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A holiday miracle 50 years ago reminds us that we can all play a role in changing history

A watershed moment in the movement to free Soviet Jewry occurred when a dozen undaunted activists risked their lives to challenge the Soviet Union.
Members of the Denver Committee of Concern for Soviet Jewry bear the names of those sentenced in the Leningrad trial on Dec. 24, 1971.
Members of the Denver Committee of Concern for Soviet Jewry bear the names of those sentenced in the Leningrad trial on Dec. 24, 1971.Denver Post via Getty Images

A half century ago, Dec. 30 coincided with the eighth day of Hanukkah, a festival celebrating freedom and miracles. It was a fitting confluence, because on that day in 1970, the ancient Jewish quest for liberation was renewed, culminating in its own miracle.

These heroes were not left to die. Instead, something extraordinary — something miraculous — occurred.

Miracles don’t have to be supernatural events; they can also refer to an outcome that strains the imagination. So, it was in the struggle for the freedom of Soviet Jews, 3 million of whom were trapped behind the Iron Curtain for most of the 20th century.

That struggle’s most searing moment occurred when a small group of undaunted activists — almost all Jews — risked their lives to challenge the then-Soviet Union only to be severely punished in the notorious Leningrad trial. It was a response to five decades and counting of the Communist Party’s brutal anti-Semitism, which prevented Jews from practicing their faith even as they were blocked from emigrating.

The events leading to the Leningrad trial began in June 1970, when a small group of Soviet citizens desperate to be free, decided to do something dramatic to wake up the world to their plight. Their plan was to hijack a small Soviet plane and reroute it to Sweden, where, they hoped, they would be able to make their way on to Israel.

This was not an armed hijacking; they had no guns. They also purchased all the seats onboard so there were no other passengers to endanger. One of their own, Mark Dymshits, a former Soviet Army pilot, was prepared to fly them out.

On the planned day, the group moved toward the plane as it sat in a small Leningrad airfield. They noticed that they were being watched; it turned out the KGB had found out about the plot. Still, they went forward, prepared to submit themselves to arrest but hopeful that no matter what happened, their actions would sound a clarion call to Jews and all people of conscience to raise their voices in protest. Predictably, the Soviet Secret Police pounced, brutally beating and arresting all of them.

On the second night of Hanukkah that December, the sentences were announced. Dymshits and Eduard Kuznetsov, the mastermind of the plot, were given the death penalty; Sylva Zalmanson, the only woman involved, received 10 years; Yosef Mendelevich, the youngest in the group, got 15.

But these heroes were not left to die. Instead, something extraordinary — something miraculous — occurred.

Before this incident took place, we of the U.S.-based Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry had already spent six years publicly advocating for Soviet Jews’ freedom. Under this umbrella, countless demonstrations had already been held. Up to then, we had shined a flashlight on the problem. Now we had a floodlight.

The Leningrad trial precipitated an avalanche. Spontaneously, tens of thousands of Americans poured into the streets, Jews and gentiles, in the spirit of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., demanding that the death sentences be commuted and the other sentences reduced.

We then organized more nonviolent protests, massing day and night against the barricades at the Soviet Union’s U.N. mission in New York, holding high large photos of the defendants. Our peers did the same across the U.S., in Europe, Israel and throughout the world.

The circle quickly widened, as Nobel laureates, Genoa longshoremen and leaders of Western European communist parties joined our cause. Perhaps the desperation of Soviet Jews, 35 years after the Holocaust, touched their souls.

Demonstration against the Leningrad trial verdict in Paris, on Dec. 31, 1970.Gamma-Keystone / via Getty Images file

Responding to the outpouring of protests, the U.S. government made clear its concern to the Kremlin. Members of Congress sent an appeal to the Soviet ambassador to the United States. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir dispatched a secret emissary to Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco urging him to commute the sentences of Basque separatists to pressure the Kremlin to do the same for the Jews it had doomed.

On the last day of Hanukkah, a modern day miracle was realized: The Kremlin announced the death sentences would be commuted and some of the other sentences would be reduced.

We believe that this was the first time that a Soviet court bowed to world pressure. And instead of cowing Soviet Jews into silence, the trial ignited a wave of emigration requests, even though doing so was dangerous and could lead to government retaliation. It also has been suggested that this event inspired other dissidents in the USSR and countries in its orbit to rise up, ultimately leading to the fall of Soviet communism.

When freed, the defendants of the Leningrad trial told us that even in the midst of their travails, their morale was kept up in the gulag by news seeping in of people protesting on their behalf in the West, and of Jews in the Soviet Union demanding and ultimately receiving exit visas.

The defendants of the Leningrad trial told us that even in the midst of their travails, their morale was kept up in the gulag by news seeping in of people protesting on their behalf.

The group’s plane never made it out that day. But on its metaphorical wings, over the next decades, some 2 million Jews emigrated, and in December of 1991, the Soviet Union fell.

Who could have imagined in 1970 that this group of 12 desperate people could change the fate of Soviet Jewry, and through them change the world?

On that Hanukkah, as in the days of the original holiday when the ancient Jews threw off the yoke of the Greek Empire’s oppression and holy oil miraculously lasted long enough to rededicate the temple in Jerusalem, the few overcame the many, the powerless became victorious, light pushed away darkness.

So it was then, so it be now, wherever tyranny threatens.