From Odessa to New York City: The Unique Legacy of America’s Soviet Jewry
Between March 1971 and March 1972, an estimated 20,000 exit visas were granted to Jews in the Soviet Union. The resulting flood of Soviet Jews immigrating to both Israel and the U.S. would come after centuries of antisemitism, protests, and deliberate acts of violence. The Soviet Union only relinquished its hold on its Jewish citizens after the idea proved to be politically advantageous and necessary. The post-war emigration of Soviet Jews came in waves—the first occurring in the 1970s and ending in 1980, and the second continuing from 1987 to 1995; since then, emigration has steadily decreased.
On the Eve of World War II
Antisemitism was ingrained in the Russian Empire long before World War II and German invasion, and Jews had been historically kept separate from the populace of the Russian Empire nationally, religiously, culturally, and territorially. Russian antisemitism, like most strains of antisemitism, is deeply rooted in medieval ideals of Christian Orthodoxy. Jews were routinely blamed for economic and political problems and were often accused of enjoying special privileges while the Russian peasantry was left penniless and starving. Caricatures of Jews drawn with satanic symbols, with exaggerated stereotypical facial features, and captions relating to their supposed dishonest nature gave credence to such beliefs, many of which gained traction following the infamous 1903 publication, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Though the Soviet Union tried to assimilate Jews into Russian society by forbidding religious observance (of any kind, not just Judaism), suppressing the Hebrew language, and attempting to liquidate Yiddish cultural and educational institutions, the possibility for complete assimilation into Russian society was never an option.
The American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, held here in the Dorot Jewish Division, contains a series on Soviet Jewish emigres which helps to illuminate the often complex and varying experiences of Jewish life under Soviet rule. Boris Frumin, a well-known Soviet film director, discussed his experience at length in his 1979 oral history (view transcript here): “I should say that Jews in the Soviet Union feel that they are Jews, if only because when they short-change you in the stores…I could only expect an insult for an answer. I want to emphasize that every Jew who lives in the Soviet Union feels this." However, some Jews had even more complicated feelings about their identity. Some were proud of their Russian heritage, and even found themselves wanting to take part in Russian culture despite the antisemitism they had faced. "My father, he went through stages,” Elena Tsypkin, an art historian, recalled in her interview (view transcript here): “Sometimes he would cry ‘oh Russia, oh, beautiful Russia!’ Then he would be more Jewish.”
Efim Kilinski, a physician, however, did not feel conflicted in his renunciation of Russia (view transcript here), stating: “My parents, as I said, were communists but I always felt that I'm Jewish, you couldn't forget it in Russia because they would remind you, if you pardon the...you know they have it on the passports." Kilinski was referring to the infamous “fifth line” found in internal Soviet passports, which would denote the passport bearer’s nationality. For Jews, the line would read “Evrei”. This practice caused immense pain, prejudice, and abuse, and would only be discontinued in 1997.
Accessed via Yad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names. Image sourced from a card file of Jewish residents of the Soviet Union who were evacuated to Tashkent and from there to various places in Uzbekistan, 02/1942.
Though Joseph Stalin was responsible for the initial policy of fostering and even encouraging Yiddish cultural and educational activity—he also enthusiastically supported the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Birobidzhan—his shift towards antisemitism became consistent with Soviet policy during the war. Between 1923 and 1926, Stalin would recognize the usefulness of antisemitism as a political tactic (the efficacy of which had been recently demonstrated by the Nazi struggle against the Weimar “Judenrepublik”) and follow that line more systemically after Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924. Under his leadership, the Soviet Press would print, alongside their current names, the original Jewish surnames of leading Jewish Party members such as Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, underlining that these men of the Opposition were supposedly dissatisfied Jewish intellectuals. In the struggle for power between Stalin and Trotsky, the former also made reckless use of antisemitic prejudices among the Russian people and in the Communist Party itself.
During the purges of the late 1930s, which were unprecedented in scope, Stalin took revenge against all those he perceived as having committed deviations against him. Murders during the show trials resulted in an exceptional number of Jewish victims, compared to members of other minorities and Great Russian “traitors.” In addition to prominent Jewish members of the Communist party, numerous Jewish Communists active in Jewish cultural affairs, in Soviet Yiddish institutes, and in the Yiddish Press were arrested, purged, and killed.
Ghetto Fighters House Archive, Catalog No. 18126, 1946. Donor: Mark Esther
After the War: The Fight for Soviet Jewry
The New York Times, May 7th, 1973
Over the course of the war, over 2.5–2,600,000 Soviet Jews were murdered on pre-1939 Soviet territory, and an additional 1,500,000–1,600,000 were murdered on Soviet territory annexed after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Soviet Union strategically categorized only some of these deaths as antisemitic in nature, while absorbing the rest of the death count into the greater Victims of the Great Patriotic War narrative. By remaining carefully ambivalent regarding the fate of Soviet Jewry, Stalin ensured that post-war Soviet history could be rewritten in such a way that would benefit him regardless of the political climate. The resulting lack of communication and lack of acknowledgement of the Holocaust by the Soviet Union, combined with the vulnerability and defensiveness of former Soviet territories regarding their own suffering, came together to explain the imperfect silence which the Soviet legacy left behind.
In response, activists such as Elie Wiesel took to using the moniker “The Jews of Silence,” which would later become the title of his personal report on Soviet Jewry in 1965. Wiesel described the post-war Jews of the Soviet Union as being “total and absolute” in their isolation. They begged Wiesel for any signs of a Jewish life outside of the Soviet Union, like prayer books written in Hebrew, calendars with Jewish holidays, or a tallit. “They want something,” Wiesel wrote in the final paragraph of his report, “that reminds them that somewhere, Jewish history continues to be written.”
Reports of the Soviet Union’s treatment and oppression of its Jewry quickly caught the attention of Jews in the United States. The protest movement to “Save Soviet Jewry” reflected the anger and sorrow still felt from the Holocaust, and offered a means of relieving the sense of guilt that many still bore in its aftermath. As a result, American Jews showed up in vast numbers and picketed, letting their outrage fuel what would become—by 1971—a far-reaching network of Soviet Jewry protest organizations known as the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. The impact of these protests would initially be small. At first, the Soviet Union allowed Jews to leave in small bursts, before closing the borders once more to quell the “Brain Drain,” that is, the departure of academics and members of the intelligentsia. However, on December 6th, 1987, one day before a summit was scheduled to take place between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, 250,000 people marched on Washington to show solidarity with Soviet Jewry. In response, the Soviet Union would finally relent to extreme public pressure and begin to allow Jews to emigrate en masse.
The Jewish Federations of North America
Welcoming the New Emigres: The American Jewish Response
The new Americans soon flooded New York's historically Jewish neighborhoods, and American Jewish organizations lined up to greet them. Though both Soviet and American Jews had fought for this outcome, the initial culture shock resulted in feelings of deep disconnection. “When we came to America and saw so many synagogues, and saw how Jews walk on the streets and aren't ashamed that they are Jewish," Boris Frumin (view transcript here) recalled, "it was more than strange, it was a completely different world. In the Soviet Union, people are ashamed to talk in Yiddish. They don't speak it, they are afraid."
The openness with which American Jews participated in Jewish culture was jarring to many Soviet Jews, given their experiences in an oppressive and atheistic culture. For Soviet Jews, who had been prohibited from practicing within their own culture, to be Jewish was to feel Jewish, and Jewishness was something special innate to one's identity. For many, to take part in Jewish culture at all—for instance, singing outside of the Moscow Synagogue during the Jewish holidays—was an act of defiance and protest. Many American Jews, however, did not understand how one could be Jewish and not practice religiously. They were confused and even angered when Soviet Jews did not immediately take part in their local synagogues and ate non-kosher meals.
Marton Forkosh, an engineer, described this disconnect in his 1980 oral history (view transcript here), “It's a very big difference. I don't even know how to compare it. It's very unusual. We joke how you should leave Russia to become a Russian, because in Russia we are Jews and here [in America] we are Russian. To say Jewish, you mean the religion, and to say Russian, it's the nationality. I am Jewish, I belong to those people and to the culture."
Nevertheless, Soviet Jews soon settled into their lives in New York City; their new homes were concentrated predominantly in South Brooklyn. Brighton Beach (later nicknamed “Little Odessa”) became a prime spot for the new immigrants. Their arrival ruffled the feathers of some members of Brighton Beach’s established Jewish communities, for whom speaking Yiddish and reading Hebrew religious texts were a given. Indeed, the culture the new immigrants would pass on to their children was often neither religious nor recognizably Jewish, but Soviet. While painful for more traditionally observant communities, it made sense for the new immigrants to hold onto what was dear to them: Soviet theater, literature, poetry, art. These were the traditions they sought to uphold, because for them, these were intrinsically Jewish pursuits.
"Before the Second World War, there was Jewish culture and there was a center of this culture which was located in the Jewish theater…” Felix Jacobson, a chemist, explained in his interview (view transcript here). “Every cultured person and every clever person couldn't separate himself from Russian culture. We know this culture, we know this language, and the wealth of this language and we respect this history...some of Jews are feeling that they are a part of this history."
Novoe Russkoe Slovo, July 21, 1995
"A Community in Spite of Itself"
Fran Markowitz's 1993 ethnographic study of Soviet Jewish emigres in New York City, fittingly titled “A Community in Spite of Itself,” offers deep insights into the years after the big migration. Delicately and empathetically approaching the common misconception that Soviet Jews did not “take part” in Jewish culture, Markowitz examines the challenges the new immigrants faced in merging into the existing culture of American Jewry, and provides ample examples of a flourishing community, held together by the shared and lived experience of being Jewish under Soviet rule.
Alexander Tuzhilin (view transcript here) remembered in his interview, "The elder generation gathered there [at the synagogue] during the holiday to worship, but the young people came there in the evening to dance, to express themselves as Jews, to sing songs." When Sulamit Vickers, the interviewer, clarified, "So for the young people it was not a prayer house, it was rather a public place, a symbolic place probably, where they were able to exercise their Jewishness, their culture and traditions?," Tuzhilin answered in the affirmative.
Even among Soviet Jews, views on Russia and "being Jewish” differed. Boris Frumin (view transcript here) expressed his joy and gratitude for America: "I want to say that we are grateful to America, to Americans, to American Jews. Thanks to them, we were able to come here." He continued: "But on the other hand, I want to say that we left a lot of good people in Russia—Russians, Latvians, there are a lot of good people there.” American media viewed the Soviet Jewish experience as monolithic—they saw the Soviet Union as strictly antisemitic and oppressive. However, the lived experiences of Soviet Jewry were more complicated and multi-faceted. Many felt nostalgic for certain aspects of their lives they saw as separate from the oppression they had faced.
Just like earlier Jewish immigrants, Soviet Jews embraced a wide range of Jewish identities. Some gravitated towards religion, while others identified more strongly with Yiddish culture, but were secular. A small number chose to forfeit Jewish religion and culture entirely. Despite their divergent paths, however, the Soviet Jewish emigres created a community of their own, which continues to flourish to this day.
The Dorot Jewish Division’s oral history collection reflects the lives of Soviet Jews and their unique history in the United States. Oral histories give voice to their subjects and thus resonate with audiences in ways that cannot be achieved through other media. Perhaps even more so than traditional forms of record keeping, oral histories have the potential to reveal di goldene keyt or the “golden chain” of Jewish tradition, passing uninterrupted from one generation to the next.
Huberland, Morris, 1909- (Photographer), NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 5382315
Using the AJC Oral History Collection at the Dorot Jewish Division
The above oral history excerpts were taken from interviews conducted for the American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, which includes 2,250 interviewees, among them approximately 160 Soviet Jews. Read more oral histories of Soviet Jews online and onsite. Search the catalog using the keywords “oral” and "Soviet Jewish Emigres” to find more.
Email us at email@example.com to access an oral history that has not been digitized, or if you would like to listen to a recording.
Online Resources at the NYPL
- New York Times (1851-2017) w/ Index | Searchable full-text and page images from The New York Times archive with the option to search by subject headings (index covers 1851-1993). (On-site use only)
- Novoe Russkoe Slovo Digital Archive | Searchable full-text and page images of the Russian emigre newspapers Russkoe Slovo (1910-1920) and Novoe Russkoe Slovo (1920-2010) published in New York City. Please note that some years have not yet been digitized. (Library card required)
- NYPL Digital Collections | Use keywords "Soviet Jewish" or "Russian Jewish" for more relevant materials. For digitized oral histories, use keywords "Soviet Jewish Oral".
- Pravda Digital Archive | Searchable full-text and page images of the Russian newspaper Pravda, from its founding in 1912 to 2017. (Library card required)
For more online resources, please view our guide to Electronic Resources on Jewish Studies at the Dorot Jewish Division.
Further Research at NYPL
- Gilboa, Jehoshua A. The Black Years of Soviet Jewry, 1939-1953. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.
- Gitelman, Zvi. A Century of Ambivalence: The Jews of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1881 to the Present. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
- Low, Alfred D. Soviet Jewry and Soviet Policy. Boulder: East European Monographs, 1990.
- Markowitz, Fran. A Community in Spite of Itself: Soviet Jewish Emigres in New York. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
- Orleck, Annelise, and Elizabeth Cooke. The Soviet Jewish Americans. Westport (Conn.): Greenwood Press, 1999.
- Rothchild, Sylvia. A Special Legacy: An Oral History of Soviet Jewish Emigrés in the United States. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
- Rubenstein, Joshua, Yitzhak Arad, and Ilya Altman, eds. The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories. Translated by Christopher Morris and Joshua Rubenstein. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.
- Wiesel, Elie. The Jews of Silence. Translated by Neal Kozodoy. New York: Schocken Books, 1987.
For even more books and resources, use the Research Catalog with the keywords "Soviet Jewish".