When Flyers owner, Ayn Rand-quoting entrepreneur, and philanthropist Ed Snider passed away April 11, it touched off weeks of tributes. Snider was a Philadelphia original, a self-made man, tough as hidebound leather, someone who didn’t suffer fools. Yet in all the accolades upon his death, scant mention was made of what was arguably his most selflessly principled moment: His public support of two local do-gooders who in the 1970s helped to smuggle some 1.5 million “Refuseniks” out of the Soviet Union.
Today Connie Smukler is a stunning, 70-something Rittenhouse Square doyenne. But back in the early ‘70s, she was a Main Line mom and housewife who, with her husband Joe, risked their lives and livelihoods, all for the human rights of strangers clear across the globe. It’s a forgotten piece of Philadelphia history. The Smuklers led what would become a national movement to save Jews from oppression in the former Soviet Union. Their work helped shepherd “Refuseniks”—they’d been refused visas to emigrate—to freedom in Israel and the United States, many right here in Philly, especially in the Northeast.
It was a story with high drama. Smukler found herself face to face with stone-faced KGB agents at the Saint Petersburg airport, threatened with being “disappeared” to Siberia. There were clandestine, coded communications on desolate Russian streets, and a clever marshaling of congressional wives back in the states to help turn disparate protests into a full-fledged movement.
They were a ragtag team of dissidents, making a lot of noise, if not much progress. Until, that is, a certain sports team owner helped turn them into something real. “Ed was our angel,” Smukler says. It was validation: If Ed Snider believed this was God’s work, it must be.
Smukler hosted a group of other moms in her Villanova living room—it was a coed movement, but “the husbands all had jobs,” she says now—and they were literally plotting how to change the course of international affairs. Talk about chutzpah; they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Later, she and Joe would build a home in Center City with a circular living room—shaped precisely so she and her comrades could sit and collaborate in the round most nights, into the wee hours of the morning.
They started with public protests, like picketing outside the Academy of Music with signs that read “Free Soviet Jewry” when the Bolshoi Ballet came to town—much to the chagrin of the American Jewish establishment, which, still reeling from the Holocaust, didn’t want to call attention to itself. They were a ragtag team of dissidents, making a lot of noise, if not much progress.
Until, that is, a certain sports team owner helped turn them into something real.
“Ed was our angel,” Smukler says.
In the summer of 1973, with their three children off to sleepaway camp, the Smuklers vacationed in Israel. (Full disclosure: their son, Ken, is a local political consultant whose commentaries on national black radio have been posted on The Citizen.) Neither had been particularly religious; Connie had grown up in Narberth, then a predominantly Irish-Catholic working-class enclave of the Main Line. Her father, a prominent attorney whose philanthropy would go on to fund, among other works, Penn State’s Louis and Mildred Lasch Football Building, was, like many Jews of his generation, focused on assimilation.
One day that summer, the young couple found themselves in a Jerusalem restaurant. “Would you like to meet a couple that just came in on the plane from Russia last night?” the restaurant owner offered.
A conversation over lox, eggs and onions led to other meals, and more talk, over two days. The couple didn’t speak English, but Joe knew Yiddish—somehow, they pieced enough words together between Russian, Yiddish and English to understand one another. “We fell in love with them,” Connie recalls of Sima, the charming Leningrad scientist and his beautiful wife, who had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the dead of night.
When it was time for the Smuklers to head back to the States, Sima grasped Joe’s shoulders. “You have to get my brother out,” he pleaded. “I can’t live without my brother.”
They learned that Irma Chernyak had applied for an exit visa and been denied. But the request had cost him his job as an aeronautical scientist. He had been operating elevators to try and make ends meet when, fed up, he’d gone on a hunger strike as a form of protest. Suddenly, for the Smuklers, the plight of Soviet Jewry had a face, and they realized their calling. “I was totally apolitical,” Smukler says. “I didn’t know who our senators were. But we knew we had to do something and we knew we had to make their stories real because otherwise it would become a faceless movement, like the Holocaust.”
The Smuklers joined a smattering of activists—most of them in New York—and quickly rose to the leadership ranks of the burgeoning movement. The next summer found the Smuklers in the Soviet Union, meeting with Chernyak and other Refuseniks. They found apartments by memorizing addresses and by filling up notebooks with notes written in elaborate code. Knowing that Refusenik’s apartments were bugged by the KGB, they communicated through Etch-a-Sketch’s, the child’s toy with a plastic sheet that, upon lifting, automatically erases the written word.
The USSR had signed onto the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guaranteed the right to leave a country for another homeland. The Smuklers and other activists decided to hold them to it. What followed was a crash course in Soviet oppression. Russian Jews who applied for visas were often stripped of their jobs—and it was illegal to be jobless in the Soviet Union. The Smuklers and their co-conspirators developed contacts in Russia to learn of the neediest cases, and started smuggling in money for them. They began loading their suitcases with American goods for Soviet Jews to trade on a swiftly developing black market. “We’d bring in jeans, tape recorders, batteries,” Smukler says. “Anything they could sell.”
When the Smuklers couldn’t get visas to travel to the USSR, they found others who could. When Jews were arrested, the Smuklers were sure to bring enough goodies to bribe prison guards. “They liked porn,” Connie remembers. “We’d give them these little postcards that you flipped back and forth and you’d see naked women in different positions.”
With each protest, Smukler and her band of housewives—all in their late thirties—discovered their voices speaking out for the rights of those they’d never met, strangers who would be sent to Siberia for teaching Hebrew or for owning a copy of Exodus, author Leon Uris’ novel about the founding of Israel. It was the early ‘70s; “Women’s Lib” was in full bloom. Smukler and her compatriots had discovered their purpose.
“We were at a point where we were somebody’s mother and somebody’s wife, and all of a sudden, we were something else,” she says today. “Suddenly, people cared about what we said. People listened! It was very heady stuff.”
It was in early 1975 that Ed Snider first came to the rescue. The year before, famed Leningrad ballet dancers Valery and Galina Panov, after years of Soviet harassment and imprisonment, had finally been permitted to emigrate to Israel, thanks to international denunciations of the Soviet government. Now they were on a global tour and coming to perform at, of all places, Snider’s South Philly arena, The Spectrum.
During a recent trip to France, where anti-semitism has reached epidemic levels, Smukler found herself in the home of Oliver Kramer, patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Paris, from where 8,000 Jews left last year in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack. “Don’t forget us,” he pleaded.
Prior to the performance, Snider called Joe Smukler. “I want to give you a piece of the action,” he said. “Let’s split the proceeds.”
“We had no money, no staff, no office,” Connie recalls. “Ed just called up out of the blue and said, ‘I believe in what you’re doing. Let’s split the gate.’ We made $17,594 that night.”
It was seed money to hire a professional director and get an office. Until then, the cause had been a financial drain on a small band of true believers. Snider’s gift jumpstarted a fundraising campaign. Most importantly, it was validation: If Ed Snider believed this was God’s work, it must be.
The next year, Snider’s Flyers hosted the Soviet Army team in a nationally-televised exhibition. As recounted often during the recent Snider tributes, the rough style of Philadelphia’s play caused the Soviet team to petulantly stalk off the ice. In a symbolic victory for capitalism, they only agreed to return once Snider told them they wouldn’t get paid. What isn’t as well known is that, again thanks to Snider, the game served to advance the cause of Soviet Jewry.
In the days leading up to the showdown, Snider had called Joe Smukler. He knew Connie and Joe’s army would be protesting outside the building—and he had an idea.
“I don’t want you guys outside,” he said. “You should be inside, so your banners and posters go all around the rink. This game will be televised worldwide.”
And so it was that, come game time, signs reading “Free Soviet Jewry” and “Get Soviet Jews Out Of The Penalty Box” were held aloft throughout the stands. The Soviet team took one look around and demanded the signs come down.
Snider sought out Joe Smukler. “What do you want me to do?” he asked. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
Joe and Connie huddled together with their team. “Let’s leave the posters up until we’re sure the media has filmed them, so they see them back in Russia,” Joe told Snider. “Then we’ll take them all down.”
Snider agreed and, back in the USSR, Refuseniks for the first time saw tangible proof that there really was an international movement fighting for them. It was confirmation they weren’t alone.
As the movement gained momentum, Connie found herself schmoozing politicians like Pennsylvania U.S. Senator John Heinz and Washington state U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. But their wives proved even more important to the cause. Just as this issue had enabled Connie to find her voice, she intuited that the wives of our political leaders might similarly be moved. After all, families were being split up and destroyed by a government intent on keeping a population down. What wife and mother couldn’t relate?
Theresa Heinz and Joanne Kemp, wife of Congressman Jack, started an organization called Congressional Wives for Soviet Jewry and began calling on the USSR to let its people go. The movement took off. Other activists, in other cities, joined the cause, including Joel and Adele Sandberg in Miami. (Their daughter, Sheryl, would go on to become that Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of the bestselling Lean In.)
The Smuklers knew a tipping point had been reached when, one day in early 1976, their phone rang at 4 a.m. An official from the Israeli Embassy in Vienna, wanted them to know that the Refusenik whose story had activated all their efforts, Irma Chernyak, had finally made it out of the Soviet Union.
The St. Petersburg airport was a gray, depressing place. That made it all the more surreal on that day in 1981, when Connie and a traveling companion from the movement were taken into custody while awaiting their return flight to the States. “We were taken down a flight of steps in the airport,” she recalls. “I was expecting a little dungeon, with one light bulb hanging from the ceiling. But it was one of the most beautiful board rooms, with a long mahogany table, that I’d ever been in. I’ve asked many people through the years if they’d ever seen those steps or that room and nobody has. It’s like it never happened, or something.”
When searched, Russian authorities found in her possession a list of Russians who had expressed interest in emigrating. “How stupid,” she says now, still haunted. “These were just people who were curious. I knew better than to write anything down. For years, I worried about those people, because they were known now.”
She demanded to call the American consulate. “Nyet,” she was told. As the day wore on, her interrogators accused her of being an Israeli spy. “When they said ‘espionage,’ that was scary,” Smukler says. “No one knew where I was. Joe would be waiting for me at the airport and I wasn’t going to get off that plane. I could just as easily be sent to Siberia and not be heard from again.”
Finally, after nearly 24 hours of questioning, a stack of papers were placed before her—all in Russian. “Sign! Sign!” her interlocutors screamed. “To this day, I don’t know what I signed,” she says. But in short order she was ushered to a plane heading back to the States.
As the Reagan administration dawned, the movement picked up steam. Secretary of State George Schultz slid a letter bearing the names of thousands of Refuseniks to his Soviet counterpart, asking for their release. By 1987, when 200,000 Americans gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to protest the treatment of Soviet Jews during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s first visit to America, change was in the air. Within a year, Gorbachev would announce that the Soviet “problem of exit and entry is being resolved in a humane spirit” and that “the problem of the so-called ‘Refuseniks’ is being removed.”
The crisis was over. The Smuklers had won. Connie Smukler had spent nearly 20 years fighting for a cause. Now what? “I never was able to replace that passion,” she says. She and Joe had a great life together, with three kids and nine grandkids. But, still, something would forever be missing. “I’d get up every morning in those days and think, ‘Okay, what’s going to happen today?’ A lot of it was bad—I might learn that somebody went to prison. But every day something was happening. I was effecting change every day. All of a sudden, for a lot of us, we were never able to replace that adrenaline.”
When I caught up with Connie recently at her Rittenhouse Square condo, I realized how easy it is to forget what she’d done. The walls of her home are lined with photos of her and Joe with presidents, senators and foreign heads of state, not to mention storied freedom fighters like Natan Sharansky, a Refusenik leader who spent nine years in Siberia. But most of the photos were taken after the movement that she helped to midwife had succeeded. Big social movements tend to be inevitable only in retrospect.
In St. Petersburg, her interrogators accused her of being an Israeli spy. “When they said ‘espionage,’ that was scary,” Smukler says. “No one knew where I was. Joe would be waiting for me at the airport and I wasn’t going to get off that plane. I could just as easily be sent to Siberia and not be heard from again.”
Lately, though, the old feelings have resurfaced. The adrenaline was there two years ago, when Connie led a group of area Jewish women in their thirties and forties—her age at the dawn of the movement—on a trip to Russia, so dark and desolate back then, now seemingly painted over in technicolor. She walked Gorky Street and pointed out where Sharansky had been arrested and the apartments where she strategized with the leaders of the resistance.
Then there was the National Jewish Federation trip to Berlin, where Connie arranged for the group to meet up with Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel; together they reenacted his 1986 walk to freedom after his release across the Glienicke Bridge—the Bridge of Spies that connects East and West Berlin. At lunch before the walk, Sharansky shared with the group his secret to surviving nine years of solitary confinement: “I kept playing chess over and over in my head,” he said. As they walked on a cold, overcast day, Connie choked up thinking of Joe, who had died in 2012, and their shared visceral indignation some 40 years earlier when they first learned of the plight of Soviet Jews. For both of them, the religion of Judaism was secondary; their shared passion, discovered together, was the struggle for human rights.
And then there was a recent emotional trip to France, where anti-semitism has reached epidemic levels. Smukler found herself in the home of Oliver Kramer, patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Paris. The Kramers deal in 18th century antique furniture and are leaders of the French Jewish community. Even they felt their days were numbered in Paris. Kramer had just purchased a home in Israel, in case his family needed to flee, like the 8,000 Parisian Jews who left last year in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack. When Smukler met with the French Jewish leadership, her host grasped both her hands. “Don’t forget us,” he pleaded.
Don’t forget us. The same three words the Refuseniks used to say to her every time she took their leave.
Around the time the Iron Curtain came down, political scientist Francis Fukuyama published a groundbreaking essay titled “The End of History?” In it, he argued that the ideological battles between east and west were finally over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed.
Connie Smukler wishes it were so. But, seated in her airy living room atop Rittenhouse Square, she shakes her head slowly. Fukuyama may have been right in a way he didn’t intend; today, few know of 20th century liberation movements like the one Smukler helmed. In a very literal sense, history has become passé.
But she also knows that, broadly, Fukuyama was wrong; no verdict had been reached. There will always be abuses of human rights. You put out injustice over here and up will pop oppression over there. So I ask her: After all you’ve been through … isn’t that depressing?
And with that, Connie Smukler breaks out into a tight-lipped grin, morphing instantly from regal grandmother into the badass gangsta she really is. “The struggle continues,” she says, simply.
Header photo: Courtesy of Connie Smukler.