When they finally met with Irma Chernyak, they fell in love with him, Connie said.
"When we said goodbye, we didn't know what would happen to him, and I started to cry," she said. "He said, 'Connie, don't cry for me. For the first time in my life, I'm a man, not a mouse.'"
They saw Chernyak again in the summer of 1975 and told him they'd return to see him a year later. But in February 1976, at 4 a.m., their home phone rang. The Israeli Embassy in Vienna, Austria, was calling. "We just want you to know that Irma Chernyak has come out of the Soviet Union, and he wanted us to call you."
The embassy planned to send him to Israel, but the Smuklers had other ideas. The couple was flying to Brussels, Belgium, the next day to attend a world conference on Soviet Jewry, and they wanted Chernyak to join them. They also suspected he had been released ahead of the conference on purpose; letting people go made the Soviets look better.
At the gathering, the Smuklers realized how global this movement had become. There were delegations from countries where they knew activism was strong, such as Britain and France. But there were also delegations from countries that surprised them, including Argentina, Mexico and Zaire (now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo).
As the lights went down, the Israeli delegation walked on stage. Among them were Israeli leaders such as Menachem Begin and Golda Meir. Each one held a candle.
What happened next still makes Connie cry.
"The last one was Irma (Chernyak)," she said, her voice cracking. "He was the newest Israeli citizen."
Soviet Jews had become pawns, author Beckerman said -- let go when the Kremlin needed good PR and refused when anger at the West was strongest. After the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, for example, the numbers dropped.
Much of the concern was about appearances. To let people flee in droves, Beckerman said, would be an admission that life under the Soviet regime wasn't paradise.
"The threat of people leaving was an existential one," he said. "The leaders didn't believe their own propaganda at the end, but they needed the people to believe."
In the 1970s, Connie became a target of Soviet propaganda herself. She began receiving hundreds of letters from citizens who'd been told by the KGB to tell her how wonderful their lives were. She had to sign for each envelope. Eventually, she told her confused and concerned postman the whole story. The letters kept coming for five years.
Connie, now 74 and recently widowed, was one of 12,000 who traveled from Philadelphia to Washington for the December 1987 rally. Like so many other American Jews at that time, the suburban housewife and mother of three didn't want to stand by silently as she believed her parents' generation had done during the Holocaust. In the process, she found her voice.
"I became a very independent young woman," she said. "My raison d'être for the rest of my life is to get this story out."
Threats of Siberia
The Smuklers were in this fight with others across the country, including Joel and Adele Sandberg of Miami, who raised their three kids in the Soviet Jewry movement.
People gathered in their home for meetings. When refuseniks got out and went on speaking tours, they'd stay in the Sandberg home. The kids were schlepped to protests whenever a Moscow-based circus, symphony or ballet came to town.
The Sandbergs enlisted the help of people outside the Jewish community. They armed hundreds of tourists with letters, books and jeans and sent them to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and gather information. Selling a pair of jeans on the black market could feed a family for a month. The case histories of refuseniks were published and distributed to media, members of Congress and activists worldwide.
Joel, a 69-year-old ophthalmologist, was active in a group that tracked prisoners' health and made sure refuseniks got medicines they needed. When they learned the Soviet regime was forcing some refuseniks into psychiatric hospitals, having deemed them crazy for wanting to leave, they made noise.
"At one point," he said, describing the lengths they'd go to help someone in need, "we sent over a heart valve with a congressman."
In 1975, leaving their 6, 4 and 2-year-old kids with grandparents, the couple made their only trip to the Soviet Union.
Their unintended last stop was Kishinev (now Chisinau), the capital of Moldova.
After passing through a group of KGB men keeping watch outside an apartment building, they climbed the stairs and knocked on the door of Mark Abramovich, the leader of the city's refusenik community.
"We are friends from Miami," they said. They had arrived unannounced and were the first American visitors to Kishinev in more than a year.
Abramovich opened the door. "Are you afraid?" he asked.