About very few people can it be said that they changed history. Vladimir Slepak, who died last Thursday in New York City at 89, was one such person. He changed the course of Jewish history in two places.
First, as one of the principal fathers of the Soviet Jewry refusenik movement, he transformed the status of Soviet Jews and, quite possibly, influenced the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Reacting to his passing, Natan Sharansky told Slepak’s son, “Thousands of us stood on his shoulders.” Yosef Mendelevich, one of the most celebrated prisoners of Zion said, “The chief of the tribe is gone; he was the heart and the pulse of the movement; millions of people were born free because of Volodya,” as he was known to friends.
Vladimir Slepak was not only the father of the refusenik movement, he was probably the longest lasting refusenik. He waited for 18 years to receive his visa to Israel, where he spent much of the last years of his life. When he and his wife applied to Ovir for a visa in 1969, they were told, “Others may or may not get out but you will never get out.” It almost happened that way.
When someone wanted to leave the former Soviet Union, he needed several letters confirming the desire to leave. After all, why would anyone want to leave “paradise?” One letter had to be from one’s employer, and asking for it usually meant getting fired. Another had to come from one’s parents. Slepak could not get that letter because his father had been a high official in the Communist Party and was adamantly against his son’s “craziness.” Therefore, the warning “you are never getting out” was a harshly realistic one.
My wife and I first met Volodya Slepak in his home in Moscow in 1975, at a Shemini Atzeret dinner. He greeted us warmly with a big smile on his face, his dramatic beard making him look like a rebbe. He embraced us as old friends though he only knew of us through his wife, Masha, whom we had met on our first visit to Moscow three years earlier. Slepak was in jail at that time for 15 days because President Nixon was due in Moscow the next week and the Soviet authorities wanted the chief “trouble maker” out of the way.
The yom tov dinner guests included the leading refuseniks of Moscow: Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, Alexander Luntz, Ida Nudel, Vitaly Rubin, and about 15 others. One by one they got out. The Slepaks didn’t.
He and Masha were dramatic examples of courage and fortitude. They hung a sheet from their balcony overlooking Gorky Street (equivalent to Park Avenue in New York) on which were written the words, “Let us join our children in Israel.” Imagine flaunting such an expression in the face of the police state that was the former Soviet Union.
On June 1, 1978, Slepak was arrested, imprisoned and tried. Ultimately, he was exiled to Siberia for five years.
In May of 1987, my wife and I were going for our third mission to the Soviet Union. Our friend and mentor, Elie Wiesel, told me to tell Volodya that, “We will get him out.” His protégé, Natan Sharansky, had been released a little more than a year before and the Slepaks were very depressed after more than 17 years of refusal. One will never know how it happened, but five months later, in October of 1987, the Slepaks received their exit visas and made aliyah. The father of Soviet refuseniks finally was able to fulfill his dream.
Because of his efforts and those of his followers, the course of Jewish history in the former Soviet Union was irrevocably altered. Two million Jews got out. One million of them are now living in Israel while another million are scattered through the Western world. It was a miracle, but a miracle made possible by the work of the refusenik movement of which Vladimir Slepak was the father.
Slepak changed the course of history not only in the former Soviet Union but also here in America. American Jews in the 1960s were still hesitant to show their Judaism outside in the streets. They were growing more confident inside but few wore a kipa outside and no one marched for Jewish causes in the streets of America. One of the major factors in changing all of this was the Soviet Jewish refusenik movement. American Jews understood that if Slepak and his followers could stand up to the terrifying repression of a police state, we in America could stand up proudly as Jews in this free society, show our Judaism confidently and demonstrate for Jewish causes when necessary.
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Slepak and his refusenik comrades changed the course of history on two continents. Nothing would ever be the same in the Soviet Union or in the West. Jews would be free over there and confident and courageous here.
At the funeral here last Sunday, Vladimir Slepak’s son, Leonid, said. “They don’t make men like him anymore … men like him make us.”
Slepak spent the last four years of his life in New York, cared for by his sons. After the funeral, his body was flown to Israel and he was buried in Jerusalem. For the second time in his life, he was blessed to make aliyah.
Rabbi Haskell Lookstein is rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan and principal of the Ramaz School.