When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, and began opening up the country to permit more individual freedoms, Sofiya Gutman – a teacher who'd worked as a writer for the Soviet daily newspaper, Pravda – took it as an opportunity to help Jews around the country organize. In 1986, she developed the Jewish cultural society Ziben Lichts ("Seven Candles") in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, holding meetings and social events, and trying to make Jewish life better under the Communist regime. She quickly realized that anti-Semitism was far from over.
"I began to speak aloud about freedom," recalled Gutman, now 73, and living in the Northeast – "freedom to receive understanding of the history of Jews."
After one meeting adjourned in 1993, she noticed threats and swastikas spray-painted on the walls of the building.
"When I saw my name and the swastikas, and their words against us, I was terribly frightened," she said.
Arriving home, Gutman discovered that things were much worse than she had anticipated.
Her granddaughter, Marina, then 13, had narrowly escaped being kidnapped by two women. She did not know if the women were from the secret police, or KGB, or if they were members of the anti-Semitic movement that wrote the threatening messages on the building.
"She ran home as quick as she could," related Gutman, "and we decided immediately to move from this place."
Her final destination: Northeast Philadelphia, where she had relatives, and where she imagined her family could live peacefully in a budding Russian-Jewish community, and be safe from religious persecution.
With the help of former Pennsylvania congressman Robert Borski, she received the proper documents, and after traveling to Moscow for an interview, received permission to leave the Soviet Union.
"A new wind of freedom came in our heart," she said of her move that year.
Since her immigration, Gutman has devoted her time to her writing. With help from friends and sponsors, she's published eight books – some of them in English – and has won medals and trophies in various writing competitions.
She was named Best Poet of 2002 by the International Society of Poets, an offshoot of the Maryland-based Web site poetry.com.
"When people told me, 'Forget about your poetry,' I knew what I wanted, and I listened to my voice inside," she said.
Her writing draws inspiration from yet another ordeal: In 1952, when she was a 19-year-old student, her father was arrested.
As she recounted: "Five persons came in. They opened the windows, threw out everything belonging to us, and they pushed us into the yard and locked the door. We found ourselves in the winter night alone."
Her father, who had served as a pilot in the Soviet Army just a decade earlier, was sent to a prison camp in Siberia. Gutman, along with her mother, sister and grandmother, sought refuge in a neighbor's barn, spending three weeks there until the government supplied them with a small two-bedroom apartment.
Gutman pressed on, studying English and German literature at Crimea State University.
Upon her father's eventual release, Gutman said he became more religious; his daughter followed suit. "When he came back, he had a strong tendency toward Jews and Judaism, and we began to attend synagogue," she said.
Although she noted that Ziben Lichts exists today under a different name – a considerable accomplishment, since her involvement was what eventually forced her to flee – she does not have fond memories of Russia.
Her sense of freedom now comes via her writing.
While a writer in the Soviet Union, she had to wait for an official to stamp her work, deeming it suitable to publish. Here in America, she doesn't have to deal with such restrictions.
"In the U.S.," she said rather emphatically, "I feel free."