Sylvia Becker née Rosenhead
Born 26 April 1925
Died 13 February 2019
Sylvia Becker was one of ‘those wonderful women in black’ – the 35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry – who quietly changed the course of Jewish history.
Never one to push herself to the front, she spent the 1970s committed to this cause before moving to Israel in 1980 and once more fading into the background of family life.
Born in Leeds in 1925, she came of age when Nazism had conquered Europe and Britain stood alone. She studied dispensing at Leeds University and was evacuated to Stoke Poges and Slough after the outbreak of war. She spent part of the war years on the south-east coast near the Straits of Dover, delivering medicines to country doctors and bore witness to the military struggle against Hitler. It was the experience of those years – the revelations of the Shoah and the rise of Israel – that propelled her to work for the refuseniks thirty years later.
Following the end of World War II, she moved to London and married David Becker in March 1950.
Sylvia was a WIZO lady who first began to perceive what was happening in the USSR when Rivka Aleksandrovich came to speak to the organisation in May 1971. Rivka’s daughter, Ruth, was about to go on trial in Riga in a country-wide attempt by the KGB to suppress an embryonic Jewish movement for emigration to Israel. At the end of the meeting, Sylvia nervously approached the organisers to volunteer her services.
Sylvia’s awareness came about as many British Jews similarly began to understand the struggle of Soviet Jews – in particular following the attempt of Soviet Jews to seize a small aircraft on the tarmac of Smolny airport in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and fly across the border to start a new life in Israel. Before the Six Day war in 1967, very few Soviet Jews were allowed to leave the USSR. After August 1968, this handful became a trickle, but in parallel a mass movement of Jews arose in the midst of a deep anger at Israel’s victory. Sylvia read the first collective letters from refuseniks which were published in the late 1960s.
In this country the campaign had been advanced mainly through the Universities Committee for Soviet Jewry – a student campaign led by Malcolm Lewis, Gordon Hausmann, Jonathan Lewis and others. The planning for the first march to the Soviet Embassy in May 1966 had to be kept from communal bodies for fear that they would stop it. Even though the Board of Deputies did establish a working group, Sylvia felt that the community was moving far too slowly – for her, the cause of Soviet Jewry was ‘the struggle of our generation’. She often railed against the prevailing view that British Jews should not attract attention to themselves and that ‘we should leave it to official bodies’.
She first worked with Deborah Lloyd through the Board of Deputies to develop an ‘adopt a Soviet Jew’ scheme which subsequently proliferated through the Jewish community. She became one of the first members of the 35s despite her admonition that she was undoubtedly no longer 35 years of age. Indeed the police called her ‘the grandmother’ when she appeared at demonstrations.
In 1971 Sylvia took part in a hunger strike for Raisa Palatnik, a 35 year old refusenik in Odessa. Initially Jewish women, incarcerated in strict regime labour camps, such as Ruth Aleksandrovich and Silva Zalmanson, were the focus of attention, but this broadened as the 35s became more confident and more adept at instantly reacting to events in the USSR.
Throughout 1971, Sylvia attended numerous demonstrations such as the lighting of Chanukah candles outside the Soviet Embassy in Bayswater to commemorate the first anniversary of the First Leningrad trial of ‘the aeroplane people’ – in which Edward Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits were initially sentenced to death. In February 1972 Greville Janner’s All Parliamentary Committee for the Release of Soviet Jewry organised a prison meal of cabbage soup, herring, black bread and water at the House of Commons. Sylvia remarked that the smell of it lingered with her long after this symbolic Gulag lunch had ended.
The 35s were adept at finding an angle to publicise the plight of a particular Soviet Jew. They often relied on indirect information from the police or indeed ‘careless’ comments from visiting Special Branch personnel to the 35s office in Golders Green. In this fashion, Sylvia and the other 35s were always able to discover when and where Soviet delegations would be present. So Sylvia participated in a demonstration in May 1974 at Highgate Cemetery when they learned that Soviet dignitaries would visit Karl Marx’s tomb – she appeared, dressed as a ghost!
The 35s were very careful not to antagonise the British public and tried to work within the letter of the law. Demonstrations took place outside the London Coliseum when the Bolshoi ballet visited and not inside. Gradually they began to be taken seriously by both political figures and Foreign Office diplomats. On one occasion, prime minister Harold Wilson came over to one of their demonstrations and urged Sylvia and the others to continue their activities.
Initially Sylvia was involved with producing the 35s weekly newsletter. She then spoke at parlour meetings in London and at many other locations in the UK which in turn spawned new groups.
Sylvia was particularly involved with the case of the brothers, Isai and Grigory Goldshtein, who lived in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. They renounced their Soviet citizenship in protest about the USSR’s attitude towards the killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
She visited Moscow in 1976 and 1979 and met many refuseniks such as Natan Sharansky. On visiting the apartment of the Hebrew teacher, Yuli Kosharovsky, she noticed Hebrew writing on a blackboard and regretted that she had never availed herself of the many possibilities to learn the language in London. She later commented that she felt ashamed that ‘I had a British passport and could leave at the end of my visit, leaving these people behind. At that time, they had no idea if and when they would get out.’
She felt a continuing disdain for official communal bodies as well as for Lishkat Hakesher, the untitled Israeli centre for securing the emigration of Soviet Jews. In contrast she respected the efforts of Michael Sherbourne who regularly telephoned the refuseniks from his London home and became a source of indispensable and instant information.
In January 1980 she made aliyah to be with her family, moved to East Talpiot in Jerusalem and initially worked with the left wing writer Dan Leon at the Jewish Agency. At the age of 60, she found employment as Head Librarian for the Medical Section with Rafa Pharmaceuticals in Jerusalem. She became such a treasured employee that she voluntarily worked there in her late eighties. Since she was partially immobile by then, the Rafa management would collect her and take her back each day. The firm even made a company party to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. A remarkable employer of a remarkable employee.
My personal association with Sylvia goes back to those early days in 1971, the ‘adopt a Soviet Jew’ scheme and the establishment of the 35s. I would meet her every Monday morning when I briefed the 35s. Our friendship continued long after I formally left the Soviet Jewry campaign in 1975 and she went to Israel.
She was neither an intellectual nor a radical, but kind, soft-spoken and gentle, someone who immediately understood what was the right thing to do. She was oblivious to materialism, never played politics, but acted from a clear sense of right and wrong. She understood that it was important to stand up and be counted – and never shirked from that conviction.
She moved into a home in Ramat Eshkol, Jerusalem in her eighties while still active, not wishing to become a burden to her family in the future. I always felt very privileged that the photograph of my family appeared with those of her loved ones in her small room. She left behind three daughters, Janine, Rosalind and Valerie, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren – all of whom live in Israel.
Sylvia passed away a few weeks short of her 94th birthday – a long life of commitment to the cause of our people. As Shemayah taught: ‘Love work, hate public office and do not strive to make yourself known to the ruling power’. She embodied this sentiment, but stepped out of this moral anonymity when she was called upon to act. Undoubtedly she made a difference.