This is the last of three excerpts from Forward staff writer Gal Beckerman’s new book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle To Save Soviet Jewry,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.
Not long after Anatoly Shcharansky was accused in a Soviet newspaper of being a CIA agent, he was arrested; nearly a year and a half later, in July 1978, he was put on trial and sentenced to 13 years in prison. His trial transformed him, in the course of a week, from a charismatic and connected but nonetheless young and inexperienced refusenik, into the face of both Soviet Jewry and oppressed Soviet men. But he might still have been forgotten if the love of his life, Avital Shcharansky, who had been married to him only a day before she left the Soviet Union for good, had not worked tirelessly to keep his image and name one that the West could not ignore.
When her husband was arrested in March 1977, Avital Shcharansky had already lived in Israel for three years. Her first months in her new country had felt like a revelation — the bright July sun that greeted her when she first stepped off the plane, the Galilee landscape of rolling green hills covered in orange trees, and the sight of Lake Kinneret in the distance, the vast blue water mirroring the vast blue sky. She imagined this was what a near death experience felt like, to catch a glimpse of paradise before being yanked back to reality — except that she was free of Moscow forever.
She began learning Hebrew, picked up painting again, and let her brother, Mikhail, known as Misha, make many of the big decisions about her life. Misha Stiglitz was extremely handsome, well spoken, fluent in English, and commanding in his army uniform. He also possessed very right-wing political views. Since his own arrival in Israel, in 1973, he had grown close to Gush Emunim, a new religious Zionist movement that had gained momentum since the Six Day War and was inspiring settlers to challenge the government and build their homes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Supporters of this ideology congregated around Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and his yeshiva, Mercaz HaRav, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe. Kook was the son of Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Orthodox rabbi to blend Zionism with traditional prophetic Judaism, envisioning the settlement of all the biblical Land of Israel as a way of bringing on the messianic era. In a new country and without her parents — who had basically disowned their children once they decided to emigrate — Avital now relied on her brother, embracing this new milieu of religiosity, warmth and acceptance.
She gained many friends in those years. So many American Jews had made trips to Moscow and been affected by Shcharansky and his story of forced separation from his beloved; several of them searched out Avital in Israel, and soon a network was formed to pass along letters and verbal messages. Accompanied by Misha, Avital took her first trip to Canada and the United States, in the fall of 1975, hosted by grassroots activists, visiting even far-flung cities like Des Moines and Baton Rouge. Everyone seemed to want to become her guardian. There was something about Avital’s appearance, the doe eyes, the childlike face, that elicited pity from important people. A New York businessman and his wife, charmed by Shcharansky on a trip to Moscow, escorted Avital through the halls of Congress and introduced her to many legislators. Robert Drinan, the Jesuit priest turned Democratic congressman from Massachusetts (though he still wore his clerical collar), had seen Anatoly Shcharansky a few months earlier, and Avital listened raptly as he shared the details of Tolya’s life.
She tried to live a normal life — even attending art school in the southern town of Beersheba for a few months — but found herself thinking constantly of the moment they would reunite. At one point she even tried unsuccessfully to get a tourist visa to return to see him. A year after Avital’s trip to the West, Enid Wurtman and Connie Smukler, two Philadelphia activists, traveled to Moscow, in part so they could see Shcharansky and bring out a message for Avital. They arrived in the middle of October 1976 and celebrated Simchat Torah with the refuseniks, singing and dancing with them in the streets. Shcharansky peppered Enid Wurtman with questions about his wife and her life in Israel, asking everything from what she was cooking to how her apartment looked. Wurtman gave him a tape recorder and he filled an entire cassette.
“I would love to talk to you in a leisurely way for the whole tape, to sit and simply to talk, not about anything specific. It’s nice to think that in a few days you’ll be able to listen and to send me another tape. Only please as fast as possible…. Today is October 19; in 25 days it will be our third anniversary. My God! How I would love to be with you, and perhaps I shall be with you yet. I think, if they’ll let me go, they’ll give me five days, and I won’t ask for any more, it’s enough. And three days — it’s also enough. Only it should be soon… Enid asks how to help us. Yes, many people love us.” Wurtman and Smuckler then delivered this sweet, rambling audio message directly to the woman Shcharansky still called “Natulenka.”
In March 1977, when news of the letter in the Soviet newspaper Ivestia accusing Shcharansky of treason reached Israel, it was only natural for Avital to turn to those people who had proven they would stand behind her: the religious Zionist followers of Rabbi Kook who had adopted her, and Shcharansky’s American friends, the grassroots activists whom he trusted most. A small apartment in Jerusalem became a command center of sorts. The octogenarian Rabbi Kook even sat up in his sick bed to give the order to shut down the yeshiva so everyone could do their part — “If your brother is in danger and you ask, ‘How can I help?’ you are like one who spills blood. Don’t ask! Go and do!” Rabbis and yeshiva students started making phone calls to journalists all over the world. Statements were drawn up and distributed by taxicab. Avital slept and ate little in those days. She would take breaks on the small balcony of their headquarters, breathe in the fresh air, and cry. Otherwise it was a nonstop effort to tell whomever would listen about Shcharansky.
After a few days, Avital and Misha decided to go to Geneva, where an international meeting of Jewish leaders was taking place. It was there, in Switzerland, where she found out about the arrest. On March 15, a Reuters reporter called her to the United Nations building and pointed to a Teletype machine. A whirlwind tour followed; Avital, barely given enough time to process the arrest, was whisked from one city to the next, watched over by the activists who had become her allies. A year later she remembered the surreal quality of those first weeks: “Now as I look back on those days, I see an endless movie reel: meetings, unfamiliar faces, halls where I speak. Now I am traveling in a huge bus to the square in front of Les Invalides….Then it is London and damp snow. I sit by the entrance to the Soviet Embassy wrapped in some warm blankets. I have been fasting for three days. I am at the end of my strength; I feel I am about to lose consciousness. Meanwhile the passersby hurry along: someone smiles at me, someone signs a petition which is next to me on a small table. This table is heaped with flowers, the Londoners’ way of expressing sympathy with me. San Francisco. A huge crowd is crying out: “Free Anatoly Shcharansky.” I see everything as if in a dream; picture follows picture….”
In the middle of all this, she received Shcharansky’s last letter to her, written on March 13, 1977, two days before his arrest. He tried for his usual cheerfulness, but couldn’t hide the premonition that he would soon be locked up. He revealed his greatest regret, which he knew was hers as well: “How everything has changed over these past days. Thousands of things and words which used to fill my life have simply disappeared, ceased to exist. Only the most important and dearest thing to me remains — you and your love. A lucidity sets in, when you live not by the minute or the day, but your whole life at once…. Thinking about it all, I regretted only one thing — so much that I was ready to cry: I regretted that we didn’t have any children.”
Shcharansky’s trial and conviction unleashed a wave of support. Dozens of petitions were signed. Committees were established on university campuses and in Congress. The 35,000-member Association for Computer Machinery cut all ties with the Soviet Union. By the end of 1978, 2,400 American scientists — including 13 Nobel laureates as well as researchers representing the leading scientific institutions — had joined on to a “statement of conscience,” pledging to avoid all cooperation with the Soviet Union until Shcharansky was freed.
Avital’s celebrity also reached new heights. She found herself in the Rayburn Hearing Room on Capitol Hill surrounded by lawmakers climbing over one another to issue the most indignant statements and the angriest proclamations about what should be done in retaliation. A bipartisan resolution had already been passed in protest. All kinds of economic sanctions were considered, with Jewish leaders issuing a statement calling on the government to “seek an immediate freeze of the export of American technology to the USSR.”
Avital had already met with Cyrus Vance, the Secretary of State, and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young on the day after the verdict was announced, and on July 17, she was ushered into the White House for a half hour meeting with Walter Mondale, the vice president. This was the highest American government official to grant her an audience. He praised her for her “courage, dignity and strength” and then, referring to Shcharansky’s final speech at his trial, said that it would “go down in literature as a great statement by an oppressed person.”
The meeting with Mondale was part of another American tour that Avital made of America after the verdict. From Washington, she flew to California where she met everyone from Joan Baez to Jane Fonda. Every detail of this trip was reported by the Los Angeles Times: “In the course of this L.A. visit — an 18 1/2-hour stay from last Saturday to Sunday afternoon — Avital Shcharansky was cheered by thousands of supporters clogging the ABC Entertainment Center in Century City; she good-naturedly endured interviews, TV and radio appearances, until she could no longer think in English and had to rely on a Hebrew translator; she shook the hands of everyone from Jerry Brown to Charlton Heston to Bobby Baker. It was clear the sole purpose of her life has become the media blitz she feels can swing public opinion and politicians to pressure the Soviet Union to release her husband.” The trip ended with yet another rally, this time with Charlton Heston giving a dramatic reading of Shcharansky’s statement in his stentorian voice.
In those few days, Avital established a place for herself in the popular culture. Her shy, downcast, and usually tear-filled eyes appeared on many television programs as she pleaded in her broken English for Tolya’s release. Her undeniable beauty and the poignancy of her plea made her an irresistible guest on TV talk shows. So omnipresent was she that summer of 1978 that there was even a backlash. In an article in The Washington Post, Sally Quinn, a writer for the Style section and a grandee of Washington society, called Avital an “Israeli Audrey Hepburn.” Quinn’s piece was bitter and mistrusting of Avital who, she declared, had become an “international media star,” and it gazed skeptically at the amount of publicity she was getting: “The Avital Shcharansky story is more complicated than this spot-lit morality play, more touching in some ways and, in others, more manipulative of public emotions. It is a case study in the politics of sorrow, the packaging of martyrdom.” Quinn described the relative brevity of Avital’s relationship with Shcharansky in Moscow (“only a little over six months”) and how many years had passed since she had left (“a long time for a 27-year-old woman to carry an emotional burden like that”). She implied that Avital, “bewildered, unhappy and very shy,” was being used for political gain by her brother, Misha, who is “involved in right-wing politics and is said to be grooming himself for public office.” Quinn even intimated that Avital might be having an affair. In a paragraph filled with sordid innuendo and not much rooted in reality, she described Avital’s relationship with Mordechai Gal, a young Israeli director who was part of her entourage and who was making a film about her: “With Avital he is protective and gentle. With him she is cheerful and gay. They tease each other and spar affectionately. He advises her, talks to her, kneels beside her chair as she testifies before Congress.” The whole piece was catty and insensitive (“she carried a Gucci bag, strangely out of character”). It was further proof that Shcharansky had become a household name in America, so quickly in fact that it seemed to confound someone like Sally Quinn, a person who generally could keep tabs on who was up and who was down.
By the last week of June 1978, a drawing of Shcharansky’s face made the cover of Time magazine. Above his bald head, the word détente was written in crumbling letters. The symbol had superseded the man. Shcharansky was now a sort of shorthand for all that was corrupt and repressive about the Soviet regime, and further indication that the “peaceful coexistence” envisioned by Henry Kissinger at the beginning of the decade was impossible. Americans — and more importantly, many of their elected officials — no longer seemed willing to accept the collateral damage to human rights that Kissingerian détente demanded. Not if it meant sacrificing someone like Shcharansky.
Read other excerpts from “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone:”
• Part One: When Violence Overcame a Freedom Struggle
• Part Two: In a Time of Terror, Soviet Jews Unfurled Their Courage
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman
Avital Emerges in Fight To Save Shcharansky