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Yefim Somin Memories

On December 6, 1987, I was standing behind a semicircular barrier in front of a massive automated sliding gate. The gate would open at random intervals and spit out groups of people into the crowded waiting area of the customs checkpoint at Schwechat  International Airport in Vienna, Austria. I would peer intently at each group desperately trying to recognize the faces I was waiting for. Yet I almost missed the moment when the gate revealed a man and a woman in winter fur hats, walking slowly arm in arm. They looked so small and so old!  Almost nine years had passed, years gained by us and lost by them, but my parents were finally here.
Two months earlier in October, a call from my parents in Russia woke us up in Boston at night. With Perestroika gathering steam, Sakharov released from his exile, and star refuseniks on the way out, the time had apparently come to clean up the backlog of ordinary people. Just in May of that year, at their regular semiannual pilgrimage to the visa office, my parents were told to forget all hope until at least 1995. At my father’s age of 80 this was equivalent to a life sentence. Now, the summons had come from the authorities which were finally letting them go after nine years of refusing an exit visa.
One month earlier in September, in the basement of the suburban home of a friend near Washington, DC, my older son and I were making a poster with a picture of his American-born baby brother and the words: “My brother has never seen his grandparents. Gorbachev, let them go!” We held it high the next day across the street from Andrei Sakharov Plaza in front of the Soviet embassy at the demonstration organized by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry. Yet we did not allow ourselves much hope.
“It was the year 1979 as I was standing near our apartment building - for the last time. A taxi arrived to take us to Pulkovo Airport. As we went by Moskovsky Avenue I saw some statues. They were monuments to the many Leningraders who died in the siege of Leningrad. Soon we were on the plane.”  Thus began a 3rd grade composition by my son who was five when that plane took off. The fabled never-before-seen outside world lay ahead for us, but the grandparents had to stay behind.
Having watched several friends become “permitniks” and leave the only country we had ever been allowed to see yet always required to praise, we hesitated to take the fateful step of applying to emigrate. We had no doubts that we would be refused and would spend uncounted years of our lives in a terrible limbo. The decision came one morning, when years of waiting suddenly seemed like a fair price to pay for eventual freedom. To find out how to fight for the right to leave and also prepare ourselves for life in refusal we sought out the great Hocham of the Helsinki agreement on human rights in Leningrad, a future hero of the critically acclaimed movie “Refusenik,” Aba Taratuta. Following Aba’s advice brought me to the office of the state procurator for the Leningrad district where I filed a complaint of violating the Helsinki agreement, addressed to comrade Brezhnev himself (in an ironic twist 25 years later, my son, by then a law professor heading a delegation of American law students, was formally greeted in the same hall by the splendidly uniformed procurator for St. Petersburg, as the city was now called).
By an incredible stroke of luck, our application was granted thanks to the hopes the Soviets had for the lifting of Jackson-Vanik amendment sanctions ahead of the much-touted Moscow Olympics. The still to come ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan which shut the exit doors tight for years did not affect us.  Aba Taratuta, like my parents and many other refuseniks, had to wait for the wheels of history to turn again.
Thumbing their noses at their former keepers, both my parents lived into the next millennium. My mother, who has just turned 90, was also among those who survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad. In her battle with the two great totalitarian exterminators of the last century she won, 2-0.

Judy Bailint, Activist from Seattle

It’s hard to believe, but it’s almost thirty-five years since a small group of students, grandmothers and homemakers in Seattle got together to try to raise community consciousness about the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union. Through clandestine visits to Jews in the FSU; demonstrations; protests at visiting Soviet cultural groups; hosting former refuseniks and an endless flow of mail and telephone calls to Jews in the FSU, the plight of Jews persecuted because of their Jewish activity and denied permission to leave became an item on the communal agenda.

Back in the 1970s, Seattle’s Jewish community had a pretty low profile on the national and international scene, so it’s not altogether surprising that Seattle’s role has been largely overlooked as the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Jewry movement is currently being marked by a flurry of conferences, articles and books.

Still, one recent Seattle event provided Seattleites the opportunity to find out just how closely our activities in the Pacific NW mirrored those of much larger Jewish communities, and what kind of an impact the Soviet Jewry movement had on hundreds of thousands of people on three continents.

On the evening of April 9, 2008 Seattle hosted the U.S premiere of a remarkable documentary film that recounts the story of this extraordinary movement that produced some of our most lauded contemporary Jewish heroes.  Refusenik is told through the eyes of activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, revealing a tapestry of heroism, Jewish identity, sacrifice and liberation.

Refusenik is about the triumph of grassroots activism. It chronicles the efforts of groups like Seattle Action for Soviet Jewry, who with little money and no established political connections, managed to be part of a non-violent movement that crossed ethnic, racial and religious boundaries to become part of one of the most successful human rights movements in history.

In Seattle in the early days, we encountered stiff opposition to our activities from many in the local Jewish establishment who still believed in conducting business in the “sha shtill” mode. Our efforts to raise human rights as an agenda item in the Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Committee were met with concern that the entire Seattle-Tashkent relationship would be disrupted. In 1985 we demonstrated outside KING 5 TV during the “Citizen’s Summit” hosted by Phil Donahue and Soviet propagandist Vladimir Pozner, while a few of us managed to infiltrate the studio audience to ask awkward questions about Soviet treatment of Jews. When we insisted on a human rights component to the Seattle Goodwill Games in 1990, business leaders balked.  Still, all these events and many others too numerous to mention here captured the attention of the media and local political leaders and helped shine a spotlight on the courageous refuseniks and prisoners of Zion so that Soviet authorities could no longer act against them with impunity in the darkness of anonymity.

Here in Israel, where I have lived for the past decade, the contribution of Jews from Russian speaking countries has been enormous.  Sadly, the story of how the refuseniks and prisoners of Zion of the 1970s and 80s paved the way for more than one million people from the FSU to make aliya since 1990 is largely unknown. Even many of those born to parents who escaped the Soviet Union are ignorant of the momentous events and unique cooperation between American and Soviet Jews that enabled their parents and grandparents to live in freedom.

Refusenik tells their story and provides a compelling insight into one of contemporary Jewry’s most uplifting episodes. Seattle should be proud that such an important film had it’s first U.S screening there, in the presence of its dynamic young director and producer, Laura Bialis.

Los Angeles Premiere (May 14, 2008)

REFUSENIK premiered in Los Angeles as part of the LA Jewish Film Festival, at the Laemmle Music Hall. Speakers included Zev Yaroslavksy and Si Frumkin — two famous Angelenos who got their start as activists in the Soviet Jewry movement. The dynamic duo reminisced about some of their most notorious moments– including getting arrested at a demonstration at the Shrine Auditorium. Great quote of the evening from Si Frumkin: “I”m probably the only person who’s spent time in a jail cell with Zev Yaroslavsky.”

Also in attendance: Producer Stephanie Howard, Editors Allan Holzman and Tchavdar Georgiev, Composer Charles Bernstein, Cinematographer Sarah Levy, and Korelan Matteson, Production Coordinator.

New York Premiere Event (May 11, 2008)

Natan Sharansky was in attendance for a Q & A after the film. Many activists, including Glenn and Lenore Richter, and many of their colleagues, came out in force.

Have a story to share?

We have heard so many amazing stories from Activists that we just simply could not fit in the film. Please share yours with our community. Email your stories to: info@refusenikmovie.com

San Francisco Premiere Event (April 12, 2008)

Soviet Jewry Activists Regina Waldman, Morey Schapira, and David Waksberg teamed up to speak after the screening.

Seattle Jewish Film Festival (April 9, 2008)

Last night I had the privilege to watch the North American premiere of Refusenik, directed by Laura Bialis at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival. It was apropos for Seattle and the Jewish Film Festival to be the first to present this landmark documentary, since Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson hailed from Washington State, and was so instrumental in the fight to free Soviet Jews. This incredibly moving documentary points to the power of ideas, demonstrating how history can be changed when idealism, perseverance and perhaps a bit of naivete converge, creating the groundswell for what developed into an international movement.
There are lessons for us today as the Jewish commun ity engages in battles to safeguard the rights of Jews around the world, including ironically, those of our brothers and sisters in Israel. Thanks to Laura and all those involved in the creation of this wonderful film for helping show us the way forward.
Here’s to the incredible courage and indomitable spirit of all the Refuseniks!”
David Brumer, Seattle

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photos courtesy StopTime photography

Have a story to share?

We have heard so many amazing stories from Refuseniks that we just simply could not fit in the film. Please share yours with our community. Email your stories to: info@refusenikmovie.com

World Premiere: Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival (December 6, 2007)

The most amazing event ever. All of the refuseniks in attendance!

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