when her sister Anna, a concert  violinist, emigrated to Israel but was forbidden to take her violin.  Their Mother arranged for the violin to be smuggled out and sent to her in Israel.  For this crime, she was arrested and imprisoned in deplorable conditions for five years.   

Upon her release from prison, she received a Visa, but died, soon after, in a psychiatric institution in Israel.

By 1988, Elena was desperate. 


Her son, Andrei, was 17 and nearing draft age. Time was running out! The sister she hadn’t seen in 14 years, was now a principal violinist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. 
Toronto Jewish Women’s Federation adopted Elena and immediately initiated  a petition campaign.  They met with Soviet officials and enlisted the support of  June Callwood, who wrote about Elena in her Globe and Mail column.

That summer, Zubin Mehta, conductor of the Israel Philharmonic, visited Elena in Leningrad.  They conceived a dramatic plan that bore fruit on October 9th, 1988 at a concert at Massada, marking Israel’s 40th anniversary — an event that was attended by many of us on a UJA Hineni mission.   

When the last note of Gustav Mahler’s symphony resonated in the midnight sky, Mehta stepped forward with a telephone.  He shouted into the mouthpiece:  “Hello Lena, this is Zubin.”  Immediately,  a woman in the orchestra rose, placed her violin on her chair, took the telephone and began to speak with  fiery passion to her sister in Leningrad.  The conversation, in Russian, between Anna and Elena was amplified for all to hear.

Elena broke into English.  “You can be sure,” she declared, “that we will continue our struggle for our repatriatino to our homeland, for our right to be Jews,  for our desire to live in Israel.  We won’t stop until our dream comes true.  Don’t forget us.   Wait for me, my sister . . . I’ll come.”                                                                                               

Three weeks later, Elena Keis received her Visa

A celebration was held in this building for Elena when she visited Toronto.  

Exuding warmth, she expressed deep appreciation for everyone’s efforts on her behalf. “During my refusal,” Elena declared, “ I became proud  that I am a Jew.”

I daresay, the Soviet Jewry campaign strengthened the identity of Jews on  both sides of the ocean.  I, for one, became acutely aware of the privilege of belonging to a people, worldwide, who are connected by a rich Jewish heritage.

On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union took its last breath.  The world  watched as the red flag bearing the hammer and sickle that had flown over  the Kremlin for seventy years, was lowered for the last time.  
As the Iron Curtain parted, decades of oppression and suppressed Jewish  identity abruptly ended. 

One million Jews began their 2000-year journey home . . .  to burst brilliantly onto the landscape of Jewish history.