Letter from Israel

Letter from Israel

A roomful of heroes

Natan Sharansky, Sasha Luntz, and Laura Bialis talk at the memorial for Michael Sherbourne.

Last Wednesday night I entered a room filled with giants.

Not in the literal sense; some of them, most notably Natan Sharansky, barely top my 5-foot-1 stature.

These giants are the “refuseniks” – people who were grievously persecuted for trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union during the late 1960s through the late 1980s – and the international crew of “ordinary” Jews responsible for prying open the Iron Curtain.

Mr. Sharansky, now chairman of the Jewish Agency, was there with his wife, Avital. Yosef Mendelevich was there, and Sylva Zalmanson, Dina and Yosef Beilin, Sasha Luntz, and many others whose harrowing experiences are difficult to imagine when you see them now, gray-haired and smiling, sitting in a Jerusalem villa sipping tea, nibbling hors d’oeuvres, and chatting easily in Hebrew, Russian, and English.

The occasion for this gathering was to honor the memory of Michael Sherbourne, a British citizen who died last June at 97. Mr. Sherbourne coined the term “refusenik” in 1971. He knew Russian and assigned himself the task of phoning refuseniks daily to offer them support and to update the Western world on their plight.

Over the course of 15 years, he placed, recorded, transcribed, and translated between 5,000 and 6,000 calls at a time when Internet didn’t exist, long-distance calls weren’t cheap, and the phone lines were monitored by the Soviets. Sometimes, uttering the name “Sharansky” was enough to get the call disconnected.

Mr. Sharansky related that in his perilous and unpredictable world, the only constant was that phone call from Mr. Sherbourne. The two men spoke at least 150 times before Mr. Sharansky was imprisoned and cut off from humanity for the next nine years. This brilliant, brave freedom fighter not only survived isolation cells and hard labor, but also outlived Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko.

I was a senior in high school when Mr. Sharansky was arrested. By the time he was released, as the result of unrelenting world pressure, I was married, the mother of two little boys, whereas he was only then able to join Avital in Israel to begin their family and their lives in freedom. He’d been arrested the day after their clandestine wedding.

The ultimately successful campaign to free Soviet Jewry was born of grassroots activism in North America and England by good people dismissively referred to by the Soviet authorities as “students and housewives.” Many powers-that-be predicted that their demonstrations, letter-writing, phone calls, publicity stunts, and risky visits to the Soviet Union would do more harm than good. But they persisted until their cause was championed by the United States government under Ronald Reagan.

Enid Wurtman was one of the “housewives” whose efforts moved mountains. Having made aliyah from Philadelphia in 1977 – how could she and her husband stay in the diaspora when they were fighting so hard for the right of their fellow Jews to leave it? – she remains close with former refuseniks and activists.

My husband and I got to mingle with this illustrious group at the invitation of Enid, whom we are honored to count as a dear friend.

The emcee for the evening was Laura Bialis, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles whose award-winning 2007 film “Refusenik” brought together dissidents and their saviors to tell this modern story of suffering and redemption. Like many of the Soviet Jewry activists she interviewed and befriended, Laura now lives and works in Israel.

Feeling rather star-struck and more than a little out of our league, Steve and I slipped into seats in the back row as Laura and Enid began the program.

But we failed to take into account how extremely humble the Sharanskys are. They quietly took the two empty chairs next to us rather than sit up front. So for the next hour, flashbulbs were popping in our faces. Anyone seeing the photos must be scratching their heads over the identity of this couple sitting with the Sharanskys.

I turned to introduce ourselves. “You are my personal heroes,” I said. Natan smiled; Avital winced. I persisted, explaining that I vividly recall her shy but impassioned pleas on television, begging leaders and laypeople to help get her husband and other refuseniks out of the Soviet Union. She relaxed and smiled once I switched the topic and mentioned that our elder son is friends with their son-in-law.

Throughout the evening, I watched out of the corner of my eye as the Sharanskys tenderly touched one another’s arms, hands, shoulders as if still making up for the cruel nine years they were apart. That they are miraculously together, that they are parents and grandparents, is a moving testament to the extraordinary folks gathered in that Jerusalem living room. Truly, there is no end to the amount of good that can be done if people only care enough to get involved.

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