St. Paul couple at vortex of Israeli prisoner saga

by Curt Brown, Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune
March 15, 2003

The first time they met their adopted son, Mary and Nick Eoloff weren't in a hospital or an orphanage. They were at Ashkelon Prison, a high-security Israeli jail near Tel Aviv.

A steel grate separated the St. Paul couple from Mordechai Vanunu, now 48, who had spent a dozen years in solitary confinement for treason and leaking Israeli nuclear secrets to a London newspaper.

"We had to sit on stone cement seats and stick our fingers through the grate to touch him," recalled Nick Eoloff (pronounced Ee-Loff), 73. "Mary and I were bawling and crying and it was quite an emotional experience for us."

Five years and nine prison visits later, this unique adoption will be part of a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary about Vanunu that debuts Sunday at the International Human Rights Film Festival in London.

Vanunu, who is serving an 18-year sentence, is to be released next year.

As unlikely as it seems, the Eoloffs' beige townhouse off St. Clair Av. and Ayd Mill Rd. has become the improbable vortex of a worldwide campaign to free Vanunu. Peace activists in Norway, Italy, Sweden and Australia hold regular vigils on his behalf.

The Eoloffs "have become Mordechai's link to the outside world and a great source or support and love," said Felice Cohen-Joppa of Tucson, Ariz., coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, which helps pay the Eoloffs' travel expenses. "The way they're helping him really speaks to the Eoloffs' huge amount of compassion and dedication to peace and a nuclear-free future."

At first glance, the Eoloffs seem a far cry from radical peaceniks caught up in a Middle East controversy.

Nick has been retired for seven years as an editor of law books at West Publishing. Mary, 71, taught briefly, but mostly stayed home to raise six kids. They have 16 grandchildren, a lake place near Paynesville, Minn., and a congenial, soft-spoken air.

The Eoloffs have been on an unpredictable ride since coming to Vanunu's defense. One day they were in Tel Aviv passing out "Free Vanunu" literature when an Israeli man spit on the leaflet and handed it back. Another day, they were in St. Petersburg, Russia, accepting a resistance award for Vanunu from the Nuclear-Free Future Society of Munich, Germany.

A 'tormenting story'

It all began in 1995 when Mary came across an article about Vanunu in The Progressive magazine. The Eoloffs, who describe themselves as "radical Catholics," had been peace activists since 1980, and Mary has been arrested at U.S. military bases. But she'd never heard the name Vanunu until she read article.

Vanunu was born in Morocco, the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. He has since denounced his faith and converted to Christianity.

As a technician at Israel's secret Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev Desert, Vanunu believed that Israeli citizens should know about their government's cache of nuclear weapons. So in 1986, he moved to London and shared pictures from inside the plant with the London Sunday Times. From Vanunu's details and photos, experts determined that Israel possessed the world's sixth-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

An undercover agent for Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, wooed Vanunu to Italy, where he was kidnapped and shipped back to Israel in a crate, then convicted after a secret treason trial.

"It was the most tormenting story to read," Mary said. "But at the end of the article, it said you could write this man."

So she began corresponding with Vanunu, whose censored letters back took months. In the meantime, the Eoloffs petitioned President Bill Clinton and Congress to urge Israel to release him.

Not everyone holds as sympathetic a view of Vanunu. Julie Swiler, spokeswoman for the regional Jewish Community Relations Council, compared Vanunu to convicted U.S. spy Robert Hanssen, who sold sensitive U.S. intelligence to the Russians.

"Here is a man who made a decision to give away his country's secrets and he shouldn't be surprised that he has to pay a price," she said.

The adoption idea

When the petitions and letters to the Israeli embassy and the White House went nowhere, the Eoloffs grew frustrated. Then the adoption idea popped up. Minnesota law allows for adult adoptions if a judge determines it's in the person's best interest. Ramsey County District Judge John Connolly, who is now retired, granted the adoption decree Oct. 24, 1997.

"We were laboring under the erroneous assumption that if we legally adopted him, he would become a U.S. citizen and the whole situation would change," Nick said. But only adoptions of kids 16 and under include citizenship. Undeterred, the Eoloffs headed to Israel with the adoption decree in hand.

Since then, they've returned to the prison twice a year, including a ninth trip last January. No longer in solitary confinement, Vanunu now meets the Eoloffs in a visitors' room, and on their most recent visit, he greeted them with cherry juice and cookies from the prison canteen. A prison guard even agreed to snap a Polaroid snapshot of the trio.

Vanunu is scheduled to be released from prison in April 2004, and the Eoloffs said he wants to join them in St. Paul, where he'd love to teach history or philosophy.

"It's going to be really difficult because one of the first questions on the immigration forms is: Have you been convicted of a crime?" Nick said.

Vanunu backers and lawyers already are applying for a passport so he can leave Israel after his release, though some fear he'll be killed before he can write a book about his treatment. Meanwhile, Vanunu is among 165 people nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.

"He really wanted to spark a dialogue among the Israeli people because he thought they should be the ones to decide whether Israel has nuclear weapons," Mary said.

Added Nick: "His commitment to a nuclear-free world is really admirable and, you bet, he's very enthusiastic about coming home to St. Paul, as strange as that may sound."


Curt Brown is at curt.brown@startribune.com .