Michael Sherbourne: The Man who Helped to Free Millions

During the summer of 1970 while working as the political secretary of the World Union of Jewish Students, I received a telephone call from an irate caller who told me that the spelling of the organisation’s name in Russian on its headed notepaper was incorrect.

I tried to explain that this was none of my doing, but the caller would have none of it and berated me for committing a crime against the sacred beauty of the Russian language.

This was my first encounter with Michael Sherbourne, the man who played a pivotal role in the UK campaign supporting Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate. He it was who was credited with the first use of the English translation of otkaznik – “refusenik”.

His passing last weekend at the age of 97 was recorded by the Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, himself a former refusenik, who remarked that Michael demonstrated how “one passionate individual, with no institutional position or backing, can have an impact on the course of history”. Not a cliché, but a remarkable truth.

He was a marked man in the eyes of the Kremlin

Michael was part of that inter-war generation of British Jews whose world outlook was forged by the twin evils of Nazism and Stalinism. As a teenager, he wanted to run away to fight Franco in Spain, but his mother got wind of it before he was able to leave.

As passionate Zionists, Michael and his new wife Muriel, emigrated to Palestine in 1939. He fought at Latrun during Israel’s war of independence before returning to London in the early 1950s due to Muriel’s tuberculosis.

Michael was a keen linguist who spoke French, Spanish and Hebrew fluently – and learned Russian to win a bet. He was a self-educated man who read widely, and about the history of the Jewish tragedy during the 20th century in particular. Above all he understood why it was important to participate in the onward voyage of the Jewish people, and not to be a bystander.

Following the Six-Day War, the Soviet Union broke off relations with Israel. Israel’s lightening victory, however, catalysed an emigration movement of Soviet Jews who wished to leave. Individual letters led to collective ones which led to demonstrations and sit-ins. The struggle of these courageous people was facilitated by wide press coverage and growing support in this country.

The campaign had initially been led by the Universities Committee of Soviet Jewry – a group of students who felt impelled to act. The decision by the Kremlin to allow a trickle of Jewish activists to leave in 1968 and the change in policy of the Israeli government to proclaim openly their support for the cause was the blue touchpaper which brought many people into the campaign. Michael first become involved in 1969.

It was very much a grassroots movement attracting people who had no aspiration to leadership. They were teachers like Michael, housewives like the 35’s group and businessmen such as Ladbroke’s Cyril Stein who was willing to fund them. They all understood the meaning of “never again”.

In 1970 telephone connections were established with activists in Moscow. A network of Russian speakers, including Michael, was established. Open letters to Soviet leaders and appeals to Golda Meir and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson were passed over and published in a weekly bulletin, Jews in the USSR.

Refuseniks from Estonia to Siberia explained the justice of their cases to the activists in Moscow who would transmit them to Michael in London. In this fashion, London became the central hub of information.

In 1975 a well-known doctor Mikhail Stern was accused of poisoning children. A chain of contacts stretching from the court itself to Michael in north London enabled Dr Stern’s defiant speech to the judges to be published within hours in London.

Michael was a marked man in the eyes of the Kremlin. Soviet propaganda turned him into “the notorious Zionist, Lord Sherbourne” – a title which pleased him greatly.

During this period, he was head of languages at a Southgate School as well as working at a local synagogue. During the evening he campaigned non-stop for Soviet Jews. The first two tasks fed his family, the other his heart.

It could never be said that Michael was a diplomat. He never warmed to Jewish organisations and was critical of Israeli institutions. He was never easy, but easy people would not have confronted the KGB.

He was a central figure in a group of British Jews which broke all the rules – and whose efforts ultimately made possible the emigration of a million Soviet Jews in the 1990s.

Truly he made a difference.

Jewish Chronicle 26 June 2014

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