The children and grandchildren of those whom former US Secretary of State George Shultz helped leave the Soviet Union paid emotional tribute to him at a ceremony on Friday on the eve of the Limmud conference for Russian-speaking Jews on the West Coast of the United States.

Shultz, in partnership with President Ronald Reagan, is widely admired as the face of the US administration that repeatedly made it clear to the Soviet leadership the issue of Soviet Jewry would remain on the agenda in private as well as in public until Jews were allowed to leave freely.

Among those he helped directly was leading ‘prisoner of Zion’ Natan Sharansky, who was freed under Shultz’s watch. But as Shultz, almost 97, made clear, the admiration went two ways.

The former Secretary of State recalled how Sharansky had rejected an initial deal to free him. “He said the structure of the deal suggested he was a spy, and he was not a spy. I even tried to get his mother to persuade him, but no way. And I thought to myself, the integrity of the man is overpowering.” He joked: “I remember when President Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire, and some people went nuts. But Sharansky said, ‘Finally, somebody gets it’.”

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George Shultz with his gifted Book of Psalms

Shultz said his many encounters over the years with Soviet Jews had been “such an inspiration” and were an illustration of “the importance of the human spirit and of never giving up”.

Two presentations were made to Shultz – one by Julius Berman, president of the Claims Conference, and another on behalf of Limmud FSU. The first presentation, a leather-bound Book  of Psalms, prompted Sharansky to suggest Shultz now had time to learn Hebrew.

But then Sharansky, referring fondly to Shultz as his “accomplice” in “the crime of bringing down the Iron Curtain and freeing Soviet Jews”, spoke warmly of the US politician, referring particularly to how he supported his wife Avital on her many visits to lobby publicly on his behalf.

Sharansky said Shultz had made it clear to nervous Jewish communal leaders both he and President Reagan were fully in favour of a march on Washington – the 30th anniversary of which will be marked shortly.

“People were worried it would undermine the improving relationship between the US and the USSR,” but Sharansky said he was able to state with confidence: “Reagan and Shultz want us to march!”