Chronicling an Act by Soviet Jewish 'Superheroes'

Gal Beckerman describes the failed attempt by a band of refuseniksto hijack an airplane in 1970s Leningrad, which he calls an 'epic struggle.'

The fearless refuseniks who attempted to hijack an airplane on June 15, 1970, in Leningrad in order to draw attention to the plight of Soviet Jews were "Zionist hooligans" to Soviet authorities, but to the writer Gal Beckerman they are nothing less than superheroes.

In the summer of 2006, Beckerman found himself at a barbecue on a moshav outside of Netanya with most of the dissidents involved in the plot, including Boris Penson, Mark Dymshits and Sylva Zalmanson. As the evening wore on, and the vodka began to flow, Beckerman gradually overcame his shock at being in the presence of people who risked their lives to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

Beckerman - Appelbaum - 12.4.12
Tomer Appelbaum

"I was the only non-hijacker at the barbecue, and there I was flipping hamburgers with these characters," Beckerman said in an interview with Haaretz. "It was a remarkable experience because I had been researching them and viewed them as superheroes. Suddenly I understood them as a group of friends who egged each other on to do something that was probably more brave than any of them would have done on their own."

Taking top prize

Although the hijacking plot was foiled by the KGB and all the participants were jailed - two received death sentences that were later commuted - the episode was a turning point in the international human rights campaign that Beckerman chronicles with cinematic flair in his first book. "When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry" was published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and was awarded this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Beckerman, a 35-year-old opinion editor for The Forward, was due to receive the prize last night at an awards ceremony at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The $100,000 prize, which honors work by emerging writers on Jewish themes, is one of the richest in the world. It is given to works of fiction and non-fiction in alternating years, which is why Beckerman's book was eligible this year. Abigail Green won the runner-up prize of $25,000 for her biography of Moses Montefiore.

"When They Come For Us We'll Be Gone" also previously won the prestigious 2010 Jewish Book of the Year Award from the Jewish Book Council.

'A definitive narrative'

The idea for the book, which has been called a "likely definitive narrative" of the Soviet Jewry Movement by The New Republic, began to take shape in 2003 while Beckerman was a student in Samuel Freedman's book-writing seminar at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Freedman called the Sami Rohr Prize a "career-making prize" and flew to Israel to attend the ceremony.

"It's hard enough for a really serious book on a serious subject by a first-time writer to get positive critical attention to begin with," Freedman said. "For it to receive the National Jewish Book Award, dayenu [it would have been enough], as we say in this season, and now for it to receive the Sami Rohr Prize, it must be beyond dayenu."

While conducting research for the book, Beckerman, who identifies as an American Jew with Israeli roots (his parents immigrated to Los Angeles before he was born ) moved in with his grandparents in the Givatayim house where his mother grew up and a few doors down from his father's childhood home; the two were high school sweethearts.

Beckerman spent up to six hours each day interviewing refuseniks in their living rooms, collecting stories and eating pickled mushrooms. (The term "refusenik" comes from the Soviet authorities' refusal to grant Jews exit visas. ) "These were people," he said, "who had been waiting for someone to knock on their door and say, 'I lived history. I was part of bringing down the Cold War.'"

Yuli Kosharovsky, one of the more than 100 refuseniks interviewed for the book, said he was pleased with the author's approach. "His language is the language of the public, his knowledge is the knowledge of the professor, and his approach is that of an eager researcher, which is a good combination," Kosharovsky said. Reached at his home in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Natan Sharansky, perhaps the most famous refusenik who spent nine years in a Siberian labor camp and now leads the Jewish Agency, said he too enjoyed the book.

Despite the widespread acclaim that the book has received in the English-language press, no publisher has stepped forward to release the book in Hebrew or Russian. Beckerman attributes this in part to misconceptions about the book's scope and potential appeal. "The book isn't about the immigration so much as what led up to the immigration, and I think that that should be a story that's relevant for all Israelis because the Russian community has changed, fundamentally, so many aspects of Israeli society," Beckerman said. "To really understand that, you have to understand the 30 years that preceded 1990," when mass Russian Jewish immigration to Israel began.