NEW YORK (Nov. 8)
Clutching the grandchildren she had never seen before, Maria Slepak declared, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
But in the next moment the former refusenik and wife of former prisoner of conscience Vladimir Slepak asked, “Why did it happen 17 years too late? Why did we have to suffer so much?”
Her remarks came Friday at New York’s Kennedy Airport, where the Slepaks, whose 17-year struggle to leave the Soviet Union ended only last month, were reunited with their son Leonid, whom they had last seen nearly nine years ago.
Accompanying the Slepaks on their flight from Tel Aviv was their son Aleksandr, who had been in Israel since his parents’ arrival there late last month from the Soviet Union.
The Slepaks emerged from Customs a little before 1 p.m., and were immediately overcome with hugs, kisses and at least one cry of “Papal” from 5-year-old Denise, the older of Aleksandr’s two children. The other grandchildren, known to the Slepaks before only though photographs, included Daniel, 2, and Leonid’s sons Eugene, 8, and Solomon and Oleg, both 7.
Later, in a basement conference room at the airport, the Slepaks faced reporters and the reality that a 17-year ordeal had finally come to an end.
“We knew the day would come when we would be with our children and our friends and collect our family together,” said Vladimir, speaking in slow but confident English upon his first visit to the United States.
Slepak expressed gratitude to Soviet Jewry supporters in the Jewish community, the Reagan administration and in Congress. He specifically thanked Arthur Hartman, former United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, and Secretary of State George Shultz, who visited with the Slepaks last April in Moscow.
Answering reporters’ questions, Vladimir offered some suggestions as to why Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had chosen now to allow the release of the Slepaks and other high-visibility emigration cases, including Ida Nudel and Iosif Begun.
He called it an “unusual time” in the Soviet Union, and their release a gesture of goodwill linked to Gorbachev’s drive to “do something to raise the effectiveness of the Soviet economy. He knows he must make changes in the social life, and in relations with other countries.”
The Slepaks were welcomed to the United States on behalf of the American Jewish community by Jerry Goodman, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. Goodman urged participation in the Dec. 6 Washington Mobilization for Soviet Jews, a gathering that will coincide with Gorbachev’s arrival in the United States for summit meetings with President Reagan. The Slepaks will attend the event, along with Nudel and Natan Sharansky.
Following the news conference, the Slepaks left for Philadelphia, where they were to receive the Humanitarian Award of the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia at a ceremony Sunday night. After the Dec. 6 demonstration, they will return to their temporary home at the Ramat Aviv absorption center in Israel.