Jerusaelm, Israel - Oct. 13, 2021 - On a bright, sunny, and frigid December day in 1987, our family rode the Metro from suburban Maryland to downtown Washington, DC. With our new baby in tow, wrapped in a snowsuit for her first outing, we stood with a quarter of a million people on the National Mall. There were many speakers, but we could hardly hear them over the loud chants of "Let my people go." Three million Soviet Jews were being denied their freedom by the openly antisemitic Soviet regime. This rally was meant to demonstrate to the visiting Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that the Jews in his country who were being oppregssed had the support of the American people.
In the early 1970s, Pamela Braun Cohen became an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement and rose to positions of leadership. She served as co-chair of the Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry from 1978 to 1986, then became national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews (UCSJ). Initially acting against the wishes of the Jewish establishment in the US and the government of Israel, who preferred a low profile for the issue of Soviet Jewry, they instead did what their conscience dictated and the refusniks demanded and brought the issue to the attention of the American public and media.
Why did she become involved? In “Hidden Heroes: One Woman's Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union,” Cohen shares the fascinating story of her involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement, a movement of “housewives and students” that brought about freedom for Soviet Jews, and contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Cohen describes the problem as follows: "Interned in this vast prison were at least four million Jews—about one-third of world Jewry—cut off from their people and from Israel, deprived of Jewish books, institutions, and Hebrew language. With Stalin’s accession to power in the 1920s, and with his goal of creating a new genus of homo sapiens— “Homo Sovieticus”—he wiped away all individual identity and consequently eradicated Jewish life."
But their tactic didn’t work, and Jews found ways to learn about their identity. Leon Uris’ book “Exodus,” published in 1958 and later translated into Russian, made its way into the USSR, where it was copied by hand or photographed and smuggled to thousands of readers, as far away as the Siberian prison camps. It was a source of inspiration for those Jews who wished to be free to learn Hebrew and Jewish history and even make aliya to Israel.
Then in 1967, the Six-Day War broke out in the Middle East. The Soviet propagandists on state-controlled television repeatedly broadcasted the reports of the onslaught of the Arab armies. However, even the Soviet censors could not hide Israel’s lightning victory over its enemies, which kindled a fire under Soviet Jewry, a desire to be free.
The pivotal incident for the young Chicago mother and housewife was the news that there was an attempt to take an empty civilian aircraft in June 1970 by a group of 16 Soviet refuseniks in order to escape to the West. "With no hope of emigrating, one small group conspired to take an empty plane from Leningrad to Sweden in a desperate attempt to marshal international attention. From the start, they knew the plan was doomed, but they had to make a stand. They were Jews and they wanted to go home. Predictably, they were arrested on the tarmac before they even boarded the plane."
Cohen recounts the well-known names and stories of Yosef Mendelevich, Hillel Butman, Sylva Zalmanson, Yuli Edelstein, Natan Sharansky, and late Ida Nudel, who recently died in Israel at age 90. However, there are also names and stories of less familiar refusniks and their Western rescuers that fill this memoir. Cohen and UCSJ kept detailed records of their activities over the years that provide a trove of information on this important era and the story of Soviet Jewry, one which should be shared with the younger generation unaware of the imprisonment of millions of Jews, just over 30 years ago.
My husband made a trip to teach refuseniks in November 1985 with a colleague. Couples with young children were discouraged from traveling together, so I could not accompany him. However, I was able to contribute to the effort by buying “Uncle Moishe” tapes for him to take to Jewish children, which were confiscated as contraband upon his arrival in Russia. Hopefully, the materials eventually ended up in a Jewish home, as much of the confiscated material often ended up on the black market.
The book contains an excellent, well-detailed index, which helped me find and learn more about the personalities that I had not been aware of previously, the 'hidden heroes' in the Soviet Union, and the travelers from the West who took even Cohen's warm coat off her back to a refusenik freezing in the Soviet gulag.
At the 'Hidden Heroes" book launch in Jerusalem, Natan Sharansky smiled as he retold the story of how the Soviet prison guards told him he would never get out, because “only housewives and students” cared about him. As the formal program was concluding, a man approached the table, took the microphone, and began to speak. Pamela Cohen looked surprised, not recognizing the bearded man dressed in a dark suit. A former refusenik, he introduced himself as Chaim Burshtein from Leningrad and said that he wanted to personally thank her for all that she did. It was a powerful moment. His story is on page 145 of the book.
My grandfather came to America as a teen, before the Iron Curtain slammed down. One of his brothers remained in Odessa and lost touch with the family after the Second World War. His fate was unknown for decades. It was only in 1978 when his daughter, my mother’s cousin, and her family arrived in Boston, that we learned of their existence and reconnected with them. His great-grandson today serves in an elite IDF unit as a lone soldier. Our family too thanks “the students and housewives” who cracked the Iron Curtain and enabled Soviet emigration.
The photo essay is from the Jerusalem Book Launch hosted by Yosef Abramowitz and Ilan Greenfield, CEO Gefen Publishing, with Natan Sharansky and many of the visitors from the West and refusniks in attendance.
Pamela Cohen shared her story, adventures, and an enlightening inside look at an important-to-remember chapter of Jewish history. Her well-written memoir is highly recommended for younger and older readers as well.
The late Elie Weisel wrote: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Pamela Braun Cohen and all those who played a part in the movement to free Soviet Jewry took sides. Unlike the silence of American Jewry during the Holocaust, they stepped forward and made a difference.
Title: Hidden Heroes: One Woman's Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union
Author: Pamela Braun Cohen Publisher: Gefen Publishing Published: September 2021
ISBN: 9789657023365 Pages: 384 Price: $29.95 Hardcover
"Hidden Heroes" is now available in paperback on Amazon.