A Former Prisoner of Zion Speaks

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In his new English language memoir titled “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival” (Gefen Publishing), internationally renowned former Soviet refusenik, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch, takes his readers on a compelling trajectory of his life in this deeply poignant narrative. As a young boy growing up as an atheist in the Stalinist era, Rabbi Mendelevitch soon embarked on a journey to his Jewish heritage and emerged as a dynamic leader in the Jewish underground movement in the former Soviet Union. After 11 grueling years in the Gulag of Siberian forced labor camps, his dream was realized when he immigrated to Israel in 1981. Today, he is a noted Orthodox educator in the religious Zionist movement. Rabbi Mendelevitch was recently on a book tour in the United States and took time out of his schedule for this interview.

FS: You had already published your memoir in Hebrew many years ago. Why did you decide to come out with an English version at this particular juncture in time?

RYM: A group of American Jews who were formerly involved in the struggle to free Sovet 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 me from Chicago and asked me why I never published my book in English. She and others like her saw my life as way 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 who are searching for their own identity. The Jewish Book Council is representing this English version and it is our hope that the lessons learned here will assist others in their own personal growth as Jews.

FS: You were born in 1947. Can you describe your life as a young child in Stalinist Russia?

RYM: 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 taught me about 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.

We had no idea that there were underground minyanim, however 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 Nikita 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.

FS: When did you gain an interest in activism for Israel and freedom for your people?

RYM: In 1964, while still a teenager I gravitated towards activism. 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. At the time, I felt my studies would prevent me from going to Israel. 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.

FS: Where was your life heading after you finished your studies?

RYM: 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; what articles to publicize and it was sent all over the Soviet Union. Because it was a specific Jewish underground journal, we published materials smuggled into Russia. At this pivotal moment, there grew a self-consicousness in our community. We knew what our task was, we knew what we had to do to maintain our identities as Jews and for the battle for our freedom. Before my arrest, we had only published two issues.

FS: Can you tell us what your motivation was for hijacking of a plane to the West in 1970?

RYM: In the years following the 1967 war in Israel, the hostilities that the Soviets felt for Israel only increased. The IDF 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 Western world to spotlight our plight, even though we knew how risky it was. While undertaking this action, we dreamed about being in the Golani brigade in Israel. We also wanted to counter the incessant Soviet propaganda that told the world that there was no Jewish issue in Russia and that Jews were very happy to be proud Soviet citizens. We wanted the world to know that there was a growing number of Jews who wanted to connect to their Jewish heritage; to study the Hebrew language and to dedicate themselves to studying Torah.

FS: Who was involved in this operation and what were the events leading up to it?

RYM: In June of 1970, Mark Dymshits who was a former military pilot and a major in the Russian air force, along with Eduard Kuznetsov who was 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 that our goal would be to show the world that this movement was not just composed of a group of young Jewish men but of all Jews, so we were going to try and 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 had intended on holding a press conference asking world Jewry to help us in our quest for freedom. There were twelve of us aboard. With us was Sylva Zalmanson, who was Kuznetzov’s wife and two non-Jews, Yuri Federov and Aleksey Murzhenko. We had planned to pick up four more people in the forests. We were then arrested and charged with high treason. It was clear that the KGB knew of our plan as they arrested us as we got close to the airplane. After our arrest the Soviets initiated a crackdown on the Jewish and dissident movement and any centers for studying Hebrew and Torah were closed.

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  • RonaldCarnine

    One man's story of struggle and eventually freedom is a story not just for Jews but for all who need to be reminded of freedom from tyranny. Rabbi, I hope you enjoy your last years in a land dedicated to freedom and surrounded by those who would destroy that freedom. Israel is a land that I love but have never been able to visit. May God bless you and I look forward to reading your story when I am able to find it in our local book stores.