The Knesset on Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the ”opening of the gates” in the former Soviet Union and the subsequent exodus of Soviet Jewry. The ceremony was held in Chagall State Hall in the presence of Knesset Speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, Minister of Immigration and Absorption Zeev Elkin and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky – all former refuseniks – as well as Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee. Among the guests were Prisoners of Zion and former refuseniks, who were accompanied by their families.
“I see great importance in commemorating the struggle to Let My People Go,” Edelstein said, paying tribute to the heroes of the Soviet Jewry movement. “The younger generation has no idea what happened behind the Iron Curtain, and that’s why it is important to have such an event. During these days, when we meet mainly at funerals of friends from that time, we must think together how to preserve that heroic and life-altering period.”
Edelstein thanked Matthew Bronfman for organizing the event. Bronfman`s father, Edgar Bronfman, assisted in the release of Prisoners of Zion and refuseniks, including Edelstein, from the former Soviet Union.
Minister Elkin noted that he made aliya 25 years ago from the former Soviet Union. ”We were able to reach a situation whereby some 4,000 Jews from the Soviet Union would land in Israel at the same time thanks to those people who led the struggle while endangering their lives, for the sake of aliya to the State of Israel. Those giants, some of whom were my teachers, paid a heavy price in their lives, and for this I am grateful to them. As a minister in the government I pledge to do all I can to memorialize and preserve this story for the generations to come.”
Sharansky, who served nine years in Soviet jails for leading the refusenik movement, said he was thrilled to see so many of his “comrades in arms” in the audience.
“The Jewish Agency works every day on seeking to interest Jewish youth around the world in their Jewish identity,” he said. “As the other speakers have said, it’s a pity that today’s generation doesn’t know the stories of the former prisoners of Zion and refuseniks.”
Sharansky added: ”When we were in the Soviet Union, our connection to Israel made us feel a part of the state, part of the chosen people. Even when we sat in jail we continued to deliver speeches in Hebrew and celebrate in Hebrew. We must find a way to get Jews in the Diaspora enthusiastic and unite them in the same we [we were united] during our time behind the Iron Curtain.”
Bronfman said it was an honor for him to open an exhibit at the Knesset of 50 historic photographs from the Soviet Jewish exodus .
He said it was “humbling” for him to speak in the Knesset after “these three heroes.”
“We all stand on your shoulders,” Bronfman said to the former prisoners of Zion and refuseniks. “We stand on the work you’ve done, the heroism you’ve displayed throughout your career. To be here with you, the Speaker of the Knesset, the head of the Jewish Agency and the minister of immigrant absorption is really a testament to all those who fought on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and that the Soviet Jewry movement has transformed not only the State of Israel but the Jewish people.”
Following the ceremony, a discussion on the ”Commemoration of the Heroic Struggle of the Elders of Zion” was be held with the participation of former Prisoner of Zion Yosef Mendelevitch, refuseniks Ephraim Kholmyansky and Sylva Zalmanson, and Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler.
Limmud FSU works to preserve and strengthen Jewish identity around the world.