This week archivist Lara Nelson discusses a recent cataloguing project focusing on the papers of Michael Sherbourne, a human rights activist who played an influential role in the movement to win Jews the right to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
Born on 22 February 1917 in London, Michael Sherbourne’s family name was Sheinbaum. His father’s parents were from Poland and his mother’s Sephardi family (descendants of Spanish exiles), had lived in England since the seventeenth century. His father worked as a tailor and a taxi driver, and his mother was a housewife. In the 1930s Michael and his three brothers anglicised their surname to Sherbourne.
Michael was politically engaged from an early age. When British fascists attempted to march in one of the Jewish areas of London, a 19 year old Michael was to be seen taking part in the anti-fascistic action of the Jews, who filled the streets and blocked the march. This single event made Michael realise the importance of unity and determination in gaining victory over a powerful enemy. He took this on in his fight for the independent Jewish state and in his struggle for the liberation of Jews from Soviet captivity.
As a result of the Great Depression in 1929, unemployment was rife in Great Britain, peaking at just below 3 million by 1932. This partly led to Michael Sherbourne leaving school at sixteen, and joining the Civil Service. Interested in Zionism however, Sherbourne soon left the Civil Service and went to what was then Palestine, and joined the Zionist organisation Hechaluts, which means “the pioneer”.Hechaluts was a group for the youth, providing news about the land of Israel (which at the time was Palestine); courses in Hebrew; Hebrew songs and dances; and pioneer training, which was named Hachshara. Sherbourne joined this training programme at the age of eighteen. The trainees practised agriculture and learned to be farmers. Sherbourne put what he learnt into practice at a training farm in Kent, where he was to meet his future wife, Muriel Cohen. After receiving their certificate for Aliyah, they left for Palestine on the first day of World War Two, 1 September 1939. They joined Kibbutz Anglo Balti for 6 months, then left for Haifa, where Michael was employed in the Royal Navy, and where their eldest daughter Norma was later born. Sherbourne’s involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy provided the opportunity for him to become fluent in French and Hebrew and to study Arabic. After World War Two ended, the Sherbourne family returned to England. Shortly after the birth of Sherbourne’s second daughter Lana, Michael was forced to return to Palestine in 1948 to join the Israeli Army during the War of Independence. Michael was a fighter in the IDF (Hativat Sheva, Mahal), and participated in the decisive battle for Latrun.
As Muriel contracted tuberculosis, the Sherbournes could not stay in Israel long-term. In London Muriel underwent treatment for this over a 2-year period. Sherbourne focussed on training to become a teacher, taking a 13 month course at a teacher’s training college in London. At the College were 30 Jews, of which 28 were members of the Communist Party, causing Sherbourne to always be in disagreement with them. As a result of a challenge to learn Russian Sherbourne learnt took up evening classes, and went on to study a degree in Russian. Some say that Sherbourne also learnt Russian to learn the language of the enemy. After achieving his degree, Sherbourne switched from teaching metalwork and machine-tool mechanics to teaching foreign languages, and became Head of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages at a large secondary comprehensive school in North London, until he retired in 1979.Even after taking a school party to the Soviet Union, and speaking to Jews at the Synagogue in Leningrad, Sherbourne did not learn about the Jewish problem in Russia until he attended a meeting in London where Jewish women from Leningrad spoke of their experiences. Following this meeting, the Association of Jewish Ex-service Men and Women organised a committee to help Soviet Jews, to which Michael and his wife Muriel asked to join. After telling the Committee that he could speak Russian, the first job delegated to him was to ring some of the Jews that had suffered in Russia. As Sherbourne made the phone calls, he received more and more numbers to call, particularly from a lady called Eder Nudel. Nudel made it her business to find Jewish prisoners who were given the misleading title of prisoners of Zion. Over a period of fifteen years, Sherbourne made up to six thousand telephone calls. Sherbourne would use the phone calls to find out when the person had applied for permission to immigrate, when they were refused, what difficulties they had faced from the police, and what their current situation was. Sherbourne would then communicate this information to the Israeli Embassy in London, and the activist group, the 35’s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. Over time, Sherbourne succeeded in forming a solid chain of communication between what he termed the “Refuseniks” and Jewish organisations wishing to help them emigrate from Russia. After meeting members of the 35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry at a conference held by the Chief Rabbi in Britain, Sherbourne began to work closely with the organisation. Peaceful protests were made outside theatres where Soviet artists performed, publicising the names of refuseniks and calling on the Soviet Union to release the Jews. Jeans were also sent to refuseniks to help them to earn money. Retiring from the synagogue and teaching in the late seventies left time for Sherbourne to write articles and give public talks on Soviet Jewry. Topics of these talks included “Russian Jewry: Triumph or Tragedy?”, “A Brief Account of Russian Anti-Semitism and the 35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry”, and “Jews in the U.S.S.R. – Cultural Genocide”. Sherbourne also attended talks relating to these topics, such as “Final Reckoning: Was the Soviet Union really ‘bad for the Jews’?” given by John Klier at the sixth annual Maccabean Lecture at King’s College London. Known as a strong personality in the campaign for Soviet Jewry, Sherborne received many enquiries, such as authors requesting his thoughts on their books and articles on the subject. An example includes Martin Gilbert on his publication Shcharansky Hero of Our Time. Putting his skill of being able to read and write in Russian to good use, Sherbourne also spent his time in the 1990s translating documents from Russian and Hebrew into English. Documents included publications, poems, and even family history and legal documents. In 1971 Sherbourne invented the term “Refusenik”, when the Jewish movement in the USSR started to expand and the number of Refuseniks increased dramatically. Sherbourne went so far as to write to dictionary publishers and writers of newspaper articles when he thought that they had defined the word incorrectly, or had used the term incorrectly. Criticism included specifying that the term Refusenik refers only to a Jew, and that the term is not Yinglish, as it is a direct translation of the Russian word “Otkaznik”. He has also corrected publishers when he believed that definitions provided for “Red Sea” had been incorrect.
Some records within the Sherbourne collection relate to Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. These include correspondence discussing the history of the organisation, newsletters and bulletins, and circulars and calendars. We also hold the collection MS 254 Papers of the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry.
The Sherbourne collection provides a rich resource of material for the study of the campaign against the Soviet Jewry. Not only is there material which shows the point of view of parties outside Russia, there are also copies of the Russian magazine Kohtekct that contains articles relating to Soviet Jewry. Extensive material also relates to the conflict in the Middle East, as well as on anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the Kristallnacht.
Thanks to the efforts of individuals like Michael Sherbourne, and organisations like the Women’s Campaign for the Soviet Jewry, Jewish communities in Russia have formed that have direct contact with many synagogues in Great Britain, who regularly meet.
“But there, in – inside the former Soviet Union, the children are teaching their parents to understand Judaism. It’s—it’s an amazing thing, how it’s risen, like Phoenix from the ashes. It’s amazing.” (Interview with Michael Sherborne, p.23, 6 September 2003 [MS434 A4249 1/1]