At the Freilach 25 gala on June 19, left to right, are Yocheved Baitelman, Chanie Baitelman, Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, Natan Sharansky and Avital Sharansky. (photo by Kasselman Creatives)
Natan Sharansky, the most famous “Prisoner of Zion” and a former Israeli senior cabinet minister, shared reflections on his extraordinary life with a Vancouver audience last month.
Sharansky spoke June 19 at the Freilach 25 gala honouring Rabbi Yechiel and Chanie Baitelman on the 25th anniversary of their leadership of Chabad of Richmond. The event took place at Schara Tzedeck Synagogue.
Born in 1948 – the same year as the state of Israel – Sharansky was, like most Jews in the officially atheist Soviet Union, utterly disconnected from his Judaism. There was no brit milah, no bar mitzvah, no Jewish culture, language or tradition, he said – “What there was, was antisemitism.”
There were about 150 nationalities in the sprawling Soviet Union, each one of them identified on the fifth line of the official state identification issued to every citizen. Everyone, regardless of ethnic origin, was treated relatively equally, if not fairly, under the communist regime, with one exception. If someone said, “He has a fifth-line problem” or “the fifth-line disease,” it meant they were a Jew and, therefore, had more limited opportunities for advancement than members of the other national groups, said Sharansky.
While they had only the vaguest idea of what being a Jew meant – “There was nothing positive in this word ‘Jew,’” he said – his parents instilled in him the need to overcome the officially proscribed handicap through excellence.
“You must be the best at chess or music or whatever you’re doing,” they told him, “the best in your class, your school, your city.”
Sharansky – then called Anatoly – was 5 years old when Stalin died (on Purim). At the time, the so-called “doctor’s plot,” a Stalinist campaign to whip up antisemitism based on allegations that Jews were trying to assassinate Soviet leaders, was approaching a climax. Boris Sharansky told his two sons that the dictator’s demise was a good thing, but that they must not let on to others that they believed this.
Back at school, young Anatoly mimicked his fellow kindergarteners.
“We are crying together with all the other kids,” he said. “We are singing songs about the great leader.… You have no idea how many children are really crying and how many children are crying because their fathers told them to do it.”
This was Sharansky’s first conscious awareness of “doublethink,” the phenomenon in which Soviet citizens learned to compartmentalize what they knew from what they were supposed to know.
“You are reading what you’re supposed to read, you’re saying what you’re supposed to say, you are voting as everybody votes and you know that this is all a lie,” he recalled.
For Jews of his generation, the deracination from their heritage changed in 1967.
“The Six Day War was a big humiliation for the Soviet Union,” he said. “They had thrown in their lot with the Arabs.”
While the seemingly miraculous Israeli victory over the combined neighbouring Arab armies was notable, it didn’t change the perceptions of Soviet Jews overnight. It didn’t, for example, distract the young from their studies for university exams.
“But, over time, some things changed,” Sharansky said. “Those that loved you and those that hate you” changed their attitudes, he said. “They all look at you and say, ‘How did you Jews do it?’” Jews were upgraded, Sharansky has written. “We went from greedy, cowardly parasites to greedy, bullying hooligans.”
Soviet Jews did not consider themselves part of Israel, but at least some of their non-Jewish neighbours did. This sparked a new curiosity among Soviet Jews about their connection to Jews outside their realm and kindled pride in their identity for the first time.
Soon, smuggled copies of Leon Uris’s 1958 historical novel Exodus, about the founding of the state of Israel, found its way into circulation. The forbidden book was passed from hand to hand, not only because it was a page-turner, but because it was not the kind of book a Jew in the Soviet Union wanted sitting around the house.
Sharansky realized that the soldiers in Israel who had defeated the Arabs in 1967 were the same age as him.
“Suddenly, the university exams didn’t look so significant,” he recalled. So began a quest for identity and dissidence that would lead Sharansky to nine years in a Soviet prison, then, later, to nine years as a senior figure in Israel’s government and, later still, nine years as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
As Jews in the Soviet Union gained consciousness about their identity – and began their “treasonous” demands to abandon the communist state for Israel – they ignited a parallel and larger fight against Soviet tyranny. In his presentation, and more deeply in his book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Gil Troy, Sharansky explained how he struggled with whether his fight was for his right to fully express his particular Jewish identity or whether it was a larger battle to free the millions of oppressed Soviets of all 150 or so nationalities.
At the same time, international solidarity that had begun as a tiny rally of Columbia University students in 1964 exploded into a massive global movement calling for the Soviets to free both “Prisoners of Zion” – those Jews imprisoned in gulags for openly confronting the Soviet powers – and the millions more Jews in the Soviet Union who were not free to leave the country.
As the Soviets grew more concerned about this international attention, they responded in two ways. They permitted some Jews to make aliyah – particularly middling troublemakers they preferred not to deal with – while imprisoning leaders like Sharansky, who soon became the leading face in the fight to free Soviet Jewry.
If Anatoly Sharanasky – who would rename himself Natan as his Jewishness evolved – was the face of the movement, his imprisonment required a voice to take up the mantle. This role was adopted by his wife, Natasha, who herself would become Avital as she, too, reconnected with her identity. As Avital Sharansky sat in the audience at Schara Tzedeck last month, her husband recounted her meetings with world leaders, Jewish community officials and anyone who would listen to her demands to free her husband.
Before being thrust into the roles of world-leading activists, Natasha and Anatoly – Avital and Natan – had a one-day honeymoon. They were hastily married and the next day she flew to Israel, not sure whether the Soviets would soon rescind her exit visa. She began her lobbying while he continued the activism that led him, three years later, to be sentenced to death by shooting for “high treason.”
Jews all over the world demonstrated, including a 250,000-person march on Washington in 1987. Soviet ambassadors in Western capitals were called in to explain their treatment of Jewish citizens. The U.S. Congress passed an amendment to a trade law, tying Jewish emigration and broader human rights issues to economic ties with the Soviets.
A Toronto man, Noah Landis (né Lantsevitsky), saw Sharansky on the news and did a little genealogy. Discovering a family connection, he contacted Irwin Cotler, Sharansky’s Canadian lawyer and later Canada’s minister of justice, who was able to go to then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and demand that the government stand up for this relative of Canadian citizens being held hostage for his identity.
The ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev, with his liberalization programs of “glasnost” and “perestroika,” put the treatment of Soviet Jews further into the spotlight. In 1985, then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan met with Gorbachev in Geneva. At one point, Avital Sharansky, dressed in a prisoner’s uniform, accosted Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet leader, asking for her intervention. In private, Reagan demanded Gorbachev act on Sharansky’s case and, three months later, Sharansky was released, the first of the Prisoners of Zion to gain freedom. The day he was released from prison, Sharansky was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and flown to East Berlin, transported across to West Berlin and on to Israel, where he ended the very long day dancing at the Western Wall.
Sharansky’s attendance in Vancouver was to mark the quarter-century of commitment Rabbi Yechiel and Chanie Baitelman and their family have made to the B.C. community as Chabad shlichim in Richmond.
The rabbi said he felt “embarrassed and inadequate” at the recognition, saying, “Serving this community is not some great burden. It is in fact the greatest privilege imaginable.”
Baitelman spoke of the exponential growth Chabad of Richmond has seen in 25 years, including a huge increase in the number of educational programs delivered, meals prepared and shared, and youth activities, Hebrew classes and outreach programs initiated. The model of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is one they try to emulate, said Baitelman.
“This is what we try to do – to ignite the soul of every Jew with the love of Torah, the love of Judaism and a passion for our Jewish traditions so that each person can realize their unique potential and fulfil the purpose for which he or she was created,” said the rabbi.
Chabad of Richmond is bursting at the seams, he said, and has begun a campaign to relocate to larger premises. On a personal level, Baitelman said he and his wife are not slowing down.
“We have no intentions of resting on our laurels, not for a minute,” he said. “Our work is only just beginning. Chanie and I pledge to work even harder, to grow this organization, to bolster our acts of chesed on behalf of this community, to increase the number of programs we have to offer.”
Shelley Civkin and Gayle Morris co-chaired the event. Steve Whiteside, president of Chabad of Richmond, welcomed guests, while his vice-president, Ed Lewin, offered closing remarks. Mark and Yolanda Babins introduced the keynote speaker.