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Soviet Jewish Woman Caught in a Cat-and-mouse Game

A Soviet Jewish woman, whose brother is gravely ill in Tel Aviv, has been caught up in a bureaucratic cat-and-mouse game in which she faces a tragic dilemma of having to choose between her brother and her husband.

Inessa Flerova, 37, of Moscow, is the only person who might be capable of donating bone marrow to her brother, Michael Shirman, 31, who is stricken with myeloid leukemia, a bone marrow malignancy that is fatal in young adults. His sole chance for survival of the disease rests in the successful transplant of bone marrow from a close relative.

Flerova, after staging a hunger strike last month that attracted international publicity and prompted the intervention of American Congressmen, was granted a visa to immigrate to Israel with her two daughters. But, in a nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions, Soviet authorities refused to allow her husband, Victor Flerov, to accompany his family.

Flerov’s visa is being held back on grounds that his father has allegedly withheld the necessary written statement absolving his 38-year-old son of financial obligations. Flerov has not seen his father since he was very young, according to family accounts.

Word came from Tel Aviv Monday that Flerov has begun a hunger strike to protest the Soviet authorities’ refusal to allow him to join his family in going to Israel.

VISA REQUEST BESET BY OBSTACLES

Initially, Flerova did not request permission to emigrate, only a temporary visa that would allow her to go to Israel for testing for compatibility and, possible bone marrow transplant.

Her application for that permission was beset by a series of obstacles, according to Shirman himself, in letters he has written to an American doctor, Kenneth Prager, and to Prager’s New Jersey Congressman, Robert Torricelli, both of whom have intervened through written petitions to Soviet officials, to American government officials in the highest echelons, and to the doctors who attended to the victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Shirman says his sister’s request to OVIR, the Soviet emigration office, for a temporary visa to go to Israel unaccompanied was rejected on two separate occasions; that her personal request to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev went unanswered; that the authorities pressed her for her entire family to apply for visas; and that the family was pressed to apply to emigrate, ostensibly a longer process and a complicated one, taking up precious time that was so necessary for Shirman’s life.

Shirman says that the Flerovs’ application for a visa has rendered the family “enemies of the people” and has affected their lives terribly. Flerova’s request for a “character reference” from work (she is an economist) was rejected and has caused her to be “brutally persecuted” at her job by “senior functionaries … waging a shameful campaign of humiliation and slander against her,” Shirman said. Shirman, in letters to Prager and Torricelli, wrote that “I am not at peace with myself” because he feels that he is “the cause of sorrows being visited upon her (Flerova) and her family.” Shirman had telephoned his sister in Moscow and asked that the family not be separated for his sake.

Prager, a cardio-pulmonary specialist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, became familiar with the Flerova-Shirman case while in Moscow in March and April.

Prager stressed the desperate nature of Shirman’s case. At this point, time is absolutely of the essence, he said. With each passing day, Shirman’s chances of survival grow slimmer and slimmer. What was diagnosed in February as a 70 percent chance of survival if the transplant was done then has dwindled to about 30 percent, according to medical evaluations.

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