Gloria Kolker Hack, an activist for Soviet Jewry, dies at 96

Gloria Kolker Hack with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin
Gloria Kolker Hack with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (Courtesy of Nancie Grossman)

When asked what motivated her late mother, Gloria Kolker Hack, to risk her life and freedom helping Soviet Jews leave the USSR, Nancie Grossman reflected on her family’s involvement in another historical feat. Her family also worked to outfit the SS President Warfield, later known as the Exodus 1947, which would attempt to carry thousands of Jewish refugees to British-controlled Palestine.

“You could say my whole family’s life was devoted to Jewish causes,” said Grossman, a resident of Mission Viejo, Calif.

Hack, who went on missions to the Soviet Union to help Jewish people, died Aug. 31 at 96 from congenital heart failure.

Born on July 31, 1925 to Benjamin and Miriam Alter Kolker, Hack was both the only girl and the valedictorian of her Hebrew school class at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Grossman said. While still a child, she would travel by boat to visit her cousins in Virginia on, as fate would have it, the Warfield, back when it was a simple commercial vessel and prior to its more famous role in history. Hack later received a bachelor’s degree in art history from Goucher College and did graduate work in psychology at Johns Hopkins University.

Alongside her older brother Fabian Homer Kolker, Hack took up the cause of the Soviet Jewry movement herself, Grossman said. This international movement fought for the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate. (Those that were denied the right to emigrate by the Soviet Union were called “refuseniks.”) Hack and her brother went on missions to visit refuseniks and help get them out. This included figures such as Natan Sharansky, one of the most famous refuseniks who would later be elected to the Israeli Knesset, as well as dancers Valery and Galina Panov. The siblings also brought Judaica, such as siddurs or tallitot, into the Soviet Union, where Jewish people had little access to Jewish materials.

To avoid arousing the suspicions of operatives working for the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police and intelligence agency, Hack and her brother developed a type of coded language. They also used other tactics to evade Soviet authorities, Grossman said.

“My uncle would go to one security line, and she would go to another one,” Grossman said. “So if either one of them got caught the other could still help the other one, somehow.

“It’s just amazing what they were able to accomplish — under the eye of the KGB, I might add,” Grossman said.

Hack’s actions for Soviet Jewry brought her to the attention of more than one Israeli prime minister. She personally met both Golda Meir and Menachem Begin.

Hack’s nephew, Dr. Richard Kolker, described both her and his father Fabian Kolker’s actions in the Soviet Union as heroic. He recalled how the family would hope and pray they would be allowed to leave during each trip.

“She was lovely in appearance and lovely in her soul,” Richard Kolker said.

Outside of her work for the Soviet Jewry movement, Hack spent 15 years as a GED adult education teacher for Baltimore City Public Schools and served as president of a local branch of Hadassah.

Hack married Morton Hack in 1945, and they remained married until his death in 1991, Grossman said. Afterward, she had a relationship with James Ross, whom Grossman described as “her second love,” until his death in 2004.

Grossman remembers her mother as vivacious, caring, always interested in what others thought and capable of unconditional love. Her reputation as a doer of good deeds earned her the name of “mitzvah queen.”

In addition to Grossman, Hack is survived by children Steve (Sandra) Hack and Joanne Hack; granddaughters Lili Miriam Blanche Grossman and Sarah Rachel Hack Luria (Dr. Justin Luria); great-grandson Levi Luria; and by many nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.

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