Soviet and Jewish and stateless

1980. I was just barely two years old, but already a stateless refugee when my family arrived in Canada that winter. Six months earlier, we’d left the Soviet Union, travelling first to Vienna and then, by train, Rome. That year, we were among the 50,000-odd Jews who’d been permitted to leave the USSR. We were part of a wave of emigration that took place between 1967 and 1981, the result of an activist movement to free Soviet Jewry that began in the US and spread throughout the Jewish world. In all, about a quarter-million Jews left the Soviet Union in those years, a fraction of the millions of Jews living under Soviet rule. (After 1981, until the collapse of communism at the end of the decade, emigration slowed to a trickle, although the movement itself continued with its efforts.)

For the last while, I’ve been slowly gathering stories, interviewing people who came to Canada from the USSR between 1967 and 1981. Why? Aside from a personal interest, I think that a lot of the “regular folk” in this narrative have been forgotten. The past few years have seen an upsurge of books chronicling this time period. The focus is predominantly on the activist movement in the US, with some additional nods to Israeli, British and Canadian efforts. As for the Soviet end, most of the material is about the refusenik activists. (Take a look at Laura Bialis’ 2007 documentary Refusenik for an excellent overview of the refusenik-activist movement.) And rightly so. These people were nothing short of heroic in their actions.

But as I wade through my growing stack of books, lists of websites and so forth, I see two things happening with this historic period. It’s either forgotten, its significance disappearing under the weight of current Middle East politics or it becomes a story about activists and dissidents only. It’s now the narrative of a Movement, and the people whose lives were changed by it are secondary. It’s demonstrations and political wrangling, not people packing their suitcases and leaving their homes forever. I can’t help feeling that an essential part of the story has been co-opted. Writing in Azure (full text unavailable) Yossi Klein Halevi, an activist in the movement and now a contributing editor to The New Republic, states that “… a no less powerful transformation has occurred among American Jews. The Soviet Jewry movement roused them from their passivity, and taught them how to fight a Diaspora-generated struggle and experience victory… American Jews came to see themselves as a major force for Jewish freedom and security, protecting endangered Jews through political means… In its struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews, American Jewry liberated itself as well.”

And yes, this was a major movement that began on the streets and worked its way up through the American congress, all the way to Reagan and Gorbachev. I’m not debating its importance or achievements. In the USSR, the actions of the refusenik activists were… well, it’s hard to describe their magnitude. Just imagine—a group of people standing up to the KGB? To the Kremlin? Unheard of.

But there are so many other people whose lives were transformed in those years. They may not have been activists or refuseniks, but they were brave and daring in their own way, quietly uprooting themselves and walking away, leaving behind everything they knew for a chance at something better. Something completely unknown. Crossing the great divide at that time was no small matter. There’s a reason they called it the iron curtain—hard to imagine today in a world of instant information. People often describe it as a death—you could never go back.

Ordinary people making extraordinary decisions. And it is that small ordinariness that has been forgotten. These are the stories and the people I am interested in. Some of them became refuseniks (this wasn’t something you chose, but was thrust upon you by the whims of the Soviet government), who, in turn, often became activists. Some of them were lucky enough to be granted an exit visa right away. All of them lost their jobs, were censured by colleagues, friends and sometimes even family. They were spied on and harassed by the authorities at every turn. Their sanity was questioned, as was their loyalty to the state. And their numbers, though a fraction of the total Soviet-Jewish population, proved that this was more than an assortment of dissatisfied activists and dissidents. People wanted to live in freedom.

I can picture this unnamed mass pouring out of all corners of the Soviet Union, like ants on a map, converging onto Vienna, then Rome, and then spilling out again all through the Western world. The record is incomplete, and I want to know more about them. What did it feel like to say goodbye to family and friends? To realize that freedom was a mere two-hour flight away, the distance from Moscow to Vienna? And what happened next? Once the emotion of slogans and protests died down, and the formerly oppressed started trickling into Jewish communities across North America, how did these two communities—the old and the new—learn to live together, or not?

I have been conducting interviews with Soviet Jewish emigrants who left in the 1970s for some time, and would like to eventually pull them together into a book. In the meantime, I’ll be writing about my work here on this site, posting stories, links and other odds and ends as I come across them. If you’d like to follow along, please bookmark this site, sign up for email alerts or subscribe to the feed. And if you, or someone you know, has a story to share, please get in touch with me. Any other thoughts, questions and general ramblings can be left in the comments or emailed directly to me.