MONTREAL — A reunion of the Group of 35, a women’s organization that relentlessly campaigned for Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, is being planned for next spring.
The reunion will take place at the Jewish Russian Community Centre (JRCC), which this year inaugurated the first premises of its own, in the former Anshei Ozeroff synagogue on Bourret Avenue.
The Group of 35 started in 1971 in London, England, and was so named because its founding members were about 35 women around age 35. They initially got together to demonstrate for the release of a “prisoner of Zion,” a 35-year-old Soviet Jewish woman, Raissa Palatnik, who was imprisoned without trial in the Soviet Union.
The movement was introduced to Canada, in Montreal, by the late Andrea Bronfman (then Cohen). She contacted other women dedicated to the defence of the human rights of Soviet Jews, including the freedom of religion, which was suppressed, as well as to helping them leave the Soviet Union, which forbade most emigration.
“These courageous women staged demonstrations, wrote letters of protest, delivered them to any Soviet Union delegations coming to the West, secretly supported the families imprisoned in Russia,” said Rabbi Israel Sirota, who founded the JRCC in 1973, soon after he arrived in Montreal from his native Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
The JRCC was the major centre for the integration of Soviet Jewish immigrants into the Jewish community.
Rabbi Sirota remains grateful to the courage of these women, who he believes had an influence in causing the Soviet Union’s to eventually open the gates of the Iron Curtain.
“Most importantly, they repeated the names of the prisoners of Zion whenever they could, to let the U.S.S.R.’s totalitarian regime know that, if anything happens to those innocent people, the whole world would know – that, certainly, was the biggest threat to the communists,” he said.
At the heart of the Group of 35, besides Bronfman, were Wendy Litwack-Eisen and Elaine Dubow-Harris, who no longer live in Montreal, and Barbara Stern, who now divides her time between Stowe, Vt., and Montreal. Stern’s home became the headquarters of the group’s weekly meeting.
A close collaborator of the Group, Irwin Cotler, then a McGill University law professor, acted as lawyer for Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, who was in prison for nine years. Today, he is chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Stern and Cotler, now the MP for Mount Royal, are co-chairs of the reunion.
The reunion will mark, a little belatedly, the 25th anniversary of the massive rally for Soviet Jewry in Washington, D.C., of which the Group of 35 was a major organizer. That event, which drew hundreds of thousands of people of different religions, is regarded by many as having been a turning point that led to political changes in the Soviet Union, and the mass exodus of Soviet Jews.
Over 1,000 families came to Montreal in that wave, Rabbi Sirota said. “Many of them didn’t know their history, culture, religion. It took many years, decades, to return their rich heritage to them and their children, to restore justice and to bring them back what was taken away by force of communist regime.”
The organizers are trying to locate everybody who was involved with the Group of 35. Contact the JRCC at 514-249-9716 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.