A crowd of 70+ turned out for the BJCC’s Festival of Books and Culture program “Refusenik” and were treated to a great film and some local eye-witness accounts of the movement to free Soviet Jewry. Kathryn Bernheimer began her introduction to the program by admitting that her involvement in Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry (BASJ) re-connected her to Judaism as a young woman. Bernheimer then introduced Bill Cohen, one of the founders (with his wife Sara-Jane Cohen and Murray Richtel) of BASJ in February 1987.
Cohen explained that his interest in the Soviet Jewry movement was stirred in 1986 when it was announced that Boulder was beginning a sister-city relationship with Dushanbe, Tajikistan, then a part of the Soviet Union. He had never heard of Dushanbe, but he wondered if there were Jews there. It turned out that Dushanbe had, at that time, 20,000 Jews and 95 refuseniks. That fall, Murray Richtel went on an organized trip of judges and attorneys to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to visit with their legal peers and compare notes. But Richtel and many others on the trip also met with dozens of refuseniks in the several cities they visited. Richtel and Cohen had a “fateful” breakfast in late 1986 when they compared notes and asked each other, “what can we do?”
They decided to form a “steering committee”, and called it Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry. The committee met in early February 1987 and organized a rally to be held three weeks later. The rally was attended by many Boulder and Colorado political figures, including Tim Wirth, and garnered a lot of publicity, which is exactly what they wanted to achieve. BASJ was on its way. Cohen explained that the group had two goals: first, publicizing the plight of these refuseniks to keep their names in the press. And then eventually, the BASJ became a relocation agency for Soviet Jews from Dushanbe who were able to get exit visas. In fact, the BASJ relocated approximately 250 Soviet Jews to the Boulder area, far more than any other US community of its size. When asked to identify themselves, about five former BASJ activists and about 15 Russian immigrants in the audience stood up. Cohen emphasized that for him, the real heroes of the Free Soviet Jewry movement were the Refuseniks themselves — they sacrificed everything to publicly declare their Jewishness and their desire to leave the Soviet Union, knowing that this would bring on great hardship.
Bernheimer then explained that the second special guest, Shirley Goldstein of Omaha’s Council for Soviet Jewry and a participant in the film, couldn’t make it to Boulder for the program. Instead, Bernheimer introduced Goldstein’s daughter, Gail Raznick, who is a member of the Boulder Jewish community, who spoke about her mother’s involvement in the movement and what it meant to her.
The film itself was an extraordinary journey through the history of Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union from the turn of the last century to the 1990’s, with an emphasis on the period from 1948 through 1990 as well as covering the American movement to free them. The film was made up of period clips from films of interviews of refuseniks smuggled out of the Soviet Union interspersed with present-day interviews of many of them. There were also plenty of clips of TV coverage of the American marches and demonstrations and interviews (both period and present-day) with figures in the Soviet Jewry movement.
After the film, Professor David Schneer of the CU Jewish Studies Program led a discussion about the film. He pointed out the similarities between the plight of the Soviet Jews and the German Jews in the 1930’s as one way of explaining the explosion of interest by American Jews in trying to help Soviet Jews beginning in the 60’s. One of the parallels was that the Jewish establishment was as reluctant to openly advocate for Soviet Jews in the ’60s as their earlier generation had been in the ’30s. It took students, young people, housewives, and other “ordinary” Jews getting deeply involved and dragging the mainstream Jewish organizations with them.
Another key nexus that Schneer brought out was change in the Civil Rights movement around the same time. Though Jews and Blacks had marched shoulder to shoulder throughout the early 60’s, as the movement turned Black nationalist in 1967 and 1968, Jews were asked to leave the movement. At the same time, Jews worldwide experienced the enormous success of Israel in the Six-Day War, which built pride in Jews and the Jewish homeland both in the US and the USSR. As Soviet Jews began more openly demanding the ability to emigrate, US Jews were looking for another human rights cause to excite in them the passions that the civil rights movement drove earlier in the decade. This was the cause.
Anna Nemirovskaya, one of the Soviet Jews who emigrated to Boulder with the help of the BASJ, stood up and praised the BASJ for all the work that they had done on behalf of Soviet Jews and her family in particular — helping with their transition to a completely different environment. In the end, she said, Bill Cohen was the hero for her.