Onetime refusenik imprisoned for ax slaying of her husband

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NEW YORK (JTA) — Rita Gluzman sits in a Rockland County jail cell, charged by federal authorities with the gory murder of her husband, who was axed to death and chopped into pieces.

Now being called a Jewish Lizzie Borden by the New York tabloids, Rita Gluzman made very different headlines in America 25 years ago.

In 1971, as a 23-year-old mother of an infant son, she succeeded in getting time with world leaders such as then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations George Bush and U.N. Secretary-General U Thant to plead for the release of her husband, Yakov Gluzman.

The Soviet Union had not allowed him to emigrate with her to Israel.

The cream of New York's activist organizations stood by her side. She spoke at meetings of the United Jewish Appeal and the American Conference for Soviet Jews. Gluzman's visa to the United States was sponsored by former Rep. Jack Kemp.

Most people who were involved in the Soviet Jewry issue in the 1970s say they do not remember the woman who has been charged with the brutal killing.

But one longtime New York area activist recalled Gluzman:

"When I saw the articles in the press [about her arrest], I thought the name rang a bell, but it was totally out of context," said Irving Silverman of Roslyn, N.Y., one of the founders of the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry. "Now that you mention it, the whole thing comes together with clarity."

The 75-year-old Silverman remembers introducing Rita Gluzman at a demonstration rally Oct. 10, 1971, at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove, N.Y.

"I remember when she came to the committee and she said she would like to participate in this rally," Silverman said. "I cautioned her at the time that she's taking a considerable risk in making herself public."

He said everything the committee did was quickly communicated to the Russian government within hours, including names and photographs.

But Rita Gluzman was not dissuaded.

Silverman said she was "a very, very assured person who knew her way around. She was a very determined person. What she wanted, she got."

"She said, `No, no, I want to do it because I want to get my husband out,'" Silverman said. "She wanted to make a public campaign."

The demonstration later moved to the Soviet Mission in Glen Cove, where Gluzman told supporters who gathered in the rain that she was being discriminated against by the Soviet government because she was Jewish.

She explained that her family had tried to immigrate to Israel for 15 years without success, even though numerous letters on the issue were sent at the time to President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexander Kosygin.

But she said that one month after marrying her childhood friend Yakov Gluzman, a biology student at Moscow University, the Soviet government suddenly relented and let her, her son Elan and her parents leave.

"But they have consistently refused to let my husband accompany us," she said then.

A few weeks later, Gluzman spoke before 125 delegates at the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Federation Leadership Forum. She was brought to the attention of then-Atlanta Alderman Wyche Fowler Jr., who later became a congressman and U.S. senator.

When Fowler visited the Soviet Union later that year, he brought up the Gluzman case to Communist leaders in Ukraine, on the mistaken assumption that Rita Gluzman was one of his constituents.

Within weeks, Yakov Gluzman's visa was approved.

"It was exactly like a dream," Rita Gluzman said upon her husband's arrival in Israel. "A man and a woman separated and finally somehow finding each other again."

Twenty-four years later, the dream had shattered.

Yakov Gluzman, a leading cancer researcher, had filed for divorce, claiming that his wife was abusive and spent too much money. He was the senior director of molecular biology for Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River, Rockland County.

Rita Gluzman, who had moved to Upper Saddle River, N.J., countered in court papers that her husband was having an affair with a woman in Israel.

Police believe that Yakov Gluzman was killed April 6 at his home. They said he was bludgeoned with an ax and knifed before his body was chopped into more than 65 pieces with a hacksaw and scalpel.

Vladimir Zelenin, 40, of Fair Lawn, N.J., who is Rita Gluzman's cousin and works for her electronics firm, ECI Technologies, was charged with conspiracy to commit murder after police found him covered in blood and preparing to dump 10 garbage bags of body parts into the Passaic River.

Rita Gluzman was missing for several days until police found and arrested her April 12 in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island.

She was discovered in a guest cabin at the laboratory company where her husband worked from 1977 to 1990.

Several days later, Rita Gluzman was charged by federal prosecutors with the murder of her husband. The charge is contained in a new federal statute enacted in 1994 that deals with domestic violence.

In effect Rita Gluzman has become the first woman in the United States to be charged with violating the Violence Against Women Act.

Silverman of the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry says he has had no contact with her since that rainy afternoon 25 years ago.

But, he said, "I would not think she would be anybody who would be capable of a violent crime of that nature. That didn't come through as her persona at all."