For one brief, shining moment late last month, the freedom struggle of Soviet Jewry came resplendently to life again some 40 years after it began.
The Nov. 27 private screening at UJA-Federation of New York of the documentary film “Refusenik,” a powerful three-hour evocation of the history of the global movement by and on behalf of Soviet Jews, unleashed powerful emotions in a group of former refuseniks and other ex-Soviets in attendance. The event was co-sponsored by the Russian Division of UJA-Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Addressing filmmaker Laura Bialis after viewing the film, which had its official debut Dec. 6 at the Jerusalem Film Festival, Fira Stuckelman, a Holocaust survivor and refusenik, said emotionally, “I want to thank
you with all my heart for making this wonderful film, which reminded me of what happened to our people in those hard times.
“Watching it brought back vivid memories of losing my job and being called to the KGB,” said Stuckelman, who was denied permission to leave the Soviet Union for 10 years after applying to emigrate in 1979. “I would like to arrange a showing of this movie in Brooklyn, where much of the Russian community, especially young people, knows very little of what we endured in those days.”
Bialis is a 33-year-old California documentary film director whose previous works include “Tak for Alt (Thanks For Everything),” the life story of Holocaust survivor turned American civil rights activist Judy Meisel, which won the Anti-Defamation League’s Dore Schary Award in 2000. She explained to the audience of about 100 at the UJA-Federation screening that she worked on “Refusenik ”for more than five years.
Bialis’ original conception was to focus the film on Shirley Goldstein, a Soviet Jewry activist from Omaha, Neb., who Bialis saw as a window into the world of a remarkable coterie of American fighters for Soviet Jews who affiliated with groups like the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.
But once Bialis traveled to Israel to interview many of the former refuseniks, including Natan and Avital Sharansky, Vladmir and Masha Slepak, Ida Nudel and Yosef Begun and scores of others, she realized that she needed to capture the trajectory of the entire movement — focusing both on the Jewish activists within the Soviet Union and their far-flung network of supporters in the U.S., Britain, Israel and other countries.
The result is the first comprehensive retelling in documentary form of the 30-year movement to free Soviet Jews. Celebrating the heroism of the refuseniks without being hagiographic or overly sentimental, the film shows how a small grassroots effort blossomed into an international human rights campaign. It was one that profoundly changed modern Jewish history and played a not insignificant role in the eventual demise of the once-mighty totalitarian edifice known as the Soviet Union.
Told through the eyes of activists on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the film makes use of never-before-seen photographs and covert film footage—some of it smuggled out of the Soviet Union.
The film offers a historical sweep of the movement, beginning with the so-called Doctors’ Plot of 1952, when the Kremlin propaganda machine accused supposed “killers in white coats,” — nearly all of them with Jewish names — with plotting to murder the country’s all-powerful dictator Joseph Stalin. It moves to the euphoria of the Six-Day War, when Soviet Jews, who had feared the imminent end of the Jewish state, savored an immediate sense of exaltation followed by a growing sense of empowerment, and, in the case of more and more individuals in widely scattered cities, a conviction that their destiny lay beyond the closed borders of the Soviet state.
According to refusenik Yuli Koshorovsky, “I was very happy that Israel had won the war, but was left with a clear understanding that the Soviet Union was against my people. Once I comprehended that, I decided to apply for an exit visa.”
The film then chronicles the two-decade struggle by Soviet Jews to win the right to emigrate. As Yosef Begun puts it in the film, “I knew I could no longer live the double life of a Soviet person and that I had to apply to leave. The problem was they were allowing some people to leave, but preventing others from going. Once you are a refusenik, everything is different. You are forced to leave your job, but unemployment is illegal in the Soviet Union. ... You struggle to survive.”
Amid the inspiring group solidarity employed by the refuseniks and Jewish activists, conditions steadily worsened. With the demise of the heyday of U.S.-Soviet détente of the early 1970s, Sharansky, Begun, Nudel and other high-profile refuseniks were sentenced to years in extremely harsh conditions in Siberian prison camps; others, like Vladimir Kislik of Kiev, were sent to mental hospitals on false diagnoses of mental illness and forced to take a regimen of harsh psychotropic drugs.
Meanwhile, the spirits of refuseniks throughout the vast Soviet state were sustained by a steady stream of Jewish visitors from the West, who came to refuseniks’ apartments known to be bugged by the KGB armed with tools like childrens’ magic slates, on which they could write messages back and forth to their hosts without being overheard.
And then suddenly, seemingly magically, just when things seemed most desperate, the curse began to lift. The new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev began a process of liberalization known as perestroika, Sharansky and the most famous refuseniks were freed, and soon, as perestroika galloped forward far beyond what Gorbachev and his team had anticipated, the Berlin Wall crumbled, and the doors of the Soviet Union opened.
Bialis interviewed a now-aged Gorbachev, who acknowledges that he had originally opposed Jewish emigration because, “I had known a lot of Jews since my student years, and I didn’t want the Soviet Union to lose so many good people. Still, I understood them. They saw the necessity of democratic change and blazed the trail.”
After the screening, members of the audience lingered for more than an hour, savoring together what they had experienced.
Israel Zalmanson, one of the participants in the so-called Leningrad hijack plot of 1969, (an aborted plan by 16 mainly Jewish dissidents to charter a small plane to the Finnish border and then pilot it across), who now resides in New York, said that Bialis’ portrayal of events surrounding the hijacking attempt “was a very accurate portrayal of what happened and what inspired us to act. I wouldn’t alter a thing.”
Bella Reyngold, who was in refusal in Minsk from 1979-1988 with her husband Gennadi and son Alexander, said she had been “stunned” to witness during the film her own picture on a placard being carried by a participant in a Soviet Jewry demonstration in New York.
“I had no idea until now that my picture was being carried in demonstrations,” she said. “Seeing that moved me deeply.”
Alexander Reyngold, now 34, and an economist with a financial group in Manhattan, recalled: “Once an activist from the West visited us and gave me a necklace with a Star of David. I wanted to wear it to school, but my father took it away from me to prevent anything from happening to all of us.” Reyngold said, “I don’t usually cry at movies, but this one simply overwhelmed me.”
Natalie Rozenberg, a 30-year-old attorney, who left Odessa in 1989 at the age of 12 and subsequently lived in San Diego in a largely non-Jewish environment, said, “Honestly, I didn’t know much about the Soviet Jewry movement until now, so seeing this film gives me a sense of identity and history.
“Nowadays, young Americans don’t believe we have the ability to make a difference in the world. This movie makes clear that a small group of determined people standing together can literally change the course of history. That is tremendously inspiring.”
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