Today was one of the coldest days of the year. Yet rarely have I felt so much warmth--even while standing outside for an hour.
Forty years ago today--on Human Rights Day, 1970--a small group of activists began a vigil outside the Soviet embassy on 16th Street, NW. They gathered that day to protest verdicts of treason, and subsequent death sentences, against Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union. For the next 20-plus years, they kept their vigil every day, rain, snow, or shine, hot or cold, until the Soviet Union finally allowed Jews to practice their faith freely and to leave the country.
Today, many who had kept that vigil all those years, plus several others, including some of the vigil's beneficiaries--around 125 people in all--gathered again as part of the Society's project to document the Soviet Jewry movement here in Washington.
Much has, of course, changed. The embassy across the street now flies the Russian tricolor instead of the Soviet hammer-and-sickle. The building that hosted the vigil then belonged to the International Union of Electrical Workers. It now belongs to the National Council of La Raza--which was gracious enough to host today's commemoration.
Several speakers who had participated in the vigil talked about their experiences today, including Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Norman Goldstein of the Society's Soviet Jewry project committee, and Pastor John Steinbruck of Luther Place Memorial Church. The president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, Janet Murguia, noted similarities between the Soviet Jewry movement and struggles for human rights now. A refusenik who had moved to Washington spoke about what the movement meant to him.
As someone who was 11 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed, I stood there in awe at these activists' persistence, and their willingness to take a stand for people many of them didn't know. It made me all the more excited to work on the Society's project to document this movement. Already many of the activists have recorded their own oral histories.
Stay tuned--in the next couple of years, we plan to create an exhibition and a Web site and/or publication. Click here to contribute to the project. If you'd like to receive updates or want to know more, please get in touch!