Pomona Rabbi Who Aided Soviet Jews Urges the U.S. to Admit More


On the top of a bookshelf in the office of Rabbi Earl Kaplan at Temple Beth Israel sits an old Russian encyclopedia that has made a journey to freedom.

The yellowed volume, about 70 years old, was given to Kaplan last month in Moscow by Norbert and Natasha Magaznik, a refusenik couple who have been trying to leave the Soviet Union for 15 years. The Magazniks have been repeatedly denied exit visas on grounds that Natasha saw a secret project in 1968 while working in the government patent office.

Kaplan said the claim that Natasha possesses secret information is false and just a "trumped-up reason" to keep her from leaving the country.

The Magazniks gave him the book as a gesture of friendship, Kaplan said, but it also serves as a reminder that although thousands of Jews have been permitted to leave the Soviet Union this year, others are being denied visas.

And Kaplan said it is not just the Soviet Union that is an obstacle.

The United States has also imposed barriers. This country, which had formerly promised to accept all Soviet citizens who won permission to leave, has tightened its restrictions on immigration in response to a dramatic surge in the number of Soviet citizens receiving exit visas.

The United States estimates that 150,000 Soviets will be issued exit visas in the current fiscal year. The U.S. immigration quota for refugees from the Soviet Union is 50,000, although several thousand more could be admitted under a program granting parole status to those with family members already in this country.

Kaplan visited Moscow, Rome and Vienna last month on a fact-finding mission to assess the problems facing Jews fleeing religious persecution in the Soviet Union. The trip was sponsored by the Pacific Assn. of Reformed Rabbis, the United Jewish Appeal and the Assn. for Jewish Emigrees in Los Angeles.

Kaplan was given the assignment because of his longstanding interest in the issue and because of the efforts by Temple Beth Israel to help Soviet refuseniks.

In 1981, children at the synagogue "adopted" a refusenik couple, Leonid Byaly and Judith Ratner-Byaly, and began sending them cards, letters and pictures on Jewish holidays. The Byalys had been trying to leave the Soviet Union since 1977 but had been turned down, ostensibly because Byaly had access to state secrets while he was working as a radio engineer.

Most of the mail from the children was intercepted by Soviet postal authorities and never reached the Byalys. The couple learned of the waylaid correspondence after they left the Soviet Union as one of 26 Jewish families granted exit visas in December, 1987, as a good-will gesture before a summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

The Byalys, who now live in Israel, came to Pomona a year ago to thank the children of Temple Beth Israel for their encouragement.

On his journey last month, Kaplan found the Byalys' daughter, Irini Gertzman, in Rome with her husband, Valery, and their 11-year-old son, Jonathan, waiting for permission to enter the United States. He intervened with U.S. immigration officials in Rome to speed approval of their entry into the United States, and a few days later they were on their way to begin new lives in Chicago.

Kaplan said there are 15,000 Soviet Jews in or near Rome waiting to enter the United States. Before Oct. 1, he said, Jews who had permission to leave the Soviet Union could get Israeli visas, fly to Vienna, exchange them for U.S. visas and then go to Rome to await processing for admittance to the United States. Since Oct. 1, Kaplan said, the United States has required Soviet Jews to obtain U.S. visas in Moscow.

More than 53,000 Jews have already left the Soviet Union this year for the West, more than at any time since World War II, Kaplan said. But many more would like to leave.

In addition to 650 Jews who have been denied exit visas and are classified as refuseniks, Kaplan estimated that 500,000 of the 2 million Jews in the Soviet Union would emigrate if they could arrange a destination.

"There is no way possible that the state of Israel could absorb all the Jews who want to get out," Kaplan said. Thus, he said, it is important that the United States increase the number it will accept. But Duke Austin, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the United States is already accepting more refugees than any other nation in the world. "We take more refugees than the rest of the (countries) combined," he said.

While the United States has long taken the position that people have a right to leave a country, Austin said, it has also recognized the need to limit immigration.

Kaplan said conditions that have improved in the Soviet Union but that there is still religious persecution not only of Jews but also of Baptists and Pentecostals.

Kaplan said the Gertzmans, for example, were "anti-Semitically harassed. The young kid was beaten up by a group of nine or 10 young punks. They beat him bloody. They sprayed a Jewish star on him, and when the parents went to school officials, the school officials dismissed it as somewhat less than trivial."

The Gertzmans managed to get out of the Soviet Union and planned to resettle in Chicago, where they have friends, but languished for six months in Rome while their refugee status was reviewed.

Kaplan took the Gertzmans with him to see the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Thomas Melady. Kaplan said the ambassador was moved by the boy's story of persecution and asked how he could help the refugees. Kaplan said he urged Melady to ask President Bush to admit more refugees.

Kaplan said: "Bush thinks he will embarrass Gorbachev if too many Soviet Jews comes to the United States. I think they both could look terrific."

The coming summit meeting between Bush and Gorbachev, Kaplan said, would offer an ideal opportunity for the leaders to "create some kind of freedom-of-choice time period--three months, six months or whatever--so that anybody who wants to go from East to West or West to East can do it. Then, when the time period is over, that's it. You've made your decision, and there are no more problems and no more pressure."

But if that sort of agreement is beyond reach, Kaplan said, then President Bush should raise the immigration quota.

Kaplan said the United States also should be doing more to help Jews and members of the Bahai faith who have fled from Iran. He said he met a community of 500 Jews in Vienna who are living there after escaping from Iran.

The rabbi said he is maintaining contact with Ambassador Melady and Rep. David Dreier (R-La Verne), who heads the Republican Task Force on Foreign Policy, to urge them to influence Administration policies to help refugees.

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