|Cleveland and the Freeing of Soviet Jewry|
Beginnings of The Soviet Jewry Movement in
|Dr. Caron, who was active from the movement's first days in Cleveland, wrote this memoir in 2013.|
Beginnings of The Soviet Jewry Movement in Cleveland
On a sunny autumn Sunday, year 1963, four men from the one small synagogue on Cleveland's west side have an appointment with the honored Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver who is world-known for his role in the creation of the State of Israel, and whose sermons draw thousands from all over northern Ohio. The four visitors are excited at this opportunity to speak with the great rabbi. He has just returned from a week in the Soviet Union, and they wish to propose a dramatic plan to publicize the plight of three million Soviet Jews whose culture was being destroyed, and who were experiencing a wave of state sponsored prejudice that already kindled anti-Jewish demonstrations, even a blood libel riot. Jews were being executed for 'economic crimes' with press fanfare. The four young Jewish professionals, not quite 'at home' within the palatial dignity of the Rabbi' office, begin by deploring the failure of Jewish organizations to have blocked the Nazi holocaust. Equally upsetting, they say, is the current passivity regarding the three million Jews behind "the Iron Curtain". The four speak energetically of the need for a large program to publicize the little known plight of Soviet Jews. The goal, they say, is to make this issue a topic of conversation at American dinner tables, ultimately embarrassing the Kremlin that poses as a "protector of the poor and the oppressed", thus pressing them to end their anti-Semitic programs.
Rabbi Silver listens to this urgent presentation and compliments the four on their "good Jewish hearts" but reminds them of their limited information and their inexperience. (None is yet 40 years of age, and none has a career in international relations.) The rabbi tells them of many hours he has just spent with top Soviet leaders. He prepared a lecture on his findings, now on a 33 rpm disc. This problem is being successfully addressed by diplomats, he says, and by knowledgeable leaders. The commissars have recognized their errors, and Rabbi Silver has had a hand in that achievement. He assures the four that they would soon see significant improvements for Soviet Jews, and warns that this is not an area for amateurs who could have no influence, except possibly to damage the important work already underway. The Rabbi goes on to answer every question with confident assurances, and the four emissaries return to their homes with mixed feelings.
The four consult with various senior information sources (see below), and conclude that the Rabbi's assurances were invalid. They determine to enlist like-minded colleagues and to create a strong movement to raise public concern about the dangerous circumstances of Soviet Jews. Fast forward 12 years; this effort eventuated in the Jackson-Vanik amendment and millions of Jews leaving the USSR.
This report addresses the question of how four "unknowns" could justify their disregard for the seemingly compelling advice and warnings of the great Rabbi (and others in the Jewish establishment). First, we describe four years of preparation that brought the young activists to seek the rabbi's advice.
Here I depart from the role of third person narrator, and continue as my first person self, Herbert Caron, research psychologist, in Cleveland at that time to study the behavior of medical patients and to teach at Western Reserve U. I had served in the Pacific theater during World War II, but I had known little about the Nazi death camps. In fact, for several months in 1944, I had been in charge of a weekly regimental, world news report for the troops, and never had news about the Holocaust. Before Allied troops entered the concentration camps in 1945, I discounted death camp stories as war propaganda. Learning the terrible truth, and that many of my relatives had died at the hands of the Nazis, I felt personally responsible, as though I were one who had not cared enough to join in the effort to stop the Holocaust.. I suffered years of guilt, inaction, and confusion during graduate school and six years at the National Heart Institute, prior to coming to Cleveland in 1959 with a wife and four children.
We joined Beth Israel-The West Temple and found compatible friends, young professionals with NYC backgrounds. Don Bogart and I found special rapport based on similar feelings about Jewish survival and the failure of our parents' generation. The Eichmann trial in 1960 focused our attention. We read widely, trying to learn how the world, and how American Jews could have allowed a Holocaust to continue. Reading NY Times archives for those critical years, we found surprisingly little reporting on the growing crisis; it had not been a major news item. Early in 1961, Raul Hilberg's detailed documentary appeared: "The Destruction of the European Jews". We studied its 790 pages in pain and horror. We sometimes bought a dozen copies of a pertinent book and circulated copies among fellow temple members. One new member was physician David Gitlin. Highly alert to world affairs, he told us about ominous anti-Jewish events in the USSR, and a blood libel pogrom in Dagestan, an eastern Soviet province. Could another anti-Jewish epidemic be starting? If so, we hoped the world would quickly crush this new, viral infection in its beginnings, but we saw few signs of revulsion about anti-Jewish murder, even within the Jewish community. Gitlin joined Don Bogart and me in a community of urgent concern. Daniel Litt became the new rabbi for the temple, and immediately developed a warm kinship with us, and through his deeper knowledge of history and politics, became our leader and guide. He shared ideas and readings, and strikingly, he succeeded in arranging meetings for our group with almost every Jewish historian or leader who came through Cleveland. We spent productive and challenging hours with Joseph Schechtman, Jabotinsky's biographer, Ira Hirschmann (director of Roosevelt's "War Refugee Board"), who detailed its inner politics for us, and had two meetings with Ben Hecht who had facilitated illegal immigration of Jews to 'Palestine', and adopted us as protégés. Through continued correspondence with these and other deeply informed people, we were gaining an education in the realities of politics and the rigidities that often accompanied high status and organizational survival.
Our focus was now Soviet anti-Semitism. In translations of the Soviet media, we read of trials of Jews for so called "economic crimes", being featured in the Soviet press as treacherous destroyers of the communist system. Of 200 resulting executions, most were identifiable as Jews. Years earlier, the USSR had outlawed capital punishment on humane grounds, but for 'draining money from the Soviet economy' (even through a mom and pop business) execution was reinstated. Many Jews were accused of storing business profits and gold in synagogues. The Soviet press featured these stories in clever, front page articles, demonstrating that Jews were undermining the otherwise successful Soviet economy.
In January of 1963, an article by Moshe Decter detailed the growing Soviet abuse and restrictions of Jewish culture, and was published in "Foreign Affairs". Its extensive research demonstrated an unmistakable official campaign against Jews. We thought the article did not receive enough popular attention. Were we seeing a repetition of the early inattention to the Nazis? Could the Jewish community again be relying excessively upon leaders to represent us, as in the case of Rabbi Stephen Wise who, during World War II, often breakfasted with FDR, seemingly assuring high level protection for European Jews? Against this background, we were aroused and ready to seek support and advice from Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.
Soon after our disappointing meeting with Rabbi Silver, a first opportunity presented itself. The Soviets had a poor wheat harvest in 1963, and President Kennedy announced the release of wheat for shipment to the USSR. Bogart and I constructed a brief telegram to the President suggesting that some of the U.S. shipment should be allowed for Jewish matzah, which was prohibited in the USSR. With signatures from almost all local rabbis, and timely release to the press, the telegram immediately became a catchy item printed in newspapers all around the country. Here was a step toward making the plight of Soviet Jews a conversation topic in many homes! Strengthened by this success, we obtained a distinguished board of directors with representatives from three religions, and a highly regarded Black councilman, and formed the Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism, CCSA. Cleveland mayor Ralph Locher agreed to serve as Chairman.
We proceeded almost frenetically with one project after another, a
round of creative activity that dazzled and inspired. We were as
consumed, as we imagined Herzl to have been, publicizing his call
for a Zionist state in 1896. We resolved together to
world's heart to this most urgent and important of all questions of
human rights". Informational support came from Irv Levine of the
American Jewish Committee, and from Israeli Consul, Meir Rosenne,
who also sent us weekly translations of the pertinent Soviet press,
and from British writer, Emanuel Litvinoff. Wide correspondence
produced hundreds of distinguished sponsors, (including Albert
Schweitzer and Bertrand Russell ). Local sponsors contributed to pay
for a full page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. We printed
stationery, with the sponsors names filling the reverse side of each
sheet. We mailed questionnaires, professionally designed, to over
1000 US rabbis, questioning their knowledge and activities about
Soviet Jews, and seeking their advice. With replies from a majority,
we tabulated the results for use at a Washington meeting a few
months off, and prepared a one-page question & answer sheet, sent to
many who inquired. We wrote editorials for Cleveland newspapers, one
of which correlated with the 25th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Nov.
9, 1963. Our editorials on Soviet Jewry were mailed to over 40
Jewish weeklies, for publication. We prepared a booklet entitled
"Appeal to Conscience", directed to chairman Khrushchev. It was
signed by the mayor of Cleveland, and released with press fanfare.
The mayor also signed a letter to the presidents of the 24 major
When Aron Verghelis, a Soviet Jewish editor, was sent to America by Moscow to allay concerns about their treatment of Jews, Cleveland was his first stop. We challenged him to a public debate, and our challenge was carried on the front page of the Cleveland Press (11-23-1963, alongside the news of Kennedy's assassination). The Soviet group later refused to debate, and this was publicized as a victory over the Soviet bureaucracy. Youth groups picketed Soviet dance performers and carried petitions to Soviet consuls. We publicized the appearance of a grossly anti-Semitic booklet, reprinting the Stuermer-like "Kichko" cartoons. Through our research, we developed and distributed nationally a literate newsletter, Spotlight. Our first issue featured the "Economic Crimes" trials. The USSR did discontinue the trials late in 1964 in response to world protest: another major success. In March 1964, Dave Gitlin and I met privately with Justice Arthur Goldberg in his Supreme Court offices, just six months after our meeting with Rabbi Silver. The palatial surroundings did not intimidate us this time as we summarized our efforts and situation, and asked that he make some pivotal contacts. In a warm 15 minute exchange, he promised the help we asked for, and soon opened a series of personal interventions. During this first year, I rarely got more than three 3 hours sleep per night. The unceasing efforts of our group had indeed sparked wide interest; people were now talking about the plight of Soviet Jews. It was at last a public issue, and was included in both political party's platforms. But we were exhausted, and needed new initiatives.
Early in 1964, fresh impetus came from West Temple president, Lou Rosenblum, who was a division chief at the space agency, NASA. Cleveland NASA chief, Abe Silverstein, who had been named Honorary Chairman of CCSA, gave Lou full backing, knowing his administrative skill. Within six months, Lou was essentially in charge of new initiatives. For two or three years, there were two programs underway: the original group was still promoting information to the public and urging on the Jewish organizations, while Lou set his sights on larger and enduring programs toward permitting Jewish emigration from the USSR. He developed more satellite "Councils" with effective new contributors, and re-named us as "The Union of Councils..." (instead of "Cleveland Committee..."). He no longer concentrated on getting stories into the media, and had little taste for the temporary PR victories that had excited us previously. Soviet Jews were now aware that "the world cared", and growing throngs of Jewish "refuseniks" were soon asking for exit visas - a risky step in the USSR. Lou's new direction provided continuing contact with and support for them, accomplished through the sending of thousands of Jewish greeting cards to Soviet counterparts, partly through active consultation to "tourists" to the USSR, and through direct visits by council members who formed relationships with many Soviet Jews. These personal contacts protected the refuseniks from prosecution, and exit applications increased. When the Soviet system replied with heavy taxes on émigrés for the education they had received in the USSR, and also by shaming school children whose families were applying, Rosenblum worked with others to publicize these vindictive actions, and the Soviets actually desisted.
Although many of the original Cleveland group had retired, Lou persevered for many more years, and engaged in the long fight for the Jackson-Vanik amendment. American Jewish solidarity eventually overwhelmed opposition from Nixon and Kissinger, and this amendment was adopted in 1975. It denied trading rights for countries that restricted emigration, so that protection of Soviet Jews became official US policy. Although the Soviets responded defiantly at first, "Jackson-Vanik" was the essential political victory that speeded mass emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel and to America.
In these actions, Rosenblum advanced beyond our earlier aspirations with achievements that appeared super-human. He focused his efforts, eliminating inessentials. He would have little use for weekly translations of the Soviet press, or in getting editorial comments into the press. He avoided bureaucratic interference and had conflict with Israeli representatives. He confronted the existing Jewish organizations briefly, and when our progress appeared large and unstoppable, he obtained some support. However, he largely abandoned the goal of pressing them to operate effectively. The Councils simply ignored ineffective organizations and completed the work without them. Jewish organizations today have not changed greatly in style of operation, and still seem averse to full use of the intellectual energy, with which the Jewish community is endowed. The achievements of the Cleveland group provide an example of the effectiveness of motivated, good minds. For Jewish bureaucracies, sharing leadership with creative younger people will never be easy, but at times of challenge, such latent power is needed.
The Cleveland group was one among many that made significant contributions to the goal of saving Soviet Jewry. It provided high energy toward initiating this movement, and later toward fulfilling its goals, an outcome that Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver did not live to see, and could not have contemplated on that sunny morning in 1963. The best account of this success was given by Gal Beckerman in his book: "When They Come for Us, We'll be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry" (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). Beckerman interviewed Lou Rosenblum and me extensively, but he largely omitted the early beginnings of the Cleveland group, thus missing early activities (reported above) that opened public awareness to the plight of Soviet Jews, making possible later political and international action.
Many played pivotal roles in this struggle. Among these are Glenn Richter and Jacob Birnbaum in New York, Harold Light and Zev Yaroslavsky in California, and Mark Talisman, a Clevelander, in Washington. Listed below are names of some of the Cleveland people, beyond Lou and me, who worked to stir attention to this problem. Their significant activities cannot be well described in this brief essay, but all contributed to the liberation of Soviet Jews : Rabbi Daniel Litt, Lenore Singer, Don and Marilyn Bogart, David Gitlin, Mort Epstein, Henry Slone, Abe Silverstein, Gerald Tauber, Anne and Goldie Robinson, Marvin and Ieta Warshay, Jerry Cohen, Robert Steinberg, Maish and Carole Mandel, Rabbi Phil Horowitz, Herman Mark, Alan Riga, Irene Eber, Frank Stern, Ray Leventhal, Rhoda Rosen, Aaron Leash, Max and Leonard Ratner, Reuben and Dorothy Silver, Al Gray and many others who visited refuseniks in the USSR. Members of youth groups aided significantly
Herbert Caron February 15, 2013