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

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Unsung Hero of the Month

June 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

Si Frumkin

On May 15, 2009 Si Frumkin died of cancer at age 79. He had headed a successful textile company in Los Angeles. However, in the documentary film, REFUSENIK, Si said with a smile, “I didn’t want my tombstone to read: ‘Here lies Si Frumkin. He sold a million yards of draperies,” Indeed, his obituary published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency was headlined, “Leading Soviet Jewry and human rights activist Si Frumkin has died”. My impression of Si was that he led his life as though the spirit of ancient Rabbi Hillel was whispering in his ear. At age fifteen when Si was liberated from Dachau and others in the camp were returning to their birthplaces, Si considered Hillel’s question, “If I am not for myself, then who is for me?” and chose to live as a Jew in freedom rather than return to Soviet-occupied Lithuania. In 1968 when Si attended a lecture about the plight of Soviet Jews he heeded Rabbi Hillel’s admonition, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” and organized the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews. His fledgling grassroots organization was frequently at odds with the Jewish establishment in Los Angeles and Si favored Rabbi Hillel’s “If not now, when?” approach, creatively initiating events to draw public attention to the cause of Soviet Jewry. His story is chronicled in Chapter 16, “Grassroots Activism in California”.

Si Frumkin was born in Lithuania and liberated by the American army at age fourteen from Dachau, where his father had perished. He considered returning to Lithuania, but heard rumors that the Soviets were accusing Jews who had survived the Holocaust of being Nazi collaborators. He regards his decision not to return as the best he ever made. Frumkin reunited with his mother in Italy, attended schools in Switzerland and England, immigrated to America, and earned a B.A. from New York University.

He joined his stepfather’s drapery business in Los Angeles, and had no connection with Soviet Jews until he attended a lecture in early 1969 at the Jewish Federation Commission on Soviet Jewry. Hearing about official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union motivated Frumkin to offer his services as one who read and spoke Russian, but he got no response. Six months and several phone calls later he went to a meeting of the commission and listened to the members talk about symbolic gestures on behalf of Soviet Jewry like an empty chair at the Passover Seder table and an under-publicized Simchat Torah rally. Frumkin and one young member of the commission, Zev Yaroslavsky, wanted Soviet Jewry to be more than a twice-a-year event.

Yaroslavsky, a UCLA sophomore whose parents had emigrated from Ukraine, flew to Moscow to visit his aunts and cousins in 1968. His Aunt Rosa took him to see the sights and on a walk through Red Square, he asked her, “How is it for Jews in Russia?” Her reply, “Shhh, the walls have ears,” rang in his ears and aroused him to start giving speeches at synagogues and form the California Students for Soviet Jews when he returned home. The following summer Yaroslavsky and his friends from CSSJ picketed a track team from the Soviet Union who were at the Los Angeles Coliseum to compete against an American team. They made signs with the usual “Let My People Go” and “Let the Jews Go” slogans, as well as one that read “Wouldn’t it be nice if Jews could sprint to Israel?” Ignoring Jewish establishment leaders who warned them not to antagonize the Russians, Yaroslavsky called the local press. Reporters from several radio stations, TV channels, and newspapers arrived to cover the first demonstration to confront a Soviet delegation in Southern California. Yaroslavsky realized that such demonstrations could have a morale-building effect on Soviet Jews who could learn about them from telephone calls, tourists, and broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. He was also fond of saying, “One Jew talking to another Jew won’t get a Soviet Jew out of Russia; we have got to talk to real world opinion makers and elected officials who can put this issue on the radar screen.”

Yaroslavsky and Frumkin enlisted the support of George Putnam, an influential and conservative TV newscaster in Los Angeles. Frumkin phoned Putnam’soffice claiming to be a professor whose student, Zev Yaroslavsky, had just returned from the USSR with an interesting story to tell. Putnam invited them to dinner and was extremely sympathetic about “those poor Soviet Jews.” Putnam proposed a candlelight march of thousands of people in downtown Los Angeles on the first night of Chanukah, but Frumkin and Yaroslavsky doubted whether more than 200 would show up. Every night for two weeks Putnam’s booming voice reminded his audience to “Carry a candle with me for the old folks of Russia. They must be free…” Ten thousand people, including mayor Sam Yorty and several congressmen, carried candles and signed petitions urging the Soviet government to “Let the Jews go.” The petitions were sent to Hal Light, who brought them to the Soviet Embassy.

Light was impressed with what Frumkin and Yaroslavsky were doing and encouraged them to get organized with tax-exempt status as the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews (SCCSJ). There was a hard core of twenty active people and a mailing list of about 1,500. Funds were generated by the sale of greeting cards for mailing to refuseniks, as well as bumper stickers and pins. One slogan on the pins, “Russia is not healthy for Jews and other living things,” elicited the threat of a lawsuit from Mothers for Peace, the group who claimed to have patented the slogan, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”

As one of the first projects of the SCCSJ and UCSJ, supportive Americans mailed Passover greeting cards to Soviet Jews who had previously indicated a willingness to receive communications from the West and were on UCSJ lists. Many of the recipients responded with letters of appreciation and the Americans felt a great deal of satisfaction in achieving person-to-person contact with Soviet Jews. But the National Conference of Soviet Jews castigated the UCSJ for sending the cards, saying, “If you make phone calls or send letters the Soviet authorities will know and will probably harass the Soviet Jews who receive them.” This stemmed from the Israeli policy that also advocated prevention of emigrants from the Soviet Union from speaking before American audiences under any circumstances because “if they say anything critical about the Soviet Union, the small numbers of emigrants that we have today will be reduced to zero”.

The Israeli policy of non-communication with Soviet Jews was very troubling to Frumkin, Light and Lou Rosenblum from Cleveland. They were not sure who was right and they certainly didn’t want to put jeopardize anyone so they decided to leave it up to the activists among the Soviet Jews. Frumkin made several phone calls to them in Russian, and without exception they responded, “Please keep it up. We’re not afraid.”

Over the next few years Frumkin and Yaroslavsky seized every opportunity to generate publicity for Soviet Jews from balloons with slogans over San Clemente when Brezhnev visited Nixon, to having a helicopter fly over the Super Bowl, to painting “Let Jews Go” on a Soviet freighter that was docked in Long Beach harbor. The last of these stunts was accomplished by Yaroslavsky spray painting from a motorboat while two other SCCSJ activists held onto toilet plungers that were suctioned to the freighter. Yaroslavsky recalls how every official “Soviet visitor and cultural group had to reconcile how they would deal with our protests; we were waging a non-violent guerrilla war.”

Yaroslavsky was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1975. He attributed his victory to votes from the Jewish community and others who knew about his work as a Soviet Jewry activist. In 1994, when he was elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, he invoked his anti-Soviet background by vowing to tear down the county’s “Berlin Wall” of isolation from the taxpaying public.

After Frumkin retired from the drapery business he began devoting much of his time to serving the needs of Russian-speaking émigrés in Los Angeles and publishing a newsletter called Graffiti for Intellectuals.