Today, February 11, 2016, marks the 30th anniversary of Natan Sharansky’s release from the Soviet Gulag. It was one of the great moments of recent Jewish history. The struggle was led by Natan’s wife Avital, who inspired millions of people around the world to raise a voice of moral conscience on behalf of Natan and all of Soviet Jewry. Here, I present an excerpt from Open Up the Iron Door: Memoirs of Soviet Jewry Activist on Natan’s coming home.
After the Geneva Summit, Reagan apparently decided he needed to get Avital out of his hair, and to close the Sharansky issue once and for all. To those seeking to improve US-Soviet ties, Sharansky had become a distracting nuisance.
Alongside our highly visible protests, smaller campaigns played a decisive role in fomenting this distraction. Joe Mermelstein, for instance, with SSSJ help took out newspaper ads around the world featuring a picture of Natan’s eyes. Under the picture, bold numbers indicated how many days Natan had been in prison. The ad appeared prominently in the International Herald Tribune during the summit in Geneva. I’ve always believed that Reagan saw that ad, and thought, “Enough! Let’s just end this problem.”
His administration sent unmistakable signals to the Soviets that the Americans placed a very high priority on Natan’s prompt release. For his part, Gorbachev, who had already made clear that he was more willing than his predecessors to try new approaches, apparently decided that the time had come to end the ongoing embarrassment of the Sharansky case.
In late January 1986, as negotiations to free Natan moved toward their culmination, I was in touch with Avital. But by the beginning of February, with widespread rumors of Sharansky’s imminent release, Avital dropped out of sight. Rumors placed her in locations around the globe, but in fact she was secluded in the Merkaz HaRav community.
On February 10, 1986, Natan was flown from Russia to East Berlin. The next morning, carrying nothing, he walked to freedom crossing the snow-covered Glienicke Bridge that linked East and West Germany. He was greeted by Richard Burt, US ambassador to West Germany, Avital, and a small entourage from Merkaz HaRav Kook.
At that time, I was on a flight to Israel, landing a short while before Avital and Natan arrived. The first person I saw was Yosef Mendelevich, who took me into the VIP section to await Natan’s appearance.
Over the years, Avital had often talked about how she would react when Natan was finally free, wondering what their first words would be to each other. She often told me that she thought she would die the moment she saw him, that she’d be too overwhelmed to go on.
I did not witness their reunion. I first saw Natan from across a chaotic VIP lounge, where he was preparing to address the media and political elite gathered to greet him. Looking at Avital, I saw she was smiling, a smile of inner peace. She hadn’t seen him for twelve years, back when she was just twenty-four, and he twenty-six. After nine years in Soviet prisons and labor camps, Natan, now thirty-eight, was finally free, and here he stood, manifest in front of all of us, alive. In seeing him together with Avital, the earth itself seemed to tremble with happiness.
Natan began his remarks in a rusty, but otherwise quite impressive Hebrew. When Avital caught my eye from across the room I felt an almost infinite joy. She nudged Natan and pointed in my direction, and toward others who had been involved in the freedom effort. She was excited to introduce Natan to his supporters, some of whom he was meeting for the first time.
The circus-like scene was tumultuous. Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, angling for a share of the spotlight, maneuvered to position themselves alongside Sharansky. Cabinet ministers and members of parliament pressed forward. Reporters jockeyed for position in between.
But Natan, his gaze on Avital, seemed oblivious to all this. As he spoke movingly of the political prisoners he had left behind in the camps, I was struck by his innate modesty, his disinclination to bask in personal glory. “Even on this day,” he said, “the happiest day of my life, I’m not going to forget those whom I left in the camps, in prisons, who are still in exile, and who still continue their struggle for the right to emigrate and for their human rights.”
Outside the terminal, Natan told the waiting throngs that sometimes in prison the guards would tell him he’s alone. Natan would then cheer himself by singing Hinneh Ma Tov – “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity.” He knew others were fighting on his behalf. He may have been alone, but he was not lonely. Some in the crowd spontaneously broke into the song, and Natan joined in. The transcendent moment had me in tears, but through my tears I was also laughing as I listened to Natan sing. Avital had often told me that Natan was completely tone-deaf and used to drive his KGB guards up the wall by singing woefully off-key Hebrew songs in his cell.
As the crowd ecstatically pressed as close as possible to Natan and Avital, and as officials jockeyed to be near them for the hundreds of pictures being taken, I noticed Rabbi Tau, the self-effacing captain of the team, at the back. I softly recited a sentence from the Psalms: “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be happy on it.”
When Natan finished speaking, Avital turned to Peres, and with microphone in hand told him solemnly that he must never give up an inch of the Land of Israel. Avital received a lot of criticism for saying that, especially at that moment, but the gesture was typical of what she had always done: standing up and saying exactly what she believed.
Avital’s talk was powerful. By then she had become an exceptional speaker. The Avital that Natan was meeting that day was not the Avital he had been separated from the day after their wedding twelve years earlier. And yet, in other ways, Avital was very much the same. Some had wondered whether Avital would be able to return to her more quiet style of life after so many years of globe-trotting. But all through that time she had yearned to be her natural self, yearned for the quieter role of wife and mother. It was precisely because her public image ran contrary to her natural demeanor that her performance during the years of Natan’s incarceration was so extraordinary.
The next afternoon, Avi Maoz whisked me past tight security into the couple’s Jerusalem apartment. I had often dreamed of this moment, but now that it was here, I wasn’t sure what to say to Natan. Bereft of words, I sat in silence and reached for his hand.
I immediately felt close to Natan because of his down-to-earth personality and his playful sense of humor. Finally I said, “I still can’t believe you’re here.” He pinched himself as if to check. “Neither can I,” he said. In truth, I think there were moments during those first days when Natan wondered whether his exodus from the Soviet Union Russia and reunion with his wife was not a lovely hallucination.
During that conversation, I shared as much as possible about the struggle in the West on his behalf and, especially, about the tenacious and indomitable performance of Avital, who, as Peres had aptly said, “fought like a lioness” on her husband’s behalf. As I described Avital’s efforts, Natan was handed an Israeli newspaper with a large picture of his mother smiling broadly as she was told of Natan’s release. Tears coursed down his face.
While Natan took a nap, I lingered with Avital, sharing memories of the long struggle. “You’ll never believe,” Avital said, “what Natan’s first words were. He said, ‘Sorry I’m late.’” This was vintage Natan, a man who never forgot how to laugh. Jews have long known that the difference between tears and joy, sadness and laughter, is but a hairsbreadth.
As Avital and I continued to talk, she took needle and thread and tried without success to sew her husband’s oversized pants. Avital had always said she longed to be a wife and mother instead of an international political figure meeting presidents and kings. Now she had her chance to begin playing that role, but she was clearly out of practice. She laughed heartily at her inexpertise. Her neighbor from upstairs fixed the pants for her. I was reminded again of how, beyond the political impact, the reuniting of Avital and Natan was a human story, with serious as well as light and comical sides.
Natan finally emerged from the bedroom looking somewhat rested, shuffling his feet in a dance-like step. I remarked that he seemed light on his feet, and Natan responded by expressing regret that he had never learned Israeli dancing. “Let me teach you the hora,” I suggested spontaneously. Natan was as eager to learn as I was to teach; soon I was whirling him around the room by the hand, prompting him with “One, two, hop, hop.” In the end, we danced in a circle and sang David, Melekh Yisrael (David, King of Israel, lives forever).
It had soon become clear that Natan’s dance skills were not much better than his vocal talents. He had trouble with the “hop hop” step. When I said left, Natan would go right. A part of me wondered whether this was the manifestation of an ingrained habit: doing exactly the opposite of what KGB agents wanted him to do.
REMEMBERING THOSE LEFT BEHIND
At the press conference he and Avital held that evening at the Jerusalem Hilton, Natan was magnificently witty, persuasive, in command, and often very funny. Firmly but without rancor, he fended off intrusive questions about how he, a less ritually observant Jew, would be able to live with the deeply devout Avital. Just as deftly he brushed aside efforts by reporters to sniff out where he would stand on the Israeli political spectrum. “I don’t yet know enough about Israeli politics to declare my party preference,” Natan said. “But one party that shouldn’t bother asking for my support is the Communist Party.”
On the flight back to New York, I concluded that the Soviets had released Natan not for altruistic reasons, but rather to gain public relations points in the West, and to lull human rights advocates and American Jews into apathy. As Natan had himself said, we would now have to fight harder than ever for those Jews still imprisoned, and for the 400,000 Jews who wanted to leave. Our challenge from now on would be to maintain the struggle against a Soviet regime headed by a seemingly affable and reasonable leader who spoke soothingly of glasnost and perestroika, but who had not yet committed to free Soviet Jewry.