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

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Unsung Hero of the Month

January 2009

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.

Sister Ann Gillen

On January 14, 1995, Sister Ann Gillen, who as executive director of the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry for over fifteen years, was relentless and indefatigable in pursuing her mission to save the Jews of the Soviet Union, passed away. Her story is chronicled in Chapter 18, “Support from American Christian and Jewish Clergy”.

Sister Ann was originally from Texas and at age 51 had begun studies for a doctorate at Dropsie College of Hebrew Cognate Learning in Philadelphia. The combination of what she learned there about the plight of Soviet Jews and the publication of Nostra Aetate fueled her determination to do something to end the oppression of Soviet Jews.


Sister Ann had no fear about taking on the Communist superpower. She traveled throughout North America and Europe to bring the “Let My People Go” message to thousands of people in synagogues, churches and government offices as well as at international meetings in Belgrade, Brussels, Jerusalem and Madrid. Wearing a Star of David around her neck, she lobbied the United Nations, the U.S. Congress, the White House and State Department. Many Soviet embassies were venues for her frequent picketing.


Rabbi A. James Rudin, who succeeded Rabbi Tanenbaum as interreligious director of the American Jewish Committee, accompanied Sister Ann on many visits to congressional offices. The sight of a nun and a rabbi pleading for the same cause was both unnerving and exhilarating; no congressman or senator dared to ignore them or throw them out. They traveled together to the conferences in Belgrade and Madrid, joined by two eminent Protestants: Professor Andre LeCocque of Chicago Theological Seminary, a native of Belgium, whose parents had sheltered Jews from the Nazis, and Rev. John Steinbruck, a Lutheran pastor and outspoken advocate for the homeless of Washington, D.C.


In 1973 Sister Ann visited Russia and worked with the Red Cross to get a Bible for Natasha Federova, the wife of Yuri Federov, who was imprisoned for his role in the foiled hijack plot. Five years later she traveled there again for sixteen days with Sister Gloria Coleman of Philadelphia. They visited thirty refuseniks and activists including Ida Nudel a few days before her trial on charges of “malicious hooliganism.” When they arrived at Nudel’s apartment Sister Ann told her that she had had a premonition that she would need to go to Russia and had hastily applied for a visa. On the day the visa arrived at her home in Chicago she received a phone call from Viktor Elistratov, a friend of Nudel’s, who said he was conveying Nudel’s appeal for help. Nudel told the nuns that she would soon be on trial and was awaiting the dossier of accusations to prepare her defense. Her crime was hanging a banner on her balcony that read: “KGB GIVE ME MY VISA FOR ISRAEL.” KGB agents tailed the nuns after that visit and subjected them to body searches, questioning, and confiscation of their notes and films at the airport in Moscow prior to their departure. A week later Nudel was sentenced to four years of internal exile in Siberia. Halfway through her term Sister Ann made a stunning announcement. In Copenhagen for the 1980 International Women’s Conference, she offered to go to Siberia in place of Nudel for the next two years. Her rationale: “We exchange spies; why not friends?” Soviet officials ignored the offer.


Later that year Sister Ann led a delegation of American religious leaders to the Madrid Conference on European Security and Cooperation to press Soviet leaders for full compliance with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Sister Ann spoke out again on behalf of Ida Nudel as well as Naftali Tsitverbilt, a 16-year-old boy who had been severely beaten by KGB thugs in Kiev. Other members of the delegation brought up the cases of Soviet Christian prisoners of conscience.


As the Soviet regime under Yuri Andropov grew more repressive in the early 1980s Sister Ann pointed out at a rally in Houston that her contacts in the Soviet Union were saying that “the ’60s was KGB’s decade of searching for spies; in the ’70s political dissidents were the top priority; and now the ’80s will be a decade of going after religious groups.” She asserted that religious persecution was on the rise in an effort to make the nation ethnically homogeneous. Twenty Soviet church leaders were sent to the United States in 1984 on exchange visits in an attempt to refute such characterizations. But Sister Ann maintained that considerable persecution of Soviet religious leaders persisted, citing Lithuania where outspoken Catholic priests had recently been jailed and whose church was converted into a concert hall. She urged Americans to express concern for religious freedom to the visiting Soviets.


She returned to Houston in September 1986 to launch Project Co-Adoption. Her premise was that there were 400,000 Soviet Jews who wanted to emigrate (having received letters of invitation from Israel) and that it would have a tremendous impact if 400,000 non-Jews would adopt them. “Imagine letters and cards from Christian Americans to Jews in Russia! We would also like synagogues to adopt Christian prisoners of conscience.” A month later she and Sister Gloria Coleman took off for Iceland and participated in a press conference on the eve of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik.


In 1989, as emigration rates began to increase, Sister Ann felt that her work was finished and closed her Chicago office. Later that year she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery. Although her condition did not improve, she continued writing and kept up contacts. She even returned to Russia before she passed away on January 14, 1995. At her funeral Rudin, who worked with her for over twenty years, recalled how relentless and indefatigable she was in pursuing her mission to save the Jews of the Soviet Union.