Justice, Sharansky-Style

avital sharansky

By Rudy Stoler

In March 1981, 400 people piled into Langsdale Auditorium at University of Baltimore School of Law to witness the mock trial of U.S.S.R. vs. Anatoly Shcharansky (a.k.a. Natan Sharansky). Sharansky served as a figurehead for both Jewish activists and democratic dissidents in the Soviet Union. Western media had frequent audiences with him in the mid-1970s, and he paid for it—with a conviction under the false pretense of being a CIA agent. The mock trial marked the fourth anniversary of his arrest.

“My mother is excluded from the room. I have been held for 16 months without talking to my family,” Sharansky (played by Stanley Weinman) shouted at the Soviet judge (played by Judge Liss). “The mock trial exposes the gross misconduct of justice under the Soviet system,” read the mock witness summons that served as an invitation to attend the event. The judge and the prosecutor (played by Sol Goldstein) were in cahoots; the prosecutor withheld evidence from the defendant; and Sharansky was denied the right to a jury trial or even a defense attorney.

Extensive planning paid off for the Baltimore activists. Representatives of the Law School and the Baltimore Committee for Soviet Jewry arranged for radio interviews and news releases. In addition to the 400 attendees, Channel 2 and the local papers covered the mock trial. After the introduction by Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl, chair of the Maryland Commission for the Defense of Sharansky, the sponsors arranged for Ira Jachman of the law school to provide a critical analysis following the trial, with the whole proceeding lasting about an hour. Later, the activists distributed video tapes of the trial to the community for continued education.

This was not the first time Baltimore activists drew attention to Soviet brand of injustice shown to Sharansky. In 1979, his wife Avital (by then living in Israel for nearly five years) visited Baltimore in a campaign to raise awareness of his plight and secure his release. At the time, Baltimorean Fabian Kolker was helping her with the production and promotion of a film about her husband. A generally soft-spoken woman, Avital put a human face on the Soviets’ oppression of Judaism and dissent. She told her audience that despite the “real torture” of his isolated confinement—he was even denied access to the letters she wrote to his prison cell—“the whole world knows he’s innocent.”
Once, at a display at the annual Jewish-American Festival at Charles Center—where the Baltimore activists regularly recruited letter-writers and distributed Prison-of-Conscience bracelets, pennants, and so forth—Sol Goldstein arranged for an incarceration exhibit. “We got the city to give us a prison cell… that was used for training purposes or something… So we took it down there, and we… set it up. And inside, we put a big figure, cut out and so forth, of Sharansky. And then we had a big sign: ‘Let Our People Go.’ And, you know, people would man it all day and tell people stories.”

Sharansky even visited the Jewish-American Festival in person on September 7, 1987, where he addressed an audience of 5,000 people waving signs and toting light-blue “Free Soviet Jewry” balloons. Encouraging listeners to continue the fight for Soviet Jews’ freedom despite Gorbachev’s burgeoning Glasnost, he declared, “For us, openness means open borders… It means that every Jew who wants to join us in the West has the right to do it.” He was going to fight until all Jews in the Soviet Union had the right to live out the classic statement—which he had also used to conclude his trial years earlier (both the real trial and the mock version in Baltimore)—“Next year in Jerusalem!”

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Filed under Israel & Overseas, Jewish Learning, Leadership Development, Volunteering & Advocacy

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