Editorial cartoon from Feb. 20, 1987
Editorial cartoon from Feb. 20, 1987

When Sharansky visited S.F. for the first time, newly freed from Soviet prison

February 6, 1987:

A hero for our time.

With those words, speaker after speaker introduced Natan Sharansky last week to a variety of San Francisco audiences.

And to those familiar with Sharansky’s biography, it was a phrase that needed no explanation. Imprisoned as a spy by Soviet authorities from 1977 until his release barely a year ago; separated from his wife Avital one day after their marriage; forced to endure 16 months of solitary confinement, and to survive a hunger strike that reduced his weight at one point to 77 pounds, Sharansky never compromised on his demand for human rights in the Soviet Union.

The word hero seemed particularly valid.

But what of Sharansky the person? Previous interviews from Israel had spoken of a puckish sense of humor and a deep need for privacy. One account related his reluctance to use public transportation after being accosted by an average of six people every half hour who simply wanted to say hello.

When asked by the Jewish Bulletin if that still were true, the ex-refusenik responds, “What every half hour? All the time!”

Indeed, as he stood in the wings at Temple Emanu-El Thursday evening of last week waiting to be introduced, one man managed to slip past the security guard to rekindle an association: “Do you remember me?” he asked. “We met in Moscow in your apartment before your trial…”

They shook hands warmly, Sharansky reassuring him with a grin, “Yes, I remember.”

During his 2 ½-day whirlwind of appearances in the city last week, Sharansky seemed to carry with him the same reserves and acute perception of human nature that enabled him to endure endless hours of KGB interrogation — and the rigors of incarceration itself.

“In prison, I once almost allowed myself to experience my captors in the same terms as myself,” he explained to several audiences. “ ‘My God, they’re human, the same as me,’ I would think, and then I had to remind myself that they are different, that they have different moral principles.”

Then, too, of course, after a round of 15-hour interrogations and a ceaseless barrage of questions designed to break his will, his captors went home at night, to their families, while he returned to his cell.

Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987 (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Natan Sharansky speaking in front of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco, Feb. 6, 1987 (Photo/Tom Wachs)

And with that recognition, combined with the awareness that such indeed was their technique — to make themselves allies after cutting him off from his world, he never could give in, even on the smallest point, Sharansky explained.

That’s why, in what now had become a celebrated event, when he was told by his Soviet handlers to walk straight across the Gleinicke Bridge that separates East and West Berlin, he against refused, taking a zig-zag path instead.

Whether as a prisoner or a celebrity, Sharansky has an inner barometer that tells him when he is being used.

“One of the prerequisites that he insisted on for this visit was that there would be a minimum of ceremony,” explained David Waksberg, executive director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews, a major coordination of Sharansky’s appearances in the Bay Area.

At the same time, Sharansky’s eye was ever on detail — whether openly questioning the worthiness of a future speaking engagement (“unless is brings about concrete results”) or critiquing newspaper articles that, he contended, failed to emphasize the core of his message.

The audiences were varied — philanthropists, journalists, editors, businessmen, activists, friends — but the message was the same: You’ve been taken in.

At one point, a reporter persisted asking Sharansky why he appeared lukewarm at a hypothetical proposition of meeting with the Soviet consul general before or after the rally in front of the consulate on Green Street. “I had nine years at the hands of the KGB to talk directly to Soviet authorizes,” he replied.

In an interview with the Jewish Bulletin while racing from the airport for Sunday’s rally, Sharansky was asked why the American public seems so eager to be convinced of the Soviets’ humanitarian aims. “Fear of nuclear war,” he replied tersely, agreeing to the suggestion that Americans tend to see the world through their own trusting eyes.

“In Russia, my friends knew firsthand of a swindler who couldn’t make it in the Soviet Union, so he went to the United States,” Sharansky explained ruefully. “The word came back that he became extremely successful here, because everyone believed him.”

For Sharansky, any trust of the Soviets was broken long ago. And so he stood before crowd after crowd, answering question after question, bearing witness, punctuating his message with the unspoken emphasis of his own presence.

Moments before boarding his plane for New York and, ultimately, home in Israel, he reflected: “It was a good rally.”

Then, choosing a Yiddish word to characterize effectiveness, he added, “I think this San Francisco trip has been the best for delivering my message — a minimum of ceremony and a maximum of tachlis.”