Prominent Soviet Jewry activist Michael Sherbourne died in London on Saturday at the age of 97.
Sherbourne was a key figure in the salad days of the struggle to save Soviet Jewry, using his knowledge of Russian to act as a mediator between refuseniks within the USSR and activists in the West.
A soldier in the British armed forces during World War II, Sherbourne joined the pre-state Israeli Haganah militia as a volunteer during the 1948 War of Independence, but returned to his native England shortly after the war when his wife fell ill. There, he pursued his studies in Russian language and literature and Eastern European studies, and proceeded to teach Russian in the UK.
In 1969, Sherbourne became active on behalf of Soviet Jews, making thousands of phone calls to the country’s refuseniks — a term he coined for Jews denied permission to emigrate — and serving as a link between the West and the Jews under Communist rule.
“At a time when there was no internet, no satellite television, and no free communication at all between the Soviet Union and the free world, this modest teacher of the Russian language in London became the primary channel of communication between Soviet Jewish activists and Jews all over the world,” Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement.
Sharansky, a former refusenik himself, served nine years in a Soviet prison for his political activism.
“Michael Sherbourne demonstrated that one passionate individual, with no institutional position or backing, can have an impact on the course of history. We will miss him dearly,” he wrote.
Last December, Sherbourne was granted an award for his activities by Sharansky.