A Refusenik Tries Hunger to Free His Son’s Family

<i> Dan Fisher is The Times' correspondent in Jerusalem. </i>

It was only a 30-second item on the Radio Israel news Thursday, but it triggered a flood of emotion I hadn’t experienced through three years in Moscow or nearly 2 1/2 here.

Alexander Joffe, a 48-year-old Moscow mathematician who has been trying for 10 years to win official permission to emigrate with his family to Israel, had begun a hunger strike, the report said.

Not a particularly startling bit of news from a country with tens of thousands of Jewish “refuseniks.” But Alec and Rosa and their children, Dima and Anna, are old friends.

I wrote about many refuseniks while we were stationed in Moscow from 1977-1980, but never the Joffes. Frankly, there was nothing about their story that made it stand out.


My wife, Candy, and I met Alec and Rosa through their involvement in the Moscow refusenik community of the time. Alec was active with other refusenik scientists, who, having been fired from their regular jobs, staged seminars in their homes to try to maintain their mental skills. Rosa was a member of a group of refusenik women who organized various protests to highlight their plight.

But almost from the very first our relationship was more personal than professional.

Alec and Rosa adopted us into a small group that went once a month or so to the Illusion movie theater near the Moscow River to see special screenings of prewar American and British films. They went to improve their English, but we all got a kick out of the old films as well. I’ll never forget the hoots and howls from the audience one day, when Fred Astaire, impersonating a Russian nobleman, cracked open a huge tin of black caviar the likes of which no one in that musty little theater had seen in ages.

The last time I saw Alec was in the spring of 1984. I had gone back to Moscow from Warsaw for a couple of weeks as a vacation replacement, and the two of us went for a long jog through the woods behind the Joffes’ apartment. Alec had quit smoking and was looking fit. Afterwards, Rosa made breakfast for us.


In an earlier year, we plotted with the Joffes and another refusenik family one evening to get our then-teen-age children together at our apartment. Our girls were still very insecure in the company of anyone but their American friends, and vocally dreaded the evening. But one sight of Dmitri (Dima) Joffe was all it took to change their tune.

He was a strikingly handsome young man even then--tall, dark, with an athletic physique. And before long our daughters were competing for his attention.

Dima is the reason Alec started his hunger strike Thursday. He’s 23 now, married, and the father of a two-year-old daughter. He applied to emigrate with his family, separately from Alec and Rosa, last summer. In November came the refusal. The only legitimate reason for emigrating is to reunify separated families, according to the Soviet authorities. And since Dima’s parents are in Russia, they reasoned, he should be there too.

The fact that the Joffes have been trying unsuccessfully to join their relatives in Israel since 1976, when Dima was only 13, apparently makes no difference.

I began to think about the intervening years. Our daughters have been around the world since they met Dima. One is out of college, another is graduating this year. Neither is sure exactly what she wants to do yet, but at this point most options still seem open. At least one wants to live and work abroad for a while.

Dima, meanwhile, is a prisoner in his own country.

Alec wrote a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev explaining his hunger strike. According to a text released here by the Soviet Jewry Information Center, he protested above all that Dima’s refusal “means that our son and his family have been deprived of the future for the sake of which alone we live.”

“I love my son and cannot agree that he is doomed to lose his best years because that is convenient for one or another bureaucratic department,” Alec added. “I must do whatever I can to help my children to escape such a fate.”


He wrote that a hunger strike is the only means he has available, and stressed that his only demand “is that my son and his family be allowed to go to Israel.”

I telephoned Alec in Moscow on Thursday after hearing the news. He said he had received a number of telephone calls during the day and he was genuinely surprised that so many people cared. But he was more interested in exchanging news of our families than in talking about his situation.

“Did you hear I’m a grandfather?” he asked proudly, and then inquired about our daughters. We reminisced about our many evenings in his Moscow apartment. It’s pretty much the same, he said, except for some badly needed new furniture.

He specifically recalled Candy’s good cooking.

I invited him for another meal, this time in Jerusalem.

“For the first time I have a feeling something may happen,” he said.

I hope so. All the Joffes deserve it.