Latest update: July 20th, 2012
In Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival (Gefen Publishing), the newly released English translation of his memoir, internationally renowned former Soviet refusenik Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich tells a compelling story of struggle and victory. He spoke to The Jewish Press during his recent U.S. book tour.
The Jewish Press: You’d already published your memoir in Hebrew years ago. Why an English version at this particular time?
Rabbi Mendelevich: A group of American Jews who were involved in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry came up with this idea about a year ago. Pamela Cohen, the president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews from 1986 through 1996, called and asked me why I never published my book in English. She and others like her saw my life as more than a simple story. It is the story of a young boy struggling to find his Jewish identity in a spiritual wasteland and of a young man challenging the draconian dictates of the Communist monolith in a struggle for freedom.
She came to the conclusion that my story published in English would inspire young and often alienated Jews searching for their own identity.
Describe your life as a young child in Stalinist Russia.
I grew up as an atheist. My parents were not interested in me having a Jewish education. My father was involved in the Communist underground in Riga, but both my parents spoke Yiddish and I was taught Jewish history. Back then in the Soviet Union Jewish tradition did not exist but Riga was the center of the renaissance of the Jewish movement. Before World War II, books were published in Russian about the great Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
In the 1960s an underground movement of Jews supporting Israel began to take hold. One could tell the difference between life under Stalin and life under Khrushchev. You could sit in jail forever under the Stalin government for learning about Jewish culture, language and thought. In 1963, the first book on Jewish vocabulary was printed and many books on Hebrew poetry served as a catalyst for Jews to become closer to their identity. It was like a miracle.
When did you take an interest in activism on behalf of Israel and Jews?
While still a teenager, I gravitated toward activism in 1964. I attended a technical college for four years and studied electronics and computers. I worked as an engineer in a big plant in Riga, and in terms of technology it was advanced. The moment I became an engineer, I wanted to leave the Soviet Union and go to Israel. I had a big decision to make. If I obtained my degree I would have to stay in the Soviet Union forever, so I sacrificed my career by not getting the degree. It boiled down to either staying in the Soviet Union or living as a free man whose destiny is in his hands.
Where was your life heading after you finished your studies?
In 1968 I was fired from my job as an engineer for inquiring about emigrating to Israel. At that juncture I was also heavily involved in various Zionist organizations and in 1969 I assumed the position of editor of a national journal on Jewish issues. Everything had to be top secret so we met clandestinely in forests or perhaps in someone’s apartment. I was in charge of deciding what to write and what articles to publicize, and it was sent all over the Soviet Union. We had only published two issues before my arrest.
Why did you hijack a plane in 1970?
Soviet antipathy toward Israel continued to increase in the years following the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli soldiers were called hooligans in the Soviet press but we in the Jewish underground only yearned for the freedom to go to Israel, study in yeshiva and be part of the Zionist dream. We decided to hijack a plane to the West to spotlight our plight, even though we knew how risky it was. While undertaking this action, we dreamed about fighting in the Golani Brigade in Israel. We also wanted to counter the incessant Soviet propaganda that told the world there was no Jewish issue in Russia and that Jews were very happy to be proud Soviet citizens. We wanted the world to know there was a growing number of Jews who wanted to connect to their Jewish heritage, to study Hebrew and dedicate themselves to studying Torah.
Who else was involved in the hijacking?
In June 1970 Mark Dymshits, a former military pilot and major in the Russian air force, along with Eduard Kuznetsov, a recognized dissident who had already served a seven-year prison term in the Soviet Union, led us in this mission. Originally we had thought our goal would be to show the world that this movement was not just composed of young Jewish men but of all Jews, so we were going to try to hijack a big airliner and fill it with Jewish families.
We bought up all the tickets on a small plane under the guise of a trip to a wedding and were going to fly it from Leningrad to Sweden where we intended to hold a press conference asking world Jewry to help us in our quest for freedom. There were twelve of us aboard. With us were Sylva Zalmanson, who was Kuznetsov’s wife, and two non-Jews, Yuri Federov and Aleksey Murzhenko. We had planned to pick up four more people in the forest. But we were then arrested and charged with treason. It was clear the KGB knew of our plan, since we were arrested as we got close to the plane. After our arrest the Soviets initiated a crackdown on the Jewish and dissident movement.
What did the KBG do to you subsequent to your arrest?
They tried to break our resolve by threatening us with the death penalty. They thought that by doing so they would get us to condemn Zionism and urge other Jews in the Soviet Union not to be involved with Jewish causes and Israel. We were interrogated for six months until our trial. The goal of the KGB was to have us perform like puppets in the courtroom.
Rather than being manipulated by the Soviets and used as a propaganda tool, however, we did not rail against Zionism but instead declared in no uncertain terms that we are loyal to the Jewish nation, to Am Yisrael, and we demanded free Jewish emigration to Israel. We chanted “Let My People Go” in the courtroom.
Do you think your actions caused the Soviets to relax their emigration policy?
They were very worried about the tidal wave of international pressure and knew they could not withstand an economic boycott. Eventually they started to allow more Jews to emigrate to Israel and within a year after our trial some 17,000 Jews had left. I think the Soviets never thought all those Jews would actually leave if given the opportunity. The year after that, 35,000 Jews emigrated and I think the Soviets were totally shocked.
You were sentenced to 15 years in Soviet prisons. What was life like for you and the others?
I was in eight different labor camps and prisons in Siberia and Moldavia in the European mountain region. It was always a struggle, as a Soviet prison is tantamount to a work camp. Before my arrest, I was becoming a religious Jew and I did not give up on my commitment to being a believing Jew while in prison. Even though it was illegal to do so, I exhorted other Jewish inmates to observe Shabbos, to daven, and to learn Torah.
I knew my time in prison would be well spent if I were able to have an impact on my people. As a result, I was punished severely by the authorities and for three years of my sentence I was imprisoned under brutal conditions. I was transferred from the labor camp to a closed prison called Vladimir and I was essentially locked away in my cell. I eventually finished my term back in the labor camp and was with other nationalist groups such as Ukrainians and Lithuanians who were fighting for freedom.
When Natan Sharansky was arrested in 1977, I spent time with him in prison and came up with original ways of communicating, which I speak about in my book. Even though we had very little news from the outside world, in 1978 Sharansky told me things were being done for us by American Jews. We were only allowed to read the government-run newspapers, such as Pravda and Izvestia, and Russian newsletters. It was not easy being a Prisoner of Zion in Soviet camps, and news of those helping us in America and other places bolstered our spirits in immeasurable ways.
Did you know when you would be released?
Not at all. I was taken from the labor camp to Moscow and no one told me why. I thought it was yet another attempt to break my spirit and resolve. After two weeks they told me my Soviet citizenship had been permanently revoked and that I didn’t deserve to be a citizen of the USSR and that I was being deported. When I boarded the plane for Israel, I can’t begin to describe to you how tears of joy streamed from my eyes.
Since your release from prison in 1981, what activities have you pursued in Israel?
I spent much time learning Torah as my commitment to an Orthodox life grew and I eventually received rabbinical ordination. I was involved in the Russian department of Arutz Sheva and went on to teach Russian students at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
In my early days in Israel I founded an organization called the Soviet Jewry Information Center. In 1988 Sharansky founded the Zionist Forum, which worked toward absorbing immigrants to Israel from the Soviet Union, and its activity was based on the database I formed. I have constantly been involved in the Israeli political scene, have spoken out for the freedom of Jonathan Pollard on numerous occasions, and have been vocal about my opinions on the role of Russia in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Educating young Jews about the beauty and majesty of Judaism is at the core of my being. Just being a Jew living in an independent Jewish state affords us so many opportunities to reach the greatest heights, and I share my knowledge and narrative with others in the hopes that they too will feel the bond between themselves and their God and fulfill their destiny as Torah Jews.
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