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Jews in Former Soviet Union: Refusniks

The first Jews I met in Moscow on my 1973 visit were Vladimir and Masha Slepak, who three years earlier had applied for permission to leave Russia for Israel. At the time, their three-year wait seemed intolerable. I returned to the United States, kept in touch with them for a while, and continued to read about their case, which was frequently cited in the news. Finally, in 1987, fourteen years after we had met and seventeen years after they had first applied, the Slepaks were allowed to leave for Israel.

Refusnik Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky, and his wife Avital, phone President Reagan to thank him for his part in Natan's release

A leading Jewish activist, Vladimir Slepak became the most famous of the refuseniks, Jews whom the Soviet Union refused to allow to leave. The Soviets often gave no explanation for the denial of an emigration visa, though they frequently attributed it to state security. Slepak was told that because he had worked as an engineer years earlier, it was feared that he would divulge Russian secrets to the West. The explanation was absurd, since any technological know-how that Slepak and the several thousand other refuseniks had, had long been superseded by the West's. One refusenik, Benjamin Bogomolny, actually entered the Guinness Book of World Records as "most patient"—he waited twenty and a half years to get permission to leave Russia (1966-1986—from the time he was twenty till he was forty).

The refuseniks' plight was horrendous. As soon as they applied to leave Russia, they were fired from their jobs; because the government is the only employer in Communist societies, it became impossible for them to find other work. Many Jews throughout the world sent the refuseniks money, a hefty percentage of which the government confiscated. Although many refuseniks were highly educated, they often had to accept whatever jobs were offered them (for example, cleaning streets at night) to avoid being arrested as "parasites" (a Soviet classification for any able-bodied person unemployed for two months). Yosef Begun, a Jewish mathematician who taught an underground Hebrew class, was fired from his job when he applied to live in Israel, then convicted for not working and exiled to Siberia.

In Novosibirsk the Poltinnikov family, Isaac, Irma, and their daughter Victoria, all three physicians, were refused permission to leave for Israel for nine years. Throughout this period, they were forbidden to work in their professions and were constantly harassed. The KGB periodically arrested them, subjected them to long interrogations, and on one occasion killed their dog. When the family was finally given permission to emigrate in 1979, Irma and Victoria concluded that it was a KGB trick, that they would all be arrested at the airport. Isaac Poltinnikov did leave and went to Israel. He immediately invited his wife and daughter to join him. The Soviets refused them permission. Irma died soon thereafter from malnutrition (she was afraid to leave her apartment), whereupon Victoria committed suicide.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, pro-Soviet Jewry organization focused tremendous efforts on securing the refuseniks' emigration. It became common for Jewish communities and Jewish schools throughout the United States and Europe to "adopt" refusenik families, often writing and telephoning them. At many Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, a young American Jew would "twin" himself or herself with a child reaching Bar or Bat Mitzvah age in Russia.

The refuseniks themselves served as the leadership of the Russian Jewish revival that started after the 1967 Six-Day War. When my friend Dennis Prager visited Russia in 1969, a refusenik named Tina Brodetskaya asked him to smuggle out a document attacking Soviet antisemitism. When he asked her if she wasn't afraid of being sent to prison, Brodetskaya said: "Where do you think I am now?" Brodetskaya was subsequently permitted to leave for Israel.

With the rise of Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (greater openness and freedom), most of the longest-waiting refuseniks were permitted to leave, after having spent many of what should have been the most productive years of their lives unemployed, in fear of arrest, and under constant attack by their peers and neighbors. Still, in June 1990, historian Martin Gilbert reported in The Jerusalem Post on the cases of 150 refuseniks who were arbitrarily being denied permission to leave Russia.

Sources: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.