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When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry Hardcover – September 23, 2010

4.9 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Product Description
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 cinematic detail, the book introduces us to all the major players, from the flamboyant Meir Kahane, head of the paramilitary Jewish Defense League, to Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, who labored in a Siberian prison camp for over a decade, to Lynn Singer, the small, fiery Long Island housewife who went from organizing local rallies to strong-arming Soviet diplomats. This multi-generational saga, filled with suspense and packed with revelations, provides an essential missing piece of Cold War and Jewish history.

Amazon Exclusive Essay from Gal Beckerman, Author of When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone

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.

-Gal Beckerman

(Photo © Nina Subin)

Photographs from When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone
(Click on images to enlarge)

June 1964, a week-long interfaith fast takes place in front of the Soviet mission in Manhattan. The movement inspired some striking poster art, including this 1969 design by Israeli artist Dan Reisinger. An iconic photo of the most famous refusenik activists, taken in 1976. 1978 gathering--Leonid Volvovsky, who was later imprisoned for his activities, is at the microphone.
1981--Yuli Kosharovsky with his wife and baby. Kosharovsky kept alive a network of Hebrew teaching all over the Soviet Union In May 1981, Ronald Reagan invited Avital Shcharansky and Yosef Mendelevich, recently released from prison, to the White House. 1982--Alexander Lerner, a celebrated scientist in the Soviet Union, was later ostracized and became a leading figure among the refuseniks. One of the first signs that Gorbachev’s liberalization was affecting the refuseniks was this protest in March 1987.

A Q&A with Gal Beckerman

Q: Why was there a "movement"? What made Soviet Jews so much worse off than other people living in the totalitarian state?

A: I get this question a lot and it's important to answer. First, Jews have always occupied a strange place in the Russian psyche, often perceived as parasites or fifth columnists, the constant outsiders. They were never allowed to completely assimilate and at times of upheaval became convenient scapegoats--a situation that did not change even after the Bolsheviks created a socialist "paradise." But the other, more crucial distinction is that unlike Ukrainians or Latvians or any other "national" group in the Soviet Union, Jews had no indigenous land they could go to where they could speak their language and express their identity. Israel was the only option. Once a new self-awareness among Jews started to catch on in the early 1960s, they tried at first to imagine opening up a space of cultural and religious life for themselves within the Soviet Union. When it was clear that even this threatened the authorities, they turned their sights toward emigration. Thus, a movement.

Q: Is there any relevance today to this story? Any modern parallels?

A: The story is still very relevant, and not only because Russia is behaving more and more like the old Soviet state in its suppression of dissent. One of the big questions the book poses is how a country like the United States balances its national security interests with moral imperatives. Soviet Jewry very much introduced this tension into the Cold War, turning it into a conflict that was about more than just who had how many missiles. This balance still poses incredible challenges for the United States. Take the case of China. On the one hand, the expansion of relations since the 1970s has had great economic benefits, but it has been accompanied by a deep undercurrent of discomfort about the censorship and repression that allows China’s nominally Communist authorities to stay in power. Iran is an even more dramatic example. The issue of how much and how publicly to support the growing democracy movement while also trying to stop their nuclear program strongly echoes debates from the 1970s surrounding Soviet Jews.

Q: What kind of research did you have to do?

A: Since there really wasn't much primary material on the Soviet side of the story, I had to conduct many interviews. I spoke to over two hundred people for the book, mostly in Israel, the United States, and Russia, sometimes for hours, sitting in their living rooms over cups of tea or--often--glasses of vodka and plates of pickled mushrooms. Many of these people felt like they had been forgotten. When I arrived in their homes with my tape recorder, they were only too happy to share the part they felt they had played in history. Also crucial for telling the Soviet side were documents uncovered by an Israeli researcher that gave a view into how the Kremlin saw their "Jewish problem." It was quite an experience to read the transcript of a politburo meeting in which Leonid Brezhnev suddenly says, "Zionism is making us stupid…" For the American side, it was much more straightforward: huge and largely untouched archives exist for the two largest organizations dealing with Soviet Jewry.

Q: What was the most dramatic part of the story?

A: Just in terms of heart-racing plot, nothing can really beat the episode of the Leningrad hijacking. This was the story of a group of Soviet Jews who tried to hijack a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union. At some point they were sure they would get caught but continued anyway with the hope that even if they were arrested or killed, this was the best way to reveal their cause to the rest of the world. I interviewed most of the plotters and even spent the thirty-fifth anniversary of the hijacking with them at a BBQ cookout in Israel. This allowed me to describe in great detail the tick-tock leading up to the moment, on the tarmac, when they were tackled to the ground and taken into custody. What happened afterward was pretty remarkable as well. The Soviets put on a show trial and sentenced the two leaders to death. But there was such a world outcry in response that the death sentences were commuted.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Late in the twentieth century, the three great population centers for Jews were the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Israel. This absorbing and inspiring story moves between those three nations to recount one of the most extraordinary episodes in recent Jewish history. This was the survival (and in many cases a rediscovery) of a sense of Jewish identity among Soviet Jews, which led thousands of them to demand the right to emigrate to Israel. Beckerman is a reporter for the Jewish daily publication The Forward. His narrative moves between the centers and also moves back in time to describe Jewish life in the Soviet Union. His description of the Nazi slaughter of Latvian Jews is horrifying, but the slow strangulation of Jewish culture under Stalin and his successors is almost as repellent, because it had the clear intention of causing spiritual death. Once a remarkable rebirth of Jewish consciousness and assertiveness emerged, supporters in the U.S. played a vital role, through demonstrations and indefatigable lobbying efforts to pressure the Soviet government to allow Jewish “refuseniks” to emigrate. This is an outstanding chronicle of a great effort conducted by determined and courageous men and women. --Jay Freeman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (September 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618573097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618573097
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,317,072 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a work of incredible depth, great scholarship, and fantastic writing. I usually try not to gush over a book when writing a review because I figure that the reader would usually rather know more about the book and less about what I thought about it, but this one is an exception - I simply loved every page of it. I've read plenty of history books, but I can't remember ever reading one in the past that I would have described as a page turner until now. The cast of characters in this book is truly diverse - radical rabbis, activists, middle class housewives, US presidents, Russian dissidents, KGB officers, and Israeli secret agents. It is a testament to Beckerman's skill's as a writer that he can weave a cohesive and compelling narrative through them all, giving them depth and their actions meaning.

The book goes back and forth between the USSR and the rest of the world (mostly the USA), showing the Jewish movements within the USSR and the activities occurring on the outside, all set against the backdrop of the cold war. Mixed in with the story of the soviet Jews are also several larger stories that are revealed, including the role of human rights in foreign relations, Jewsish-American guilt over not doing more during the holocaust, and the Jewish community's ability to become a political force. All of these are themes still playing out today, and this book shows where many of them got their start.

Lastly the depth of scholarship in this book is impressive. A quick look through the sources at the end of the book reveals that Beckerman interviewed countless people for first hand knowledge of the events in the book. It seems that almost everyone he wrote about he talked to personally.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book tells an amazing story, and it tells it really well.

Like the author, my husband and brother-in-law both had seats reserved at their bar mitzvah celebrations for Jewish boys in the Soviet Union who shared their birthdays but could not have their own celebrations. This was, however, decades ago. The Soviet Union has been history for almost 20 years, and the vast number of Russians in Israel has long since become a fact of life taken more or less for granted. Natan Sharansky's daughters are both married and he may even be a grandfather by now. The Jewish Left has long since fragmented and moved on to multiple different causes.

People forget, however, that once upon a time, Anatoly Scharansky spent nine years in Soviet prisons, almost no Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union, and non-Orthodox Jews in America (and some Orthodox Jews as well), having looked for something to unite them after the civil rights movement fizzled, found their unity, almost an obsession, with liberating Soviet refuseniks. People forget that Yosef Begun was once sentenced to 12 years of hard labor solely for teaching Hebrew. People forget that one small but determined group of Soviet Jews were so desperate to get out, they even tried to hijack a plane from the Baltics, a story Beckerman tells with particular flair.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Gal Beckerman's book "When They Come for Us We'll be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry" reads like a piece of forgotten history. After the end of WWII, a communist Soviet Union did everything it could to oppress its Jewish population, most importantly by not allowing them to emigrate. While other human rights violations persisted, much of the outside world was unaware of what was happening and Soviet leadership could deny that there was any problem. "When They Come for Us We'll be Gone" is an account of what it took for the world at large to recognize the plight of Soviet Jewry as they struggled for over three decades to gain their freedom from a country that didn't want them but wouldn't let them go.

Beckerman begins with how he first gained interest in this piece of history, recalling the Soviet "twin" he was given as he celebrated his bar mitzvah to act as a symbolic celebration for a Soviet Jew who was denied this rite of passage. With the horrors of the Holocaust ever present in Jewish minds, the cry to "Never forget" didn't seem to apply to the Jews who were languishing in the Soviet Union. Beckerman traces a large amount of history, starting in 1963 and ending in 1991, of how the Soviet Jews worked to gain their freedom from inside the Soviet Union and how American Jews slowly joined the fight from the outside. Beckerman focuses his chapters on a few key players within the movement, encompassing dissidents who were jailed for essentially being Jewish, ranging to American politicians who had to walk a fine line during the Cold War to help these lost people while not escalating any animosity between the two nations.
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