Lee Chottiner: Dave Armstrong’s meeting with refuseniks would change his life

Lee Chottiner

One night in Moscow, September 12, 1978, Dave Armstrong, who was visiting the Soviet Union with a delegation of U.S. prosecuting attorneys, feigned illness to his hosts after a night at the opera and returned to his hotel.
But he didn’t stay there.
One by one, members of the delegation, including the future mayor of Louisville, slipped away from the hotel and reassembled at the home of Dr. Benjamin Levich, an internationally known physical chemist and founder of the discipline of physico-chemical hydrodynamics.
Levich was also a Jew and a refusenik, one who applied in 1972 to go to Israel. Instead, Soviet authorities demoted him from his position at Moscow University and made him a janitor.
For three hours, Armstrong and his colleagues listened to Levich and 20 to 25 other Jews who gathered at his home.
“It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had,” Armstrong later told Community. “I had read about these wonderful courageous people, and now I met them face to face.”
Armstrong returned to Louisville a changed man. Though he never again visited the Soviet Union, he used his position as president of the National District Attorneys of America to promote the cause of refuseniks among his colleagues.
A long-time friend of Armstrong described him as “one of the most prominent elected officials in the country involved with Soviet Jewry,” someone who talked up the plight of the Soviet Jews to D.A.s everywhere he went.
Armstrong died earlier this year, June 15. While the news obituaries at the time were filled with his accomplishments – his work to create a unified metro government, his firing of a controversial police chief over a racially charged incident, his creation of the Jefferson County Office for Women while county chief executive – barely anything was written about that trip to the Soviet Union, or the night he slipped out of his hotel to meet Benjamin Levich.
How many politicians today would take that risk?
Like the Soviet Union, the plight of Soviet Jews, including refuseniks – who only wanted to live as Jews in Israel or elsewhere in the West – is fading from memory. Whole generations of Jews are growing up who weren’t alive during the Cold War. Why should they remember what happened during that time?
It’s a memory, though, that ought to be kept alive.

Dave Armstrong (right) seen here with then-Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold as they visited a synagogue in Tashkent. The photo appeared in the October 27, 1978, edition of Community.

Many Jews, like me, recall rallying on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1985 while Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting – hundreds of thousands of us from across the country, all demanding that the communist leader let our people go.
Some, like me, also sat in a hotel room in Jerusalem in 1987 listening as an American Jew described how he smuggled life-saving drugs into the Soviet Union, and how he referred to the place as a “God-awful country.”
Some traveled to Moscow or Leningrad carrying prayer books, tallit, anything Jews behind the Iron Curtain needed to stay Jewish.
But Armstrong was different. Born in Arkansas, raised in Alabama and Indiana, he had no ethnic or religious ties to the Jewish world.
Yet he was a person who cared about other people. His record showed as much. He spoke up.
Since September marks the 49th anniversary of Armstrong’s trip to the Soviet Union – and the first anniversary of that journey since his death, it seems appropriate to shed some light on it, to think back on that night he slipped away to meet Benjamin Levich.
Today, people still live their lives at risk, both in the United States and abroad. Too many individuals still worry whether they will be taken away because of who they are or where their parents are from.
Even American Jews still live in fear, as they did recently in Charlottesville, Virgina, when white supremacists posed not-so-veiled threats to the Beth Israel synagogue.
It’s a terrible way to live. Armstrong understood that, and he tried to do something about it.
Take some time during the High Holy Days to think about people living in the shadows. Consider their plight and what you can do to lessen to their hardship. For Dave Armstrong’s sake, if no one else’s.

(Lee Chottiner is the interim editor of Community.)

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