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Coffin Problems

How Soviet anti-Semitism buried Jewish scientists

Julia Schulman
Michael Hsieh
February 11, 2021
Fien Jorissen
Fien Jorissen

The summer and fall university entrance exams were a rite of passage for Soviet high schoolers who dreamed of careers in the exact sciences. Of these, mathematics reigned with a shining prestige that enthralled the imaginations of the brightest young Soviet students. But for young Soviet Jews, a mathematical career provided more than intellectual esteem; it provided a haven of objective truth in the shadow of an anti-Semitic Soviet regime.

In autobiographical accounts, mathematicians commonly recollect sensing their calling in their early teens. In educational systems like that of the Soviet Union, such timing was not just incidental, but necessary. At that age, a university-bound Soviet student had a clear view of the first major hurdle: the university entrance examination. University admissions for mathematics study in the Soviet universities were highly specialized and required years of preparation. No amount of studying, however, could prepare Jewish applicants for the official discrimination that awaited them.

A successful entrance examination score was the only sure ticket into a top-tier university. The exam contained four sections: written math, oral math, oral physics, and composition. The composition prompt typically focused on humanities (Russian literature or Soviet political theory), while the oral portions were intended to test a student’s ability to use reason and logic. The entrance examinations determined much of a young student’s life trajectory. They were emotionally and psychologically taxing for all applicants. But for Jewish students, they were uniquely painful.

Julia Rashba-Step never wanted to be a biophysicist. Despite this, now in her early 60s, she has lived an accomplished career as one. Born in the Soviet Union to Erna and Emmanuel Rashba, a world-renowned physicist, she graduated from the Moscow Institute of Fine Chemical Technologies and later earned a Ph.D. She immigrated to the United States in 1990, where she rapidly ascended the ranks of an elite university medical institute as a researcher, and then climbed to management at some of the largest global biopharmaceutical firms. Currently a corporate vice president, she is responsible for the development of drugs that save lives worldwide. By any measure, hers is an exceptionally successful career and a model of the American dream.

“It was not really what I wanted,” she told us recently from the comfort of her home in a Massachusetts suburb. “What I wanted most was a career in medicine.” In many respects, the story of Julia Rashba-Step’s career both begins and ends on a July morning some 45 years ago in Moscow when she, as a 17-year-old high school graduate, approached the gates of Moscow State University to take her entrance examinations.

Over the course of two decades between the 1970s and the 1980s, Jewish applicants to the three most prestigious Soviet universities for the sciences—Moscow State University, Leningrad State University and Novosibirsk State University—were never meant to be given any real chance of admission, regardless of talent or preparation. Instead, they were stymied with absurdly difficult exams filled with what became colloquially known as “coffin problems”—for their unfailing efficiency in burying the applicants’ chances for admission, and send them packing to other fields, lesser departments, or hinterland institutes.

To understand the challenges these young Jewish aspirants faced, one must appreciate the difference between the sorts of questions given to non-Jewish applicants—the sorts of questions in algebra, geometry, and calculus that a bright student who has completed the standard mathematical curriculum would be able to answer in the half-hour in which sections of the exams were administered—and the sorts of mathematical problems given in the National Olympiads, known as competition problems. One such competition, with problems of comparable difficulty, are the annual Putnam Competitions in the United States—where the modal score for the examination (the score that occurs most often across the entire pool of high-achieving competitors) is zero. Put another way: The problems are written such that the brightest math students at the undergraduate level completely bomb the exam. In the Soviet Union, these “coffin problems” were reserved primarily for Jewish students as a specific way to bar them from elite institutions. (You can try some of them yourself, here.)

Some tens of thousands of Jewish students from the postwar generation of Soviet Jews encountered this system. In the spring of 2020, we set out to record the story of this generation, now scattered across America, Israel, and Europe. We found that the individuals with whom we spoke were set apart by a near-miraculous dispensation of luck that saved them from the obscurity that the Soviet system had intended. Yet these rare stories of success and overcoming obstacles do not represent the thousands of talented aspiring Jewish scientists and mathematicians who were forced out of their chosen fields by discriminatory entrance exams. But, together, they do illustrate how the Soviet scientific community, envenomed with pervasive anti-Semitism, systematically tried to destroy the careers of its most promising rising scientists despite their limitless potential to contribute to Soviet society, and beyond.

On a summer morning in 1984, 16-year-old Edward Frenkel approached the entrance of Moscow State University (shortened to MGU from the Russian transliteration). His mother and father waited outside the gates, nervously and hopefully. They were both engineers. The family lived in a small provincial town where Frenkel had learned advanced mathematics via a correspondence school and with a local mathematician with whom he studied late into the night at the local auditorium. As he recounts in his 2013 book Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, he was determined to attend MGU to obtain the finest mathematical education in the Soviet Union.

Months earlier, when he expressed to his correspondence school administrator his interest in attending MGU, he received a return letter in which he was invited to come to the MGU campus for pre-admissions counseling. While his passport listed him as an ethnic Russian, his last name revealed that his father was Jewish, and therefore by Soviet standards, he was also considered to be a Jew. With the sort of mercy peculiar to the Soviet bureaucracy at the time, the pre-admissions counselor urged Frenkel to save himself the trouble as MGU “does not admit Jews.”

Undeterred, he decided to proceed with the application process. While all universities held entrance examinations, the MGU examination was held in July, one month before the others, to provide those who failed with an opportunity to apply elsewhere. If a high school boy failed to obtain admission to a university, he was required to serve in the military where the latent anti-Semitism in Soviet society was amplified in some of the worst ways. It was rumored that in order to gain admission into a prestigious university like MGU, Jewish applicants had to score at least 18 points, while non-Jewish applicants were expected to score 15. Like many others who had been duly warned about the system’s intention not to admit Jews, Frenkel made the bold decision to apply nonetheless.

The morning of Friday, July 13, Frenkel entered one of the many gates surrounding MGU. He submitted to an all-day battery of examinations that he recalled later in his life as Kafkaesque. At first he was ignored by examiners who rushed to attend to non-Jewish applicants as they raised their hands to submit their exam answers, then finally he was attended to by two special examiners who, he said, seemed purpose-built to ensure his failure.

Elementary questions—what is the definition of a circle—answered with seemingly correct responses—the set of points equidistant to a point—were marked as incorrect. “No,” the examiners responded, “it is the set of all points equidistant from a point.” And so it went; answers declared wrong for reasons of hair-splitting semantics, answers picked apart pedantically with endless probing for the “proper” definition of commonplace mathematical notions. If asked for the definition of a derivative, a correct answer would only lead to a question about the definition of a limit. And then one after another, he was given problems of increasing difficulty. But, with Frenkel’s skilled problem-solving, each successful one, on the cusp of completion under the examiner’s watchful eye, would be followed by a harder one. After four hours of what Frenkel likened to a boxer getting pummeled, they failed him, for allegedly not knowing the definition of a circle, and for incomplete solutions to problems on which he was instructed to stop before writing the solution.

The examiners asked Frenkel if he would appeal. He said he would not. Such an answer, by Frenkel’s recollection, lit up the faces of his examiners who cheerfully offered to help him gather his things and send him on his way. As he was leaving the room, darkly referred to as the “gas chamber” by some in the Jewish community for the grim fate of all Jews who passed through it, the examiners complimented him on the excellence of his preparation, especially as he had come from a small town and had not attended any kind of special mathematics school. Before they parted, the examiner recommended that he apply for the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas, where they would accept “students like him.”

Victor Kac was born in 1943 and grew up in Kishniev, Moldova. Like many children of his era, he recalls the “street-level” anti-Semitism—name calling, bullying, and the occasional black eye. His first experience with official anti-Semitism was when, despite winning first place in the Moldovan Mathematical Olympiad, he was not included on the national Mathematical Olympiad team, whose selection process was biased toward ethnic Moldovans. And such was the way in which the hurtful taunts of “Eevrey! Eevrey! (Jew! Jew!)” of childhood transformed into the career-limiting and life-changing discrimination in his teenage years. In the 1950s, when Kac was preparing his university applications, such anti-Semitism in Soviet higher education still had an improvisational quality to it, but it was precise enough to find its targets.

Kac sailed through the examinations of the MGU Mechanics-Mathematics Department (Mekhmat) with top marks. Scanning the list of admitted students, however, Kac did not find his name. When he asked the chief examiner about this, he was informed that there was insufficient space in the dormitory and his admission was conditional on his finding permission to live in Moscow. This was an obstacle meant to be insurmountable: In order to secure housing, one had to already have a formal acceptance letter from a university.

Kac’s career would embody the sort of improbable good luck required to navigate a Soviet system with boundless creativity for devising such obstacles. Such luck began the very moment after his conditional acceptance—when he scoured the streets of Moscow, looking for an apartment room to rent with no success. Dejected, he and his mother returned to the train station, at a loss for what to do.

“We were from the provinces, and we spoke with a loud voice,” he remembered, “and just then, a girl overhears us. ‘I know of a room you can rent!’” It was not much—a corner of a room with a movable folding screen for privacy—but it was enough to fulfill his residency requirement. With a proof of residency in hand, Kac gained admission to Mekhmat. He completed his Soviet equivalent of a master’s in 1965, and earned his Ph.D. in 1968. The stumbling blocks, however, were not only placed at the entrance to the university, but also at the exits.

Like many other Jewish graduates, even of the finest Soviet universities, Kac found his post-university prospects limited. Despite being highly qualified, he was relegated to a teaching role far from the elite circles of Soviet mathematical life, at the Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics, a respectable but less distinguished regional institution. This was a typical sort of outcome for a mathematician of Jewish ethnicity in that period. Such institutes lacked much of the substance needed for a young mathematician in his prime to produce great mathematical work. There were no graduate students to assist with research, and no seminars or colloquia to disseminate and sharpen research ideas with peers. It was like the sojourn in a lonely lighthouse to which Einstein had likened his time in the Swiss patent office. Kac would need one more fantastical stroke of luck to resuscitate his moribund mathematical career.

Luck manifested itself in other ways for Efim Zelmanov. Zelmanov was born in 1955 in Khabarovsk, 30 miles from the border with China. It was an inauspicious time for the Soviet Jewish community. From 1951-1953, hundreds of Jews had been dismissed from their positions, arrested or jailed in the aftermath of the revelation of the so-called Doctor’s Plot, wherein a group of Jewish physicians was accused of plotting the murder of Stalin and other senior Soviet officials. Stalin died on March 5, 1953, just as trains were lined up outside the major cities in preparation for the second wave of action against the Soviet Jews. But even with Stalin’s death and the subsequent discovery that the evidence against the doctors was fabricated, slow-burning embers of anti-Semitism were reintroduced into Soviet life. Under Khrushchev, Jews were permitted to attend elite universities and climb professional ladders. Such was a golden age for the elite Soviet universities free of arbitrary ethnic restrictions. But this short-lived meritocracy would soon be consumed by a furious new conflagration of anti-Semitism, in the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967. During Brezhnev’s reign, anti-Semitism engulfed every civil institution, and Jewish quotas at universities, even if never formalized on paper, became well understood. Natan Sharansky, himself an applied mathematician trained at the elite Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, recalled: “No university wanted to be accused of running a synagogue.”

It was against this backdrop that Zelmanov was preparing his applications for university. “I wasn’t supposed to be accepted,” Zelmanov said. “The examination committee was a joke. They took the Jewish applicants into a separate room. I listened to the special questions that were assigned to me and I realized: they took the problems straight from the National Olympiads!”

Despite the unreasonable difficulty of the questions, Zelmanov passed conditionally: “It is very difficult to find solutions under pressure with limited time. But they gave me a 4 (a B), so I went on to take the composition exam.”

This is where the trouble began. “I was failed during composition,” said Zelmanov. “The head of the Committee was the local secretary of the party. He simply told me that I made five big mistakes. He didn’t elaborate beyond that.”

Across many written and spoken accounts of the period, if the candidate managed to solve the coffin problems, it was commonly some combination of “failure to elaborate the topic” or subjective grammatical or technical mistakes in composition that were pointed to in order to fail the candidate. This is where Zelmanov had his first stroke of luck. The head of the department of foreign languages, himself a Soviet minority, an ethnic Korean, objected.

“Comrades,” he declared. “None of these is a grammatical mistake.”

Still, the head of the committee upheld his ruling: Zelmanov’s composition “failed to elaborate on the topic.” As young Zelmanov sat alone processing his fate, wearing his dejection clearly on his face, another stroke of luck followed, according to his account: The deputy rector happened to pass by and asked—“why do you look so sad?”

Upon hearing the situation, the deputy rector conferred with the committee. After a few minutes, the secretary came out and announced that he would be given an exam score of 3 (a “C”) and conditional admission—not as a student, but as a “candidate.” This meant that he could attend lectures and take an entrance exam to convert to becoming a student the following year.

The luck experienced by Zelmanov in the early 1970s when Soviet university bureaucracy was hardening against Jewish applicants was the right-person-at-the-right time kind of luck. For others, it was more of an epochal matter of timing. Such was the case of Yakov Eliashberg, born in 1946 in Leningrad. When he was applying for university in 1962, it was, in his description, “a relaxed time”—it was “easy then for a Jewish student to gain entry into university.” This experience was not necessarily taken for granted, as his two elder brothers who entered university under Stalin’s reign had much more difficulty.

In 1969, as systemic anti-Semitism was hardening across Soviet life, Eliashberg was endorsed by his professors for graduate studies. He immediately collided with an early version of what would evolve into a more perfected system to exclude Jews from mathematical education. It began with a determined effort to fail him on the entrance exam on scientific communism. Fortunately for Eliashberg, one of the members of the examination committee was a mathematics department representative who held Eliashberg in high regard and did not allow the committee to fail him. As Eliashberg recalled, “I received the lowest passing grade on this exam but was admitted to graduate school.”

But this silver lining came attached to a dark cloud. “I was admitted with a catch,” he continued, “such that after I finish my degree, I would go as far as possible away from Leningrad, to Siberia or the Soviet far east.”

Despite such conditionalities, the director of the Leningrad branch of the famed Steklov Institute for Mathematics, Georgii Petrashen, courageously prioritized merit over ideology and made an attempt to hire Eliashberg. However, the Steklov Institute director forbade branch directors from hiring Jews without his personal permission. Several times during that year Petrashen visited Moscow, planning, among other things, to discuss Eliashberg’s employment with Steklov’s director, but each time he found the moment to be inopportune. When time finally ran out and the conversation could be postponed no longer, Petrashen summoned the courage to advocate for Eliashberg. His courage was punished with a one-week confinement in a mental hospital.

Eliashberg was assigned to Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, located 800 miles northeast from Moscow where temperatures linger at subzero degrees Fahrenheit throughout the winter. At the time of Eliashberg’s job hunt, there was a movement in the Soviet Union to found new universities in less populated regions. The rector of a newly formed university at Syktyvkar was then visiting Leningrad State, seeking new faculty members. As a “senior” institution, the prestigious Leningrad State had an obligation to help the newer universities get their start. And so it was decided that he would be the fresh Leningrad graduate who would go on to serve on the mathematics faculty at Syktyvkar. There he would serve for seven years from 1972-1979. And in many ways, it was not entirely a bad time to be outside of Moscow and Leningrad, by then ablaze with anti-Semitism. “There was practically no anti-Semitism in Syktyvkar, as there were not many Jews there,” Eliashberg recalled. “And it was at a time when the bureaucracy really hasn’t settled, so there was some excitement about potential.” But things gradually became worse, and in 1979, he applied for an exit visa.

After the shock of his son’s rejection from MGU, Frenkel’s father returned to Moscow early the following morning, where he headed straight to the admissions office at the Institute for Petrochemical and Natural Gas, nicknamed Kerosinka after a common kerosene-burner. Kerosinka was one of the many second-tier institutions that began thriving by accepting talented Jewish students rejected by elite schools like MGU. The motivations for Kerosinka’s inclusive admissions policy have been debated. Some speculated, as Frenkel did in his book, that it was a KGB plot to keep the Jewish students in one place to simplify surveillance. But others believe that Kerosinka’s policy was far more innocent: The administrators recognized that by accepting qualified students, they would be enhancing the quality of the school. The institution became a refuge for aspiring Jewish mathematicians, deterred by the futility of the MGU entrance examinations, opting instead to head straight to Kerosinka.

Though he was warned that his son likely would not be admitted later on for graduate study, Frenkel’s father was assured that there was no anti-Semitism in undergraduate admissions at Kerosinka and his son would be, like many other highly talented students who had been rejected elsewhere, admitted to the applied mathematics program.

The problem with Kerosinka was not so much the lack of prestige, but the practical mathematical opportunities that MGU offered. Some topics in areas of pure mathematics were just not available at Kerosinka. Motivated students like Frenkel sought to fill in the gaps at Kerosinka by sneaking into lectures at MGU. Some Kerosinka students found entrances that were less heavily guarded at specific hours throughout the day. Others simply flashed their Kerosinka identification card as they walked by the MGU guard quickly, innocently fooling the guard into assuming they were MGU students. But the more nimble simply scaled one of the unguarded fences surrounding MGU. Frenkel and a few friends regularly sneaked into MGU and attended lectures by renowned mathematicians who welcomed the Kerosinka students.

Among these sympathetic mathematicians was Dimitry Fuchs, to whom Frenkel was introduced in his second year at Kerosinka. Apart from eventually acting as a “second adviser” to Jewish student mathematicians, Fuchs was also a regular lecturer in the “Jewish People’s University” (JPU)—an informal school of mathematics held in the apartment of mathematician Bella Subbotovskaya, an MGU alumna, who sought to create an alternative for Jewish students who could not get a proper pure mathematics education through regular means. Such a school had to be kept semi-secret, and while many of its participants suspected that KGB agents were infiltrating their gatherings—they went on for several years in the early 1980s, assiduously avoiding any political topic during their evening sessions and focusing solely on mathematics so that no allegations of political crime could be made. Subbotovskaya, whose apolitical sanctuary was eventually broken up by Soviet secret police, later died in mysterious—Frenkel called them “suspicious”—circumstances involving a truck and an alley.

Fuchs was one of the many Soviet mathematicians who volunteered his time at JPU. He gave Frenkel a copy of a research paper and his phone number. Fuchs instructed Frenkel to read the paper and call him when he saw a word that he did not understand. But with his extraordinary level of preparation, Frenkel was able to understand much of the content of the paper—so much so that he properly impressed Fuchs. Thus began Frenkel’s first venture into pure mathematical research while enrolled at an institute ostensibly formed to study the practical problems of extracting and refining oil and gas.

In 1989, Frenkel received a letter from Harvard. It was addressed to a “Dr. Frenkel” though Frenkel had not even yet completed his bachelor’s degree at Kerosinka. He was invited to be a visiting member of faculty on the strength of work he published while at Kerosinka. He was reenrolled the following year as a graduate student where he received a Harvard Ph.D. in a year’s time. After receiving his doctorate, Frenkel was elected as junior fellow to the Harvard Society of Fellows—one of the most prestigious postdoctoral placements in the U.S. academic system. He rapidly won tenure at Harvard and in 1997, moved to Berkeley where he remains on the faculty.

Benny Sudakov, now professor of mathematics at ETH-Zurich, was born in 1969 in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he recounts that there was no serious anti-Semitism. Outside of the street-level taunting, Jews had faced no great obstacles in the substantive matters of education and career. As a high school student he distinguished himself early—winning three medals in the Soviet Mathematical Olympiad. Sudakov was gifted with a rare kind of mental athleticism that enabled him to smash through the hardest competition-style problems. If coffin problems were invented to stymie Jewish students seeking a mathematical education at the troika of top mathematics departments, then Sudakov was almost designed by nature to devour such problems whole.

By 1986, when Sudakov had set his sights on MGU, he knew that he would not likely be accepted, notwithstanding the mathematical Olympiad medals adorning his wall. He steeled himself not only for the coffin problems, but also memorized entire passages from literary sources that he would quote precisely in the composition examination. He consciously avoided all the stumbling blocks. He carefully wrote out the solutions to the mathematical problems and made sure to write out the solutions with unimpeachable clarity. He used all of his examination time. After he sailed through the mathematics portion he “failed” the composition—entirely as he had anticipated.

“There were too many commas,” he said of the examination committee’s critique of one of his quoted passages. “But I had the book with me. They replied that the editor of the publishing house had put commas in the wrong place and we will leave the grade as is.” But Sudakov did not stop there. In those times, there was only one publisher in all of the country—the government. The placement of the commas was the official position of the Soviet state. He submitted an appeal to the Ministry of Education, which conceded the point and sent the matter back to the university for review. The university dug in its heels, finding no wrongdoing. Sudakov had not so much reached the end of the road, but proved his point about the Soviet system by showing that it will reject a literally perfect examination performance by a Jewish candidate. Over nine “misplaced” commas, quoted verbatim from an authoritative state source, he was denied his entry. Sudakov’s appeal, like that of most Jewish prospective students, never stood a chance. He had prepared for this moment and applied to Tbilisi State University where he was easily admitted.

As Sudakov was taking the entrance exam inside of MGU, Leonid Polterovich stood outside the gates. Polterovich was a Jewish MGU graduate who was buttonholing incoming Jewish applicants to steel them for the gauntlet that lay ahead, and debriefing Jewish applicants to document the coffin problems they had just been administered. Polterovich was continuing the work of his mentor Valery Senderov, a Soviet Jewish mathematician who had been recently jailed for his human rights activity. Polterovich endeavored to carry on Senderov’s efforts by periodically standing outside the MGU gates scanning the crowd for prospective Jewish MGU applicants.

While coffin problems were hard to solve, they were also hard to create. Mathematical problems have a finite quality to them. Calculus students today might be surprised to learn that their problems are often not that much different from what was given in the 1600s by the Cambridge proctors where Newton invented the infinitesimal calculus. Simply put: There are a limited number of problems that you can really contrive in calculus, up to multiplicative and additive factors that do not really change the problem. Coffin problems have somewhat the same character; a strong coffin problem had to be hard, but solvable in principle. It was not easy to invent such problems, and at some point, some repetition was inevitable. Senderov had orchestrated a system, continued by Polterovich and his other proteges, wherein students can be prepared for their ambush by familiarizing themselves with past problems which, with minor changes of scale and proportion, are basically the same. These schema of problems could be conceptually grasped in advance, giving them a fairer fight against a system determined not to be fair.

In carrying on Senderov’s work, Polterovich understood he had to be careful. The Soviet system was not designed to accept protest. Though he himself had beaten astronomical odds by successfully appealing his own original rejection from the MGU Mekhmat program, Polterovich knew the system well enough that when he took to the entrance of MGU to help those Jewish applicants, he knew he would still have to act cautiously. Whatever you might say in open protest, he explains, “you might as well write it down as a statement in your trial.”

Sudakov was one of the many students with whom Polterovich spoke on one of the days that he was standing outside of MGU. In the early 1990s, their paths crossed again at Tel Aviv University, where Sudakov was enrolled as a doctoral student while Polterovich served on the faculty. They remain in touch.

Luck was a defining factor in determining the fate of many in the Soviet Union, and it is the common vein that unites the subjects of this story. Yet the stories recounted here are not representative. Such stories can never be completely told because the Soviet system intentionally left much undocumented. Critical marks on examinations were often written in erasable pencil. Written exams were eschewed in favor of oral ones. Some who lived through the period do not feel they have anything to add; others may find the experience too painful to contemplate, much less talk about. Even among the small cohort described here, there is consensus on a few things but not on many others.

Kac quit his job in 1976 and applied for an exit visa to Israel. He received permission to leave quickly. He secured a position immediately at MIT where he remains today. Zelmanov eventually secured a role at Novosibirsk State and left in 1990. For his breakthrough work on a century-old problem, he was awarded a Fields Medal in 1994—the mathematical equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

Eliashberg was less lucky. He became a refusenik after his visa request was denied in 1979. He had returned to Leningrad before applying, and was forced to support himself at various temporary jobs. This promising mathematician found himself working as a night watchman at a car garage in the city. One of his friends put his own career on the line in order to secure for Eliashberg a job in an accounting software company. He remained there until 1987, when he was finally able to leave the Soviet Union. He was not sure if he would be able to rehabilitate himself as a mathematician. But he succeeded. In the decades since, he has won many of the most prestigious awards in mathematics including the Veblen, Crafoord, and Wolf prizes. Today, he is on the mathematics faculty at Stanford.

For her part, Julia Rashba recalled a poignant moment in the elevator with the MGU examiner who had failed her on the entrance exam. In many ways, she felt unprepared for what had just happened to her. She had experienced anti-Semitism in her childhood with bullies and cruel taunts. Once, as a little girl, she ran away from a day camp where the bullying was too much. She was not aware that the sorts of anti-Semitism that lived in adult institutions would be less benign. She was raised, however, to believe that even in such a discriminatory system, where her own father had experienced nearly insurmountable travails to rise to the top of the Soviet physics establishment—that she needed only to work hard and act with integrity and things should work out.

They had not. The examination she “failed” was not even for medical school, it was for a chemistry program that offered some biomedical tracks. She had hoped that she could contribute to medicine as a scientific researcher, even if she would not be allowed to be a clinician. The system would not even allow this tenuous finger hold on her dream. She recalls that the examiner, perhaps seeking absolution for the shame of what he had just done, quietly apologized and asked for her forgiveness. She refused.

The authors request that anyone impacted by coffin problems interested in sharing their story email [email protected].

Julia Schulman is Senior Director of Special Projects at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. She was born in Leningrad, USSR to a family of Jewish engineers and scientists.

Michael Hsieh is non-resident affiliate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation where his work focuses on technology issues in security policy. He holds a doctorate in chemistry from Princeton University.