From an illegal Jewish movement to a Seder in the Gulag

Joining an illegal Jewish movement in Russia and the attempted hijacking of a plane in an attempt to reach Israel resulted in the writer spending the Passover Seder in the Gulag. Read about the Seder and watch the video of his story.

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich

OpEds Seder plate
Seder plate

…I received several pieces of Matzo which would be my food during the whole of the Passover festival.

I see me crawling under the beds in my cell holding a lit match in my hand- doing the traditional Search for Chametz – Bedikat Chametz

Other prisoners ask: “What are you looking for under the beds?” and I answer- “I am looking for bread.” They laugh. “We already ate all the bread in the morning and none remains, and we are still hungry.”

I am sitting near the table. Lifting a piece of Matza and saying “Holochmo Aniyo..” “This is th bread of affliction..” (it is a very small room in which 5 other prisoners are sitting on bunk beds.)

The prisoners ask, “what are you saying there?” And I translate. They laugh – “is this the bread of affliction? If only we had such bread.”

The Pesach Seder Plate in Prison

… It was while I was in the Chistopol Prison. This was a very harsh prison. I was sent there for having kept the Shabbat in the hard labor camp. This was considered to be an offence. It was the tenth year of my incarceration. I was for some time in the same cell with another Prisoner of Zion, Hillel Butman

A month before the Passover festival I suggested that we hold a Pesach Seder.

He only laughed: “A Pesach Seder in the prison? It’s impossible.” I knew that he was an obstinate person and that if he said no- there was nothing one could do about it.

Therefore, I decided to make all the preparations alone.

In the Jewish underground in Russia one of the activities of Jewish education was to teach young people about the Pesach Seder.

I was lucky. Among my personal belongings I kept a postcard from Israel on which there was a photograph of a Pesach Seder Plate from the Israel Museum- a Pesach Seder Plate from Germany, from the 18th century.

Therefore, from this postcard I learned what I would need for the Seder Plate. And there was a further small miracle: in the margins of the postcard there was all the order of the Pesach Seder: Kadesh Urechatz.. I began at once to write my own Pesach Haggada according to the order written in the postcard.

I would need four cups of wine. How to obtain wine in the closely guarded security prison? – Very simple.

My father, Moshe Ben Aaron of Blessed Memory, had sent me 10 years previously a kilo of raisins. This was during the interrogation period and it was permitted to receive raisins. After the trial it was no longer permitted to receive anything like this.

I had saved the raisins during these years, I only used them for Kiddush. Although one needed the fruit of the vine –wine, but out of ignorance I decided that raisins were also fruit of the vine. Every Shabbat we would gather in another hut and I would make Kiddush over two raisins. By the tenth year there only remained to me a few handfuls of the raisins, but this was enough to make wine. And there was more. Every day a prisoner would receive a spoonful of sugar. People at once ate the sugar. But I decided to collect it. Every day I added another spoonful and another. After a month I had enough sugar.

I poured the sugar, raisins and hot water into the water-bottle and hid it underneath the bed. Although I was afraid that there might be a sudden search and they would discover my wine, but I had no choice.

Writer's note: How did I get into this situation? The distance from joining an illegal Jewish movement for aliyah in the USSR to the Gulag was a short one. The story is told below in the documentary of my life in Russia.

Article excerpted with permission from the writer's book "Unbroken spirit."