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Student's Efforts to Free Refusenik End With Hug

July 21, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

A 20-year-old Pitzer College student watched his dreams become reality Saturday when Benjamin and Yadviga Charny landed in Boston after nine years of trying to leave the Soviet Union.

David Straus of Encino had set a goal of getting a Soviet refusenik on the faculty when he entered Pitzer two years ago. He had spent hundreds of hours building a movement to support his cause that included students from all five of the Claremont Colleges and persuading Pitzer officials to offer Charny a position.

But he did not envision Saturday's drama when the private jet of Armand Hammer, head of Occidental Petroleum, landed at Logan International Airport in Boston. Hammer, who has close ties with the Soviet government, had escorted the Charnys on their 10-hour flight from Moscow.

Nor could he have foreseen that Kitty Dukakis, whose husband Michael was just nominated as the Democratic Party's candidate for President, and Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts would be in attendance, making the Charnys' arrival a major media event.

"I just wanted to go up to the Charnys and give them a big hug," Straus said. "I felt uncomfortable in all that formality, but that's what I finally did. I was at a loss for words."

Pitzer Vice President Alfred Bloom and his wife, Peggy; Jon Parro, director of admissions, and Josephine de Young, director of public relations, joined Straus in Boston for the occasion.

On May 12, Pitzer College invited Charny, 50, a well-known professor of mathematics at the University of Moscow, to join its staff as a visiting fellow. As students and faculty listened to the emotional telephone conversation to Moscow, Charny accepted, with the understanding that he would first get treatment for heart trouble and a malignant tumor.

Within a month, the Soviet government announced that the Charnys would be allowed to leave the country but did not say when.

Their sudden departure from Moscow last week came as a surprise to hundreds of friends and supporters in America. Charny is one of a small group of refuseniks who pleaded for permission to emigrate because of their urgent need for medical treatment.

He is undergoing tests at a Boston hospital this week and could not be reached for comment.

"It is hard to say how you feel after something that has been the ultimate goal for several years of your life finally comes true," Anna Charny Blank, the couple's daughter, said in a telephone interview this week.

Blank and her husband, Yuri, and baby daughter were granted permission to leave the Soviet Union last year. They joined Charny's brother, Leon, and his family in Boston, where Leon is a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Blank is also a mathematician and her mother is a metallurgical engineer.

"We have been so afraid this moment would never come because my father's health is not strong enough," Blank said. "But now he may still live long years. Doctors are optimistic."

If treatment is successful, she said, the family will visit Pitzer College as soon as possible "to see the wonderful people who helped us when we needed it most."

Blank said Straus' efforts on her parents' behalf and the offer of a position at Pitzer had been "very important from several points of view."

First, she said, "was what it did for my father's morale. He thinks work is the most important thing in life. He is a brilliant mathematician but was unable to continue his work--partly because he was so ill, and because he was a refusenik " who lost his job nine years ago when he applied for permission to emigrate.

"And it's important to him now, to know that people value his skills," Blank said.

Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman of Temple Israel in Boston, who said he has worked for the release of several hundred refuseniks, including Charny, said he had "never heard of a college doing this."

"(Straus) and (Pitzer College) in fact galvanized an entire community (the Claremont Colleges) and raised the issue of Charny's release to a much higher degree of visibility" than it would have otherwise received, Mehlman said in a telephone interview. "They made a great contribution in the Charnys' ultimate release."

"I want people to know that it's possible for all of them to make a difference," said Straus. "Everyone who signed a petition at Pitzer brought it to the attention of the college and the college brought it to the attention of the Soviet Union. I'd like to challenge all the other Claremont Colleges to sponsor a refusenik. "

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