Back last fall and into the winter, Natan Sharansky found himself becoming a household name — in the White House, in particular. The popular refusenik-turned-Israeli political leader had been invited unexpectedly, while book touring in the United States, to meet with President Bush, who found the themes and arguments in Sharansky’s new book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” confirming of his own beliefs that democracy-building should be viewed as more than just an American product for export and that democratic societies are deserved by all and benefit all.
Though this was the first meeting between Bush and Sharansky, it was not the first time that a Sharansky was invited to the White House. A photograph that appeared on the front page of the December 11, 1984, New York Times shows President Reagan leaning forward to greet Sharansky’s wife, Avital, at a ceremony marking International Human Rights Day. Reagan had strong words for the Soviet Union and also South Africa as he met that day with 12 human rights activists from around the world.
In the photograph, Reagan is seen shaking Sharansky’s hand, holding hers with both of his. Sharansky is looking upwards straight into his eyes. Her expression conveys a plea, a hopefulness and a tiredness. She is dressed simply and wearing the kerchief that she almost always wore, as she pressed the fight for her husband, convicted six years earlier of treason and spying for the United States and sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment.
This photograph hinted strongly that Natan Sharansky was becoming a priority. Anatoly, as he was then known, had come to symbolize the Soviet Jewry movement as a whole.
The photograph reminds us of a partially forgotten story, of a time when the civilized world knew little about the plight of Soviet Jewish prisoners; of the years of activities that brought attention and results for a cause that no longer exists. It also reminds us of a woman named Avital. We don’t hear much about her these days. In the years since Natan Sharansky’s Feb. 11, 1986, release and his arrival in Israel, we’ve followed his story, but lost sight, perhaps, of hers.
Sharansky traveled the world, meeting with kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers and Jewish leaders; leading marches and addressing rallies; planting herself in the cold streets outside Soviet government missions.
She was 14 when she learned that she was a Jew. She and her future husband attended Hebrew class together. She was impressed with both his proficiency with the language and his sincerity, as he helped her learn the basics.
Avital and Natan Sharansky were married on July 4, 1974, but their marriage, in the conventional sense, lasted only until the next day. An about-to-expire visa dictated that Avital would leave immediately for Israel, and it was hoped that Natan, denied an exit visa for “security” reasons in 1973, would be allowed to follow soon.
Upon arriving in Israel, Sharansky immediately contacted numerous friends and acquaintances there, in the U.S. and throughout the West, pressing them to take political action to secure her husband’s right to emigrate. There were letters, meetings and expressions of sympathy and concern, but Natan Sharansky remained another name on a long list of refuseniks.
Things changed in March 1977, with the arrest of her husband and other members of an unofficial Helsinki Accord watch group. The charges they faced included espionage. Later, at the conclusion of an extensive interrogation period, it became apparent that Sharansky was to be singled out by the Soviets as an example.
Within hours of the announcement of their arrest, Sharansky and her supporters prepared a large-scale press conference. While a success in its own right, this effort would soon be overshadowed by her future encounters with the world press over the course of nine years.
The day of her husband’s trial in 1978 drew Sharansky to Paris and a diverse throng of ten thousand people to the streets. People inhabiting apartments overlooking the march route stared from balconies attempting to catch a glimpse of Sharansky, who would also travel to Britain, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, and Washington on behalf of her husband.
In her book, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” Sharansky dubs her travels an “endless movie-reel”: unfamiliar faces, strange locales, addressing unknown numbers, mindful of one thing only: Her message had to be transmitted.
Her strength came from a number of sources. Firstly, her husband’s strength gave her strength: Addressing Canada’s House of Commons in 1983, she declared, “Anatoly is in bad health. If he has the courage to fight from there, he is sending us a message that we have to continue to fight.”
Her faith also protected her. Rabbi Avi Weiss, who was active in the Soviet Jewry movement, and is a friend of the Sharanskys, speaks of “her commitment to Torah and the nation of Israel” that sustained her. He saw it firsthand, spending three years trekking with Sharansky all over North America, helping her raise funds and providing moral support. She knew, he says, that “Jews in Russia aligned themselves with Anatoly, with his yearning to go to Israel.” Sharansky realized that her husband’s release would inspire the Jews of Russia. She was seeking their release too.
Then there was her bond with her husband. The couple’s written exchanges document the intensity of their relationship.
Sharansky described that link in her book: “They have locked him in a cell. They want to destroy him and he can’t even defend himself. Now I am left alone. No, on the contrary… I feel his presence very strongly, more strongly than ever before. Now he is inside me, and I am his voice, his mind, his hands, his soul… Everything is now on me… I must fight for two.”
She continued and won, and many will remember that day 20 years ago, when her husband crossed the Glienicke Bridge, connecting Potsdam and Berlin, in an East-West exchange. Sharansky went to Germany to meet her husband. They reminded each other of their pledge “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and he, in good spirits, apologized for “being late.”
Finally, her mission was over; she had done many things, but they were not her nature. “She never wanted to be a public person,” stresses Glenn Richter, a founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. “She’s an introvert.”
And how then did she deal so effectively with the world press, with world leaders?
Rabbi Weiss mentions her humility — along with a great sense of humor. People responded to “her beauty, her softness, her sincerity, her realness.” He calls her a “powerful leader.”
After his release, it was Natan Sharansky who took on a leadership role, becoming active in Israeli political life; Avital devoted her time to her family, raising two daughters, Rachel and Hanna, in their Jerusalem home. She no longer gave interviews.
She did reappear though — after 15 years away from the spotlight — at a rally on January 8, 2001, held in support of the unity of Jerusalem. She spoke to the 300,000-400,000 people gathered outside the walls of the Old City. She described the Six Day War and Jerusalem’s reunification, as the point of awakening of Jewish identity and the dream to return to Zion amongst the Jewish population of the Soviet Union.
Sharansky said later: “It was the first time I saw my wife speaking at a big rally. I had heard from people all over the world over the years, everyone telling me what an impression it made to have heard her, what a memory it was in their lives 20 years ago.”
I too remember hearing her speak, and I recall one rally in particular that took place in 1985 in Manhattan, a half-block from the Soviet Mission. After the rally, I watched her as she spoke to the group of reporters. I was photographing, up-close. Once again there were rumors in the air of a possible prisoner exchange. They’d surfaced before, but this time it seemed there was more credence, something was possible. I can only imagine what it must have felt like. To have hopes, to have them dashed, and then to hope once again. And, on top of that, to continue to inspire others to hope too.
She made an impression on many. Probably more people than will ever be known. Rabbi Weiss tells of the time when he and Sharansky were traveling to Toronto and a woman in the airport approached and asked him “Is that Avital Sharansky?” When she heard that it was, she responded emotionally, presented her child to Sharansky, and said: “This is my daughter, her name is Avital. I named her in your honor.”
“I’m convinced there are many Avitals that are now 20, 22, 23 years in age,” says Rabbi Weiss.
Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer. His work can be seen at www.judahsharris.com.
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.