Gal Beckerman’s book, When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, is the winner of the Jewish Book of the Year Award.
At the end of World War II, nearly three million Jews were trapped inside the Soviet Union. They lived a paradox – unwanted by a repressive Stalinist state, yet forbidden to leave. When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone is the astonishing and inspiring story of their rescue.
Journalist Gal Beckerman draws on newly released Soviet government documents as well as hundreds of oral interviews with refuseniks, activists, Zionist “hooligans,” and Congressional staffers. He shows not only how the movement led to a mass exodus in 1989, but also how it shaped the American Jewish community, giving it a renewed sense of spiritual purpose and teaching it to flex its political muscle. He also makes a convincing case that the movement put human rights at the center of American foreign policy for the very first time, helping to end the Cold War.
In the summer of 2006, I traveled to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Riga. I needed to see the places I was writing about in the book, even though no activists or refuseniks lived there any more. All my characters were long gone – the story itself was about their fight to leave. So besides talking with a few former dissidents and some Russian Jews who had stayed, it was mostly just a chance to get a better feel for the lost world in which my book takes place.
And so I found myself standing outside the refusenik Volodya Slepak’s apartment on what was once Gorky Street, now Tsverskaya. I stared up at the balcony where he and his wife Masha defiantly and illegally unfurled a banner in June 1978, demanding that they be allowed to join their son in Israel (he was one of the few who had managed to leave). Hundreds of people clogged Gorky Street and jeered at them. Eventually they were arrested and sentenced to three years of Siberian exile. The street had obviously changed. There were now flashing lights, expensive stores, and half-naked women on billboards. But it didn’t take too much of a leap to picture the stately slate-gray building and the wide boulevard as it once was.
Many times on that trip, I realized that all I had to do was mentally remove two or three elements from whatever landscape I was looking at, and I could imagine the place as it was. Occasionally, I would call refuseniks now living in Israel and ask them to describe over the phone some episode from their life and where it had taken place – a square where a protest was held or the government office where they were finally handed an exit visa after a dozen years of being denied. Except for a few changed street names, they could usually describe everything about a given location. The past, I understood, was still fresh. Somehow it made the history that much more powerful – to think that not so long ago these things happened here, that good people were arrested for nothing.
One place that definitely hadn’t changed was Rumbuli, where the book begins. It was here, in 1963, that a group of Jews from Riga organized themselves to clean up and consecrate the ground where a massacre of tens of thousands had taken place during World War II. This act – of coming together as a community to remember – signaled the start of the Soviet Jewry movement. Underneath a canopy of tall birch trees, the place was solemn and felt sacred. It was not hard to imagine how those Jews could have been moved to action by the knowledge of all those buried beneath them. You couldn’t help but be affected by it. This was the kind of emotional motivation that was simply impossible to understand from a distance. I needed to stand on that earth, too.