In the Mishna – the Jewish oral traditions known as the “Oral Torah” first major written redaction – Sanhedrin Tractate (4, 5) is said: “The human was created a single person in the world, to teach that whoever loses one soul it is as if he has lost a whole world; and whoever saves one soul, it is as it he has saved a whole world.” That is what, about fifty years ago, some 35 Los Angeles women, who called themselves ’35’s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry,’ thought.
The movement to free Soviet Jewry
The international human rights campaign, named ‘Soviet Jewry movement’ advocated for the right of Jews in the Soviet Union to emigrate.
The Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism, its members included prominent rabbis, pastors, priests, and city officials, many initial council members were fellow congregants, was a grassroots organization that brought attention to the plight of Soviet Jews from 1963 until 1983. It is considered to be the earliest organized effort in that path.
What began as a study group, led by Louis Rosenblum, Herbert Caron, and Abe Silverstein, three of the founding members of Beth Israel – The West Temple, in 1963, spawned wide. Between the years 1964-69, the Cleveland council developed educational tools, such as organizational handbooks for other communities, newsletter Spotlight, and media presentations and also devised protest strategies that became an integral part of the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
Then there were the British 35’s
Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry – ‘The 35’s’
On hearing the news that thirty five year old Raissa Palatnik, of Odessa, had been taken by the KGB, a few women decided to hold a night vigil protest outside the Soviet Consulate. From this act, thousands of women in the United Kingdom and other places around the world became involved in a movement which helped to bring down the Iron Curtain. The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, commonly known as ‘The 35’s,’ came into being in May 1971.
In England, women took to the streets to bring to focus and demand for the release of Jews who were entrapped in the Soviet Union and wanted OUT! These were women who encouraged their husbands and families to join them in demonstrations for the cause. They were a bunch of determined housewives who relentlessly campaigned to heighten public awareness of the inhuman denial of freedom of religion and movement, the millions of Jews living in the USSR were subjected to.
Those women relentlessly harangued the Soviet ambassadors in London, demonstrated and demanded of their own politicians and others take up the cause. While doing their work at home ‘The 35’s’ also “adopted” Soviet Jewish “refuseniks.” A refusenik being a person in the former Soviet Union who was refused permission to emigrate. In particular, a Jew forbidden to emigrate to Israel and/or a person who refuses to follow orders or obey the law, especially as a protest.
‘The 35’s’ portrayed courage and unified the Jewish People’s image, a lesson from which to learn, an endeavor that could be of universal benefit.
Los Angeles emulates the English 35’s
Some women in Los Angeles could not let the British 35’s be alone in their fight to free the Soviet Jewry. They founded the Los Angeles chapter of the ’35’s, Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry.’
In November 2017, I watched the docufilm “Operation Wedding” and met the docufilm producer Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov. My impression of the docufilm brought about a reunion of some of the women of the Los Angeles 35’s, who met at the home of Myrtle Sitowitz, a member of this extraordinary group of women, who had not seen each other for years.
Their mission ended when the Soviet Jewry were let go out of the Soviet Union and each one went her own way. The reunion atmosphere started slow, but after the women saw the trailer of ‘Operation Wedding’ the conversation opened up and the reminiscences were flowing. Here, for posterity, I am attempting to tell the tales I heard.
The Los Angeles 35’s grouped up in the early 1970s’; they met each week, Monday morning, in order to plan their activities. They wrote letters to congress; they went to the post office and sent ‘return request receipt’ letters to refuseniks in Soviet jails, for which the janitors signed receipt but never delivered the letters to the addressees.
They stood in the streets of Los Angeles and other USA cities; they stood in front of the Federal building and protested while the ground under their feet was burning to see their brothers and sisters go free. They issued memorabilia, such as a gold medallion, which actress Ingrid Bergman wore first.
When the Bolshoi Ballet came into town to perform, ‘The 35’s’ were there to highlight their cause. To avert any suspicion of what to come, they purchased a block of seats at the Shrine Auditorium, under the name “The Beverly Hills Knitting Group.”
They all wore black with a white band on which some of the refuseniks’ names were written, and in the intermission they stood up, in total silence. Martin Bernheimer, the Los Angeles Times great music critic of that time, was in the audience. In his review he hardly mentioned the Ballet, rather the women dressed in black.
During one Soviet cultural visit to town, the group rented a white van, they all dressed in prison guard jumpsuits and carried “Let my people go” signs; They then accosted Soviet diplomats who came to attend the show, asking them, “what with the Jews who want out?” They even traveled to the Soviet Union and brought items to sell so incarcerated refusenik Jews could feed their families.
“It takes action. You cannot just sit down. It took the wiling to save our brothers and sisters stuck in the Soviet Union,” one of ‘The 35’s’ told me.
Some Jewish America organizations showed dislike to ‘The 35’s’ demonstrations but the women with a cause did not relent. With discipline to never violate the law of their country, or jeopardize the fate of the Soviet Jews, and with tenacity and pride that they could do what they were doing, because they were free to express themselves, they made strides to advance their cause, to get their people freed.
The ultimate home hit
The ultimate goal was reaching the ears of the White House, meaning galvanizing the support of the entire United States citizenry to make the push for the Iron Curtain to drop. When politicians started to pay attention ‘The 35’s’ were getting to the bulls eye.
The turnaround came when the Jackson-Vanik Bill passed. The Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 is a provision in the United States federal law, intended to affect U.S. trade relations with countries with non-market economies, originally, countries of the Communist bloc, that restrict freedom of emigration and other human rights.
When the Iron Curtain’s gates opened and the Jews in the Soviet Union were given permission to emigrate, ‘The 35’s’ moved on, each with her own destiny.
‘The 35’s’ should be used as a study platform for the ignorance and apathy prevailing amongst the younger Jewish generation, inside and outside of Israel. This conquest exemplifies human cooperation, at the highest level, and the results were exalting. The Jews’ exodus from the Soviet Union was followed by the fall of the Soviet Union.
Speak up and you shall be answered. The twenty-year fight for freedom was answered.