Triumph Over Tyranny: The Heroic Campaigns that Saved 2,000,000 Jews

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Unsung Hero of the Month

October 2008

Each month, we will identify an “Unsung Hero” - someone who, while living, made significant contributions to the Soviet Jewry Movement. This is my attempt to recognize and celebrate their efforts even though they are no longer with us.

Alex Lerner

On October 28, 2003 Professor Alexander Lerner celebrated his 90th birthday at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. He passed away on April 6, 2004. His story is chronicled in Chapter 9 “You Will Never Leave the Soviet union”.

Professor Lerner carefully disconnected the telephone in his apartment, made sure all the doors were locked, drew the window shades and convened a family meeting that was spoken in whispers. It was the spring of 1971 and he said that some daring people had applied for permission to emigrate to Israel, and some had actually gotten out. He wondered if “we would be able to leave this land of ‘advanced socialism’ – the workers’ paradise.” All five members of the family agreed that they had had enough of “slavish submission to a brutal, hypocritical system.” It was time to fulfill Lerner’s half-century-old dream of “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Lerner was highly respected and privileged as deputy director of a major scientific institute and Russia’s foremost expert in cybernetics. He was one of very few Soviet scientists and engineers allowed to travel to international conferences and had two cars, a large apartment and a country house. His application for an exit visa – the first from a professional of his stature – sent shock waves throughout the Soviet scientific establishment. The first indication of his intention to emigrate was discovered by the KGB when they intercepted a letter of invitation from his relatives in Israel. The KGB immediately contacted Lerner’s boss, academician Y. A. Trapeznikov, who then summoned Lerner to his office and said, “This is Zionist propaganda and I’m sure you will give it a deserving answer.” Lerner replied, “I am sorry but that letter is my invitation and I do want to go to Israel.” Trapeznikov angrily called all of his laboratory and department directors to a special meeting and acknowledged that Lerner’s mail had been seized and warned them that such letters were taken very seriously. Undeterred by Trapeznikov’s threats, Lerner submitted his application for an exit visa.

In December 1971 he was not surprised when his application was refused and he was dismissed from all his professional posts and expelled from the Communist Party.

The pretext of his refusal was that he had worked on control systems for nuclear submarines, but that work had ended in 1962 and was already well known in the West. Reflecting on his initial refusal, Lerner asserted that “the authorities strongly wanted to make an example of me.” His approach to counter the refusal, dismissal and ostracism was to participate in as many protests and contact as many friends in the West as possible. He joined other Moscow refuseniks in street demonstrations and in protesting anti-Semitic editorials that had been published in Pravda.

Lerner invited refuseniks to his apartment for weekly seminars so they could keep abreast of the latest developments in their fields despite having been dismissed from their jobs. Refuseniks and, occasionally, foreign visiting scientists would discuss both technical issues and Jewish culture. Eventually, non-Jewish dissidents would attend and some, like Andrei Sakharov, would be the lecturers. The KGB ignored the seminars for about two years and then in 1981 started harassing participants, preventing them from entering Lerner’s apartment and other seminar venues. Scientists from abroad wishing to travel toRussia and suspected of planning to attend refusenik seminars were denied entry visas.

During the summer of 1975 a group of U.S. senators, including Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jacob Javits (R-NY) and Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT) were in Moscow for meetings with Brezhnev. They wanted to meet with refuseniks and managed to contact Lerner and some of the regular seminar attendees. At a meeting the next day the senators were shocked when they were shown a series of rabidly anti-Semitic articles from recent editions of a Ukrainian newspaper. One senator asked, “My God, that’s unbelievable! Tell me, do you think we’ll make things worse by taking a hard line with the Soviets?” Lerner and his colleagues, Mark Azbel, Victor Brailovsky and Benjamin Fain, answered, “We certainly do not. We’re speaking for all refuseniks when we say that we believe economic pressures are the only means the United States can use to improve this situation. We support the policy of America’s holding this line, not retreating a single step.”

Lerner had additional meetings with visiting senators. In 1978 Hubert Humphrey and Ted Kennedy (D-MA) came to Lerner’s apartment to discuss how the U.S. Congress could help refuseniks be granted the right to emigrate. When Kennedy returned two years later, Lerner invited Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner to join the discussion focusing on the plight of dissidents in jails, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals.

Isi Leibler, who in the 1960s had alerted Australia to the injustices of the Soviet regime with regard to its Jewish minority, was able to visit Russia in 1978 as an executive of Australian Jewish organizations and as a board member of the World Jewish Congress. He was accompanied by Robert Hawke, a leader of Australia’s trade unions and a man with strong sympathies for Soviet Jews, who had been invited to Moscow by Soviet trade unions. Hawke and Leibler met with Lerner to devise a strategy that might force the Soviets to allow free emigration. They proposed that if the Soviets agreed to three demands they would arrange for the American government to ease restrictions on trade with the Soviet Union. The three demands were (1) a five-year time limit on refusing permission to emigrate for any reason including secrecy; (2) immediate permission for all refuseniks who had already been waiting for five years or more; and (3) removal of all deliberate restrictions on applications to emigrate. Hawke presented the proposal to the chairman of the Soviet National Trade Union Council, who claimed to be negotiating on behalf of the Soviet government. He was assured that the proposal had been accepted by the government and would be honored. Sadly, it was all a shameless deception. None of the restrictive emigration policies were modified.

Several years later Hawke led the Australian Labor Party to victory in parliamentary elections and became prime minister. As such he worked actively for the release of prisoners of Zion and refuseniks, and upon visiting Moscow for meetings with Gorbachev in 1987, he asked the Soviet leader to allow Lerner and several other refuseniks to emigrate.

Lerner’s wife, Judith, died of a sudden heart attack in 1981 after ten years of tension and uncertainty about the family’s future. Their daughter, Sonya, who was living in Israel, was allowed to return to Moscow to attend the funeral, an unprecedented gesture thanks to an appeal from West German chancellor Willy Brandt to Soviet foreign minister Gromyko. During her five-day visit she asked the head of OVIR if the authorities were willing to allow her father and brother to leave and join her in Israel. The bureaucrat curtly replied, “This is not a case of reunification and we are not prepared at this stage to consider it.” Again, their hopes were dashed. Several months later two KGB men dressed in police uniforms barged into Lerner’s apartment while he was meeting with other leading refuseniks to draft the latest annual report on emigration for dissemination to friends in the West. Lerner was taken to the police station where two other KGB agents were waiting. One of them grimaced at Lerner, uttered a few obscenities and then the following dialogue took place:

KGB: What a traitor and scoundrel you have to be to pull such a trick after everything you’ve been given – an education, position, high pay, and the devil knows what else. Now you want to emigrate. Like hell!

Lerner: I won’t be spoken to in such terms. I won’t answer any questions. Please behave decently.

KGB: We know all about your dirty deals. Don’t try to be too smart or we’ll talk about sexual dirt that you’d rather not hear about. It’ll be worse for you.

Lerner: Don’t try to provoke me with threats. No one will believe any dirt your superiors try to heap on me.

KGB: We’ll find people to believe it, and we’ll give you what you deserve, you promiscuous bastard. You deserve it!

Lerner: I don’t know what you are driving at or what you want of me. I know you can curse anyone up and down, but what do you want of me?

KGB: Better give up your stupid idea and announce that you have no intention of going anywhere.

Lerner: I won’t, ever, under any circumstances. I’d rather hang myself than stay here and live among the likes of you.

KGB: You won’t make us cry by hanging yourself. Maybe it will do some good. Your kind doesn’t commit suicide. You don’t want to die. You want a sweet life, living as a parasite on decent Russians, on working people, on patriots.

Lerner: I’ve said everything I want to. Can I go?

KGB: It’s not clear yet if you’ll get out of here tonight or where you’ll go from here. Maybe you won’t be going home so soon. I’ve got to draw up a case against you for resisting arrest and for spoiling our man’s suit when you pushed him. You broke a pen in his pocket and the ink spotted his new suit. It cost 300 rubles.

Lerner: You’re inventing all that. I have ten witnesses to what happened, so you can’t prove any of your fabrications.

KGB: Your witnesses, every one of them, are your accomplices. Nothing they can say will carry weight.

Lerner: As things stand today, you can’t do anything to me without a trial, and any trial will produce such a noise in the West that it won’t foster trust or respect for Soviet justice. You realize, of course, that my friends won’t leave me in the lurch.

At this point a “good cop” KGB agent took over and tried to negotiate an agreement in which Lerner would get permission to emigrate with his son if he would agree to cease “all contacts with foreign correspondents, tourists and congressmen.”

A week later a KGB general confirmed the offer to Lerner, who now was faced with a major dilemma. Three questions kept coming up in his mind. “What would my friends in the aliyah movement think? What about all my supporters in America and Europe? What would Israelis say about it?” He resolved it by stopping contacts with foreigners, but since meeting with other Russians was not covered by the ban, he would continue his customary activities with fellow refuseniks.

A year passed with Lerner isolated from the world outside the USSR and not a word was spoken about permission to emigrate. He ended his year of abstinence by walking to the U.S. Embassy, presenting his documents to a KGB agent, and meeting with ambassador Arthur Hartman.

At the end of 1987 Lerner’s daughter-in-law, Tanya, received a telephone call from the OVIR office with a message for Prof. Lerner that the family was being given permission to emigrate! Gorbachev had finally decided to yield to Robert Hawke’s request that he heard again in London from prime minister Margaret Thatcher and in Washington from president Ronald Reagan.

A month later the Lerner family was warmly welcomed to Israel and a new life in Rehovot where Lerner, his daughter, Sonya, and his son, Vladimir, would all be on the staff of the Weizmann Institute. Lerner celebrated his 90th birthday there in October 2003 but passed away on April 6, 2004, remembered as the “de-facto patriarch of the Soviet refusenik movement.”

Photo Credit: Alexander Lerner in Rehovot, Israel on October 28, 2003.
Photo by Philip Spiegel