A look back in anger: Engineer recalls USSR Jewish scientist reflects on state anti-Semitism

In 1948, Sol Tetelbaum was literally kicked out of the bread line by a drunken Ukranian who called him a “dirty kike.”

It was as good a primer as any for life in the Soviet Union. Tetelbaum would go on to excel in school and invent more than 20 devices that aid nuclear power generation.

And yet, to his employers, his government and all too many of his neighbors, he never stopped being a dirty kike.

If comedy is tragedy plus time, Tetelbaum still needs to wait a bit longer. In an interview at his Fremont home, the 72-year-old didn’t once manage to crack a smile while recalling his travails.

“My every step forward I faced obstacles because I am a Jew,” he said in his soft, accented voice. Tetelbaum recently self-published his memoirs, “Family Matters and More: Stories of My Life in Soviet Russia.”

Like many Soviet Jews, he sarcastically refers to himself as an “Invalid of the Fifth Line,” referring to the section of the passport listing “nationality.” To this day, perhaps out of habit, Tetelbaum refers to Judaism as his “nationality.”

As a high school student, he and three other boys in his class all earned top honors — a gold medal that ensured one’s admission to college. Of course, since all four were Jews, things went badly. Tetelbaum never received his medal and, by the time the situation was sorted out, all the college slots were filled.

While Tetelbaum yearned to become a doctor, only three of the 300 places in Odessa’s medical school were given to Jews. Again, not surprisingly, those three Jews usually tended to have excellent connections with the Party. Tetelbaum’s family did not. So, like seemingly every academically gifted Soviet Jew, he went into engineering.

His collegiate performance was a facsimile of his prior experiences: Once again he excelled. And once again, no Ph.D. program would take him.

He ended up working on a dissertation, regarding Uranium Hexaflouride, at home.

When he mentioned his innovations to officials at Moscow’s Kurchatof Institute — the nation’s top nuclear research facility — the reaction was abrupt. Tetelbaum’s dissertation was immediately declared a top-secret endeavor.

In a Kafkaesque flourish of bureaucratic pique, anti-Semitic officials stripped Tetelbaum of his security clearance, rendering him unable to present his own dissertation.

Influential friends — an invaluable asset in Russia — solved that situation. Eventually, Tetelbaum was plucked to work as a nuclear researcher: “They had no choice. There was a lack of people who could understand nuclear energy,” he notes.

Becoming a high-ranking scientist possessing multiple top-secret clearances certainly was a triumph over anti-Semitism. But the battle carried on every minute of every day.

Tetelbaum had to work twice as hard to earn half as much respect. He was expected to be more resourceful, more innovative than the rest. They would never promote you — but they wouldn’t let you leave.

In 1979, two of his Jewish lab coworkers applied to leave the country. Tetelbaum was quickly summoned for a meeting with the KGB.

“I was told, ‘If you try to do something, think about your children, think about your wife. Think twice about your family,'” he recalled.

“There was only one synagogue in Odessa — by comparison, there were 65 before the so-called October Revolution. And I did not know where it was.

“But one day I met someone near the synagogue. And the next day, I was called in and was asked ‘Are you religious? What were you doing near the synagogue?’ I asked where. Finally they told me where the spot is. From this, I learned where was the synagogue.”

Tetelbaum witnessed much callousness for human life from the Soviet government. He first learned of the Chernobyl disaster from the BBC; the Soviets kept a lid on the meltdown even as millions of citizens traveled into the danger zone to celebrate May Day.

Later, a friend on a regional board told him that the Party official in charge of distributing milk intentionally mixed irradiated milk with the supply. His excuse: “Otherwise, they will starve.”

Tetelbaum and his wife did not arrive in the United States until 1989, when he was 53. Even without any English skills, he landed engineering jobs, eventually working for General Electric, and taught himself the language.

Now, he’s even printed his memoirs in English.

And yet, the experience does not seem to have been cathartic.

When asked what he felt about his life’s struggles, he replied, “a lot of bitterness.” Quite simply, he still wishes he could have gone into medicine.

“I feel I could have been a very good doctor. I had a lot of capability.”

“Family Matters and More: Stories of My Life In Soviet Russia” by Sol Tetelbaum (200 pages, PublishAmerica.com, $24.95)

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.