Its leaders realized this chapter in history was lost on people younger than 30 -- even those who'd been educated in Jewish day schools. So they began documenting stories, enlisted a coalition of organizations and created a social media-driven virtual "march" that has already reached more than 3 million people.
This movement is not only something Americans should be proud of, they say, it's a model for what can be done when people pull together, take risks and put aside their differences to focus on the needs of others. They plan to develop curricula and distribute tools to help "teach this crucial lesson in activism and mobilization, so ordinary people can be empowered to once again do extraordinary things."
"There is just so much cynicism these days," said Michael Granoff, 44, one of Freedom 25's co-chairs. "One person can make a difference. Your activism matters. ... You cannot be excused for not acting when a young mother sits in a prison in Tehran, jailed by a regime."
'Crazy enough to marry'
Marina Garmize-Gorfinkel became a refusenik in Kiev, Ukraine, the day her grandfather died.
They were a small family -- just Marina, her mother and her mother's father. Everyone else in her mother's family had been killed at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev, where Nazis gunned down nearly 34,000 Jews in two days in September 1941. Marina's father had died of a stroke when she was only 7.
Now it was 1979, and Marina was 19. She had applied for exit visas for the three of them and been refused. With her grandfather gone, she would fight for herself and her mother. She began organizing protests against the government.
She was a small woman, only 5-foot-1, but the Soviet regime considered her activism a threat. She was warned to stop, arrested three times and beaten twice. In 1980, police forced her into a cell, sent in 30 drunken men and told them to rape her.
One of the men recognized her as the daughter of his own girl's beloved kindergarten teacher. He protected Marina from being raped but couldn't stop the beatings, which left her hospitalized for several months. When she got out, she and her mother left town and headed to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, another Soviet republic at the time and now an independent country.
The people there, she said, were kinder and the KGB and police less fierce. Through other refuseniks, she eventually met Lev Furman, an Orthodox Jew 13 years her senior. He was religious in ways she knew nothing about. He taught Hebrew underground when Zionism and teaching the language were forbidden. His first wife had left him when the KGB threats became too much.
"He said, 'Look, I need a wife. I need someone who can help me if I'm arrested,' " Marina remembered. Only immediate relatives could visit someone in prison or make appeals on their behalf. She told him, "Fine, we'll get married on paper. I'll help you." But Lev liked her and wanted a real marriage. She agreed. The two wed within a week, in July 1986, and she moved with him to Leningrad (which has returned to its historical name of St. Petersburg).
"We took big risks in life. Marrying someone you'd known for a week wasn't the biggest risk," she said. "We were both only children and never knew if we'd survive another day. And we'd both found someone crazy enough to marry us."
They continued their fight for freedom and were bolstered by visitors from around the world. Lev was committed to building a Jewish resistance where there was next to no Jewish life. He worked with young people and distributed textbooks and copies of Leon Uris' "Exodus" that had been smuggled in by others. Young women from Finland, which shared an open border at the time, brought Lev books sewn into the linings of their coats.
Almost immediately after they married, Marina became pregnant. The KGB found a new way to threaten her. They said they would kill Marina when she gave birth if the Furmans didn't stop their activism.
She was inclined to listen, but Lev wouldn't have it. The tide was shifting. Gorbachev was now in power, and his policies of glasnost and perestroika -- openness and reform -- were just beginning. Gorbachev had freed Anatoly Sharansky, the poster boy for the Soviet Jewry movement, in February 1986.
Sharansky -- who later changed his name to Natan and became an Israeli politician, human rights activist and author -- had been sentenced in 1977 to 13 years of forced labor in a Siberian prison camp, or gulag. But he was released four years early. Sharansky was now traveling the U.S., speaking on college campuses and drumming up support for a huge rally in Washington. All signs pointed to change. Now wasn't the time to give up.
Marina, who understood the importance of communicating with the outside world, had taught herself English by studying a dictionary and listening to the BBC and Voice of America. She wrote a letter to a contact in Great Britain about the latest threat against her. It was passed to the BBC, which broadcast the letter every day for a week.
This infuriated the KGB as much as it rallied the movement. After the threat became public, the Furmans had visitors from abroad nearly every day. Articles were written about them. Letters poured in by the hundreds, from not just activists but politicians, including U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. Letter-writing campaigns flooded the heads of the Soviet government, the KGB and immigration officials.
"If your name was known, it was like insurance," Marina said.
Even with all the attention, Marina nearly died when an IV line feeding an overdose of medication, supposedly for a weakened heart, was given to her during labor. A doctor who found her alone in a room, away from the other new mothers, saved her. She remained in the maternity hospital for a week, but Lev was barred from seeing her or knowing what was going on. On a wall outside the hospital, he painted her a message: "Marishka, you are my hero!"