These days Evgenii Koifman and his wife, Lidia, live in a three-room apartment in a quiet, residential section of West Rogers Park, thousands of miles from the homeland whose clutches he has not yet escaped. His health is frail. He has very little money, few friends, and no prospects for a job. “I am a Russian poet, but I will do anything,” says Koifman. “I go to synagogues and I beg for work. I can clean. I can wash. I can watch at night. But they have nothing. I am told, ‘Times are hard in this country.'”

Much of his time is spent planning his appeal to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. So far the INS has ruled that Koifman is not eligible for political asylum here. But then his is a unique case, strange even to immigration-law experts.

Koifman was a refusenik (that is, a Soviet Jew denied permission to emigrate) who was beaten, arrested, and tortured by the old communist regime for trying to practice his faith. The country he and Lidia are seeking asylum from isn’t Russia–it’s Israel. That’s right, Israel–the one country whose very existence is intended as a haven for Jews.

The Koifmans lived in Israel for three years after the Soviets finally allowed them to leave. They say they were persecuted in Israel and treated like enemies of the state because of something Koifman did in the Soviet Union eight years ago. Something the KGB made him do. Something he did under horrendous duress to save Lidia’s life. He tells his story again and again to anyone who will listen, no doubt hoping that one day the ending will change.

As Koifman tells it, his first encounter with the KGB took place in 1957, when he was a 19-year-old student at Moscow University, majoring in philology and specializing in romantic verse. “This was at the end of a time of thaw,” says Koifman. “They were letting people out of camps. There was a growing democratic movement, and I was in the center. I never played a leading role. I didn’t have the capacity to be a leader. I was writing poetry. It was not so much a political movement but a cultural one. We were interested in reviving Russian culture without Soviet doctrine. We didn’t call ourselves dissidents. We were called decadents.”

The KGB arrested him one day as he was walking down the street. “This would become an ordinary part of my life,” says Koifman. “I [would get] used to it. But then it was frightening.

“They took me to prison and locked me in a room. They left me there for several hours. During this time you are frightened. Psychologically you are prepared to give answers they want. They begin to interrogate. They say, ‘Do you know why you are here?’ You have to have self-control. They say, ‘What do you know about so-and-so?’ When you say favorable things about so-and-so, they say, ‘Well, we have other sources of information you don’t know about. Here’s a piece of paper and a pencil. Sit and write. Take a few hours, we’ll be back.’

“The first time they do this more to frighten than to punish. They want you to think that you should not live against the Soviet regime. They learn about your character and how they can work you over. Their interrogation is recorded on hidden microphones and people are watching you through a one-way mirror. You never know what you’re guilty of. You are guilty of nothing, but that doesn’t matter. They can make a case against a telephone pole–the telephone pole buries its head in the ground and has connections everywhere.”

The KGB released Koifman without filing formal charges, but he was expelled from the university, drafted into the navy, and assigned to a missile ship that patrolled the Norwegian coast. “I had a gun; I could have easily crossed into Norway,” says Koifman. “It didn’t occur to me. It was the Soviet mentality; I never thought against the regime.”

After his discharge in 1962 he went to work as a “pollution inspector.” It was a do-nothing job, writing inspection reports that nobody read about factories he visited all over the Soviet Union.

“I lived a double life, working by day, writing poetry by night,” says Koifman. “I met dissidents young and old. In some cities I managed to create small groups of people to study poetry. Nothing political. My poetry was lyrical–descriptions of places I had seen. But it’s difficult to be a poet, even a lyrical poet, in the Soviet Union. There’s brain censorship. . . . The KGB has a list of words that can and cannot be used and in what context. All typewriters are registered. It’s hard to find a machine to type your poetry. I would arrive in some province and type my poems on some old typewriter I found in a factory.”

The KGB arrested him in 1964 and 1968; he was not charged either time and he returned to his factory-inspection duties. In December 1971, his double life ended when he was arrested again. “It was a time of heightened repression,” says Koifman. “I had just been married; I spent my honeymoon with the KGB. They interrogated me for several days in a row. I had no sleep. When they charged me, the basis of the charges were slanderous poems against Lenin. The key line of one poem was: ‘Lenin the man on the monument is standing with docked beard and droopy pants.’ It’s a metaphor, of course. At the same time they arrested Lidia. She was young, only 20. I was 33. They told her, ‘You’re a young Russian. Why this old Jew? We’ll find you a husband. Testify against him and you’ll be free.’ She refused and they let her out, and then they let me out.

“A little bit later I was arrested again. They sent me off to work. It was hard work. I worked in a factory. I cleaned rust off of metal. It was punitive labor. If I was even a few minutes late returning home from work, automatically I was sent to jail. They kept me permanently afraid.”

In 1973 he moved from Moscow to Dnepropetrovsk, a city in the Ukraine, where his mother lived. A year later he requested permission to emigrate to the U.S. He was refused. It became something of a little game. Every six months Koifman requested permission to emigrate, and every six months the regime said no. He was eking out a living, working temporary construction jobs, with no hope for the future, when in 1980 he had a religious awakening.

There was no precedent for this transformation. His parents had never been practicing Jews. Koifman knew few rituals or prayers and didn’t speak Hebrew. If anything, he considered himself a Christian; the resurrection was a theme in some of his poems.

But one day while walking past an old synagogue in Dnepropetrovsk, he had a burning urge to go in. “I went to the second floor, which I learned later was the women’s section,” says Koifman. “I saw some old men standing around [a] stove that didn’t give much heat but gave a lot of smoke. They were singing prayers in high voices. I decided then and there to give myself to that synagogue. I just made that decision; it’s very hard to explain.

“It was a miracle that synagogue had survived. Right after the revolution people stopped going to synagogues, and many of them simply collapsed. This one had a roof with a gaping hole. When it rained the rain came into the floor. Rats ran on the floors. There was mold on the ceiling. The courtyard was piled high with garbage. The watchmen fed prayer books into the iron stove to keep it lit.”

The conversion threw his life into an uproar. Becoming a religious Jew here would mean reviving a way of life that had been nearly abandoned. “The synagogue became my life–I went there at six every morning and I worked until eight,” says Koifman. “I did this so Jews could see that the synagogue is always open. Most of the regular worshippers were very old. The youngest was 79. They came to keep yortzeit [a candle-lighting observance on the anniversary of a death]. They looked to me for guidance. I had to learn a lot. By this time Lidia knew Hebrew and she taught me some. I learned how to pray. People would come from other cities and ask questions which were practically impossible for me to answer. Once an enormous black luxury car drove up and a respectful-looking man got out. He was the head of some economic commission and he was also a Jew. He asked what should he do? His mother [had] looked at him exactly as she had looked at his father just before he died. Fortunately, I found an answer in the Talmud, where it is explained this way: When a woman is forced to marry someone she doesn’t love, at the moment of conception she will have an evil eye toward her husband and the product of conception. I gave him advice, which I will not give to you now because it is a long story. A few weeks later he returned with a big contribution for the synagogue.”

Koifman’s religious awakening changed his status with the KGB. He was now a Jewish dissident, and his dream was to live in the Jewish state.

“I was in danger not only from KGB, but from thugs and operators of the black market,” says Koifman. “In the Soviet Union there was a black market because of the shortage of goods. The KGB would tell people they caught operating the black market: ‘Here’s the address of the synagogue; go beat up the old Jew and deface the synagogue, and we won’t put you in jail.’ I was beat up many times. I kept an iron rod tied to my wrist and I would swing it and yell ‘go away’ when someone attacked me. They thought I was crazy. And, of course, who else would work in a synagogue but someone who was crazy?”

In 1984 the KGB arrested him again. “They asked me, ‘Who are your friends and where did you get your Jewish literature?’ I said nothing at all,” says Koifman. “And that didn’t stop them from continuing the interrogation. They warned me that they didn’t intend to make me a hero. They said, ‘We will discredit you or kill you.’ I kept silent. I kept silent for 20 days. I was given a piece of paper to sign and told that if I don’t desist from my anti-Soviet activities I will be put on trial and sentenced for five years. I refused to sign that document. They led me out in handcuffs down a hallway, opened a door, and let me go. Later when I was in jail at another time, I asked why they had let me go, and they answered quite simply that there was no order to keep me. I used to joke that they kept me around because if they had killed me they would not have had anybody to keep them busy. In the provinces we were isolated, and the KGB was determined to limit our influence. The chief of interrogation once told me, ‘In this city there is no Jewish spirit, and we’ll make sure there isn’t any.'”

In May 1985, Koifman, Lidia, and several friends went to the ravine in Dnepropetrovsk where thousands of Jews had been massacred by the Nazis during World War II. They were there to memorialize the dead, and their presence was noted by several militiamen. A few weeks later, Koifman was seized on the street and slapped with the trumped-up charge of possessing hashish.

“This time they took me to the city jail, not a KGB jail,” says Koifman. “They put me in isolation; they put me in the hold–a dark, cold room which had no windows and no heat. I slept on a bed which consisted of three steel pillars. The floor was made of earth. I had no bucket for excrement; the floor was my toilet. I knew what I wanted to do: don’t give in. They kept me in a cell with violent criminals. They beat me with their hands and kicked me with their feet. They broke my leg and knocked out my teeth. They beat my kidneys until my urine turned bloody. There are specialists at this. They pounded my heart to get it racing. They wanted to break me down so I would call for the KGB and make some confession.”

Lidia, five months pregnant, headed off for Moscow to alert the world to Koifman’s fate. “Jewish activists have this custom if a husband is abducted: the wife goes to Moscow and they hide her,” says Koifman. “She declares a hunger strike and it is announced to the entire world. The Voice of America gives daily reports, and there are demonstrations of support in cities of Europe. By this they are able to protect the wife. I don’t mean to minimize what refuseniks in any part of the Soviet Union went through. It was awful for all of us. But if you ask anyone they will tell you, it was worse for those of us in the provinces because we were so isolated. I know of only one case–my case–where they took both the husband and wife. The Jewish activists closed the door on her. One prominent refusenik wouldn’t even let her into his apartment. Later I asked him why he didn’t come to my aid. He said he had a family. He was frightened. You have to understand how tense things [were]. The KGB allowed political games in Moscow, within limits. But with dissidents from the provinces they were tougher.”

While Lidia was in Moscow she too was nabbed by the KGB, on Saturday, July 13. “She was held in a closed psychiatric hospital, but she managed to pass a note to Moscow activists, and two of them came,” says Koifman. “She talked to them through the glass. They promised to help. They left and they never came back. No one in the world knew that Lidia was there. The KGB waited for ten days to see if there was any response to her capture. No one came for Lidia.”

A week after her arrest, Lidia was moved to a prison psychiatric ward in Dnepropetrovsk. She was strapped to a bed and force-fed barbiturates, amphetamines, and other drugs.

In August, Koifman was taken to see his wife. “I watched her through a plate-glass window,” says Koifman. “Her face was contorted and blue and she was dribbling from the mouth. They said I had better hurry up and cooperate, otherwise ‘you will see her eat her own shit.’ It was a terrible time of torment for me. What could I do? Finally I wrote a note in which I agreed to cooperate if they stopped giving Lidia drugs.”

He haggled with the KGB for about a week. They wanted him to sign a statement denouncing all Jewish activists as black-marketers. He refused. Finally, he agreed to a vaguer, more general denunciation of Israel and Zionism.

“I was horse-trading with them, trying to give away the least amount,” says Koifman. “I didn’t want to say anything, but I had to. Because of me they were tormenting Lidia. I should say that no one was hurt by what I said, no one was sent to jail. I said I had been under the influence of several Zionists. I named two individuals whom I knew had already emigrated to Israel and were safe.”

A writer for the KGB put together an account of Koifman’s “confession” entitled “Evgeny [sic] Koifman stopped ONE STEP AWAY FROM THE ABYSS, into which Zionism was pushing him.” The account portrays Koifman as a bitter man, frustrated because his poems had been rejected by editors who found them “artistically wanting.” The account quotes Koifman as saying: “I, Yevgeny [sic] Leoniadivich Koifman, was exposed, for a number of years, to propaganda by persons peddling nationalism . . . who tried to convince me that I must emigrate to Israel, study Hebrew, Jewish history and religion, and to instill in me feelings of Jewish exclusivity. . . . I want to warn all the Jews I know and don’t know: Do not succumb to Zionist and nationalistic propaganda. You will receive nothing in exchange except the loss of your motherland.”

The KGB taped Koifman reciting this statement (the tape would later be aired on Soviet television) and then stopped drugging Lidia; in September she was released.

Koifman, on the other hand, was sentenced to two and a half years in a labor camp (or, as Soviet propagandists call it, two and a half years of “service to the national economy”), where he remained until December 1987. During his time there he suffered two heart attacks.

“After my release, I immediately went to Moscow to meet with other dissidents. I wanted to clear my name through an old Jewish tradition in which I would be judged by ten Jews who would hear my case. It was necessary that people who knew me and who were part of my history be present.”

But he couldn’t find ten Jews willing to make the jury. One dissident told Koifman that he had “broken a lot of wood,” or violated much trust. Koifman felt shunned. Didn’t they recognize the pressure he had faced? Didn’t they realize that a man would–indeed, should–do virtually anything to save his wife? Wouldn’t they have done the same thing?

“I didn’t betray anyone. No one suffered because of me. I gave the names of people who had given me literature, but they were people who were already in the West. My public statement was that I renounced Israel. So I said, ‘I renounce Israel.’ So what happened to Israel? It still survived. What about the prisoners of war in Vietnam? They spoke to save themselves. I didn’t speak to save myself. I can say that if a wife of a friend of mine was in Lidia’s situation I would have done the same thing. Lidia, by the way, had a stillbirth. The child died. That child was like Abraham’s sacrifice.”

In August 1988 he and Lidia were allowed to leave the Soviet Union. They could have lived in Germany, but they chose Israel. Koifman never imagined that his “confession” would be held against him. In fact, he believed he would be allowed to make a living writing, translating, and teaching poetry–not completely unrealistic goals. He had been named a Prisoner of Zion, a special governmental designation for Jewish refugees who had been imprisoned or exiled from other countries because of Jewish-related activities. That designation entitled him to added housing, employment, and pension benefits. Moreover, his poetry had been favorably reviewed by Israeli critics, one of whom called Koifman the best Russian poet in Israel. He was invited to a prestigious book exhibition in Jerusalem, where he met government officials who told him that he could expect a university teaching assignment.

But in time it became clear that few if any of his goals would be achieved. He received substantially less money than other Prisoners of Zion and was not granted permanent housing. He and Lidia lived on $225 a month, and they would remain in a temporary absorption center for newly arrived refugees throughout most of their stay.

Koifman met with the head of the Prisoner of Zion Department but found little sympathy. “He looked at my file and made several rude remarks,” says Koifman. “I believe the file contained information about my confession in 1985 on Soviet television. [He] indicated to me that he viewed my statements of 1985 as being anti-Zionist and anti-Israeli.”

His calls to other officials, even those who once praised him, went unanswered. He was shuttled from one department to another, told by bureaucrat after bureaucrat that they had no time for him. “I could not help but feel I was being intentionally ignored,” says Koifman.

In desperation he pleaded for a job, any job. Security guard, janitor, clerical worker–it didn’t matter. “I was told in so many words by the officials I talked with that I was an enemy of Israel, a traitor,” says Koifman. “I told them about Lidia being incarcerated. I explained why I did what I did. I told them that no one was ever hurt by what I said. They told me that’s not their affair. No one was listening, no one was sympathetic.”

Lidia was denied Prisoner of Zion status on the grounds that whatever punishment she had suffered was not related to Zionist activity or religious persecution. The Koifmans were shocked. Why else had the KGB kidnapped her? Why else had they strapped her to that bed?

Their dismay soon turned to anger. “I was very confused because I had been lied to by Israeli officials,” says Koifman. “It was not just the promise of employment that concerned me, but it was also the realization that I had been treated different than other Soviet Jews who were Prisoners of Zion. . . . It was becoming more and more apparent that I was being punished for my Soviet confession in 1985.”

Eventually the Koifmans were told that they had stayed too long at the absorption center. “But without permanent housing they were turning us out into the street,” he says. Again they called different governmental agencies, and again their pleas were bounced around. In February 1991 the tension came to a head when Koifman got into a fight with the manager of the absorption center. “During the Gulf War, in February 1991, we had no shelter for protection from the expected poison gas attack by Iraq,” Koifman wrote in a document filed with the INS. “We had no electricity, and my wife almost lost her hand because of a missile attack. When we asked to be given shelter, the director of the absorption center . . . and his staff broke down our door and beat me and my wife. After that [a government agency], through a court proceeding about which we were not informed, expelled us from the absorption center. When I asked how I could continue living in Israel, [a government official] said that I was considered an “enemy of Israel’ and that where and how I lived was my own affair.”

For a while after their eviction from the absorption center the Koifmans stayed with friends; eventually they secured a visitor’s visa and left Israel for Canada, hoping to stay with Koifman’s uncle. When they arrived, they learned that the uncle had died. So they came to Chicago, where a distant cousin of Koifman lived. They didn’t know where else to go. They arrived on October 28, 1991. They have been here ever since.

That’s Koifman’s story, and whatever can be checked does indeed check out. Various British and American organizations dedicated to freeing Soviet Jews have tracked the Koifmans’ struggle with the KGB in their newsletters over the years, as they do with many refuseniks. Their reports on him jibe with the story he tells: his different jobs over the years, the responses to his requests for exit visas, the details of his many arrests. And a group in Highland Park called the Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry has a file on the Koifmans that includes appeals on behalf of the Koifmans from various correspondents in the 1980s and a statement detailing the horrors of Lidia’s institutionalization.

“Koifman is accused of drug use,” reads one newsletter brief from 1985. “This case [exemplifies] the new ritual slander cases, whose purpose is to portray all religious Jews as drug abusers. . . . Koifman’s case is one of the crudest violations of the principles of the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords regarding freedom of conscience.”

A blurb in a November 1983 newsletter published by the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry calls on readers to write the Koifmans, “both to give them some support and encouragement and also to prove to the KGB that their names are known here and [that] any further persecution will be publicized and [will] tarnish the international reputation of the USSR.”

It’s more difficult to find anyone to comment one way or another on their treatment in Israel. On May 28 I called the Israeli consulate in Chicago and was put in touch with Haim Koren, a press aide, who said he had never heard of the Koifmans. I faxed Koren a copy of Koifman’s notarized affidavit, which details his allegations of persecution in Israel. Koren said he would fax the material to the appropriate officials in Israel and call me back with their response. By June 2 I still hadn’t heard from Koren. So I called him, and he said that he had not heard from Israel. On June 8 I called Koren again and left a message. Two days later he called me back.

“I am pressing,” Koren said, “but I have heard nothing.”

“The article is past due,” I said. “I want to give both sides a fair chance. If you get any response, let me know as soon as you can.” I have not heard from Koren since.

In general, leaders of local Jewish groups take pride in the way they have handled the influx of Soviet Jews, offering them free health services, job training, housing assistance. “In the last six years we have brought into Chicago about 12,500 Soviet Jews,” says Joel Carp, associate executive director of the Jewish Federation of Chicago. “The State Department allows a limit of 40,000 Soviet Jews a year to emigrate to the U.S., but there are many more who want to get out. It’s difficult. You must have a first-degree relative already living here–a brother, sister, mother, father, husband, or wife.”

According to Carp, there are dozens of success stories involving hardworking refugees who have made their way from cramped, inner-city apartments to pleasant homes in the suburbs. “The bulk of the folks are on the north side or in Skokie, with a growing concentration in the northwest suburbs,” he says. “A lot of them are technically trained. We have a group of folks [who carpool] to the Fermilab. We’ve introduced them to the Jewish community in the south suburbs. They may be interested in moving there.”

None of the Jewish leaders I talked to had heard of the Koifmans (whose case until now hasn’t received any media coverage); and they were not eager to talk about the Koifmans once they had heard about them. The Koifmans’ story pits a revered, almost mythical symbol of Jewish resiliency against the Jewish homeland. Depending on how you look at it, the case either undercuts the veracity of a brave refusenik or reveals intolerance in Israel.

Nonetheless, the Jewish leaders I talked to privately made it clear where their sympathies lay. They said things like: “Can you blame [the Israelis]? The man went on Soviet TV.”

And: “I’m sure [Koifman] left something out of his story. The Israelis are not that unreasonable.”

And: “How do you know he’s not just using his accusations about persecution as an excuse because he couldn’t take life in Israel? It’s hard for Soviet Jews there. There’s not a lot of housing or jobs for any of them, not just Koifman. Most of them want to come here.”

One leader who was sympathetic to the Koifmans said, “I do not want to get involved with this case in any way. This man has the mark of Cain. You cannot go against Israel.”

“There’s nothing more we can do,” said a social worker who knows the Koifmans. “They have received the same kind of health and dental care that any refugee who comes to us would get. All Russian immigrants have a story to tell. They come here with their sad stories and they think all the doors will open. Koifman’s no different. He’s just one among thousands.”

It doesn’t help that Koifman can be difficult to deal with. He’s a smart, willful man (how else could he have survived his ordeal in the Soviet Union?) with a temper. On several occasions he has yelled at social workers or translators, accusing them of intentionally distorting his words or of being part of a larger conspiracy against him.

To boost his case, Koifman has gathered evidence of his mistreatment in the Soviet Union, including a notarized affidavit from a Soviet refugee in Israel who knew him from the old country. The affidavit describes how Koifman worked for almost nothing at the synagogue, patching the roof, replanking holes in the floor, importing matzo from Minsk for Passover, planting flowers in the courtyard. “Koifman was in Dnepropetrovsk the symbol of the Zionist spirit,” the affidavit reads. “Every chance he had he tried to tell Jews, especially the young, about the ancient and modern history of Israel, about its culture and religion. His windows were repeatedly broken, his apartment was repeatedly searched, and Jewish literature was seized.

“I visited Koifman’s wife when she was being held in [the hospital]. She looked awful: once she was like a Neanderthal, her forehead hung out over the rest of her face; another time her face was green and spittle drooled from her mouth; a third time she had the appearance of being burned all over and could barely stand. I know that she was being treated for the so-called ‘Israeli illness.’ I know that Koifman in exchange for the health and freedom of his wife was forced to speak on television from jail and renounce his Zionist convictions.”

Unfortunately, this affidavit would be better suited for that jury of ten back in Moscow–the jury of Jews he never got–than it is for the INS, in whose opinion the events of Dnepropetrovsk are ancient history. The INS considers it irrelevant if the KGB tortured Lidia or if Koifman fixed the synagogue roof or planted flowers or counseled his fellow Jews. What matters to them is what happened to Koifman in Israel, and whether or not that was persecution. If it wasn’t, then there is no reason the Koifmans should not be sent back.

Koifman lost the first stage of his appeal for asylum when an INS officer who interviewed him ruled that “[Koifman has] described instances of discrimination [in Israel]. However, [he has] not persuasively established that [he] suffered such a cumulative and pervasive discrimination that it constitutes persecution.” Therefore, Koifman is “ineligible for international protection as a refugee/asylee because [he is] a person of dual nationality and can avail [himself] of the protection of Israel.”

The next step is a court hearing with an INS judge. Koifman says he will exhaust every appeal before he allows himself to be deported back to Israel–a legal process that could take up to three years. (He got a big break in June when the Midwest Immigrant Rights Center, a free legal clinic, agreed to handle his case.)

Since moving to Chicago, the Koifmans’ chief friend and ally has been John Bushnell, a professor of Russian history at Northwestern University. Bushnell met the Kaufmans by chance in a Russian-language bookstore soon after they arrived in Chicago.

“Koifman is now caught in a web from which he cannot extricate himself,” Bushnell wrote in an appeal to Congressman Sidney Yates in March. “He cannot, he says, return to Israel–Israel does not want him, and he will continue to be subjected to both personal and political persecution as a presumed enemy of Israel should he be forcibly returned. . . . [He] is a man with nowhere to go. He remains in this country on appeal, in a limbo that does not permit him to secure even such work as he can manage or to receive public assistance. All that he requests is help in being granted the right to reside in the United States.”

It was Bushnell who translated for me when I interviewed Koifman. (Koifman understands English very well and is able to make himself understood most of the time. But in this case he preferred to talk in his native tongue. “I want to get all the nuances right,” he explained.)

Throughout the interview Koifman talked in a steady, somber voice, telling his story in precise chronological order. He went on at great length about his efforts to revitalize the Jewish community in Dnepropetrovsk, his voice cracking as he talked about fixing up the building and the people who came to him for advice. Finally Bushnell cut him off. “Evgenii,” Bushnell pleaded, “if you keep going like this we’ll be here past midnight.”

I interrupted only when I felt his story needed elaboration–when he talked about his religious reawakening, for instance.

“You mean, this religious transformation just happened?”


“Other people who have had similar experiences say they saw lights or heard voices. Did you?”


“Did you cry?”

“No, I didn’t cry. I don’t cry very often.”

“Please, I don’t mean to be rude. But I find this hard to believe. You’re saying that one day, out of the blue, you just came home and said, ‘Lidia, I have decided to become an observant Jew. I want you to go to Moscow and study Hebrew’?”


“And she did it?”

Lidia smiled. Koifman shrugged.

Lidia didn’t say much during the interview, although once in a while she corrected some statement Koifman had made. Then Bushnell and I would sit silently while the Koifmans debated the relevance of her correction. When he told about their stillborn child, she started to cry. Occasionally Koifman, in his haste to be understood, would, without waiting for Bushnell’s translation, discharge bursts of heavily accented and virtually incomprehensible English. At such times Lidia would silence him, saying: “Evgenii–John. Use John.”

Their apartment is furnished with an old sofa and old tables, chairs, and desks that they found in nearby alleys. “You can’t believe what people throw away,” Koifman said. The bookcases were stocked with an eclectic English-language collection that included Dante, Nietzsche, and Twain–also rescued from back-alley garbage bins.

“You can read English?” I asked Koifman.

“Yes.” He explained that he is a prolific reader, in both Russian and English.

I handed him a copy of Tom Sawyer. “Here, read the first few sentences. It’s a famous opening.”

He shrugged as if to say he would indulge me and started in. “‘Tom!’ No answer. ‘Tom!’ No answer. ‘What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!'”

The Tom came out “Tum,” and he pronounced his w’s like v’s, but he got it all right.

He and Lidia were very considerate; they made sure I was comfortably seated and that I had enough light to see what I was writing. They offered me cake and tea, refilling my cup when it was empty. At the end of the interview, they walked me and Bushnell to our cars while Koifman repeated the essential details of his case. Lidia kept reminding Koifman that it was nearing midnight, and that we must be tired.

“Please, Evgenii,” she said. “Let them go home.”

But Koifman was racing with energy; I’m sure he could have talked all night.

“The KGB, they put me in jail and beat me for trying to repair a synagogue,” he told me just before I drove away. “I am a man without a country, a man without a home. And for what? For trying to be a Jew.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.