Author up for challenge of telling epic Soviet Jewry story

Twelve Jewish activists from Riga and Leningrad plotted in 1970 to hijack a Soviet aircraft and fly it to Sweden to call attention to the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union — people who were not wanted there but who were forbidden to leave.

While researching his book “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” Gal Beckerman read everything he could find about the men, and interviewed them.

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In 2005, Beckerman attended the activists’ 35th annual barbecue in Israel. “The banality of the barbecue was almost shocking,” recalls Beckerman, 34. “In my mind these men were like superheroes, and yet there they were, flipping burgers.

“It was a surreal experience, but helped me to see them as ordinary people. What made them extraordinary was that they could not accept the status quo.”

“When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone” explores the nearly three-decade struggle for freedom of 3 million Jews living in the Soviet Union. Beckerman, a Los Angeles native with Israeli parents, will read from his book at

7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4 at the BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St. in San Francisco.

Beckerman’s appearance is made possible in part by the Jewish Community Relations Council and co-sponsored by the Kritzer/Ross Émigré Program at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center’s Russian Program and RJeneration, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services. 

“The movement to rescue the Jews of the Soviet Union captured the imagination of the Bay Area Jewish community,” says David Waksberg, executive director of the BJE. “Thanks to an activist culture here, bold and dynamic leaders and the convenient presence of a Soviet Consulate, San Francisco was a hotbed of activity that grabbed headlines and the attention of Soviet and U.S. leaders.”

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Beckerman’s 608-page book combines meticulous research with a lively, conversational style. He was first attracted to the tale of the refuseniks because of its complex nature.

“A lot of writers have a metabolism that requires them to jump from story to story, but I have the metabolism of a turtle,” says Beckerman, a reporter at the Jewish Daily Forward in New York and former longtime editor and staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review. “I love the notion of hunkering down and getting to the heart of a good story.”

The project took him almost six years. Beckerman interviewed more than 200 people, “sometimes for hours, sitting in their living rooms over cups of tea or, often, glasses of vodka and plates of pickled mushrooms.”

In his book, Beckerman shows how the movement to win freedom for Soviet Jews established a strong identity among those who would leave Russia and mobilized the American Jewish community. Another revelation came to him incrementally.

“As I went deeper into the research, I started to see the larger implications of the movement,” he says, “and came to understood that what I was writing about was perhaps the most successful human rights campaign of the 20th century.”

Feedback has been positive. “I am really heartened to hear how much people are enjoying reading the book,” says Beckerman, who now lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Deborah, and their 1-year-old daughter, Mika. “I wanted to get the story right, but in addition to telling a comprehensive story, I wanted to tell an interesting story.”

What’s next for the first-time author? He laughs. “Writing a shorter book.”

Gal Beckerman will speak 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4 at the BJE Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., San Francisco. A reception will be held one hour before the program. Free. Information: (415) 567-3327.

“When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry” by Gal Beckerman (608 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.