Laber, Jeri (Lidsky) 1931-

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LABER, Jeri (Lidsky) 1931-

PERSONAL: Born May 19, 1931, in New York, NY; daughter of Louis (an engineer) and Mae (Zias) Lidsky; married Austin Laber (an attorney), October 3, 1954 (divorced, 1978); married Charles M. Kuskin (a musician), June 19, 1994; children: Abigail, Pamela, Emily. Education: New York University, B.A., 1952; Columbia University, M.A., 1954.

ADDRESSES: Home—67 Riverside Dr., New York, NY 10024. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER: Current Digest of Soviet Press, New York, NY, foreign editor, 1954-56; Institute for Study of U.S.S.R., New York, NY, publications director, 1961-70; freelance writer and editor, 1970-75. Association of American Publishers, New York, NY, executive director of International Freedom to Publish Committee, 1977—; Fund for Free Expression, New York, NY, executive director, 1977-79; Helsinki Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, New York, NY, executive director, 1979-95; senior advisor, Human Rights Watch, 1995-2001.

MEMBER: Amnesty International, Index on Censorship (member of board), Fund for Free Expression (member of board), Council on Foreign Relations (New York, NY), American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Order of Merit from the Czech Republic; the Association of American Publishers established an annual monetary award in Laber's name starting in 2003 to honor a non-U.S. publisher "who has demonstrated courage and fortitude in the face of political persecution; Alumna of the Year, Harriman Institute, Columbia University, 2003."


Czechoslovakia: Some Soviet People Protest, Radio Liberty Committee, 1968.

(With Barnett R. Rubin) Tears, Blood, and Cries: Human Rights in Afghanistan since the Invasion, 1979-1984, Helsinki Watch Committee (New York, NY), 1984, supplement published as To Die in Afghanistan, Helsinki Watch Committee (New York, NY), 1985.

To Win the Children: Afghanistan's Other War, Helsinki Watch Committee (New York, NY), 1986.

(With Alice Henkin) Freedom and Fear: Human Rights in Turkey, U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee (New York, NY), 1986.

Destroying Ethnic Identity: The Turks of Bulgaria, Helsinki Watch Committee (New York, NY), 1987.

(With Lois Whitman) State of Flux: Human Rights in Turkey, Helsinki Watch Committee (New York, NY), 1987.

(With Barnett R. Rubin) A Nation Is Dying: Afghanistan under the Soviets, 1979-87, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1988.

(With Lois Whitman) Destroying Ethnic Identity: The Kurds of Turkey, U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee (New York, NY), 1988.

(Editor, with Lois Whitman) Erika Dailey, Human Rights in Moldova: The Turbulent Dniester, Helsinki Watch (New York, NY), 1993.

(Editor, with Alexander Petrov) Erika Dailey, Human Rights in Turkmenistan, Helsinki Watch (New York, NY), 1993.

(Editor) Erika Dailey, Human Rights in Uzbekistan, Helsinki Watch (New York, NY), 1993.

(Editor) Ivana Nizich, Civil and Political Rights in Croatia, Human Rights Watch (New York, NY), 1995.

(Editor, with Sidney Jones) Mickey Spiegel, China: State Control of Religion, Human Rights Watch (New York, NY), 1997.

The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement (memoir), preface by Václav Havel, PublicAffairs (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to numerous journals and newspapers, including the New Republic, Commentary, Worldview, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

SIDELIGHTS: Jeri Laber's career as a human rights activist began in the 1970s, after years of being a middle-class homemaker and mother. With little experience in politics or international relations, Laber was appointed a founding member of the Association of American Publishers' International Freedom to Publish Committee. In her memoir The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement, Laber recalls both the private and public facets of her life, from her sheltered upbringing to her efforts to free political dissidents up through the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. As a founder of Helsinki Watch, which later became Human Rights Watch, Laber has lobbied governments throughout the world on behalf of political dissidents and those suffering under inhumane conditions and regimes. In her high-profile missions, she has consulted with world leaders such as Mikhail Gorbachev and made friends with former political prisoners, including Czech president Václav Havel. In The Courage of Strangers, Laber assesses the road she has traveled, concluding that "in my work to help others, I became free and independent myself."

Laber's upbringing foreshadowed little of her eventual career. Her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who wanted their daughter to enjoy the comforts of American life and did not encourage the exploration of her Russian heritage. Yet Laber was inspired as a teenager after reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and later by an article in the New Republic about victims of torture in Greece. By the 1970s, she traded her comfortable suburban life for a career in international relations by aligning herself with those in the publishing industry who sought to bring the right to free speech to all corners of the globe. She cofounded Helsinki Rights Watch, a group whose purpose was to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords of 1976, in which Soviet bloc countries agreed to extend basic human rights to all its citizens. The organization lobbied governments on behalf of those who had been silence or imprisoned, helping to bring a wider recognition of all sorts of violations perpetrated by governments against those who simply sought to express their opinions.

During her years with Helsinki Rights Watch, Laber wrote and edited many reports about human rights violations in a number of countries, particularly Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union invaded in 1978. Other countries, which Laber and her organization monitored, include Turkmenistan, Bulgaria, and Uzbekistan. The group's work was furthered by grants from the Ford Foundation, and Laber herself received a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. By 1988, the organization changed its name to Human Rights Watch and gained even wider recognition for its work in bringing to light the cruelty suffered by political prisoners in all countries, not just those under Soviet control.

Laber has not always been welcomed with open arms in her work. She writes of an incident with Elliot Abrams, chief of the U.S. Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs under President Reagan, who called her lobbying attempts on behalf of Turkish citizens "shrill and uninformed." But with time and history on her side, Laber's work eventually saved many lives, a fact spotlighted when Havel gave her the Czech Republic Order of Merit.

Critics who praised The Courage of Strangers enjoyed it as much for its insights into Laber's career as for the history of the human rights movement itself. Even as the nascent movement began to make inroads into the problem of human suffering, Laber was frequently the lone woman on a world stage dominated by men. Gilbert Taylor of Booklist wrote of Laber's courage in her travels behind the Iron Curtain during the 1970s and 1980s—even as she suffered feelings of guilt over neglecting her children—and said that Laber's "passion shines brightly" in the book. Claudia La Rocco of the New York Times Book Review said that "Laber rarely strikes a false note" in recounting the emotional punch of interviewing tortured prisoners, and a writer for the Economist called it "an honest, moving and simple memoir which shows self-knowledge without self-indulgence." Kathleen Caldwell, writing in the online magazine Hope, praised Laber's "gift for storytelling," and called The Courage of Strangers "a thoughtful, but usually fast-paced, inside view of Eastern Europe during a cataclysmic era."

Laber once told CA, "Holding two jobs in the human rights field is demanding, especially because of the nature of the work itself, since there is no end to what can and must be done. Nevertheless it is rewarding work to which I am deeply committed. My writings these days are mainly Op Ed articles and articles about my experiences travelling in Eastern Europe. I also review books on human rights and Soviet and East European affairs. One of these days I hope to publish a collection of my interviews with dissenters in Eastern Europe, and my photographs from these meetings."



Laber, Jeri, The Courage of Strangers, PublicAffairs (New York, NY), 2002.


Booklist, May 15, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, a review of The Courage of Strangers, p. 1559.

Choice, January, 1989, a review of A Nation Is Dying, p. 864.

Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 1988, a review of A Nation Is Dying, p. B3.

Economist, April 27, 2002, a review of The Courage of Strangers.

Library Journal, May 15, 1988, a review of A Nation Is Dying, p. 86.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 22, 1988, a review of A Nation Is Dying, May 22, 1988, p. 4.

New York Times Book Review, June 12, 1988, a review of A Nation Is Dying, p. 41; September 1, 2002, Claudia La Rocco, a review of The Courage of Strangers, p. 17.

Times Literary Supplement, June, 2003, review of The Courage of Stangers.

Wall Street Journal, December 11, 1989, "Destroying Ethnic Identity," p. A12.


Hope Magazine, (August 16, 2002), Kathleen Caldwell, "Mother Courage."

Human Rights Watch Web Site, (December 13).