Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry made a difference

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In last week’s St. Louis Jewish Light, a comprehensive article by Repps Hudson looked back 25 years at the historic “Freedom Sunday March and Rally for Soviet Jewry.” It drew 250,000 people to Washington to demand that Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev “Let Our People Go — as the Page One headline read in the Jewish Light at the time.  

Among the 250,000 participants who took part in the rally on Dec. 6, 1987 were a large contingent from St.  Louis.  A group of those participants gathered last week for a reunion convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building.  

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Highlights of the reunion, which was attended by 14 people, included very moving remarks by Mikhail  Palatnik, a Jewish scholar from Ukraine, who was able to obtain exit visas for himself and 10 family members. Joining him were Martin and Margaret Israel, who befriended Palatnik while the couple was on a trip to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. When Palanik eventually settled in St. Louis, where he joined the faculty of Washington University, he and the Israels established an enduring friendship.  

A video taken at the rally by St. Louisan Milton Movitz, a past board president of the Jewish Light and shown at the reunion, depicted interviews of major Soviet Jewish refuseniks and prisoners of conscience. The images still packed a powerful punch.

Gorbachev was in Washington then for a summit meeting with President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Lynn Lyss, president of the JCRC at the time, recalled that Shultz was strongly supportive of the Soviet Jewry cause.  

Shultz had not been a welcome appointment as Secretary of State, since he was an executive at the engineering firm of Bechtel, Inc., which had built much of the infrastructure of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  His solid record of support for Israel and Soviet Jewry proved how wrong many (including this writer) were in denouncing his initial appointment.  More important than the lesson learned about judging officials prematurely was the fact the Freedom Sunday March and Rally did make a difference.  

Gorbachev, in the immediate aftermath of the rally, opened the floodgates of emigration to any and all Jews.  In all, over 1 million from the now former Soviet Union were able to start new lives in Israel. Roughly 250,000 came to the United States, including several hundred to St. Louis, and thousands more to Western Europe, including, amazingly, to Germany.  

Many of us who took part in the rally did not want our  children and grandchildren to ask “where were you?” when you could have made a difference. As it turned out, the Freedom Sunday March and Rally on Washington was — and is to this day — the largest gathering of American Jews (and many non-Jewish supporters) in American history.  At the reunion last week, several of us took solace knowing we were there when it counted and it did make a difference.  

To learn more about Freedom Sunday, visit the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library’s exhibit in the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building’s atrium, 12 Millstone Campus Drive.