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Political Activist Recalls Soviet Jewry Era

December 19, 2012 By:
Laura Goldman, JE Feature
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Teresa Heinz accepts an award for her Soviet Jewry activism from Tom Tropp and Morton J. Simon Jr. of the local American Jewish Committee. Photo courtesy of American Jewish Committee

Teresa Heinz, the wife of Sen. John Kerry, who is President Barack Obama’s likely nominee for secretary of state, compared the PIDE, the secret police she encountered as a young girl growing up in Mo­zambique, to the Russian KGB — and denounced them both during a recent speech here.

She was in the city to receive the 2012 National Courage of Belief Award at the American Jewish Committee Philadelphia/South Jersey dinner commemorating the 25th anniversary of the March on Washington to free Soviet Jewry. That march was held on the eve of the summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Heinz, the wife of the late Sen. John Heinz, became emotional when she discussed the discrimination that her family experienced because her father was Portuguese, a nationality that was considered second class in Mozambique.

“After my father had lived in Mozambique for 41 years, my family was forced to leave and flee to Europe with nothing,” said Heinz. “My father, who was a doctor that treated the Mozambicans for years, had to leave behind his hospital. My mother, who had lived in Mo­zambique all of her whole life, now had to leave, never to return.”

In accepting the award from Tom Tropp and Morton J. Simon Jr., chairman and president, respectively, of AJC Phila­delphia/South Jersey, she said, “What this award calls us to do is to display courage on behalf of what is best in ourselves — on behalf of human dignity and the right of all people to live in this world freely and in peace.”

The AJC also sponsored a daylong event on Sunday focusing on the history of the Soviet Jewry movement and its lessons for Jewish advocacy today.

Heinz, who was a founding member of Congressional Wives for Soviet Jewry and later its co-chair, was seen as an indefatigable Soviet Jewry activist. She once served only watery potato soup, the typical menu in Russian prisons, at a luncheon on Capitol Hill to drum up sympathy for the plight of the Prisoners of Conscience. She regularly traveled to Russia to meet with refuseniks, who were denied exit visas to emigrate.

Heinz, who is currently chair­man of the Heinz Endowment and Heinz Family Philanthropies, marched arm in arm with local activists down Phila­delphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway during local demonstrations against the Soviet government. She can still recount 25 years later, in great detail, her lobbying of Russian officials, including Raisa Gorbachev, for the freedom of Soviet Jews.

If her acceptance speech is any indication, she may be one to prod her current husband to make human rights a central focus if he takes the helm of the State Department, which he is widely expected to do.

Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was a former Democratic presidential nominee, is reportedly Obama’s top pick for the position after Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name. 

Attendees at the dinner saw Heinz’s presence, coming during this delicate time during the nomination process, as a testament to her support for the Soviet Jewry movement.

She described the fight for Soviet Jewry as “the fundamental yearning for freedom, for human dignity, for human rights.” 

“The refuseniks inspired us because they were courageous on behalf of a world we all wanted to live in — a world in which we could all, every one of us, be welcome and free,” said Heinz.

“It was not merely a fight for their beliefs,” she added. “It was, rather, a fight for all people and respect for all our diverse beliefs.”

Heinz saw discrimination up close not just in Mozambique, but also in South Africa, where she attended school while her family was still in Mozambique.

“When I was in high school and college in South Africa, I protested against apartheid,” said Heinz. “My mother did not want me to join the protests. She was worried that it was dangerous and that I would be hurt or arrested. I told her that I had no choice, but to fight” for Nelson Mandela, South Af­rica’s first post-apartheid president.

With the celebratory, reunion-like atmosphere at the dinner, which featured former refus­eniks, local Russian-speaking Jews and a sing-along to the move­ment’s anthem, “Leaving Mother Russia,” a casual observer would never have guessed that the wife of the next possible secretary of state was in the room. That’s apparently the way Heinz likes it.

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