It’s been 40 years since Connie Smukler first met celebrated Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky. Back then, while he was a vocal dissident of the Soviet regime, she and her late husband, Joe, were actively involved with supporting the struggles of Russian Jewry.
Next to 18, the Hebrew number for chai, 40 might be the next most popular number in Jewish tradition.
For 40 days and nights, Noah and all the animals remained in the ark during the Great Flood. For 40 years, the Jews wandered in the desert before Moses guided them to the Promised Land.
By the same token, it’s also been 40 years since Connie Smukler first met celebrated Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky. Back then, while he was a vocal dissident of the Soviet regime, she and her late husband, Joe, were actively involved with supporting the struggles of Russian Jewry.
“We spent a lot of quality time with him back then,” recalled Smukler, a former vice chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia who reconnected with Sharansky on her recent trip to Berlin. The highlight of that journey, part of the Prime Minister’s Mission of the Jewish Federations of North America, came when they walked across the Glienicke Bridge together — the same bridge Sharansky crossed in 1986 when he became a free man following nine years’ imprisonment in a Russian gulag.
“We’ve seen each other through the years here at my house and in New York. He came to my grandson Omri’s Bar Mitzvah in Israel in 2006,” she added. “How many people have had a dear friend who’s been a prisoner? It’s very inspiring to be with him.”
Sharansky was in captivity from 1977-86. The Smuklers led the local campaign for his release, which culminated in his walk from East Berlin into West Berlin.
That’s precisely what occurred with several so-called spy exchanges in the 1960s and 70s, among them American pilot Frances Gary Powers, who’d been shot down after claiming to have veered off course — and why Glienicke Bridge is sometimes referred to as the “bridge of spies.”
The Smuklers walked across the Glienicke on their own in 2004. This time, she and Natan, who was known as Anatoly before he was freed, walked together. “When I found out I was on the Prime Minister’s Mission for Federation I called him,” said Smukler, who has made more than 40 trips to Russia through the years. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you’d come to Berlin and walk the bridge with the Mission?’ ”
He agreed. It’s 29 years since he was released. He had been back. But now he’s a world leader.
“He’s like a rock star over there. ”
To the Narberth native, though, Natan Sharansky will always be something else even more important: a friend.
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