Omaha woman who helped resettle persecuted Soviet Jews dies at 94

Shirley Goldstein kept red licorice near the door for visitors. She decorated statues outside her home for the holidays, and called each of her grandchildren “Cookie.”

And throughout the 1970s and ’80s, she thumbed her nose at the Soviet Union, smuggling contraband across its borders and helping to resettle Soviet Jews who weren’t allowed to leave.

Goldstein died Wednesday. She was 94.

Her efforts on behalf of Soviet Jews, particularly the “refuseniks” who were denied exit visas by the Soviet government, earned her international recognition. She would help resettle more than 100 refusenik families in the Omaha area.

At her funeral Friday at Beth El Synagogue, Rabbi Steven Abraham read a letter written for Goldstein by Israeli politician and former refusenik Natan Sharansky.

Friends and family remembered a sweet, grandmotherly figure whose demure nature hid a fighter’s spirit. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for what was right, they said. And when she set her mind to a task, she followed it through.

“She was ... ready to sacrifice 100 percent for a cause she knew was just,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis, one of the many Jews that Goldstein helped resettle in Omaha.

Born May 10, 1922, in Council Bluffs to Ben and Selma Gershun, Goldstein later attended Abraham Lincoln High School. While a teenager she met Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein. They were married in 1942 and remained so until Leonard’s death in 2012.

She was always proud of her Council Bluffs roots, her son, Don, said at the funeral. Whenever she found out a new acquaintance shared her hometown, “you were in for a trip down memory lane.”

Goldstein, it was said at the service, was “never one to play cards or sit by the pool at the country club.” In 1972 she and Buddy took a trip to the Soviet Union. She had hoped, she later told The World-Herald, to meet ordinary people and learn about their day-to-day lives.

“But it didn’t happen,” she said. “I didn’t meet a soul who was not on the approved and arranged list. I did the things I was supposed to do and went home. I was very frustrated.”

She visited again the following year, after taking classes in European studies and communism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. But this time, before she left, she phoned a New York advocacy group for Soviet Jews and asked for names and addresses of people to meet.

Goldstein and her daughter Gail, who accompanied her, met with a half dozen refusenik families on that trip. The families spoke of being harassed and imprisoned by authorities, of discrimination in housing and education, of losing their jobs and having opportunities denied.

“I saw a different side of my mother,” daughter Gail Raznick said of the trip, “a very brave, gutsy and determined one.”

In her travels to the Soviet Union, Goldstein often sneaked in contraband materials, such as denim, that she could give to Jews to sell to support themselves. When she left she took tape recordings of her conversations and names of refuseniks she could help once she returned to the States, said Gloria Kaslow, who worked with Goldstein to resettle Soviet Jews.

“(My mother) always said she felt so strongly because she was fortunate to be born when and where she was,” Don Goldstein said.

Goldstein returned to the Soviet Union for a third time in 1975, this time accompanied by World-Herald reporters. On that trip she met the young Sharansky, and with him secretly recorded an audiotape detailing Soviet persecution.

The “bathroom tape,” circulated throughout the international community, would put pressure on the Soviet government for its treatment of Jews.

By that time Goldstein was beginning to attract the attention of Soviet authorities.

As she prepared to return home from her third trip, eight Soviet officials thoroughly searched her luggage.

“They even took the nails out of the heels of some wooden sandals to see if anything was hidden behind them,” she told The World-Herald in 1987.

The Soviets refused to let her bring back a tube containing paintings made by Jewish children, bound for an exhibition in Washington, D.C.

“Rather than turn them over, I tore the paintings up and let the pieces drop to the floor. Then they made me pick them up,” she recounted.

Eventually, after more trips by Goldstein, Soviet authorities began refusing her visa requests.

Back home, she worked hard to publicize the plight of Soviet Jews. Along with friend Miriam Simon she founded the Omaha Committee for Soviet Jewry and persuaded the Jewish Federation to help fund resettlement efforts.

At her funeral Friday Rabbi Abraham said he was proud to have known Goldstein.

As they grow, his children may not remember meeting her, he said, “but they will hear of a housewife from Omaha who told the entire Soviet Union to ‘Let my people go.’ ”

Besides Raznick and son Don, Goldstein is survived by daughter Kathy Goldstein-Helm; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Memorials can be sent to the Welcoming a Stranger Fund at Beth El Synagogue or Rose Blumkin Jewish Home.