Tag Archives: Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry

Archivist projects: Cataloguing the Papers of Michael Sherbourne

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.

Michael Sherborne [MS434 A4249 7/2]

Michael Sherborne [MS434 A4249 7/2]

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”.

Young Michael Sherbourne, 1939 [MS434 A4249 7/3]

Young Michael Sherbourne, 1939 [MS434 A4249 7/3]

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.

Michael Sherbourne and his wife Muriel in USA, 1989 [MS434 A4249 7/2]

Michael Sherbourne and his wife Muriel in USA, 1989 [MS434 A4249 7/2]

 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.

MS 434 A4249_4_12_2 Section of Soviet Socialists Map

Section of Soviet Socialists map, c.1960s [MS434 A4249 4/12/2]

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.

Michael Sherbourne on the telephone with his recording equipment, c.1980s-1990s [MS434 A4249 7/4]

Michael Sherbourne on the telephone with his recording equipment, c.1980s-1990s [MS434 A4249 7/4]

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.

Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry calendar, 1989 [MS 434 A4249 5/6]

Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry calendar, 1989 [MS434 A4249 5/6]

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.

Poster for talk given by Michael Sherbourne on ‘Russian Jewry Past, Present, and Future’, 2004 [MS 434 A 4249 1/3 Folder 8]

Poster for talk given by Michael Sherbourne on “Russian Jewry Past, Present, and Future”, 2004 [MS434 A4249 1/3 Folder 8]

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.

Front cover of We are from Russia by Paulina Kleiner translated from Russian by Michael Sherbourne , MS434 A 4249 2/1/1 Folder 1]

Front cover of We are from Russia by Paulina Kleiner translated from Russian by Michael Sherbourne, [MS434 A4249 2/1/1 Folder 1]

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]

Michael Sherbourne on protest march in San Francisco near the Soviet Consulate, [MS434 A4249 7/2]

Michael Sherbourne on protest march in San Francisco near the Soviet Consulate, [MS434 A4249 7/2]

 

 

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Exploring protests, rebellion and revolution in the Special Collections

As part of the Explore Your Archive campaign the Special Collections team will be hosting two events. On Wednesday 22 November, there will be a drop-in session highlighting an array of material from the manuscript and printed collections relating to protests, rebellion and revolution.

Come and find out about protests and revolts, from the Peasants’ revolt of 1381 to the Swing riots in Hampshire of 1830, the Southampton Dockers’ strike of 1890 and the General Strike of 1926.  Protest groups and student activism also are represented, with material relating to groups established to combat fascism in the 1930s and 1990s, student action against apartheid, and the work of the “Women in Black”: 35s, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry.

Conflict at the Place Maubert

Conflict at the Place Maubert from ‘History of the Revolutions in Europe, 1848’. Supplement to the Illustrated London News (1 July 1848)

Also on display will be a range of material focusing on revolutions, including the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the wars for independence in North and South American, and the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848.

Book your ticket on Eventbrite (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/exploring-protests-rebellion-and-revolution-in-the-special-collections-tickets-39658571856) to reserve a place or feel free to drop by on the day. The event will run from 2-5pm.

There will also be an extended opening for our current exhibition ‘Between The West and Russia’ until 5pm. For further details visit: https://www.southampton.ac.uk/archives/news/events/2017/10/23-russia-exhibition.page

All are welcome! Please feel free to share. Visitors may be asked for photo ID by Library Reception staff.


The Special Collections team will also be taking part in the Hands-on Humanities day on Saturday 18 November, 1030-1630, Avenue Campus.

Extract from grant for a subscription for a trading voyage [MS62 BR4/1/1]

Extract from grant for a subscription for a trading voyage [MS62 BR4/1/1]

Can you write like scribes of old?  Why not come along and try your hand at this and other practical activities on offer.  For further information on this go to: https://www.southampton.ac.uk/per/news/events/2017/11/hands-on-humanities-day.page

Human Rights Day

Today, 10 December, is Human Rights Day. Observed by the international community every year it commemorates the day in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration arose directly from the experience of the Second World War and represents the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled. It was a milestone document in the history of human rights. Proclaimed as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations, it sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.

We would like to take this opportunity to share with you a significant collection which relates to human rights. The philosopher Jorge (George) Santayana (1863-1952) famously said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; the preservation of archives is crucial to the maintenance of our collective memory.

Jewish children, probably from Czechoslovakia, c. 1946 [MS 241/4/2/2]

Jewish children, probably from Czechoslovakia, c. 1946 [MS 241/4/2/2]

The need to record and preserve is illustrated by the founding of the Institute of Jewish Affairs (IJA) in February 1941 as a research institute to provide analysis of political, legal and economic issues affecting Jewish life. It was launched and sponsored by the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the American Jewish Congress. In 1994 it was re-established in London as Institute for Jewish Policy Research. The Institute’s founder Dr Jacob Robinson argued that Jewish leaders, struggling for the interests of the Jewry after World War I, were hampered by the lack of up-to-date information and by the lack of research.

The Special Collections holds over two thousand four hundred archive boxes of material generated by the IJA providing an extensive source for the study of Jewish peoples in the mid and late twentieth century. Topics covered include various aspects of human rights and civil liberties, genocide and war crimes, as well as extradition, torture, terrorism.

The image above comes from a file relating to Dr Stephen Barber’s “children’s scheme” providing assistance to Jewish children, many of them orphans, in the years following World War II. This file relates to Czechoslovakia. In his papers Dr Barber describes a scheme to send 100 children, many of whom were suffering from TB, to Switzerland to recuperate. He gives details of orphanages which were being established for the children and he makes a particular appeal for clothing for them.

20,000 students gathered in a rally of solidarity with the Jews of the Soviet Union, 2 December 1969 [MS 237/3/159 f1]

20,000 students gathered in a rally of solidarity with the Jews of the Soviet Union, 2 December 1969 [MS 237/3/159 f1]

By the mid-1950s, state persecution of Soviet Jews was a major human rights issue. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, large numbers of Soviet Jews applied for exit visas; while some were allied to leave, many were refused permission to emigrate; they unofficially became known as refusenicks. This photograph comes from a file of press service cuttings giving information on protests in the name of the refusenicks including details of the work of the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry.

The plight of the Czech orphans and the Soviet Jews are just two of many human rights issues covered by the IJA papers in the Special Collections.

Human Rights and the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry

Human Rights Day is observed annually across the world on 10 December. It marks the date the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (10 December 1948), the first global enunciation of human rights. The Declaration begins by recognising that “the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. It declares that human rights are universal – to be enjoyed by all people, no matter who they are or where they live. Today, the Declaration continues to inspire the human rights movement and has had a profound influence on the development of international human rights law.

Members of the 35’s demonstrating for the release of Raiza Palatnik

Members of the 35’s demonstrating for the release of Raiza Palatnik

The Soviet Jewry movement emerged in response to the Soviet Union’s Jewish policy which was seen as a violation of basic human and civil rights, including freedom of immigration, freedom of religion, and the freedom to study one’s own language, history and culture. The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, known as the 35’s, was a pressure group established in London in 1971 with the aim of assisting Russian Jews wishing to leave the country but refused permission. It was originally formed in response to the arrest of Raiza Palatnik, a 35 year old librarian from Odessa. Raiza had been sent to prison after being convicted of “slandering the Soviet Union” for applying to leave for Israel. The group was primarily made up of relatively young middle-class Jewish housewives from North West London. They were a unique phenomenon among the Jewish community in Britain and were active at a time when it was unheard of for Jewish women to go out and demonstrate.

They maintained direct contact with refusniks (an unofficial term for Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate) to give them moral support, and worked tirelessly to highlight their position. They achieved this through a series of active and unexpected demonstrations, particularly at Soviet cultural events. One such demonstration took place at a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet in London where the women revealed slogan t-shirts beneath their blouses as a mark of protest. In addition to such demonstrations they lobbied government officials and Members of Parliament.

The collection held by the Special Collections Division contains files of biographical information and case papers for refusniks; campaign correspondence, including letters to Members of Parliament; master copies of publications produced by the Campaign; newspapers; photographs, banners and other items, including handcuffs, from demonstrations.