Author Archives: Gal Beckerman

About Gal Beckerman

Gal Beckerman's first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September 2010. It was named was one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and the Washington Post, and received both the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

Leaving Mother Russia

In his last posts, Gal Beckerman wrote about barbecuing with hijackers and his other baby. His first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, will be available September 23rd. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, has been blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series all week.

There is a strange irony in having worked on a history of the Soviet Jewry movement at a moment when Israel often sees those who most cherish the upholding of human rights and international law as its enemies. The recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza happened while I was researching and writing the book, conflicts that were followed by allegations that Israel had committed war crimes, and then by Israel’s defenders fiercely denouncing the NGOs and other international bodies who made those claims.

I say ironic because during the period I examine in the book – the early 1960s to the late 1980s – it was Jews who spoke most often about the respect for human rights. It was the Soviet Jewry movement that made such effective use of the language of international law. It wasn’t so long ago, but attitudes have so clearly shifted, that the years I wrote about now seem like a Twilight Zone inverse of today. Setting aside that there are those who see extreme bias (and even anti-Semitism) behind the claims of Israeli human rights violations, the reality is that Israel appears to be on the opposite side of these universal principles, not the force that is defending them. And that is a real change.

Back in the 1960s, Israel helped clandestinely to foment an international movement to help Soviet Jews, and they specifically focused on what they saw as the trampling of minority rights as the cause’s main argument. Throughout the years of the struggle, there was nothing more effective for both refuseniks (Jews who were refused emigration permits) and their American friends than to point to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” In one samizdat journal, these words sat comfortably on the masthead next to Psalm 127, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.” Soviet human rights activists like Andrei Sakharov supported the movement passionately and his photo still hangs on Natan Sharansky’s office wall. He looked up to him as a hero.

My Other Baby

On Monday, Gal Beckerman wrote about barbecuing and hijackers. first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, will be available September 23rd. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series all week.

I’ve repeated it so many times these past few months that I don’t even think about it anymore. “I had two babies this year,” I’ll say, smiling widely. Or sometimes I’ll hold up the book and say, “Here’s my other baby.” I try to avoid the line if my wife is anywhere nearby.

It’s both a cliché and a kind of reflex at this point – both reasons to drop the whole baby thing altogether. It also feels like something a woman who’s gone through labor might not utter so glibly. And yet, I can’t give it up. It’s hard to untangle my feelings about how the book and my baby started life – my editor actually called me while I was at the hospital because I was late to deliver (!) the manuscript. It’s always felt more than just a thoughtless metaphor for me.

But now that my daughter is almost turning one and my book has made its way onto the shelves of bookstores, maybe it’s time to test if the comparison actually stands up.

Gestation period: Hands down, the book wins if we’re talking about time. I started working on it over five years ago, before I even met the mother of my little girl. It involved hours upon hours of research in archives and oral interviews. And beyond the work, there was the anxiety. There was plenty of that to go around while my wife’s belly grew, but it was concentrated in a distinct – and relatively short – period of time. Anxiety for the book took different forms at different times over the years, and it was always waiting for me around the corner, even at my most confident moments.

Seeing her/it for the first time: Since I had no idea what she would look like and had not slept all night and my wife had gone through an intense labor that involved her yelling at me about getting rid of various things in the room whose smells she couldn’t stand, I would say that the first sight of the book was a more controlled and predictable thing. My editor and I had been

Barbecuing with the Hijackers

Gal Beckerman‘s first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, will be available September 23rd. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog series all week.

Writing history that is recently past always carries with it certain challenges. Most obviously, the competing versions of what happened or who did what aren’t fought out through yellowed letters in an archive but are argued by living, breathing, often highly invested people. In the five years I spent working on my book,
When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry
, I can’t count anymore the number of late night phone calls I got or angry emailed screeds claiming that I was clearly not going to give enough credit to so-and-so or put enough emphasis on what some long forgotten activist who was really, truly, the sole person responsible for saving Soviet Jewry had done. For those who had been the protagonists of this story, this was their first – and for some, last – chance to make sure they were remembered the way they wanted to be, or at all.

At first this proved a real challenge to me as a historian – could it be that the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry was really single-handedly responsible for ending the Cold War? But as I gained confidence that I knew the story I was telling, I was also able to better balance these competing narratives and tease out something close to what I thought to be the truth.

But in spite of what was difficult – or even annoying – about this reality, I never once regretted that I was writing about a period with living witnesses. Without them, I would have lost the rich detail you could never get from a document – the color of the Moscow sky above a protest, what it really felt like to fear that any day a conscription notice from the Red Army would come for your son, or how exactly a phone call was made from Cleveland to Leningrad in the 1960?s. Lost would be also the countless hours spent sitting in living rooms in Israel, drinking tea, and watching the “characters” in my book recount their own lives, with both the emotion and subtlety that can only come from oral history.

Soviet Jewry

To read about the corresponding movement in America, click here.

Defining the exact start of a Zionist movement in the Soviet Union is difficult. To some extent, there were always Jewish standard-bearers, even in the darkest years when, following the birth of Israel in 1948, Stalin set out to decimate Jewish cultural and religious life. Jews still met in their living rooms to listen to Yiddish records, looked at postcards from Israel, and taught each other Hebrew. The embers that Stalin was unable to extinguish–and he did send some of these modest activists to the Gulag–began to glow even brighter following his death. 

The Thaw Begins

Soviet Jews in Prison Camps

Poster circa 1970s.
Credit: National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

It was only in the early 1960s that anything that could legitimately be called a movement came into existence. It began in the most obvious place. The Baltic States had only come under Soviet control in 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, so the Jews who lived there had a more recent memory of Jewish life than those in Moscow and Leningrad. Riga, which had a rich tradition of Zionist activism from before the war, was full of middle-aged men and women who had grown up in Jewish youth groups. As Nikita Khrushchev’s period of thaw began, slightly liberalizing Soviet society, they became more and more public about reasserting their Jewish identity.

In unprecedented fashion, these Riga Jews began organizing around the clean-up and construction of a memorial at Rumbuli, the forest on the outside of town where thousands of Jews had been massacred by the Germans in 1940. Emboldened by the need to commemorate the Holocaust, these groups of activists became braver and more confident about demanding their rights as a minority in the Soviet Union, even starting a near riot in 1965 when an Israeli singer arrived in Riga for a performance.

At the same time, in Leningrad and Moscow, where the majority of Jews lived, small groups, meeting in a much more subdued and clandestine manner, began trying to learn how to be Jews. Most of them were at least two generations removed from any real Jewish identity–their culture, language and identity was completely Russian. A few Leningrad Jews in particular began to establish a formal underground organization, with cells and a command structure. Their objective was to inspire in their fellow Jews a desire to leave the Soviet Union by teaching them enough about their lost culture that they would realize the incompatibility of Jewish life under a regime that discriminated against them.

The Soviet Jewry Movement in America

To read about the corresponding movement in the Soviet Union, click here.

The Cold War struggle to allow Jews to leave the Soviet Union was not only fought from behind the iron curtain. The powerful grassroots advocacy movement that emerged in America played a critical role in securing the release of Soviet Jewry. In the process, it helped shape the political contours of the American Jewish community. 

Dan Resinger's Let My People Go

Dan Resigner’s iconic 1969 poster.

First Advocacy Groups

The first American advocacy groups for Soviet Jewry were founded in 1964. That year, the Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism was started by a group of local Jews and a student organization. Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was established in New York City by British expatriate Jacob Birnbaum, who saw the group as a way to revive Jewish life for young people. Both of these groups were far outside the Jewish establishment. In the early 1960s, the American Jewish community was increasingly prosperous and assimilated. In many ways, the Soviet Jewry movement was a form of resistance to what was perceived as a culture of complacency among the Jewish community and particularly its leadership.

In fact, when establishment leaders tried to organize around the issue of Soviet Jewry, they were largely unsuccessful. In April 1964, representatives of most of the major Jewish organizations in America met in Washington for the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry. But, in the end, the conference was little more than a symbolic gesture, and it was adjourned without providing a budget or staff for any kind of sustainable program. The issues of concern–the Soviet suppression of Jewish life and the barring of most emigration–were wholly neglected.

This spurred the two grassroots groups to further action. The small Cleveland group, led by Lou Rosenblum, a local NASA scientist, eventually joined forces with newer groups all over the country and formed the Union of Councils on Soviet Jewry. They busied themselves making contacts with Jewish activists in the Soviet Union and led local protests, trying to make the issue as visible as possible.