Have you ever wanted to sit and chat with a real life hero? I don’t mean some famous athlete or rock and roll star, although that would certainly be interesting, but rather someone who risked his life for the greater good and displayed a level of courage that most of us could only dream about.
On a recent Saturday night in Jerusalem I was blessed to have such a privilege as I met for an hour with a real life Jewish hero, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch. Born in Riga (Latvia) in 1947, the rabbi was part of group of 16 individuals (14 Jewish, 2 non-Jewish) that attempted to hijack an airplane in 1970 as a way to bring world-wide attention to the struggle of Soviet Jewry. Unassuming and low-key on the outside, it was the rabbi’s inner strength and conviction that enabled him to overcome the dreaded KGB and eleven years of prison in Siberia.
Some details of that episode, as well as the events leading up to it and its aftermath, were the main topics of our late night conversation.
Background in Riga
Yoel Meltzer (YM): Growing up in Riga, did you have any Jewish or Zionist awareness?
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch (RYM): That’s a complex question with a very complex answer. Latvia at that time was a new republic of the Soviet Union. While the former generation of Jews in Riga grew up under a liberal democratic regime and received Jewish education, we were the first generation in Riga of “Soviet Jewry” and therefore we didn’t receive any Jewish education. Nevertheless, we still didn’t feel like Soviet citizens and somehow I think we were in a better situation than our Jewish peers in Soviet Russia.
My parents spoke Yiddish and we heard lots of stories about the past. They both were from Dvinsk, which was known for several famous rabbis such as Meir Simcha (known as the “Ohr Somayach”), Rabbi Kook and the Rogatchover Gaon.
At the same time my father was a communist and active in Latvia in the communist underground. But being a unique type of “Jewish communist” he would also teach us world history and Jewish history.
Overall Jewish education was prohibited and my parents were not interested in me having any Jewish education.
YM: So when did you start feeling a stronger connection to Israel?
RYM: Good question. About feelings you never know, it’s a process. I wrote a whole book about that trying to analyze certain developments that brought me close.
Nevertheless, if you ask about a certain time it was definitely my experience at Rumbula, a forest near Riga where the Germans killed 28,000 Jews from Riga. It was there that I met with other people and it was there that something started.
YM: How old were you?
RYM: 16 or 17 years old.
A Strong Sense of Purpose
YM: Something lit inside?
RYM: Maybe the very meeting with that place pushed me towards some sort of development. I’m not sure. All I know is that I was involved in a project, externally the rebuilding and taking care of the place, which was an initiative of an underground Zionist movement. They intentionally brought us to the forest in order to start educating us, and that’s how I got involved.
You have to understand that Jabotinsky’s Betar Movement began in the early 1920s in Riga and the people who met us in the forest were members of a regional Latvian Betar movement that had been arrested under the Soviet occupation and subsequently released after Stalin’s death. When they came back to Riga in the early 1960s they were astonished to see the sad condition of the Jewish youth, half-assimilated and far from anything Jewish. So they decided to act and they sought the best way to influence. This was the reason for the meetings in the forest, an act which was of course illegal and had we been caught we would have been punished.
YM: What kind of activities were you engaged in?
RYM: At the beginning there were just meetings in the forest. Then over time you start talking, you meet in an apartment and study Hebrew and listen to Kol Yisrael (Israeli radio), you read all kinds of materials and basically you start attaching yourself to your group.