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To the Foot Soldiers of the Soviet Jewry Movement

January 24, 2008 By:
Connie and Joseph Smukler, JF Feature
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On Dec. 6, 1987, a most remarkable event occurred: Some 250,000 people marched in Washington, D.C., in a demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jews, during the U.S.-Soviet meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

Forty years ago, inspired by Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement was galvanized into action.

These two watershed events are now being commemorated throughout the free world. Presidents, prime ministers, legislatures and organizations are being lauded for their actions -- and rightly so. But little is said or written about the true heroes of the mass movement for freedom on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

It was all the steadfast foot soldiers -- whose names are not recorded in books, articles or films -- who made the movement. It was you -- one of the thousands of people in dozens of communities all over the world, with a passion for human rights and with a determination to prove that the lessons of the Holocaust had not been forgotten, who achieved the victory.

Take a moment to reflect on what you did. Remember the Simchat Torah marches down the Parkway, up the art-museum steps, carrying torches and banners. You were the ones who bore the signs and handed out the leaflets in the snow in front of the Academy of Music when the Moiseyev Dance Company and the Bolshoi Ballet performed. You gave out the preaddressed greeting cards to far-off refusniks. Remember how we were told in that phone call from Moscow to keep writing, since as they had been told by the KGB, "when those letters and cards stop, you are dead."

Remember when the Panovs, Valery and Galina, principal ballet dancers, formerly of the Russian Kirov Ballet Company, performed at the Spectrum. They had applied to emigrate to Israel and had been dismissed from the Kirov. For that, Valery had been imprisoned, threatened with having his legs broken and kept from his profession. Now, we celebrated together at the beauty of their premiere Western performance.

You were the ones who carried the signs and hung the banners when the Soviet Central Army Ice-Hockey Team came to play the Philadelphia Flyers. And when the Soviet team refused to play until the displays were removed, you took them down, ever so slowly, while the television cameras were transmitting back to the Soviet Union signs stating, "Help get the Soviet Jews out of the penalty box."

When the Moscow Circus came to town you hoisted the banner, "Life is no circus for Soviet Jews."

Your children were twinned at their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs with Soviet Jewish children who were called to the Torah, in absentia, and you left a chair on the bimah empty, with only the Soviet child's name.

You adopted a refusenik family and wore bracelets bearing their name, made telephone calls, sent packages, wrote to U.S. and Soviet officials on their behalf, and even sometimes visited with them in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev, bringing not only material gifts, but messages of hope and support.

Then there was that thrilling, unforgettable culmination, 20 years ago, when you boarded buses, planes, trains and automobiles to march in Washington. Two-hundred and fifty thousand of you, carrying banners and wearing pins bearing the words, "I went to the Summit for Soviet Jews."

You were not among the Jews who failed to protest on behalf of their brethren behind the Iron Curtain, about whom Elie Wiesel wrote in his book, "The Jews of Silence."

You were among those about whom Natan Sharansky wrote, "For in the end, the army of students and housewives turned out to be mightier than the KGB."

For you, the foot soldiers, there is no monument. Your monument can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of free men and women now walking the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, New York and yes, right here in Philadelphia.

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