When they come for us, we'll be gone

Review of Gal Beckerman's book, "When They Come for Us, We'll  Be Gone- The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry."

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, | updated: 15:51

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich
INN:YM

When I first met Gal Beckerman, the young author, son of Israeli emigres living in America, in the process of his interviewing me for information for the book, I had no strong feelings that something great was going to come out of this.

With the complex events surrounding the history of Soviet Jewry, it was difficult to imagine just how an American Jew with Israeli antecedents could comprehend this far from simple story.

Lo and behold! Upon completing the book, Beckerman presented me with a copy with his personal hand-written dedication:

"To Yosef. I have great feelings of respect for you and for your courage. Your biography runs like a scarlet thread throughout the narrative of my book".

(Indeed the book begins with mention of my name, and ends in a similar vein.)

I began reading and became convinced that Gal produced a profound piece of research into the history of the struggle. I haven't been bribed. I considered myself to be a "professsor" when it comes to knowledge about the movement, but, in fact, I learned a great deal from the book, as Beckerman has highlighted figures in the struggle whom I was not familiar with, but, now, I must know.

In my eyes, the book, in its human portrayal, even more than its historical research, reveals the drama of Jewish life between 1960-90. Many individuals, many chapters, that are woven into a complete tapestry. It is a drama of Jewish life in its most realistic portrayal. No wonder that the book's subtitle is: "The EPIC Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry".

When I first met Natan Sharansky in Vladimir  Prison , I wanted to learn from him what was happening in the big Jewish world in support of our struggle. (There was no possibility of our meeting face to face, so we communicated through the pipes of the prison cells' latrines, a makeshift "telephone ".)

It's  important to remember  that Sharansky was arrested 7 years after me, and that he was an active participant and witness to the struggle that took place after our arrest in 1970 for an attempt to hijack an airplane to secure our freedom to live in Israel. 

"What is happening?", I asked about our struggle, and Natan replied: "There are establishment groups and grassroot groups,  each going in its own direction,  and each one battling the other".

Sad words but words that reflected the truth. Gal Beckerman gives a broader and more life-like picture of these groups, particularly, those in the US, and the interaction amongst them. He doesn't make generalizations, nor does he whitewash the facts. For this, Beckerman  deserves particular praise.

In this same conversation, Sharansky mentioned  two voluntary, grassroots  organizations:

1. The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), and 2.The Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry (UCSJ). The activities of these two organizations are particularly highlighted  in the book, as are those of Rabbi Meir Kahane, Hy"d, as well as, many, many other good Jews.

This is a veritable encyclopedia of the Jewish world at the time, with many shades of color and activities.

It seems to  me, Gal doesn't  always remain neutral in his writing, and, at times, he should have distanced himself from portraying characters in the book with their negative traits.There are those who criticize him, stating that personal deficiencies are not an appropriate subject for such a book. Notwithstanding, Gal succeeded in reviving the images of those lesser known leaders of the movement, whose activities were not sufficiently publicized.

My intention here in particular is to Jacob Birnbaum, who arrived in N.Y. in the early 60's from England and was the inspiration behind the formation of the struggle. He posited that in the initial stage, voluntary, grassroots organizations needed to start up activities, in order to push and encourage the establishment groups to jump on the bandwagon.

I personally was an eyewitness to Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, speaking in front of his 800 congregants in Kehilath Jeshurun/Ramaz in N.Y., in praise of those activists for Soviet Jewry, particularly,  Rabbi Meir Kahane, for their most important contribution to the cause.

I read Beckerman's book in the original English edition, and only recently acquired the Hebrew translated edition. I am not here to compare the Hebrew translation to the original. However, one thing stands out in particular in the Hebrew translation, and that is, an appendix attached by the publisher of the Hebrew edition, namely, Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva. The appendix praises the "Office Without A Name" for its contribution to the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

The "Office Without A Name " refers to the Israel Government office dating back to Ben Gurion's time that operated in a clandestine manner in all issues related to Russian Jewry. Beckerman, in many places in his book, gives a low grade to this Israeli office in the overall struggle. While it is true that Beckerman did not have access to the confidential files of the Office and its operations, this in itself did not in my opinion, justify inserting an appendix which does much to attempt to refute the author's contentions.

As stated, Gal Beckerman's book is truly a masterpiece. It's no coincidence that the book won the "Best Jewish Book" award for 2012. Want to feel excited, have a good cry like me, be proud of the Jewish people, and learn? I heartily recommend this book! Read it with the same enthusiasm with which it was written.

The writer of this article,  Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch,  was one of the leaders of the struggle from inside Russia, to open up the gates of the USSR for its Jews. He spent 11 years in Soviet prisons as the price for his daring plan.  He lives in Kiryat Moshe, Jerusalem today.                  




top