Home > Adventure, Civil Rights, History, International Relations, Jewish Culture, Omaha, Politics, Shirley Goldstein, Social Justice, Writing > Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop – one woman’s remarkable journey in the Free Soviet Jewry movement

Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop – one woman’s remarkable journey in the Free Soviet Jewry movement


In this extended, two-part Jewish Press story, I tell the remarkable journey of Omahan Shirley Goldstein in the Free Soviet Jewry movement and how this historic campaign changed her life and is remembered today. In Part One: The Education of Shirley Goldstein, the story of how this “typical” housewife became politicized and educated in the movement is explored. In, Part II: Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist, discover the lengths Goldstein went to in her human rights activist work and the generosity displayed, then and now, by her and her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein.

 

Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop – One woman’s remarkable journey in the Free Soviet Jewry movement

Part I: The Education of Shirley Goldstein

©by Leo Adam Biga

 


 

Housewives and Students and…

They were housewives and students and teachers…They called America and many other Western nations home. Galvanized by the plight of Soviet Jews, this army of everyday citizens, together with activists inside the former Soviet Union, formed a grassroots human rights movement that began modestly enough but grew in force. Activists within the movement wanted nothing less than to make the USSR stop its systematic persecution of oppressed minorities. What made the task so daunting is that the target of this action was an authoritarian super power engaged in an ideological Cold War with the West. Nothing suggested this intractable juggernaut would ever bend.

But bend it did. Some say the freedom movement even contributed to the Soviet state’s eventual collapse. It’s one of the great triumphs over tyranny in human history. And Omaha’s own Shirley Goldstein played a part in this epoch. But she could only do it after she transformed herself from causalobserver to in-the-trenches activist. In a remarkable journey, she went from zero political involvement to fervent militant. Once caught up in themovement, she devoted much of her time to it, as she has to other causes since then. The experience changed her life.

“It opened up a whole new world,” Goldstein said.

Her diverse work on behalf of Soviet Jews found her, variously: meeting refuseniks and dissidents in Russian apartments or hotel suites; lobbying U.S. government leaders back home to voice criticism of Soviet human rights violations; discussing conditions and strategies with world statesmen and fellow activists at conferences in Washington, D.C. and overseas; and picketing on the streets, almost anywhere, the latest Soviet transgressions.

She saw and did so many things in the course of her involvement that her story provides a useful insider’s look at how the movement evolved and operated.

Like many who got involved in the fight, she found in it a higher purpose. As she put it recently, “What does one do with their life?” Serving others became a calling. “And I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.

Her politicalization and activism mirrored that of others who came to the cause.

“Shirley was typical of the middle class women who normally would not take any part in politics as such. They were really concerned to do something to help the Soviet Jews. They felt it very deeply. I have a great deal of admiration for Shirley Goldstein. She was a leading light for giving morale and financial assistance to refuseniks and for helping them get out, and she did a great deal for those who managed to get out to resettle in Nebraska,” said Michael Sherbourne, a London-based activist who fed Goldstein information from his contacts in the Soviet Union.

 

 

 

No Place to Be a Jew

Life behind the Iron Curtain was harsh for the mainstream populace, but even more intolerable for racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Long the target of anti-Semitic pogroms and policies, Soviet Jews were routinely denied such basic rights as the practice of their faith, employment in certain jobs, free travel within the country and emigration outside the USSR. An internal passport all Soviets carried was used to target Jews, whose documents, and whose documents alone, denoted their religion. Jews and sympathizers protesting such discriminatory practices could be arrested, interrogated, harassed or imprisoned.

By the mid-1960s the pleas of a few Jewish dissidents were heard — enough to coalesce the Free Soviet Jewry Movement. But much of the world remained unaware of or apathetic to just how bad things were and just how many Jews wanted out. Compared to the trickle allowed to leave each year, millions more wished to go but were refused. Once a visa was denied, the applicant was branded and blacklisted. Refuseniks automatically lost their jobs and what few privileges they enjoyed. Even more than before, they became outcasts in their own society.

From the mid-’60s through the early ‘90s, the movement — both within the Soviet Union and outside it — forged ahead despite political setbacks. Free Soviet Jewry committees organized. Under Goldstein’s leadership, Omaha had a particularly active one. Agitators like her from the West, both Jews and non-Jews, made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and dissidents and activists. She and other Western visitors smuggled in banned materials, such as Judaica, along with items like Levi jeans and Marlboro cigarettes, which brought much on the black market. They also made audio recordings of individuals, whose messages — testifying to the tough conditions and rallying support for freedom — were snuck out and then disseminated to Western media outlets.

Defying initial opposition from the Jewish establishment and the Israeli government and flying in the face of official U.S.-Soviet diplomatic channels, the campaign eventually gained widespread support. The pressure applied by the campaign and by detente succeeded in doing exactly what it set out to. Faced with sanctions and growing world condemnations, the stubborn Soviets finally ended reprisals and eased restrictions. The sweeping changes ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev under Glasnost and the eventual dissolvement of the Soviet state, opened the borders for a flood of people to legally emigrate. In the end, 1.5 million Jews left, most for the U.S. and Israel. Some 200 families resettled in Omaha.

 

 

 

Becoming an Activist

Shirley Goldstein (formerly Gershun) seemed an unlikely candidate to make history. The Council Bluffs, Iowa native did part of her growing up in Schuyler, Neb., where her family moved, before returning to the Bluffs to complete her schooling. Upon graduation from Abraham Lincoln High School she did what any good Jewish girl did then — she worked (at the Martin bomber plant),  got married, bore kids (four) and stayed home raising them. Her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein, had his own transportation business.

An “ordinary” housewife, mother and grandmother, she only became politicized in middle-age. It was the early ‘70s when the Free Soviet Jewry movement overtook her and she morphed into an impassioned advocate. There was a precedent in her past. Her merchant father, Ben Gershun, led the Council Bluffs resettlement of Jewish refugees from post-World War II Europe. She recalls refugees at his general store and at her parents’ home. Much like she’s embraced diversity in her own home, her family’s home was “always open to everybody.”

She feels she may also have been prepared for her activist role by the many years she and Buddy hosted international students and dignitaries, many from Asia, at their place. The couple even sponsored a Cambodian refugee family. She said, “I’ve always been interested in other peoples and cultures.”

Not content with merely educating herself on the subject, she went to the USSR seven times, meeting with leaders and rank and file Jews alike. She took chances, brazenly ignoring U.S. State Department warnings and Soviet orders to steer clear of “troublemakers.” Indeed, she became a familiar figure to refuseniks in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa and other cities. A benevolent angel from the West bearing contraband gifts. A tiny rebel with the brass of a cat burglar. She recorded testimonies and snapped pictures, concealing cassette tapes and film cartridges under her clothes. She sneaked things in and out with a kind of mischievous glee. A true believer unafraid to upset the Politburo or defy the KGB, who knew of her and tried discouraging her, she carried on anyway. She was on a mission.

“The world had to know what was happening. It was a priority. I would have rather done this than anything else,” she said.

As her involvement deepened, she made more contacts and increased the scope of her activities. She organized Omaha’s Free Soviet Jewry Committee and served on the board of the national Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. She led demonstrations (including ones outside the Orpheum Theatre and Joslyn Art Museum, using the appearances of Russian performing artists as the pretext or stage to protest Soviet policies), she walked in marches and she participated in vigils. She called on members of Congress. She attended meetings in Washington, D.C. and in Madrid, Spain (for the Helsinki Accords). She raised awareness and funds.

When not educating elected leaders herself, she recruited new blood, such as the late Ally Milder, to do so. In her role as an aide to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (D-Iowa), Milder brought him on board with the movement. Goldstein also spearheaded letter writing campaigns that sent morale-boosting notes to refuseniks and that made appeals for support to public officials. She organized relief drives that collected goods and shipped them to families in the USSR.

“In the big picture of the Soviet Jewry movement, Shirley was a really great foot soldier and the leaders knew that,” said former Omahan Stephanie Howard (Seldin), co-producer of Let My People Go, a new documentary on the movement. “Shirley’s is a great story because she rallied a whole Jewish community and they did great things, and they’re recognized for it. You talk to people in New York or San Francisco or Chicago who were in the movement and everybody knows Shirley.”

Goldstein never strayed from the fight. When Soviet Jews began coming, she picked up the mantle again and immersed herself in all facets of the resettlement program.

Through it all, Buddy Goldstein, was by her side, just as he remains today. He didn’t always accompany her on her far-flung travels, but he supported her and underwrote her activism, sharing her concerns and encouraging her efforts, even when some friends questioned if she was going too far. In a recent interview at their home, the couple recounted her remarkable journey from uniformed innocent to well-traveled activist.

It all started when the two returned from a 1972 trip to the USSR frustrated by the limited access they’d had to the Jewish proletariat and their daily lives. “I’d been doing a lot of reading. I was interested. But I wasn’t able to see anybody — I didn’t know how to do it. Being tourists, it was all surface. It was definitely controlled. We only saw what the government wanted us to see,” she said. She itched for a way to bypass approved itineraries in order to connect, on a human level, with Jews and learn first-hand their struggles.

“I wanted to see the real Russia and visit with some refusenik families.”

Enter Glenn Richter. A veteran of the civil rights movement and a founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jews, Richter is a brother-in-law of Goldstein’s. He’s married to her cousin Lenore. The couple live in New York.

“Glenn and Lenore had been to Omaha (on a cross-country speaking tour) not too much before we took our trip talking about a lot of the things that were going on in the Soviet Union,” she recalled. “After we got back, I called Glenn and said, ‘I want to know more about what’s happening.’ But first I registered for a couple courses on Russia at the university (then Omaha U.-now UNO). The courses culminated in a 1973 trip to the USSR led by chancellor Ron Roskens. I decided I wanted to go. I called Glenn and said, ‘I want to know how to meet these people, by which I meant refuseniks. We spoke every Sunday morning for weeks. Then he outlined it all for me on a sheet of yellow paper (now in the archives of Remember and Save, an Israeli-based initiative documenting the Jewish Aliya Movement of the USSR). Glenn told me what to do, what items to take, who to visit, what things to tell them and what information to bring back. He gave very good directions.”

“Without Glenn’s help I never would have gotten into this as I did,” she said. “I did exactly as he told me and it was very successful. I met many people. Each time I went it made me hungry to learn more. And that was the beginning of it.”

Richter recalled Goldstein being an avid student.

“We were dealing at that time with what was largely a hardly-understood situation, with few appeals coming out from the USSR, relying basically on facts known to us at that point, rather than the personal contacts which we all developed. Shirley was quite interested. She’s a good listener — and a good questioner,” he said.

He added she and Buddy were well-positioned to serve the cause.

“One of the great strengths of Jews in smaller Jewish communities, such as Omaha or Denver, is the long-term friendships they may have with people who get into political power. Shirley and Buddy were excellent examples. Their Congressmen and Senators became their advocates. Shirley knew which political buttons to press, and did so on behalf of individual refuseniks and prisoners and of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment — the landmark legislation linking Jewish emigration with trade credits for the USSR.”

He admired her dedication.

“Dogged, committed, focused, interested would be understatements when it came to Shirley’s advocacy for Soviet Jews,” he said. “I see the same traits in my wife Lenore. Perhaps it’s family genes.”

Goldstein’s involvement in the movement came just as it was picking up steam. Or, as she likes to put it, “When I came into it, everything was already going on.”

“I don’t think anyone of us in the early 1970s knew where the Soviet Jewry movement would take us,” Richter said. “By ‘73-’74 we were in the big leagues, utilizing Congress to take on the Kremlin head-to-head over the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Shirley was in the thick of things, using all the political connections she developed (with Sen. Jim Exxon, Rep. John Cavanaugh, etc.). It was crucial for Congress to see pressure not only from the traditionally large areas of Jewish population, but from a wide swath of communities with smaller Jewish populations, as in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado. Politicians will stick their necks out only if they believe their constituents are with them, and Shirley and her colleagues made sure of that.”

Richter said the famous Soviet dissident, Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, “often tells the story that his KGB interrogators tried to torment him by telling him he was only supported by Western ‘students and housewives.’ But that was the strength of the Soviet Jewry movement. We utterly believed in what we were doing. We didn’t let considerations that would sidetrack a ‘professional’ get in the way. From what I saw, Shirley was absolutely typical of the Jewish housewife who devoted the same focus and energy to Soviet Jews thousands of miles away as she did to her own family because, indeed, these Soviet Jews, became our family. I’d sit at meetings of the Union of Councils in Washington, DC and marvel at the truly diverse dozens of women and men who, for whatever personal reasons, simply decided that they had to get involved, and became heroines and heroes of the movement.”

“Most people watch history go by. Shirley and her colleagues simply decided, each on her/his own, that they were going to shape history. The core group of activists, like Shirley, seemed to utilize every waking hour to create new ways of advocating on behalf of our friends trapped in the USSR and to keep their spirits up,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

To Russia with Love

By the time she made that ‘73 UNO trip to the USSR, accompanied by her daughter Gail Raznick, she was well-read on the Soviet Jewry issue. She’d been briefed by Glenn Richter and other Union of Councils members and been given contact names.
But her real education began abroad, meeting Russian Jews whose lives were filled with hardships in the totalitarian and anti-Semitic regime. She met them in their homes or in her hotel suites. She visited their synagogues and schools. Despite little hope for change, Soviet Jews yearned and struggled for freedom. That’s when it all hit home. That’s when the cause got in her blood. Until then, the problems faced by Soviet Jews were still abstract and far removed.

“Then you meet people, like I did, who can’t get out and, well…Once I met this young family — Aba and Ida Taratuta — I became totally committed, not only to work for Soviet Jews but people in all the Iron Curtain countries.”

In an interview she gave during the height of the movement, Goldstein explained why she threw herself into the fray: “These people cannot speak out for themselves, so other people must do it for them. I feel like what I am doing is something important. It’s hard for people in the U.S. to grasp what all they have to give up just for wanting to leave and how much support they need just to survive. Seeing all they endure makes you want to help just one more case. You get hooked. It’s like an addiction.”

She and Buddy were also alarmed by how the world kept relatively silent as the repression went unchecked. It was an ugly reminder of what happened during the Holocaust. “People didn’t speak out then about the oppression,” he said. “Those were atrocities,” she interjected. “Atrocities, yes, but a lot of people felt anything could happen” in the Soviet Union. “That’s right,” she added, “because people were disappearing in Russia. They’d just be taken off the street…for no reason. And we thought if they can do that, they can do anything.”

Then there was the outrageous situation of a government holding hostage, in effect, some of its own people, preventing them from practicing their professions and thus depriving the country of their talents — all as punishment for wanting to leave. “I never understood why,” Shirley said. “The Soviets weren’t using them. It wasn’t as if the refuseniks kept their jobs and were still vital to the economy. They weren’t. They lost their jobs. They were having a hard time. They were wasting their lives sitting around waiting to get out.”

She was also dismayed by the travel strictures and identity tags foisted on Jews.

Refuseniks she met expressed their despair. Sensing she was someone they could trust to get the truth out, they confided in her. The fact-finding and reporting she and others did there helped the movement gain momentum. Through networking and communication, the Free Soviet Jewry issue was kept alive. Getting information out meant taking risks.

 

Testing the Limits, Courting Danger

Just how far Goldstein was prepared to go would be tested on that ‘73 trip and on later trips. Refuseniks Aba and Ida Taratuta, whom she met in Leningrad, witnessed her resolve. She’d been given their names by Glenn Richter. They were soon impressed by her sincerity and tenacity.

“She was interested in our life, financial situation, the possibility to leave the country and what to do and how to help,” Aba Taratuta said. “She was ready to do everything to help us. And from that visit there was just a constant contact between our families. She wrote a lot of letters describing what she did to help us and other refuseniks. She became very active in the struggle on our behalf.”

Goldstein came bearing gifts.

“Shirley brought many items — books, records, tape recorders — that helped us in studying Hebrew or in supporting Zionist activities. The same with cameras, watches and jeans, which we sold. And every time she would bring something personally for us, for our family,” Aba Taratuta said.

Let My People Go producer Stephanie Howard said Ida Taratuta recounted how once Shirley “came with a suitcase full of embroidered towels, fine soaps and things, and Ida told her, ‘I can’t accept this,’ to which Shirley said, ‘But for a twist of fate, I could have been in your place and you could have been in mine. Wouldn’t you do the same for me?’ And Ida replied, ‘How can I argue with that? Of course’”

But the little Jewish woman from Omaha came with an agenda far beyond trinkets.

“Shirley visited us in Leningrad several times and she was interested in seeing more people, more refuseniks. And for a foreigner in Russia it was not so easy to do,” Aba Taratuta said. “So we tried to gather as many people in our apartment as possible. She was interested in every one and taped the story of everyone and smuggled the tapes out on her person. And it was really dangerous.”

In turn, Goldstein said Aba “was one of the main figures in Leningrad. Gail and I were the first Americans to ever visit him, but he was already well known in the West.” She said he’d “have so many activists come to his apartment…they crowded to get into the rooms. I kept coming back to hear their stories. I made tapes.”

The couple were classic refuseniks-turned-activists. Their situation symbolized the problem, Goldstein said.

“They’d applied to emigrate and were released from their jobs. They were well-educated people. Both spoke good English. He had been a professor. She was a translator. He was reduced to being a caretaker where they lived. She was doing some translating on the side. Their son was taunted at school. I think maybe they were receiving some packages from the West and selling things on the black market. Mail and phone service was compromised. That’s the way it was.”

Goldstein’s good friend, Miriam Simon accompanied Shirley and her daughter on the ‘73 trip. Simon well recalls what it was like as Shirley went off to attend “clandestine meetings late at night.” “She took a lot of risks. We didn’t know for sure, but we thought everything was bugged. We were very careful what we said to each other,” said Simon. When Goldstein made later trips to the Soviet Union, Simon added, “We always worried if she would come back. They (Soviet authorities) got to know her and didn’t like her.”

“Shirley often did dangerous things,” Aba Taratuta confirmed. “For example, on her first visit to us, she and her daughter Gail brought some very important books and hid them in Gail’s boots. These visits were very important for us refuseniks. We felt, ‘We are not forgotten…there are people who care and want to help.’ We felt If we were known abroad, it was our best defense from the Soviet government. Then they could not do with us what they wanted.”

Below, in Part II of Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement, you will read about how just far this Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist has gone for the cause of human rights.

____________________________________________________________________

Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement

Part II: Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

 

Testing Limits, Courting Danger Continued: Contacts, Safe Houses and Spy Games

Once swept up in the Free Soviet Jewry movement, Shirley Goldstein set about indoctrinating herself in the tactics of an underground activist. She read, she discussed, she kavetched. She formed Omaha’s Free Soviet Jewry Committee and joined the Union of Council for Soviet Jews. She became a part of an international network whose advocacy and activism sought relief and release for Soviet Jews denied basic human rights. She learned who to contact among refusenkiks, activists and dissidents in the former Soviet Union. She learned where and when it was safe to meet them. In short, she became a secret operative there, much the way a spy is, sneaking information and materials in and out of that oppressive regime.

Back home, she made calls, wrote letters, collected and shipped goods, appealed to politicians, etc., all in an attempt to ease the burden and secure the freedom of Soviet Jews. For the few refugees who made it out at first and then for the flood that followed, she helped their resettlement here.

But nothing she did compares to the missions she conducted in the USSR under the guise of “tourist.” This little Jewish lady carried on her work there despite becoming a person of interest to the KGB. When they tried scaring her off, she simply snubbed her nose at the mighty Soviet state. On a 1973 trip there, Shirley and her daughter Gail Raznick went as part of a UNO-sponsored tour. As Part I explored, Leningrad residents Aba and Ida Taratuta were among the first refuseniks she met. The Taratutas opened their lives and their hearts to her, using their apartment as a meeting place for fellow refuseniks to come and share their stories with Shirley, who faithfully documented it all via tape recorder. These meetings built her circle of contacts and added to the testimonies she collected.

Another key early contact she made, Edward Sorokin, was not a refusenik at all, but sympathetic to Soviet Jews’ plight and to her humanitarian mission. Shirley and Gail met Sorokin by accident in Leningrad. For Goldstein, such contacts were invaluable as she didn’t speak Russian and didn’t yet know her way around.

“He wasn’t even Jewish,” Goldstein said. “Edward and I became very good friends. He helped me on all my trips during the next 15-20 years. He made sure I got places. He was a big source for me. He became friendly with some of my other friends there…helping me if something went wrong. He made phone calls for me. When I got home, I’d send packages and he would see to it they got delivered.”

In Moscow, Shirley and Gail were unsuccessful locating the prominent dissident Vladimir Slepak, but they did meet an English-speaking couple, Galina and Victor Faermark, who soon put them in touch with all the leading Moscow refuseniks and activists. Among these were Benjamin Levich, for whom Victor Faermark served as translator. Levich had been one of the USSR’s most highly decorated scientists before he applied to leave, whereupon he was dismissed from his position and stripped of his medals. “One of Levich’s boys had been kidnapped off the streets in Moscow and sent to Siberia, just for being Levich’s son,” Goldstein said. “We became very good friends with Levich. While we were in Moscow he kept giving my name out and it became known, and before I knew it we were meeting Vladimir Slepak. All of them were intertwined. While we were at Slepak’s, people came in and out, including a woman who was a legend, Ida Nudel.”

Once back home, Goldstein acceded to a request by Levich. She prepared and shipped care packages, filled with dried foods, for his imprisoned son. She also returned to the states with lists of names of other Soviet Jews in need of various things. She enlisted the help of Russian emigres in Omaha to box the goods “We shipped out a lot of supplies,” she said. The Goldsteins’ home became a storehouse for hot ticket items, especially, jeans, large quantities of which she got donated from suppliers she appealed to.

Her return home from that ‘73 UNO tour of the USSR was nearly delayed, however, when she was detained at customs in Leningrad. Authorities objected to some posters she carried. It was one of many attempts made to hassle her and discourage her actions. They soon discovered she couldn’t be intimidated.

“I had visited a Jewish day school, whose children made drawings for me to bring back to children here in Omaha. As I went through customs, I carried the posters under my arm when the agents said, ‘Hand it over — you’re taking out important artwork.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s children’s artwork.’ And they said, ‘No, you can’t take them out.’ I argued, ‘But it isn’t anything…’ They wanted my purse, and I said, ‘No,’ and I just held onto those things under my arm. I was angry with them.

“Well, the other people in the tour group were saying, ‘Just give it to them…’ But I said, ‘No, it’s not theirs. It has no monetary value. Nothing.’ Well, the Russians still wanted it. The plane was held up and I could see either the group was going to leave without me or be stuck there with me, so I said, ‘OK, here it is, and I unrolled the posters and tore them up, piece by piece, right in front of the agents. I said, ‘If I can’t have it, you can’t have it.’ And they said, ‘Pick it up,’ and I walked right by them. When I got on the plane, everybody clapped. ”

“She was defiant,” her daughter Gail said.

Ask Shirley Goldstein if she was afraid, and she tells you, “I was never afraid of them because I knew they wouldn’t touch me. They didn’t want an incident.” “They could harass you though,” Buddy said. To which Shirley adds, “Yeah, they wanted you to know they had the upper hand. But I really felt in command. I really did. Besides, it was ridiculous. All that fuss over nothing.”

Ask Buddy if Shirley’s someone not to trifle with, and he says, “Oh, boy…”

Still, it took some negotiating before she could board the plane with her American tour party. She said Roskens and company flashed enough money and threw around enough names to secure her release. “Roskens could talk his way out of almost anything,” she said. That’s the way things worked there. “All the way along, if you had the bribes, you could do anything. I’m convinced of that,” she added. “I took cartons of cigarettes with me. You could show a cab driver a pack and go any place. I learned lots of little tricks…”

To avoid hassles, she carried official credentials and letters of recommendation.

“Before leaving for the USSR each time, I’d go to my Congressmen and have them write letters of referral for the authorities that said I was seeing people I knew and that the U.S. government would appreciate it if I were not bothered. When KGB or customs agents wanted to see my papers, those letters always came out first.”

To the end, it was a war of wills between her and the apparatchiks. When Goldstein made her last visit to the Soviet Union in 1989 she went with her friend Ruth Potash and then Jewish Press editor Morris Maline. Potash recalled how customs agents confiscated Shirley’s wedgies, even unscrewing the bottoms “to make sure she wasn’t smuggling any tapes in the heels of her shoes. She was on their list. But she was fearless.”

Gail said she and her mother often got crank phone calls in the middle of the night. That didn’t stop Shirley from slipping out of hotels after midnight to meet people.

“It was very spy-like. It was like you knew you were being watched but you couldn’t see anybody. I’m amazed by how courageous she was,” Gail said.

“She’s a gutsy lady,” Buddy said of his wife.

In Odessa, another attempt to scare off Goldstein at first angered her and then only emboldened her, but not before she had a good laugh at her own expense.

“I was asleep in my hotel room when I woke up to find a strange man standing inside the door, looking at me. He didn’t say a word. He just wanted me to know somebody was there. Harassing me. I told him to get the hell out. He did. After that, every time I went out of the room I walked backwards and sprinkled baby powder on the floor so I’d know if anybody came in. And, you know what? I was the first person to walk in and mark my own tracks,” she said, laughing at the memory.

Her chutzpah could be inspiring, Laura Bialis, the director of a new documentary film about the movement, Let My People Go, said: “David Selikowitz tells a great story about that. In the ‘70s he was a young American living in Paris who’d come to Moscow to drop off some stuff for refuseniks. He and a friend got to the apartment building, but he was scared by all the KGB cars lining the street. He said, ‘I can’t do this.’ The friend said, ‘Well, we’ve come this far, let’s try it.’ So, they go inside and find the apartment, and there is Shirley Goldstein with Ally Milder…schlepping in all these contraband items.

“And David said to himself, ‘Oh my God, here’s this housewife-grandmother from Omaha, and if she’s not afraid, why should I be?’ She encouraged him to start a French arm of the movement, which he did, and he ended up sending all kinds of people into the Soviet Union. It’s a great image of Shirley,” Bialis said, “because she’s so unassuming and so modest, and yet she did such incredibly brave things.”

Goldstein’s most historic trip to the Soviet Union came in 1975. It was an Omaha World-Herald sponsored tour that, as usual, she used as cover for her activist work or, as she called it, “doing my own thing.” The tour’s hosts were Herald reporter Wally Provost and his wife Irene. Shirley informed Wally what she planned doing and he agreed to tag along with her to a meeting of refuseniks.

“Well, he came with me the first night in Moscow and after that he said, ‘Every time you go see somebody, I want to go.’” Provost found enough material to write a series of articles, one titled Shirley Goldstein Goes to Russia, about the movement and how tough life was for Soviet Jews. “Wally’s series brought the issue to the forefront. It made a lot of difference. I got lots of calls and letters from that. And he and Irene really became dedicated Soviet Jewry activists.”

Another journalist she brought to the movement is former Jewish Press editor Morris Maline, who traveled with her to the USSR. Under his watch, the Press closely covered the Soviet Jewry struggle and local efforts to address it. She even filed occasional reports for the Press from some of her travels.

Also in her own role as a reporter for the movement, she took still pictures of an incident outside a synagogue in which a gathering of Jews were rousted by police. “It opened your eyes as to how they took care of affairs they didn’t want shown to the general public,” she said. Her pics were published around the world.

 

 

Sharansky

On that same ‘75 trip she was interviewing refuseniks one morning outside a Moscow synagogue closely watched by the KGB when someone asked her, Have you met Sharansky?

“And I answered with the now famous words, ‘Sharansky, who’s he? Never heard of him.’ Well, Anatoly Sharansky was the voice, really, of all the refuseniks. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize his name. I wasn’t into it deep enough yet I guess. Slepak said, ‘We will be at your hotel at one o’clock. I’ll bring Sharansky.’ So, a group of them came. There must have been 15-16 people in the room. And there was Sharansky. He was a young guy. Very vocal in meeting with people. I said to him. ‘I want the names at the top of the list for being refused and what’s happening to these people.’ And he went in the bathroom with my tape recorder, closed the door and made a recording. That became the famous ‘bathroom tape.’ He named people, how long they’d been held back and many of the details that weren’t well known in the West.”

Naming names, she said, helped ensure refuseniks were afforded better treatment. “If your name became known, Soviet officials knew the West was watching out for you, and so you were likely to have you mail and phone calls go through.”

Sharansky’s words, widely circulated thanks to Goldstein secreting out the tape, were a kind state-of-the-union address and call to action for the movement’s followers. Despite painting a bleak picture of the fate of Soviet Jews who dared assert their rights, his message was somehow optimistic and appealed to the international community to apply pressure on the USSR to do the right thing. Goldstein’s proud to have helped made his voice heard.

“I was the first person to bring a tape by Sharansky out. When I returned home, I sent the tape to the Union of Councils headquarters. I didn’t even think to make a copy of it. Look how I trusted the U.S. mail. When it got out I’d carried the tape, I got phone calls from all over.”

By her third trip, she was an expert at bringing banned articles in and out. She knew which American items brought the most on the blackmarket. While she knew a pair of jeans could be sold for enough rubles or bartered for enough food to last a family weeks, she didn’t realize just how vital that exchange was for survival.

“A few years ago a gentleman called us from Canada saying he’s coming through Omaha. He wanted to see Shirley, whom he’d met in Russia,” Buddy said. “We met him and he said to Shirley, ‘I was at your hotel and you gave me two pair of jeans and those two pair of jeans helped me survive for three years.”

The chance to impact a person’s life this way is why she continued to help.

“Well, you never want to hear of people suffering. And then seeing them and seeing how it was…and finding out what to do to help them and then doing those things — it was satisfying. When you look back on it, it was a lot of fun.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Fruits of Her Labor

Her last visit to the USSR came in 1989. She planned going once more, but by then she’d become such “a nuisance” to the Soviets they revoked her visa. Undaunted, she tried going in with a group of Catholic nuns before being rebuffed.

But by then the process she’d been part of to influence Soviet human rights reforms had merged with sweeping changes inside the USSR. “It was public pressure,” she said. “The Soviets hated a bad image and they had one.” She said when the U.S. and its allies tied future trade deals with the Soviets to their making human rights concessions, the USSR capitulated. For a time. Then tensions mounted and the borders re-closed. Pressure was applied again as Western leaders decried the USSR’s hard line. In the era of Glasnost, the Soviets finally relented. In the face of government and media denouncements, much of it fed by the movement, the borders reopened and Jews streamed out to stake their freedom.

Shirley Goldstein helped make it possible. She’s considered a hero in the struggle.So say her fellow activists in the movement and so say refugees whose freedom they feel is, at least in part, due to her work.

Glenn Richter, founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jews, considers her “the cream of the cream. We all marveled at her energy, devotion, focus and creativity. God gave her an opportunity to make up for American Jewry’s relative silence during the Holocaust. Shirley proved one didn’t need to be a political big shot, Hollywood star or billionaire to move mountains. She kept and kept at it — the mountains moved, and the Kremlin walls fell.”

“I love Shirley. I’m proud of her and I’m proud I’m among one of her friends. She’s an absolutely exceptional person. She did very much, not only for our family, but for every family wanting to come here. Shirley met with refuseniks and activists like us, people who believed in the right to be free. That’s why we fought for this. And finally, with her help, we won,” said Lydia Linde, who emigrated in 1990 with her husband Eugene thanks to the Goldsteins sponsoring them.

“If you think of the things she was able to do, she definitely could be considered a hero, because she was risking her well-being doing these things and getting the attention of people around the world to what was going on in Russia. Her work definitely helped people in Russia who wanted to be free. It rose a tremendous amount of awareness of how to help, how to fight, how to push governments to change their views,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis, who came to the U.S. with her husband Igor and their two children in 1991.

The story of the movement’s success endures in the lives and in the accounts of people like Richter, Goldstein, Linde and Yuz-Mosenkis. With each passing year, however, the number of surviving activists and refuseniks declines. Thus, there’s an urgency to recording this story for posterity. That’s what drives the makers of Let My People Go, the new film that tells the story of the movement through the experience of Goldstein and others. It’s also what drives the organizers of an archive, Remember and Save, dedicated to preserving the history of the movement with materials from activists like Goldstein.

 

 

Exodus and Resettlement

Waging the campaign for the release of Soviet Jews was one thing. Helping sponsor refugees once they came here to start a new life was quite another. Yet Goldstein aided Miriam Simon in leading the Omaha resettlement effort.

From 1971 to 1980, the USSR let tens of thousands of Jews emigrate each year. When tensions with the West increased, the USSR made people pawns by closing emigration to Jews. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later that a mass exodus happened. During the migration of the ‘70s, when cities across the U.S. were accepting refugees, Goldstein said she and Simon decided, “If we’re going to get them out, we ought to get some here. Miriam was the organizer. I was the instigator. We were like the mothers of the thing.”

The two women secured the support of the Jewish Federation. Jewish Family Service pitched in. Private donations from individuals and businesses like Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borsheims helped. The first families came here in 1975.

“As many families as we said we could take, HIAS would send,” Simon said. “In the beginning, the families that came had no relatives here. They didn’t know a soul. They couldn’t find us on a map. Before they came, we got them furnished housing. We met each family at the airport with flowers, gifts and welcome signs. Once settled, we helped them get jobs and arranged for them to learn English. We did all the things you have to do to bring someone from a totally different culture and make them American. It was a very exciting time, and Shirley helped with all that. Then, as families made lives for themselves, they started bringing over relatives.”

“Anytime somebody came or anytime there was a problem, we had it. We did everything we could for them. We really worked hard. It was an exciting time. The Federation’s done a great job resettling them, too” Goldstein said. “We’ve had such good rapport with refugees. I’ve been to their weddings and funerals and birthdays and graduations…So many have been successful in their careers and in the community, and now their kids are winning scholarships. It’s been great.”

Simon said refuseniks hold Goldstein in high regard because she not only worked to free them but was always there for them after they arrived. She’s been called “an angel” to Omaha’s Soviet Jews. “Whatever happened to anybody here, Shirley came to help,” said Lydia Linde. “She was very good and friendly and helped us a lot,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis. Well known for doing special things, Shirley’s donated money for the Kripke Library’s Russian-language section that Linde heads and she ensured pianist Yuz-Mosenkis got a piano of her own after she and her family came.

“They needed help and she responded,” said Simon. “She was committed to doing what she believed was the right thing to do. She never got tired of doing it. She didn’t give up. She didn’t abandon it and go onto the next thing. And she’s that way with everything. If it’s important, well then it’s important. This became her life. At times some of her friends thought she got carried away, and she really didn’t give a darn what they thought.”

As more refugees began leaving the USSR, the resettlement effort needed more funding and the Operation Exodus drive led by Tom Fellman and Jay Lerner raised more than a million dollars.

 

 

Giving Nature

Friends note Shirley and Buddy have continued taking up what Simon calls “wonderful causes,” adding, “She and Buddy are always sponsoring something.”

In 1999 the couple endowed the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights series at UNO, which annually features presentations on emerging human rights issues. They provided seed money for the documentary Let My People Go. They’ve supported Israeli resettlement efforts. They support the Jewish Historical Society, the Kripke Library and countless other things.

Their contributions have been recognized. In the 1980s Shirley won the Jewish Federation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. In 1996 she received an honorary doctor of humane letters from UNO “for her timeless efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry and the cause of human rights worldwide, for her conviction and example that one person can make a difference in the lives of others, and for her ability to inspire compassion and humanity, both near and far.” She’s also been honored by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 2005 the couple received the My Brother’s Keeper Award from Chabad of Nebraska.

“If you know somebody who needs help, you call Shirley and she figures out ways to help,” said Ruth Potash. “I teach English as a second language to adult immigrants. I called her with a problem one of my students was having trying to get his wife here from Syria. I asked Shirley, ‘What can I do?’ She said, ‘We’ll go see Congressman Lee Terry (R-Neb.)’ She’s willing to help with anything. She has all these contacts. And she’s very direct…She tells you exactly what’s on her mind and what she wants done. And she accomplishes it. She’s not namby-pamby. I think Buddy deserves a lot of praise, too. He supports her. They’re definitely a team.”

Goldstein acknowledges she couldn’t do all she’s done without the support of her husband Buddy and children. “It wasn’t just me doing this alone. I had a good family that stayed behind me. They’ve always been there for me.”

Her work for the movement and for other causes has been all about the journey.

“I’ve made wonderful friends I still have today,” she said. “It’s been a great period of my life. Everybody’s got their thing. This is my thing. I’m not a card player. I’m not a golfer. I’ve had a great time.”

Like any giver, her life’s been enriched for her generosity.

“I’ve traveled places I never would have gone to. I’ve seen how Washington works. I’ve seen how Israeli politics work. I have friends in Europe and Israel and here in the States I never would have otherwise. I can go anywhere in the world and see friends. I’ve seen the families brought in. I’ve seen them resettled. I’ve seen their children grow and their accomplishments. It’s been a wonderful part of my life and I can’t imagine having done anything else. I’m pleased I was a part of the movement and that I did not sit by and not do anything about it. I hope it doesn’t happen again to the Jewish people.”

She reminds us anyone can make a difference. It starts with taking an interest and then acting on it.

“Anybody that does any reading can always find something good to work on.”

 

 


The Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha features talks by leading scholars, humanitarians and activists




 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: