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A New Life for Anatoly and Avital

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Anatoly Shcharansky stood on Mt. Scopus last night for a few moments and contemplated the twinkling lights of Jerusalem, rising and falling among the hills and valleys that are the geography of this city he had never seen before but knew intimately from descriptions in the letters his wife, Avital, sent him during his nine years in Soviet prisons and labor camps.

His thoughts during those moments are not known. But he may well have recalled the day in 1978 when he heard a Soviet court sentence him to 13 years’ imprisonment–allegedly for spying for the U.S.–and responded aloud, “Now, more than ever, I tell my Avital and my people: ‘Next year in Jerusalem’.”

He was here now, at the end of probably the happiest and most joyfully tumultuous day of his life: his early morning crossing of a bridge from East Germany to West Berlin, the first step on his march to freedom; his flight to Frankfurt for reunion with Avital Shcharansky whom he had not seen since their wedding day in Moscow, July 4, 1974; the flight to Israel and the hero’s welcome at Ben Gurion Airport; his telephone conversation with President Reagan from the airport VIP lounge–the call to the White House put through by Premier Shimon Peres.

His brief pause at a tourist lookout on Mt. Scopus was a private interlude between the cheering crowds at the airport and 3,000 ecstatic well-wishers who a few minutes later would surround him and Avital at the Western Wall.

ANATOLY’S STATEMENT AT THE AIRPORT

In his statement at the airport, delivered in fluent, almost accentless English, Shcharansky acknowledged the “storm of compliments which were poured on Avital’s and my head.” They “do not make the task to speak easier,” he said.

“But what makes it really easier is understanding the fact that all these compliments we must share between all the people of Israel, between many people all over the world, among Jews in the Soviet Union who continue the struggle for their rights. And the congratulations which we hear now concern not only the two of us, but also all those people, Jews and non-Jews, people from the high political and grass-roots level whose struggle made this day possible.”

Shcharansky has been described as an aliya activist and a dissident. The two roles were intertwined, for as he fought passionately for the right of himself and his fellow Russian Jews to emigrate, he battled with equal courage for the rights of other Russians, non-Jews such as Nobel Laureate physicist Andrei Sakharov, to speak out and act for human rights and dignity against the oppression of the Soviet regime, though not against the regime itself.

He made that point in his airport statement when he said: “Of course there is absolutely no plot among Jewish activists against the system of the Soviet Union, but we do have very strong spiritual contacts, connections with this land (Israel), and no persecutions can break this connection.

“On this happiest day of our lives, I am not going to forget those whom I left behind in the camps, in the prisons, who are still struggling for their right to emigrate, for their human rights. And I hope that that enthusiasm, that energy, that joy which fills our hearts today, Avital’s and mine, will help us to continue the struggle for the freedom and the rights of our brothers in Russia.”

Peres telephoned Reagan from the airport last night to say, “Thank you, in the name of the people and government of Israel, for your concern and your efforts that brought this very special man here, to his homeland, after 8 years in prison. ” Peres told the President that the freeing of Shcharansky was a great victory for the human spirit and for freedom-loving people.

TELEPHONE CONVERSATION WITH REAGAN

When Peres passed the phone to Anatoly, Shcharansky said: “Dear Mr. President. I am under strong stress now, sitting between our Prime Minister and my Avital. That’s why don’t be surprised if my speech will not be smooth. But there are some things which I feel obliged to tell you.

“First of all, I know how great was your role in this greatest event of my and my wife’s life….That fact that I could join my people today in Israel, and, of course we are both very deeply grateful to you for this. Secondly, as you know very well, I was never an American spy. But I had wide contacts with many American politicans, journalists, lawyers and other public figures as a spokesman of the Jewish national movement and the Helsinki (Watch) group movement.

“And that’s why I know very well how deeply is the concern of all your people and with the problems of human rights all over the world. I know what a great role is played by your country in these problems. And I want to ask you to inform all your people about our deepest gratitude to these people and this country for everything they do for the human rights in the world and for Jews who want to emigrate from Russia to Israel in particular. Thank you very much.”

Avital Shcharansky was given the phone. She appeared shy, somewhat embarrassed by the emotional outburst that greeted her husband and herself. She told Reagan only, “I just wanted to say thank you.” The President replied, “I wish you mazel tov with all my heart.” He promised he would continue his efforts to release other Prisoners of Conscience.

TUMULTUOUS GREETINGS

The airport’s VIP lounge was packed with an overflow crowd, mainly young people, many of them wearing the black hats of ultra-Orthodox Jews or the knitted skullcaps of the religious youth movements and the ultra-nationalist religious Gush Emunim movement.

This crowd cheered lustily when Avital Shcharansky, wearing a scarf over her head as is customary among Orthodox women, placed a blue-and-white skullcap on Anatoly who arrived in Israel bare-headed and remained bare-headed throughout the official ceremonies.

Again at the Western Wall, religious enthusiasts threw a tallit (prayer shawl) around Shcharansky’s shoulders and placed a white knitted skullcap on his head. Shcharansky kissed the cold stones of the Wall three times and recited psalms. His wife prayed at the Ezrat Nashim, the section reserved for women. There was dancing and singing and the blowing of horns, as if at a Purim celebration. It was only after midnight that Anatoly and Avital were taken to the small flat provided for them by the immigration Ministry in the Kiryat Moshe quarter of Jerusalem.

A well-wisher called after the couple, “Finally, the end of the road.” Avital turned and replied, “No It is only the beginning.”

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