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Recalling the Legacy of a Former Soviet Refusenik

April 24, 2014 By:
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Yuli Kosharovsky

Yuli Kosharovsky, 72, a fervent Soviet refusenik who suffered and survived multiple hardships, including a long hunger strike, so that he might one day be allowed to make aliyah and practice Judaism freely in Israel, was recalled by Philadelphia friends and followers after his death on April 17 that resulted from a fall from a palm tree he was trimming at his home in Beit Aryeh, Israel.

The tragic accident happened 25 years after his 18-year campaign — with help from a number of Philadelphia activists — to leave the Soviet Union for Israel ended with permission to immigrate in 1989.

“He was one of the most important people in the movement,” recalled Philadelphia investment executive Frank Brodsky, who first met Kosharovsky in 1985 on the first of a number of visits to the Soviet Union. 

Brodsky and his wife, Bunny, were instrumental early on in having Golden Slipper “adopt” Kosharovsky’s battle for freedom as a cause. The Brodskys maintained a long-running friendship with the refusenik, whose passion for freedom and pursuit of justice would not be easily denied.

Brodsky was one of a number of Philadelphians — including Bernard and Lana Dishler, and Joe and Connie Smukler — who paid frequent visits to Kosharovsky and other refus­eniks over the years.

It was a campaign spurred by the 1967 Six-Day War, which dramatically influenced Kosh­arovsky, as it did many refus­eniks. The Mideast war unleashed a flurry of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the USSR, revealing an ugly side which startled and stirred to action the longtime radio electronics engineer, who committed then and there to leaving his homeland, he later recounted to the media.

 In the interim, he was determined to keep the essence of Jewish life as alive as possible. To that end, he headed up clandestine meetings in which fellow persecuted Jews could be taught Hebrew. He also served as a de facto representative of the movement when political leaders from abroad visited the USSR, hoping to glean insight into the refuseniks’ conditions.

The night before a big 1987 Free Soviet Jewry demonstration was to be held in Washington, D.C., Brodsky was spending time in Kosharovsky’s Moscow apartment, thousands of miles away from the U.S. activity.

“He looked outside his window — he was under house arrest at the time — and said, ‘There is my car,’ ” Brodsky remembered.

Not his own car, of course, but the one assigned to keep tabs on him. “It was a car filled with KGB agents who kept him under surveillance.”

“He would just not accept that he was not allowed to go to Israel,” Brodsky said.“When he got out in 1989, he remained a symbol of the refusenik struggle,” one of the most important icons, alongside Natan Sharansky and Vladimir Slepak, asserted Brodsky.

Kosharovsky remained politically active when finally arriving in Israel, helping establish the Democracy and Aliyah Party some 20 years ago, with subsequent moves to membership in Likud and Shinui.

Kosharovsky’s dynamism and unstinting efforts to preserve his sense of Judaism and Jewishness against a repressive regime directly influenced the future of at least one Philadelphia couple who spent years fighting on his behalf.

“Yuri transformed our lives forever,” said Enid Wurtman, who, with her late husband, Stuart, were pioneers in the Soviet Jewry movement.

“It was because of his inspiration that we made aliyah” in 1977, four years after the Wurtmans first met Kosharovsky at a gathering in the Choral Synagogue in Moscow. “I was so moved and inspired by him,” said Wurtman, who, with her late husband, had held leadership roles with the local Soviet Jewry Council of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Wurtman praised Kosha­rov­sky as “an outstanding Hebrew teacher,” who served as a living lesson about the selflessness needed to ignite the movement. He was more concerned about the goal than any quick publicity he could garner for himself, she said. “He would have wanted to be remembered,” she said, “as a refusenik working behind the scenes.”

He and Wurtman, who had been friends for 40 years, spent the past decade working on a voluminous recounting of the refusenik movement: We Are Jews Again: Reflections on the History of the Zionist Movement From the Soviet Union.

The two-volume set, translated into English and condensed from the four volumes in Russian, is available on his website, kosharovsky.com.

The refusenik history needs to be remembered for future generations, she says of the books and the author who offered an eyewitness perspective.

“The Jewish world has lost a Jewish hero,” Wurtman says of her friend and colleague.

Writing of the long road to freedom and the obstacles encountered along the way, Kosh­arovsky said on his website that it was all worth it: “In this great struggle, we have regained the power of Jewish identity, pride and dignity of free people and became normal Jews again.”

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