Shirley Goldstein was a champion for justice

The Russian people have a phrase to express the strongest sense of gratitude:

Ogromnoe spasibo.

Shirley Goldstein no doubt heard that expression or a comparable one many times in the 1970s and ’80s. Perhaps some people expressed the thought to her in accented English or through tears of thanks.

That’s because Goldstein — a Council Bluffs native who lived in Omaha later in life — was a tireless leader in an inspiring campaign for justice during the last decades of the Cold War.

Thanks to efforts by Goldstein and others who helped individual families and spurred governments to apply international pressure, the Soviet Union reversed course and began allowing Jewish residents to emigrate in significant numbers.

As a result, tens of thousands of Soviet Jews fled appalling anti-Semitic abuse and sought refuge in the United States, Israel and other countries.

Her efforts helped draw the attention of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who became a stalwart supporter of putting economic pressure on the Soviet government to allow emigration of Jewish residents.

Goldstein risked her own safety in her travels to the Soviet Union. She smuggled contraband materials to Soviet Jews, and the 1975 audio interview she secretly recorded with the young dissident Natan Sharansky circulated internationally and greatly strengthened the effort against Soviet abuse of Jewish citizens.

The Omaha Committee for Soviet Jewry, founded by Goldstein and fellow Omahan Miriam Simon, worked with the Jewish Federation of Omaha to resettle more than 150 Soviet émigré families in Omaha.

Pamela Cohen, then-national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, was interviewed by The World-Herald in 1996 for a profile of Goldstein.

It was inspiring, she said of Goldstein, that “someone far away from Moscow — in Omaha, Nebraska — made a life-or-death difference to someone in Russia.”

Goldstein’s “story is one of a seemingly ordinary person finding it within herself to be extraordinary.” The support from her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein, was vital in sustaining her spirits during her years of dedication to this issue.

Last week, Shirley Goldstein died at age 94. In Omaha and elsewhere, many people paused to remember and honor her.

Some Soviet émigrés she helped recalled their gratitude to her for helping them escape the Soviet system.

Perhaps for some a phrase came to mind. A phrase — heartfelt, deep with gratitude — they had expressed to Goldstein many decades before.

Ogromnoe spasibo.

Original of this text was published as editorial by newspaper Omaha World-Herald of May 8, 2017,