Abe Stolar couldn’t help grinning as he caught his first glimpse of the Chicago skyline. “I see the John Hancock building,” he cried, his face pressed like a child’s against the window of the limo that carried him into the city. “In pictures it looked so gloomy, but now the shining windows look like diamonds.” His excitement spilled over in a flood of questions. Could he see the opera house where his parents once had season tickets? The Art Institute, where he had taken classes as a child? Did the Tribune tower still light up at night? “It’s like a rebirth,” he said. “I used to dream of Chicago, and now that dream has come true.”
Abe Stolar’s dream, a lifetime in the making, began with an idealistic vision that turned into a nightmare. Born and raised in Chicago, Stolar, now 77, was just 19 when his Jewish-Russian émigré parents returned with him and his sister to the Soviet Union. Abe intended to leave after two years, but once back on Soviet soil, the Stolars were stripped of their U.S. passports. For Abe, the detention would last almost six decades, ending only after his cause was championed by Illinois Sen. Paul Simon and President Ronald Reagan. Last March he was allowed to emigrate to Israel, and this month, on July 4, Abe came home. “My family went looking for a workers’ paradise in the Soviet Union,” Stolar told cheering Chicagoans who greeted him at the start of his seven-week U.S. visit. “But that paradise turned into a prison.”
Abe’s parents, Morris and Esther Stolar, were political innocents when they moved back to their homeland in 1931. They had fled czarist Russia in 1909 and settled in Chicago, where they joined the American Communist Party. But the U.S. did not please the idealistic Morris. “My father was disillusioned by the capitalistic world,” says Abe. “He felt people were too concerned with money. He looked at Communism and saw a future that was great for the world.”
Once in Moscow, the Stolars were given two rooms in a communal apartment without electricity or running water. Morris, a printer, was appointed manager of the English-language Moscow News; Abe was given a translating job at Tass, the Soviet news agency. While Esther Stolar and Abe’s older sister, Eva, regretted the move almost at once, the young translator, who eventually moved into his own apartment, successfully adjusted to Soviet life. Then, one morning in 1937, he arrived at his parents’ flat and found his mother sobbing. His father, she told him, had been arrested during the night as “an enemy of the people.” Abe was sure the mistake would soon be remedied, but like thousands of others who disappeared during the Stalinist purge years, Morris Stolar was never heard from again. The following year Eva’s husband was sent to a labor camp, where he later died. With the arrests of his relatives, Abe too became a nonperson. He was fired from Tass and given work painting faces on dolls in a toy factory. He lived in fear.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Stolars’ fortunes improved. Abe became a translator and announcer for Radio Moscow, and in 1956 he married Gita Rozovskaya, a Jewish chemist. The couple had a son, Michael, in 1959. Though Soviet anti-Semitism was growing increasingly virulent, Abe was relatively content with his lot and reluctant to emigrate—until the day his 15-year-old son came home from school excited at having won first place in an academic contest. Abe knew then, he says, that he had to get Michael out. “We knew a lot of cases where [Jewish] people with talent became living corpses because they couldn’t get into universities and apply their knowledge,” he says.
On June 19, 1975 the Stolars were ready to board a plane for Israel, where they had relatives, when they were told that Gita could not leave because she allegedly had been privy to scientific state secrets. The Stolars had given up their residence permits, so they no longer had a place to live. And their belongings had been shipped to Israel. “We were stripped of everything,” says Abe. The family eventually got back their two rooms but were not allowed to work and became dependent upon charity.
In desperation, Abe, who had always feared KGB retaliation if he sought American aid, marched into the U.S. Embassy for the first time in 44 years. The embassy took up his cause. Four years later, after meeting Abe on a visit to Moscow, Senator Simon began working for his release. In 1985 Soviet officials ordered the three Stolars to leave—but they refused an exit visa for Michael’s wife, Julia. Finally, after appeals from President Reagan, the entire Stolar family boarded a flight to Tel Aviv. They are now happily settled outside Jerusalem, where they have been provided with housing and a government pension.
Abe spent the day after his joyous arrival in America touring his old haunts in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. He visited the apartment building where he lived, the schools he attended, the drugstore where he worked. Time had altered his old neighborhood—Spanish, not Yiddish and Polish, now echoed through the busy streets, and broken beer bottles littered the crumbling sidewalks. But Abe Stolar didn’t seem to notice. “I feel like a baby opening my eyes for the first time,” he said. “I just want to live, to breathe, to enjoy freedom. I never realized how really free America is. I had to go to Russia to learn.”
—William Plummer, Civia Tamarkin in Chicago