Eva Ritt donates Soviet Jewry collection to Yeshiva University
NEW YORK-Eva London Ritt of Winter Park, Fla., has gifted her personal collection of materials from the Soviet Jewry movement to the Yeshiva University Archives.
Ritt dedicated the donation of two archival boxes of correspondence, newspaper clippings, photographs and artifacts of work to free Soviet Jews during the 1970s and 1980s in memory of her late husband David Elliott Ritt z"l who, she said, was her greatest supporter, and in honor of all those who participated with her in this effort.
"I'm very glad that the archives found a home," she said. "It's an important part of modern day Jewish history, to see the grass roots effort and organizations that worked together and were successful. It's what the Jewish community of Central Florida did. It's important for future generations to know."
The grass roots effort Ritt spoke about began back in the 1970s when Ritt learned of the struggle and plight of the Soviet Jews-Jews who were not allowed to live as Jews and were beginning to demand their freedom. Familiar freedom fighters of that time were Anatoly Sharansky (now Natan Sharon of Israel) and Ida Nudel.
A Holocaust survivor herself, Ritt knew she could not be silent and had to help their cause by becoming personally involved. She began writing letters to political leaders, including Presidents Ford and Carter, senators and congressmen. She (along with several members of Congregation of Reform Judaism) became telephone friends with Boris Gurevich of Irkutsk, Siberia, and for his family became a living connection and a hope.
"A man is dying; and his eldest son and grandchildren cannot be near him-he may never see them again," began a letter she wrote to President Ford in September 1974 on Gurevich's behalf. His father lived in Israel and was dying from cancer. Russia would not let his family leave. Ritt also wrote to Alisa Begin, wife of Prime Minister Begin, in 1979 on behalf of housing problems that a family of Russian immigrants to Israel were having. She received a letter of response with the good news that the family would quickly be in their apartment.
Ritt became the chairwoman of the Jewish Federation's Soviet Jewry Committee and was instrumental in bringing awareness to the community of the imprisonment and isolation of the Jews speaking out in the former Soviet Union. Once she even chastised the Orlando Jewish community in an open letter printed in The Heritage in 1977 for the indifference shown by lack of attendence when a relative of a Refusenik came to speak at a Human Rights Day program. "A love for Israel and a love for Judaism includes a dedication to save Soviet Jews... Jews anywhere!" she passionately proclaimed. She ended the letter with "What must happen to make you care and act? I hear echoes of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen. You are the Soviet Jews only hope." And because Ritt fully believed this, she acted and made a difference.
The documents and memorabilia supplemented the YU Archives' more than 300 archival boxes from Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ) founder Jacob Birnbaum's z"l collection. Ritt noted that Glenn Richter, former national coordinator of SSSJ, interviewed her and other former Soviet Jewry activists as part of an ongoing oral history project that he is donating to YU. He also encouraged her to add her collection to the YU Archives.
"We have a very serious and important Soviet Jewry collection," said Shuli Berger, YU's curator of special collections. "The SSSJ Archives put us on the map as a center for study of the Soviet Jewry movement, particularly in the United States. Many researchers come to consult it and students from inside and outside YU use it for dissertations. We have primarily New York material in our archives so this adds to the overall picture since there were many local, grassroots organizations. It's interesting to flesh it out and see what was going on in the rest of the country because it wasn't only a New York centric movement."
"I admire Yeshiva University for the Jewish learning center that it is," Ritt added. "I'm glad the archives will be there for future generations to learn from."
Christine DeSouza contributed to this article.