Natalya Scharansky looks tired. Although she is only 26, there is something ancient in the brown eyes of this woman. She has told her story so many times, in so many different places.
Her voice is whispery as she speaks in Russian - a translator at her side - telling how she met her husband, Anatoly, who is now awaiting trial for treason in Moscow. Her brother, Mikhail, was in jail almost four years ago for demonstrating for the right to emigrate. She went to Scharansky for help in communicating with him. When her brother was freed, he emigrated to Israel and she followed. But in the interim she had fallen in love with and married Scharansky, and was hoping to emigrate with him. It would seem a simple thing. One falls in love, gets married, moves away.
But to be Jewish and Russian, she says, is to be a pawn, moved and manipulated for international purposes.
Because her 29-year-old computer specialist husband was a spokesman for Jews who had been refused permission to emigrate, he was already being followed when they decided to marry. Permission for him to emigrate had been denied because the Soviet government maintained that his training had given him access to state secrets. When they decided to be wed, they were told that the waiting line would delay the civil ceremony for at least six months. Normal registration time, she says, is one month.
So instead, they decided to have a Jewish, religious marriage. Ten days prior to the wedding, Scharansky says; her husband disappeared.
He was released on the day they had set for the wedding and so they were married. But the day afterward, he disappeared again. She hasn't seen him since.
Meanwhile, she was told to emigrate.
"They told her that if she went quietly, with no fuss, her husband would join her in a few months," he translator explains.
Scharansky says something.
"They lied," the translator says.
Scharansky has told the same story in Holland, Italy, England, France, and now, for three months at the request of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, in this country.
"Every day," she says through the translator, "I was expecting him to come. I am happy to find myself among friends, but always I want my husband. And there is fear, fear that is unpredictable, unaccountable."
Recently, the Soviet security police, the KGB, seized her husband. To date, it is not clear whether he was arrested formally or merely taken away for interrogation. But in early March, the government newspaper Izvestia accused him of being an espionage agent for the United States, a charge which carries a maximum penalty of death.
At a White House press conference yesterday, however, President Carter said that an inquiry he ordered had determined that her husband never had any contact with the CIA, contrary to the allegations made by Moscow.
While she was in Washington, Scharansky tried unsuccessfully to see President Carter to ask for his intervention on her husband's behalf. She spent part of her time during yesterday's conference sessions drafting a letter to Carter about her husband and about the situation of Jews in Russia.
If the fight for Soviet Jewry, the human rights issue, freedom to emigrate, seem vague issues to some Americans, to Scharansky they are real.
"Because I think very often about my husband," she says, "I am encouraged to act. I have tremendous assistance and support from the citizens of Israel, the rest of Jewry, and the independent people who honor what human rights stand for."
Because there are no Jewish institutions in Russia, only "single, isolated, atomized Jews," and because many Russian Jews are only aware of their Jewishness because it is written on their identity cards, Scharansky fears that the situation may worsen for Soviet Jews.
"I don't say that 3 million Jews will be killed," she says, "but there are many other ways in which Jews could be persecuted. It is impossible to imagine killings like under the Nazis."
Scharansky says that her plight hasn't always gotten a sympathetic response. "Especially in Europe, women come up and tell me that during World War II, they waited longer than three years for their husbands to return," she says. "They say that three years is nothing. But this is not war. This is supposed to be peaceful times."
Between speaking engagements, Scharansky lives in Jerusalem with her brother. She attends an art teachers school, but is hesitant about giving the school's name. It is a habit, she says, that she continues from her life in Russia because her parents still live there.
When she is asked what she will do when, an if, her husband joins her, Scharansky smiles for the first time. Through the translator, she says, her cheeks flushing pink, that she is not used to being asked such questions.
"Life would be wonderful," she says. "I would like to show him Israel, Jerusalem first. But right now, as a wife, I just pray for his arrival. As for the rest, the priorities will settle into place."