The Man They Said They’d Never Free

Naum Meiman’s tale of survival

 

As Nazi armies were invading the Soviet Union in 1941, Soviet officials plucked Naum Meiman out of Moscow, took him from his family and shipped him off to Tashkent, Uzbekistan to be “saved”—or protected from the war—along with a group of other scientists and scholars. He returned to Moscow a year before the war ended. His daughter, only seven years old at the time, barely recognized him upon his return.

 

In September of 1976, Meiman once again parted from his family. Olga Plam, his then-grown daughter—along with her husband and son—were leaving the Soviet Union after a miserable year of applying for exit visas.

 

Meiman stayed behind.

 

He also applied for an exit visa, but did so on his own. He knew, Plam said, that he would only threaten his family’s chances of emigration if he applied with them. The Soviets had lightened restrictions on Jewish emigration in exchange for better trade relations with the United States.  Because Meiman was a prominent academic, however, the government would not let him leave.

 

“He was a mathematician theorist of the highest order,” said Bill Cohen, a lawyer and refusenik advocate. “He worked with the likes of nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. They were simply never going to let him go.”

 

Meiman became one of the Soviet Union’s most embattled refuseniks.

 

 

I WAS a toddler when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. Most of my grandparents and some of my great grandparents were born in the U.S, so I didn’t grow up hearing tales of Soviet Jewry’s exodus —much less of Soviet Jewish suffering. Although the movement to aid beleaguered Soviet Jews was active just 25 years ago, like many of this year’s college graduates I knew little about it.

 

Last January, six other University of Colorado students and I began a project collecting the oral histories of former refuseniks. These refuseniks lived in Boulder alongside a group of mostly Jewish attorneys and judges who advocated for the refuseniks’ right to emigrate and who began a resettlement program for them in Boulder in 1987. They called themselves Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry.

 

Searching through a trove of BASJ documents, I came across a letter from Meiman titled “Keeping to Death.” Meiman was the object of much of BASJ’s advocacy. Cohen, referring to Soviet oppression, called Meiman “the man they said they’d never free.”

 

 

MEIMAN’S battle to escape the Soviet Union’s clutches began as his family was fleeing in 1976. When Plam and her family left, she didn’t know that it would be 12 years before she would see him again.

 

 

“My first reaction was that we all should stay together,” Plam said, “but my father said that ‘No, you should go. You should go, and your help from there will be much stronger, much more important. Here you cannot help me.’”

 

Because of his application for emigration, Meiman lost his job as a mathematics professor at the Academy of Sciences. He also lost access to quality medical facilities. He refused treatment in the Soviet Union for his heart and prostate problems because he could not trust the doctors. Sometimes his phone was disconnected. He was tailed by the KGB. He was beaten. He was arrested.

 

Meiman characterized this “life sentence” in “Keeping to Death” as “so like the secret trials of the Middle Ages, like the nightmares of Kafka and George Orwell.” The Soviets were making an example of him.

 

Meiman was one of the top scientists in the Soviet Union and he was also one of the founders of  the Moscow Helsinki Watch group, a human rights organization, along with Natan Sharansky—one of the most famous refuseniks—and dissident nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. 35 nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, had joined in Helsinki in 1975 to sign the Helsinki Accords—which guaranteed international human rights. HWG acted especially under the accords’ assertion that signatory states “confirm the right of the individual to know and act upon his rights and duties in this field.”

 

The Helsinki Watch groups saw the Soviet Union’s refusal to grant Jews exit visas as a violation of the Helsinki Accords, Plam said. Meiman met with foreign journalists and wrote articles about what was happening to Soviet citizens who wanted to emigrate. In response, the Soviets tried to scare him into silence and in 1980 told him that they would never allow him to leave.

           

The Soviets argued that they were not punishing Meiman. In “Keeping to Death,” Meiman wrote that the government claimed it was keeping him in the country because “at the dawn of the atomic age, [Meiman] did certain classified calculations” for the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In 1976, however, Academy President Anatoly Alexandrov certified that Meiman possessed no classified information.

 

 

THE only way to get Meiman out of the USSR, it seemed, was through activism in America. Plam and her husband Misha began soliciting help from their neighbors in Boulder to free her father. Bill and Sara-Jane Cohen, members of the Reform congregation Har HaShem, were among the first people who felt a duty to help Meiman, soon after the Plams arrived in 1976.

 

“All of a sudden, here was this person in our midst who had a real live [refusenik] in her family,” Sara-Jane Cohen said. “So we got involved.”

 

The Cohens worked with Plam to pressure the Soviet government and involve American politicians in the cause. Plam’s initial actions, with the help of the Boulder community, turned Meiman’s struggle into a national issue.

 

Other Jewish community organizations also aided Plam, putting her in touch with journalists, senators and congressmen. Colorado’s then-Senator Gary Hart, in particular, dedicated himself to Meiman’s plight. Hart traveled to the Soviet Union several times to meet with Meiman and recruited other elected officials to the cause.

 

“He was so horrified with the life my father had in Moscow,” Plam said. “[There was] a real wish to help, a real understanding of how difficult life can be in the Soviet Union when you are completely ostracized and people are scared to know you.”

 

Boulder’s congressman at the time, Rep. Timothy Wirth, had been involved with the fight for Soviet Jewry since 1974, two years before Plam came to America. After working for Wirth’s congressional campaign that year, the Cohens asked him to take part in a march on behalf of the USSR’s Jews.

           

Between the Plams’ immigration in 1976 and the official formation of Boulder Action for Soviet Jewry in 1987, Plam advocated for her father’s cause. She testified before Congress and organized families to write letters and lobby congress on behalf of her father, while scientists and scholars formed a Nobel laureates committee in America to work with their Soviet counterparts in support of Meiman.

           

In February of 1987, Cohen, Plam and other communal leaders formed BASJ. The impetus to start the organization came from a recent trip Boulder Judge Murray Richtel had taken, during which he visited refusenik families. In addition, in 1986, Cohen brought attention to the plight of refuseniks in Dushanbe, Tajikistan—Boulder’s Soviet sister city as of that year.

 

BASJ’s formation became one of the final thrusts that opened the door for Meiman to leave Russia. Soon after BASJ’s formation, the Boulder City Council passed a resolution urging Soviet authorities to let Meiman go.        

   

 

IN Russia, meanwhile, Meiman’s situation was getting worse. He married his second wife, Inna Kitrosskaya, in 1981 and two years later she was diagnosed with cancer of the upper spine. For years, Meiman lobbied the Soviet government, with the help of U.S. political figures like Hart and Wirth, to gain permission for her to travel to the United States for advanced medical treatment unavailable in the Soviet Union. It was to no avail. She did not gain the travil permit until 1987, soon after the formation of BASJ, after her condition had worsened significantly.

 

She died of a heart attack 15 days after her arrival and was buried in American soil, the Boulder’s Daily Camera reported. Senator Wirth was a pallbearer at her funeral.

 

“I fought for three years to get Inna to America, and they only gave her permission when it was too late,” Meiman said in an interview with the Camera.            

           

Galvanized by Inna’s death, Plam, Richtel and Cohen contacted the highest echelons of the US government, encouraging American politicians to pressure Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to release Soviet Jewish refuseniks.

 

At a rally in Boulder of over 100 people in late February of 1987, Plam spoke about her father’s plight alongside representatives from the offices of Wirth, several other prominent politicians and Boulder spiritual leaders. It was one of BASJ’s first events. The crowd sang a rendition of the African-American spiritual “Go Down Moses” replacing the word “pharaoh” with “Gorbachev” and “Egypt land” with “Russia’s land.”

           

In the autumn of 1987, Wirth—now a senator—along with Senator Paul Simon, spearheaded a letter to Gorbachev signed by all 100 U.S. senators “imploring” the premier to allow Meiman to emigrate. Similar letters also came from David Skaggs, Boulder’s new congressman—along with nearly 100 U.S. congressmen and four presidential candidates from both parties. President Ronald Reagan promised to continue advocating for refuseniks and pressing Gorbachev to live up to the USSR’s human rights commitments.

 

           

SOON after those letters came in, Meiman’s fortunes began to change for the better. In 1987, as BASJ was garnering support among American politicians, Gorbachev was in the midst of his Perestroika program to reform Soviet politics and economics. Gorbachev needed U.S. trade and technology, Cohen said, in order for his economic program to succeed. But for that to happen, relations between the two countries needed to improve—a process called détente. And as Cohen said, “The Jews were the currency of détente.”

 

In return for economic concessions from the U.S., the Soviets allowed many refuseniks to emigrate–including Meiman. In February of 1988, the 76-year-old mathematician gained his freedom and flew to Israel. He was a refusenik no longer.

 

 

PLAM met her father at Ben Gurion airport. Like many Russian Jews of his generation, Meiman had hoped to move to Israel and in 1988 the young state became his new home. Plam’s plane was delayed so she missed her father’s arrival, but she found him giving a press conference in an airport VIP lounge. When she saw him, she screamed “Papa!” Father and daughter fell into each other’s arms.

 

Because Meiman had gone so long without proper medical treatment for his leukemia, angina, hypertension and prostate issues, BASJ worked with the Jewish-American public health organization Hadassah to arrange surgery and treatment at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.

           

Tel Aviv University invited the Soviet dissident to serve as professor emeritus in mathematics. But he had to learn Hebrew, which most Soviet émigrés to Israel and the U.S. could not speak.

           

Meiman, the man the Soviets said they would never free, was finally at peace. He would remain so until his death in March of 2001..

 

“All those years he worked for human rights for everybody that didn’t want to do things the way they were told to,” Plam said. “People who wanted to live somewhere else, people who wanted to come back to the place where they were born, people who wanted to work where they wanted to work. It was a non-violent resistance to that oppression.”

           

BASJ’s work was far from done. Meiman wasn’t the only Jew who needed advocates in America, and Cohen said that Meiman’s successful emigration gave BASJ credibility and publicity.

 

BASJ would go on to advocate for and resettle nearly 250 Soviet Jews among the 100,000 residents of Boulder—its primary mission through its dissolution in 1997. BASJ put émigrés up in furnished apartments, provided them with medical treatment, helped them get jobs and facilitated ESL tutoring.

 

Meiman’s story is only the tip of the iceberg. My colleagues and I continue to collect the hundreds of stories of former refuseniks still living in Boulder. The immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Bukharan and Ashkenazic, Orthodox and secular, has changed the face of American Jewry. This is especially so in Boulder, where the Jewish community sought not simply to serve as social workers but to create a new Jewish home for the refugees.  

 

These new Americans left their homes in the Soviet Union and were told never to come back, but they are not a people in exile. BASJ succeeded, it seems, in enveloping these mostly secular, Russian-speaking Jews into the community. In an age and a place where young people and their parents have few memories of oppression, the refusenik community of Boulder embraces a Jewish identity based on—and proud of—its survival and sacrifice.

 

Brandon Springer is a paid blogger for New Voices and a fifth-year senior at the University of Colorado at Boulder–about to complete his degrees in journalism and political science with a minor in ethnic studies. He has been published in Smithsonian Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, the Huffington Post and the former University of Colorado Campus Press.

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