I was 28 years old when we left the Soviet Union in 1988. I have now lived in freedom for almost half of my life but who I am as a person, as a parent and a Jew will always be defined by the word “refusenik.”
The word was created by American Jews to describe people who weren’t allowed to emigrate from the USSR. It was a word that quickly gained prominence in the Soviet Jewry movement, the most significant grass-roots political movement in the history of American and world Jewry, one that set millions of Soviet Jews free and strengthened Israel.
When my husband, Lev, and I and our two daughters, Aliyah and Michal, visited Russia this past summer, our first time back in 12 years, we witnessed all the incredible change that has occurred there.
We walked the streets of St. Petersburg, ate in the Jerusalem glatt kosher restaurant in Moscow — listed as the fifth best restaurant in the Moscow city guide — and met old friends whose kids were complaining about going to Hebrew school the same way their American peers do. Today, in Russia, Jews are enjoying true freedom, something no one could have imagined 25 years ago.
On our last day in St. Petersburg, we took a walk from our old apartment building to the Palace Square, the same walk we took 25 years ago when we decided to protest and demand the freedom to emigrate for us, for our 9-month-old baby — and all Soviet Jews.
As 250,000 American Jews were gathering in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6, 1987, Lev, Aliyah and I chained ourselves to the baby’s stroller, held up posters and walked to the middle of Palace Square where the Soviet revolution had taken place in 1917. We were not doing anything illegal; we weren’t breaking any laws, but we knew this was a dangerous act and that we were putting our baby at considerable risk.
We had been refuseniks for more than a decade; we’d been persecuted, beaten, arrested, discriminated against, mistreated, harassed and humiliated daily for the simple fact that we were Jews who wanted to live in freedom.
Even as we knew we were putting our baby in danger on that December day in 1987, we also knew we couldn’t take the bigger risk of having her live the same life we had. And we understood that we were protected by 250,000 American Jews who were gathered on the National Mall in Washington giving Russian President Michail Gorbachev a simple but powerful message: “Let my people go!”
We knew people would be holding posters with our names upon them, and their incredible commitment and solidarity gave us the strength to be brave.
Two minutes into our protest, KGB and police officers arrested all three of us, shoved us into a bus and then into prison cells. We were interrogated, kept for hours without food or water, and then separated and kept in different cells, including 9-month-old Aliyah, who, according to the Soviet police, was old enough to be alone in a prison cell.
But the outrage of American Jews quickly reached Soviet officials, and Aliyah and I were released after five hours and Lev was kept in prison for just 10 days — the last of his many arrests. He came home on the first day of Chanukah; and on the last day of the holiday, we were given permission to leave the Soviet Union.
I truly believe that nothing scares dictators more then a combination of two words: “solidarity and bravery.” I truly believe that the Washington freedom rally organized by American Jews as a culmination of more then 20 years of unwavering support for Soviet Jewry had a huge impact on Gorbachev. He came to the United States knowing that his country desperately needed change — and American Jews inspired and pushed him to take the risk.
Once Gorbachev tasted freedom, he couldn’t stop.
We stood on the Palace Square this past summer and cried. We cried because we just found out that Joe Smukler, the godfather of the Soviet Jewry movement, would not be there when we came back to Philadelphia. We cried because facing one’s past is never easy; we cried because life turned out to be truly beautiful, and the freedom we fought for was now everyone’s to enjoy.
I often speak as part of the Maimonides Jewish identity program at the University of Pennsylvania, and before I start, I always ask the students if they know anything about refuseniks or the Soviet Jewry movement. They usually don’t.
So it’s time to start another movement because our kids must know their past. They must know that the generation of their parents and grandparents changed the course of history. They should feel pride for the generation that freed millions of people. l
Marina Furman is the Eastern PA regional director of the Jewish National Fund. She recommends Freedom25. net, an online site, to learn about the movement.