A Former Prisoner of Zion Speaks

A Rabbi's story of revitalized faith after a decade in the Soviet Gulag.

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.

FS: What did the KBG do to you subsequent to your arrest?

RYM: They tried to break our resolve by threatening us with the death penalty and by doing so, they thought we would condemn Zionism and urge other Jews in the Soviet Union not to be involved with Jewish causes and Israel. We were interrogated for six months until our trial and the goal of the KGB was to have us perform like puppets in the courtroom. We saw a stunning victory at our trial which happened on Chanukah. Rather than being manipulated by the Soviets and used as a propaganda tool, we did not rail against Zionism but rather we declared in no uncertain terms that we are loyal to the Jewish nation, to Am Yisroel and we demanded free Jewish emigration to Israel. As we began chanting "Let My People Go" in the courtroom it is as if we experienced our own Chanukah miracle.

FS: Do you think your actions served as an impetus for the Soviets to relax their emigration policy as it pertained to Jews?

RYM: They were very worried about the tidal wave of international pressure and knew that they could not withstand an economic boycott. Eventually they started to allow more Jews to emigrate to Israel and within a year of our trial 17,000 Jews left. I think the Soviets never thought that all these Jews would actually leave if given the opportunity. The year after that 35,000 Jews emigrated and I think the Soviets were totally shocked.

FS: You were sentenced to 15 years in Soviet prisons. What was life like for you and the others?

RYM: I was in eight different labor camps and prisons in Siberia and Moldavia in the European mountain region. It was always a struggle as a Soviet prison is tantamount to a work camp. Before my arrest, I was becoming a religious Jew and I did not give up on my commitment to being a believing Jew while in prison. Even though it was illegal to do so, I exhorted other Jewish inmates to observe Shabbos, to daven, and to learn Torah. I knew that my time in prison could be well spent having an impact on my people. As a result, I was punished severely by the authorities and for three years of my sentence I was imprisoned in brutal conditions. I was transferred from the labor camp to a closed prison called Vladimir and I was essentially closed up in my cell. I eventually concluded my term back in the labor camp and was with other nationalist groups such as Ukrainians and Lithuanians who were fighting for freedom.

When Natan Sharansky was arrested in 1977, I spent time with him in the Gulag and came up with original ways of communicating which I speak about in my book. Even though we had very little news from the outside world, in 1978, Sharansky told me that things were being done for us by American Jews. We were only allowed to read the government-run newspapers such as Pravda and Izvestia and Russian newsletters. It was not easy being a "Prisoner of Zion" in Soviet camps and news of those helping us in America and other places bolstered our spirits in immeasurable ways. I speak about the interrogations and hardship we endured in my book as well.

FS: Did you know when you would be released?

RYM: Not at all. I was taken from the labor camp to Moscow and no one told me why. I had thought it was yet another attempt to break my spirit and resolve. After two weeks, they told me that my Soviet citizenship had been permanently revoked and that I never deserved to be a citizen of the USSR. They told me that I was being deported and then I boarded a plane for Israel. I can't even begin to tell you how the tears of joy streamed from my eyes.

FS: Since your release from prison in 1981, what kinds of activities have you pursued in Israel?

RYM: I spent much time learning Torah as my commitment to an Orthodox life grew exponentially and I eventually received my rabbinical ordination. I was involved in the Russian department of Arutz Sheva and went on to teach Russian students at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In my early days in Israel, I founded an organization called the Soviet Jewry Information Center. In 1988, Sharansky founded the Zionist Forum, which worked towards a successful absorption of those immigrating to Israel from the Soviet Union and its activity was based on the database that I formed. I have constantly been involved in the Israeli political scene and have spoken out for the freedom of Jonathan Pollard on numerous occasions and have been vocal about my opinions on the role of Russia in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Educating young Jews about the beauty and majesty of Judaism is at the core of my being. Just being a Jew living in an independent Jewish state affords us so many opportunities to reach the highest heights, and I share my knowledge and narrative with others in the hopes that they too will feel the bond between themselves and their G-d and fulfill their destiny as Torah Jews.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.