Behind the Headlines: for One Jewish Couple, Soviet Union is Still a Place of Fear and Waiting

The personal hatred of one KGB man stalks the lives of Vladimir and Karmela Raiz of Vilnius, still refuseniks after 17 years, says Karmela Raiz, who is in the United States on a tourist visa.

At a time when the KGB has been portrayed as a mollified bunch of swells who agree to free-for-ail, call-in television interviews, Karmela Raiz says there has been no change, at least in one vengeful operative.

A KGB major threatened the couple 13 years ago, said Karmela, when they refused to testify against Anatoly Shcharansky, who was on trial for being a spy for the CIA and Israel.

The Raizes were Jewish activists in Vilnius and often traveled to Moscow.

Every day at their Vilnius apartment, said Karmela, the KGB man would exhort Vladimir to talk. Rebuffed, he would detain the refusenik from morning to night. But Vladimir never gave in, his wife said.

In the age of glasnost and supposedly unrestricted emigration from the Soviet Union, the Raizes are a sad anachronism.

Officially, Vladimir, a mathematician who worked in biology, has been refused permission to emigrate because of his access to state secrets. But that explanation is a sham, Karmela maintains.

Karmela, a violinist with the Vilnius Symphony Orchestra, produced two official documents, translated into English, saying that his classified jobs should not deter him from emigrating.

FALSE PROMISES FROM OVIR

The personnel director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences wrote to Vladimir on June 30, 1975, that “we have not been informed of any restrictions, vis-a-vis the academy, regarding your exit from the USSR.”

“The Ministry of Radio of the USSR has nothing of complaint against your leaving for abroad for permanent residency,” says another letter, dated May 24, 1989.

At least twice, the Raizes received false promises from the OVIR emigration bureau. Each time, they were told, “We made a mistake.”

After Vladimir refused to testify in the Shcharansky trial, “the KGB man promised Vladimir that he will never leave the country as long as he is alive,” Karmela said.

Their lives became hell, she said. “It was bad before, but from then on, it became terrible,” she said, describing all manner of intimidation and arrest.

Within the last month, the KGB major was promoted to general, Karmela heard. She was told he still keeps the couple’s file on his desk.

Although the KGB is no longer positioned outside their apartment, KGB officers have taken the apartment below them, she claimed.

An American friend who accompanied her to the interview said she had tried unsuccessfully over the years to contact the couple by telephone and through the mail. Despite signed receipts of delivery, very few packages got through, they both said.

During the couple’s long ordeal, Vladimir learned Hebrew and began teaching it. He and his wife became observant Jews about six years ago, and their devotion to Judaism has increased over the years.

While visiting the United States, Karmela has spoken with several members of Congress and has met with President Bush. He praised her last month during a White House Chanukah party.

SUPPORT FROM PRESIDENT BUSH

“Let me assure you, we’ll do all in our power to free your husband, and those like him,” Bush said at the time. He said he raised the couple’s case during his summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta.

Karmela does not blame her family’s predicament on Gorbachev, whose positive effect on the Soviet Union she freely admits. “We support everything he is doing,” she said.

Nevertheless, conditions for Jews are still frightening, possibly even more so, now that openness is a virtue.

The Raizes were particularly aware of frightening anti-Semitism in August, when they led groups of observant Jews in an adult summer camp outside of Moscow. They were warned of impending pogroms, particularly the last weekend of the month.

Even the government believed it, she said, because a government spokesman appeared on television in the city of Gomel, to warn Jewish citizens to stay in their homes.

Urgency filling her voice, she said, “People are afraid to live in the Soviet Union. It looks better, but it is terrible.”

“We really need support today,” she said, “because tomorrow may be too late.”

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