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International Physicians Group Seeks to Treat Soviet Work Camp Inmates

About a year ago, Martin Motew, a Chicago physician, sat in the Moscow apartment of a Soviet refusenik and listened to tales of the Soviet work camps that made him cringe. Prisoners were given poor nutrition and those with active tuberculosis drank from the same cups as the rest of the camp.

“I began to conceptualize the idea that someone has to look after these people,” Motew said Thursday at a press conference at the National Press Club.

He decided to found the International Physician’s Commission for the Protection of Prisoners. The group is committed to bringing attention to the poor medical care of Soviet Jews and the group is a member of the Union of Council for Soviet Jews.

The Physician’s Commission hope to establish a neutral group of physicians, probably affiliated with the Red Cross, that would go into the labor camps to treat patients. About 50 doctors from the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Sweden and Israel are currently members.

Vladimir Brodsky, a cardiologist who is co-chairman of the commission, spent a year in Siberia as a political prisoner before being allowed to emigrate to Israel. He described the labor camps as rampant with disease including tuberculosis, which infects about 50 prisoners a year, pneumonia, and scabs.

The sick were rarely given medicine and were forced to work long hours in sub-zero temperatures. Prisoners are permitted to bathe about once every three weeks, are fed on small amounts of bread and herring, sleep in overcrowded rooms on hardwood floors and are often beaten by the guards.

Even the care they could receive in Moscow is “primitive,” said Kenneth Prager, a member of the Physician’s Commission who visited Moscow last year.

“The staples of twentieth century medical care are lacking. There is a virtual absence of such disposable items as syringes, needles, catheters and intravenous tubing in hospitals and clinics,” said Prager, a New York internist.

Prager added that Soviet Jews receive the most inferior care. When a Jewish woman brought her young son to a doctor because he was wetting his bed, she was told that the problem was caused by his circumcision.

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