Remembering Sylvia Becker

One of the celebrated Women in Black, the 35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, Sylvia Becker, who has died aged 93, spent the 1970s committed to the cause before moving to Israel in 1980 and fading back into family life.

Leeds-born Sylvia Rosenhead studied dispensing at Leeds University and was evacuated to Stoke Poges and Slough during the Second World War, which she spent delivering medicines to country doctors. She married David Becker in March, 1950, and moved to London. In May, 1971 she heard Rivka Aleksandrovich address WIZO in May, 1971, on the eve of the trial of her daughter Ruth in Riga as the KGB tried to suppress an embryonic aliyah movement.

For Sylvia, the cause of Soviet Jewry was “the struggle of our generation.” She railed against the prevailing view that British Jews should not attract attention, and began working with Deborah Lloyd through the Board of Deputies to develop the popular Adopt a Soviet Jew’ scheme. A founder member of the 35s, in 1971 she took part in a hunger strike for Raisa Palatnik, a 35 year old refusenik in Odessa. Initially Jewish women in labour camps, like Ruth Aleksandrovich and Silva Zalmanson, were the focus of attention, but this broadened as the 35s increasingly reacted to Soviet events.

Throughout 1971, Sylvia attended demos like the lighting of Chanukah candles outside London’s Soviet Embassy to commemorate the first anniversary of the Leningrad trial of Edward Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits who tried to hijack a small aircraft to draw attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. (Their death sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison after international protests.)

Sylvia participated in a May, 1974 demo at Highgate Cemetery when police or diplomatic sources revealed that Soviet dignitaries would visit Karl Marx’s tomb. She appeared dressed as a ghost! Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who attended one of their demos, urged them to continue their activities.

Sylvia began addressing meetings in London and the UK, which spawned new groups. She was involved with the case of the Tbilisi brothers, Isai and Grigory Goldshtein, who renounced their Soviet citizenship in protest at 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 noted refuseniks like Natan Sharansky. In January, 1980 she joined her family in Jerusalem and worked with left-wing writer Dan Leon at the Jewish Agency. At the age of 60, she became Head Librarian for the Medical Section with Rafa Pharmaceuticals and continued there into her late 80s. Partially immobile now, the management arranged her daily transport, celebrating her 90th birthday with a party.

My personal association with Sylvia goes back to 1971, with the establishment of the 35s, whom I briefed every Monday morning. Our friendship continued long after I formally left the Soviet Jewry campaign in 1975 and she went to Israel. Kind and soft-spoken, she was neither an intellectual nor a radical, but someone who immediately understood the right thing to do.

She moved into a home in Ramat Eshkol, Jerusalem in her 80s and is survived by three daughters, Janine, Rosalind and Valerie, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren – all of whom live in Israel.

Jewish Chronicle 10 May 2019

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