Monday, August 24, 2009

Mrs. Kutnetzov and Russian Rehabilitation

When I was a student at Ohio State in the late 1970s, I got to know a family of Russian Jews named the Kutnetzovs. Kutnetzov, incidentally, is Russian for “Smith,” so I could only assume Mr. and Mrs. Kutnetzov may have gotten snickers when they checked into Russian hotels. They had gotten out of the Soviet Union during the debate over the Jackson Amendment. As a result of knowing the Kutnetzovs, I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for the late Senator Scoop Jackson of Washington.

Both Kutnetzovs taught engineering at Ohio State. Their son and daughter both graduated cum laude. (One summa, and one magna, as I recall.) After that experience, any time I heard someone on television advocating helping Russian Jews emigrate to Israel, I wanted to shout, “No! If they’re anything like the Kutnetzovs, we need them here!”\

I got to know the Kutnetzovs well enough that one day Mrs. Kutnetzov told me about her parents. That story has stayed with me for more than thirty years. Both of Mrs. Kutnetzov’s parents were engineers. One day, in 1935, when Mrs. Kutnetzov was still a very small child, her parents disappeared. She received word that her father had been executed for being a traitor to the Soviet Union. Her mother had been deemed a traitor as well, but had been sentenced to internal exile. She had been shipped to Siberia. Mrs. Kutnetzov did not see her mother again for more than a decade. She was raised by an aunt and uncle and she came very close to starving to death in the Siege of Leningrad.

On another occasion, she told me that she had seen the film, Little Darlings, starring Tatum O’Neal and Kristy MacNichol. The contest between the girls to see who could lose their virginity first did not bother her, but even today I cringe at the anguish in Mrs. Kutnetzov’s voice when she told me of how shocked she was at the sight of American youngsters engaging in a food fight. I can only imagine what people who have looked starvation in the face would think.

In the early 1960s, Mrs. Kutnetzov got a postcard announcing that her father had been “rehabilitated.” That was the Soviet government’s way of saying that her father was still dead, lying in an unmarked grave for the past twenty-six years, but he wasn’t guilty of anything, so he has been “rehabilitated.” In that regard, I hope it was some small comfort to Kutnetzov and SEVERAL MILLION families in the former Soviet Union.

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