December marks the 25th anniversary of a massive rally that helped change history
Soviet Jews, joined by activists who lived abroad, took risks and pursued freedom for decades
Starting in the 1960s, the human rights campaign gained popular, political and diverse support
It helped bring down the Soviet Union and, new activists say, should be a model for change
Driven by desperation, Marina and Lev Furman stepped out of their home in Leningrad and took a 20-minute walk into uncertainty. Trailed by KGB agents, they bundled up and set out in the weak winter light for Palace Square, site of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
They brought signs demanding freedom. And they pushed a baby carriage holding their 9-month-old daughter, Aliyah, who had already proved in her short life that she, too, could handle risks.
Friends told the Furmans they were crazy. Such demonstrations were forbidden in the square. The couple arrived in silent protest and spotted a mob of police and KGB agents waiting for them. Knowing they’d be taken away, they chained themselves to Aliyah’s carriage.
For years, they’d asked for permission to leave. Each time, their requests were denied. Told once more they’d never be allowed to go, they were taking a final, calculated, bold stand.
On this day, though, they knew they weren’t alone. The date was December 6, 1987.
Some 4,500 miles and a world away, 250,000 people were preparing to protest in Washington as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was preparing for his first White House summit with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The demonstrators wanted to make sure the Furmans and other Soviet Jews weren’t forgotten.
Known as Freedom Sunday, the rally would be the culmination of a decades-long populist campaign the likes of which the world rarely sees. Americans of all stripes were coming together to demand human rights in a faraway land.
Driven by students and housewives and fueled by post-Holocaust guilt, civil rights activism and a newfound sense of Jewish pride after Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory, the movement brought together Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular.
It’s a part of a recent past that’s nearly forgotten but that once enjoyed the support of top-tier politicians, congressional wives, Catholic nuns, actors, musicians and civil rights icons, including Martin Luther King Jr.
If a new coalition has its way, the Soviet Jewry movement will find its place in history books and serve as a model for change in a time when global human rights abuses continue.
“It created a unity that today seems impossible,” said Gal Beckerman, a journalist whose 2010 book about the campaign won widespread praise. “For Jews, this was the movement that allowed them to bridge their American and Jewish identities. … They were flexing their political muscle for the first time.”
Their mission was to keep human rights issues on the table for as long as it took, even as diplomats and politicians negotiated nuclear disarmament and trade agreements. In the end, this relentless push would play a part in ending the Cold War, bringing down the Soviet Union and ultimately freeing more than 1.5 million Jews – many of whom watched from afar as the Jewish state of Israel grew, even while their own religion and identity was suppressed under Communist rule.
Among those working behind the scenes was Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz.
Part of the administration’s agenda, when it came to negotiations, was human rights, said Shultz, now 92 and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
“We developed a way to put it that I wrote out and read very slowly,” he said, describing talks with his Soviet counterpart. “The gist was … any society closed and compartmented will fall behind. So you’ve got to loosen up if you’re going to be with it. And part of it is respecting the diversity and views of your population.”
Shultz also met with “refuseniks,” the term used for anyone who’d been refused exit visas. He attended a Passover seder with them at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. And he unofficially slipped a list of refusenik names to his Soviet counterpart, asking for their release.
While Shultz said it would have been inappropriate for him to attend the rally in Washington – then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was among the speakers – he loved the idea of Gorbachev turning on his TV to see the crowd on the National Mall. The event helped mark the beginning of the end. The gates were poised to open.
“It had a very positive impact,” Shultz said.
On all counts, the Soviet Jewry movement was a success. But somewhere along the way, Americans and Jews forgot to tell the story. A new push, led by a group called Freedom 25, is out to change this.
Its leaders realized this chapter in history was lost on people younger than 30 – even those who’d been educated in Jewish day schools. So they began documenting stories, enlisted a coalition of organizations and created a social media-driven virtual “march” that has already reached more than 3 million people.
This movement is not only something Americans should be proud of, they say, it’s a model for what can be done when people pull together, take risks and put aside their differences to focus on the needs of others. They plan to develop curricula and distribute tools to help “teach this crucial lesson in activism and mobilization, so ordinary people can be empowered to once again do extraordinary things.”
“There is just so much cynicism these days,” said Michael Granoff, 44, one of Freedom 25’s co-chairs. “One person can make a difference. Your activism matters. … You cannot be excused for not acting when a young mother sits in a prison in Tehran, jailed by a regime.”
’Crazy enough to marry’
Marina Garmize-Gorfinkel became a refusenik in Kiev, Ukraine, the day her grandfather died.
They were a small family – just Marina, her mother and her mother’s father. Everyone else in her mother’s family had been killed at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev, where Nazis gunned down nearly 34,000 Jews in two days in September 1941. Marina’s father had died of a stroke when she was only 7.
Now it was 1979, and Marina was 19. She had applied for exit visas for the three of them and been refused. With her grandfather gone, she would fight for herself and her mother. She began organizing protests against the government.
She was a small woman, only 5-foot-1, but the Soviet regime considered her activism a threat. She was warned to stop, arrested three times and beaten twice. In 1980, police forced her into a cell, sent in 30 drunken men and told them to rape her.
One of the men recognized her as the daughter of his own girl’s beloved kindergarten teacher. He protected Marina from being raped but couldn’t stop the beatings, which left her hospitalized for several months. When she got out, she and her mother left town and headed to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, another Soviet republic at the time and now an independent country.
The people there, she said, were kinder and the KGB and police less fierce. Through other refuseniks, she eventually met Lev Furman, an Orthodox Jew 13 years her senior. He was religious in ways she knew nothing about. He taught Hebrew underground when Zionism and teaching the language were forbidden. His first wife had left him when the KGB threats became too much.
“He said, ‘Look, I need a wife. I need someone who can help me if I’m arrested,’ ” Marina remembered. Only immediate relatives could visit someone in prison or make appeals on their behalf. She told him, “Fine, we’ll get married on paper. I’ll help you.” But Lev liked her and wanted a real marriage. She agreed. The two wed within a week, in July 1986, and she moved with him to Leningrad (which has returned to its historical name of St. Petersburg).
“We took big risks in life. Marrying someone you’d known for a week wasn’t the biggest risk,” she said. “We were both only children and never knew if we’d survive another day. And we’d both found someone crazy enough to marry us.”
They continued their fight for freedom and were bolstered by visitors from around the world. Lev was committed to building a Jewish resistance where there was next to no Jewish life. He worked with young people and distributed textbooks and copies of Leon Uris’ “Exodus” that had been smuggled in by others. Young women from Finland, which shared an open border at the time, brought Lev books sewn into the linings of their coats.
Almost immediately after they married, Marina became pregnant. The KGB found a new way to threaten her. They said they would kill Marina when she gave birth if the Furmans didn’t stop their activism.
She was inclined to listen, but Lev wouldn’t have it. The tide was shifting. Gorbachev was now in power, and his policies of glasnost and perestroika – openness and reform – were just beginning. Gorbachev had freed Anatoly Sharansky, the poster boy for the Soviet Jewry movement, in February 1986.
Sharansky – who later changed his name to Natan and became an Israeli politician, human rights activist and author – had been sentenced in 1977 to 13 years of forced labor in a Siberian prison camp, or gulag. But he was released four years early. Sharansky was now traveling the U.S., speaking on college campuses and drumming up support for a huge rally in Washington. All signs pointed to change. Now wasn’t the time to give up.
Marina, who understood the importance of communicating with the outside world, had taught herself English by studying a dictionary and listening to the BBC and Voice of America. She wrote a letter to a contact in Great Britain about the latest threat against her. It was passed to the BBC, which broadcast the letter every day for a week.
This infuriated the KGB as much as it rallied the movement. After the threat became public, the Furmans had visitors from abroad nearly every day. Articles were written about them. Letters poured in by the hundreds, from not just activists but politicians, including U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. Letter-writing campaigns flooded the heads of the Soviet government, the KGB and immigration officials.
“If your name was known, it was like insurance,” Marina said.
Even with all the attention, Marina nearly died when an IV line feeding an overdose of medication, supposedly for a weakened heart, was given to her during labor. A doctor who found her alone in a room, away from the other new mothers, saved her. She remained in the maternity hospital for a week, but Lev was barred from seeing her or knowing what was going on. On a wall outside the hospital, he painted her a message: “Marishka, you are my hero!”
Their newborn baby, Aliyah, seemed to arrive determined not to add to her parents’ stress.
She slept through the night from the day they brought her home. The KGB ransacked the family’s small apartment when Aliyah was 2 months old, and she didn’t even wake up.
“God gives everyone what they can handle,” Marina said.
Finding a cause – and a voice
People had tried for years to get Constance “Connie” Smukler and her husband, Joseph, involved. But the Philadelphia couple already had their causes, and these Soviet Jews were faceless, their issues foreign.
Starting in 1973, their perspective changed when the matter became personal. They were visiting Israel when they met and befriended a man who begged them to help free his brother.
Irma Chernyak had applied for an exit visa and been denied. The request to leave cost him his job. The aeronautical scientist was now operating elevators – and going on hunger strikes.
Connie tried to bring attention to his story by calling media and speaking about him in synagogue. But she wanted to know more about the man for whom she was fighting. “I can’t keep working for him without meeting him,” she told her husband. So in July 1974, with the kids off to summer camp, the Smuklers made their first trip to the Soviet Union.
They spent their days meeting with refuseniks in apartments they found by memorizing addresses or referencing information written in code. Believing the flats were bugged, they brought magic slates, the child’s toy that lets a person write on a plastic sheet, then lift it to erase the words.
In one Moscow flat, they sat and waited as, one by one, refuseniks came to see them. Having studied their faces, names and bios over the past year, they had become “like movie stars” to the Smuklers. “There’s Slepak, Lunts, Prestin, Abramovich,” Connie said, remembering that day. “It was an embarrassment of riches. We were seeing all of them.”
When they finally met with Irma Chernyak, they fell in love with him, Connie said.
“When we said goodbye, we didn’t know what would happen to him, and I started to cry,” she said. “He said, ‘Connie, don’t cry for me. For the first time in my life, I’m a man, not a mouse.’”
They saw Chernyak again in the summer of 1975 and told him they’d return to see him a year later. But in February 1976, at 4 a.m., their home phone rang. The Israeli Embassy in Vienna, Austria, was calling. “We just want you to know that Irma Chernyak has come out of the Soviet Union, and he wanted us to call you.”
The embassy planned to send him to Israel, but the Smuklers had other ideas. The couple was flying to Brussels, Belgium, the next day to attend a world conference on Soviet Jewry, and they wanted Chernyak to join them. They also suspected he had been released ahead of the conference on purpose; letting people go made the Soviets look better.
At the gathering, the Smuklers realized how global this movement had become. There were delegations from countries where they knew activism was strong, such as Britain and France. But there were also delegations from countries that surprised them, including Argentina, Mexico and Zaire (now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo).
As the lights went down, the Israeli delegation walked on stage. Among them were Israeli leaders such as Menachem Begin and Golda Meir. Each one held a candle.
What happened next still makes Connie cry.
“The last one was Irma (Chernyak),” she said, her voice cracking. “He was the newest Israeli citizen.”
Soviet Jews had become pawns, author Beckerman said – let go when the Kremlin needed good PR and refused when anger at the West was strongest. After the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, for example, the numbers dropped.
Much of the concern was about appearances. To let people flee in droves, Beckerman said, would be an admission that life under the Soviet regime wasn’t paradise.
“The threat of people leaving was an existential one,” he said. “The leaders didn’t believe their own propaganda at the end, but they needed the people to believe.”
In the 1970s, Connie became a target of Soviet propaganda herself. She began receiving hundreds of letters from citizens who’d been told by the KGB to tell her how wonderful their lives were. She had to sign for each envelope. Eventually, she told her confused and concerned postman the whole story. The letters kept coming for five years.
Connie, now 74 and recently widowed, was one of 12,000 who traveled from Philadelphia to Washington for the December 1987 rally. Like so many other American Jews at that time, the suburban housewife and mother of three didn’t want to stand by silently as she believed her parents’ generation had done during the Holocaust. In the process, she found her voice.
“I became a very independent young woman,” she said. “My raison d’être for the rest of my life is to get this story out.”
Threats of Siberia
The Smuklers were in this fight with others across the country, including Joel and Adele Sandberg of Miami, who raised their three kids in the Soviet Jewry movement.
People gathered in their home for meetings. When refuseniks got out and went on speaking tours, they’d stay in the Sandberg home. The kids were schlepped to protests whenever a Moscow-based circus, symphony or ballet came to town.
The Sandbergs enlisted the help of people outside the Jewish community. They armed hundreds of tourists with letters, books and jeans and sent them to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and gather information. Selling a pair of jeans on the black market could feed a family for a month. The case histories of refuseniks were published and distributed to media, members of Congress and activists worldwide.
Joel, a 69-year-old ophthalmologist, was active in a group that tracked prisoners’ health and made sure refuseniks got medicines they needed. When they learned the Soviet regime was forcing some refuseniks into psychiatric hospitals, having deemed them crazy for wanting to leave, they made noise.
“At one point,” he said, describing the lengths they’d go to help someone in need, “we sent over a heart valve with a congressman.”
In 1975, leaving their 6, 4 and 2-year-old kids with grandparents, the couple made their only trip to the Soviet Union.
Their unintended last stop was Kishinev (now Chisinau), the capital of Moldova.
After passing through a group of KGB men keeping watch outside an apartment building, they climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of Mark Abramovich, the leader of the city’s refusenik community.
“We are friends from Miami,” they said. They had arrived unannounced and were the first American visitors to Kishinev in more than a year.
Abramovich opened the door. “Are you afraid?” he asked.
“No,” Adele remembered answering (“Of course, I was scared to death,” she admitted later.)
“I, too, am not afraid,” he answered. “Come in.”
Over the course of four nights, Abramovich brought refuseniks to the apartment to meet with the couple. When the Sandbergs would leave, an escort would take them back to their hotel and point out the plain-clothed KGB agents. “See that lady on the bus? She’s KGB.”
Then it happened. The morning they were leaving Kishinev for their next stop, KGB agents stopped them as they left their hotel room with their luggage. The men led them to a small room in the hotel. They took their passports and said they’d be deported to Siberia. They were scared but believed the threat was empty. There were plenty of stories of Americans being tossed out of the Soviet Union, but none of outsiders being sent off to Siberia.
For 10 hours, the Sandbergs were peppered with questions. The three officials wanted to know who sent them, where they’d been, who’d they’d seen.
The agents played good cop, bad cop. One would scream a question in Russian. Another would translate it screaming in English. A third would offer them a drink. “Of course, we were afraid to drink,” Adele said. They knew to stay vague and speak carefully.
When the agents started to search Joel, Adele panicked. Hidden inside her underwear were all the notes they’d gathered about the refuseniks they’d met, information that was critical to their case histories and getting them help.
She pulled a tampon from her pocketbook and made a big scene about needing to use the bathroom. Once inside, she sat on the toilet and frantically memorized her notes. She struggled to keep the names straight, they sounded so alike, before ripping up the papers and flushing them down the toilet as agents came in to take her back for more questioning.
When Adele was given a piece of paper to sign and told to describe what she was doing in Kishinev, she wrote about wanting to find her roots.
The announcement that they’d be released came suddenly: “There’s a train going to Romania, and you’ll be on the train.”
The Sandbergs foolishly asked if they could instead go to Moscow.
“Well, you can stay, and we’ll do this again tomorrow,” an agent said. So they got on the train to Romania.
For four days in Romania, while they waited for a flight to the West, they were followed. Even as the plane was about to take off, they held their breath. Two uniformed men walked directly to their seats, demanded their passports and checked to be sure the right people were leaving. After they landed in Vienna, the Sandbergs kissed the ground.
Comfort in ‘social network’
The Sandbergs’ oldest daughter, Sheryl, was raising awareness with her own brand of activism. She was only 1 when she attended her first rally for Soviet Jews, the Miami Herald once wrote. By 8, she was sending letters to her Soviet “twin,” Kira Volvovsky, as part of a program that matched children of refuseniks with young American Jews.
Kira’s parents first applied for exit visas in 1974. Within 48 hours, they’d lost their jobs in computer science.
Six years later, in advance of the Olympic Games, the family was among the “undesirables” exiled from Moscow to Gorky, a city 250 miles to the east and now known as Nizhny Novgorod.
Kira said she was the only Jewish girl in her school. She heard the jokes and guarded her words. She often felt alone.
She found comfort in letters she received from American peers.
With only so many children of refuseniks to go around, Kira had almost 100 pen pals. They’d write about their dreams, share anxieties about upcoming tests, worry about boys – and realize they weren’t so different. Her “twins” would say prayers on her behalf and tell her story at their bat mitzvah ceremonies.
These girls became what Kira called her “social network” – a fitting description given that Sheryl is now the COO of Facebook.
“I remember feeling when I was writing these girls, and they were writing me, that we had the same issues,” said Kira. “They wrote about the same stuff I was feeling.”
Sheryl Sandberg declined to be interviewed. But Kira said what she remembers about her most “is she had such pretty handwriting and the stationary was so beautiful. I remember copying her handwriting because I wanted to write like an American girl.”
While she and her pen pals often thought about the same things, Kira’s path was paved with challenges her American counterparts couldn’t fathom.
Her father taught Hebrew and Jewish studies underground. He wanted nothing more than to go to Israel. But in 1985, he was arrested for slandering the Soviet regime and sent to Siberia, where he toiled in a forced labor camp for a year and nine months.
His arrest aroused an international outcry. Author, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote about Kira’s dad in The New York Times.
He worked in a plant making 70-pound stone blocks and, after an accident, sewed covers for tree trunks to be used during Siberian winters. Kira and her mother were able to see him only once, for four hours, during that time. They flew 11 hours each way for that chance.
His hands were ruined, she remembered, and “he was half of himself.”
Kira’s parents encouraged her to apply for a visa on her own when she was 19. She was granted one almost immediately in late 1987 and arrived in Israel four days after the rally in Washington. Her parents got visas two weeks later and joined her. She doesn’t know whether the rally helped gain their release, but she suspects it did.
Now 44, Kira lives in Jerusalem with her husband and their three children; she works as a Web developer and designer. Her father teaches physics and math in a yeshiva. To this day, he still cannot make fists with his hands.
The path to freedom
As the Furmans approached their certain arrest that December morning in Leningrad’s Palace Square a little more than 25 years ago, they weren’t afraid. Lev, who’d found solace in his religion in a land where being religious was nearly impossible, believed God had put them on this path and would protect them.
Marina had learned long ago not to think about worst-case scenarios. In all their years of trying to secure visas to leave the Soviet Union – 10 years for Marina, 14 for Lev – they could have been sent to Siberia or “accidentally” run over by cars, simply forgotten. She’d survived an attempt on her life when her daughter was born. Little could rattle her now. She also felt like she didn’t have a choice.
“I couldn’t imagine my daughter having the same life I had,” she said.
After the police and KGB tried to scare them by pretending to dump Aliyah from her carriage, the Furmans were shoved into a bus, taken to a local prison and interrogated.
“Who helped you prepare for the protest? Are you working for the Zionist lobby? Why do you say these horrible things about our country? Do you think your American friends will get you out of prison? Do you think they care? What are you planning to do next?”
The Furmans had played this game so many times before. Now, with hundreds of thousands descending on Washington for the rally, they played it once more.
Lev didn’t say a word, the approach he’d always taken. Marina gave short answers. “No one helped us. We are not connected to anyone. We just want to live in Israel.” That last sentence she’d say repeatedly, whenever they kept pushing: “We just want to live in Israel.”
They were then put in separate cells. Even 9-month-old Aliyah was alone in a cell for several hours before being returned to her mother.
When asked whether Aliyah cried during all of this, Marina said, “She did better. We put her on the table in the interrogation room, and she threw up on their papers.”
Marina and Aliyah were let go after five hours. Lev was detained for 10 days.
He got out the first day of Hanukkah that year, and on the last day of the eight-day Jewish festival, the Furmans were finally granted visas to leave the Soviet Union. Marina’s mother came to Leningrad from Tbilisi to leave with them, as did Lev’s father.
Marina has no doubt that the rally in Washington, and to some degree her own family’s protest in Leningrad, forced the Soviet government to finally let her family go.
“It wouldn’t have happened without that rally, or it would have happened much later,” she said. “The D.C. rally showed Gorbachev how powerful the Soviet Jewry movement really was and that for the American people, it was a human rights issue and not just a Jewish issue.
“I don’t think he had the courage to start the reforms, and when he found out about the rally, it really changed him.”
A year after the rally, Gorbachev spoke to the United Nations about changes in the Soviet Union, saying “the problem of exit and entry is also being resolved in a humane spirit” and “the problem of the so-called ‘refuseniks’ is being removed.”
And in late 1991, soon before the Soviet Union dissolved, Gorbachev ended what the Chicago Tribune called “three quarters of a century of official silence about the treatment of Jews.”
In a statement tied to the 50th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar, Gorbachev admitted that “the poisonous seeds of anti-Semitism arose even on Soviet soil.”
“The Stalinist bureaucracy, publicly decrying anti-Semitism, in practice used it to isolate the country from the outside world,” he said. “The right to emigrate has been granted, but I say frankly that we, society, deeply regret the departure of our countrymen and that the country is losing so many talented, skilled and enterprising citizens.”
The Furmans went to Israel, where they had a second daughter, Michal, now 18; in 1998, they moved to a suburb of Philadelphia. Lev, 65, an aviation engineer who’d been barred from his field in the Soviet Union, now works as a spiritual counselor to Russian Jews in hospice – helping them find peace in their final days. He goes to synagogue regularly and studies Torah on the Jewish Sabbath.
Marina, 53, is a regional director of the Jewish National Fund, a nonprofit that builds parks, forests and reservoirs in Israel, in addition to offering education and desert revitalization programs. And, on occasion, she speaks about her experiences.
While addressing Jewish college students recently, she asked them to raise their hands if they’d heard about the genocide in Rwanda. Every arm shot up. She asked if they’d heard of the Soviet Jewry movement. Only one student had. For this reason, she’ll keep speaking.
Aliyah, the baby who once threw up on prison interrogation room papers, is now a 25-year-old financial adviser living in Philadelphia.
When people ask where she’s from, she doesn’t know where to start.
Aliyah means “ascent” in Hebrew and is the term used to describe immigration to Israel. She can’t separate herself from what her parents fought for even if she wanted to.
“The story is tied to my name. It’s who I am,” she said. “My life now is enchanted, and it’s thanks to them.”
While she carries her parents’ past with her, she also thinks about those who came before them. The relatives who were gunned down by Nazis at Babi Yar. Others who died in the German siege of Leningrad. A grandfather whose first wife and twins were killed by Nazis, and his home taken over by others while he was off fighting for the Soviet Union.
When she thinks about her ancestors, her emotions catch on one theme: “I so wish they could see us now. Look where we are. Look at how proud we are to be Jewish. Look at the life we’re living and how much love our family has,” she said. “I just have to believe they’re looking down from heaven and seeing.”
There’s a funny tension inside Aliyah. She knows her parents struggled so she could have a normal life. When they were her age, they were being trailed and arrested by KGB agents, risking their lives in the struggle for a people’s freedom. Today, Aliyah runs half marathons, can’t get enough of Pitt football and hangs out with friends in bars.
“They fought so I wouldn’t have to,” she said.
She knows the normalcy she enjoys gives her parents great pleasure. When they cheer her on in races, she says they yell louder than anyone. Still, Aliyah feels an obligation to look beyond herself and be a part of change. Her parents had no choice but to fight. They couldn’t have succeeded, though, without others across the globe who chose to be engaged.
“It sometimes feels like life is too easy, and we forget that there are things that are important to stand up for,” she said. “People hate controversy and hate making people uncomfortable, so they’re silent – and that’s dangerous. We need to remember the world is bigger than us.”
It’s a lesson she hopes she, her peers and others – no matter their cause or passion – will be strong enough to embrace and keep teaching.