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To Go or To Stay? : Soviet Jews, Caught Up in the Turmoil of Glasnost and Resurgent Anti-Semitism, Face the Decision of a Lifetime

August 25, 1991|John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg is a correspondent in The Times' Moscow bureau.

FOR ESYA KALANTAROVA, HER TWO DARK-eyed daughters and the rest of the family, the trail of tears leads out of the city of Samarkand to a sunbaked slope on the dusty road to Tashkent. There, behind brick walls, the people who call themselves the Bukhara Jews have built a cemetery, a testimony in stone to their sorrows and tragedies.

Shaded by cherry trees from the heat of the Central Asian day, twin slabs of polished black granite rise side by side, emblems of a family's grief and of the most momentous decision its members will ever make. The stones mark the graves of Esya Kalantarova's husband and son.

Shimun Shamalov died of a stroke last year, at 66. Twenty years earlier, he had served seven years and four days in labor camps in Siberia and Uzbekistan. Ifraim, the son, was murdered by his Uzbek co-workers; they bludgeoned Ifraim, their foreman, with a hammer and tried to cover up the deed by dousing the body with gasoline and setting it afire. It took months to apprehend the men because police couldn't figure out the motive. Ifraim's family believes it was very clear, and they are frightened about what will happen when Ifraim's killers serve out their prison terms (the first is due to be released in three years). Their suspicions and fears were horrifyingly confirmed at the trial, when the angry young men in the dock threatened the members of their victim's family, shouting, "You other Jews, you just wait!"

Her head swathed in a blue-patterned kerchief, Esya walks slowly toward the burial plots, carrying a dozen carnations. The plump, diminutive 63-year-old woman gropes for the smooth stele chiseled with Ifraim's features and cries out: "Why did you go away? You were so young! We are so alone since you were taken from us! Why, why do you not come back to your mother?"

Hope arrived this year for Esya's family in the form of a letter from America, dated April Fools' Day. Tapped out on a manual typewriter, it began: "I have important news for you: You have been granted an interview at the Moscow Embassy." Designated Case No. WP 149.555 by some U.S. official, Esya's extended family--including two daughters, two sons-in-law and four grandchildren--began the struggle of trying to win refugee status to make a new life in America.

Sixteen hundred miles to the west, in the dining room of Alexander and Zina Kapitovsky's spacious fourth-floor apartment in Kharkov, painstakingly arrayed on the shelves of the china cabinet along with the decanter and gold-rimmed wine glasses kept for company, one can see the photos of the departed: Cousin Alexandra, 24, and Zina's dearest friend, Tanya, now live in Israel. Alexander's brother emigrated in 1990. Fifteen-year-old daughter Masha's curly-haired sweetheart, Alexei, has been in Baltimore for the past three years, where he has dished up food at a Mexican restaurant and videotaped weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Gathered around the table, the Kapitovskys savor memories of their friends in a moment tinged with bittersweet regret. "In Kharkov, there isn't a single Jewish family that hasn't had at least one member leave," Alexander Kapitovsky, 41, small of build, with a rapier-sharp wit, muses over a cup of strong black coffee. He gazes at the snapshots. "Practically speaking, my wife and I have lost all of our close friends over the past two years."

But Kapitovsky, chief engineer at a small enterprise that makes hydraulic drives for factory machinery, is holding fast, with no plans to leave the sprawling industrial city in the northeastern Ukraine. "This is our country. How could we live in another, with a different language?" Zina Kapitovsky, 39, asks. The woman with a round face and soft brown hair shows a gold-flecked smile. "If I were to go somewhere else, I would have eternally the impression that I was . . . well, a kind of half-person."

TO GO OR TO STAY? THE QUESTION IS more than a century old for Jews in what was once the Russian Empire and is now the Soviet Union. People are still compelled to seek an answer, even though in Mikhail S. Gorbachev's liberalized and democratized Soviet Union, the equation has become more complex than ever. Those who choose to depart now will tread a well-worn path: Between 1881 and 1914, about 2 million Jews fled Russia for Western Europe and North America, and last year alone, more than 185,000 jetted into Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport.

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