by Natan Sharansky
In my family we celebrate the Exodus twice. One is the seder of Passover and the other is day of my release from prison. While all Jews strive on sedernight to feel that they, too, took part in the Exodus from Egypt, for many of the Soviet Jews the story of national liberation requires no imagination.
Indeed, our own personal exodus, from the darkness of Communist totalitarianism to the light of the Jewish state, is a modern retelling of our people’s ages-old struggle to overcome tyranny and achieve freedom. But it is more than that. Like the story of the Israelites, the story of the movement to liberate the Soviet Jews is a profound lesson on the power of a people who come together as a community to effect, despite overwhelming odds, positive change in human history.
Growing up in Communist Russia, the narrative of the Jewish people was almost completely unknown to me. This was not by accident: The Communist regime had declared a decades-long war against Jewish identity in all its forms. There were mass executions of Jewish intellectuals and community leaders. Our synagogues and schools were shut down. Any public expression of Jewish identification was met with swift and savage punishment; any chance of reconnecting with our Jewish brothers and sisters beyond the Iron Curtain seemed as likely as the parting of the Red Sea.
All this changed, however, in June 1967, with Israel’s astounding victory in the Six Day War. The call that went up from Jerusalem, “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” penetrated the Iron Curtain, forging an almost mystic link with Soviet Jews. Now, we had a country that wanted us, and a people - strong and courageous - who stood behind us. But it was not just pride that Israel’s victory evoked among the Soviet Jews. Our newfound identification with the Jewish state inspired a heroic few among us to break their silence for the first time, and to demand freedom from Soviet oppression and citizenship in Israel.
These bold Soviet Jewish activists prepared to sacrifice their lives in defiance of one of modern history’s most powerful and dangerous regimes, and fired the first shot in what was to become a twenty-year war. Our cause was taken up, passionately and tirelessly, by Jews around the world. At the forefront of this global army of Jewish resistance stood a generation of Jews from across the political and religious spectrum, who insisted that no threat to Jewish life and memory go unchallenged.
To be sure, the path to victory was long and hard. But we Soviet Jews knew that we need never go it alone. As we slowly transformed our struggle from an underground movement into overt protest, it was world Jewry which turned the eyes and ears of the world to our plight, and would not let it be ignored. Our perilous protests of ten in the center of Moscow were matched by marches of ten thousand in New York, Philadelphia,London and Paris. Our slogan was “Let My People Go.” Their slogan was "Never again will we be silent about the plight of our brothers." During my interrogations by KGB officials they used to say mockingly who is supporting you? … a bunch of students and housewives???
Ultimately, it really was an army of Jewish students and housewives who defeated and the KGB. And what a great and proud moment it was on December 6th, 1987, to watch a quarter of a million vanguard troops of this army, American Jews who gathered from all over the country in their final effort to destroy the Iron Curtain.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain, over a million Russian Jews came to Israel and brought with them their boundless energy, ambitions and talent. They enriched every sector of Israeli life profoundly- starting with science, medicine, music, sports etc. It was not only the Jews of the Soviet Union and the State of Israel, however, who benefited from the fruits of the movement’s astonishing labors. The liberation of Soviet Jewry, it must be recognized, tore a gaping hole in the Iron Curtain, one that would eventually spell the end of the Soviet empire.
For 3,000 years, we Jews remember the great exodus of Israel from Egypt, we keep it alive by telling it anew each time to our children. But the exodus that happened in our lifetime, and which so greatly influenced world history almost escaped from our collective conscience.
Thus did the Jewish people, a small but determined nation united in its efforts and its vision, make the world a safer and better place for all men and women. And thus may the story of Soviet Jewry teach today’s Jewish people that the first step in the vital mission of tikkum olam, repair of the world, must begin with a belief in the responsibility and mutual concern all Jews must share for one another. That is why the efforts being done today to preserve the memory, including this important book by Philip Spiegel, are so crucial to make sure that the story of this struggle and its lessons are kept alive.
Chairman, Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies and Beth Hatefutsoth Board of Directors
photo: President Reagan welcomes Natan Sharansky to the White House in 1986.
Official White House photo.