Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union

By Pamela Braun Cohen
Jerusalem, 2021
384 pages

My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, decried the ineptness of American Jewry in its failure to save European Jews during World War II. In his lecture at the RCA Annual Convention on June 20, 1977, the Rav declared:

A layman once suggested to me that we should include another Al Het in our Yom Kippur confessional: “for the sins we have committed in being unresponsive to the cries of our brethren in Europe who were being brutally slaughtered.” He was quite right! I am not blaming anybody. I am blaming myself. Why didn’t I act like Mordecai when he heard the news about the evil decree issued by Haman and Ahasuerus? Why didn’t I “go out into the center of the city and shout bitterly and loudly” [Esther 4:1]? Why didn’t I shout, yell, and cry? Why didn’t I tear my clothes like Mordecai? Why didn’t I awaken the Jewish leaders? I am not blaming anybody. This was the punishment for our being idol worshipers. Our faith in Roosevelt bordered on idolatry (The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, vol. 2 [New Jersey, 1999], 156-57).

Perhaps world Jewry internalized this message. When the plight of Russian Jewry became widely known, Am Yisrael rose to the challenge. The saga of the physical and spiritual revival of Soviet Jewry is an extraordinary achievement, second only to the establishment of the State of Israel. The worldwide Jewish people succeeded in returning their brethren and kin to Jewish peoplehood. This achievement was so overpowering that the Rav had difficulty accepting the new reality. He had suffered under the Communists, and he retained apprehension and trepidation toward their evil lifestyle throughout his life. In a lecture about Chanukah that he delivered in Boston on December 18, 1971, the Rav expounded on the concept of amcha Yisrael (“Your people Israel”; see translation in the Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur, p. 142):

In the prayer for Hanukah we recite: “When a wicked Hellenic government rose up against amkha-Yisrael. . . .” What does the expression amkha-Yisrael mean? It could have said that the Hellenic government rose up against “Israel” or against “Thy people.” Why does the prayer stress “Thy people Israel”? What does this specific term express?

Amkha means we belong to Thee. Amkha is a possessive noun. We belong to Thee even while we go astray and deviate from the righteous path. We are still committed to Thee even when we are guilty of certain offenses and certain sins. What comes to expression in Amkha is the old idea that “even though the people have sinned they are still called Israel” (Sanhedrin 44a). A Jew, even when he sins, remains a Jew. What does this mean? What did our Sages wish to express in this statement?

It means there is an eternal commitment in the Jew to the Almighty. Sometimes it is a conscious commitment. Sometimes it is an unconscious commitment. However, there is a commitment which can never be annulled or severed. That commitment is like a heavy load pressing on the frail shoulders of every Jew. He may fight this commitment. He may hate it. But there is this commitment on the part of every Jew. The Jew basically cannot cast off this feeling. Habad calls this ha’ahavah ha’tiv’it, the natural love of G-d that every Jew possesses. Whether he has been trained or not, there is a natural instinctual drive and urge in the Jew to find G-d. Many Jews walk straight to that ultimate goal and move in the right direction. Some Jews are searching for G-d, but in their search move in the opposite direction. Of course, they are lost sheep. This is man’s natural spontaneous urge and drive for G-d, but it comes to expression with more vigor in the Jew. That is the meaning of amkha. We belong to Thee, and there is no way we can free ourselves from Thee. That is the meaning of “[they] rose up against Thy people Israel—amkha-Yisrael

As a matter of fact, I will tell you frankly that some people think this is a beautiful idea but not valid in practical terms. Many a time I thought so myself. I began to doubt this philosophy that willy-nilly the Jew belongs to G-d. When I came to America, there was a tremendous assimilationist movement. It was assimilation in its most ugly and vulgar form. The first immigrants who came to America gave up everything. Then it seemed that Russian Jewry was completely lost. There was no general commitment on the part of the Jew. The observant Jew was a small and limited minority. There was no institution of Torah education in the United States. There were a couple of day schools, and even those were conducted in a desultory fashion. You could not be too optimistic about the philosophy of amkha-Yisrael.

Now . . . things have happened which corroborate this philosophy. One thing is the awakening among the Jews of Russia. I really do not know if this is true. I am still skeptical. People who come from Russia tell me that it is true. I am still doubtful. Do you know why? It borders on the miraculous, because the revolution in Russia took place in 1917. That means that two generations have been raised in Russian schools that were atheistic from A to Z. Materialistic in outlook on the world and man, their teachings were particularly resentful of Judaism. I do not know why. Perhaps it is because Communism is a philosophy of atheism. Atheism is not something marginal or incidental. It is basic to the outlook of Communism. The Jew gave the world the concept of monotheism. A community founded upon atheism must hate a community which has brought the world the gospel of faith in G-d. Whatever it is, these Jews were raised as members of the Communist Russian society. If an awakening is taking place in Russia, the philosophy of amkha-Yisrael is 100 percent correct. Again, I emphasize that I have doubts whether it is true. Perhaps it is limited to a small segment of Russian Jewry. However, if it is a movement, it validates the concept of amkha-Yisrael. After so many years of Russian education and training, young men are ready to cast off and shed the whole philosophy of Communism. They identify as Jews and are ready to go to Eretz Yisrael. Apparently, there is something to the Jew which is indicative of amkha-Yisrael. We belong to G-d, and no one can take us away from Him. This is very strange. Acknowledgment of being a Jew, be it secular or religious, is ipso facto an acknowledgment of belonging to G-d (The Rav, vol. 2, 99-101).

Pamela Braun Cohen’s memoir attests to the authenticity of the Rav’s observations. Her book about her Russian activities and ventures captivated and enchanted my wife and myself. Reading it, we relived many of our experiences and emotions in our own endeavors in helping and guiding Soviet Jews through Nativ HaDemama (“The Silent Path”), the clandestine Israeli governmental organization that worked to strengthen Jewish identity and encourage aliyah among Soviet Jews. [The State of Israel invested millions of dollars in this operation.]

The book, entitled Hidden Heroes: One Woman’s Story of Resistance and Rescue in the Soviet Union, centers around Pam Cohen, a young housewife and mother. Cohen’s family lives in a Chicago suburb, belongs to a Temple and is gradually assimilating into Western culture and lifestyle. In all probability, her family would become another spiritually lost American Jewish family. This all changed one evening in 1970, when a broadcast reported that a group of Soviet Jews had been arrested for attempting to hijack a plane from Leningrad to the West. That evening Cohen began a journey, supported by her husband Lenny, that would culminate decades later in a total return to our eternal Torah in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Haunted by the legacy of the Holocaust, when Western Jewry failed to save their European brethren, Cohen became a super activist in the Soviet Jewry movement. She served as co-chair of the Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry from 1978 until 1986, and subsequently, she became the national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry (UCSJ). Her leadership role took her to the halls of Congress and the White House. She made frequent trips to the Soviet Union and other European countries as she relentlessly crusaded on behalf of the ever-increasing refusenik community.

From Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and the distant republics of Central Asia, the Jews behind the Iron Curtain come to life in this volume. We experience them discovering their identity, protesting on the streets, defending themselves in Soviet courtrooms, defying jailers in their prison cells, and struggling to survive in Siberian labor camps. This well-documented memoir that spans three decades chronicles the story of the resistance and moral courage of men and women inside the Soviet Union and of those in the West who endlessly crusaded on their behalf.

A central theme throughout the volume is the chasm that existed between the “Jewish establishment organizations,” both Israeli and American, that sought to assist Soviet Jewry and the independent grassroots organizations motivated by the same goal. In 1952, Israeli intelligence had already established an agency, mentioned above, that became known as Nativ HaDemama, which was devoted exclusively to supporting Jews behind the Iron Curtain. Subsequently, other organizations, all part of the American Jewish establishment, appeared on the scene. Cohen, however, became active in UCSJ, a grassroots movement that cooperated with the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) organization, both groups that did not necessarily adhere to the establishment’s approach in assisting Soviet Jewry. [At the time, the American Jewish establishment organizations took direction from the Israeli government on how to deal with Soviet Jewry.]  Conflicts and controversies arose over issues such as confrontation versus quiet diplomacy, backing of the Russian dissident movement that focused on the fight for democracy and human rights, and support for the notion that Jews leaving the Soviet Union on Israeli visas had the right to “drop out” and resettle in America.

As one who traveled to the Soviet Union for the Mossad numerous times in the 1980s, I understood that the Israeli government’s approach in dealing with Russia, an international power, rested on the way it viewed the situation at any given moment. While at times Israeli officials felt proactive demonstrations were called for, at other times the government preferred working behind the scenes. In retrospect, my feeling is that both approaches—the intense and often provocative activism as well as the quiet diplomacy—were needed to ultimately free Soviet Jewry.

Pamela Cohen worked outside of the establishment—but there were others who did too. One example was Ruth Bloch of Zurich, Switzerland, who is mentioned in Hidden Heroes. Following her initial visit to the Soviet Union, she centered her life around helping the refuseniks she had encountered behind the Iron Curtain.

Similarly, Ernie and Linda Hirsch of London made tremendous sacrifices for Russian Jewry. After Ernie’s initial trip to Moscow in 1980, he and his wife mobilized the Torah community of London and organized the Russian Religious Jews (RRJ) charity fund. From 1980 through 1990, they sent 153 emissaries to Moscow who did life-saving work there, including teaching Torah, arranging brit milot and bringing winter clothes and kosher food.

No doubt the still fresh scars of the Holocaust motivated many American Jews to hear the cries of their Russian brethren. Cohen makes frequent references to the Holocaust throughout the book. She writes:

Where were the voices protesting the murder of 6 million Jews? When the truth trickled in from across the ocean—news of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Ravensbruck—where was the collective outcry from the millions of Jews who were safe in America? Why did so few answer the call to save so many? (p. 21)

My wife and I used the same argument when trying to attract more Israelis with dual citizenship to get involved in Nativ.

This book is aptly titled Hidden Heroes, referring to the Russian Jews who risked security and temporal well-being to return to the eternal Torah and the Jewish national homeland. I would suggest that the title also alludes to those Western Jews who answered the supplications of their brethren. They too more fully embraced a more intensive Jewish lifestyle enhanced by Torah and tradition. There is no better example of the latter than Pamela Braun Cohen.


Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is rosh yeshivah and professor of rabbinic literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem. He is a noted scholar, author and teacher who has taught thousands of students throughout his over fifty years of teaching.

This article was featured in the Spring 2023 issue of Jewish Action.
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