The day started with a reading of the papers and the daily search for a column topic. There was much to choose from, lots of truly important events like the Geneva summit and even less cosmic stories like the suit brought by Rock Hudson's self-pro"claimed last lover. I read it all, took notes, made some phone calls and then satisfied with the cornucopia of topics facing me, I set off for lunch. That's when I saw her.
First I noticed people staring in the direction of the Soviet Embassy. When I got closer, I saw a camera crew and then, across the street, three people sitting on chairs before an office building. The person in the middle was Avital Scharansky.
It had been years since I had seen her last, but she seemed no different -- a face constantly updated by newspaper photos and television news and therefore, like family, too familar to notice any change. Her head was covered in the style of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, no hair showing, and her dress was extremely modest and plain. For all of that, she is the fiercest of accusers, a finger pointing always at a Soviet government that holds her husband in a labor camp. On the most glorious of Indian summer days, she was a reminder that winter had come once again to Siberia.
Often there is a demonstration before the Soviet Embassy. Often, the reason is the refusal of the Soviet government to allow Jews to emigrate. Sometimes rabbis come to pray, and sometimes people just come to stand on the street and stare at the embassy, which is old and crusty and all shut up like a closed mind. You may wonder if the people inside pay any heed. There is no way to tell for sure, but I think they do.
Once, I was in the South African Embassy, waiting in the foyer for a visa, when five demonstrators came to protest apartheid. They rang the bell and stared straight at the mirrored door, not knowing they could be seen -- and heard -- through it. They were nervous about being arrested and so they giggled and made weak jokes, and then the police came to take them away. They linked arms and sang "We Shall Overcome," and all the time some people inside the embassy watched, listened and, of course, said nothing to one another. The demonstrators thought no one was watching, but someone was.
I crossed 16th street, hesitated for a moment, and then walked over to Avital Scharansky. I introduced myself because it has been a long time since we last met. "I think of you a lot," I said. I do, because she is often in the news, showing up at major events to remind the world that her husband, Anatoly, remains imprisoned in the Soviet Union for the crime of being a Jewish dissident. She was in Paris when Mikhail Gorbachev came for his official visit; she was in New York for the 40th anniversary of the United Nations. Like hope itself, she is everywhere.
It would be wonderful to concentrate only on the grand problems of the East-West conflict -- arms reduction, "Star Wars" -- as if the differences between us and the Soviets were only ideological and, in terms of any real conflict, exclusively prospective. But Avital Scharansky always brings you down to the small, the human and the immediate -- to the plight of her husband, his 13-year sentence on the preposterous charge of being an American spy, his suffering, his headaches, his worsening health, his very existence in a Siberian labor camp near the city of Perm. She will not let him die, and she will not let us forget.
And by extension she reminds you of the plight of all the others the Soviets have jailed for what the West calls "crimes of conscience." They include Ukrainian nationalists such as Vasyl Stus, who died in a labor camp, Russian Orthodox Christians such as Boris Razveyev, Lutherans, Baptists, atheists with the wrong politics and Jews who, unlike Scharansky, have no politics, not even dissent, but whose crime is the fierce determination to teach Hebrew to children. Scharansky is only the best known of the jailed. His is the universal face of the victim.
Avital Scharansky smiled at my greeting and nodded in recollection of our last meeting and then, not knowing what to say, I stupidly blurted out, "Keep up the good work," which of course she will. So I quickly said goodbye and headed off for my lunch. There had been so much to write and then, suddenly, there had been only one thing to write:
Let him go. Let them all go.