Lorel Abarbanell is Founding Chairman of the Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry.
LOREL ABARBANELL: My name is Lorel Abarbanell. During the period we will talk about during this interview, I was known by my married name, Lorel Pollack. Upon divorcing in 1981, I reassumed my maiden name. I was born in Chicago, Illinois. Ours was a family deeply concerned with Jewish survival. We were members of a Conservative Congregation, but more connected to Israel and Jewish Causes than religious observance. My mother was active in Zionist organizations since her teens. I became interested in Israel at a young age.
In 1972, just a few years after Soviet Jews were inspired by the success of Israel in the Six Day War, I attended a lecture at our local synagogue. I was living in Oak Park, Illinois, married, with two young children. The speaker was Joel Sprayregen, a prominent attorney active in the Jewish community. He had just returned from visiting Jews in the Soviet Union. He spoke of their often-frustrated efforts to emigrate and their need for our help. He called upon us for personal action; he emphasized the importance of reaching out to refuseniks, of letting them know of our support and of phoning Soviet Jewish activists and staying in touch.
The audience was quiet. People nodded their heads, but no one said anything. I stood up. I guess that was the moment I was “hooked”.
We began informally. I asked my friend, Leah Marcus, sitting next to me, if we could use her husband’s office the following Sunday morning; everyone present was invited—I would bring breakfast—and using the list of refuseniks Joel Sprayregen gave us—we would write letters and make phone calls.
ABA TARATUTA: What year was that?
L.A.: That was early winter, 1972. We made quite a few calls that morning, but when our meeting ended, there was one woman I hadn’t been able to reach, an English speaker. Later, at home, on impulse, I phoned and made contact. We had a long conversation. As I was saying goodbye she asked, “When will you call again?” It hit me then, that one call didn’t mean much, one must become involved. I said, “Next week, same time”.
So we began. At first, simply to be in touch, to let refuseniks know we knew who they were and that we were concerned about their situation, I gathered people to write letters and make phone calls. We didn’t know what else to do; we were still “new,” unsophisticated, we knew little of the international politics involved in the issue; we were simply determined to reach out to our counterparts in the Soviet Union.
In January, 1973, a group of women from West Suburban Hadassah gathered at the Oak Park home of Gloria and Alvin Charnes for a day of letter writing. We set up tables in the living room of the Charnes home; baskets began filling up with letters ready to be mailed. In the afternoon, we planned a phone call to Lydia Korenfeld, the Moscow refusenik I had been phoning on a regular basis. She, her husband and two daughters had been refused visas for Israel. My phone calls to Lydia were instructive; she was an English translator, so we conversed easily and she knew and was involved with many of the well-known refusenik activists in Moscow.
At the time, our meeting was considered newsworthy, locally: Chicago women writing letters to the USSR, to people they did not know! Phoning them! Local CBS television arrived in the afternoon and began filming the overflowing baskets of letters and then zeroed in on my phone call to Lydia Korenfeld.
It turned out to be more of a story than CBS had bargained for—we broke the news of an international incident. Much to my surprise, when we connected to the USSR, the Moscow operator announced that upon request of the party I was phoning, she was forwarding my call to another telephone number. In a minute I was connected to the home of Prof. Alexander Lerner, an eminent scientist—after finally emigrating to Israel, years later, he joined the staff of the Weizmann Institute of Science where I had the pleasure of seeing him again at a staff meeting (from 1988-2004 I served as the Associate Director of the Chicago Region, American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science).
Several refuseniks had gathered at the Lerner home to meet visiting New York Congressman James Scheuer. When Lydia Korenfeld came to the phone she was breathless and to my amazement, announced that the militia had just barged into the apartment and arrested Rep. Scheuer. The camera came in close as I asked her to repeat what she had said. “A congressman? From New York?” “Yes,” she answered, “Call your State Department at once.” I believe that’s when the phone went dead.
The CBS men rushed to their van, parked curbside, and the incident went worldwide in minutes. Leah Marcus, at my elbow, wisely suggested we phone the New York Times before informing the State Department. That’s what we did. Afterward we phoned Washington, the local press, and the story went everywhere.
The incident concluded quickly for James Scheuer; he was released and back at his hotel within the hour. What was important was that he had broken the ice; after their embarrassing gaffe, the Soviets never again interfered with visits to refuseniks by U.S. representatives and senators. The story helped put the issue on the map, publicized what we were doing and what Congress was doing; James Scheuer and many like him, were very good friends to Soviet Jews. For too long, Soviet Jews had been the “Jews of Silence” of Elie Wiesel’s early book. Now they had a voice and we were helping them get it heard.
The Scheuer incident helped me, too. My name was in all the papers. I became known enough to be able to rally people to the cause and form a group. Out of our letter writing and phone calls came Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry. Soon our energies became focused on the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act, which provided for denial of most favored national trade status to any non-market-economy national preventing freedom of emigration (named for its initiating sponsors, Senator Henry Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik). Jackson-Vanik became the “hook,” the pressure on the Soviets that helped persuade them to open the door, to begin permitting emigration. There were still many frustrations, many obstacles, many roadblocks, but in essence, however difficult to arrange, however grudgingly authorized, emigration had become Soviet policy.
At the same time, we began organizing visits to refuseniks, to given them a sense of solidarity. Each visit educated us who were working for them in the U.S. We told our tourists to stand tall; it was good for the Soviet authorities to know that we knew who the refuseniks were and that, with the weight of our Congress behind us, we cared about their well-being.
A.T.: How were you financed?
L.A.: We had very little money at first. People who worked with us gave us money to help out. I’d send fund raising letters to people who knew what we were doing and they responded. Our good angel was Donald Kahan; an active member of the Jewish community; he funded our phone calls and arranged an office for us—free of charges—at Spertus College of Judaica. It was Don who paid for my trip to the Soviet Union. His wife, Donna Kahan, was also greatly helpful. After we became more organized, we obtained tax-deductible status, which made it easier to raise money.
The fact that we were a small group of volunteers probably helped us when we lobbied lawmakers. We weren’t high-paid lobbyists, we weren’t paid at all! We were simple and direct and I believe we were taken exactly for what we were. Our work may have been professional in its quality, but we were not salaried. Whatever it was that helped us seemed to have done the job; we were well received by Congress. I must add that as a member of the Union of Councils of Soviet Jews, Chicago Action had the advantage of coordinating its efforts with savvy and dedicated colleagues across the U.S., of sharing information, and of learning from people such as Leonard Shroeter in Seattle, his book “The Last Exodus” gave us insight into the beginning of the Soviet Jewry movement in the former U.S.S.R. - from Irene Manekofsky of Washington, D.C., the late powerhouse who brought us the word from Capitol Hill - and from every effective friend of Soviet Jewry east, west, north and south.
A.T.: Do you remember who your first activists were?
L.A.: In Washington?
A.T.: No, in Chicago.
L.A.: Yes. Marvin and Barbara Goldstein, a terrific couple. They traveled to the USSR and were supportive of Chicago Action. Barbara was tall and imposing and spoke with authority. She was very good at speaking to groups and arranging their support, especially with Congress. Another Barbara and Marvin, the Silvermans, inspired our Jackson-Vanik project; Barbara Silverman sounded the alert that the amendment was going to be re-introduced in the House and Senate, and that spurred us into action. The Silverman home became a headquarters of pro-Jackson-Vanik activity.
As we tallied support in the House—the sheer numbers of votes in the House made it our big focus—it became clear that we didn’t need “important” people or only large cities to help us reach our goal. Every Jewish community, no matter how small, was represented in the U.S. House. Danville, Illinois, with a tiny Jewish population, had a U.S. Rep—I went to Danville to speak to the Jewish community. Aurora, Rock Island—there were a whole string of places from which we lobbied for “yes” votes on the amendment.
The amendment passed by an overwhelming majority in both houses. It was, after all, a human rights issue that was easily supported on both sides of the aisle. Republicans and Democrats alike voted “yes.” Our local congressmen were immensely supportive. Henry Hyde represented my own district. A conservative Republican, he and I differed on many issues, but we met at the same place on the field of human rights. Senator Percy (R) was also excellent; his aide on foreign issues was Scott Cohen, charming, helpful and brilliant. Scott was our friend and teacher and worked closely with us. We still miss the late Sidney Yates (D), Dean of the Jewish members of the House of Representatives, who was always so helpful. An important mentor during the Jackson-Vanik days will Illinois Congressman Abner Mikva (D) who later served as White House Counsel for President Clinton and as a Federal Judge; presently he teaches law the University of Chicago and is active in Chicago civic affairs. It was Ab Mikva who took the trouble to explain how a heavily-sponsored bill is numbered and how the names of co-sponsors appear. I would like to salute him and the staff of his congressional office in those days. They were very good to me.
Most of our Illinois lawmakers were supportive and accessible. When we were tired and our feet were burning from trudging the marble floors in congressional office buildings, we were welcome to put our feet up on the leather sofa in Henry Hyde’s outer office.
It was a great feeling when refuseniks started getting permissions in large numbers. When the telegram arrived from the Korenfelds, I rang up at once. Lydia informed me that Dolly, the family airedale, was also going. She said, “I wouldn’t leave even a dog in this country”.
I would like to backtrack and mention a very fine person, genuine and kind, Mrs. Gerald Ford. When I visited Moscow in 1975, I went immediately to the Korenfeld home. I was there the first night of Hanukah. No sooner had we lit the candles when there was a loud knock at the door. We all understood that friends rang the bell; “THEY” knocked. This time it was the militia, or some such type, who announced that they knew I was there and that they wanted to see Mrs. Korenfeld the next morning. We sat silently around the table and listened to Lydia Korenfeld announce that the time they mentioned was inconvenient but that she would appear instead at such-and-such a time. She set her own time and it was accepted. I don’t know if we, her counterparts back in Chicago, would have dared to do that. It was a lesson in keeping one’s dignity in the face of power.
That night, or perhaps the next evening, the Korenfelds' friend, Leonid Belopolsky (I think I remember the name correctly) came running into the apartment, “We have permission!” He pounded me on the back, saying that “someone must have done something because there was a line of men with medals on their chests in the office when the documents were handed over. What did you do?”
What I had done was to follow his wife’s instructions. Anna Belopolskaya had undergone a mastectomy. Afterward, she sent me a letter through a U.S. visitor, in which she enclosed her family’s documentation and a note to Mrs. Ford. Anna begged me to have this letter delivered to Mrs. Ford through someone important enough to have direct access. Mrs. Ford was recovering from a mastectomy. Anna had written to her as “a sister in adversity,” understanding that this was a difficult time for Mrs. Ford, but quoting a French saying that there is no easy hour for mercy. She described the family’s situation, explaining that her father-in-law, much decorated by the state, had refused to give his permission for his son and son’s family to leave the USSR. This was a tactic used by the Soviets: if you had living parents, they had to give permission for your emigration; if your parents were deceased, you had to give proof of death (try getting a death certificate for parents who had died in the Holocaust!). It was just another one of the maddening obstacles to emigration.
I gathered Anna Belopolskaya’s material and letter to Mrs. Ford, phoned South Bend, Indiana, and spoke to Dorothy Jaffe, an active member of the Jewish community. She had campaigned effectively for Senator Birch Bayh. Marvella Bayh, too, was a sister in adversity. Dorothy agreed to bring Anna’s material to Mrs. Bayh and ask her to have it delivered personally to Mrs. Ford. Not long afterward, I received a letter from Mrs. Ford saying she had turned over the Belopolskaya documentation to the Soviet Embassy with her own letter expressing her hope that the family be allowed to leave the USSR. Mrs. Ford wrote that she hoped for the best but wasn’t certain that her letter would mean very much to the Soviet government.
The words of the wife of the President meant just enough to change the lives of that family. Her kindness and that of the late Marvella Bayh are not forgotten.
I mention this story as an illustration of what ordinary people did during those years. We managed to get help at the highest level, even though we operated on a shoestring. We worked hard, we informed ourselves, we stayed in touch with as many refuseniks as possible and the climate in Washington was pro-human rights. Taken all together we were able to accomplish quite a bit.
I would like to add that we often visited the offices of Henry Jackson and Charles Vanik. Richard Perle, active in government since, was Senator Jackson’s aide, and Mark Talisman the same for Congressman Vanik. You couldn’t find two smarter, tougher or more helpful people. We learned a lot from them.
A.T.: How many times did you visit Russia?
L.A.: Just once. What I did do was to visit many places throughout the Midwest. If a synagogue group anywhere would have me, I’d go there and speak and urged support, letter writing to refuseniks and Congress, sending packages, etc. In the early days, we tried to personalize the issue by publicizing families and individuals denied permission to leave. We published flyers and brochures about various refuseniks. Knowing that our supporters tended to forget those unfamiliar Russian names, we published oversized postcards. In big type they read: If you have trouble remembering the names of Soviet Jews, remember just one name: Scharansky. We hammered away at our theme: don’t visit Russia without visiting Russian Jews. Not everyone took us up on it, but many came to our office and we’d tell them whom to visit and what to bring. We kept a supply of goods ready for tourists, such as items Ida Nudel needed for visits to the Asirei Zion, Prisoners of Conscience. We also arranged speaking tours for Soviet Jews who had emigrated. When former Asir Zion Mischa Kornblit stopped at my office while on a speaking tour we had organized, he looked over what we had on hand for Ida. Those 3-D postcards of pretty girls in bikinis seemed so ridiculous…
A.T.: That was not so foolish.
L.A.: Yes, not so foolish, but visitors to our office were surprised. They knew we were doing serious work and then they’d see cards of girls, cats and dogs and babies, forest scenes, and even Christmas pictures. Mischa Kornblit spread some of the cards across my desk and pointed out their value. “Three or four like this you could trade for a blanket, this one would get you two or three cigarettes. Five of those? A can of sardines.” We never understood so fully what these little cards meant as when Mischa, tight-lipped, let us know from personal experience.
We were told that the prisoners needed energy; they were fed barely enough for subsistence. They yearned for chocolate, but chocolate was forbidden. We were asked to send white chocolate instead. “White chocolate” became my code for anything useful and forbidden that didn’t look like what it really was. “White chocolate” vitamin pills looked like candy. We put them in fancy boxes with red ribbon. “White chocolate” jackets were down-filled. They were light but waterproof and very warm.
It was important for Americans to know that Soviet Jews who put themselves in harm’s way could end up in the Gulag.
MALE VOICE: Did you hear the story of the ex-refusenik who thanked us for two pairs of jeans we gave him because they kept him alive for a whole year?
L.A.: If the tape picked up that voice, you’ve just heard Leonard, a.k.a. “Buddy” Goldstein, of Omaha, my host and host of Ida and Aba Taratuta, telling a story about his wife, Shirley Goldstein, chairman of the Omaha Committee for Soviet Jewry.
To continue: we sent in jeans and all kinds of tradeable materials, such as pop music albums. When Elton John went on tour in the Soviet Union, he was amazed to find that he was well known there. He was naпve; his albums may not have been for sale in stores, but they were a valuable commodity on the black (or gray) market. When I went to visit Leningrad activist Irma Chernyak, I met him as he came home from a part-time job (he lost his position as an engineer when he applied to emigrate and had to sell his car soon after). As he wheeled his bike into the vestibule of his apartment building he asked, “Do you know why I named my bike Elton John?”
Those were strange times. We were working on behalf of professional people, once highly regarded, who were just getting by. Some of them lived hand to mouth for many years while awaiting permission to emigrate, but did it with grace and humor. I remember one refusenik—I am very sorry that I have forgotten his name—who worked in applied physics. During his activist days, there was a period in which he was questioned daily by the KGB. His days were so unpleasant, he decided he needed an antidote and advertised “slimming classes” for ladies in his home. He said it was a much-needed change from the KGB to be surrounded by women exercising to music. Each of them paid a ruble a week or some such fee, not much income, but the company did him good. He said one or two of them may have even lost a few pounds.
A.T.: How many people worked in your office.
L.A.: It’s hard to say. They came and went.
L.A.: Not many at first. Pamela Cohen and Marilyn Tallman who took over from me would be able to show you a membership list. They have proper secretarial help now and an equipped office. Nothing like our bare bones set-up at Spertus College. Originally Pamela and Marilyn came to see me as tourists and went on to do the remarkable job they have done all these years at Chicago Action.
A.T.: When did they join?
L.A.: In 1974, I think. They will be able to tell you specifically. Pamela brought great heart, great enthusiasm and great support to the work. Marilyn, in addition, as a teacher of Zionist history, brought depth and background. That was important. When I felt it was time for me to resign as chairman of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, there were able leaders ready to take over. They moved the office from downtown Chicago to Highland Park, in the northern suburbs, and this increased their membership. There is a large Jewish population to draw on in the suburbs.
A.T.: What would you call your position in the organization at the beginning?
L.A.: Founding chairman.
A.T.: Who helped you?
L.A.: The others I’ve mentioned, the Goldsteins, the Silvermans, Pamela, Marilyn, our tourists…
A.T.: How long did you head the organization?
L.A.: Until about 1978-1979. Perhaps when you talk to Pam and Marilyn they can pin it down. I’m sitting here in Omaha without documentation and trying to remember things that happened so long ago.
The most important thing was that we helped get the issue of Soviet Jewry on the international bargaining table.
A.T.: What happened in 1979?
L.A.: I was getting ready to leave. Pam and Marilyn were in a position to take over. And there was a third person who worked with us then, Carol Boron. She was smart and politically active. She went on to become more involved in political campaigns, but when I was a chairman she was a great help.
A.T.: Who then, became head of the second office?
L.A.: I seem to remember that the three of them headed Chicago Action at first, Cohen, Tallman and Boron. They can tell you how they worked together and how the organization developed and changed. Over the years, as emigration became more easily accomplished, Chicago Action began to deal with the problems facing Jews still living in the former USSR.
A.T.: What happened to you in 1979? Did you stop being active?
L.A.: At that time I did other work because my life changed and I had other things I needed to do. For the past nearly 17 years, I have worked for the Chicago Region, American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science. For most of those years I have served as Associate Director of the region. It has been a special pleasure to see the Weizmann Institute welcome scientists from the former USSR and take part in helping to raise funds to provide labs and equipment for them. Some outstanding scientists came to Weizmann. Alexander Lerner, of course, I mentioned earlier. I was sorry to learn he passed away earlier this year.
Eduard Trifinov also came to Weizmann. He is known internationally as a specialist in the genetic alphabet. My dear friend, the late Irene Manekofsky of Washington worked so diligently on his case. Lerner and Trifinov and others coming to Weizmann and making a contribution—this sense of community. This means a lot to me.
I am afraid I have forgotten so much, but it was a team effort begun by Soviet Jews who told us their stories. The issue grew to include journalists and congressmen and senators and so many kinds of people. I wish I could remember all the journalists, print, radio and TV, who covered our stories. They were excellent, especially when Avital Scharansky came to Chicago for a non-stop series of meetings and interviews following her husband’s much-publicized trial in the USSR.
Two Catholic nuns based in Chicago raised this issue, too. They were Srs. Ann Gillen and Margaret Traxler. Sr. Ann headed the Inter-religious Task Force on Soviet Jewry. Enlisting other clergy, Srs. Gillen and Traxler raised Christian voices on behalf of Soviet Jews. They were dedicated and eloquent speakers. Margaret Traxler was powerful at the microphone. They are both gone now, and sorely missed.
A.T.: How was your family involved in or affected by your work?
L.A.: The family was very supportive. My children grew up knowing I was always active in one area or another. They became used to it and I think they always learned a lot about whatever I was doing. I hope I don’t sound like a typical mother, but I remember that they always knew exactly what to say when they fielded Soviet Jewry phone calls at home. Their father, to whom I am no longer married, was also extremely supportive. It was important in such a compelling, time-consuming activity to have the family with me. My parents and grandparents, my brother, everyone pitched in.
A.T.: And finally, Soviet Jews were free to emigrate to Israel, to America, Canada, Germany, and so on. You must have met a lot of them here, in America. How did you feel? Did you feel that your fight had been worthwhile? Were those who came to America good for America?
L.A.: Yes, good. I think that describes it. They’ve been good for America and good for Israel. We held a staff meeting at the Weizmann Institute during the Gulf War. One night we had dinner with graduate students. Candidates for advanced degrees are not accepted at Weizmann unless they are beyond merely outstanding; they must have the potential to become world-class scientists. Someone, I think it may have been the Dean of the graduate school, mentioned that emigrants from the former Soviet Union will change Israel. One of the Russian grad students stood up and declared, “I’m not here to change Israel; I’m here to have Israel change me”. That is what I mean by “good”.
In Chicago, Russian emigration had been meaningful. There have been many successes. That is true across the U.S. and right here in Omaha, too. The evening before last, remember? We were invited to a party for a recently married couple. The young couple, their family and most of the guests were Russian. Nearly every guest brought a large bouquet of roses. Yellow, red, pink, white, cream-colored, there were vases of roses everywhere. The flowers went with the laughter, the congratulations, the animated conversation and the food. They have all done well.
I am not surprised. We Jews have a long and troubled history, but we have learned how to succeed. We’ve gone where we’ve had to go and supported each other along the way. And we got where we were going.
When American novelist William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize for literature, he said he believed that despite everything, humanity would prevail. I think this applies doubly to Jews.
It has been an honor and a privilege and a great education to help Soviet Jews. It changed my life. It is an equal privilege to be speaking with Aba Taratuta today.
A.T.: Thank you very much.
L.A.: Thank YOU.