It was 25 years ago, and I still remember the deep, sharp cold as we stood on the Glienicke Bridge that winter morning. The day before, journalists from around Europe were brought to the bridge that separated the outskirts of West Berlin from the East German town of Potsdam. Something important was to happen the next day, we were told. I quickly realized that the footwear I brought from London, where I was based as a correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was inadequate and after the press briefing ended, I bought a pair of warm, gray boots in Berlin.
My Shcharansky boots, I named them, and wore them with affection for years.
To a young reporter who had written about Jewish refuseniks and their struggle to leave the Soviet Union, this story bore the weight of history. On February 11, 1986, I stood on the bridge and did my job, chronicling the release of Anatoly Shcharansky as he strode from imprisonment to freedom in a dramatic prisoner exchange that shook the very foundations of the Cold War. But as a Jew, I also stood there on behalf of the many people who had championed his cause, and sought in their activism to reflect his remarkable courage and unwavering dedication.
“I went straight from hell to paradise,” the former dissident, who changed his name to Natan Sharansky, told me recently. “That’s how I felt then. That’s how I feel now.”
To remember that day is to step back into an utterly different time, when the border between West and East, us and them, good and evil, was marked by a white line painted across a bridge spanning the River Havel. The river was frozen that day, the white line covered with snow, but for Sharansky, the demarcation was as tangible as the baggy pants, held together by pins, that he wore on his walk to freedom.
Sharansky has since transformed himself from dissident to Israeli politician and, now, to Jewish communal leader. (He is currently the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.) But his worldview remains defined by that bright white line, a belief that freedom is unique and precious, and must be nurtured at all costs.
He remembers that day a quarter-century ago as “one big ascendance” — flying in a small plane from the grip of the KGB; in a larger plane to Frankfurt, Germany, and a reunion with his wife, whom he had not seen in 12 years; and then in a special plane sent by the Israeli government to a rapturous welcome in Tel Aviv.
I went on to Tel Aviv, too, but by a slower, commercial route, to cover the next chapter of this story. My Shcharansky boots were superfluous in the Israeli warmth, but for years they reminded me of the privilege of witnessing history that cold day.