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Unbroken Spirit

July 24, 2012 | by Yael Ehrenpreis Meyer

Yosef Mendelevich’s heroic story of faith, courage and survival.

On June 15, 1970, a group of 16 refuseniks entered Smolnoye (later Rzhevka) Airport near Leningrad. Each one was holding a ticket for a local flight to Priozersk – ostensibly to attend a wedding. In reality, they planned to hijack the plane and fly it to Sweden. But as they entered the airfield for boarding, they were arrested and taken into custody by the Soviet secret police. One of those 16 refuseniks was a 22-year-old Latvian-born Jew named Yosef Mendelevich.

Yosef Mendelevich meeting Prime Minister Menachem BeginToday, he is Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, father and grandfather of a blessedly large family, Torah scholar, and director of the Russian-speaking programs of Jerusalem’s Machon Meir yeshivah. For four decades his face and name represented a cause uniting chassidim, Litvaks, and Mizrachim, organizations from Agudah to the World Jewish Congress, individuals from Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to the Belzer Rebbe’s granddaughter. Now, with his just-released book, Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival (Gefen Publishing House), and a perspective that comes with new years of quiet, he can tell the story behind the story.

Cloak and Dagger in Riga

Yosef Mendelevich was born in 1947, in Riga, the capital of Latvia, a Baltic nation that became part of the Soviet Union after World War II. Both of Yosef’s parents came from Dvinsk, where his maternal grandfather, Reb Yosef, had been the shamash (assistant) of the Rogatchover Gaon.

Yosef’s father rechanneled his principles to become a Communist idealist, a true believer in justice and equality who hoped that Communism would be the answer to the injustices of modern life. Very soon he became disillusioned by the vast discrepancy between his ideals and the actual Communism he saw applied in the Soviet Union.

“My parents continued to read, sing, and speak to one another in Yiddish, maintaining the atmosphere of a Jewish home,” Yosef explains. “They would always mention when it was Chanukah or Pesach. Later on, when as a teenager I had committed myself to a Jewish life, my father began not only to talk about but also ‘do’ the holidays – to hold a Pesach Seder, light Chanukah candles, prepare mishloach manos on Purim.”

When Yosef was ten years old, his father was arrested on trumped-up charges, essentially for the “crime” of being a Jew. For the first time in his life, young Yosef turned his heart toward the Creator he had been taught did not exist. For the next few years, until his father’s release, Yosef remained virtually an orphan (his mother died during his father’s incarceration), searching deeply for the legacy of his grandparents. At the age of 16, he went to work at a factory to help support his father, who had returned home from prison in a weakened state. Every evening he attended a high school for working youth.

“Three-quarters of the student body and faculty was Jewish. This was the first time I had met so many Jews together. So it was these adverse circumstances that gave me the merit to make my first Jewish friends.”

Within this new social milieu, Yosef began to both learn about and live his heritage, joining his new group of friends in attending shul and celebrating Jewish holidays. He also participated in his first-ever “Jewish group activity,” the weekly clean-up of Rumbuli, the cemetery just outside of Riga containing the graves of 25,000 Jews who had been massacred by the Nazis, an act that both strengthened the group’s sense of fraternity and aroused their nationalist feelings.

I became the first person to teach ‘Jewish studies’ in Riga. I knew little – but they knew even less than I did.

Yosef was also very inspired by the arrival of his cousin, Menachem “Mendel” Gordin, a secret aliyah activist, who came to live in their home. While his father had taught him the basics of Hebrew reading at age nine, Yosef was able to master the language when Mendel provided him with a self-teaching Hebrew primer. “I immediately put my new Hebrew knowledge into practice by reading my grandfather’s copy of Joshua – all that I had inherited from my zeideh was his Kiddush cup and this one book – and soon I had become the first person to teach ‘Jewish studies’ in Riga. I knew little – but they knew even less than I did.

A crowd of 100,000 came to celebrate Yosef's release (New York, 1981)“It was 1967 when I decided to teach Hebrew and Chumash with Rashi to a group of friends. It was completely illegal, but instead of hiding what we were doing, I decided to publicize it by holding the class in a community venue: the shul in Riga. When we first entered the shul, its elderly worshippers were terrified – they had never seen young people in shul before. But we were not afraid. We felt strongly that holy texts must be learned in a holy setting. In fact, the police never interfered throughout the period the class was held.”

That same year, Yosef initiated the city’s first “underground” organization, hoping to inspire young Jews to fight assimilation and emigrate to Israel. Three years later, he twice applied for – and was denied – an exit visa to Israel. “The visa authority told me: ‘You will never see Israel. You will build Communism for us and die here in Mother Russia.’” The young man dropped out of university, hoping to avoid a situation where his engineering degree would be used by the government as another excuse to refuse his request to emigrate. Instead, he devoted himself completely to his underground movement. Yosef had become a refusenik.

Yosef’s initial group had just three other members: his best friend Avraham, and Yosef’s sister and her best friend. They made every effort to keep their initiative hidden. “Early on, Avraham and I, flush with romantic notions of underground activity, walked separately to one meeting on opposite sides of the street, the better to ‘confuse the enemy.’”

At age 22, Yosef became editor of the underground newspaper Ha-Iton, writing about issues significant to the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael. “We knew it was dangerous – but when you are doing something for your nation, you do what needs to be done. So I never feared arrest, imprisonment, or even death.”

When you are doing something for your nation, you do what needs to be done. So I never feared arrest, imprisonment, or even death.

Yosef’s fledgling group had made contact with the wider Soviet Jewish underground network, and in 1970, he was invited to Leningrad for the first meeting of the publications council. He describes his newspaper-publishing adventures in his book:

Upon my return, we printed our first issue of Ha-Iton on a typewriter, using thin paper to make eleven copies at a time. We had purchased this paper in small quantities at different stores and at different times so as not to draw undue attention.

But now we also had to obtain reproduction equipment. A photo developer was soon built by Misha, a physicist who had dropped out of school in order to increase his chances of emigrating. We then needed to transport it to the place where we would be developing photos for the issue …

We had almost arrived at our destination when a police cruiser appeared around the corner and headed straight for us. An officer jumped out and ran toward us. We stood still, not attempting to escape. The film with the complete issue of the magazine lay on the bottom of the crate. The officer rudely demanded to know who we were, and what we were dragging. Misha replied, managing a calm and even voice, as he explained that we were carrying a developing machine. The policeman thrust his hand into the crate, and I feared he would momentarily find the incriminating film. But Misha grabbed his arm. “I told you, this is a developing machine. If you break it, you pay.” The officer suspended his search, but demanded our ID papers. If we refused to produce them, we would be taken down to the police station. Seeing no alternative, I presented my papers, and my name was taken down…

Operation Wedding

Through the underground “grapevine,” Yosef heard that in Leningrad there was a Jewish pilot who was hatching a plan to escape the Soviet Union. Although Yosef knew the plan was risky, he also knew there was no life in Russia for a Jew.

The plan for “Operation Wedding,” officially termed in later years as the “Dymshits–Kuznetsov aircraft hijacking affair,” was seemingly simple: Twelve people would buy all the seats for a local Leningrad-to-Priozersk flight, supposedly to attend a wedding at their destination. Once the plane was in the air, the group would overpower the pilot, land, and abandon him below. Then the group’s pilot would fly the plane to Sweden. Mark Dymshits was the pilot. Eduard Kuznetsov, a respected dissident who had already spent seven years in a Soviet prison, was the plan’s primary organizer.

With one dramatic act, we would show everyone that Jews do want to leave the USSR.

Many underground activists opposed the plot. They preferred using educational and inspirational activities to save Soviet Jews from assimilation. But the “wedding guests” persevered. “We viewed these individual programs for small groups of Jews as just a drop in the bucket in the tide of national assimilation,” Yosef explains. “Of course there were less drastic ways we could have attempted our escape. But we intentionally wanted to create a giant spectacle. Soviet propaganda had effectively persuaded the Western world that Jews were satisfied with their lives in Communist Russia. With one dramatic act, we would show everyone – Soviet Jews, world Jewry, and world public opinion – that Jews do want to leave the USSR.”

The participants were already on the tarmac when KGB agents brutally arrested them. “The government let us go until the very end so they could put us on trial as traitors to the state and threaten us with death. I think their expectation was that in the face of death, we would express regret and debase the beliefs that had motivated our actions – and so become the ones to quash the Jewish revival we ourselves had initiated. But in fact, the opposite occurred. We stood proud as the charges of ‘high treason’ were read, and we responded by expressing our allegiance to the Jewish People. They had captured us – but we were the victors.”

------The leaders of the plan, Dymshits and Kuznetsov, were condemned to death; the others received lengthy prison sentences. And then a Chanukah miracle occurred. The truth behind their hidden trial was leaked to the foreign media at a press conference engineered by Andre Sakharov, the Nobel Prize–winning nuclear physicist and human-rights activist, whose world status gave him de facto independence from Soviet authority. Jews and non-Jews around the world rallied and protested, including Rabbi Moshe Sherer and other Jewish leaders; politicians, notably US Senator Henry Jackson; and American Jewry as a whole. On the eighth day of Chanukah, the two death sentences were commuted to imprisonment, and the jail sentences reduced – Yosef’s to “just” 12 years.

Torah in the Gulag

Even now, over 30 years since he left captivity behind, Rabbi Mendelevich still smiles as he recalls his induction into Soviet prison life. This seems counterintuitive – for what is there to smile about in the prospect of years of frigid cold, starvation-level food portions, and the brutal oppression of sadistic guards? But the smile is genuine. “I felt that I had won. We had demonstrated to the government and to the world that Am Yisrael Chai – we could not be vanquished.”

His primary concern was not for the physical persecution he would undergo but for his spiritual welfare. “I was about to begin 12 years among non-Jews,” he explained, “and so I knew that I had to guard myself as a Jew. I had to defeat them by becoming an even stronger Jew than I was on that day.”

One year after his incarceration, Yosef was dispatched to a labor camp in the Soviet Gulag. On the very first day he met a young Jew who told him, “I have been waiting for you to come and teach me about Judaism.” When Yosef told his new student – who today is Rabbi Shimon Grillius of Jerusalem – that he must keep Shabbos, eat kosher, wear a yarmulke, and learn Torah, Shimon was certain it would be impossible. But, says Yosef, “Hashem arranged matters so that we were able to not work on Shabbos, and bribe guards to bring us a siddur and Tanach.”

Because there were so many Jews in the camp, Yosef and Shimon made a commitment to celebrate Jewish holidays together with their fellowFeeling the euphoria of freedom prisoners. But each Shabbos and holiday posed new obstacles to fulfilling that commitment. “Once, Shimon spotted potatoes inside some trucks that had just arrived at the factory, and was able to grab a few. We cut them up into small pieces and ate them raw as ‘latkes’ – it was Chanukah, and what is Chanukah without latkes? But every holiday brought its own tension: How to prepare? How to meet? Who to invite? How to hide?”

Daily life in the labor camp presented its own challenges, as well. “Picture miles and miles of cleared forest in the middle of nowhere, prisoner barracks on one side, factories on the other, and watchtowers at each corner. It is always cold and there is never enough food – unless your visitors gave you money to use on the black market. You get up, go straight to work, come home, sleep, wake up, and go to work again.

As determined as Yosef was to keep the mitzvot, his captors were equally determined to break him down.

“Evenings, there was a minimum of downtime. Some people used that time to sit, talk, and drink tea; others used it to learn new languages. Some used that time to discuss politics – the camp was so full of nationalists who had lost their battles of independence against Soviet power that we actually had our own mini-parliament. And then there were eight Jews who decided that we would use our time to learn Hebrew and Jewish history, to keep Shabbos together, and to work together on all issues – starting with how to obtain more food. Once again, I was part of a Jewish underground under Soviet rule.”

But as determined as Yosef was to keep the mitzvot, his captors were equally determined to break him down. One day, he was called in to the office and informed: “Mendelevich, your father has arrived for a visit. However, you will not be granted this privilege if you continue to violate camp regulations. We’ve warned you repeatedly that it is forbidden to wear a yarmulke. Take it off at once.”

“I will not,” he replied.

“Then your visit is canceled. Return to work.”

Yosef’s father, who despite his gravely ill state had spent several days traveling to see his son, was turned away at the door. Every year for five years, this scenario repeated itself – until the opportunity was finally lost. He never saw his father again.

Yosef never regretted his decision. Although his father had initially begged Yosef to “have mercy,” he ultimately supported his son’s resolve; Shimon Grillius, who was released during this period, had gone immediately to Yosef’s father to explain the situation. Nevertheless, Yosef yearned for the opportunity to ask his father for forgiveness. But it would not be until after he reached Israel – where his father, who passed away in 1978, was buried thanks to American and Israeli pressure – that Yosef could finally visit his father’s grave on the Mount of Olives and ask for his forgiveness.

Eventually, Yosef was put on trial again – this time for observing Jewish commandments while in a gulag – and sentenced to three years in the maximum security Vladimir Prison. But Yosef found the positive even in the horror of being remanded to a tiny jail cell. “The irony of this punishment for keeping Shabbos was that it gave me the opportunity to do many more mitzvot: Since there was no work there, I was able to keep Shabbos easily; I secretly smuggled in petilos tallis, making myself my first tzitzis; and I smuggled in my Tanach by gluing covers of Russian books on the front and back cover, so I was able to learn.”

Yosef and Natan Sharansky engaged in discussions via the sewer pipes between their cells

It was also in Vladimir Prison that Yosef first “met” Natan Sharansky; the two refuseniks engaged in discussions via the sewer pipes between their cells. Sharansky, who would later declare that he launched his own struggle against the authorities in response to the arrest of the “Operation Wedding” guests, received private tutoring in Hebrew from his fellow prisoner. He also saw firsthand Yosef’s ingenuity in keeping mitzvot even in jail.

Yosef at his child's wedding, with Chief Rabbi Mordechai EliyahuOnce, Yosef explains, Sharansky informed him that he was worried about Yosef, since his new friend was always asking the prison nurse for medication. “I laughed and told him, ‘I ask for the alcoholic heart medicine so I can use it for Kiddush. You always need to think ahead.’”

The following year Yosef was returned to the labor camp. His old friends had been released, but Yosef once again found Jewish prisoners and began to teach them Torah. The KGB saw the influence he was having and confiscated his siddur and Chumash. Yosef decided to protest with a hunger strike, “to compensate for all the fasts on the Jewish calendar I had not observed until then.” His fellow prisoner, a non-Jewish Ukrainian, asked his wife to reveal Yosef’s protest to the world. He was placed in solitary confinement, where he still managed to give daily Hebrew lessons to the prisoner in the adjacent cell.

For 56 days he drank only water.

Meanwhile, Jews throughout Israel and the US rallied on his behalf, and even the American government lodged a complaint. Finally, the camp major appeared. “We do not want to see your strike drag on any longer,” he said. “People in the West are making too much of a fuss about you.”

Yosef had won. He was given back his textbooks, seforim, and his map of Israel, and released from solitary confinement. His non-Jewish friends greeted him in amazement. “You’re alive – and you’ve achieved your goal. How is this possible?”

“I am a part of the Jewish Nation,” Yosef told them. “Jews always help one another – and so the Jewish People helped me.”

Yosef had won a spiritual victory, but physically he felt he had no more strength. After 11 years in prison, he prayed that he would merit to finally fulfill his dream: to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael.

The Doors Open

The answer to his prayers was not long in coming.

As I finish my prayers on the morning of February 18 [1981] … the door opens and I’m ordered out with my belongings… Expressionless men in civilian clothes are sitting motionless. One of them gets to his feet: “In the name of Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, I hereby declare that you have been deprived of your Soviet citizenship due to behavior unworthy of a Soviet citizen, and that you will therefore be deported immediately.”

“Thank God!”

“What are you so happy about? Solzhenitsyn wept when we expelled him.”

“Solzhenitsyn you banished from his homeland. Me you’re banishing to my homeland.”

“Solzhenitsyn you banished from his homeland. Me you’re banishing to my homeland.”

After eleven years of incarceration, the Iron Curtain parted and Yosef Mendelevich was finally released. “I was given a shower and a new suit – just like Yosef upon his release from prison. It was a true v’nahafoch hu (turnabout), and when we touched down in Ben-Gurion Airport, it was Purim Katan.”

Yosef Mendelevich todayEn route to Israel, Mendelevich was taken to the Israeli embassy in Vienna, where he was asked if there was anything he needed. When he asked for a pair of tefillin, Israel Singer, executive director of the World Jewish Congress (whose president, Edgar Bronfman, had been instrumental in the release), stepped forward and said, “Just before I left, I told the Lubavitcher Rebbe that I was going to welcome Yosef Mendelevich and asked what I should bring him. ‘Bring him tefillin,’ the Rebbe told me.” And so in the Israeli embassy in Austria, 34-year-old Yosef put on tefillin for the very first time.

Today Yosef lives in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Moshe, where he teaches Torah to the Russian-speaking students of Machon Meir, after many years spearheading pivotal work on behalf of Russian refuseniks. “I was already 34 when I came to Israel,” Mendelevich says, still in wonderment. “I had no money, no home. Who would believe that one day I would have a life filled with Torah, family, and community? Truly, we are blessed to finally live as Jews in Eretz Yisrael.”

This article originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine, and is reprinted with their permission.

Click here to purchase a copy of Unbroken Spirit

Photos Yinon Fuchs, Gefen Publishing

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