NEW YORK — Feb. 11 marks 25 years since Natan Sharansky crossed the Glienicke Bridge from East to West Germany and became a free man. Countless stories have been told about Sharansky’s defiance of the Soviets and his courageous actions during his more than nine years of imprisonment.
Sharansky is one of many heroic prisoners of Zion. But it is through his wife, Avital, that the world came to know him during his years of incarceration in ways that we did not know the others.
Avital and Natan were married in July 1974. The next morning Avital was ordered out of the Soviet Union with a promise that Natan would soon follow. It was not to be. Four years later, the Soviets accused Natan of spying for the United States and sentenced him to 13 years in prison. It was during this period that Avital undertook the worldwide campaign that led to her husband’s release.
Avital’s style as an activist was modest yet intensely focused and unwavering. She spoke out in the spirit of the biblical message to the prophet Elijah that the most profound form of protest is delivered in a still, small voice. Even at rallies her voice hardly rose above a whisper.
At the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations in Washington, Avital addressed the plenary, concluding her remarks by softly imploring the audience to walk with her to the Soviet Embassy to raise a voice on behalf of her husband. Her call was gentle yet powerful, and hundreds followed her.
She also had the uncanny ability to walk a fine line, working within the establishment as well as from the outside. Avital knew that she needed the help of the mainstream, but was careful never to march to their orders. She walked the tightrope, instinctively understanding that results would come only from a symphony of voices, from within as well as from without.
On International Human Rights Day in 1984, influential figures gathered at the White House to listen to a talk by President Ronald Reagan. Members of the audience were given strict instructions to remain in place. Suddenly, Avital stepped out of the line, approached the president and asked for an appointment to speak with him about the plight of her husband. The president, a very gracious man, assented.
The picture of Avital leaning down as she spoke to President Reagan found its way to front pages around the world.
Despite the unbelievable odds, Avital was always full of faith — not only faith that ultimately she would succeed in her quest to gain the release of her husband, but also religious faith.
At our home in Riverdale, N.Y., where she often spent Shabbat, Avital would use oil instead of candles to light the Sabbath candles. I once asked her why. She replied that she was convinced that her husband’s freedom would come about miraculously, much like the Chanuka miracle, when a small cruse of oil lasted eight days.
Even in the heat of the struggle Avital never lost her sense of humor. After Leonid Brezhnev died, she stood in front of the Soviet Mission to the United Nations and announced to the media that the Soviet premier had passed away because he had not released her husband. I pulled her aside and said that message would not resonate with the larger public.
A year later, after Andrei Kosygin died and was replaced by Yuri Andropov, she stood in the same place and declared that her husband was not yet free, and she warned Andropov that he would suffer the same fate if he did not let Natan go. A year later, after Andropov died, there she was again, warning his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev: Here’s your chance; if you don’t release Natan, you’ll face your end.
To this day, if you were to ask Avital why Gorbachev is still alive, she would say he was smart enough to let Natan go.
Avital detested being in the public eye. Her style was to step back to make room for others, inspiring them to speak out not only for her husband but for all those persecuted in the former Soviet Union.
As Natan celebrates the 25th anniversary of his release, no doubt tens of thousands of people will proudly and deservedly take some personal credit for Sharansky’s liberation. That was Avital’s strength. She made each person feel as if she or he were making the difference.
Though it is true that many dedicated souls did contribute, it was Avital who led the battle, and the victory in many ways was her triumph.
Once in a Toronto airport, I overheard a young woman carrying her infant daughter telling Avital that she had decided to name her newborn Avital in admiration of her struggle, her courage and all that Avital had come to mean to the larger world. Avital thanked the woman and humbly walked away.
I have no doubt that in the world today there are many young women named Avital in homage to this remarkable woman. Natan’s freedom is not only a celebration of his great courage; it is also a celebration of Avital’s formidable moral and spiritual strength.
(Rabbi Avi Weiss is the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and the founder and president of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, both in New York City. He was national chairman of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.)