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October 13, 2015 / 30 Tishri, 5776
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Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Pioneering Russian Refusenik

Rabbi Mendelevitch and Avital Sharansky meet then-President Reagan and Vice President Bush.

Rabbi Mendelevitch and Avital Sharansky meet then-President Reagan and Vice President Bush.
Photo Credit: White House archives

YM: Where did they stop you?

RM: They allowed us to come close to the airplane before they emerged from the plane and arrested us on the spot. This way they had real evidence.

The Miracle of Hanukah

YM: What happened once they caught you?

RYM: Their scheme was to have us make a harsh declaration against Zionism. You must understand, a person that came into a KGB prison was like Play-Dough in their hands. They do whatever they want with you. On the spot we were told, at least the leaders, that we would get the death penalty. So they expected us to be broken in order to have us denounce Zionism and tell Soviet Jewry not to be involved anymore in Zionist activities. The death penalty was not as important to them as the performance.

At the trial six months later they tried to stage a big game and they expected us to be compliant actors. They didn’t ask us, they just expected it would happen once we were broken.

Since some of the people were in fact already broken I felt it was a dangerous moment for the cause. However, what happened in the courtroom after half a year of KGB interrogation was nothing short of a miracle. It’s not by chance that this occurred on Hanukah so we’re talking about a real modern day miracle of Hanukah. Rather than denouncing Zionism as the KGB was certain we would do, on the floor of the court twelve people declared that they are true to am yisrael and that they demand from the Soviet Union free emigration! “Let My People Go!” started in this courtroom.

It was a tremendous victory of will against the KGB and the Soviet system. Although all was in their hands, the KGB lost and we won. The moment they arrested us they felt “we did it, they’ve crushed the movement,” and then after half a year they discovered “we did it!” the movement is still alive! However it was not us specifically but it was am yisrael. It was a victory of the Jewish national cause.

The news of what happened in the courtroom reached America, Europe and then the big movement started.

YM: The phrase “let my people go” started with you guys in the courtroom?

RYM: Some people say it started in the 60s in the States. I read a famous book by Gail Beckerman (When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry) and he brings two sides to the story. Although the movement to free Soviet Jews started earlier in the west the real momentum was created that Hanukah in 1970.

People in the west were fighting without getting any response from the other side and then all of the sudden they got a response, a very clear one, a very strong one, which inspired the people in the west to say: “It’s not in vain, it’s not a dream. There really are fighting Jews in Soviet Russia.” That’s when everything really changed.

YM: Did the Jews in Russia hear about it?

RYM: The authorities tried to keep it quiet but still the word got out. Leonid Brezhnev, who was the head of the Soviet regime at the time, sat together with the heads of the Communist Party to discuss the waves of protests and pressure and the possibility of an economic boycott on the Soviet Union. As a result they decided to slowly lift the ban on emigration and within a year of our trial 17,000 Soviet Jews got permission to leave. And believe me, there were 17,000 Jews on the spot that were ready to leave! Then the following year 35,000 Jews got permission to leave.

I assume that when they decided to let a few thousand leave they never thought that more than 10,000 or 20,000 would really want to leave since they believed that most Jews were loyal Soviet citizens. As it turned out this was the beginning of a big bang that created the momentum that led to hundreds of thousands leaving.


YM: What punishment did you receive?

RYM: They demanded the death penalty for me but since I was the youngest in the group they decided on 15 years for attempted hijacking, 15 years for treason (“betrayal of the Soviet motherland’) and another 7 years for “Jewish activities”, a total of 37 years.

About the Author: Yoel Meltzer is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem. He can be contacted via http://yoelmeltzer.com.

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One Response to “Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Pioneering Russian Refusenik”

  1. Tzvi Fishman says:

    Rabbi Mendelevitch is indeed a true Jewish hero. His book "Unbroken Spirit" should be read by everyone. Especially by our young people who are so desperate for true Jewish heroes of bravery, idealism, and substance. I recommend the book highly.

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