Squirrel Hill resident Stanley Cohen may not look like your typical angel, but Michael Kapoustin steadfastly believes that he is.
Kapoustin, who was released only four months ago from a Bulgarian prison after being confined and brutally tortured for 13 horrific years, says he owes his liberation, as well as the life of his young son, in no small part to his “angel” Cohen.
Kapoustin, a Canadian entrepreneur from Vancouver, went to Bulgaria shortly after the fall of communism in the mid-1990s. Soon thereafter, authorities there charged him with money laundering and embezzlement. Kapoustin, who denied the charges, received a 17-year prison sentence, commencing with almost three years of solitary confinement, that tore him away from his wife, Tracy, and baby, Nicholas.
“He was erroneously imprisoned for a disproportionate amount of time,” said Cohen, founder and international chairman of the Pittsburgh-based B’nai Brith’s Cuban Jewish Relief Project, and a member of the international board of governors of B’nai B’rith. “When he was captured, they made anti-Jewish remarks, and in prison, they continued to persecute him for being Jewish.”
In 1998, while still in prison, Kapoustin received word that Nicholas, just 5 years old at the time, had been diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Although doctors were able to get the disease under control for a while, by 2001 his condition had worsened. He needed an insulin pump, which cost thousands of dollars, to treat his condition. Since Tracy did not have the funds to pay for the pump, and Canada’s medical insurance would not cover it, she wrote in desperation to her husband, imploring him to find a solution.
But what could a man behind bars, 10,000 miles away do to help?
“I began to write letters,” said Kapoustin.
After sending out about 150 letters to various Jewish organizations throughout Canada, Western Europe and the United States, Kapoustin finally got one reply — from John Berkowitz, of B’nai B’rith International in New York. It was Berkowitz who put Kapoustin in touch with Cohen.
“I told him (Cohen) my little boy was diabetic, that he was spiking and that my wife didn’t know who to ask for help,” Kapoustin recalled. “I asked him to do something. Stanley’s my angel. He said, ‘I’ll find your son a pump.’”
True to his word, Cohen located a pump for Nicholas.
“I have a friend in Atlanta, David Roos,” said Cohen. “His daughter died from juvenile diabetes, and he is very active in the American Diabetes Association.”
Through the help of Roos, and the ADA, Nicholas received his life-saving insulin pump within a few months.
But Cohen’s aid to Kapoustin did not end there. He decided he could not rest until Kapoustin was released was prison. Cohen worked tirelessly for the next seven years, until Kapoustin was once again home on Canadian soil.
“I finally convinced his wife to go public with this,” said Cohen. “She was afraid, and it took a year. Finally, she went public with it.”
Once Kapoustin’s plight was publicized, the wheels for his eventual release were set in motion.
“Stan convinced Tracy to go to the media and to look for lawyers. They [the Bulgarian government] finally let me go,” Kapoustin said. “Stan was always there.”
Kapoustin says he owes his survival in prison entirely to his Jewish faith, which he did not embrace until he was incarcerated. In fact, Kapoustin, now 56, had no idea that he was a Jew until he was 36 years old.
“My father didn’t tell me I was Jewish until the day before I got married,” Kapoustin said. Kapoustin’s father and grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and feared to identify as Jews even after World War II.
“Even to this day, my father tells me not to tell anyone I’m Jewish,” Kapoustin said, which makes his strong connection to his faith even more unlikely.
“My faith completely got me through,” said Kapoustin. “It was quite an ordeal. Thirteen years is no small thing. But when I was in solitary, and they used to beat me regularly, I used to reflect back on how my grandparents survived the Holocaust in Yugoslavia. … I realized you shouldn’t just survive something. You’ve got to fight and make a difference.”
While in prison, Kapoustin told his captors, “You simply have no idea who you’re dealing with and who’s on my side.” From the confines of his cell, he was able to file numerous lawsuits against the Bulgarian government, successfully petition for toilets and showers, and even managed to gain access to a computer.
“I said, ‘I’ve got a mind and a heart and a faith that’s so strong, you can’t make me give up,’” Kapoustin said. “Even now I’m not quitting.”
Now that he’s finally home, Kapoustin is keeping the promises he made to God while in Bulgaria: he is working to help other diabetic children, and has organized a group to help other Canadian citizens unfairly imprisoned throughout the globe.
Kapoustin says that he is living proof of God’s miracles, and he intends to use the strength he discovered in himself to make a difference in this world.
“God’s on my right shoulder, and I’m listening.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)