Tillie Bishop honored for his support of ‘refuseniks’

Tillie Bishop, who during his years in the state Legislature led a letter-writing effort to Soviet leaders on behalf of imprisoned Jews and others, will be honored Saturday during a service at Congregation Ohr Shalom.

Bishop, a Grand Junction Republican who served four years in the Colorado House and 24 years in the Senate, worked with Rep. Jerry Kopel, a Denver Democrat, to free the so-called Leningrad Three.

Bishop and Kopel were recognized in 2009 by the Russian Jewish Community Foundation.

On Saturday, the Grand Junction Jewish congregation will remember the effort during the Yom HaShoa memorial service to remember the victims of the Holocaust.

“In addition to recognizing and mourning all who perished, it’s equally important to recognize and thank those who acted unselfishly and without motive to help others to survive,” congregation member Joseph E. Breman said.

The Leningrad Three were arrested in 1970 when their plan to fly out of the Soviet Union to Sweden failed, Bishop said.

Refuseniks were people whose applications to emigrate from Soviet countries were refused.

Most refuseniks were Jewish, but two of the Leningrad Three, Yuri Federov and Alexei Murzhenko, were Christians. The third, Iosif Mendelevich, was Jewish.

The arrests and sentencing of the Leningrad Three sparked worldwide condemnation that prompted Kopel to ask Bishop to lead a letter-writing effort among state senators, Bishop said.

“It was a five-year endeavor” in which politicians and officials in Colorado wrote to officials in the USSR and to the prisoners, knowing full well the mail would be opened and read by the captors, Bishop said.

Bishop made the rounds about every month among the senators, asking whether they had written their letters, and Kopel did the same in the House, Bishop said.

Though they had samples, “We didn’t want form letters,” so the legislators were encouraged to write their own missives, he recalled.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that all of the Leningrad Three were released and allowed to emigrate. Two now live in Israel and one in the United States.

“For me it was a matter of human rights,” Bishop said. “How could we stand idly by when we knew what was going on and not try to free (them) from prison?”

Recognition from Congregation Ohr Shalom is an “unbelievable honor,” Bishop said.

The tale of the Colorado legislators and Soviet refuseniks is a “wonderful ecumenical story, and there are others like it around the world,” Breman said.

The 10 a.m. memorial service at Congregation Ohr Shalom, 441 Kennedy Ave., is open to the public.


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