The Soviet Jewish Life exhibition will feature 27 images captured by...

photographer Bill Aron who documented the lives and social moments in various synagogues and recorded the faces of so-called Refuseniks, Jews who tried to emigrate to the United States and Europe but were denied permission to leave.

The Wende Museum in Culver City has launched a new exhibition that features the lives of the Soviet Jews, as it aims to preserve and expand awareness of the history of the Soviet Jewry and the Refusenik movement through collections and public programs.

The Soviet Jewish Life exhibit will feature 27 images captured by photographer Bill Aron who documented the lives and social moments in various synagogues and recorded the faces of so-called Refuseniks, Jews who tried to emigrate to the United States and Europe but were denied permission to leave.

Many of the photographs were originally published in the photographer’s book, “From the Corners of the Earth: Contemporary Photographs of the Jewish World (1986)” and were taken during Aron’s 1981 trip to Leningrad, Moscow and Minsk.

The program will present the lives of Refuseniks, their daily challenges and their search for freedom along with their work on samizdat, a private reproduction and distribution of publication of banned literature often critical of the Soviet government.

Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who became involved with the movement after visiting his relatives in the USSR in 1968, said the Refuseniks movement offers an important lesson.

“In these days of dictatorship and the suppression of free speech all over the world — including in many cases in our own country — this is an important lesson for us to learn about what can happen when people of goodwill remain silent and what can happen when people of goodwill speak up,” he said.

The movement started in the early 1960s and eventually became known in the West after the Soviet government shut down synagogues and banned the study of Hebrew. Jews were often denied admission to universities or the opportunity to work in certain fields. Refuseniks hosted Hebrew lessons and held services in secret even despite the risk of being arrested.

Yaroslavsky was a student at UCLA in 1971 when he and a group of friends drove to Long Beach, rented a motorboat and attached themselves with two toilet plungers to a Soviet cargo ship anchored at the port of Los Angeles, spraying a message on the boat that said: “Let Jews Go.”

“It was supposed to be ‘Let the Jews Go,’ and I skipped ‘the’ because I was in a hurry,” he said, adding that he worried that a Russian guard who was on the boat would notice him. “The letters and smaller as I got to the end of the phrase.”

Yaroslavsky eventually became an outspoken activist, meeting with Soviet representatives who visited Los Angeles and staging multiple protests across the region, urging the Soviet government to allow Jews to emigrate. The boat incident was later featured in the documentary ‘Refusenik” directed by Laura Bialis.

Yaroslavsky added that the probability that the Communist authorities would allow Jews to leave the country around the time when the movement started in the 1960s was “slim to none.”

But starting in the early 1970s the Soviets let thousands of Jews move to the West.

“Refuseniks won but they paid a very high price,” he said, adding that many of them were professors and engineers and by speaking out they risked losing their jobs. “Many of them were my biggest heroes.”

The reasons the movement was successful, he said, is because it was a “citizen movement,” pushed by people “who were too naive to know that you can’t take on a superpower and make them change their policy.”

As part of the current exhibition at Wende, the museum will digitize samizdat materials from the Aleksander Smukler and Tsudikman Family collection and make them available online for scholars, specialists and the general public.

The Soviet Jewish Life is launched in conjunction with the Robin Center for Russian-Speaking Jewry at the Wende Museum. The exhibition and other related programs are funded by the Peggy and Edward Robin Family Foundation, the Genesis Philanthropy Group, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles along with other supporters.

The exhibition will also feature work by artist Yevgeniy Fiks, who moved from Moscow to New York in 1994 to work on several multimedia projects that focused on the lives of Soviet Jews in the town of Birobidjan about 5,000 miles east of Moscow, not too far from the Soviet border with China. His work includes video, collage, drawings and archival materials. One of the installations called “Withered” features a large print of his Soviet passport with the audio of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in defense of Soviet Jews.

The exhibition will be open until March 20, 2022.