In Berlin, Sharansky visits the bridge to his past

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berlin (jta) | The bridge hasn’t changed much since the last time Natan Sharansky crossed it — but the world certainly has.

For the first time since his release from a Soviet prison nearly 18 years ago, Sharansky, now an Israeli Cabinet minister, returned Friday, Dec. 5, to the Glienicker Bridge in Berlin where KGB agents turned him over to West German authorities in an exchange of prisoners.

Traffic on both sides of the bridge was blocked briefly as Sharansky — making his first visit to Germany since his release from a Soviet prison on Feb. 11, 1986 — walked, surrounded by aides, security officials and reporters, across the span that had meant the difference for him between prison and liberty.

“Then it was a much longer journey, from communism to freedom,” said the former Soviet dissident, standing at the eastern end of the bridge near its elaborate, Greek-style gate. The structure spans the Havel and Glienicker lakes, and marks the border of Berlin and Potsdam.

Sharansky asked to return to this

spot during a three-day trip to Berlin, which included meetings with local Jewish community leaders, politicians and academics.

On Saturday, Dec. 7, he addressed the fifth annual European-Israel Dialogue of the Axel Springer Foundation, before heading to the United States for an Israel Bonds speaking tour.

Sharansky made his way to the center of the bridge and recalled how, in 1986, he had to cross a low divider to freedom.

“The KGB had given me a pair of pants that were too loose, and no belt,” he said, laughing. “I was afraid I would lose my pants as I stepped over.”

Sharansky also expressed optimism.

“Communism is behind us,” Sharansky said, “and hopefully anti-Semitism will also be behind us.”

Standing on the Glienicker Bridge, Sharansky recalled how he had recently visited his former Siberian prison cell, where guards had told him, “This is the end of the Zionist movement and you will never get out alive.”

Sharansky served nine years of a 13-year sentence for so-called subversive behavior related to his Zionist activism, much of the time in solitary confinement.

Today, said Sharanksy, “There is no KGB, there is no communism and more than a million former Soviet Jews are free and in Israel. It is a very triumphant feeling.”