In a small room in Elana Fridman's apartment near Tel Aviv, her sister's belongings wait: a bed, assorted other furniture and lots of clothing that was shipped from Moscow in a crate 15 years ago.
Ida Nudel, one of the Soviet Union's most celebrated refuseniks, has never seen the room her sister keeps for her -- not through her four years of Siberian exile, as the only female prisoner among 60 men, then living in an isolated hut with no running water; not through the endless days of roaming from city to city after her release looking for a place to live.
*"Yes, it's all there," says Fridman. "Everything is in the room. Everything but Ida."
She looks down; her voice is barely a whisper now. Then the woman who has made attaining her sister's freedom a marathon crusade since 1971 wipes a tear from her eye. And another.
"It's not been easy," she says.
Does she get tired of repeating the same plea year after year?
"Of course," she says. "But she is my sister."
Fridman arrived in the United States late last week, on her first trip here in several years, bent on rekindling interest in her sister's plight. The release of Anatoly Shcharansky has renewed her fading hope that Nudel too could become one of the positive statistics.
And so, during more than 30 back-to-back appointments in Washington over the last week, speaking through an interpreter in congressional office after congressional office, she has been pleading her case.
"After so many years, I thought our next meeting would be under very happy circumstances," she tells Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo). "There is no end, there is no logic . . . For Ida, it is very bad, especially this last year. Because of the stress under which she has been living for all these years, and because she is losing a sense of her goal, she has almost lost hope."
The sisters communicate mainly by letter, though occasional phone calls are arranged; Fridman says Nudel writes her five times a week.
"They have established a vacuum around her so that other people are afraid of coming close," Fridman continues. "If somebody does try to see her, then they start to check them, follow them until they decide to think about their own welfare other than try to see her. While she was in exile . . . she had a calendar and every day she erased one day. It was that much closer to freedom. Now she also has a wall calendar, but she feels that she is erasing day by day her own life. What can be done?"
"Oh, I wish I knew," says Schroeder. "I think the Soviets are very purposeful. They can't stand to see that kind of strength in Ida . . . It drives them crazy she's so strong, because she looks so fragile. And every time I have brought it up, they really get very angry. They are trying to break her will."
"But they could have killed her and they're not doing that," says Fridman.
"But they don't want to kill her," Schroeder replies. "They want her on her knees."
Fridman is a small woman who remarkably resembles the photos of her sister. Formerly a schoolteacher in Moscow, she now works as a bookkeeper for a social services organization in Tel Aviv and says the hope of seeing Ida again is what keeps her going. "I get up at 5 in the morning and begin my workday at 7. At 4 in the afternoon, when I finish my workday, I start with Ida."
Extremely articulate, she tailors her message to her audience. When she meets Schroeder and Rep. Sala Burton (D-Calif), for instance, she knows she's talking to feminists and longtime supporters. She makes herself comfortable on the couch and settles in for a half-hour chat.
Up against Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole's hectic schedule, however, she gets to the point within 10 minutes, asking Dole to ask the president to specifically request Nudel's release.
"Why are we here now, after 15 years of struggle?" she says to Dole. "Ida is very tired. The Russians seem to be playing a game. They seem to want someone to ask for Ida alone, on an individual basis . . . I fear that without a request from the very highest level, one on one, we will not be able to get Ida out."
Dole says he'll be happy to make the request. "I'll be seeing the president's chief of staff . . . The president's view is that it should be done quietly . . . no threats. And we have had some success."
Fridman, 53, and Nudel, 55, applied for exit visas to Israel for the first time in 1971. Fridman and her immediate family were granted visas, but Nudel's request was refused on the grounds that Nudel, an economist by profession, knew state secrets.
In the years that followed, Nudel became known as a "guardian angel" to imprisoned Soviet Jews, mailing them packages of food, reading material and clothing, giving them a feeling that someone cared.
On June 1, 1978, after years of frustration, Nudel hung a huge banner outside her apartment that read: "KGB, GIVE ME A VISA TO ISRAEL." She was promptly arrested for "malicious hooliganism" and sentenced to four years of exile.
According to information provided by Fridman and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, Nudel was placed in a hostel near Krivosheino, the only woman prisoner among 60 men. She slept with an ax under her bed for protection until she was moved into a one-room hut, where she remained for the rest of her sentence.
Upon her release, she was told she would not be given a visa and that she would be well advised to assimilate herself into Soviet life again. She was also refused permission to live in Moscow, and was eventually told to settle in Bendery, a Moldavian city closed to western visitors. Fridman says the only mail Nudel receives is from her, though last year actress Jane Fonda was allowed to see her.
"Well-known people have left the Soviet Union, people who we thought could not leave," says Fridman. "Ida feels people know about her, her name . . . But others leave and she stays. She was absolutely delirious with joy to hear Shcharansky had left. Nevertheless, there was a certain feeling afterwards that she's still there. In the last couple of months she has started to express the feeling that perhaps people have forgotten."
Fridman says she believes Nudel to be seriously ill -- she suffered from ulcers as well as kidney and heart trouble while in exile, though Fridman does not detail her sister's current complaints -- and fears she will never see her again.
"I hope you understand me," she says. "For my whole life I have the feeling I am responsible for Ida. This is my life . . . Every time I do this I turn my heart inside out. The longer it takes, the more I fear what is going to become of Ida."