I have to admit that it was the author, rather than the subject matter, that first intrigued me about this book. Gal and I arrived in Germany at about the same time and took part in the same fellowship program together. At that point, When They Come For Us, They’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Jewry was in its final stages of preparation for publication and all of us in the program got to know him as the “long suffering author” of this book (as he describes himself in the acknowledgements). Seeing someone so passionate about their work always makes me curious to find out more. No surprise then, that it has been on my “to read” list for quite awhile (and has received all sorts of accolades in the meantime).
I’m not sure what most people know about the movement to help Soviet Jewry escape the USSR, but growing up a Protestant in the sheltered suburbs of the Pacific Northwest, I basically knew nothing. I was a child of the Cold War and turned 12 shortly before the Iron Curtain fell, and I somehow missed the memo that Soviet Jews were both being denied their rights to live out their Jewish identity and were not allowed to leave the country in order to do this elsewhere. That a concerted movement to help Soviet Jewry existed, and that it became such a lynchpin in USA-USSR-Israeli politics, was something I knew nothing about.
But I was surprised by how quickly I was pulled in by Gal’s retelling of this dramatic and complicated history. There is an unbelievable level of detail in this book, covering about four decades of history, but I felt carried along by the details rather than weighed down by them. The history is described through the experiences of those active in the movement to save Soviet Jewry, primarily within the USA and the USSR. I was most moved by the struggle of the Soviet activists, persevering despite the threat of arrest, prison and persecution for so much as desiring to express their Jewish identity. Many of those who applied for exit visas to Israel were refused and then consequently fired from their jobs as engineers, scientists, professors and musicians. These refuseniks, as they came to be known, were then punished for being unemployed and “parasites” of the state. Over the decades there were many who became political dissidents, and others who decided instead to become active in educating other Jews about their cultural identity. All of these activities carried the threat of severe punishment.
Although the Cold War has been over for over 20 years, I was also struck by how many parallels from this history are still relevant today. I look at the arrest and punishment of Pussy Riot, charged with hooliganism, and can’t help but be reminded that the refuseniks were also punished under the same charge for daring to express opposing views. It appears that the world still has a lot to learn, but I am glad at least that books like this exist — to keep these stories alive and fresh in our memories, and to remind us that we can indeed influence the course of history.