The death of the renowned refusenik hit hard in Philadelphia, where he had strong ties.
Vladimir Slepak, considered a father figure of the Soviet refusenik movement who spent 17 years in a fierce and well-publicized struggle to make aliyah, died April 23 at age 87.
At the time of his death, he was living with his wife and onetime co-refusenik, Masha, in New York.
His efforts to be free of Soviet anti-Semitism and repression — efforts which landed him a prison sentence of internal exile for five years — received worldwide publicity, with Philadelphia serving as midwife to the process that would ultimately lead to his release.
“They were one of the first refusenik families we met in 1974,” Connie Smukler recalls of her visit with her late husband, Joe, to the Slepaks’ cramped apartment, right off the famed Gorky Street. Because of that prominent location, “American activists could get to him easily, said Smukler, who, with her husband and other Philadelphians were at the forefront of the Free Soviet Jewry movement, co-creating the Soviet Jewry Council of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia in the ’70s. The agency raised awareness of the tortured environment the refuseniks faced after applying for exit visas to Israel, the harassment and denigration that included being fired from their jobs, denied work elsewhere and treated as human parasites.
And Slepak was no exception for this treatment: He had been a Soviet defense industry engineer, specializing in radio electronics, when his future was cut short — and job history ended — as soon as he applied for an exit visa.
His fulltime work soon focused on bringing attention to the refusenik movement. Her first visit to his apartment was a stunner, Smukler recalls: “When I got into that rickety elevator,” more of a birdcage than an elevator, and arrived at his apartment, she “found a front door with all kinds of locks on it, because the KGB kept breaking into his apartment. “The first thing I saw in his apartment was a flag of Israel,” which told her so much about the activist icon. “It took such heroism to do that,” knowing that display the flag alone could have landed him in jail.
The families became good friends, she says, and when the Smuklers happened to be in Israel when the Slepaks’ exit visas came through in October 1987, “we ran to the airport to greet” them. “It was wonderful closure.”
Smukler said they stayed in touch over the years, and she last spoke to Slepak when her husband died in 2012. “He will be missed,” she says simply.
News of Slepak’s death elicited a flood of memories for other localites who had met or talked to the couple over their long struggle in the USSR.
Frank Brodsky, senior vice president-investments for Wells Fargo Advisors in Center City, was long familiar with the Slepaks; indeed, he served as co-chairman of the Soviet Jewry Council from 1986 to 1987. “The first time I met the Slepaks was in 1985,” he recalls of going to their apartment on Gorky Street with his wife, Bunny, and fellow activists Elliot and Maxine Rosen.
He remembers Slepak as a warm, “gregarious man — he loved to hug” who also had a wonderful sense of humor. In giving the couples directions to his apartment, “he told us to look for a big statue of a soldier on a horse pointing. He’s pointing right at us,” a joke since the Slepaks were the focus of so much unwanted attention by the government.
That was one of a number of meetings the Brodskys paid the refusenik. “He was one of the heavy, heavy hitters,” Brodsky relates, citing Slepak’s importance in the movement.
And Slepak never forgot those who worked on his behalf, says Brodsky. “He loved Philadelphia. When he visited us in our house in the ’90s — and he loved my wife, calling out in his Russian accent, ‘Bunye!’ — he wanted to get a map of the city so he would know where all his Philadelphia friends were.”
Those friends included Ed Rendell, who was Philadelphia mayor at the time of the Slepaks’ difficulties in the USSR; and attorneys and activists Dan Segal and Mark Aronchick. “When he came to visit us, he brought with a him a miniature Liberty Bell” that those three friends had given him on a visit to his Moscow apartment.
When Slepak attended a dinner thrown for him by the late eminent author Chaim Potok at Potok’s Main Line home, the Brodskys, also guests, brought a copy of the coffee-table book, A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, with none other than the Slepaks featured prominently inside the book.
Their first visit to Philadelphia came just weeks after their freedom in the fall of 1987. They flew from Israel to be reunited with their two sons, one of whom was living here at the time, and to meet their grandchildren for the first time.
During that first visit to Philadelphia, they were awarded the Humanitarian Award of the precursor to today's Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Bennett Aaron, a longtime Jewish communal leader who was president of the Federation at the time, was also in Jerusalem when the Slepaks arrived there.
"I began my term with them in Moscow and now I'm ending it by welcoming them to our city," Aaron told the Exponent at the time.
There were major simchas awaiting the Slepaks as they toured Philadelphia in 1987. One of them was at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. Since they never had had a Jewish wedding, only a civil one in the USSR, the Slepaks were accorded a big bash at the synagogue, presided over by the late Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe, with welcome speeches by Brodsky and local prominent attorney Louis Fryman, then-Har Zion president. Fryman recalls a celebration that resounded in the sounds of freedom; it was laden with happiness and tears — albeit, he remembers, the tears were those of joy for a couple finally unchained by Soviet tyranny.
As for Brodsky, the ceremony had its own hold on him: “I held one of the poles of the chupah,” says a proud Brodsky.
Lisa Hostein, Jewish Exponent executive editor, conducted one of the first interviews with the Slepaks after they were granted their freedom and were in Philadelphia the first time.
“As a young Jewish journalist in the 1980s, the plight of Soviet refuseniks desperately seeking a way out from the Iron Curtain was one of the most powerful stories to be covering,” says Hostein.”Being able to interview Vladimir Slepak and his wife just two weeks after their release — and seeing them reunited with their children and grandchildren — remains one of the most poignant experiences of my career.”
“Their fortitude and leadership made them true heroes in the Soviet Jewry movement,” she adds. “Their story was a Jewish story that still resonates today.”
Funeral services for Slepak are slated to take place in New York City on Sunday and he will be buried in Israel on Monday.