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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

Dymshits and Kuznetsov (the other leaders) got the death penalty but within in a week due to intense international pressure their penalties were softened to 15 years each while mine was reduced to 12 years (of which 11 were eventually served).

YM: How did you psychologically and emotionally survive being in a prison in Siberia for 12 years?

RYM: A prison in every country is a part of some social reality of the place. It doesn’t differ too much from the situation outside the prison. Taking into account that I worked in a factory as a simple worker from age 16 I was very used to these kinds of social relations, the type of food, whatever. I didn’t feel that something changed dramatically in my life. I was also out to do something for my nation so I was ready to pay the price.

Also keep in mind that it wasn’t like the Stalin years [On a side note the Rabbi adds that during the Stalin years they didn’t have the death penalty and that people were "only" sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment. Of course, he adds, that almost nobody survived those 25 years]. During the 1970s you could survive in a Soviet prison since it was like a compulsory work camp. Nevertheless, it was still a struggle.

The difference for me during my prison time was that I tried, or experienced, Jewish tradition. This gave me strength. I had started becoming religious before my arrest and when I came to prison I decided there is no reason to give it up. For me to be Jewish means to be a believing Jew and I did my utmost to influence other Jewish inmates as well by trying to convince them to observe the Sabbath, to keep Jewish tradition, to study Torah, to pray, whatever, all of which was illegal.

Eventually I was punished for these “illegal activities” and for three years out of my twelve-year sentence I received imprisonment in harsh conditions. I was removed from the labor camp and sent to a closed prison called Vladimir. A closed prison means you are closed in your cell for a couple of years.

YM: You were alone?

RYM: No, not alone. There were other inmates in the cell with me. But you can’t get out. Everything was there; bathroom, food. For some people being alone can be a terrible experience. But to be together in a cell with three or four other people for a few years is much, much worse!

YM: What happened after Vladimir prison?

RYM: After three years I was returned to the labor camp to finish my time in prison. I then found out that all my friends from the hijacking plot had been released. So I spent a few more years in prison without my friends but I was never alone. There were other nationalist groups – Ukrainians, Lithuanians – that were fighting for their freedom.

YM: Sounds like interesting people?

RYM: Yes, some of them were. They considered us, the Jewish activists, as the leaders of the Jewish nationalist movement in the Soviet Union. We were very strong, with connections and money, and they knew that we were strong and true to our convictions. They respected us as fighters since we were stronger than them and more successful than them.

I remember once when I was in the punishment room together with one of the leaders of the Ukrainian movement he told me that since in the Ukraine they never had their own independent state they weren’t sure if their aim was actually feasible. But he said when we look at you and see that you didn’t have a state for 2,000 years it provides us with optimism!

YM: Is it true what I’ve read many times that while in prison you taught Natan Sharansky Hebrew via the pipes of the toilet or radiator?

RYM: Something like that.

YM: Did you know it was Sharansky?

RYM: Certainly. I was already in prison for seven years when Sharansky was arrested and we knew about it since it was in the newspapers (we received newspapers as part of Communist propaganda). It was a big political process and another attempt to break our Jewish movement. We expected that he would end up in prison with us so the moment he arrived I immediately established communication with him, illegally of course, and we began to communicate.

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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