Avital Sharansky, one of the stars of the Soviet Jewry movement who faded by her own choice after advocating tirelessly for the release of her husband, Natan, from Soviet prison, will step back into public view, for one night, next week.
She will accept the American Jewish Historical Society’s Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award on Tuesday, May 28, at the Center for Jewish History.
Moscow-born singer Regina Spektor will serve as narrator of a film tribute to Avital produced for the event.
Avital “was a hero of the Soviet Jewry movement and the human rights movement. She hasn’t gotten the historical recognition that she deserves,” says Jonathan Karp, AJHS executive director. He says she accepted the invitation of the Society, which houses “by far” the largest archive (ajhs.org/aasjm) of the Soviet Jewry movement, because of the Sharanskys’ long association with Kenneth Bialkin, AJHS chairman emeritus and a longtime human rights activist.
In the late 1970s, at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement that fought for open emigration rights for millions of Jews in the Soviet Union, Natalya Shteiglitz, a shy, young Jewish woman from Moscow, became one of the best-known faces of Soviet Jews.
Forced to leave her homeland, alone, after her 1974 wedding, she settled in Israel and started campaigning for her husband’s release. In 1977 he was arrested and sentenced to a 14-year term in the Gulag, charged with spying.
“She stepped out of the shell of her natural shyness,” Karp says.
Although uncomfortable speaking in English, Avital lobbied among national leaders, marched in Soviet Jewry marches around the world and kept an international focus on Natan and other Soviet Jews who sought freedom.
Then, after her husband was released in 1986, as part of a prisoner exchange, she disappeared from public sight. Avital stayed home, in Jerusalem, while Natan, now chairman of the Jewish Agency, became a public figure.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz received the AJHS award in 2007 for his role in supporting the Soviet Jewry movement. When accepting it, he gave credit to Avital, saying she “dramatized the human side of the tension in U.S.-Soviet relations.”
Zeesy Schnur, who served as executive director of the Greater New York Coalition for Soviet Jewry for 12 years, says Avital “understood the importance she brought” to the Soviet Jewry campaign. “She understood the Soviet Union. She understood there was no better spokesman for [Natan] than his wife.”
Schnur, who dealt with Avital frequently in the 1980s, met with her again, in the Sharanskys’ Jerusalem apartment, a few weeks after Natan’s release. “She was glowing. She was so happy that he was there,” Schnur says. “She took a step back” immediately from her public role, relinquishing it to Natan. “She went back to being his wife,” shunning the spotlight, raising the couple’s two daughters.
Many young Jews who came of age after Natan was released from his Soviet captivity don’t know Avital’s name, Schnur says —which doesn’t surprise her. Few Jewish schools include much about the Soviet Jewry movement in their curricula. Few Jewish students, Schnur says, are familiar with the once-household names that made the Soviet Jewry movement a success. “They don’t know Natan’s name, either,” she noted.
The AJHS program honoring Avital Sharansky will take place Tuesday, May 28, 6 p.m., at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16 St., Manhattan. For information, contact Deborah Grossman, (212) 294-6166, firstname.lastname@example.org.