Normally, one can never be repaid for such a mitzvah as this, burying the dead. But not in this case, comments Yosef. Rumbuli “was the only place that hundreds of young Jews could meet. My sister met my friend there, and they married. So you see, the dead people helped us and taught me that I am a Jew.”
Attempted hijacking of a plane, arrest, trial, imprisonment
Yosef became a member of the Jewish underground and editor of the illegal newspaper, “Ha-Iton.” He studied Torah the best he could without formal instruction and stopped working on Shabbat. He applied and was turned down for a visa to immigrate to Israel.
Desperate to live a truly Jewish life in Israel, he and a group of like-minded friends attempted to hijack an empty plane and escape the Soviet Union. Caught and arrested, the sentences were harsh. Yosef received 15 years imprisonment in the Gulag.
Due to an outcry in the West – from American Jews and Israelis – the death penalties given to Mark Dymshits (the pilot) and Eduard Kuznetsov (leader of the group) were changed to prison time and Yosef’s 15 years were reduced to 12.
Unbelievably, Yosef became a fully observant Jew while locked up in the Gulag – fashioning himself a yarmulke out of a handkerchief, scratching the impression of Shabbat candles on the wall, davening and rejoicing all by himself, and singing “David Melech Yisroel.” When he learned that Anatoly Sharansky was imprisoned in the next cell, the two communicated by removing all the water from their respective toilets and talking through the empty bowls.
Released in 1981, he flew immediately to Jerusalem, served in the IDF, earned a master’s degree in Jewish history, and became a rabbi, teaching at Machon Meir Yeshiva. He is the author of the best-selling Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival. He is married, with seven children and many grandchildren.
Looking back, the now famous and esteemed “Refusnik” says, “On the way to prison, I asked myself: ‘Do I regret? No, I am proud that I did it.’ Because I know that if you love something, you have to sacrifice – sometimes money, sometimes comfort, sometimes … your life. What a transformation, from a child afraid to admit that he’s Jewish.”
All photos courtesy of Rabbi Mendelevich