A woman who played a major role in personalizing the battle for the release of Soviet Jews in the 1970s is now in the midst of her own battle — for the kidney transplant to save her life.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Enid Wurtman, now 70, became involved with the cause of Soviet Jewry, working on publicity, fund-raising and political activism from her home in Philadelphia. She is credited with putting a face to each refusenik’s story in a way that galvanized greater Jewish support. After moving with her family to Israel in 1977, Wurtman continued to work with immigrants from the former Soviet Union and does so to this day.
However, in 2010, Wurtman’s own campaign began when she was diagnosed with kidney failure. Her health has been in decline ever since and now Wurtman desperately requires a kidney transplant.
In June, she found the person who might save her. An altruistic Israeli donor came forward, but there are still multiple obstacles ahead before the transplant can be finalized. She is now in the midst of a two- to three-month waiting period; the donor must pass numerous tests and the transplant still requires approval from the National Kidney Board, Wurtman said.
While waiting for a kidney, Wurtman, now a grandmother of six, continues to charge ahead with her life’s work.
It all began in 1973 when she and her husband went on what was meant to be a leisurely Russian getaway
It all began in 1973 when she and her husband Stuart went on what was meant to be a leisurely Russian getaway. Instead of relaxation, they underwent a transformation, Wurtman said, when they encountered Jewish would-be emigrants trapped in the USSR.
Wurtman was a social worker living with Stuart and two small children in Philadelphia. After meeting the brave “Prisoners of Zion” on the streets of Leningrad and Moscow, Wurtman and her husband, who died this April, devoted themselves to raising awareness and support on behalf of their new friends.
At that time, the refusenik movement barely existed, Wurtman said. According to her son Elie, his parents’ active campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry sparked the North American Jewish community into action. “My mom lived every day of her life speaking, organizing and bringing in more activists,” he recalls.
The Wurtmans created an organization in Philadelphia for Soviet Jewry and formed “adopt-a-family” committees with individuals, synagogues and organizations.
‘All of a sudden, each refusenik was a hero with a name and a face that people could relate to’
Elie attributes his mother’s success to her modest but passionate presentation of the Soviet plight. “She would tell the story of each person, building personal relationships between them and North American communities. All of a sudden, each refusenik was a hero with a name and a face that people could relate to,” he says.
As the Wurtmans became more entrenched in the movement, they decided it was incumbent on them to continue their work in Israel, where refuseniks so desperately desired to be, Wurtman said. The family moved in 1977 to Jerusalem, where their third child was later born.
Wurtman and her husband immediately formed a volunteer group for Soviet Jewry in Jerusalem. Enid worked for the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry in Tel Aviv and wrote a bi-monthly column for The Jerusalem Post.
Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed and the exit gates were opened. In the interim, Wurtman is credited with having helped save countless lives.
‘We didn’t think it was possible. We used to feel that we were wrenching people out of the Soviet Union one by one’
“We didn’t think it was possible,” she admits. “We used to feel that we were wrenching people out of the Soviet Union one by one.”
Even after the Iron Curtain fell, Wurtman remained a steadfast activist. She was there to greet the “released” Prisoners of Zion as they stepped off the plane and has been there ever since, helping them through the absorption process and beyond.
Recently, Wurtman started the Emergency Aid for Refuseniks fund, for those who are struggling financially in Israel. Many new immigrants in the Russian community grapple to establish new careers, with their pensions barely enough to get by, Wurtman said. Just like in Philadelphia, when Wurtman discovers a former refusenik in need, she personally picks up the phone to raise money on his or her behalf.
Wurtman has made loyal and lifelong friendships through her years of activism. “My greatest joy,” she said, “is seeing the former refuseniks integrating and enjoying their lives in Israel.”
Her friendship with Natan Sharansky is one of those which began on the streets of the FSU and continues to this day. Sharansky has been close to her family in Israel and gave the eulogy at husband Stuart’s funeral in April. He said of Wurtman, “No one spent more energy in Israel to help those former refuseniks than Enid.”
Wurtman was involved from the early stages of Sharansky’s Soviet Jewry activism. In 1976 she went to see the charismatic spokesperson of the refusenik movement, only a few months before he was imprisoned, and transferred tapes between him and his wife, Avital.
Another old friend is Yuli Kosharovsky, who ran a high-risk network of underground Hebrew language classes for the refuseniks while waiting 18 years to get to lsrael. Kosharovsky has now written four books chronicling the history of Soviet Jewry, and Wurtman is currently helping to convert the volumes into a website with English translation.
‘She was completely devoted, crazy to the point where no logic, no family could stop her from helping us’
“Because of people like Enid, we could stand all the suffering,” said Kosharovsky. “If these two million came out to freedom and if several thousand didn’t die, it’s thanks to people like Enid. She was completely devoted, crazy to the point where no logic, no family could stop her from helping us. It was almost an obsession.”
Wurtman’s own struggle is not yet behind her. She continues to undergo dialysis three times a week, and a back-up kidney would be comforting, Wurtman said. Meanwhile, her campaign continues.
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