What can be done to help Russian Jewry? Loads, according to Simon Frumkin. He should know.
The road to liberating Russian Jews has been a long and tortured process, and few people know this more than Frumkin, who has spent decades battling to facilitate Jewish flight from Russia.
Although not of Russian-Jewish ancestry, the 68-year-old Lithuanian-born Dachau survivor has long served as a prominent voice for Russian Jewry. In 1968, Frumkin founded the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, and later co-founded and led the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews — two lobbying organizations crucial to the Russian-Jewish freedom crusade.
The social activist, also instrumental in forming the Association of Holocaust Survivors from the Former U.S.S.R., continues his tireless efforts on behalf of Russian Jews, lending his talents to countless periodicals and organizations, including Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.
Last week, Frumkin shared his thoughts on the challenges facing the estimated 500,000 to 2.5 million Russian Jews remaining in the former Soviet Union, where the fall of communism has helped usher in the rise of anti-Semitism.
Jewish Journal: In your essay “The Anti-Semites Are Right — Jews Should Leave Russia,” you are not very optimistic about the future of Jews living in Russia. You even deem the Communist Party the Russian equivalent of the Nazis. On what do you base your pessimism?
Simon Frumkin: I’m not optimistic…because there’s never been any reason for optimism for the future of Jews in Russia…. In czarist Russia, Jews were not permitted to come into Russia (proper)…. In spite of that, anti-Semitism was rampant. Most of the people in Russia never saw a Jew, but they hated them anyway.
As soon as the revolution began, Jewish religion was eliminated. For the first and only time in history, a language — Hebrew — was named to be an enemy of the people…. Zionists were imprisoned…. There was official anti-Semitism. There were purge trials. There were plans by Stalin to send all the Jews to concentration camps, which had already been built. Luckily, he died just in time.
JJ: What are Russian Jews living outside of Russia doing to help the Jews residing in Russia?
SF: They’re not doing anything. To begin with, they can’t, because many of them can’t even speak English. They do write letters and fiery editorials in Russian-language newsletters, which nobody reads. Other than that, they have not developed into a political force.
JJ: Is President Boris Yeltsin’s government doing enough to curb anti-Semitism and protect the Jews there?
SF: They’re not doing anything. They really can’t. Their hands are tied. Yeltsin is not functioning. He’s ever more irrelevant. It is difficult to say who is in power…. In the last thousand years of its recorded history, Russia never had 10 years when things were good. Never….
On Dec. 5, a big march took place…in the center of Moscow, where (several hundred) fascist communist kids…with swastikas and black shirts demonstrated…demanding that the government abolish the law which punishes incitement of racial and ethnic hatred, because they said it violates their freedom of speech…. It was not shown on TV; they were not interfered with. That was that….
The average Russian is racist…. My granddaughter goes to Bancroft Junior High in Hollywood…they have a lot of Russian and Ukrainian kids there — the fact is that about 30 percent of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union who come to America these days are not Jewish — but here [my daughter] is in her social studies class, and they’re discussing what is wrong in the world and how could we make things better. And a little (Ukrainian) girl…says, “Well, one way is get rid of all the Jews.” This is what she hears from her parents…. Nothing has changed…. (Russian anti-Semitism) is not worst now then it was; it’s as bad as it always was. Except now it’s popular.
JJ: What can Russian Jews living outside of Russia do to help the Jews in Russia counter the growing tide of anti-Semitism there?
SF: They can learn the name of their congressmen…. (Many Russian Jews) don’t know how the political system works…don’t trust the government…because they were taught that the government is the enemy. Most of them are not aware that anything was done for them to facilitate their immigration from the Soviet Union. They think that it just happened…. When they find out about the demonstrations and the letter-writing campaigns and the prisoners of conscience (etc.), they are amazed….
At one point, the fate of Soviet Jews was an important item on the agenda in Washington. This is no longer so because American Jews feel that the problem has been solved….
JJ: Although many Jews in Russia have already received special refugee visas from the United States to emigrate, many of them have yet to exercise their so-called “Lautenberg status.” What’s being done to encourage them to leave?
SF: There are about 30,000 or so refugee visas given out each year to the United States, of which about 20,000 go to the Jews…. There are about 10,000 to 15,000 Jews “sitting on their suitcases” with visas in hand, who have refugee status…who, in the meantime, are depriving (others) by not leaving. I think that’s a crime…. There should be a time limit, that if you don’t utilize your visa within a year, the visa should be taken away and someone else should go…. We must realize that the United States government is aware of it to the point where it’s getting more and more difficult for a Jew to get a refugee visa in Russia.
JJ: If the economic crisis in Russia continues to worsen, what will conceivably happen to the Jews living there?
SF: I think they’re going to get killed. I don’t think there is a future for Jews in Russia…. They should leave as soon as possible.
For information on Russian Jewish immigrants and related organizations and activities, call (818) 769-8862. To donate furniture or toys for newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrants, contact the Association of Soviet Jewish Émigrés at (213) 878-0995.