Documenting the struggle for Soviet Jews

Documenting the struggle for Soviet Jews

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Robert Lichtman on Dec. 9 discussing the journal that helped him outwit the KGB after he landed in the USSR in 1982. 
Robert Lichtman on Dec. 9 discussing the journal that helped him outwit the KGB after he landed in the USSR in 1982. 

The notebook looks like any travel journal — except the ventures it describes are fiction, written by Robert Lichtman to conceal the names and addresses of the refuseniks he intended to visit during an October 1982 trip to the Soviet Union. The journal is among a cache of documents Lichtman is donating to the American Jewish Historical Society’s Soviet Jewry archives. 

Lichtman, now chief Jewish learning officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, lives in West Orange, where he raised his family. But in the early 1980s, fresh out of graduate school, his first job was director of community affairs at the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, and he had a sense that he was taking part in a historical chapter in the story of the Jewish people. 

On Dec. 9 — which was, coincidentally, the week of the 29th anniversary of the Soviet Jewry march on Washington, which was held Dec. 6, 1987 — before turning over his trove of material, he offered a lunchtime presentation (with vodka and cookies) to about 15 colleagues and members of his family at the Aidekman campus in Whippany. He gave an overview about that period of his life and his involvement on the front lines of organizing efforts to achieve the freedom of Jews in the USSR from the constrictions and persecution of the Soviet government. 

“I documented my work,” Lichtman wrote in his invitation to the gathering. “The shadow of the Holocaust was still looming large, and I knew that, successful or not (and we had no way to know at the time) we would be judged by our efforts. I wanted my future family to know what Daddy did in the Cold War.” 

He described some of his successful efforts and memorable experiences, with visual aids. Included were his work creating profiles of refuseniks for communities to “adopt”; developing and publicizing the idea for including a “Matzah of Hope” at Passover seders and convincing the Horowitz Margareten company to include a reading to introduce the concept on its matza boxes; writing “Megillat Natan,” a scroll for Purim about perhaps the most famous of all the refuseniks, Natan Sharansky, then known as Anatoly, and following it up with other holiday texts that wove in Soviet Jewry references; developing full page New York Times ads in advance of Solidarity Sundays for Soviet Jewry, with donor names included (“One of the first calls we got every year was from AABJ&D,” he recalled, referring to Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, where Lichtman is a member); and organizing those solidarity marches in New York City, from 85th Street to the United Nations, with 160 meeting spots. 

Lichtman also told the gathering that he wrote two press releases when an imprisoned Sharansky began his famous hunger strike: “one if he lived, and one if he died.” On a lighter note, he displayed a memo for a proposed ad that never ran promoting travel to the USSR. The tagline was “Go to Hell (and meet Soviet Jews).”

He also lifted a veil on some of the not-so-secret battles within the movement: whether they were championing a human rights issue or an emigration issue, whether the destination of refuseniks leaving the USSR ought to be Israel or anywhere they wanted to go, and whether to deal with Russians through diplomacy or activism. Although movement leaders mostly settled on activism, Lichtman recalled, Rabbi Pinchas Mordecai Teitz of the Jewish Educational Center community in Elizabeth (who died in 1995) was a great promoter of diplomacy. 

Lichtman talked about the monthly protests outside the Soviet consulate on Fifth Avenue and the daily ones outside the Soviet compound in Glen Cove, Long Island, organized by Hadassah, for which he produced the leaflets. 

He recalled the popularity of the movement among politicians: for them, he said, it was morally “right,” it involved “sticking it to the Soviet Union,” it was a way to “get the Jewish vote,” and it was a cheerleader for democracy. 

After his talk, all the documents were on a table for viewing — the adopt-a-refusenik posters, copies of “Megillat Natan,” any number of leaflets and flyers, grand marshal organizing lists for Solidarity Sunday, and, of course, the journal.

Upon arriving in the USSR that October in 1982, Lichtman said, he was taken into a private room with two KGB officers. He was scared. “I asked them to leave the door open.” He added, “They knew I had a list of refuseniks to visit; but they couldn’t find it.” 

The cryptic journal will be archived along with the other material, a testament to his success that day in outfoxing the Soviet officials at the height of the Cold War.  

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