“Let my people go” has been a recurring slogan in the history of the Jewish people. In Biblical times, it was uttered by the prophet Moses in his efforts to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Despite the Pharaoh’s adamant refusal to release the Jews from captivity, he was ultimately forced to watch the drowning of his glorious empire in the waters of the Red Sea. Thousands of years later, Moses’ symbolic phrase reappeared in another Jewish plight: the Soviet Jewry Movement of 1967 to 1989.
After the Israeli victory in the Six Day War in 1967, Jews living in the then Soviet Union experienced a renewed sense of pride. Along with the expression of their unique identity, their desire to make “aliyah,” the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel grew more urgent. Hundreds applied for immigration visas in the hopes of escaping religious persecution, but most were rejected due to the totalitarian nature of the regime. Subjected to discrimination, the “refuseniks,” Soviet Jews who were refused emigration, rose up against the Communist authorities to protest the suppression of their identity and the violation of their rights.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s new exhibit, “Let My People Go! The Soviet Jewry Movement,” offers a retrospective of that period, and the contest with totalitarianism that it entailed. Originally part of the “Jews of Struggle” exhibition, it is currently a traveling collection on display in New York City until Sunday, April 29. Through photographs, posters, and other 20th-century memorabilia, the exhibit documents the refuseniks’ battle with the Soviet regime, international support of their cause, and final immigration as the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1989.
Amid the museum’s gray marble walls and dim lighting, the Rotunda Gallery appears jovial. At first glance, the gallery, with its central skylight and yellow walls, understates the significance of the exhibit it contains. Upon examination of the first photograph, however, the gravity of the exhibit’s subject instantly sinks in. This photo is of several participants in hunger strikes in Moscow, standing with determination to fight in the middle of the Russian winter.
Among the pictures of demonstrations, one in particular conveys the desperation of the Soviet Jewry. It shows several refuseniks in front of the Communist Party headquarters in Leningrad, holding signs reading, “Send us home!” They appear to be unmoved by the coldness of the Russian winter or the Soviet authorities’ attempt to suppress them.
In addition to its theme of protest, the exhibit displays examples of the struggle to maintain a Jewish identity in the U.S.S.R. Refuseniks overtly conducted Hebrew lessons in their apartments, celebrated Jewish holidays, and organized their own art exhibitions.
The second part of the exhibition focuses on the international campaign that sought to bring justice to the Jews in Soviet captivity. Titled “Let My People Go!,” the movement included a series of global demonstrations in which famous activists, politicians, and celebrities announced their willingness to help. In one instance, protestors dressed as concentration camp prisoners in an attempt to evoke the public’s sympathy.
The exhibit showcases the span of these demonstrations, which occurred in a wide range of cities, including New York, Montreal, Liverpool, and Copenhagen. As the exhibit explains, the use of posters was fundamental in promoting the refuseniks’ cause. Written in Hebrew, English, and Russian, these posters publicized their conditions.
The final portion of the exhibit displays photographs of the emigrants finally out of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the refuseniks were free to make aliyah to Israel or settle in the United States. The exhibition was especially successful in capturing the sense of joy at winning a 20-year battle with Soviet authorities, finally escaping oppression. One photograph expresses this through the teary eyes of a Russian émigré who runs to greet a relative at JFK airport. Another depicts Russian students attending their first day of classes at the University of Tel-Aviv.
One of the most memorable parts of the exhibit is a photograph of a refusenik in his Soviet military medals next to a young Israeli boy. It conveys both the struggle of the Soviet Jews, as well as their final success in escaping the oppression. The exhibit ties this struggle to those in earlier time periods, leaving the impression that the Jewish nation can overcome adversities in any time period. In the end, the most important part of overcoming the challenges of oppression is relating the story of previous struggles to future generations.