Martin Wenick, ‘Strong Advocate for Refugees,’ 80


Martin Wenick, a career diplomat who became a leader of the fight to free Soviet Jews and help them resettle in this country, died on May 7 due to complications of Covid-19. He was 80.

After 27 years in the State Department, he headed the National Conference for Soviet Jewry in 1989, before becoming executive director of HIAS in 1992, serving until 1998.

A fluent Russian speaker, Mr. Wenick had been stationed in Moscow in the early 1970s, where he followed the plight of Jews denied visas to emigrate.

Under his leadership, HIAS resettled tens of thousands of Soviet Jews, brought the final remnants of Syria’s Jewish community safely to the United States, and helped members of the Baha’i faith escape persecution in Iran.

“Marty was a strong advocate for refugees and immigrants of all religions and ethnicities, putting HIAS on the path we are still on today,” said Mark Hetfield, HIAS’ president and CEO. “Marty had so many accomplishments at HIAS, that it is hard to name just one. I would say that he led HIAS at a time when we were resettling more refugees — overwhelmingly Jews from the former Soviet Union — than any other refugee resettlement agency in the United States or the World. Marty also was instrumental in getting asylum in the United States for most of the last 4,000 Jews in Syria. And, at a time of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, Marty launched a “Citizenship Across America” campaign to naturalize not only tens of thousands of HIAS’ clients, but other refugees and immigrants as well.

Mr. Wenick was born in Jersey City and grew up nearby in the small town of Caldwell, N.J. At Brown University, where he enrolled in 1957, he majored in history and began learning Russian. In the summer of 1960, he spent a month studying in the Soviet Union. “That time in the USSR “sort of whet my appetite for further study about the Soviet Union,” he said in a 2010 interview for the Association of Diplomatic Studies and Training.

His 27-year State Department career included numerous positions in Washington as well as postings in Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and the Soviet Union. During his time in Moscow from 1970 to 1974, a period when many Soviet Jews were agitating for the right to leave the country and settle in Israel or the West, the demands of the “refuseniks” — Soviet citizens, mostly Jews, who were refused visas to leave the USSR — clashed with the prevailing U.S. foreign policy of the time.

But Mr. Wenick made sure to extend his personal support to the Soviet Jewish community wherever he could. Yuli Wexler, a refusenik who met him in Moscow during that period, remembered receiving an invitation from the diplomat to a party at the U.S. ambassador’s residence. With Soviet guards stationed outside, no refusenik would have been able to walk through the front doors.

Danny Grossman, whom Mr. Wenick befriended and mentored at the State Department, remembered his friend’s “very warm presence” and belief in his work. “He wasn’t just putting square pegs into square holes,” said Grossman, now the CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. “He really cared about the work he was doing.”

“Marty was a skilled diplomat with three decades of service behind him, but he was also a man of principle and authenticity who cared passionately about refugees and human rights. This made him incredibly effective as an advocate for refugees,” Hetfield said. “Marty earned credibility for HIAS in the larger refugee community when he served so effectively as chair of the coalition of refugee agencies (known as the Interaction Committee on Migration and Refugee Affairs), positioning HIAS to make the transition from an agency that helped refugees because they were Jewish to an agency that helps refugees because we are Jewish. Marty hired me as his special assistant when he led HIAS, and his mentorship was the best training I could get to prepare me to lead the agency today.”

In his later years, Mr. Wenick and his wife, Alice Tetelman, lived in the Washington, D.C., area and kept up their passion for travel by renting out vacation homes in Italy. “They always found the best in what they saw or what they experienced or the food they ate,” said Grossman. “They were just really great travelers and adventurers.”