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Hello, this is a friend from America

Barbara Berlant's story posted by HIAS on April 03, 2013 at 9:21 pm. Barbara emigrated from San Francisco, United States to San Francisco, United States in 1983

In the spring of 1983, hundreds of people from the United States traveled to the former Soviet Union to try to help imperiled Jews. I was a wife, mother and businesswoman planning worldwide travel for my clients.   I was the least likely person imaginable to ever meet someone secretly in a Moscow subway station in the dead of night to talk about the health of political prisoners in Siberia.  This is my story.There had been articles in the news, sermons by our Rabbis, letter writing at Sunday school, conversations with friends.  Little by little information about the situation for Soviet Jews was becoming more extreme.  We began to pay closer attention to the news about Russia. Eventually, there was a realization that standing by and doing nothing for Soviet Jews was what the world did to European Jews during the Holocaust.  Was it happening again?   Was there something I could do?  An invitation came…would I go?  And, if going, how could I go without doing something?  A business trip to Russia provided the opportunity.  The Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry provided everything else.

In 1983, I was invited to be part of a national group of travel agents to visit Moscow, Leningrad and Helsinki to promote tourism.  The “Evil Empire” was not a popular travel destination.  There was a great deal of anger over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  Fifty countries including the United States had withdrawn from the 1980 Moscow Olympics.  In addition, President Carter had imposed a grain embargo on shipments to Russia in protest of the invasion.  A dangerous arms race was gathering momentum in both countries.In spite of this, interest and curiosity about travel to the Soviet Union prompted our association’s board of directors to accept an invitation to visit. The participants were handpicked.  I accepted their invitation.  Friends and family were aghast at the thought of my trip to an Iron Curtain country especially in the existing political climate.   Though my confidence was shaky, I was adamant.  Intourist, the Soviet government travel agency was our host.  It was a rare opportunity.   I should be perfectly safe. 

The Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry in San Francisco discovered that I would be traveling to the Soviet Union and called me. They asked me how I would feel about contacting Jews while in Russia.  They sent information about the Soviet Jewry movement and the activists who had previously gone to see Jews in Russia.   It was important to visit and see the situation firsthand.  Contact with the outside world meant that we knew what was happening to them and that seemed to offer a measure of protection. With international attention, they could not just disappear.Emigration had dropped dramatically from 51,000 in 1979 to less than 100 per month in 1983. Jews were prisoners of a government that clearly did not want them yet would not let them leave either. Senators, Congressmen, religious leaders, human rights activists and tourists from the United States and other countries traveled to the Soviet Union to observe the condition of Soviet Jews.  On their return, they reported the abuses and rising anti-Semitism.  There was an outcry for release of the thousands of Jews who wanted to leave. The world was watching.  We heard about the arrests; the efforts to keep people out of prison; who was refused a visa; who was sick and denied medical care; who was on a hunger strike.  They all were suffering because they were Jews who applied for exit visas.   We were asked to send telegrams and write pleas for help to members of our government and to Soviet officials.  It was equally important to write and make phone calls to the refuseniks to keep up their spirits.My decision was made. 

 If there was something that could be done for Soviet Jews now, I would do it.  Although my travel plans to Russia were known, only a very few trusted people knew tourism was no longer the true reason.  It would be important to be discreet and careful with conversations on the phone and in public places.  The night before leaving, a representative from BACSJ brought me information about the English speaking refuseniks chosen for me to visit.  It included their names, addresses, phone numbers, history of their status and concerns about their welfare.  It was already known that they would welcome foreign visitors yet caution was still needed.  Contact with foreigners could have repercussions. They would risk that to make a connection with someone who might be able to help them.  I began to really understand what was at stake for both those I would visit and for me if questioned.   It was his quiet, confident and reassuring manner that would give me the determination to continue when it became so difficult to reach refuseniks. He brought items for the refuseniks that had been requested by other visitors.  These included a coat, medicine, vitamins, a Russian/English dictionary and other material.  In addition, I had purchased a variety of American magazines (Sunset, Good Housekeeping and similar), paperback novels, gum, candy, cartons of cigarettes (to wave down taxis and for tips), perfume, nylons, makeup, lipsticks, a small bible, and a Hebrew prayer book.  (Although restricted, and questioned about them, none of the brochures or magazines was taken from me.)   Also included were college t-shirts and Levis which were the most valuable gift (one pair on the black market could support a family for a month).  Several Stars of David and a mezuzah would be worn under a turtleneck sweater.  Previous reports and tour books said that these simple gifts were actually valuable commodities.   Beyond these gifts, my visit was meant to bring the refuseniks hope and reassurances that we were working on their behalf.

After the briefing, I stayed up all night reading.  There had been so little time to properly prepare.  None of the briefing materials could go with me so coded notes about each were made and their phone numbers were hidden in my address book.  The dated biographies about the courageous refuseniks on my list caused great concern.  Gathering more current information about their health and well being and that of their friends was another reason for my visits.  Sending or receiving mail or phone calls was unreliable, sporadic and monitored.  Trip reports from previous travelers were invaluable with advice, warnings and practical suggestions.  Some people had been activists for a long time and knew what to do and how to do it, what was allowed and what wasn’t.  Each of these previous visitors had a traveling companion to help them.  I was going alone. Their admonitions were enough for me to know that I needed to be very, very careful about calling and visiting refuseniks and to not discuss my plans with anyone. 

 I flew to Los Angeles the next evening and then to New York the following morning.   Our group was met at the airport in New York by American tour company representatives who would travel with us.   There were twenty eight of us.  We had been sent travel documents, a Russian phrase list, packing suggestions and other vital destination information.   However, before boarding our Finnair flight to Moscow, they reiterated the details of our trip and reminded us of the Soviet very strictly forbidden items list.  Although, we were a well traveled group, this was a very different trip and country than any we had previously experienced.  We listened carefully to their directions: how to fill in the very detailed declaration of valuables or currency we were bringing into the country (it would be checked again when leaving the country), what to expect at passport control and customs (long, tedious, and intimidating).  We were warned about selling or buying anything on the black market, exchanging money only at official locations and keeping receipts for every transaction. Foreign currency was accepted at Beryozka shops in hotels. Photography was permissible with limitations.  Do not put film through x-ray equipment.  It was mandatory to attend every meeting, event and tour and be exactly on time.  It was to be a very rigid schedule with no deviations.   I was nervous before even leaving and tried not to think about how difficult it would be to see even one of my refuseniks.  Would it be possible to keep my private plans a secret from the group?

 The business part of the tour itself was much more interesting than expected.  The cities, in many ways, looked like other European cities with impressive architecture and beautiful structures.  Trees lining the wide boulevards in Moscow were just starting to show the palest green leaves.  Faces, though somber, looked familiar much like grandparents at my synagogue at home.  We were treated very well.  We stayed in modern hotels and had good meals with many appetizers, excellent breads and large portions of caviar, champagne and vodka (no drinking for me).  We were exposed to everything a tourist might want to see.  Our days were filled with tours and our nights were filled with music and other cultural performances.  We were taken to palaces, museums and subway stations with chandeliers that looked like museums.  We went to memorials for the millions who died of starvation in WWII, to cemeteries and shrines, Lenin’s tomb, Red Square, past the yellow building of the Kremlin, into magnificent onion domed cathedrals, facilities built for the Olympics, new hotels,  restaurants and clubs for tourists, the Bolshoi for Swan Lake, to the symphony and circus, to gardens and parks, and many historic sites,  military monuments and facilities honoring the worker.  Leningrad bridges reminded me of Paris. The Hermitage Museum and its collections were beautiful as were other palaces of the Czars.  There was a cost for that splendor and the displays of power. Although our guides insisted there were no food shortages, we saw long lines of people everywhere buying bread, milk and limited consumer goods.  Ice cream vendors were crowded as soon as they set up their portable stands.  We saw public water dispensers with one drinking glass used by everyone.  We passed churches with 1000’s of people outside listening to Russian Orthodox Easter services despite the government’s claim that there was no need for religious practice in their country.  On VE Day, parades of war heroes strolled proudly on the streets and in the parks with all of their medals displayed on their suit jackets.  In contrast to the military’s buildup of weapons, ordinary people only spoke to us of their desire for peace between our two countries.

Logistically, there were many frustrations: how and where to make my private calls or get a taxi, where to get the tokens or coins for the subway, buses and phones.   Language was also an obstacle despite the phrase lists we had been given.  I bought maps in English and Russian at the hotel gift shop.  A confused look and a map often helped me get directions as it did in other countries.  Trying to reach someone the first time was the most difficult.  Walking a few blocks away from the hotel to find a phone, trying to remember how to use it and hoping to find someone at home who spoke English seemed impossible.  Everything took longer than expected and there was precious little free time to waste. There was a constant conflict between my two reasons for being in Russia.  As a member of an educational tour for travel professionals, the expectation was for my enthusiastic focus on tourism. 

However, I was always distracted and looking for opportunities to conveniently leave the group and very cautiously find my refuseniks. How many times would a headache work?On a rare free Sunday afternoon in Moscow, a few of us arranged through Intourist for a taxi to take us out for a drive around the city.  We said we needed to go to the American Embassy.  One of the women in our group was not American and needed a document signed. In my briefing papers, it was suggested that contact be made with the American Embassy on arrival in Moscow.  It was important that the Embassy know I was in Russia.  It was also important that the Soviets knew I had been there.  We spoke to a few Americans there and then left.  We knew we were being observed by more than Embassy guards.  The main synagogue in Moscow was our next stop.  A car parked in front drove off when we arrived.  They watched who went in and out of the synagogue. Our assigned driver’s English was very good for a reason.  He ‘translated’ our conversation for the very nervous older man who was the custodian of the synagogue.  One of the women in our group told the man that Jews in America were very worried about them.  His ‘reply’ by the driver was that they were fine and didn’t need anything.  We gave him gum, candy and cigarettes to thank him for the tour.  It was impossible to get any information about the congregation.  We gave candy to a smiling, toothless babushka lady, who was selling flowers at the Georgian farmer’s market.

  It was hard to concentrate on anything but seeing my refuseniks.  I was anxious to get back to the hotel.  In between the business aspects of my trip, there were small bits of time when it was possible to take a walk alone and find a public phone, make a call and say “Hello…this is a friend from America.  May I come to visit you?”  In Moscow, there were very early morning and very late nights before and after our business when visits could be planned.  


 The refuseniks had a hard life and anti-Semitism was widespread and increasing.  There were stories about intimidation and searches, the KGB, brutal treatment, and labor camps in Siberia.  It was illegal to teach Hebrew or to gather for services, cultural events or classes. They lost jobs, homes or places in school because they were Jews and had applied for exit visas.  It took years of hardship, refusals (thus the name refuseniks) and red tape before receiving the precious visas to leave. Jews who protested or spoke out for human rights were imprisoned for slandering the state.  It was not unusual for anyone who applied for a visa to be branded a traitor, a Zionist conspirator, or enemy of the state.   No one felt safe.  Fear was part of life in Russia.“Hello, is this…? I am a friend from America.  May I come to visit you?”None of the refuseniks knew who was coming, when or why. They just knew the voice on the phone was American and I was bringing them news and hope.  No matter what time of day or night, they welcomed me.  Even though my information said that they spoke English, in many cases it was minimal and that made our conversations challenging.  AnatolyAnatoly, wife Evgenia and son DavidThis is the first visit attempted and my mistakes almost ended the entire search.   I walked two or three blocks from the hotel to find a taxi.  Four taxis refused to stop. The fifth went around and came back.  It must have been my waving the red and white package of cigarettes.  It had taken 45 minutes just to get a taxi.  The cards given to me at home had the name of the refusenik on one side and the address in Russian on the other side.  The driver did not know how to get to there. We would get to one apartment building and find out we had the wrong street or wrong floor (no consecutive numbers).  We stopped to ask other taxi drivers and eventually found the building.  He got someone to buzz us in and went with me to find the apartment.  The numbers again were not consecutive and it was very dark and shabby inside. There was no one home.  We tried to find another address and finally had to give up.  We had been driving for two hours and almost in tears, asked him to take me to the hotel. 

  I had to get back and felt like a failure.  This was not a good beginning.  Our group was meeting for dinner and then the Bolshoi ballet. We were guests and there would be no excuse for being late or missing the event.  Judith, husband Leonid, and sons Mikhail and AlexanderLeonid was fired from his government job when Judith’s parents applied for an exit permit.  He works as a TV repairman.  She has a PhD in Chemistry and lost her job immediately after applying for a visa.  Her parents were living in Israel when her father died and her mother is now alone.  Judith has been unable to reunite with her mother. She is an activist for refuseniks and has been interviewed by various news agencies and heard on Voice of America.  The family needs moral support and friends who care about them in America. Although we were unable to meet, we did speak by phone and she gave me messages to deliver for her.  I sent gifts to her through a contact for many of the refuseniks, Lev.

Lev had been denied a visa many times because he had “state secrets.”  He was a butcher, what state secrets?  He had divorced his wife many years before so she and their son could leave.   He gave me messages for them and their phone number in New York.  They had been apart for 10 years.  He is a friend of Ida Nudel, Ida Milgrom and her sons Anatoly (wife Avital) Shcharansky and Leonid Shcharansky.  All were outspoken critics of the Soviet’s refusal to uphold the Helsinki Accords on human rights.  All were internationally known for their activism.  Anatoly Shcharansky was imprisoned for refusing to stop his protests.  He was one of the first Prisoners of Conscience.  Lev and I spoke by phone and agreed to meet in remote Moscow subway stations late at night or very early mornings.  The taxis were just too difficult.  The subway turned out to be fairly easy with color coded routes and frequent trains.  I asked him to bring a large bag.  We would meet early the next morning to be sure I could return in time for my morning meetings.  I read my guide book to make sure of the procedure and route and took the underground walkway to the metro station across the wide boulevard from our hotel.  My calls were made at public phones located here or at other stations, not at hotels.

Lev had not had a visitor for months and was worried that he had been abandoned and forgotten.  He was very happy to see his new American friend.  Medicine for Shcharansky’s mother, Ida Milgrom, and items for other refuseniks were passed on through Lev.  They were worried about Shcharansky who had been having heart problems and had been refused medical care.  There had been no information about him in two months.  To punish Shcharansky further, they had canceled his mother and brother’s visits. I relayed the information that he had recently ended his hunger strike.  His mother had been working relentlessly to get him medical care and to get him released.  I had no current information about any of the other prisoners.  He gave me information about other refuseniks.  They were meeting in the forest the next day.  I gave him a coat, cigarettes, vitamins and medicine that had been requested.  He will take the candy and gum, jeans, books and magazines to the others and will try to connect me with additional refuseniks.We spoke about Passover and using a fourth matzo at our Seder to represent Russian Jews with the hope that one day they would be free.  I had pictures of our family Seder and of Bar and Bat Mitzvah “twinning” ceremonies linking our 13 year olds to Jewish children in Russia who could not have their own.  There were also pictures of a “twinning” wedding in San Francisco “marrying” an imprisoned dissident to his fiancé.  His needs are the smallest tape recorder and blank tapes, cameras and lenses, Japanese watches, jeans and an adapter for his radio.  Obviously, these were very valuable items for barter.  The waiters at our hotel’s restaurant were transfixed by a small pocket sized translating device that one man in our group was using.  It had interchangeable discs with different languages programmed in it.   They offered him a pound of caviar worth about $400 in exchange for the $40 device.  That would certainly been easier to carry and more valuable to the refuseniks then all of those Levis.Lev and I met again very late at night in the same station.  He gave me news about some of the other refuseniks.  He had seen Ida Nudel.  I gave him a few more things.  We made plans to meet the next afternoon and go shopping with Judith for baby formula and whatever else I could purchase for them in the foreign currency shops.

The next day, we were late returning to the hotel.  I missed seeing Lev and Judith by ten or fifteen minutes.  It would have been too dangerous for them to wait longer at the station.  Frustrated and terribly disappointed, I finally reached Lev by phone.  It was too late to go shopping.  Our group was invited to an event that evening and Lev had to work the next day.  We agreed to meet much later that night.  It was going to be complicated to meet any other Moscow refuseniks in the short time before our tour left for Leningrad.   All of the other magazines, books, 3 more pair of Levis and some of the shirts were given to Lev.  Nylons and perfume for Judith and a mezuzah from my 20 year old daughter for 20 year old David were also given to Lev.  When offered money to do the shopping, he was horrified.  “I could get 10 years in prison for having foreign currency.”  He would not take rubles either.  I felt even worse missing the meeting with Judith and not buying them things that they needed.  It was very hard to say goodbye to this dear man who helped so many people. He was very lonely.  I promised him that we would do everything we could to help him.  His greatest wish, everyone’s greatest wish, was a visa.

 His last words to me were, “Do not forget us.”

The next day I was finally able to reach David, Anatoly’s son, by phone before leaving Moscow.  His parents were not home. They were the first family on my list and the awful taxi ride on my first try was to their home.  David had been home almost the entire day.  My card had the wrong address for them.  We were both terribly disappointed.  He gave me names and phone numbers of relatives in the United States to contact for his family.  How very fortunate there had been no one home at the wrong apartment. The message for his parents was that we were working to help his family and to not give up hope.  One day they would be in Israel. Leningrad (now St. Petersburg)Our hotel in Leningrad was quite remote and required a taxi or bus to find a public phone.  Isolated, in desperation, I used the hotel phone to reach Tamara.  An American family from Chicago staying at the hotel admonished me to never call refuseniks from the hotel.  How did they know?  We exchanged business cards and had a brief conversation.  I was reminded that secrecy is paramount.  We would meet later and compare notes.

My Jewish roommate eventually stopped asking questions about my absences. Towards the end of the trip, she just quietly gave me her Levis and a few other items.  “Be careful.” There was no discussion.  We knew our rooms were bugged and our luggage searched whenever we left our room.  The big pockets in my jackets, skirts and the heavy tote bag used as a purse were full whenever we left the room.  An opportunity for a visit could happen at any time.  Nothing important was ever left behind.  I offered to pay for four more pairs of jeans an agent in our group was going to leave behind.  She gave them to me.  I would tell her on the flight home how valuable they were to refuseniks.  My absence from one evening’s required cocktail party, led to a discussion with an unhappy group leader.

Time in Leningrad was running out and, despite a long day of tours and meetings, there were three more refuseniks to see.  I had to leave the hotel.  An English couple outside had a map.  They said to follow them onto the bus and they then pointed me to the subway. TamaraWith difficulty (lack of good directions or a detailed map and few street signs), I found my way to the street where Tamara and a friend met me and took me to her tiny one room apartment.  It had taken me an hour and a half to reach her.  I gratefully accepted her offer of tea. 

Tamara was a 33 year old converted Jew who tried to keep kosher.  She organized a group to study the “Jewish Way of Life” and Jewish cooking.  She spoke some English and Hebrew.    Conversation was difficult but we somehow managed.  She had two paperback cookbooks in English and wanted a translation of ingredients (what is cottage cheese?) and a list of substitutions.  “How can we help you?”   She asked for a variety of books which included religious books in Russian (almost impossible to bring into the country), kosher foods, cheese and bouillon.  Those items and a Jewish cookbook were added to the list for the next visitors.   She gave me a newspaper with anti-Semitic articles and a card with a drawing depicting 1983 Kadish “Day of Catastrophe Leningrad” which both later appeared in BACSJ publications.  I gave her a Star of David on a gold chain, a Russian/ English dictionary, some small perfumes, panty hose, and a USA Today newspaper (forbidden) that had been forgotten in my carryon bag, cigarettes, and a Sunset magazine.  She was very appreciative.  Tamara was a trained engineer working as a typist.  As a Jew, she could not get a better job.  Without first degree relatives in Israel issuing an invitation, she could not apply for a visa.  Things were getting more difficult for them.  Her friend lost his job because he gave Jewish lectures.  I hoped that she would take me to see the two other refuseniks on my list.  She could not.  She explained that one lived too far away.  I would only be able to see one more that evening.  She took me to the taxi queue and told the driver where to take me.

Evgeny, wife Irina, daughter Sasha, and son Alexei. He was a mathematician until 1978 when he applied for a visa and was fired from his job.  Unable to find another in his field, he worked as a night watchman and math tutor.  While attending a Jewish history class at another refusenik’s home, he was arrested on a false charge, convicted and sent to a Siberian labor facility for two years.  Released in 1982, he and his family needed support and attention and were still waiting for visas.  I had hoped to see this family that night or the next day.  Their home was too distant and there was not enough time.BorisIt was getting late, after 9:00 pm and still light outside.  White nights would start in two weeks and it would be light for 24 hours a day. 

 The next family was expecting me.   I took a taxi to visit Boris, his wife Natasha, mother Yevgenia and father Mikhail, a proud war hero.  He also had a married sister with children in Israel.  She had been able to emigrate in 1974.  The rest of the family had been denied and waiting for visas since 1973 when Boris was 15.  He spoke fairly good English.  His family spoke very little.  His mother was every mother, warm and welcomed me with hugs and food.  They were so happy to see me.  My call was the first that they had received in months.  Although none of the refuseniks knew me, they all greeted me warmly.  An American had come and brought them hope.  It was obvious that my visit meant a great deal to this family.  Their apartment was small and dark, up several flights of very cold, very dark stairways (flashlights are a must).  Padded blankets covered the walls and doors and dark heavy draperies were on the windows.  Whether it was for heat or privacy, it was a reminder of how hard life was for them.  With their phone service back on, Boris was planning an event and made and received a constant stream of calls.  I brought him a message from a college friend in the United States who had not received a reply to his many letters.   Boris was dismissed from his university after applying for an exit visa.  No longer a student, he was required to join the military.  He refused.  In 1979, Boris was imprisoned for evading military duty. This Prisoner of Conscience was released in 1981.  Serving in the military would have meant seven more years of waiting for a visa (two and a half years of service and five additional years of waiting because of military knowledge).  This was a typical problem for young Jewish men whose families were waiting for visas.  He applied again for a visa and was refused.  His parents missed their daughter and had never seen their grandchildren.  Mail was intercepted so there had been little communication.  I took quite a few pictures of the family and promised to send them to her.  They were in tears and gave me her address and phone number in Israel.  Before leaving the hotel earlier that evening, I decided to put all of the remaining gifts in my big tote bag.  All of it, except for the few items for Tamara, was given to this family: all of the Levis, some clothes and most of the cigarettes, a few other small items and the last gold Star of David.  I was sorry later that I hadn’t also given Mikhail my camera and extra film.  It would have been worth much more than any of the other things.  The Levis would bring them enough money for a few months. Yevgenia gave me two small painted spoons, a Leningrad map and a handful of one and two kopek tokens for pay phones which had been so difficult to get. They were very gracious and would not accept money for the tokens and map.  The only gifts they truly wanted were visas.  The family was quite discouraged.  What could I tell them?  They had already been waiting ten years for visas.  Would they ever be reunited?  What could I give them beyond proof, by my presence, that they had not been forgotten and abandoned…only the promise that the fight for their freedom would continue. 

Voices around the world were demanding that human rights abuses stop, Prisoners of Conscience be released and Jews be allowed to emigrate.  “Do not forget us.” With a heavy heart, I left with Boris to find a taxi.  It was well after midnight when he walked me several blocks to the taxi kiosk.  There was a long line.  He had been constantly looking around and over his shoulder.  He was obviously worried that someone was following him or that being with a foreigner might be a problem for him.  I understood completely.  The fear of being watched and followed was always with me.  I said goodbye and waited for my turn to get a ride back to my hotel.  I showed the driver my card from the hotel so he would know where to take me.  After we had driven for a few minutes, the taxi came to a stop in the middle of a wide street. The driver got out of the car and opened the cover to the gas tank.  Apparently, that was the universal signal that he was having car trouble and needed help.  After about ten minutes of waiting, I started to feel uneasy.  We were in a deserted warehouse area and by this time it was about one a.m.  One or two cars had stopped but could not help.  Another taxi pulled up with a male passenger and my driver motioned for me to go with him.  Imagining that the KGB had finally caught up with me, I reluctantly got into the new taxi.  We arrived at my hotel a few very long minutes later.  The driver refused payment and went on his way with his other passenger. 

 It had only been my imagination.  Nothing had happened.  It was almost two o’clock in the morning.  My night was not over.  Several of the other members of our group were gathered in one of the rooms having a late night cocktail.  My roommate dragged me to the party even though I was still shaking from my recent experience. There were quite a few questions about my very late night return and activities.  Babbling some ridiculous explanation, I left with a real headache this time, very afraid of having said something that would cause problems for me or others. My refusenik calls and visits were over.  Reality had set in.  I had been very lucky.  It was time to go home.   The next afternoon we boarded the train to Finland.

It was a long, sad train ride to Helsinki. How do the refuseniks live with the danger and fear? What drives them to sacrifice so much to be Jews?  I wished my refuseniks were leaving Russia with me.  It was so very hard to leave them behind.Time seemed to stand still as the train moved through the birch forests and past the small country houses, farms and the old women in their aprons and babushkas using their rakes of twigs.  What were our grandparent’s lives like in these tiny villages and shtetls?  Had the Cossacks attacked these villages?  Was the barbed wire to keep them in or us out?Various grim faced military officials came through the train occasionally, opening the door to our compartment to examine our documents, search someone’s luggage and look for stowaways. Their maddening procedures reminded us that we were not free yet.  A few hours later, a smiling conductor came through the train.  We had passed the border and the soldiers had gotten off.  “Welcome to Finland!”  As we got off the train in Helsinki, there were smiles, laughter and relief to be free.  I was grateful to be an American with a passport and airline ticket.  In two more days, I would on my way home and could breathe again. My notes and observations were written on the entire flight home from Helsinki in an attempt to capture details before they were forgotten.  Returning to the United States completely drained physically and emotionally, I prayed that none of my actions had caused jeopardy to these brave people in anyway. “Do not forget us,” they each asked. Once home, messages were relayed all over the United States to each of the relatives and friends of my refuseniks.  Re-energized and determined to work on their behalf, I joined the Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry and attended rallies, conferences, and picketed the Russian consulate in San Francisco.  Along with hundreds of other activists, I gave speeches about the refuseniks urging people to write letters and send telegrams to President Reagan and Secretary Schultz to make human rights the number one issue in their dealings with the Soviet Union.

Within a few weeks of my return, our daughter graduated from college and left for her dream trip, seven weeks in Israel.  On arrival she called Judith’s mother to relay a message from Judith.  On a beach in Tel Aviv, she kept my promise and personally delivered Boris, Yevgenia and Mikhail’s family pictures and the two small wooden spoons to their daughter and her family.  Touching my daughter was like wrapping her arms around her parents again.  It was an emotional meeting for each of them.  In 1987, four years after my trip, on the day that Mikhail Gorbachev was meeting at the White House with President Ronald Reagan,  more than 250,000 Jews and non Jews marched in Washington, DC in a historic protest of the Soviet Union’s treatment of the Jews and the denial of their human rights. “Let My People Go”In the next few years, due to worldwide pressure, the Iron Curtain lifted and over 1,000,000 Soviet Jews left Russia to settle in Israel and over 500,000 went to the United States and other countries.  Within a short time after that, unbelievably, the iron-fisted Soviet Union collapsed.A few years ago my journey came full circle.  I met Natan Sharansky (now an Israeli politician with a new name) in Palo Alto, California for a speaking tour.  When I mentioned meeting Lev in Moscow, he thanked me for helping his mother.  His autograph on a copy of my original trip report said, “Thank you for your support in difficult times – you see, it worked!'In 1983, hundreds of people traveled to the former Soviet Union to help Jews and bring them hope that one day they would be free.  It was a life changing experience for me to be one of them.  It has been thirty years since that trip and I have not forgotten them.

            ****Note to editorThese two writings have meant a great deal to me in recreating my story.Edward Everett Hale: 'I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.'

Statement published in A Year of Beautiful Thoughts‎ (1902) by Jeanie Ashley Bates Greenough, p. 172.

  'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has'.Margaret Mead