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Refusenik Family Adjusting to L. A. Life but Won't Forget Plight of Soviet Jews

October 22, 1987|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Simeon Katz, a seismologist who battled the Soviet bureaucracy for eight years before he was allowed to emigrate last month, arrived in Los Angeles on the eve of the biggest earthquake of his life.

The quake and its aftershocks brought a familiar feeling of helplessness to the Katz family.

"I felt very small," said Katz's wife, Vera, a computer engineer. "I could understand everything that was happening and do nothing about it. Just like life in the Soviet Union."

The earthquake was not the only surprise in store for Katz, who was beaten on a Moscow street and barred from publishing his research after he and his family applied to leave the Soviet Union in 1979.

His wife was fired and his salary was cut in half after they declared their intention to emigrate, which is seen by Soviet officials as near-treason.

They staged a brief hunger strike and were threatened with spending many more years in the Soviet Union only days before authorities changed their minds and granted an exit visa in July. They and their son and daughter arrived in Los Angeles on Sept. 28 after a short stay in Vienna.

Katz, 50, begins teaching at USC in January. Meanwhile, he will write a textbook on his specialty, which involves the mathematics of finding underground oil and gas deposits.

Surprising Impressions

Newly moved into an apartment in the Pico-Robertson district, the Katzes have been surprised by early impressions of life in the United States, from the poverty of areas near the USC campus to the quickness with which the university bureaucracy gave him a private office and promised a computer.

"This would have been a long, drawn-out process in the Soviet Union," said Katz, who has been named a visiting professor at USC's geology department. "Even if it was practically possible to get a computer, it takes a year or two to get one, and you should include it in the next year's plan. Here, they say it will take two or three weeks."

Vera Katz, amused at the American concept of a housewife as a "domestic engineer" said she hopes to find work in computers "before I get arteriosclerosis."

But their main concern is the thousands of other Jews still seeking to leave the Soviet Union despite a flurry of exit visas granted to leading refuseniks whose plight was highlighted by supporters in the West.

"The Soviets wanted to get rid of the people who are constantly creating problems," Katz said. "There's going to be a meeting between (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and President Reagan now, and they want everything to look good in Russia and (have) nice relations with the American public."

"I think all it means is that we have to pray it's the beginning of a new policy toward Soviet Jewry," said Havi Schindlin, a former staff member of the Soviet Jewry Commission in Los Angeles.

"It's certainly a good beginning to let out the longstanding people who have been waiting 10 to 15 years to leave, and there are no more prisoners of conscience," Schindlin said.

"But with the new generation, the Soviets will have a chance to build a new policy, more humane and caring, more respectful of what they (Soviet Jews) want to do, whether it's to observe Judaism in the Soviet Union or join their people in Israel and elsewhere," she said.

A Soviet law introduced in January has made it more difficult for first-time applicants to qualify for exit visas, since only those with parents or siblings abroad will be allowed to leave, Katz said.

"The real test will be after six months go by when most of the old refuseniks have left the country," he said. "I suspect they'll say everybody who wanted to leave already has left, but it will not be true."

A spokesman for the National Conference on Soviet Jewry said about 380,000 people have taken the perilous first step toward emigration by asking for invitations from relatives abroad. Of these, 11,000 have been refused permission to emigrate.

Despite the recent issuing of visas for the Katz family and others who have been active in the struggle for Jews to leave the Soviet Union, the number of visas issued monthly has gone down since June, the spokesman said.

'Do Not Forget'

"The Soviet officials must understand that people here do not forget the people in the Soviet Union," said Vera Katz, who this summer was the host for an unauthorized conference of women refuseniks in the family's Moscow apartment at the same time an officially sponsored international women's conference was being held.

The action embarrassed Soviet authorities and led to the threat of many more years without a visa. The Katzes said they refused to call off the meeting, which was publicized in the West.

"There can be no compromises," Vera Katz said. "Many people take steps in that direction and they suffer."

The Katzes said they first decided to emigrate because opportunities are limited for Jews in scientific fields in the Soviet Union, especially for those who want to practice their religion, learn Hebrew or preserve Jewish culture.

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