They call themselves “refuseniks”—Soviet Jews who have applied to leave the USSR and have paid for it in persecution. For many of these would-be refugees, virtual prisoners in a hostile society, Lorel Pollack and hope are synonymous. Consider the testimony of Dr. Irma Chernyak, a Soviet mathematician who emigrated to Israel in 1975. “Immediately after applying for an exit visa I was thrown out of my job,” he recalls. “My telephone was cut off. I was alone. Then one evening I went home and found Lorel. She came like a light in the darkness—like someone from another planet.”
Actually, Mrs. Pollack is profoundly terrestrial—a 43-year-old Jewish mother from Oak Park, Ill. who has adopted the refuseniks like so many orphans. Working out of a cramped office in Chicago’s Spertus College of Judaica, or the suburban home she shares with her ad executive husband, Sheldon, and their two sons, she offers aid and encouragement to those whose visas are still in doubt. Keeping the overseas circuits humming, she has run up phone bills of $300 and $400 a month before the irritated Soviets began taking out the telephones of some refuseniks. “Those calls were cheap,” Mrs. Pollack maintains. “I always assume that the secret police listen in, and that everything I say to my friends I say to the KGB too. So I end up sending direct messages to the Soviet government for a mere four dollars a minute. I tell them, in effect, that this person is known, and if you harass or arrest him all hell will break loose in the Western press.”
The descendant of a Russian refugee grandfather (who fled the czar’s troops dressed as a woman), Lorel was born and brought up in Oak Park. Though she taught kindergarten in Jewish schools, she was neither devout nor politically active. Her conversion came at a 1971 meeting of her Hadassah group. “The speaker was saying, ‘You can write. You can call,’ ” she remembers. “I saw all these people in the audience nodding in agreement, but no hands went up. Suddenly I found myself on my feet saying, ‘Why sure, we can call Russia!’ ”
Using phone numbers provided by a loosely strung global network of Jewish volunteer groups, Lorel placed her first call that November. It was to Vladimir Slepak, now a member of the committee monitoring the Helsinki agreement, which, like Jimmy Carter, has been challenging the Soviet position on human rights. As Lorel’s involvement deepened, she began devoting up to 60 hours a week to the refuseniks, phoning, writing and lobbying furiously in their behalf all over the Midwest and in Washington. For awhile she slept in the kitchen to grab the phone so that late calls wouldn’t wake up her family. Once, in 1972, she got through to a refusenik (now in Israel) moments after the KGB had broken into a Moscow dinner party and arrested New York Congressman James Scheuer. Lorel called the New York Times and the wire services, and western newsmen were hounding Soviet officials with queries even before the embarrassed Soviets could notify the U.S. embassy of Scheuer’s detention.
Though Lorel has cut down on her phone contacts with the refuseniks—partly out of fear that Moscow might retaliate by isolating them entirely—she still believes that some calls should continue. “Sometimes we wonder if it helps,” she admits, “but the people on the other end always tell us to keep it up. And the Russians do fear U.S. opinion,” she adds proudly. “In 1969 the Soviet Union allowed almost no Jews to emigrate. Now the figure is a fairly steady 1,000 a month.”