“My first visit to the Soviet Union changed my life,” said Elie Wiesel, Jewish-American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor in a historic dialogue to commemorate the 1987 March on Washington for Soviet Jewry. Speaking about his trip as a Haaretz reporter in 1965, a trip that later yielded the landmark book, “The Jews of Silence,” Wiesel said, “I didn’t know that when I came back, I would consider myself their messenger.”
On the stage on the second day of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, Wiesel dialogued about the plight of Russian Jewry and the Jewish world’s response with Chairman of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky.
Sharansky, who was a prisoner in the former Soviet Union, described the atmosphere in that country at that time. He said everyone suffered, but Jews suffered not only from persecution, but also because they were forced to relinquish their Jewish identity.
In the early years, the American Jewish community was indifferent to the plight of Russian Jews, but that changed in the late 1960s and 1970s. More young Jews became interested in the cause. Wiesel said this was because they felt guilty.
“There was a feeling that American Jews did not do enough during the period of darkness [of the Holocaust]. The young didn’t want to feel the guilt of their parents and grandparents,” Wiesel said. “Sons and daughters said, ‘We cannot be accused of not doing enough.’”
Said Sharansky: “People told themselves, ‘Our lives have meaning. Now we are part of the Jewish struggle.’”
Both recalled that with the young people came housewives, too, going on clandestine missions to help Jews in need.
Both reminisced about the March on Washington, a march that Sharansky attended just one year after his release from a Soviet prison. Some 200,000 Jews turned out to protest the visit of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to Washington and to demand the release of Soviet Jewry.
Sharansky said with a chuckle that many believed the march could not be a success. He said some worried there was not enough committed American leadership. They worried about rain, about transportation. But the people came.
“There was a sea of people,” said Sharansky. “It was so inspiring.”
The leaders bemoaned the fact that the young people today do not remember the plight of the Soviet Jews or the triumph of the March on Washington.
“People don’t know about it today,” said Sharansky, “and that is a tragedy.”
“When you say March on Washington, what comes to mind for most is the black community. But for me, it is our march. That march gave you the feeling that you are not alone — that we are an entire people,” said Wiesel.
Added Sharansky: “We [Jews] can have thousands of opinions and organizations, but when we feel like a family, we can change the world.”