Soviet-Jewry Movement History
My first selection for the top 10 Russian-Jewish works of the decade is journalist Gal Beckerman’s When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone. Published in 2010, the book was — and remains — the first and most comprehensive history of the Soviet-Jewry movement. It won the National Jewish Book Award and the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, and was named a book of the year by the Washington Post. Beckerman was kind enough to do a Q+A with me for this site when the book came out. You can read it here.
If you want to know how and why Soviet-Jews were finally allowed to immigrate from the USSR, this is the book to read. Beckerman interviewed scores of activists and dug through endless documents. He traces the movement all the way back to Riga, Latvia, in the 1960s, where a handful of Jews began to uncover the site of a Nazi massacre, crosses the ocean to New York where a group of university students first began to think about the fate of Soviet Jews, and from there traces the evolution of what eventually became a rallying cry of “Let My People” Go that carried through to the Soviet collapse. All the drama, the people, the twists and turns, the moments large and small, are bound up in just over 500 pages. It’s a riveting read!
Most significantly, the book was the first to give a in-depth accounting of the Soviet-Jewry movement from both sides of the Iron Curtain. This is no small matter — though it’s gotten better, when When They Come For Us was first released, there was little information available about the refusenik-activists in the USSR. Much of the coverage here in North America was dedicated to back-patting American saviors of Soviet-Jews. Beckerman dug deeper and understood the importance of, and especially, the risks taken by, Soviet Jews in the movement. That the book won two major Jewish book prizes is indicative of its impact on the broader Jewish community and its contribution to our understanding of the Soviet-Jewish story as part of “official” Jewish history.