During the 1930’s many Americans were enamored of the “grand and noble experiment” called the Soviet Union. Movie stars, clergymen, authors, intellectuals, columnists, and other American opinion makers traveled to the USSR and returned with glowing reports of the joys of socialism under Joseph Stalin. Many immigrants from the former Russian empire believed these stories and some decided to return to their former homeland to taste the fruits of Bolshevik labor. One such person was Morris Stolar, a Jewish communist sympathizer living in Chicago’s Humboldt Park who, in the 1930’s, moved to Moscow with his wife and two American-born children. Today, one of these children, Abe Stolar, now 75, is awaiting permission to return to Chicago. He has been waiting for a very long time. Despite the personal interventions of Secretary of State George Shultz and much American press coverage (the Washington Post recently ran a feature story describing his plight), Abe Stolar sits in his Moscow apartment waiting and hoping that someday he will once again walk the streets of Humboldt Park.
A similar fate almost befell Walter Polovchak, a Ukrainian-born youngster whose father wanted to return to the Soviet Ukraine after living in the Humboldt Park area for less than six months. Freedom’s Child is an exciting, blow-by-blow, objective account of young Walter’s long struggle to remain in the United States against his father’s wishes. With the help of Kevin Klose—author of Russia and the Russians, former bureau chief of the Washington Post in Chicago and Moscow, and now an editor on the Post’s national news desk—all sides of the Polovchak controversy are presented in the words of the antagonists.
On Walter’s side were Chicago’s Ukrainian American community; his lawyers, Julian Kulas and Henry Mark Holzer; the US State Department; Juvenile Judge Joseph Mooney; local NBC-TV reporter Paul Hogan; Walter’s cousin, Walter Polowczak; and his sister Natalie, who also refused to return to the Ukraine. Arrayed against Walter were his parents, Michael and Anna; their ACLU lawyers, Richard Lifshitz, Richard Mandel, and Lois Lipton; Chicago Tribune Foreign Editor Howard Tyner; and Pyotr Prilepski of the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC.
The Polovchak drama began when 12-year-old Walter, protesting his parents’ decision to return to the Ukraine, ran away from their apartment and went to live with Cousin Walter. His parents sent the police after him and Walter finally ended up in court. There, with the help of Ukrainian American lawyer Julian Kulas, Walter won his first victory. Judge Mooney ruled in favor of a MINS (Minor in Need of Supervision) petition awarding temporary custody to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Asked by reporters why he refused to go back to the Ukraine, Walter replied: “Here is free country.” His words were flashed around the world.
Young Walter returned to his cousin’s care and after Julian Kulas requested political asylum for the young Ukrainian refusenik, he was guarded, for a time, by federal agents. Later, Walter was granted political asylum by the US State Department.
One of the first reporters to provide sympathetic coverage of the Polovchak case was Paul Hogan of Channel 5 in Chicago. He quickly learned that Walter was Ukrainian, not Russian (as much of the press had reported), and that his understanding of freedom was based on comparative experiences as opposed to philosophical comprehension. It was also Paul Hogan who exposed the role of the Soviet embassy in putting pressure on Walter’s father to return with his entire family.
All of this was too much for Howard Tyner, the Chicago Tribune correspondent who, despite assignments in Poland and Eastern Europe as well as numerous meetings with Ukrainian Americans, never really sympathized with the Ukrainian perspective. Professing to be a friend of Julian Kulas, Tyner admits not “going along with Julian’s attitude on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. . . . Anyway, when I learned he was going to be involved, I had visions of super anticommunist Ukrainian émigrés collaring the kid to get him away.” Tyner concluded that young Walter’s understanding of freedom was superficial. “Between going out for a McDonald’s burger in Chicago or waiting in line for pierogi on Lenin Allee in Lviv, he liked it better here,” Tyner argues in the book. So concerned was Tyner with fairness to the family that he decided to contact the ACLU and urge them to serve as counsel to Michael and Anna Polovchak. A breach of journalistic ethics? “I suppose,” responds Tyner unconcernedly.
The ACLU position regarding Walter’s motives was also hostile. “The issue of where the parents sought to take the kid—to Ukraine—was irrelevant,” admitted Illinois ACLU Executive Director Jay Miller. For Miller, the entire incident had little to do with freedom from repression by a totalitarian regime; it was all “a propaganda thing” for the Ukrainian community. Harvey Grossman, another ACLU lawyer who worked on the case, was in regular contact with Pyotyr Prilepski, a man from the Soviet embassy whose rank and position were those usually reserved for KGB agents.
The ACLU argued that Walter’s parents knew what was best for Walter and that he should be returned to their custody immediately. There was little concern for Walter’s feelings toward his parents, especially his father. Walter’s life in the Ukraine was hardly ideal. With a mother totally dominated by an indifferent, philandering father who was more interested in making deals on the black market with goods sent by American relatives than he was in nurturing his relationship with his family, young Walter was raised by an adoring, deeply religious grandmother who always believed the family would someday leave for America. When she died on the eve of the family’s departure for the United States, Walter was devastated. In Chicago, his estrangement from his parents grew as they continued to manifest indifference to the hopes and dreams of Walter and his sister.
Fortunately, Walter’s story has a happy ending. His parents returned to the Ukraine without him. The ACLU continued to pursue the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Walter’s parents. By then, however, it was too late; Walter was approaching his 18th birthday and the right to become an American citizen. That honor was bestowed on him on October 8, 1985 in Washington, DC.
Today, Walter Polovchak walks the streets of Humboldt Park a free man. Let’s pray that someday, he’ll be joined by another Chicagoan from the Soviet Union, Abe Stolar, who like young Walter, had a misguided father.
[Freedom’s Child, by Walter Polovchak with Kevin Klose (New York: Random House) $17.95]