The Obsession : For years, Si Frumkin irked the Jewish Establishment with his crusade to aid Soviet Jews. Now his cause is in the mainstream.
Head down, Si Frumkin stood quietly as he was introduced to the group of about 35 affluent mainstream Jews. Although he was, for decades, one of the most relentless and troublesome voices speaking out on behalf of Soviet Jews, few in the room had heard of him.
Frumkin mock-winced in embarrassment as the introduction was ended: “Since he retired in 1987, he has been devoting his full life to doing good deeds.”
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Aug. 31, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 31, 1990 Home Edition View Part E Page 4 Column 3 View Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Si Frumkin--A display quote was incorrectly attributed in Thursday’s View section. It was Zev Yaroslavsky who said, “The problem (with the Jewish Establishment) was not fear of our actions’ effect on Jews in the Soviet Union. It was ego, turf and bureaucracy. We were making news.”
Uncharacteristically formal in a tie and tweed jacket, Frumkin greeted them with his characteristic ironic humor, which often stops just short of sarcasm.
Congratulations, he told the group, for having such smart parents and grandparents. They “got out.” Otherwise they would not be sitting in a living room in Beverly Hills, but in Minsk or Kiev, waiting for Operation Exodus to get them out now.
It was an unusual setting for Frumkin, now 60, a man whose battle for Soviet Jews has often set him outside of, or at odds with, local Jewish leadership. He has said of himself and the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews that he founded in 1968: “Frankly the Jewish Establishment doesn’t like what we do.” Yet, here he was at a parlor meeting for Operation Exodus, the massive fund-raising campaign to evacuate the Jews from the Soviet Union and help them settle in Israel.
Parlor meetings and fund raising are not his style. He is more comfortable in front of a street demonstration with a bullhorn or at an office machine churning out copies of “his latest” for every member of Congress.
Over the decades he has moved radically from the left to the right, partly because of his single-mindedness about his cause. But he has kept his objective and has seen his issue become mainstream.
Frumkin, a Holocaust survivor, alluded only briefly to “the camps,” concentrating instead on what happened to the survivors after liberation.
“The world didn’t give a damn. We were an embarrassment. The world didn’t know what to do with us. It would have been better if we had died.”
His rage was all the more forceful for its containment. It lent authority and urgency to his remarks, his point being, “Now there is a place for Jews to go--Israel.”
In the late ‘60s a message from Soviet Jews began reaching the West, “Why have you forgotten us?” he said. “We remember now. After decades of fighting (for their right to emigrate), now we’re getting our wish.” He did not describe that fighting, the years of demonstrations at Soviet cultural events, of confrontations with the guardians of bureaucratic procedures, of being a gadfly to the discomfort and embarrassment of many in the Jewish Establishment. He has often called himself obsessed and driven in those years, and readily says it made him “a lousy father” to two sons, now grown, and broke up his marriage.
He did tell, however, of his recent trips to the Soviet Union which led him to one conclusion: “They’ve got to get out of there.”
Before the parlor meeting was over, those assembled would fill out pledge cards amounting to more than $200,000, bringing Los Angeles that much closer to its goal of $36 million, part of a national goal of $420 million and a worldwide goal of $600 million.
One man, Eugene Davis, clearly impressed and moved by Frumkin, went up to him at the end and said, “Si, you’re a book that needs reading.”
Si Frumkin lives in Studio City with his second wife, Kathy. He runs the council out of a crammed study where the combination of office machines and weightlifting equipment leaves little room to walk.
There is plenty to look at though: The walls are covered with photographs of demonstrations and pictures of Frumkin with President Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Sen. Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.), Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), television commentator Bruce Herschensohn), newsman George Putnam.
He has hung his family photos near the entry and history has given them a haunting effect. Most were taken in Lithuania in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Innocence, well-being, family ties and affection hang suspended in a time without much strife. Mother and son, grandfather as a schoolboy in the uniform of his military academy, a New Year’s Eve party where the guests, his parents among them, in white-tie-and-tails elegance have paused, Champagne glasses in hand, for a semi-formal portrait.
One picture stands out: his parents leaning on a fence in the woods on a sunny day, a little dog between them on the fence rail.
“That was Tommy, my terrier. The Germans took him away. They wanted him because he was a purebred. It was just as well--we couldn’t feed him.”
Before he became Prisoner 82191 of Dachau, he was born and started to grow up in Kaunas as Simas Frumkinas. His was “a prominent family in an East European town,” Frumkin said. His father was an automobile and motorcycle dealer, and when the Harley-Davidson salesman visited, he brought Si a present.
“I was the only kid in Lithuania with a Mickey Mouse toothbrush.”
Affluent and assimilated, there was no shtetl life, no Yiddish, no visits to the synagogue. Just a yearly Passover dinner.
To this day he is “quite irreligious” explaining it away a little lamely, saying, “I never acquired the habit. I never learned the prayers. I never made my bar mitzvah--by then I was in the camps.”
The good life ended in stages. When the Soviets took over Lithuania in 1940, communism ended his father’s business. In 1941 the Germans came, and the 40,000 Jews of Kaunas were herded into a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. When the ghetto was evacuated in 1944, there were about 7,000 surviving. The women were deported to Poland, the men to Germany. His father died “of weakness” 20 days before Dachau was liberated in 1945. Frumkin was 14.
Deciding against a return to the Soviet Union, where survivors were being treated as collaborators, he joined the thousands wandering around Europe and made his way through the chaos to Italy where he and his mother reunited.
“I didn’t resent the fact nobody wanted us. It didn’t occur to me I had that right. Who knew from human rights? I didn’t really even resent the Nazis. I was scared of them, but I didn’t question it. It was like being scared of an earthquake.”
Rather, he said, “I wanted to go to the movies and chew gum. More than anything else I wanted to go to school and catch up on my education. I knew I was ignorant.”
He studied in Switzerland and England, emigrated briefly to Venezuela before coming to New York in 1949. He graduated from New York University in 1953. Years later, when he was married, living in Los Angeles and running the Universal Drapery Co. out of a Skid Row building, he earned a master’s degree in history from Cal State Northridge at night.
Once the message from Soviet Jews reached him, “Why have you forgotten us,” Frumkin’s drapery company increasingly became a sideline. His grab for normalcy seems to have come to a complete and permanent halt.
L.A. Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky’s stories about the early days of working with Frumkin on behalf of Soviet Jewry kept him going for two hours late one afternoon in his office at City Hall. If there is one story that sums up Si Frumkin, however, he would have to choose the one about the toilet plunger.
A Soviet freighter came into Los Angeles Harbor in the early ‘70s, and Yaroslavsky and Frumkin rented a motorboat and chugged out to the ship, intending to paint “Let the Jews Go” on the side. But how to stay in place once the engine was shut off? Frumkin solved the problem. They moored themselves to the freighter with a toilet plunger.
“He’s such a smart man,” Yaroslavsky said, chuckling fondly. “He’s so quick. His talents are so interchangeable. He’ll be translating Russian one minute, fixing the refrigerator the next, figuring out the toilet plunger.”
Mention “Soviet Jews” in 1968, Frumkin said recently, and the average American, Jews included, would probably be puzzled, unaware that there were any Soviet Jews.
Once they were on Frumkin’s mind, however, he was not going to rest. The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles had a Commission on Soviet Jewry and Frumkin went to volunteer. He heard nothing for six months, he said, then learned a demonstration was planned during Passover in the Fairfax area.
Thinking “the more publicity the better,” he said, Frumkin took it upon himself to approach then-Councilman Tom Bradley, not going through channels. Bradley declared Soviet Jewry Day. “Did I get in trouble!” Frumkin said. “They told me I’d offended other councilmen.”
It was a bad fit from the beginning.
“Si was always more activist than corporate,” Yaroslavsky explained. They met through the demonstration where Yaroslavsky, a UCLA student and leader of California Students for Soviet Jewry, spoke on his recent trip to the Soviet Union.
Both men found the Jewish Establishment, as represented by the Federation, too conservative, cautious and bureaucratic. Whatever their ideas, such as a candlelight walk in Westwood for Hanukkah, they were always cautioned not to rock the boat.
The activist split off from Federation, formed the Council, teamed up with the student leader, and got going. Their modus operandi often bore the stamp of Frumkin’s prankish wit.
They hired a helicopter to fly over the Super Bowl with a banner: “Save Soviet Jewry.” When Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev visited President Richard Nixon at San Clemente, they released 5,000 helium-filled balloons imprinted with “Let My People Go.” When the Bolshoi Ballet came, they distributed fake programs outside the Shrine Auditorium which said: “Enjoy the show, but . . . “
They got accused of scare tactics, of intimidation in some of their boycott threats, such as their efforts to stop travel agents from promoting trips to the Soviet Union.
“We found out there were other nuts like us across the country,” Frumkin said. They teamed up to form the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.
Gimmicks such as sending greeting cards to Soviet Jews and the adopt-a-refusenik-family campaign were adopted across the country by synagogues. “Virtually everything that was done emanated from Si’s head,” Yaroslavsky said.
“The problem (with the Jewish Establishment) was not fear of our actions’ effect on Jews in the Soviet Union. It was ego, turf and bureaucracy. We were making news. How do you explain to your boss, if you’re being paid $41,000 a year in 1971 to do it, and there’s this drapery salesman putting 10,000 people in the street?”
Havi Scheindlin, who directed the Commission in the late ‘70s, recalled recently, “I was told, ‘Don’t get involved with his group. They have a different philosophy.’ ”
There was an ideological split, she said. Frumkin, for example, worked with other dissident groups in the Soviet Union, rather than keeping Jews separate. Frumkin says he was often at odds with Israel and its supporters, because his Council insisted Jews should be allowed to emigrate wherever they wanted, not forced to go to Israel.
Whatever the differences, Frumkin and Yaroslavsky describe them in the past tense. In fact, Frumkin is now a member of the Commission’s executive board.
“The organized Jewish community came late to the issue,” Scheindlin said. “If not for Si and Zev, it would never have happened to such a degree. By the end of my tenure there, it had happened. We were an issue to be contended with.”
By 1976, 72,000 Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Their cause was a mainstream issue and Frumkin was burned out. He pulled back and the Council became dormant until the Gorbachev years.
Frumkin is his own best enemy when it comes to slowing down. Having done well in the drapery business, and owning two commercial buildings, he was able to retire in 1987. “I never realized retirement could be such an Olympic event,” he said dryly of his life now. He is driven, acknowledges he is full of survivor’s guilt and a sense that he owes. He is seemingly incapable of not responding to the problem at hand.
Once the Soviet Jews started arriving here, he realized existing efforts to help them adjust were inadequate. He was a founding member of the Assn. of Soviet Jewish Emigres. There are lectures of the “how to write a resume and go on an interview” genre, clothing and household goods giveaways, a network of free medical care providers. Those who are established are urged to help the newcomers.
“They came in very poor and very selfish,” he told the group at the Operation Exodus gathering. “I’m happy to say, some of them are starting to give back. They’re becoming mensches (responsible people) like the rest of us.”
He speaks to students twice a week during the school year for the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, writes a weekly column for the B’nai B’rith Messenger and translates it for Panorama, a Russian-language weekly newspaper. His reactivated Council is sending books on Judaism and the history of anti-Semitism to Soviet Jews by the thousands. He keeps up the pressure on Soviet and American bureaucracies about visas. He does not stop.
The pictures of Frumkin with conservative politicians and right-wing personalities are not the only indicator that the former Vietnam War protester has hung a right.
His columns often wave the flag for America or Israel, and he comes down hard on peaceniks, anti-interventionists, Palestinian sympathizers, would-be flag burners, affirmative action advocates.
“As time goes by, I suppose I’ve gotten righter and righter. At one time, I was on the board of Americans for Democratic Action. I have learned about the Soviet bloc and the oppression taking place. I have come to learn that communism and extreme socialism always hurts people . . .
“And I’ve come to see that left-wing believers are a much greater menace to Jews than others. It’s the left wing that raised anti-Semitism to the point where it is almost acceptable if you call it anti-Zionism. ‘Zionism is racism'--that’s infamous.”
He sees a double standard operating often, for example, holding Israel to a higher standard than its neighbors, or making allowances for certain actions of minorities. He rejects it out of hand, arguing with a stubborn logic that keeps a narrow focus.
He can work himself into a fury quickly and come out with hard-nosed statements.
Taking the wrongfulness and “absurdity of classifying human beings by race” as a starting point, he took off on a tangent that included a scornful dismissal of recent Los Angeles County reapportionment attempts to ensure more Latino representation, and a question about why, if South Africa is so bad, do so many black Africans from other countries try to get in?
“It’s nonsense and it annoys the hell out of me,” he said of quotas and an affirmative action mentality, before moving on the Middle East.
“Israel is the only country in the world where Arabs can vote and sit in Parliament,” he said.
“So Jews bought a building in East Jerusalem and want to live there, in the Arab quarter. Why not? There are Arabs living in the Jewish quarter and nobody talks about that.”
And then, the fury spent, he was back to being his own different drummer:
“Having said all this, it’s entirely possible if I were an Arab on the West Bank, I’d be out on the street throwing rocks. Once you believe you’re oppressed . . . “
At best, his stubbornness is idealistic, based on a lot of “shoulds.”
“I am idealistic,” he said smiling, calmed down to irony again. “I guess I’m looking for fairness in an unfair world.”