Photo Credit:
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich

Chanukah occupies a special place in my life. First of all, because of the heroes of Israel who risked their lives for the sake of the Torah and succeeded. This was a big example for me. As a member of the Jewish underground I felt myself very close to the Maccabees.

My first encounter with the Jewish people was due to Chanukah.

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And this is how it happened:

I was a student in the working youth high school in Riga. In our class there were quite a few Jews. Pini, who sat next to me in class, said to me: “Next Sunday Jewish youth will assemble for work in the cemetery in Romboly”.

The news sounded strange in my ears. Jewish youth? Was this not a general term belonging to the whole of the Jewish people, whereas we were in the Galut in Riga. We were really, as it says in the Book of Esther “a people dispersed and disparate??” We had never been together, we did not know what “together” meant. And suddenly “Jewish youth”? And what did it mean “to assemble to work together?” Was it not forbidden for Jews to assemble? Nobody had the right to assembly, apart from the authorities themselves. And why in the cemetery? What could there be to do in a cemetery?

Yes, there were many questions, and they all had but one answer. In the heart of the young and excited Jew: “I must get there.” Despite my father’s warnings, who had not long ago been released from prison, I traveled there.

I got off the bus on the outskirts of the city. There were no cemeteries here and no Jews were to be seen. Just a simple gentile village. Broad fields. Houses. I hid behind the bushes near the ditch at the edge of the field, and examined the surroundings.

Suddenly – there they were! A group of people inside a field of nettles. My heart told me that they were here, the Jews. My heart told me: Here there is the beginning of something big in my life. My heart leapt within me. I vaulted over the ditch and ran to join the Jews. I joined them. I did what they did. I didn’t yet understand why they collected the dirt on a slope of the hill then hurling it in boxes into the field into a valley, and there poured it out. Where was the cemetery? I did not ask questions.

Slowly I understood everything. The terrible truth.

This field, and also the adjacent field, all of it was a cemetery or, more correctly, pits in which tens of thousands of Jews of Riga had been buried who had been murdered by the Nazis on one winter’s night. It was on the eve of Chanukah 1942. In these fields the Jews had been shot and covered with clods of earth. Time had passed, the flesh had rotted, Heaven forefend!, and in the ground there remained fissures. A real vale of tears. These fissures we attempted to cover and give the form of a grave, without the express permission of the authorities, half clandestinely.

I began to frequent the place every Sunday. I was there on many Sundays, year after year, I became the work manager. A youth group formed. If at first Jewish of all ages had gathered together, a year later we had a solid group of young men and girls of the same age. As if the dead had chosen us one by one. A young man came to the edge of the surrounding wood and asked: “Is this with the permission of the government/” “What shall I tell you…” “Oh, no, no. I cannot endanger myself. I want to study in the university They will disqualify me if they know that I come here.”

And there were those who did not ask. They came. They worked and returned. From them there arose our nucleus.

One day we organized a silent vigil in memory of the victims.

Among other things, I said: “My friends. We have come here to help the dead. But in fact we were also dead, dry bones without the moistness of a Jew. Just look what a miracle has happened to us! Thanks to these dead we have got to know one another. We have become Jewish youth. We have discovered to ourselves that we belong to an oppressed people, but to a great people with a magnificent history. “Can you hear what the dead are whispering to us? They are saying to us: Learn from our experience, don’t remain in the Galut. Escape from here to Eretz Israel. Lech lecha!”

Thus we rose from the dust. Really the vision of the dry bones!

Thus took place the miracle of the revival of the Jewish people in the Galut. In place of the holocaust which took place on the eve of the Festival of Lights.

On that same day we decided to establish a Jewish underground organization, and the aim – education. To educate as many as possible, that they should remember and know: We are Jews. This is not our place. We have Eretz Israel. I wrote in the program of the organization: “We believe that the day will come and we will be able to leave the Galut.” Thus arose among us the belief in the redemption of Israel

As one of the first activities, we decided to light the Hanuka candles on the graves of the murdered. To light for them a light which they had been unable to see. We built glass boxes. We obtained a lot of paraffin oil to make candles which would light for the longest time possible, and we decided to light them around the clock – a Hanukka light, a Ner Tamid. The activity was also necessary for the organization. In this way we would be able to recruit many youth who would join the movement through their activity.

I arrive with my companion and alight from the bus straight into the freezing cold of the winter. Darkness, fields buried in snow. The dogs barking in the village. Exactly like on that night of the tragedy. My eyes search in the darkness?? Is the candle light burning?

There is something wonderful about a small candle in the darkness. It can be seen from a distance. And when I see the light I feel warmth in my heart, and I stride in the snow and my feet walk on the snow covered path. They were here also before you! If to look for symbols, what could be more symbolic of the whole history of the Jewish people? In the darkness you walk by the light of the candle which they lit before you, and you will also light for those who will come after you.

But sometimes…there is no light. Perhaps someone has failed to come, or else the wind has extinguished the light. And then I go down into the snow to light a candle for those who will come after me. And this, in my opinion, is an even more appropriate symbol for us. To walk not because of the hope, but by virtue of the belief and the need of the hour. These were the first days of Hanukka. Meeting with the Hevre around a table, lighting the candles and conversation about Israel and Eretz Israel. The time has come not to speak, but to get up and go. We got up and went. We fell into a pit without water.

PUBLICIZING A MIRACLE

We had been sitting in prison already half a year after the attempted plane hijacking. The interrogation had ended. We were already sick and tired of waiting for the trial. Let it be already, and we would know what our sentence would be. Death? Life imprisonment? We signed the announcement which we had received, according to which the trial would take place on November 15. A week before the trial they brought to the cell an additional announcement, that the trial had been postponed and would take place of 15 December. Ouf! More waiting!

Finally, this date also arrived. They got us up at 5 a.m. Each prisoner was seated in a separate vehicle. Through a slit in the side of the prison services vehicle I saw that we were traveling in a long convoy. Only in a few houses did they put the lights on when they heard the noise of the convoy, It all made a terrible impression, as if we had been given the death sentence, and now they were taking us secretly to conceal the crime which they were about to commit.

At the entrance to the court there stood dozens of soldiers and police, and rightly so. Were we not terrorists. Such a group had not been in Russia for a long while. But we considered ourselves as being temporary prisoners of war, as soldiers in a great war, thanks to the victims slain in Romboli. From them we had received the order to save the Jewish people.

The courtroom was noisy. 150 people had entered it, all of them by invitation. Select people. What could be more pleasurable than to see how Jewish blood was being shed? More interesting than to sit in a theater.

There are three benches for the accused, to sit on them exactly twelve people. Each of us has been assigned a sergeant, to ensure that we do not speak with one another. The Soviets had kept us isolated from each other during all the months of interrogation because they understood that if we were together we would strengthen one another, and their intention was only to weaken us.

Despite all the precautions, my friend Arie managed to whisper to me during one of the days of the trial “Today is the first candle of Hanukka.” Suddenly, everything became clear to me. The postponement of the trial date had occurred, because Hashem wanted us to be tried on a day on which he had wrought a miracle for his people..”You stood by them in their time of misfortune.”

I knew that Hashem was sending me a blessing from Heaven. “Yosef, you have been numbered among the soldiers of the Maccabees.” I was proud and fortified. When the judge asked me: “What actually caused you to want to escape to Israel?” I answered him as befits a descendant of the Maccabees: “Did not Hashem give the Land of Israel to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I am one of their descendants. Therefore my place is there.”

The judges were stunned by such chutzpa and called me ” a religious fanatic.”

However, this was not the main part of the miracle. The judge called each of the accused one by one, and each of us declared his wish to be in Israel. No one was afraid and none feared the punishment. Eight Jews stood in the courtroom and declared their loyalty to the Jewish people.

For fifty years the Soviet authorities lied to the world and claimed that the Jews in their empire were loyal to the regime and were erasing themselves from the ranks of the Jewish people. It was difficult for the Jews of the world to accept this. Had not the Besht and the Gra, the Baal Hatanya and the ?? the Hafetz Haim and all the rest emerged from these places? And suddenly darkness had descended on Jerusalem in the Galut? How could this be? But slowly the Jews became accustomed to this, and saw it as fact. They wept and regretted it. They said about the Judaism of Silence that it was fading and vanishing. And then we rose up, and from inside the court we announced “Am Israel Chai.” We were not dead. We had come back to life from the dry bones, and we were going to Eretz Israel. This was a true Pirsumei Nisa?? The Jewish world was in uproar. The Jews of Silence had come back to life! And we, in the courtroom, each of us lit the Hanukka light from our marrow and from our blood. I remembered the candles we had lit on Hanukka in Romboly. The light from those candles lit up and aroused. Jews all over the world rose with the cry: “Let my people go!” Thus did Hanukkah become Pesach.

In Israel and in America, in France and England, and everywhere, hundreds of thousands of Jews demonstrated opposite the embassies of the wicked Russians, and they retreated.

On one of the nights of Hanukka after we had received harsh sentences, a special messenger arrived in my cell: “Write an appeal!”

– “I have to get a lawyer, to consult with.”

– “There is no time. Write now.”

I sat down and wrote on a small piece of paper: “They accuse me of betraying the motherland. My motherland – is Israel. And I will not betray it. Although Russia is the land of my birth, but it is my right not to be here. Because you have prevented me from leaving Russia legally, I was forced to try and escape. Therefore, this is not a just sentence.”

He read and said: “Is this how one writes an appeal?” Perhaps, under different circumstances, he would have thrown the paper in my face, but this time, what I didn’t know then, it was the night of the plague of the first born. The international pressure reached its height, and there was an atmosphere of urgency in the air. Everything must end this night. The verdict was already prepared, but if we didn’t write an appeal, how would it be possible to answer it?

The moment that the cruel regime failed in its machinations against the Jews, and when its schemes were uncovered and visible to all, its leaders tried to hide themselves like a wounded animal, and quickly. Brezhnev summoned to him the head of the spy services. Who had been so utterly stupid as to attempt to set a trap for the Jews? Now we have fallen into the trap, and the whole world is shouting that our Jews want to emigrate to Israel.

That same night they punished the perpetrators of the plot to catch the Jews “in the act.” The stupid officers who thought to trick the Jews received a special treatment: they were all reduced in ranks, and fired from their work and exiled to Siberia. The next day the Supreme Court of Justice sat in Moscow and reduced all of our sentences After a few days, it was decided by the regime leadership to begin to give exit visas to the Jews. This was a Hanukka miracle.

We knew nothing about the great events because we were still in solitary confinement.

A year after the trial they took us out to a forced labor camp. They placed each one of us in a separate cell compartment in the prison train. We were labeled “extremely dangerous security prisoner” – what an honor! When I finally sat down on the bench in the compartment, I opened a bag with letters sent to me during the year. But I had not received any of them because of the isolation. I read the first letter and couldn’t believe my eyes.

It read as follows: “I am writing to you from the Russian border. We have received Aliya visas. Hevra, it’s thanks to you. Thank you!”

And a another letter , and another. and finally– a telegram form my sisters: “We have received exit visas.”

It was a wonderful feeling of thanksgiving to Hashem for the loving-kindness He had shown us. Instead of being shot we had been granted to see the miracle of the exodus from Egypt in our time.

Although we were being transported to the land of darkness, our brethren of Israel were leaving with pride.

THE HANUKKA LIGHT IN THE WATCHTOWERS

On the first Hanukka in the forced labor camp we decided to celebrate the festival openly. To this end, I wrote to the camp commander that we demand that we be given the possibility to meet together. At the same time we began to equip ourselves in preparation for the festival. One Lithuanian, with knowledge of carpentry, from among the opponents to the Russian occupation, made for us a small wooden Hanukkiah, which, instead of branches used nails on which to stick the candles, and the candles- handmade from wax which I stole from the plant storeroom. Apparently someone informed on me, and the warders conducted a search in the prisoners’ implements. My turn came. The Hanukkiah was placed in the sack. I reacted as if in anger: ” What do you suspect me of? I don’t have anything?” And while speaking I emptied the whole sack demonstratively, so that the contents were scattered in every direction. I immediately stood between the policeman and the sock in which the Hanukka Menorah was hidden. Whilst I engaged him in conversation, I pushed the Menorah under a wooden shelf. That was a small miracle before the festival. Right before the festival we noticed a lorry entering the plant to take away the produce of the plant which the prisoners had produced, while on the bottom of the lorry some potatoes were scattered. Hashem had also sent us “latkes.” Now it only required a little heroism, because jumping into a lorry was considered as an escape attempt. Shimon risked his life and sprang into the lorry. I stood below and received from him the potatoes. There were more than ten of them, with which Shimon attempted to prepare the latkes in the stove of the hut. At the same time, Zeev hired from one gentile of the camp aristocracy his bed, located at the corner of the hut.

Before the start of the festival, the camp commandant summoned me. He was red in the face with anger that the Jews had assumed that he, the known anti-Semite, would allow us to sit together. “Don’t you dare, and if you do we shall place you all in solitary confinement.”

We felt each other the sons of Matityahu the Maccabi, and we didn’t care at all about the punishment anticipated for the sin of welcoming the festival. Therefore, we sat down, and I respectfully lit the candle with a blessing. We began to eat latkes. We also had a dreidl and we played with it, and gave candies as prizes. The truth was that we were a bit on edge in view of the promised clash with the inspectors, but they didn’t come. We went out to the camp yard and sang songs of the motherland, everything that we knew to sing in Hebrew. The warders that evening didn’t appear at all in the camp. This was like a kind of Pirsumei Nisa since all the gentiles saw us celebrating the festival in violation of the camp regulations and with no harm.

However, a real miracle occurred precisely in the last year of my imprisonment, on the eleventh Hanukka.

HANUKKA ON MOUNT SINAI

After three years of imprisonment in Vladimir Prison I was returned to the previous camp, Number 36. Twice Chai, I said to myself as was my wont. In every number I saw, I searched for meaning.

Meanwhile, thanks to the struggle of World Jewry, my companions from the Leningrad trial were released and immigrated to Eretz Israel, whereas I was still in prison, As Anatoly Sharansky explained to me, when he was in Chestopol prison, there was an agreement for the release of Prisoners of Zion in exchange for ratifying the Disarmament Agreement between the USA and the Soviet Union of that time. As a trust-building step, the first group of Prisoners of Zion were released before the ratification, whereas I was counted with the “prestigious” group of Prisoners of Zion whose release was considered as a gift to the West. As our luck would have it, and in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, the agreement was not ratified by the American Senate, which protested in this way at the invasion. Thus, I remained stuck in jail, whilst the rest of my companions were breathing the air of Eretz Israel. For some reason, the non-Jewish prisoners sought to persuade me in two directions: firstly – that I had not been released because I observed the Mitzvoth, and the Russians hated such people. The obvious conclusion was that it was preferable to be secular. Possibly these prisoners, “concerned for my welfare,” had been sent by the KGB. The second tendency was to convince me that the State of Israel had forgotten me, and apparently they expected that, as a result of this, I would betray the State of Israel.

It was, of course, very funny. I had long ago decided that nobody, nor even any state, owed me anything. All that I did – was because it was my duty to Hashem and to my people, and I didn’t need any prize.

After all, my connection with Hashem was the biggest prize of all.

I prepared myself that perhaps I might never see Eretz Israel, and I planned that, upon my release, I would immediately return to Jewish underground activity. Perhaps I would manage, before the next arrest, to find a kosher Jewess, for example from Bokhara, and this too was not mandatory.

Therefore, I did not preoccupy myself at all with the question of why they had not released me. It was clear that this was the will of Hashem, and that he had left me here to accomplish His mission.

And indeed, the moment they brought me back to the previous labor camp in the Ural mountains, I was informed that there was a young Jew in the camp who wanted to learn Hebrew, and also that he had been accused of attempting to take hostages in order to exchange them for me, Sharansky and Ida Nudel. He was a young man and in my eyes not too serious. His name was Vadim, a name that rang in my ears like “Din,” and so I changed his name to “Dan.”

I brought with me from the prison quite a few holy books that I had come by after my other companions had been released.

At the entrance to labor camp Number 36 they placed me in quarantine for two weeks, and only after that was I sent to work. But the suitcase with the books they didn’t give me, because the duty officer didn’t know what to do with them. Then, a daring thought occurred to me. When the duty officer was changed, I came to his replacement and pretended that they had to give me back the suitcase. Apparently, in the log-book nothing had been written about it, and therefore the officer, quite a primitive but good-hearted man, asked me if the books had already been examined? I answered that I thought they had been. I received the suitcase, and hid it when it turned out several days later that the suitcase had not been checked. The officer came to me furiously, and asked me why I had tricked him. Again I feigned innocence, and said that apparently there was some mistake. With that, for the time being, the matter ended.

I had a Hebrew study book by Shlomo Kodesh which had been smuggled from Israel, and with its help I began to teach Hebrew. Apparently, some “Shtinkers” informed on me, and I was summoned to the secret police office inside the prison. The KGB representative informed me that by my teaching Hebrew I was committing a transgression, because the Hebrew language didn’t really exist. This was a language that served political-Zionist ends only.

Interestingly, at that time Hebrew teachers were also being persecuted throughout the Soviet Union, and I, who knew nothing of this, acted like them. I simply ignored it. If I was afraid to teach Hebrew – what should I live for? Meanwhile, there was a new development. They put Dan into the inner prison of the camp, the BOR.

I looked for way to help him, at least with food. I began to collect bread and pass it to him, because the hunger there was greater. As part of the wider search after food accumulations, the warders decided to conduct a search also in the storeroom. They demanded that I identify my belongings and to show them to the warders. Obviously, I did not bring the warders to the “sacred” suitcase, because in the storeroom there were many suitcases of prisoners, big piles of them, and it wasn’t too difficult to confuse them. In short, they didn’t find anything with me.

As we left the storeroom (apparently due to informing) they suddenly asked me: “Is this your suitcase?” My heart fell within me. They had found the treasure! Immediately, the warders opened the suitcase and understood that they were on the right track. They said they would send the books to Moscow, for translating, and it was clear that the treasure was going to be lost.

I left the storeroom with the feeling that I was completely lost. Again I was required to fight for what was important for me above all, important like life itself. But where would I get the strength from? My strength had failed due to the continuous 137-month struggle.

But I knew that Hashem was giving me another test. Help arrived from an unexpected source. I had become friendly not long ago with a Ukrainian fighter named Zinovy Krasyevsky. He had fought in the forests against the Red Army which had conquered the Western Ukraine, and had been sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment. He had a very special story, but two things stood out in him above all else. First of all, he didn’t know how to despair. In every difficult situation in which he found himself, Zinovy found some positive side. In this we resembled one another, and on this basis we grew close. He certainly admired the State of Israel as an example for the revival of his own nation. He also could give people credit. He told me more than once that he was amazed by the power of my struggle for the Jewish people, and his confidence in my ability to continue the struggle was so solid that it looked to me like a Chillul Hashem in the eyes of the gentiles if I did not begin again the struggle for the holy books. Really, as it is said: “Then they will say among the nations..” I thought also that Moshe Rabenu, Alav Hashalom, always turned to Hashem with the claim that the nations will say, Heaven forbid, that Elokim does not help us.

From a self-scrutiny I concluded that the Chilul Hashem of the confiscation of the holy books had been decreed upon me, because for many years prior to my arrest I had not observed fasts, and now Hashem wanted me to give them back to him in kind.

Thus, a strange thing had happened. By virtue of doing charity and the desire to give bread to my friend, I had lost the holy books. But in actual fact this was a gain, because I found in myself a new power. By overcoming my weakness I had learned to give way and to exercise self-restraint.

And so I set forth on a new campaign.

The only way to fight was by declaring a hunger strike.

It certainly was inappropriate to begin the strike without informing my friends in Israel.

Once more a way was found with the help of Zinovy. He was due to be “released’ and to be sent to a place of exile in eastern Siberia, at a distance of some 500 kilometers from any big city. In any event, one could somehow get to that place and leave it without any special permit, but under supervision of the KGB, the committee for national security. Therefore, I arranged with him that the moment that his wife reached him, he would give her details about the method of transferring the information, and she would bring the news to the Aliya activists in Moscow. The moment that the news was received, our friends would see to it to send it to Israel and the USA, to the UN Human Rights Commission, and, at the same time, they would send me as confirmation a postcard with a national symbol on it and containing some greeting, so that it would be approved by the authorities. And so it was.

I can surmise how complex was this mission placed on the Ukrainian woman from a village in the Carpathian mountains. However, she carried it out in all its details, so that one day I received a postcard with the portrait of the Communist leader, Vladimir Lenin, and on the postcard greetings for the October Revolution! I do not know if the censorship, which was charged with examining prisoners’ mail, wondered as to the meaning of this postcard, but for me the message was clear and joyful: the news about my plan had arrived and I must begin the hunger strike.

Interestingly enough, I had not thought to also plan my own confirmation of receipt of the postcard, so trusting were we in each other that we knew that the moment the decision was made – she would not return empty-handed.

I wrote a letter to the camp commandant, and announced that I was embarking on a hunger strike until my holy books were returned to me. The significance of such a declaration was the readiness of the hunger striker to die gradually, within forty days. The truth is that without drinking water one dies within a week, but that was too short a time to apply the pressure. I decided to undertake a hunger strike go on in which only water was permitted The conditions of such a strike were known and accepted, and it, of course, did not include drinking juices, tea, or any other nourishing drink. Moreover, if anyone of the strikers was caught drinking a drink of that kind, he would immediately be denounced publicly as a cheat and disgraced by everyone.

Thus I entered the first test circuit. Suddenly there were good friends who advised me to be clever, and to exploit the fact that nobody would know whether I ate in secret. Some of these ‘friends’ were agents of the regime, and their intention was to make me fail. But also the advice of the real fiends was unacceptable to me, and this was not only out of fear in case they would catch me “in the act.” I felt that this struggle for the holy books must be pure and devoid of any personal taint. Only if I would be really ready to sacrifice my life, or at least to suffer, did I have the chance that Hashem would help me. It was clear to me that the struggle I was waging was not against any particular officer, but it was a case here of an act which, if successful – would bring the redemption closer.

And so twenty-one days passed, in the course of which I had to report every day for work, otherwise I would have been declared an evader, a declaration which would have given the authorities a pretext to break me for a breach of discipline and not on the main aspect of the struggle. Hashem gave me the strength, and thus I would report daily and complete my quota of work. The truth is that after three days of distress in the stomach – the body got used to the new reality and stopped demanding that I feed it.

After these twenty-one days, I was summoned by the camp “doctor” for an inspection, and I was supposed to emit such odors from the mouth that would testify to the advanced biological death that I was involved in. I received from the doctor the confirmation that indeed I was striking, and as a “bonus” I was sent at once to solitary confinement, although with preferred conditions of a hunger striker: I was allowed to lie down and to have pencil and paper in the cell. The real “bonus” was that I was placed in a cell close to my pupil Dan.

We at once renewed our studies. The method was known – using the main waste pipe which connected the toilet bowls in the cells, as a kind of open “phone line.” They were not exactly toilet bowls, but holes in the floor for doing one’s business, which were covered over. There only remained to knock on the wall to announce the start of the lesson, to go to the hole to remove the cover and begin. This kind of contact between prisoners was, of course, absolutely forbidden, and the warders were equipped with soft slippers so as to muffle the sound of their steps, and to make it easier for them to hunt us and catch us “in the act.”

However our willpower was, of course, stronger than the their sadistic inclination. We watched from behind the door every movement of theirs. When they got tired and returned to the command room to drink tea and chat, the time for learning had arrived.

From a previous experience of hunger strikes I knew that it was very important for me to keep my morale and not pity myself at all. There were those who within a few days would lie down and feel they were going to die, and thereby undoubtedly play into the hands of the enemy. I acted quite the opposite. I followed a daily schedule which began, of course, with the morning prayer of several hours, then gymnastics, reading and writing. The warders were amazed by my durability. One of them said to me: “Young man, you are surely cheating. I don’t know how, but it is clear to me that you eat.”

– “But you are the one who is inspecting me, and you know that no one can come near me without a search.”

– “You are right. But explain to me how is it that you almost don’t lie on the bed? I have seen many hunger strikers and they were all flat on their beds already after the first two days of their strike.” The truth is that it was a miracle. Apart from my decision to endure at all costs, I received the strength from the very fact that in my struggle there was no personal connection, on the contrary, on the personal side I didn’t want to hunger strike at all. I did it for Hashem, and He helped me. Two weeks after they placed me in the solitary confinement, my friend Dan said to me: ‘Yosef, I know that you observe the Mitzvot, and I want to learn from you not only the Hebrew language but also everything to do with the Mitzvoth.”

This was great news. I immediately made a decision that I would write for him all that I remembered from the Chumash, and I sat down to write. It really was a gift from G-d, to sit in the cell, in a strike for the sake of holy books, and to write words of Torah for a captive Jew, to think about the Torah and to live the Torah. As I wrote to my sisters in Eretz Israel “I feel like Moshe Rabenu on Mount Sinai.”

The primitive local censorship certainly was not capable of getting to the bottom of my thinking, nor was it capable of solving the clue and understand that my hunger strike was already forty days old. But it was also doubtful whether my friends in Israel understood that this was not simply a numerical clue, but that I really was on a very high level of spiritual exaltation.

Hashem showed me an additional way to transmit the Torah to Dan. These were days of winter in the snow-bound Ural mountains. According to the regulations I was allowed to go out each day for a half-hour stroll in the inner prison yard. The yard was very narrow. Barely wide enough for one person, and still more congested due to the large amount of snow that had fallen on it. It was, therefore, natural for me to ask the guard in the watchtower to give me implements to clear the little yard, and I collected the snow exactly below the watchtower. And so I had clear room to skip, which I was cleverly able to do in this narrow space. The guard looked down from above and laughed at my gymnastics. The poor fellow did not understand that each time I came near to the pile of snow under his watchtower and stretched my hands in gymnastics, I was making with the hand a recess in the snow, and in the next round placed inside that same hole a section from the Torah which I had remembered to copy during the day.

I also found a red string which was in the sack which, ten years previously, my father, may he rest in peace, had given me, and with this string I would indicate to Dan the location of the treasure.

Then would come his turn to go out for a “stroll,” and to take out from the snow the secret “message.”

To the Torah words I also added a Hebrew lesson. The lesson comprised a short story, a small dictionary, a grammatical analysis and homework. In this way I prepared a whole textbook (when Dan was released from the prison he continued teaching with its help Jews in the nearby city, and at the start of the 1990’s he sent the little book to me in Israel. Unfortunately, the book got lost. By mistake someone had thrown it away).

Then the great day arrived. On the 56th day of the hunger strike the camp commandant came to my cell and told me angrily: “Are you still continuing to harm our state?” It was amazing. I, a miserable prisoner, barely alive, locked away in the bottom of the pit, and this officer, symbolizing a military power, tells me that I am harming his state!

My joy knew no bounds. I understand that the wicked ones had received a blow from our Jewish brothers. And this was indeed the case. The news of my hunger strike had reached the table of an American Jew, named Senator Kempelman, the head of the Human Rights Commission in Congress. When the subject of violation of human rights came up on the discussion table with the Russians, he stood up and said: ” How dare you talk about human rights, where in your solitary confinement there rots a young Jew who is hunger striking because you confiscated his holy books!!” The Russian representative was at a loss how to respond. The prison authorities had certainly not updated the diplomats. Immediately a question was sent from Washington to Moscow. “Is Mendelevich really hunger striking for that? Idiots, stop at once! It is ruining all our propaganda!”

And so the camp commandant came running to me immediately after receiving a panic-stricken phone call from Moscow, seeking to find a way to end the affair.

I didn’t know the details of what was going on, but it was clear to me that there was here Siata Dishmaya, Divine Intercession, and therefore I spoke with the officer from as sense of power, and I set conditions for ending the strike. At my demand they brought Dan to my cell, and in the presence of a KGB representative I handed him the Hebrew textbook. I received authorization that Dan could use the book undisturbed. It seems to me that it was the first case in history that the Soviet authorities gave permission to learn Hebrew in prison from a book printed in Israel. I also received back my books.

It was a tremendous victory. Never had a prisoner defeated the prison camp management. When I emerged from the solitary, all the prisoners cheered- Well done! They tried to understood how such a thing had happened, so that they perhaps would succeed by the same method. But in vain! This secret of a Chosen People, the secret of the unity of Israel and the guarantee of Israel for one another, cannot be transferred to anyone else.

These were the days of Hanukka 1981. Whilst I was still in the solitary I tried to observe the Mitzvah of lighting the Hanukka light, to make candles from the strings of the sack which my father had given me. I watched with heavy heart how the fire consumed the strings within seconds, and I was unable to observe the Mitzvah.

The light did arise, but not from the candles. From a small cell there came out again the light of eternal Israel and was a Pirsumei Nisa and a light unto the nations. Its beginning was with the candles I had lit in the valley of death at Romboly, and its height – in the courtroom in Leningrad.

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In his soon to be released new book, "From the Ends of the Heavens," Rabbi Mendelevich movingly and inspiringly tells how he developed and maintained his Judaism despite the terribly harsh conditions in the KGB prison camps.(Rabbi Mendelevich's articles in The Jewish Press are translated by David Herman)

4 COMMENTS

  1. Metaphorically they are whispering…..

    Kohelet 9:5Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB)
    5 For the living have da’as that they shall die; but the mesim do not have da’as of anything, neither have they any more a sachar, for the memory of them is forgotten.

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