Remembering historic march in Washington for Soviet Jews

A view of the crowd assembled for the 1987 march. Jewish Light file photo: David Henschel

By Repps Hudson , Special to the Jewish Light

For Jewish activists in St. Louis, helping refuseniks – Soviet Jews who were denied exit visas – get out of harm’s way stands out as one of the most satisfying times of their lives.

Milton Movitz, a retired businessman, went to Moscow in 1976 to meet refuseniks and bring their story back here in the states. He took a movie camera and Hebrew prayer books to give to Soviet Jews, many whom were not religious but often were living in dire conditions. 

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“I had gotten to know a lot of Russian Jews living in St. Louis,” Movitz said. “So I went because I wanted a better look at what was going on. I was in contact with Professor Alexander Lerner [one of the first prominent Soviet scientists to apply to move to Israel].

“I took a cab to his apartment,” Movitz said. “I was with 20 other people from St. Louis. We made a movie of Lerner and other refuseniks, who told their story.”

Movitz, a former Board President of the Jewish Light, used the movie to put faces and words to the accounts of refuseniks and to stir interest in their cause. He also paid Lerner $100 for a small painting of a scene from the movie “Exodus,” which now hangs in his home.

His efforts, and those of many other activists, families and Jewish community leaders, will be commemorated by a gathering of those who participated in the cause in one way or another two and three decades ago. They have been invited to meet at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 5, at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive, to reminisce and relive what some have said was the best coming together of the Jewish community around a great cause that they can remember.

“We sent invitations to people that said, ‘Were you there? Did you care?’” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

The date of the commemoration meeting falls one day short of 25 years after a rally in Washington on Dec. 6, 1987, of more than 300,000 people, most of them Jewish from throughout the United States. More than 300 went from St. Louis to join the demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jews while Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting President Ronald Reagan.

“We want to have a reunion of the individuals who participated in the march on Washington for Soviet Jewry or who were active in the Soviet Jewry movement,” said Abramson-Goldstein.

“It was an incredible lesson in the power of activism,” she said. “Of persevering, mobilizing. It showed the amazing power of the community.”

To mark the occasion as well, the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library will have an exhibit of documents and photos from the Soviet Jewry movement at the library from Thursday, Dec. 6through Jan. 16. The exhibit is co-sponsored by the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives of the library, the JCRC and the Federation.


Giving a face to Soviet Jewry

Like many who participated in the multifaceted efforts of letter writing campaigns, rallies and “adopting” a Soviet Jew to put a face on what could be an anonymous person behind the Iron Curtain, Abramson-Goldstein said the nationwide movement to free refuseniks demonstrated “a strong moral underpinning to what we were doing. It was deeply rooted in us. Soviet Jews were essentially imprisoned.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, American Jews like Movitz took up the cause of Jews in the U.S.S.R. to whom Moscow refused to grant exit visas. They made contacts through phone calls, letters and personal visits to Jews held in the Soviet Union against their will.

Usually, when a Jew applied for an exit visa, he or she immediately lost the job that sustained the family and then ran the risk of being officially labeled a parasite of the Soviet state. 

The surge in Soviet Jews applying for visas, usually to emigrate to Israel, came after the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel’s battlefield success against three Arab armies and its taking over of the West Bank and East Jerusalem sparked a strong interest among Soviet Jews, who often saw Israel as a better alternative to living as second-class citizens or worse in the U.S.S.R.

Ultimately, more than 1.5 million Jews left the Soviet Union in the most recent migration beginning in the early 1970s.

Today, the largest national group in Israel is made up of Soviet Jews and their families. They number more than 1 million, according to Haaretz, but in recent years the rate of their immigration to Israel has dropped, in part because of what some perceive as discrimination when they reach Israel and problems adjusting to life there. Another 500,000 Soviet Jews have settled in the U.S. during the same period.

Lerner was the first Soviet Jew to apply to emigrate to Israel. Like many refuseniks, he was highly educated and had held positions in the Soviet government that gave Moscow the excuse to say he could not leave because he knew state secrets. He eventually emigrated to Israel in 1988 and died there in 2004 at the age of 90.

Coming to St. Louis

Lynn Lyss was JCRC president when the march on Washington for Soviet Jews occurred.

“Gorbachev was visiting Washington,” she said. “It was a signal to him that this was a really important issue for us and Soviet Jews. There were already lots of people in St. Louis, resettling Jews and teaching English as a second language.”

She recalled the efforts many people here made to connect with Soviet Jews.

“There were people we were trying to get out,” Lyss said. “We had hidden Bibles and Torahs, and we were visiting refuseniks in Moscow. Some people here were wearing bracelets of Soviet Jews who were prisoners of conscience. It was very personal.”

One of those refuseniks who benefitted from American pressure on Moscow and then marched in Washington 25 years ago is Mikhail Palatnik, a senior lecturer in Russian language and culture at Washington University. He and his wife, Irena, an emergency room physician in Chernovtsy (now Chernivtsi) in southwestern Ukraine, applied to emigrate to the U.S. in 1980. This was right after Soviet armed forces invaded Afghanistan and, as Palatnik noted, “relations between the two countries were not good.”

He has been an English teacher in Ukraine, but when he and his wife applied for visas, they lost their jobs and had to scrape by. Palatnik sold insurance, which he “absolutely abhorred. But I had to show the visibility of being duly employed,” lest he be labeled a parasite on the state.

Finally, in 1987, Palatnik, his wife and their two young sons, now 27 and 32, were allowed to emigrate. They had friends in St. Louis, other Jews from the Soviet Union. Their arrival here on Oct. 26, 1987– 11 in all in their extended family—was filmed by local TV crews. Being featured on the local news was another testament to the publicity campaign that had been built up around the fate of refuseniks.

Within a few weeks, Palatnik was enrolled in a master’s program at Washington University. He participated in the march on Washington as living proof that pressure on the Soviet system could work. 

“Immigrating is a big step,” Palatnik said. “We were leaving one country behind, and we didn’t know what to expect.”

His parents’ families, with the exception of his mother, who was hidden by a sympathetic family, died in the Holocaust.

As was the case with other Soviet Jews who arrived during this period, local people and organizations helped find homes, jobs and schools for Palatnik and his family. He calls Evelyn Young “our guardian angel” and credits Jewish Family & Children’s Service of St. Louis and Metropolitan Employment and Rehabilitation Service (now MERS/Missouri Goodwill) with helping him and his family adjust and set down roots. Today, Irena Palatnik is an adult nurse practitioner. 

Palatnik said his sister’s mother-in-law, who was blind when she arrived here in 1987 with the extended family, received an operation that partly restored her sight. Palatnik said she died here at the age of 100.

Legacy of the movement

Looking back, Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth and co-chair of the JCRC commemoration, sees the Soviet Jewry movement on three levels.

First, it helped to bring Jews and others in the United States together for a cause that ultimately was effective. While in Washington, marchers like Bennett were moved by the words of Anatoly (now Natan) Scharansky, a refusenik who had got out; Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and writer, and even the singing trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, who sang a song Bennett recalls: “Light One Candle.”

“The march was successful,” he said. “Most of the Jews who wanted to leave could leave” after the march. Gorbachev and his policy of glasnost – openness – helped as did the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

On the next level, Bennett said, the Soviet Jewry movement reminded him and many others, Jews and non-Jews alike, that as Jews, they had to take the lead on this one.

“We were Jews in the free world. How could we remain silent?” Bennett said. “This was a unifying movement for Jews around the world. We got the world’s attention. During the Holocaust, we failed to get the world’s attention.”

And finally, a point Bennett and others made during these interviews, the Soviet Jewry movement “shows that Jews can come together and support each other. We can put aside our parochial interests. That was a time when politics and needs fell aside for the larger community. We are part of the human race. I would like to see the Jewish community today rally around causes – poverty, hunger, health care, racial injustice.”

Lyss, Bennett’s co-chair for the commemoration, sees in this massive mobilization effort a quarter century ago a prototype of activism for religious, ethnic and others groups to help people abroad who are great distress or facing life-threatening harm.

She pointed to the Bosnia community in the St. Louis area as one group that has been effective in moving many Bosnians from the once-beleaguered former Yugoslavia to this area. Now an entire Bosnia community thrives in the St. Louis area, thanks to the efforts of many people and organizations, more or less like the movement to get 1.5 million Jews out of the Soviet Union.