2018-03-28 / Voice at the Shore

Famous physicist speaks at Beth El on his trials as a Russian-Jewish scientist

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Drexel professor Jonathan Spanier (left) with renowned Russian physicist Vladimir Fridkin, long-time Beth El member Gerry Spanier, and Beth El Rabbi Aaron Krauss. Drexel professor Jonathan Spanier (left) with renowned Russian physicist Vladimir Fridkin, long-time Beth El member Gerry Spanier, and Beth El Rabbi Aaron Krauss. Noted Russian physicist Vladimir Fridkin spoke at Beth El Synagogue on Sunday, March 11, on his experiences as both a Russian Jew and a scientist who came of age during the Stalin Era.

Fridkin, who is almost 89, is well known in the scientific world for inventing the first copy machine. He now spends part of the year working at Drexel University in Philadelphia with fellow physicist Jonathan Spanier, whose family are long-time Beth El members.

Thanks to the connection between the two Jewish physicists, roughly 30 people got to hear Fridkin talk about what it was like to be a Jew and a scientist in Russia both during and after Communism, while enjoying a brunch sponsored by the Spanier family.

“In childhood I didn’t understand who I was,” said Fridkin. “I didn’t understand I was Jewish.”

Before the Russian Revolution, he noted, Jewish people in the former Soviet Union lived in ghettos outside of urban areas, where they “lived a usual Jewish life,” going to synagogue and celebrating Shabbat. Yet Jews were largely unable to attend universities in Moscow and other urban areas back then.

All that changed with the Russian Revolution, he noted. After the revolution, the practice of all religion was forbidden. Yet there was an upside: After the revolution, Jews were also able to leave the ghetto and attend university, at least initially. This enabled his mother to enroll at Moscow University and eventually become a doctor.

Fridkin remembered his parents occasionally speaking Yiddish, but other than that any sign of Jewish life did not exist in his household growing up. “My parents had no Jewish traditions,” said Fridkin. “There was no Jewish life in my generation,” he said, referring to the generation that grew up right after the Russian Revolution.

“I was a Jew only in passport— it was written on my passport.” This passport designation ultimately became a huge disadvantage to Fridkin in pursuing his scientific career. Shortly before World War II, he noted, Stalin “initiated anti-Semitism,” most likely as a show of solidarity with Hitler. “It’s difficult to say if [Stalin] was really anti- Semitic, but it was political,” said Fridkin. Stalin’s new discriminatory policies were readily accepted by the populace, he noted, because “anti- Semitism is deeply rooted in the Russian consciousness.”

As a result of Stalin’s anti- Semitic policies, Fridkin was unable to pursue graduate studies or get a job at a scientific institute after graduating from university with a physics degree in 1952. His mother, like many other Jewish doctors, also lost her job. “There was no money to buy food. We survived by help from friends,” he said.

Finally, Fridkin found a job with a modest salary at a Polygraphic Institute, which was an industrial rather than a scientific academy. Nevertheless, it was there that Fridkin began looking into electro-photography and eventually created the first working copy machine in 1953.

When the director of the institute came to see Fridkin’s invention, he was awed. “The director said: ‘Do you know what you’ve done? This is absolutely great!’” The next week, a government minister came to see Fridkin’s invention and made plans to produce more copiers.

Unfortunately, the Russian economy was not set up to successfully bring such scientific discoveries to the world marketplace, said Fridkin. “Americans told me: If you were an American, you would be a millionaire!” said the scientist, who made no money off his invention but did win several scientific awards for it years later, including one from Kodak.

Still, Fridkin’s professional life did improve soon after he created the copier. Around the same time, Stalin died, and the Soviet Union’s anti-Semitic policies lessened to some degree. Fridkin was invited to do graduate study at the Institute of Crystalography, where he later became a full professor at the young age of 34.

Sadly, Fridkin’s copier was destroyed shortly after he began at the Institute of Crystalography. Although the copier was popular among Fridkin’s scientific colleagues, who frequently “came to my small room to make copies” of scientific articles, the government saw it as a dangerous tool that could aid in the dissemination of anti-communist materials.

“A woman came to me and said: ‘You must give up this device. It’s against the rules. People can come and make copies of forbidden things,’” said Fridkin. So it was taken away and destroyed. Later he learned that the mirrored plate used in his copier ultimately became a mirror for the women’s restroom.

“This sounds like just a story, but this really happened! in 1955,” he said.

Fridkin moved on to other projects. Unlike many other Russian Jews, his position as a scientist enabled him to travel out of the country, giving talks and working. It was while working in Lincoln, NE, that Fridkin set foot in a synagogue for the very first time.

Now, since the fall of Communism in 1991, there are once again synagogues in Russia. Moscow now has several synagogues and kosher restaurants, he noted. “Now there is a generation in Russia of people who have Jewish life,” said Fridkin.

“Anti-Semitism still exists in Russia but it is suppressed,” he added.

Yet the fall of Communism has not been good for Fridkin as a scientist. “There is no money for science or medicine,” he lamented. “Scientists are the poorest people in the country.”

That is one reason that Fridkin said he is so happy to be working with Spanier at Drexel. Working here in America has “prolonged my scientific life,” said the 89-year-old scientist, who has published over 400 scientific articles and books. “I am very grateful.” 

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