31 August 2009

Ohio: The Cincinnati-Kennedy connection

As the country mourns the loss of Sen. Edward Kennedy, one family feels the loss even more personally.

Cincinnati.com carried the story of the family of Boris Katz, now a top researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. His daughter Jessica was called "The Littlest Refusenik," and thanks to Kennedy, the family allowed to move from Moscow to Boston for life-saving treatment.

"Who can say why a congressman [Tom Luken] and people from Cincinnati got so involved?" said Katz, whose daughter married this summer. The family had no local ties but their situation touched the city's Jewish community some 30 years ago.

Jessica was born in 1977 in Moscow with malabsorption syndrome, a disease that prevented her from digesting milk or food. Soviet doctors could not cure the condition, and as their infant daughter grew ever weaker, her parents realized her only hope for survival hinged on treatment in the West.

Soviet officials, however, denied the family permission to leave, citing security issues, as they often did in the case of "refuseniks," the name given to dissidents but also to those whose only offense often was simply asking to leave the country. Boris' wife, Natalya, had knowledge, Soviet authorities said, of state secrets through her job at the Soviet Institute of Experimental Meteorology and the Institute of Geophysics, a claim she denied.

"You never knew who would be denied a visa or why - and that was the point," Boris Katz said. "They could say it was about state secrets, but that usually was just nonsense. The more arbitrary and random the process was, the less likely people would be to apply for a visa, knowing they could lose their job and have their life disrupted for the next 15 years."
The story details the people involved in getting the little girl out of the Soviet Union. Among them were Lillian Silver of Roselawn, whose father-in-law Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Avondale, raised "millions of dollars funneled to passport thieves, counterfeiters, smugglers and even top Nazi officers to buy not just the freedom, but the lives, of Jews in death camps and trapped behind enemy lines." As national president of Vaad Hatzala (Rescue Committee), his actions directly saved some 10,000 individuals and spared many more.

Children's Hospital in the city was said to be one of the few centers equipped to treat the child's condition and a volunteer told Silver, who launched a letter-writing campaign, arranged for local Jews visiting the Soviet Union to deliver the non-milk formula required. When Congressman Luken's office was contacted for assistance, the local story brought in a national audience, including Kennedy's staff, and others became involved in the medical and humanitarian aspects of the case.

The story has all the characteristics of a good espionage thriller. Phone calls from public phones, taxi cabs, strangers bringing supplies from the US.

"This was an amazing thing to us," Boris Katz said in an interview last week. "In our small apartment in Moscow, we of course had no idea what a congressman or senator or people in America were trying to do for us. But it gave us hope."
One woman who has stayed in touch with the family all these years was Dabby Blatt of Wyoming. In August 1978, her family visited the Moscow family.

Once Kennedy became involved, things moved faster. He visited Moscow in September 1978 to press Brezhnev to allow them to emigrate. Two months later, they arrived in Boston and she got the treatment she needed.

Thirty years on, Katz recalled, that he's "still surprised how many people were brave enough to pack the baby formula and other things we needed in their luggage and then, despite KGB intimidation, deliver it to us in a dark Moscow street."

"But this is the interesting thing about life - it only needs one person to give the spark and another to help."

Blatt and her daughter attended Jessica's July wedding in New York.

Read the complete story at the link above, and remember that it takes only one person to believe in a cause to accomplish major achievements.

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