Chosen Books: An Interview with Gal Beckerman
A conversation with the author of When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.
At over 600 pages with a title nearly as long, Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry seems at first glance to be a book doomed to gather dust on the shelves of Rabbis, Bar Mitzvah boys and erstwhile dissidents. That is, of course, until you open it and take a peek. Beckerman has managed to take some thirty-odd years of world history (it’s amazing how much of cold war politics he crams into it) and turn it into a wholly human and vividly engaging narrative. From the moment I opened it, I couldn’t put it down until forehead-blotted Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Soviet Union, so opening the floodgates of Jewish emigration.
I had the opportunity to speak with Gal about his book. A young, good-looking softie, he is perhaps the last person I would peg as an historian. As our conversation moved forward, he kept returning to ideas that make him sound less like a truth-seeking journalist (he is a staff writer for The Forward) and more like a flighty storyteller, a spinner of yarns. That fact is what endears When The Come for Us, and prevents it from spiraling downward into historical factoids and empty platitudes. He has written a book that, if it weren’t all true, could qualify as a great story.
Your main thesis is that American efforts to get Jews out of the Soviet Union bolstered American Jews politically. When did you come up with this angle?
I started writing about the American Jewish side of it because that was the less covered side of it. People knew a lot about the refuseniks, but there’s not so much out there, almost nothing, about the early periods like the 1960s and 1970s. People know about Natan Sharansky and all that, so I was really interested in excavating the American side of it. Very quickly I realized that that wasn’t going to be able to stand on its own narratively because it was missing the fire. The real motivation was that these people were putting their lives in great risk, creating great hardships for themselves to get out.
The American side seems very divisive, a little “two Jews, three opinions” as the joke goes.
There were a lot of emotions swirling that really kind of propelled the movement. I think that it’s telling that in the 1960s, nobody really knew what Soviet Jews wanted, but there was still this kind of excited grass roots movement of students. That made me realize how self directed it was, how much there was about “let’s do something that’s going to make us feel better about being human beings and Jews and Americans. And oh yeah, we’re saving Soviet Jews as well.”
What did you uncover that hadn’t been reported before?
If there’s anything innovative here it’s the depth, the fleshing out. For instance, we know that Meir Kahane was involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, but I went through his entire FBI document, about 3000 pages. I really tried to fill in a picture of how he was perceived by the government what kind of actual threat he was to détente. Also, the story of the hijackers, in which a group of Soviet Jews plotted to hijack a plane and fly to freedom but were caught before they executed the plan, was out there, but I interviewed every single one of the hijackers and got their whole stories. I was able to triangulate between them. That chapter on the hijacking is really the first narrative of the hijacking that exists.
Did you travel to Russia for research?
I did spend some time in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which I kept calling Leningrad every time I was there. It was kind of embarrassing, but in my head that was the world I was living in.
Was there much documentation left in the USSR?
There’s an Israeli professor who had gone into the Soviet archives in the early 90s and found anything having to do with Jewish emigration and the Zionist movement. The archives have been closed for some time so this was vital. He took out those papers and he basically made a small kind of academic press book out of it. I opened this book and my jaw dropped because it had these transcripts of Politburo meetings where Brezhnev is saying things like, “What are we going to do about these fucking Jews?” You realized that you could make the connection between what people were hoping on the outside in terms of how much it was going to affect Soviet leaders. It actually affected them.
Did you encounter any resistance from people you tried to contact?
My favorite story is of Eduard Kuznetsov, one of the hijackers, who is this very rough, old dissident. He was a pretty weathered dissident by the time the hijacking even happened. He had already spent 8 years in the gulag. I spent 4 months living in Israel trying to interview everybody I could, so I called him and I said “Look, I really need to talk to you. You’re the lynchpin of the whole hijacking plot.” He said “No. Goodbye.” And that was it.
But I had talked to Sylva Zalmanson, who he had been married to during the hijacking plot. I met her along with all the other hijackers because they invited me to their annual get together. This was the 35th Anniversary so they had a big cookout. It was totally absurd because there I was, squeezed into the back of a car with Sylva on one side of me and Mark Dymshits, the pilot, on the other. The whole way in the car she’s nudging me about how she wants to set me up with her daughter. So I’m just like “Well, I’d love to meet her. I’m in Tel Aviv for awhile…” It was the only way I could get her to be quiet.
So I met her daughter and we had coffee. It was a very chaste meeting. We hit it off in a friendly way. Towards the end I said “You know I’m having a hell of a time interviewing your father. He just won’t talk to me.” She pulls out her cell phone and calls him. “Daddy, I have this really nice young man sitting in front of me who says you’re not being nice to him.” He hadn’t seen her for awhile because she lives in Tel Aviv and he’s just outside of Jerusalem so he basically said to her “I’ll talk to him on the condition that he bring you to the interview.” Just like that, within 3 days I’m sitting at his apartment drinking vodka. Once he got going he was just as eager as anybody else to tell his story. It was a very dramatic part of his life.
Without Soviet Jewry, what has happened to the Jewish political movement?
The Soviet movement was appealing to so many different people for different reasons. You could be an anti-Communist who liked it because it stuck a finger in the Soviets’ eyes. If you were someone who was totally on the left and supported civil rights, how could you not support the rights of people who were suffering and couldn’t leave their own country? If you were totally on the right and believed that Jewish rights needed to be protected, then this was your cause too. Can you think of anything today that unifies people like that? It’s impossible. For that reason it became the perfect cause, even more so than Israel because Israel was always divisive until after 1967, to give the Jewish community a sense of strength and a sense of its own political power. Today, there is incredible division. There’s nothing that unifies people like that.
Lou Rosenblum, one of the Ohio activists you describe, almost feels like Lou Gopnik or one of the cast of the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man.
Lou is totally one of those guys. I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s exactly who he is. He’s just some guy living out in the midwest, completely normal, very good American. And he was just bothered by what he believes Jews could have done during World War II. It’s incredible how much the Holocaust was kind of the background noise to all of this. There were so many activists who I met and asked “What was your main motivation?” They would say “I didn’t want my kids to have the conversation with me that I had had with my parents”, as in “Where were you in 1943? What were you doing while our people were being slaughtered?” The answer is so much more complicated. Jews were a new immigrant group, some were struggling to survive. You can’t place a ton of blame on them. Also, Jews in the Soviet movement weren’t in any way in an analogous situation to the Jews in Germany. That’s an over-dramatization that may have helped the movement.
The Soviet Jews got fed up with the Bar Mitzvah twin thing and other symbolic gestures after awhile?
In the early 1980s, everything was miserable. Nobody was getting out, it was a really really horrible time. Out of frustration they wrote a sharply worded letter that basically said stop these cute gestures. However, all those little cute gestures were actually really effective. In some ways that movement pioneered what we now use very effectively in other human rights campaigns. Lou Rosenblum’s genius was saying “Let’s not think of this as some mass of Jews living in a prison in the Soviet Union. Let’s think of Maxim Yankelevich, this one boy who you can connect with.” That seems so cliche to us now, but it wasn’t at the time. That was very much a technological innovation of the movement.
Is it overstating the fact to say that the Jews took down the Soviet Union?
I think it is. It’s a very nuanced thing, and it’s challenging to explain it. Many factors led to the end of the Soviet Union. There was a terrible economic situation. They couldn’t compete with the West. That has to be seen as the number one reason that it fell. It’s not that the Soviet Jewry movement made the USSR end, but it’s in the way that it ended that the Soviet Jews had an effect. By the time Gorbachev was trying to reform his society, it was dictated by 20 years of this push that was coming from one direction. There was nothing he could do but start relenting on these rights. It was like taking one brick out of a wall the whole thing was going to collapse eventually.
Did you ever reunite with your Bar Mitzvah twin, Maxim Yankelevich?
I tried. Who knows, maybe the book will get the word out and he’ll call me up.
This article originally appeared in Heeb Magazine and was written by Jonathan Poritsky.