Anatoly Shcharansky’s walk across the Glienicke Bridge dividing East Germany and West Berlin, marked the final steps in a long path to freedom whose first stretch was paved in Mozambique some eight years ago.
It was then, in 1978, that Ronald Greenwald, a New York rabbi who had been active in the Rockefeller and Nixon political campaigns, arranged the release of an Israeli citizen confined in a Mozambique jail on charges of espionage.
In a telephone interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Greenwald recounted the story from its beginning.
AN EARLIER CASE RECALLED
The Israeli, Miron Marcus, had married a woman from South Africa where he took up residence. On a stormy day, as he piloted his father-in-law’s private plane, he found himself diverted and forced to land in Mozambiquan territory where he was picked up, charged with spying and put in solitary confinement.
From this point, one thing seems to have set off another, as Israelis familiar with Greenwald’s political connections persuaded him to intercede on behalf of Marcus.
Through his contacts with Wolfgang Vogel, an East German lawyer well connected in the upper strata of Moscow’s bureaucracy, Greenwald worked out an arrangement by which Marcus was freed in exchange for a convicted Soviet agent, Robert Thompson, who was jailed in Pennsylvania.
A few years later Avital Shcharansky, wife of the human rights activist who won his freedom Tuesday after serving eight years of a 13-year sentence on espionage charges, won a commitment from Greenwald to actively pursue her husband’s release. Avital Shcharansky had approached him, Greenwald said, after hearing about the Marcus exchange of prisoners which he had helped negotiate.
Since then, Greenwald, who runs his own commodities trading business, as well as a number of Jewish Federation summer camps in upstate New York, has made more than 25 trips to East Germany in an unflagging effort that friends had warned him would bear no fruit.
A CONGRESSMAN GETS INVOLVED
By the time of the Marcus exchange, another central character had worked himself into the script–Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R. N. Y.). Gilman, too, had been involved in preparing Shcharansky’s path to freedom starting with his role in the same 1978 arrangement engineered by Greenwald, a constituent and friend.
Gilman was not in the country this week, but a staff member at his office said that Greenwald was welcome to speak in his name. At a meeting with Vogel in East Berlin last month, it was already clear to Gilman that the Soviets were seriously considering a spy exchange that would include Shcharansky as well.
The Soviet dissident, whose conviction and sentencing in 1978 were widely perceived as an attempt to make an example out of a vocal human rights activist, had consistently maintained his innocence. Two American administrations have also categorically denied that Shcharansky was ever an agent for the U.S.
But the idea of including Shcharansky in a spy swap had been put forward as early as 1980. The four or five “hard proposals” aired over the last six years involved the exchange of some “significant people” jailed as agents for the Soviet Union, according to Greenwald.
THE NELSON MANDELA CONNECTION
One of these suggestions, proposed to South Africa two years ago, was the release of jailed Black activist Nelson Mandela in return for Moscow’s release of Shcharansky. The idea was dropped when the South Africans rejected it out of hand.
With the impending release of Shcharansky last week, South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha said he would free Mandela if Shcharansky as well as a South African imprisoned in Angola were also released. Rumors have since been circulating that freedom for Mandela could come some time soon.
But when the deal was first suggested, Greenwald said, “the time was not right–for whatever reason.” By the day of the November summit meeting in Geneva between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, some substantial movement had apparently somehow taken place.
In a meeting in East Berlin just before the Geneva summit, Vogel told Greenwald that if the Reagan-Gorbachev talks went well, there could be “an opportunity for dialogue,” clear reference to Shcharansky, Greenwald said, since “my dialogue with him has always been Shcharansky.”
Although he was well aware that the President had personally raised the idea of an exchange involving Shcharansky in his talks with Gorbachev, it was not until some eight or nine weeks ago that Greenwald “knew things were getting serious.”
With Gilman playing the vital link with the Reagan Administration, the details of a prisoner exchange that included three convicted Soviet agents in West German prisons as well as two in the U.S. were smoothed out, leading to Shcharansky’s walk over the Glienicke Bridge on Tuesday.
FURTHER MOVEMENT FROM MOSCOW ENVISIONED
While many others appeared to temper their excitement about Shcharansky’s release with hints of skepticism as to whether it marks the start of a relaxation of Soviet emigration policy, Greenwald envisioned further movement from Moscow.
“I must say that we have an optimistic view. We think that Gorbachev is a man of some intelligence that understands the Western world, and also understands that one act of symbolism would not satisfy the desires or what we in the free world call ‘greater movement on human rights’,” said Greenwald.
The question, he added, “is what price do we have to pay?” Greenwald would not rule out the possibility of seeking similar arrangements for other Prisoners of Conscience in the future, although no one Jewish prisoner is likely to provide the sweeping public relations benefit that the release of Shcharansky, persistent symbol of the Soviet Jewry movement, had afforded Moscow. In addition, Shcharansky was the only dissident among imprisoned Jewish activists to be charged with espionage.
In the meantime, Greenwald said, “we’re a little bit tired” and need some time–maybe a week or so–to decide how to proceed from here.
A trip to Israel for a meeting with the Shcharansky couple might well be the next and most satisfying of the many journeys that have marked Greenwald’s lengthy second career in diplomacy.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.