The 80th anniversary of Jacob Birnbaum

At December 10, 2006 Jacob Birnbaum will be 80.

He was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1926. His grandfather, Nathan Birnbaum, coined the term “Zionism” and served as secretary general of the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897. Nathan’s son and Jacob’s father, Solomon Asher Birnbaum, a leading Yiddish scholar, moved from Germany to London in 1933. During the war, he worked for the British government’s national censor, in the Uncommon Languages Department. “He read the desperate letters from Europe, so he knew what was happening to the Jews there,” his son recalled. “He tried to do what he could, but his helplessness seared itself into my soul”.

Jacob Birnbaum’s commitment to Soviet Jewry was largely informed by his grandfather’s passion for eastern European Jewry and his father’s frustration at being unable to help prevent its destruction. He had arrived in New York from Manchester, England, in 1963 with the aim of convincing American Jews to rise up against what he called the “spiritual genocide” of Soviet Jewry. On April 27, 1964, Birnbaum convened the founding meeting of the College Students’ Struggle for Soviet Jewry—soon simplified to Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, or SSSJ. About 200 young people attended, most of them students from Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia University, and Queens College. On May 1, 1964, a thousand students appeared across the street from the Soviet mission to the United Nations in Manhattan and picketed in an orderly circle for four hours. In spite of their numbers, the protesters maintained their silence, to simulate the enforced silence of Soviet Jews. This May Day protest launched a quarter-century-long campaign that would fulfill all Birnbaum’s strategic goals, and would end with the freedom of Soviet Jewry.

What is scarcely realized, however, is that this American movement owed almost all its political vision and strategic thinking to a single man. From the idea of confronting the Soviets through the vocal protest tactics of the civil rights movement; to the insistence that only the full-scale emigration of Soviet Jews, and not the easing of the restrictions they faced, could remedy their plight; to the belief in mounting pressure on the administration in Washington to put Soviet Jewry high on the international agenda; to focusing the Soviet Jewry campaign on the plight of individual refuseniks—all these were the product of Jacob Birnbaum’s efforts during the movement’s earliest years. All these ideas were first put into practice by his shoestring organization, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ), which during the 1960s set the tone for the entire American movement to free Soviet Jews.

For this reason, Richard Maass, the first chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, called Birnbaum the “conscience for Soviet Jews,” adding that SSSJ was “frequently several steps ahead of the other agencies” of organized American Jewry in understanding the nature of the struggle. The historian Martin Gilbert likewise called Birnbaum the “father of the Soviet Jewry movement”.

We, members of the Remember and Save Association – representatives of very those people for the sake of whom Jacob Birnbaum had put in motion the American Jewry movement which played so decisive role in the eventual realization of the Soviet Jewry exodus from the former Soviet Union, congratulate Jacob Birnbaum with his 80th birthday from all our hearts and wish him good health.

      Aba Taratuta
      Executive Director of the Remember and Save Association

      Edward Markov
      Deputy Executive Director of the Remember and Save Association

      Dr. Michael Beizer
      Historical Advisor of the Remember and Save Association

Note of the Soviet Jews Exodus Internet site editorial board:
Visitors of our site can read about Jacob Birnbaum and his role in development of the American Jewry movement for the Soviet Jewry in the article of Yossi Klein Halevi Jacob Birnbaum and the Struggle for Soviet Jewry, published on pages of our site in English, and in Russian.
The text above is based partly on this article.