The story had all the makings of a Hollywood movie: a secret mission, an interview with the KGB, and the successful rescue of more than 2 million persecuted people. This was the true story shared by Adele and Joel Sandberg at an upper school Judaism Club event on the last Friday in October. The 20 participants who gathered on Zoom were taken back in time to 1975, as they heard the incredibly powerful and inspiring story of Adele and Joel and their integral involvement with Soviety Refuseniks. Their granddaughter, Judaism Club co-leader Maya B. ’22, invited her grandparents to present to her peers, Nueva faculty and staff, and parents.
“I've been hearing stories about my grandparents' work in Soviet Jewry and their nail-biting, incredibly brave trip to the USSR ever since I was little,” Maya said. “I knew that most Nuevans have likely never heard a story like theirs, and hopefully they found it very interesting. My grandparents love talking about Jewish history and their activist work—so it came together quite nicely.”
To help contextualize the significance of their work, the Sandbergs began with a brief and illuminating history of Jews in Russia spanning centuries of war, relocation, forced assimilation, discrimination, violence, and—during World War II—the murder of more than 2.5 million Russian Jews.
“In 1967, one of every five Jews in the world was living inside the USSR,” Joel shared. “After witnessing the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were exterminated, we felt a sense of urgency to help save them.”
Adele added, “During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a vast police state surrounded by what was called the Iron Curtain. Jews, with yevrey stamped on their passports were under special suspicion. There was very little hope for their future.”
So began Adele and Joel’s journey in the Soviet Jewry movement, in which they played
an important role in aiding Jewish families and individuals hoping to emigrate out of the USSR. They were part of an international campaign in support of the Refuseniks, people who went against the government by applying for exit visas they knew they would be denied.
Adele and Joel decided the best way to help would be to travel to the Soviet Union. In 1975, the Sandbergs landed in Moscow in the middle of the night, went to the American embassy to check in, and then made their way to the apartment of the Druk family, Refuseniks with whom the Sandburgs had been in touch for years.
“Refusenik families like the Druks were so courageous,” Adele said. “They were our heroes, who risked everything to get an exit visa.”
To Adele and Joel, their efforts were worth the risk given how much the Refuseniks had been through.
“As we walked down the street one night, we were cornered by a soviet agent who told us we were not supposed to be in Moscow,” Adele shared. “We were followed everywhere. We would be walking and someone would jump out in front of us, take our picture, and then disappear. They were trying to intimidate us. It was often pretty frightening.”
Eventually intimidation led to interrogation, as Adele and Joel were arrested by the KGB and brought in for questioning.
“We were taken to a small room on the second floor of the hotel,” Joel described. “Three men were waiting. The door closed behind us.”
But, they shared, after eight hours of screaming and yelling, they were allowed to depart.
Ultimately, their efforts and the efforts of other Jews from around the world helped free nearly 2 million Soviet Jews.
For Maya, who has heard her grandparents’ story many times growing up, hearing it again still moves her immensely.
“My heart flutters with nerves every time I hear the climax of that story, even though I know what will happen,” she said. “The stakes of the interrogation and my grandparents' bravery never loses its appeal.”
There were many reasons audience members attended this virtual event. Rachel Freeman, communications and website manager, has been looking for ways to connect with the Jewish community at Nueva. This event helped to provide that connection.
“I was so moved by their activism to help Soviet Jews, even in the face of potential danger,” she said. “Regardless of their different national heritages and the language barriers, the Sandbergs felt a connection with the Soviet Jews they were working to help. Tikkun olam (repairing the world) and chesed (loving-kindness) are two core values of Judaism. To me, what Adele and Joel did for Soviet Jews exemplify these values in action.”
Maya hopes that others will find the same kind of inspiration from her grandparents’ story as her family has.
“I believe my grandparents' story about their work advancing the human rights of the Jewish people has strengthened my family's sense of Jewish identity and reminded us of the importance of standing up against modern persecution—against Jews, but also against BIPOC, LGBTQ+ people, and others,” she shared. “I hope that my grandparents' activism educates the Nueva community on an instance of Jewish persecution in history that is rarely talked about and inspires them to take action against oppression that they see in the world.”
It seems as if Maya’s goals were accomplished.
“I think Joel and Adele really highlighted how compassion for others and a drive to make the world a better place can ultimately triumph over hate,” Rachel said. “I know that sounds cliché, but the work they did in Russia to help Soviet Jews is remarkable, and it didn’t happen overnight. But through their dedication, it’s clear they can look back now and see the impact that they were able to have. Their story demonstrates that perseverance, even in the face of opposition (or the KGB), will lead to positive change in the world.”