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August 26, 2016 / 22 Av, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘Soviet’

Mendelevich: ‘Educating Young Jews Is at the Core of my Being’

Wednesday, July 18th, 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.

Fern Sidman

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, Pioneering Russian Refusenik

Monday, June 18th, 2012

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.

Yoel Meltzer

A Russian Refusenik Remembers Jerusalem

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

As one of the “youngest” holidays in Jewish tradition, Jerusalem Day holds a special place in the Jewish calendar today.  It marks the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967, the first time that the entire city had come under Jewish sovereignty in thousands of years.  Even before King David conquered and built his monarchy in Jerusalem over 3,000 years ago in 1000 BCE, the city has always been the most holy city in Jewish tradition.  There was never, however, an official Jewish holiday that honored the city until after June 1967.

When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the tragic event spurred thousands of years of mourning for the sacred capital.  The remembrance of the destruction of Jerusalem and hope for its rebuilding manifested itself in Jewish holidays, prayers and even on the happiest of occasions—weddings –with the groom’s breaking of the glass cup. Jews would turn and pray in the direction of Jerusalem three times a day. There were even efforts throughout history where Jewish people attempted to restore political sovereignty over the city and re-establish it as the national capital.

For Yuli Edelstein, the Minister of Diaspora and Public Affairs, who as a Russian refusnik was sentenced three years in a Soviet Labor camp, Jerusalem Day holds deep significance. Tazpit News Agency interviewed the minister in light of Jerusalem Day which falls on Sunday, May 20 (Iyar 28) this year. “I was very young when the Six Day War happened and I remember everyone around me being terribly scared,” Edelstein told Tazpit News Agency. “According to reports on Soviet radio, Israel was disappearing.”

“A close friend of the family came by to tell us that the Soviet radio reports were lies. “”I just heard that the Arab armies destroyed Israel not once, but twice!” he told my parents.”

Edelstein grew up under the repressive and restrictive policies of the Soviet Union era, which muted Jewish traditional and cultural life for decades. State-sponsored anti-Semitism also prevented Jews from working in certain government sectors and advancing in their work.

Edelstein explained that his family felt a great sense of hope now that Jerusalem had come under Israel’s hands. “We felt great relief when we heard later that Jerusalem was actually in the hands of Israel and not in the hands of the Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. The Jews in Russia and the Ukraine were astonished that little Israel could win the war.”

“The reunification of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount in Israel’s hands, and the outcome of the Six Day War, changed the standing of Israel in the eyes of Jews across the world, but especially for the Jews in the former Soviet Union,” said Edelstein.

“For at least two million Soviet Jews, a reunited Jerusalem brought a feeling that there is a homeland and that they must start fighting for the existence of Israel. There was a whole change of attitude—one from relief to pride.”

Edelstein himself was born in Czernowitz in what is now the former Soviet Union. In 1979, he applied for an exit visa to Israel but was refused as Soviet policy rarely allowed its residents to emigrate and so Edelstein became a dissident.  As a Russian refusenik, Edelstein was actively involved in Zionist circles in Moscow and taught Hebrew secretly.  He was arrested by the KGB in 1984 on false charges of drug possession and was sentenced to three years in a grueling Soviet labor camp. He was released in 1987 and was finally allowed to immigrate to Israel with his family.

“For me, Jerusalem is more than just a capital to be proud of.  As the former Minister of Immigrant Absorption, I can say that for Jews who immigrated to Israel–from as far as Ethiopia– making aliya to Israel always meant returning to Jerusalem, to Zion.”

Anav Silverman, Tazpit News Agency

Soviet Union Financed African American ‘Freedomways’ Magazine: FBI Archive

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Accuracy in Media reported that newly declassified documents from Operation SOLO, an FBI program to infiltrate the Communist Party of the United States, reveal that a journal titled “Freedomways,” which was influential in the African American community for decades, was subsidized by the Soviet and Chinese Communist Parties.

“Freedomways” has been called “one of the most influential African-American literary and political journals of the 1960s and 1970s.” It began in 1961 and ceased publication in 1986.

During the 25 years it served as a propaganda organ for the CPUSA and Soviet front organizations such as the World Peace Council, “Freedomways” published articles by such figures as Derrick Bell, Martin Luther King, Jr., Congressman John Lewis, and Jesse Jackson.

Jewish Press News Briefs

Europe is in Denial Yet Again

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

It is a familiar pattern. Whenever a terrorist commits an atrocity, his apologists start blaming society or, even worse, the victims. Hence, it was not surprising that after Mohamed Merah, a French jihadist of Algerian descent, killed a rabbi and three Jewish children in Toulouse last week, some immediately blamed the Jews.

Merah had cold-bloodedly videotaped how he chased an eight-year old girl across a school playground and murdered her with three bullets in the head, and how he executed Rabbi Sandler and his three- and six-year old sons. Even so, some did not hesitate to compare his acts to military operations of the Israeli army in Gaza.

That alone is shocking, but that the comparison was made by the head of foreign policy of the European Union makes matters even worse. And yet, one week after comparing the Jewish children that were intentionally murdered in Toulouse with young Palestinian victims of the Israeli army’s defensive air strikes in Gaza, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is still in office. Not a single one of the 27 governments of the member states of the European Union is asking for her resignation.

Israeli politicians reacted with indignation to Ashton’s comparison. Her remarks, however, are not surprising given her past as an activist who belonged to the “Blame the West first” crowd. Some people, when confronted with sociopathic behavior, collaborate with it or look for arguments to prove that it is actually not a symptom of emotional disorder, but an attempt to right a wrong which someone has committed.

The European Union is one of the most outspoken and frequent international critics of Israel. Last week, this column pointed out its frequent unfair and biased reports about Israel. As Israel is a Western country, it is hated by anti-Western elements in the EU who depict the Palestinians as permanent victims of Israeli aggression.

Americans do not seem to be aware of it, but people with an anti-Western past control more than one third of the EU’s top positions. Catherine Ashton began her political career in the early 1980s when she was the treasurer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the main British peacenik organization, which, according to former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, was on the Soviet Union’s payroll. She apparently still subscribes to these discredited and potentially self-destructive policies — evidently still as blind to totalitarian abuse of power as she was three decades ago. She is as unable to see the autocratic nature of Islam today as she was unable to see the autocratic nature of Communism then.

“Imagine,” The Economist wrote in 2010 when Ashton was appointed to head the EU’s foreign department, “a 1980s Europe where CND had triumphed, … surrendering to Kremlin pressure and propping up the evil empire. … Given the Soviet Union’s history of mass murder, subversion, and deceit, it is astonishing that even tangential association with Soviet-backed causes in the past does not arouse … moral indignation.”

No rigorous scrutiny of Ashton’s remarks then, no rigorous scrutiny of Ashton’s remarks last week.

Unfortunately, Ashton is not alone. Ten of the 27 members of the European Commission, the EU’s executive, were on the side of repressive totalitarian rule during the Cold War. They were either Communist Party apparatchiks or anti-Western Marxist Socialists who considered the West as bad as the Soviet Union. Two of the current EU commissioners were members of the Soviet Communist Party (the Estonian Siim Kallas and the Latvian Andris Piebalgs), two were members of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party (the Czech Štefan Füle and the Slovak Maroš Šefcovič), one was a member of the Yugoslav Communist Party (the Slovenian Janez Potočnik), one was a member of the Greek Communist Party (Maria Damanaki), and one was a former member of the Portuguese Maoist Party (EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso). Two others were Marxist Social-Democrats close to the Communist Party (the Hungarian László Andor and the Spaniard Joaquín Almunia), and one, Catherine Ashton, was active in a Soviet sponsored “peace organization” attempting to prevent the West from defending itself against Soviet aggression.

Apart from a vain attempt by Gerard Batten, a British Member of the European Parliament, to block the appointment in 2010 of EU commissioners who “have been associated with oppressive regimes” or “have participated in non-democratic governments or political movements,” no one seemed to mind that a third of the members of the European Commission are former collaborators of a regime that slaughtered 20 million of its own people under Josef Stalin. Today, Israel is paying the price for this lack of rigorous scrutiny on the part of the Europeans.

After Ashton was criticized by Israeli politicians for making the Toulouse-Gaza comparison, she expressed her “sadness at the distortion of my remarks.” Instead of apologizing, she blamed her critics for “distorting” her message. Meanwhile, she manipulated the transcript of her remarks by adding to the online version of her speech a reference to Israeli children in Sderot who have been the victims of literally thousands of Palestinian rocket attacks. If thousand of rockets were to land, year after year, in the suburbs Brussels or Florence, what would you recommend the residents there do? Reward the adversary by abandoning those cities? In any event, the previous online version of the transcript made no reference to Sderot.

Peter Martino

Raoul Wallenberg’s 100th Birthday: Iranian Participation, New Investigation

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

A celebration of the 100th birthday of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of over 20,000 Hungarian Jews in the final days of World War II, also marks the renewal of investigations into the events surrounding his death.

The event, which took place in the portrait hall of Budapest’s National Museum in Hungary, was attended by a slew of international representatives, including the wife of late Congressman Tom Lantons, who was saved by Wallenberg, and Holocaust survivor and Israeli Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled.  A surprise to attendees was the participation of Iranian Ambassador to Hungary Seyed Agha Banihashemi Saeed, who remained throughout the duration of the ceremony, including during a speech made by Peled.  Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an open Holocaust denier and has made frequent calls for the destruction of Israel.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who was also in attendance, has asked experts to open a new probe into what happened to Wallenberg after his capture in 1945.

Wallenberg was personally responsible for the issuing of Swedish diplomatic papers to Hungarian Jews beginning in July 1944, as well as for establishing hiding places for Jews throughout Budapest.

Wallenberg was arrested by Russian officers on January 17, 1945.  He was never heard from again, and his whereabouts or circumstances of death were never established. He was 32 years old at the time of his disappearance.

The new investigation will be led by Hans Magnusson, who began his inquiry into Wallenberg’s whereabouts in the 1990s along with Russian experts.  At the time, the Russians said Wallenberg was probably killed on June 17, 1947 in Soviet custody.  At the time, the Soviets said Wallenberg died of a heart attack in prison.  However, some evidence and eye-witness reports suggest he may have survived beyond that date.

Moreover, two US researchers are now saying a recently discovered Swedish document shows that the KGB intervened to thwart Magnusson’s investigation of Wallenberg’s disappearance.

At the ceremony, Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi admitted that Hungary played a role in the deaths of 600,000 Hungarian Jews, and reaffirmed Hungary’s current support for Israel.

The year of Wallenberg’s 100th birthday will include a Hungarian commemorative stamp, a national competition for high school students on Holocaust history, and an event honoring Hungarian non-Jewish “Righteous Among the Nations” at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

Malkah Fleisher

Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011
Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this past Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.
In his memoirs Reagan wrote: “I’ve believed many things in my life, but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”
Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations – a golden age that endured despite a number of disagreements and policy differences between the administration and the Israeli government.
Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.
Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.
   The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. As Rick Richman notes on Commentary magazine’s Contentions blog, Reagan focused his attention on Sharansky shortly after taking office in 1981. He sent a handwritten letter to [Soviet President Leonid] Brezhnev which appears in The Reagan Diaries, published in 2007, three years after Reagan’s death.

   The letter reads in salient part:

 

     There is one matter however which I feel I must bring to your attention. All information having to do with my govt’s practices & policies past & present is available to me now that I hold this office. I have thoroughly investigated the matter of the man Scharansky [sic] an inmate in one of your prisons. I can assure you he was never involved in any way with any agency of the U.S. govt. I have seen news stories in the Soviet press suggesting that he was engaged in espionage for our country. Let me assure you this is absolutely false.
     Recently his wife called upon me. They were married and spent one day together before she emigrated to Israel assuming that he would follow shortly thereafter. I believe true justice would be done if he were released and allowed to join her.

     If you could find it in your heart to do this the matter would be strictly between us which is why I’m writing this letter by hand.

 

   Reagan got nowhere with Brezhnev, but the president never let up in his efforts to free Sharansky and alleviate the plight of Russia’s Jews.
   “Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir,  “told me that every time they met with [secretary of state George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”
   Sharansky has written of his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan – much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals – had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

   As Sharansky describes it:

 

     Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth – a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president…. Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.”

 

 

Jason Maoz can be reached at jmaoz@jewishpress.com

Jason Maoz

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/media-monitor/sharansky-reagan-right-critics-wrong/2011/02/09/

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