Video Update: Sharansky pays moving tribute to UK man who aided refusniks
Michael Sherbourne presented with his award by Natan Sharansky (Photo: Flix'n'Pix)
In one of the conference's most moving moments so far, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, awarded 96-year-old Michael Sherbourne with a special plaque for his activism on behalf of Soviet Jews during the 1970s and 1980s.
"Every person can make a difference, and here is one man, Michael Sherbourne who for 20 years was our only channel of information [to the outside world]," said Mr Sharansky as he presented the award to a standing ovation from the assembled audience.
Mr. Sherbourne told the JC that through the years he made a total of almost 6,000 phone calls to many Jews struggling for their freedom in the Soviet Union. These Jews became known as "refuseniks" due to the Communist government's refusal to allow their emigration abroad.
"I realised very quickly that [Sharansky] was not just an ordinary refusenik, you could tell from his voice and the kind of person he was, he was a leader, a natural leader of people," he said.
Mr. Sherbourne, who is fluent in Russian and communicated with his fellow Jews in the USSR through a combination of Hebrew and Russian, was also the first person to coin the term "refusenik" after translating the Russian "otkaznik" and its Hebrew equivalent, "siruvnik."
Mr Sharansky, in conversation with editor of the Jewish Forward, Jane Eisen, described what it was like to grow up as a Jewish child in Soviet Russia and his later experiences while imprisoned by the KGB in Siberia.
"In prison the KGB would try to break your spirit by convincing you that no-one is thinking of you and that you are completely alone in the world," he said. "But I was absolutely sure that the Jewish people were fighting for me."