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Clara Katz; Soviet émigré saved ailing granddaughter

Clara (Landman) Katz, a Soviet émigré who fought to bring her then-ailing 13-month-old granddaughter, Jessica Katz, to this country for medical treatment of a gastrointestinal malabsorption problem, will be remembered as a warrior on the home front.

The ``littlest refusenik," as Jessica was dubbed by the press in a 1970s story that drew global attention, is 29 now, and the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the West has ended.

``She saved my life before I even knew her," said Jessica Katz, who is in charge of special needs housing for New York City, in an e-mail of the eulogy she gave at her grandmother's funeral.

Mrs. Katz, who lost family members in the Holocaust, died Sept. 14 at Massachusetts General Hospital following a stroke at her Cambridge home. She was 85.

Jessica Katz and her parents, Boris and Natalya, were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union because Natalya Katz, a computer programmer, had been exposed to state secrets, the government said.

While keeping herself in the background as much as possible -- except for appearances on ``Good Morning America" and other media outlets to plead with the Soviets to allow her son and his family to emigrate -- Mrs. Katz worked with local agencies and traveled to Washington , D.C., to present their case to members of Congress.

With limited knowledge of English, she would study the dictionary every night to prepare to speak to those whose help she sought, her granddaughter said.

Among those who responded were Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who interceded with then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and made possible Jessica's arrival in Boston in November 1978, cradled in the arms of her parents and with her baby sister, Gabriella.

Upon the family's arrival, the Globe quoted Boris Katz, now of Cambridge, as saying: ``Dear friends, I am so happy to be here. Thank you because I know all of you have helped us, especially Senator Kennedy, who made the last step, and that's truly why we are alive, and he saved our lives. I love you all."

Had the family not been able to leave, said Boris Katz, now a principal research scientist at the computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it would have meant ``jail or worse" for him in the Soviet Union. ``Mother was a very modest woman," he said. ``Her goal was to get us out."

Clara Katz remained unshakeable in her goal.

``Clara was a very bright and determined woman, full of energy," said Susannah Sirkin, associate director of Physicians for Human Rights in Cambridge and a longtime friend. ``Given that she came to the states, an almost middle-aged woman with little English, she pursued learning and making sure her family succeeded here, and that included the gift of their talent to this country."

In an e-mail, Judy Patkin of Action for Post-Soviet Jewry, known as Action for Soviet Jewry during the Cold War, said it was ``Clara's determination that kept us going since it was so hard to maintain a steady contact with Moscow."

Political leaders were contacted. ``Senator Kennedy was particularly helpful," Patkin wrote, ``although we also had good help from both our senators and congressmen. Kennedy was interested in health-related issues and attended international conferences in the Soviet Union on this topic. We made certain that he had the latest information from Clara before the trips and that he had a list of names of refuseniks to present to the Soviet government, asking for their release. Boris and Natalya's case was especially important because the health of the baby was involved."

In an e-mail of his eulogy, Joshua Rubenstein, executive director of Amnesty International in Somerville, described Mrs. Katz as ``a proud matriarch . . . She never forgot where she came from and her responsibility to help those who were left behind or were now joining us."

Mrs. Katz, who modified her first name from Khaika, was born and grew up in a small Jewish community called Lipkani, which then was in Romania but now belongs to Moldova, a republic of the former Soviet Union, said another son, Victor Kac of Brookline, a mathematics professor at MIT. The family spoke Romanian ``but Yiddish at home," he said. In 1939, Clara married Gersh Katz, who also lived in Lipkani. He and his bride enrolled at Kishinev University, about 100 miles from their hometown.

In 1941, when the Nazis came to Lipkani, Boris Katz said, Mrs. Katz's parents and brothers and sisters were forced to march many days to a concentration camp. Her parents and younger brother died along the way, he said. Three brothers and one sister survived and eventually resettled in Israel. Kishinev's students were evacuated to Siberia until the war ended, Boris Katz said.

Gersh Katz died in the Soviet Union in 1974 following a heart attack, leaving a widow with three sons to raise. In 1976, Mrs. Katz's youngest son, Mischa, was accepted at Harvard University at the age of 16, and Mrs. Katz emigrated with him. Victor followed them to the United States in 1977.

When Mrs. Katz first arrived in this country with Mischa, she took a job working in a Harvard dining room. Then, she trained to work as an accountant, supporting her family in a cramped walk-up apartment.

Jessica Katz has long since outgrown the ailment, which made her a cause célèbre almost three decades ago. Mrs. Katz's three sons have risen to the top of their fields. Her youngest son, Mischa, is a professor of mathematics at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

With her family settled in their lives, Mrs. Katz spent the past 10 years as an active member of the Cambridge Senior Center.

Besides her three sons and her granddaughter, Mrs. Katz leaves three brothers, one sister, six additional granddaughters, five grandsons, and one great-granddaughter.

Services have been held.

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