Jewish hero inspires Montreal youth

Herzliah student Zack Simon, École Maïmonide student Suzie Perez, Natan Sharansky, Hebrew Academy student Emily Dahan and Bialik student Ben Libman.

Former Soviet Union prisoner and freedom fighter, Natan Sharansky, recently spoke to a packed house of students from Jewish high schools, sharing his personal story of imprisonment, activism and survival.

“Brit mila. Bar Mitzvah. Chanukah. It didn’t exist for us. We didn’t know. But we knew we were Jews,” explained Sharansky to the over 530 students from Bialik, École Maïmonide, Hebrew Academy and Herzliah. “The message we were getting from our parents was that because we were Jews, we had to be the best at arts or sciences or math. Maybe we could hide a bit better if we were the best at one of those. This was the most important… physical survival.”

Sharansky described for students the atmosphere of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Union in the 1950’s and 60’s, explaining that it was constant anxiety, stress and fear as they were all watched by the KGB. When Sharansky’s application for an exit visa was denied in 1973, he became an activist and refusenik, leading to his arrest in 1977, after which he spent eight years in prison, many of those years in solitary confinement.

“All my strength to fight was coming from my desire to be part of my people. The power of dictatorship is that it makes you feel alone and isolated and helpless. When you are cold, dark and very hungry, you have to remind yourself why you are there and what you are fighting for,” he said. When arrested, the KGB told Sharansky he had a choice. If he gave a press conference denouncing Zionism, they would let him go and give him the exit visa to Israel; if he didn’t, he would be sentenced to die for treason. “I had to explain to myself why not to cooperate with them. To me, it was very clear that I wanted to go to Israel, to be with my wife, with my family, with my people. But I had no doubt that the Jewish people would continue to fight for me. And they did.”

Sharansky highlighted his personal connection to Montreal, including how family in Canada he didn’t even know existed realized they were related and sent Irwin Cotler to be his lawyer when he was imprisoned and a particularly special call between himself and students from Bialik High School before he was imprisoned, but while he was being watched and followed by the KGB.

“When I got on the phone, I wanted to pass on important information, but the students started to sing Hatikvah. I couldn’t disappoint them, so I joined in, in the middle of the post office with the KGB standing around watching me, thinking I was crazy,” he said. “But it was one of the most solid expressions of solidarity I have witnessed. It was very moving. I felt like we were really not alone.”

The students listened intently to Sharansky and asked thought-provoking questions following his speech. Many gathered around him afterwards for photos or to have him autograph his books and many spoke of how their parents had told them about Sharansky and the triumph of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union.

“It is an honour to have you speak to us. It helps to bridge the gap between what we learn and what really happened and that is fantastic,” said student Ben Stein from Bialik during the question period.

“You serve as a role model to us in the Diaspora and to the people and the State of Israel,” Emily Dahan, from Hebrew Academy, said in thanks. “You serve as an inspiration to all of us.”

One student even asked him in Russian if he ever missed Russia, to which Sharansky replied that he did miss some of Russia – the Russian literature and the snow. He explained how he returned to where he had been imprisoned 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, even though most people couldn’t understand why he would want to go back and that surely it must be too painful.

“On the contrary. It is one of the most inspiring moments – this was the most powerful leadership in the world, trying to tell me that all the Jews had been arrested and that they were all afraid. But I had a strong feeling that as long as the Jewish people are with me, I should fear no evil. And only 10 years later, the Soviet Union doesn’t exist, millions of Jews left,” he said. “This is all because of the power of the Jewish people when they are united. This is our optimism… this is the most important message.”

  • Anna Gonshor says:

    i was very pleased to read the story about Sharansky’s visit. I was on staff at Bialik when that. Call was I intittiated. It was a moving and memorable moment.
    Several years later, I travelled to the Soviet Union on a mission to visit Refuseniks
    I later came to. Hair the Montreal Cimmittee for Soviet Jewry and the briefer for travelers to the Soviet Union. in fact, I briefed several Fedation tripsand Several MP trips.

    I was also involved in bringing Sharansky here to Montreal after his release.

    There are several other people here In Montreal who were at the forefront of the struggle and who worked tirelessly on behalf of Sharansky and others; Goldie Hershon, Barbara Stern, Sharon Wiolfe and Marty Penn, to name just a few. Not having invited any of these people was a disservice to them and to the students in the audience e who could have learned about how Jews help each other, even putting themselves in danger to do it. It is not about us. it is about giving our students a strong seance of the power of the community in which they live and the shoulders that they stand on. Memory and history contribute to strengthening identity and commitment

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