From “Ordinary Housewife” to Global Human Rights Activist Helping Soviet Jews

Pam Cohen’s unlikely fight to support and free Soviet Jews.

Pamela Braun Cohen is probably one of the most important Jewish women you’ve never heard of.

For decades, Pam fought a quiet battle for Soviet Jews, mobilizing politicians and journalists across the world from a tiny office in a suburb north of Chicago. Dismissed time and again as a nobody, “just a housewife,” Pam helped thousands of Soviet Jews in their struggles to live Jewish lives and for the right to emigrate to Israel and the United States.

Refusing to take no for an answer, Pam methodically built up a network of activists that spanned the globe and brought hope to thousands. Her new book Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union (Gefen Publishing House: 2021) tells her remarkable story. In an exclusive interview, Pam described her remarkable journey from “ordinary housewife” to global human rights activist.

My parents instilled in me the value that you are responsible for your people.

Growing up in a quiet Chicago suburb, Pam’s family wasn’t particularly observant but her parents always stressed the importance of Jewish community. “They instilled in me the value that you are responsible for your people. You have a duty to help others who are in danger.”

After marrying her husband Lenny, living in the upscale suburb of Deerfield raising their three young children, political activism was the last thing on Pam’s mind. That all changed one evening in June, 1970 when Pam and Lenny watched the evening news and heard the remarkable story about a group of Soviet Jews who’d been arrested for trying to hijack a plane to bring them to the West. “We couldn’t wrap our heads around it,” Pam says. “Jewish hijackers?”

Soviet Repression

Jews faced persistent, widespread discrimination across the Soviet Union. Jews were denied entry to prestigious universities. They were identified by their religion on their Soviet ID cards and faced persecution. If any Jew wished to learn more about his or her heritage and practice their religion, the reprisals were swift. Teaching Hebrew was forbidden. Owning Jewish books was cause for arrest. The few synagogues that were allowed to exist were hotbeds of KGB espionage. The entire apparatus of the vast Soviet state was mobilized to crush any stirrings of Jewish identity and pride.

The entire apparatus of the vast Soviet state was mobilized to crush any stirrings of Jewish identity and pride.

Yet they couldn’t succeed entirely. Thousands of Soviet Jews resisted in ways large and small, determined to live Jewish lives.

In her book, Pam describes the electrifying effect that the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors had on Jews in the Soviet Union. “The Soviet propagandists, on state-controlled television, repeatedly broadcast the onslaught of the Arab armies, thus signaling the imminent defeat of the fledgling Jewish state. On their television screens, Soviet Jews watched their brethren, proud uniformed Israeli soldiers, ready to die for a Jewish state – a national homeland where Jews weren’t pariahs, where they could live with pride. Like a lightning bolt piercing the propaganda smokescreen, the cognitive recognition of a Jewish home gave Soviet Jews a new sense of peoplehood, dignity, and national purpose.”

With Prime Minister Menachem Begin, UCSJ meeting, Jerusalem, 1981

Soviet Jews began reading anything they could find to learn more about Israel and their Jewish religion. Leon Uris’s 1958 novel Exodus was smuggled into the Soviet Union, where it was translated into Russian and laboriously copied by hand and distributed far and wide.

In 1970, a group of 16 young Jews hatched a daring plan. They bought tickets for all the seats on a 12-seat plane. They planned to hijack the plane, pick up the remaining members of their group, then fly the plane to Sweden and ultimately on to Israel. As they feared, the KGB was on to their plan and intercepted them as they arrived at the airport on the morning of June 15, 1970. The group was put on trial and handed harsh sentences. Two of the young Jews were sentenced to death (these sentences were later changed to harsh prison terms); the rest were sentenced to years of imprisonment in harsh gulags in Siberia.

Reading their names and hearing about the determination of this group of brave young Jews was a turning point for Pam. “In a flash of recognition, I knew that Yosef Mendelevich, Hillel Butman, Sylva Zalmanson, her husband Edward Kuznetsov, and the rest of this group were Jewish moral giants who had pitted themselves against the Kremlin. But I wanted to know more. Who were they? How had they come to make a decision that would result in years of imprisonment and hard labor in Siberia?”

Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry

In the ensuing weeks, Pam searched for news about the Jewish hijackers, and about Soviet Jews in general – and found very little information. Few people she knew in her heavily Jewish suburb knew about the terrible conditions of Soviet Jews, and few seemed to care. Many of the American Jews Pam knew seemed apathetic and indifferent to the grave danger some Jews faced around the world.

With Natan Sharansky at the UCSJ Annual Meeting, Washington, DC, 1986

But not all American Jews were indifferent. A local woman phoned Pam and identified herself as a volunteer with a small organization called Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry, which lobbied politicians to raise awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews. She’d heard that Pam had an interest in Soviet Jews: would she consider helping sell commemorative cards to raise money for the organization?

It was the invitation Pam had been waiting for. She joined the tiny group and spent her evenings learning about the intricacies of Soviet and American politics and lobbying American officials. Pam helped organize local Jews in Chicago to write letters to American politicians and to refuseniks (Jews who’d applied to emigrate to Israel and been refused permission) in the Soviet Union.

The Chicago group was part of a larger umbrella organization, the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, which coordinated the activities of a patchwork of activists across the United States, as well as in France, Britain and other countries. “I was shocked to discover that the task of saving millions of Soviet Jews was limited to a group of about thirty activists, grassroots volunteers who operated their local independent council in the United States, London or Paris. But these unsalaried activists projected an image of strength that vastly magnified the reality of their numbers.”

Pam would eventually serve as a leader of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry and then of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. Throughout her years of activism, Pam remained intensely humble and focused on her many allies in the fight to help Soviet Jews. She never wanted to be seen as sweeping in from outside, telling Soviet Jews what to do or taking the credit for battles they were fighting from the inside. Indeed, much of Hidden Heroes is dedicated to documenting the names and lives of little-known refuseniks who spent years resisting the crushing might of the Soviet Union in any way they could.

Thousands of Unsung “Hidden Heroes”

Pam began documenting the case histories of every refusenik she could. In most cases, refuseniks were fired from their jobs. Unable to support themselves, they faced arrest for the crime of “parasitism”. Countless more Jews found themselves unable to even file applications to emigrate – these Jews were sometimes called waitniks. Each refusenik had a file in Pam’s office, with their individual circumstances and needs written down and shared with activists who would write letters to them, lobby politicians on their behalf, or even smuggle desperately needed goods to refuseniks inside the Soviet Union.

White House meeting with President Reagan, 1987. Pamela is fourth from the left, next to Secretary Shultz. Vladimir Slepak is seated first on the right.

One of the heroes Pam highlights in her book is a brilliant scientist from Moscow named Dr. Popov. “Systematically, he began monitoring cities outside of Moscow, especially Kiev. He collected data about emigration obstacles and refuseniks – their cases, issues, KGB house searches, demonstrations, arrests. Our weekly calls provided documentation and anecdotal evidence that needed to reach the West, including names of Kiev refuseniks who had put themselves on the front lines by signing appeals for help to America.”

Other Soviet Jewish activists made their way into Pam’s records. There were the secret Hebrew teachers who risked arrest and exile by teaching their fellow Jews. Some Jews published and distributed secret Jewish newsletters and books. Many Soviet Jews insisted on embracing their Jewish traditions and lifestyles. Each one was an act of defiance.

Prisoners of conscience, known as Zeks in Russian, were Jews who went to prison for their beliefs and insistence on living an authentically Jewish life. Other Jews were wrongfully declared insane and sent to punitive psychiatric hospitals where they were subject to horrific tortures, all in the name of “treatment” for their “insanity” of wishing to live a Jewish life.

Like a Miracle

Pam and her fellow activists worked feverishly to supply Soviet Jews with the necessities they desperately required. Sometimes huge coincidences helped Pam and her allies to send aid, giving her the distinct impression that their path was being eased somehow in uncanny ways. One of the Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry’s most potent tools was local tourists who agreed to visit the Soviet Union on vacation and to meet with refuseniks while they were there. Pam and her colleagues spent many long hours briefing American tourists about the political situation in the USSR, the individual stories of the people they’d be meeting, and preparing them for the possibility of KGB arrest or interference.

Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry’s demonstration in Helsinki, 1988; left to right: Jacob Ner-David (in cage), Pamela, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Glenn Richter

When Pam once got a desperate phone call explaining that a refusenik needed emergency heart surgery and required an artificial heart valve, Pam soon heard about an American doctor who was planning to visit the Soviet Union who could bring this life-saving item with him. When a prominent refusenik was arrested and in desperate need for a lawyer, Pam received word that a famous American attorney was on his way to Russia and he agreed to help.

When word got to Pam that the famed refusenik Ida Nudel was being kept in horrific conditions in a Siberian gulag and was freezing, Pam records that “In the next tourist’s suitcase was my sheepskin coat. The coat traveled from Chicago to Moscow to Siberia. I never knew how she knew it came from me, but after she was released, I received a letter from her, thanking me, and I framed it.”

Bear fat? Who even heard of that? But within an hour we figured it out. A tourist from Alaska was about to visit the refusenik’s city.

“The bear fat – that was the most remarkable coincidence,” Pam recounts with a chuckle. When a well-known Jewish refusenik sent word to Pam that needed bear fat for a folk remedy that a Chinese doctor required to treat him, Pam assumed this outlandish request would be impossible to honor. But Pam didn’t dismiss his request; logistics simply made it impossible to obtain bear fat. “Who even heard of that in Chicago?” she recalls. “But within an hour we figured it out.”

A tourist was about to depart from Alaska where bear fat was available, for a visit to the refusenik’s very city. He agreed to deliver the ingredient.

Discovering Judaism

Throughout her book, Pam describes a jarring disconnect. She spent much of her days immersed in the struggles of Jews who were willing to risk their lives and freedom to have the chance to celebrate Jewish holidays or learn Hebrew or move to the Jewish state, yet Pam found herself living in assimilated Jewish suburbia.

Pam recounts a letter she read from a refusenik in Riga named Alexander Mariasin. In it, he told a heart-wrenching story about a group of Jews who insisted on celebrating the holiday of Simchat Torah even while they were trapped in a cattle car on their way to a Nazi death camp. “’It’s a wonderful story,’ Mariasin wrote in his letter, ‘about a wonderful people. And so we celebrated Simchat Torah and were merry, too’, defying the Soviet authorities.

Meeting President Bush

“Simchat Torah?” Pam wondered when she read those words. “How many of us in Deerfield took Simchat Torah seriously, or even knew what it was? The letter triggered in me a longing for something I never had, an inheritance that had disappeared somewhere on the boat between Lithuania or Poland and new lives here. The growth of the refuseniks was inspiring my own.”

In one memorable passage in Hidden Heroes, Pam recalls the advice of famed refusenik Yosef Mendelevich, one of the hijackers in 1970 whose actions had first inspired Pam. He managed to communicate with her from his cell in Siberia, and confided in Pam that he was learning Hebrew in prison. Each day he wrote a word on a slip of paper and hid it in his belt. He suggested that Pam do the same. How could Pam ignore her own Jewish learning, she wondered, when she was faced with examples of men and women who worked so hard just for the privilege of learning a single Hebrew word?

When dissident Hebrew teacher Ari (Leonid) Volvosky wrote to Pam to ask if she’d send him an English-language copy of the classic Jewish work Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov, she complied, and bought a copy for herself as well. After that, Pam recalls, “every book that refuseniks asked for in English, I got a copy for myself.”

UCSJ rally, Capitol Building, Washington, DC, 1987

Ari Volvovsky was sent to internal exile in Gorky. When Pam’s son Scott celebrated his bar mitzvah, Volvovksy sent him a stirring letter that Pam includes in her book. “Today the…right to choose is before you,” Volvovsky wrote. “One way is the way of Torah and commandments… The other is the way of growing apart from…Judaism. It is all in your hand and God will give you the strength and courage to choose the right way… On this important day, we should not forget our brothers and sisters who sacrificed their lives for the existence of our nation and for the establishment of our State, Israel… We should not forget our people in the Diaspora who cannot live in freedom, and it is our holy responsibility to help them with all our power.”

This message hit home. Eventually Pam and Lenny set up a center for Jewish studies in their suburb as their commitment to Jewish learning and practice deepened.

Pam revealed to that she and Lenny have taken the next step in their Jewish journey: they just made Aliyah, becoming citizens of Israel. They now reside half the year in Chicago and half in Jerusalem.

Standing Up for What’s Right

One of the most frustrating themes in HIdden Heroes is the huge disconnect between Pam and her fellow activists and the relative indifference of many Jewish leaders inside mainstream Jewish institutions.

One of Pam’s role models was Peter Bergson, a Zionist leader in the 1940s who advocated for building a Jewish army to help rescue Jews in Nazi lands. Opposed by the Jewish establishment, Bergson nevertheless educated American Jews about the horrors taking place in Jewish communities behind Nazi lines.

Pam observed the same reluctance on the part of mainstream Jewish organizations to act on behalf of Soviet Jews. “When I became the national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, I felt like I wanted to put Bergson’s mold on the organization. We weren’t building an organization, we were building a strike force,” she notes.

“We felt like there was a fire burning and we had to put it out. There was always way more to do than we could possibly do, and we just had to do all we could.”

Pam hopes that her book inspires a new generation of Jews to embrace their own Jewish heritage. “You cannot know where you’re going unless you know where you’re from,” she notes. “You’re here for a reason and each of us has an obligation to work hard to make the world a much better place.”

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