In 1985, I and five others from Northeast Ohio went to the Soviet Union to visit with refuseniks – Soviet Jews who had applied to immigrate to Israel and were denied exit visas. It was a grim period for those Jews trying to leave the country, which had roughly 3 million Jews at the time. Only about 1,000 a year were being allowed out, despite the worldwide campaign to “Free Soviet Jewry,” as the slogan went.
Our group, which was sponsored by the then-Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, visited refuseniks in three cities – in an attempt to strengthen their resolve and to get their stories out. One member of our group was the editor of the Cleveland Jewish News at the time, Cynthia Dettelbach, who published an extensive newspaper supplement about our trip.
Of particular concern during that period were Jewish activists who had been imprisoned or exiled to Siberia, some of the most prominent of whom were Natan Sharansky, Yuli Edelstein and Ida Nudel. Others who applied were frequently dismissed from their jobs or harassed by the KGB secret police for their efforts to encourage knowledge of Jewish heritage, but in the case of Sharansky, Edelstein and Nudel, they paid a much steeper price.
I particularly remember an evening in Leningrad on our trip when we visited a Hebrew teacher who had been harassed by Soviet security forces for his activities. I had a fair knowledge of Hebrew at the time and had made a number of visits to Israel. It was astounding to me to be sitting in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) speaking Hebrew to a Hebrew teacher who had never been to Israel and who was sharing his knowledge of the language despite the risks to himself.
But as I thought about it, I was also uneasy that here was a man who had risked so much to move to Israel while I, who could make the move whenever I wanted to, wasn’t doing so. In addition, I sensed that if Soviet Jewry really could be freed and permitted to immigrate to Israel, it would transform Israeli society. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years later, nearly a million Soviet Jews immigrated to Israel and hundreds of thousands more went to the United States and elsewhere.
Soviet Jews really have transformed Israel. In 1978, Sharansky was sentenced to 13 years in prison, but due to international pressure was released and moved to Israel less than a year after our trip. He became a public figure of major standing, including stints in the Israeli cabinet and his appointment as chairman of The Jewish Agency.
Edelstein was imprisoned from 1984 until 1987, when he was allowed to leave for Israel. He too got into politics, serving as a Knesset member and ultimately Speaker of the Knesset. He found himself in the challenging position of health minister when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year and served in the position until May of this year, when the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu was defeated.
And then there is Nudel. Exiled to Siberia in 1978 after displaying a banner from her Moscow apartment reading “KGB, Give Me My Visa to Israel,” she was allowed to leave for Israel in 1987. On Sept. 14 of this year, she died at age 90. She lived a life of relative obscurity in Israel and gravitated to far right-wing politics.
But Nudel’s death brought back to mind my visit to the Soviet Union and a true cause of good versus evil. The visit also helped inspire me to move to Israel – although it took another 15 years for me to do so.
Cliff Savren is a former Ohio resident who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel. He is an editor at the English edition of Haaretz.