Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why This 35-Year-Old Photo Of Avital Sharansky Still Resonates

Avital Sharansky, wife of jailed dissident Anatoly Sharansky, Soviet Jewry rally, New York City, 1978. Photo © by Mason Resnick.

While digging through my archives today looking for something else, I found the photo above, which has haunted me ever since I shot it in 1978. It was at a rally on behalf of Soviet Jewry, a cause which I was active in. I was there as a photographer for Ha-Or, the Queens College Jewish biweekly newspaper, to cover the event.

The Jews of Russia were being sent to Siberia, to gulags, where they were expected to rot, convicted of trumped-up charges for speaking out, or, as Safam put it, "the crime of daring to be free." But the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry had other ideas, as did one Avital Sharansky, wife of jailed Refusenik Anatoly Sharansky, who at the time was travelling the world advocating for the release of her husband.

It was day of solemn determination. The rally took place in the street outside the Soviet mission to the United Nations. Avital attempted to knock on the mission door and give them a ring to send to her husband. They refused to talk to her, as everyone expected. Speakers spoke, and we all listened, grimly. As I was taking pictures of Avital, standing with activist Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss and others, their grim expressions visible, she turned in my direction, and for a brief, memorable moment, smiled, as if to say, "it will be all right."

And I pressed the shutter.

Avital Sharansky's husband was freed in 1986, immediately moved to Israel and rose to prominent positions as a minister in the Israeli governement for 9 years. Natan Sharansky is currently the Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, and a hero to many.

The suppression of freedom of religion and the blatant antisemitism that Soviet Jews were subject to during the USSR was supposed to end when the USSR fell apart. But as we're learning now, the antisemitism has resumed with a vengance in Ukraine—ironically, where the Sharanskys were born. And so, it seems, the struggle must continue.

But somewhere, let's find the inner strength to smile.

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