SKIRTS AGAINST THE KREMLIN
BY BARBARA OBERMAN
Looking back on those tumultuous times,
I credit our artlessness and innocence
for our success.
We became the 35s almost by chance.
It was May 1971 and we were 35-year-old suburban housewives (regrettably a mere dozen of us, not the crowd we'd wanted) hunger-striking outside the Soviet Embassy in London on behalf of a 35-year-old Soviet Jewish woman, incarcerated without trial in a Soviet torture chamber. We made BBC Radio's News at One later that day, which named us the 35s for the first time, and named me Margaret (rather than Barbara) as I gave my first on-air interview. Nonetheless, we were delighted to have media coverage - and thrilled when it bore fruit.
Within 12 hours, an Israeli Embassy staffer secretly told us that Raissa Palatnik, the librarian for whom we'd demonstrated, had been moved to a regular prison cell, from where she would stand trial. Looking back on those tumultuous times, I credit our artlessness and innocence for that first success and the many that followed. Our campaign was one of the opening salvos in the battle to free the then-unknown number of persecuted Jews inside the USSR - who were discovered to be the four million so-called Jews of Silence. It was a fight in which we took on not only the mighty Soviet Union, but also Israel's government and the Anglo-Jewish establishment. For their own separate reasons, both Israel and British Jews favored quiet diplomacy. We were appalled at their foot-dragging. All we could sense was impending doom, a catastrophic replaying of all-too-recent Jewish history.
My story with the 35s begins with the Six Day War, which sparked Jewish pride and revitalized Jewish identity across the USSR. I heard stories about these Soviet Jews for the first time on holiday in Israel that summer. Did Soviet Jews, I wondered, want to be silent or were they waiting for free Jews to shatter that silence? The plight of Soviet Jewry, however, receded for me when we returned to London and plunged once more into our busy middle-class lives. I was then nearly 33, the youngest of my three children was only two and my husband Cecil and I were both active in British Jewish life - from Golders Green's Dunstan Road Synagogue to fund-raising through WIZO, JNF and JPA (today the UIA).
It took another summer holiday in Israel for the spark struck in 1967 to flare. It was then that a friend, Pesach Mor, a European-born lawyer and a former British Army officer, told us about a trip he'd recently made to the USSR, at some personal peril, to see the situation for himself. "They want to get out," he said. "They don't want to be Jews of Silence."
I returned to London determined to act. The proper authorities, I believed, had simply to be galvanized. I called a meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Anglo-Jewry's 200-year-old representative body, and its major subsidiaries. I can still see the long table round which we sat, the 15 to 20 people there representing the Chief Rabbi's Office and the Central British Fund, among others. I made an impassioned plea for the rescue of Soviet Jewry. They responded in a polite British way, whose subtext read that I was a Jewish housewife who knew nothing, was not positioned to take any kind of action and should go home and busy myself with more appropriate matters. A CBF representative whom I met on the stairs following the meeting told me that parcels were quietly being sent to Soviet Jews, that I should guard my tongue and that public action was out of the question.
She left me unconvinced. I requested a meeting with then-chief rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. The encounter turned into a three-hour slugfest, in which I desperately tried to convince this gentlemanly scholar that we were the heirs of those Diaspora Jews of a generation earlier who had failed to save the six million, and that he could help change the course of history. I don't think anyone had spoken to him like that before - but to no avail. I had hit blank walls in every direction. I went about life with a heavy heart, attending any event connected with Soviet Jewry, increasingly frustrated and angry that I couldn't trigger the official bodies I'd been so certain would act for the Jews in trouble.
Early in May 1971, I attended a lecture given by Yitzhak Rager, then second secretary at the Israeli Embassy and later to be mayor of Beersheba and president of State of Israel Bonds. That was where I heard about Raissa Palatnik, at 35 the same age as me, imprisoned in a torture chamber because she'd wanted to leave Russia. I was overwhelmed by Palatnik's story, and poured it out to Cecil as soon as I got home. Had my grandmother not emigrated to Britain, I could be where Raissa was now, I told him. While we couldn't bring out the numbers of demonstrators that American Jews did, I said, I wanted to gather other 35-year-old women to join me on hunger strike to gain recognition for her plight. The time for passive protests and short mentions deep inside the newspapers was over.
I must have made more than 100 phone calls that night to family, friends and mothers of children at the three Jewish schools my children attended. Almost all of them asked if I'd had an okay from the Anglo-Jewish establishment. Few were willing to put themselves on the line when they heard I hadn't. In the end, barely a dozen of us - among them, my good friends Sylvia Wallis, Zelda Harris and Zena Clayton - made our way next day to the gates of the Soviet Embassy. Against this wonderful photo-op background, we held up a giant canvas banner that Cecil and our two sons had spent the night making in our dress factory. "USSR release Raissa Palatnik" it urged, for all the world to see. The News at One interview followed, the 35s was born and we garnered our first triumph with Palatnik moved to an ordinary prison and given a trial date. The secretary of the Board of Deputies even sent us a congratulatory telegram.
My home became our office, and the phone rarely stopped ringing. We wore black for our protests, we were young and well-groomed, and the media loved us. As our group grew, one member brought in a circle of her friends. Among them was Doreen Gainsford, a later leader of the 35s. Palatnik's situation had improved, but she was still a prisoner. We decided that three 35-year old Jewish women in black - myself, Myra Janner (whose husband was MP Greville Janner) and Sylvia Wallis - would go to the Soviet Embassy each morning and present the ambassador's wife with a letter asking her "as a woman, to use her good offices to stop the KGB torturing Mrs. Palatnik on behalf of all the 35-year-old Jewish married women in Britain." Each morning at 11, British police escorted the three of us to the embassy gates, where we requested a meeting with the ambassador's wife - which of course we didn't get. Meanwhile, the rest of the 35s kept a round-the-clock vigil outside the embassy and cabled the wives of Soviet leaders such as premier Alexei Kosygin and party leader Leonid Brezhnev, calling for the release of Palatnik and other Jewish prisoners of conscience.
Of course, we informed the media at every turn. After considerable publicity in the BBC and the national press, our letter was finally accepted. We were getting quite clever at PR. Our press releases were original and our ideas were innovative. When The Times quoted the Soviet press about the situation of the Jews rather than our sources, 300 of us marched down Fleet Street on the newspaper, and the editor came out to talk to us. London's Jewish Chronicle of July 1971 reported that protests such as ours were impacting on the sentencing of Jews in the USSR, and called me "one of the enterprising leaders of the campaign."
Despite our successes, many of the 35s still yearned to be under the establishment umbrella. It was unheard of for a group of Jews - far less Jewish women - to act without formal approval from either Israel's government or the Board of Deputies. The final straw came when two independent activists gained access to the Soviet Consulate, found anti-Semitic tracts there and read them through a window to the press below. During a TV interview that followed, one of the Jewish students involved crudely described his manhandling in the consulate and imprisonment in a cage for several hours. This was followed by an apology to the Soviet Embassy from the Israeli Embassy - and a middle-of-the-night visit to our home by Yitzhak Rager, with a warning to "lie low." Cecil thought this was nonsense, but my intention wasn't to make trouble for Israel, so I obeyed.
A week later, a 35s delegation told me they wanted to move under the auspices of the Board of Deputies. I wanted the organization to continue, thrive and maintain its impetus, but I didn't want to be controlled by the Board of Deputies. This crisis was resolved for me by the wise counsel of Rabbi Leslie Hardman, MBE, a former British Army chaplain and the first Jewish chaplain in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after its liberation. He advised me to let the 35s go. Painfully, I did. It was like putting my baby up for adoption. My baby was gone, but Soviet Jews still languished behind locked gates, so I set up a new organization: the Committee for the Release of Soviet Jewish Prisoners.
It began with three stalwart core-members - Sonja Cohen, Frances Mary Marzel and myself - together with our families, whose moral and practical support kept us going. Cecil funded us, and my children came on demonstrations, lighting Hanukka candles in the freezing London streets and getting up to mischief of their own invention on behalf of the Jews in the USSR. Michael Sherbourne, a Russian-speaker who kept daily contact with refuseniks in the USSR (and who, in fact, coined the term refusenik) was our personal link to those in trouble. Eminent academics, who admired us but didn't dare join us, became friends; wonderful writers wrote for us; and famous actors and actresses helped us. My working past as a fashion model had left me intensely aware of the value of a good a picture. We hired a veteran news photographer, Sydney Harris, to accompany us to every event. Never flustered and always professional, he would provide large black-and-white prints within hours, which we sent by express mail to dozens of publications, often getting front-page coverage of even small demonstrations. One reason our pictures were used so often is that the pretty girls were always maneuvered into the foreground - for which the Jewish press bitterly criticized me. My response that "you wouldn't take a rusty gun to the front line" received, of course, equally vituperative criticism. I was frequently pilloried in the Anglo-Jewish letters and editorial pages and then feted in the op-eds. British Jews simply didn't know what to make of an activist woman.
Our ways of attracting attention grew zanier. When the Ideal Home Exhibition displayed a Russian car, we surrounded it, wearing shirts adorned with the names of Soviet Prisoners of Zion (mine was Sylvia Zalmanson). A Daily Express photographer got a shot of our unceremonious ejection - and I got a 3:30 a.m. phone call from the Daily Express to say that Sylvia Zalmanson was on their front page and she looked remarkably like me. Our committee's secretary, Frances Kutock, allowed us to put her on a stretcher and push her down London's Bayswater Road, on one occasion as Anatoly Sharansky, on another as Zalmanson. On another occasion, we rented a goat to symbolize Jewish scapegoats. We again dressed as prisoners, each with a Soviet-Jewish prisoner's name emblazoned on our sweaters, and led the goat down Bond Street. The goat, however, unfortunately took fright and bolted, with me desperately hanging onto its leash.
Most of the photographers lost us, but Harris's pictures of the Jewish (e)scapegoat were printed around the world. A Times op-ed by Bernard Levin about pregnant Soviet Jewish prisoner Ludmilla Prussakova prompted us to invite actress Hayley Mills, then pregnant herself, to demonstrate with us outside the Soviet Embassy. She duly turned up, charmed us all, was highly knowledgeable about the plight of Soviet Jews and spoke up for them when the media interviewed her.
In September 1971, I received a New Year card from the USSR. Written in Russian, it read: "Dear Barbara. We congratulate you and your family on the New Year, Rosh Hashana. We wish you lots of personal happiness, good health and success in everything. Many thanks for not forgetting us." The trickle of Soviet Jewish activists making aliya in the 1970s gradually grew into a torrent.
In 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the majority of refuseniks to leave, and in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and most restrictions on emigration were rescinded, the Jewish exodus became a flood. Today, more than a million Jews from the former USSR live in Israel, with about a half-million more in the US, Canada and Europe.
While the part I played in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry was not on the scale described by Pravda (it once called the Oberman house in Golders Green "the center of Zionist activity in England"!), I look back with enormous pride. We were non-working, middle-class Jewish housewives, with the support of husbands and children, and the hours to give to what was then a unique form of public protest. Despite the emerging women's movement in the West, we saw ourselves as housewives, who had taken the highly unusual step of bucking the establishment and grabbing the spotlight solely because we saw no other way. We combined vision with a stubborn determination to put the plight of refuseniks on the world agenda, and we believed passionately that we could make a difference.
This proved a potent combination. In the end, we and others like us did indeed show the mighty Soviet Union that Jews could not be denied their human rights because they were Jews.
The Jerusalem Post, JULY 25, 2007
From the site editorial board: A copy of the article was presented to us by courtesy of David Oberman, son of Barbara Oberman.