Written by Janna Kaplan, December 18th, 2011.
To forget is an essential quality of human memory. It allows us to overcome adversity, and to move on. Yet, something is sadly lost as our personal, communal, and institutional memories fade and eventually disappear. And so it is the responsibility of those of us who witnessed or lived through that excruciating history to create a written record. Thirty years ago, every Jew knew the word refusenik. In the late1990s, when I wrote or spoke publicly about the struggle for Soviet Jewry, I was asked to footnote it in the first paragraph. Today, in the year 2011 of this still new 21-st century, let me start by defining the term refusenik for those who were too young, or not yet born, in that miserable time in history known as the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.
Janna Kaplan speaking at a Comité des Quinze meeting few days after her emigration from Russia, in June 1981.
Refuseniks in the Soviet Union were Jews who, because of state sponsored anti-Semitism, declared their desire to emigrate but were denied permission to leave by the state. Consequently, they were treated as enemies, deprived of jobs, sources of livelihood, and basic human rights. Severe persecutions affected adults and children alike. Refuseniks created a vibrant underground Jewish culture in Russia, in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, which included an elaborate network of Jewish education, religious education and practices, arts, literature, music, intellectual and community life. Most refuseniks were finally given permissions to emigrate in the early 1990s.
I was 26 years old, and a research scientist in neurophysiology and space life sciences at the University of Leningrad in 1979 when I applied for, and was refused, the exit visa from the Soviet Union. Life became a living hell, with demotion at work, constant KGB harassment and arrests, betrayal by friends and colleagues, and a daily struggle to survive and not to succumb to despair. Refuseniks in big cities organized to support each other, and also to reach out to the international Jewish community and its cultural and religious institutions. In the USA, France, England, Israel, and in many other countries of the Western world, synagogues and congregations, newly formed groups of concerned citizens, and even unaffiliated individuals became involved in bringing the plight of Soviet Jews to the attention of governments, politicians, industrialists, entertainers, religious leaders, and cultural figures of the free world.
Janna and Edward Kaplan at a Brandeis University event, May 2000.
My brother Boris emigrated from Russia in the fall of 1979. He settled in Paris, and became very active in the Soviet Jewry movement in France, bringing my personal plight to the attention of those groups. He got particularly involved with Rue Copernic Synagogue led by Rabbi Michael Williams, and with Comité des Quinze founded and led by David Selikowitz, then a member of the congregation. Comité des Quinze included Jews and Gentiles passionate about human rights. Its members organized personal trips to the Soviet Union to meet and support refuseniks, bring literature and supplies, and to keep communication, hope, and the human contact alive. David Selikowitz and his activists, some of whom were members of the Rue Copernic congregation, were tireless in their work and kept the issue of Soviet Jewry front and center in the French and European media and social and political circles.
Just as tireless, Rabbi Williams kept the flame of the struggle burning in his congregation, and beyond. He spoke in every sermon, at every Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah, to every official or politician, to anyone who would listen, that time was of the essence, that the Jews of Russia were suffocated spiritually and tormented and harassed physically, and the time to act was now. Rabbi Williams's sense of urgency about helping the Soviet Jewry was only parallel to the energy with which he fought against a more immediate and present danger, that of the violent anti-Semitic terrorism like the bombing of his Synagogue on October 3, 1980, a horrible and bloody act which my brother Boris was a witness of on that Simchat Torah eve.
Janna Kaplan free-floating during her weightlessness research on board NASA's aircraft known as the "vomit comet" in parabolic flight, Houston, Texas, 2008.
I think that for Rabbi Williams, the Soviet Jewry issue was that of the highest ethical and religious dimension: saving Jewish lives. For this I believe, that but for the passion and conscience, and ceaseless action of rabbis like Michael Williams, congregations like the Rue Copernic, citizens' groups like Comité des Quinze, community leaders like David Selikovitz, and just single individuals like Paul Kessler, a former member, I would not be alive today to tell you my story. I was freed and left Russia in June 1981. Rue Copernic congregation did not abandon me after I emigrated; Michael and Isabelle Williams, David Selikowitz, Paul and Colette Kessler, and several synagogue members kept in touch with me over the months and years ahead, helped me regain my strength and confidence, and get on my feet. Today, I am a senior research scientist and lecturer in psychology at Brandeis University in Boston, USA. In collaboration with NASA, I study human factors in space flight: human adaptation to weightlessness and hyper-gravity; space motion sickness and disorientation; and movement control in altered gravity and robotic and virtual environments. I have been at Brandeis for 28 years. I am married to Edward Kaplan, an American Jew, and a professor of French and Comparative Literature and Religious Studies at Brandeis University. We have two children together: son Aaron, 24 years old, is a mental health counselor in a community clinic; our daughter Sima, 21, is a senior in college. Edward's son Jeremy, 40, is a teacher in New York public schools. In 2011, I have celebrated two important milestones in my life: 30 years since I left Russia, and the 25-th wedding anniversary.
Janna and Edward Kaplan, and children Jeremy (40), Sima (21), and Aaron (24). 2010.