Fifty-one years ago, when the "Iron Curtain" stood invincibly separating the West from the Soviet Union, Yosef Mendelevich and his comrades in the Jewish Underground Movement in the Soviet Union were apprehended attempting to hijack an airplane in order to escape to the Land of Israel. Their trial began in Leningrad on the first day of Hannukah.
The international publicity which surrounded the event brought world attention to the plight of the Jews in Soviet Russia. I had the privilege to co-write a full-length motion picture screenplay with Rabbi Mendelevich about the hijack attempt, the trial, and his subsequent 11 years of incarceration in Siberian work camps and prisons.
Here is an excerpt from the trial which led the way toward the crumbling of the Iron Curtain and the mass exodus of Soviet Jews to the Promised Land.
EXT. LENINGRAD COURTHOUSE
A convoy of ten, black, windowless hearses, followed by a half-dozen blue police cars, drives up to the courthouse. A small force of heavily-armed POLICEMEN is waiting. A large crowd of COMMUNISTS and JEW-HATERS hold signs reading: DEATH SENTENCE FOR TRAITORS. Beyond a wall of barricades and POLICEMEN, friends, family and WELL-WISHERS have gathered to greet the prisoners. PHOTOGRAPHERS snap photos.
MARK gets out of the first van, with an escort of POLICE. There is a flurry of waves from FAMILY and FRIENDS who seem too frightened to call out in the presence of so many police. The JEW-HATERS scream out CURSES. The POLICE push the WELL-WISHERS back and herd MARK toward the entrance.
Out from the next van comes YISRAEL, also protected by POLICE. He holds up his arms in a victory sign to the CHEERS of the crowd.
Out of the next van comes YOSEF. He is clean-shaven and wears a black suit, along with his kippah. POLICE gather around him, pushing the crowd away. The CAMERA is in the midst of the hustle-and-bustle, following YOSEF as the POLICE escort him toward the building. His eyes light up when he sees his happy FATHER and FAMILY. YOSEF reaches out to grasp his FATHER’S outstretched hand, but the POLICE keep them apart.
Only MAJOR POPOV is able to get someone through the entourage of POLICE – YOSEF’S LAWYER, a black-haired, middle-aged man with penetrating eyes. CAMERA TRACKS WITH THEM.
LAWYER My name is Ariya. Your father hired me to defend you, but since you have refused representation, I have to know if you agree that I serve as your attorney.
YOSEF How is my father? I haven’t spoken to him for six months.
LAWYER He’s keeping strong. He sends his love and doesn’t want you to worry.
For a few moments, there’s a NOISY jam up by the entrance.
YOSEF How did he find you?
LAWYER Through your brother, Mendel, before he left for Israel.
YOSEF (surprised) To Israel? By brother is in Israel?
LAWYER Yes. Your arrest caused a lot of international interest. Many Jews are being granted exit visas to Israel now to improve Russia’s image in the eyes of the free world.
YOSEF looks encouraged and re-inspired, as if he has received the best news that he could. The POLICE herd them into the building.
CAMERA FOLLOWS BUMPILY ALONG with YOSEF and the LAWYER as they make their way through the building’s crowded lobby, surrounded by KGB AGENTS. Their hurried conversation continues as they march down a long corridor between two long rows of POLICE..
YOSEF How do you see the case?
LAWYER To be truthful, I’m not so familiar with all the material. Usually everything is decided in advance. The jury is told what to think, and even the spectators in the courtroom are planted by the authorities. If the defense lawyer is too aggressive, he can be dismissed from the bar.
They reach a stairway and follow the entourage upstairs.
LAWYER In the protocol you signed, it says you attempted to illegally cross the border in order to harm the Soviet regime. Did you really say that?
YOSEF In answer to their question, I said that if illegally crossing the border meant harming Soviet authority then the answer was yes.
LAWYER On that slip up, they are charging you with treason. They took advantage of your lack of legal knowledge to get you to incriminate yourself.
YOSEF They twisted my words.
LAWYER You signed the protocol and I don’t know if we can have it annulled.
They reach the top of the stairs and head down another corridor.
YOSEF What’s done is done.
LAWYER Do you want me to represent you?
YOSEF It must be costing my father a lot of money.
The LAWYER doesn’t answer.
YOSEF Then, at least, please try to do your best.
They reach the courtroom entrance. A barricade of POLICE determine who can enter.
LAWYER Good luck.
THREE stern-faced JUDGES wearing business suits sit on the raised judge’s platform. Behind them are a Soviet flag and a large portrait of Brezhnev.
FIVE JURISTS sit in the jurist’s box. They look like disinterested, dim-witted peasants who have been paid to sit through the proceedings.
FOUR impressive-looking PROSECUTING ATTORNEYS sit at the prosecutor’s table. One, Peoples’ Representative, MEDNONOGOV, flaunts an army uniform with chest-full of medals and military decorations. The PROSECUTOR GENERAL sits before a microphone that looks like a desk lamp.
The DEFENSE LAWYERS sit at two long tables near the DEFENDANTS.
The 10 DEFENDANTS sit in three rows with TWO ARMED GUARDS standing between and behind every two DEFENDENTS so they can’t speak to, or even look at, one another. From his seat in the second row, YOSEF looks toward the SPECTATOR’S section.
At the end of the courtroom, behind the 150 PRO-SOVIET SPECTATORS, sit FAMILY and FRIENDS. YOSEF’S FATHER, STEP-MOTHER, and TWO SISTERS, EVA AND REBECCA, sit in anxious suspense. His proud FATHER holds up a gift basket they brought.
YOSEF smiles and gives him a confident nod. A FRIEND waves to YOSEF who raises his hand, hello, in acknowledgement.
MARK stands before the defendants table and addresses the JUDGES.
MARK (adamant and brave) The Soviet Union is a threat to the preservation of the Jewish People, who have been loyal citizens for hundreds of years. You have shut down our theaters, our newspapers, our places of worship, and our schools.
PROSECUTOR ONE looks aghast at PROSECUTOR TWO
PROSECUTOR ONE (angrily) He’s breaking our agreement!
CLOSE ON YOSEF – He smiles broadly, in happy surprise, realizing that MARK is not cooperating with the prosecution. YOSEF’S FRIEND scribbles down the proceedings on a small notebook on his lap.
MARK Your aid to the Arabs in the Six-Day War was not a strategic decision, but stemmed from an undisguised hatred of the Jewish People in Israel.
PROSECUTOR ONE (shouting) That’s enough propaganda. Sit down.
The PRESIDING JUDGE bangs his GAVEL. MARK returns to his seat. There is EXCITED MURMURING among the SPECTATORS. Smiles shine on the faces of the DEFENDANTS, who all sense a fight. The GUARDS gaze upon them with open contempt.
The PROSECUTOR GENERAL leans forward and speaks into his microphone.
PROSECUTOR GENERAL Sylva Zalmanson, you attempted to flee from the Soviet motherland?
SYLVA (defiantly) From his birth, a Jew’s first and foremost allegiance is to the Land of Israel, as King David says in the Book of Psalms, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its strength… if I not set Jerusalem above my highest joy… Im lo a’aleh et Yerushalaim al rosh simchati.”
The PROSECUTOR GENERAL looks stunned. The face of YOSEF lights up. Other DEFENDANTS smile. YOSEF’S FATHER beams with satisfaction.
A JUDGE speaks into a microphone.
JUDGE The defendant will sit down.
The PROSECUTOR GENERAL confers quietly with the other PROSECUTORS who all look angry and upset. Prosecutor MEDNONOGOV glares red-faced at the DEFENDERS.
PROSECUTOR GENERAL Mendelevich!
YOSEF rises and steps forward. He gazes around the courtroom, taking time to order his words.
JUDGE Why did you try to flee to Israel?
YOSEF’S FATHER and FAMILY gaze at him hopefully.
YOSEF Throughout the free world, a person is allowed to emigrate to any country he pleases. But when I applied to the Interior Ministry for an exit visit to Israel, they told me, “Forget about Israel. You will rot here and die before we let you leave.”
YOSEF’S FATHER listens to every word.and YOSEF’S FRIEND writes down what he hears.
YOSEF I reject the charge of this court that I have betrayed my homeland, since, as a Jew, my homeland is Israel. To live in the Land of Israel is not some private, egotistical desire, but G-d’s promise to our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a sacred religious commandment for Jews.
PROSECUTOR GENERAL (to the JUDGE) Your question to Mendelevich is a waste of time! He is a religious fanatic! It’s a disgrace how a person raised in the Soviet Union could separate himself from our glorious Russian tradition and way of life, and poison his mind with religious dogma and dreams of a foreign land.
The JUDGE nods his head.
YOSEF Furthermore, if a state violates the basic rights of its citizens, then the citizens have the right to ignore the illegal dictates of such a totalitarian state.
The Pro-Soviet SPECTATORS JEER.. FAMILY and FRIENDS show guarded expressions of agreement and pride.
The PRESIDING JUDGE bangs his GAVEL on the table to restore the court to order.
JUDGE The defendant will return to his seat.
As YOSEF returns to his seat, he glances at his FATHER who nods with a proud and approving smile.
A PROSECUTOR – He walks along the JURY box.
PROSECUTOR Over the past few days, you have heard a lot of pompous, mystical, and even delirious speeches about freedom and a Jew’s right to live in the Land of Israel. But the fact remains that the defendants were apprehended with knives, hatchets, and guns in their possession, which they were ready to use to hijack an airplane, prepared to murder the pilot and crew if need be, in order to fly illegally across the Russian border.
YOSEF’S LAWYER jumps to his feet.
YOSEF’S LAWYER I object. It is pure conjecture that the defendants were ready to harm the pilot and crew.
PROSECUTOR Then why did they have a small arsenal of weapons? And why did they seek out an experienced pilot, the defendant, Mark Dynshitz, to join them in their undertaking. Why would they need a pilot if they didn’t intend to kill the pilot of the plane?
MARK jumps to his feet.
MARK We were planning to land and let the crew off the plane before the Finnish border, pick up additional passengers, and then I would fly the aircraft the rest of the way.
PROSECUTOR Another one of their fanciful stories!
A YOUNG SPECTATOR – he makes the last fold of a paper airplane and sails it through the air over the heads of the PROSECUTORS. It lands on the table in front of the heavily medaled MEDNONOGOV who angrily brushes it away.
A DEFENSE ATTORNEY steps forward.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY On behalf of myself, and my fellow defense lawyers, all loyal, upstanding Soviet citizens, who strongly condemn the actions of the defendants, we would like to draw the courts attention to the following main points. The charge of treason is unwarranted and should be changed to the lesser charge of attempted illegal border crossing. Furthermore, the defendants all testified that they didn’t plan to kill the pilot or crew, and they were not interested in stealing the airplane for money. Consideration should be granted in light of the fact that no illegal actions were actually carried out, and finally, there was absolutely no intention to overthrow the Soviet regime, but only to find a means to leave the country.
MEDNONOGOV rises to his feet and adjusts his medal-heavy jacket. He places his army cap on his head.
MEDNONOGOV Honored judges and respected members of the jury, these despicable, sweet-talking traitors sold out mother Russia for the promise of Coca-Cola and chewing gum in the West. It is no coincidence that they planned to execute their traitorous crime in the year that we celebrate Lenin’s hundredth birthday. They wanted to ruin the celebration of our great leader. As Representative of the People, I request that the defendants be all sentenced to death by firing squad!
Throughout the SPECTATOR’S gallery, MURMURS, OUTBURTS, and CHEERS are heard.
YOSEF’S FATHER looks grim. YOSEF lifts a hand as if to signal him not to worry. A JUDGE’S GAVEL calls the court to order.
The JUDGES’ seats are empty. The DEFENDANTS stand in anticipation. YISRAEL leans toward YOSEF.
YISRAEL It’s Hannukah today.
YOSEF We are the Hannukah candles.
GUARD No talking!
The three JUDGES re-enter the courtroom. The SPECTATORS stand. YOSEF’S FATHER stares intently forward. YOSEF awaits the verdict with no expression on his face.
The PRESIDING JUDGE speaks into his microphone.
PRESIDING JUDGE Yosef Mendelevich is found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment for harming state security, fifteen years for attempted hijacking, and seven years for illegal Jewish activity.
CLOSE-UP ON YOSEF with no expression on his face. CLOSE-UP ON HIS FATHER with an expression of pain. CLOSE-UP OF SISTER EVA, with tears in her eyes.
YOSEF’S LAWYER stands next to YOSEF.
YOSEF’S LAWYER It’s only a maximum of fifteen years under Soviet law.
PRESIDING JUDGE Mark Dymshitz and Eduard Zalmanson Kuznetov are sentenced to death by firing squad for attempted murder and treason against the Soviet state.
There is a ROAR in the courtroom. The paid SPECTATORS CHEER and APPLAUD. FRIENDS and FAMILY shout out protests. “Disgrace!” “Police state!” “Gestapo!”
CLOSE-UP ON MARK, looking impassive as a rock. SYLVA breaks out in tears. EDUARD looks stunned.
EDUARD (shouting out) Bloodsuckers! Murderers! One day the Bolsheviks will choke on the blood they have spilled!
GUARDS grab EDUARD and wrestle him down in his seat. SPECTATORS rush forward with pre-prepared flower bouquets and hand them up to the JUDGES.
The BROTHER of a DEFENDANT stands on a chair.
BROTHER (yelling) Don’t worry, comrades! The West will hear of this outrageous injustice!
YOSEF’S FATHER collapses down on his chair. YOSEF watches and turns to his LAWYER.
YOSEF Please spend time with my father. His heart isn’t built for this excitement and pain. Tell him I’m fine, and that we’ve won a great victory for our People.
Crying, SYLVA tries to reach out for EDUARD, but the GUARDS brutally drag her away.
As GUARDS shove YOSEF and lead him away, he loudly SINGS out the Israel National Anthem.
YOSEF Kol ode b’livav penema nefesh Yehudi homeyah….
The GUARDS rush him out from the courtroom.
CUT TO: INT. COURTHOUSE CORRIDOR
The corridor is blocked off by a wall of SOLDIERS. Beyond them, PRISONERS have a brief chance to meet with their FAMILIES. It is a high-intensity and emotional gathering.
YOSEF’S FATHER’S lips are trembling. Tears run down his cheeks.
YOSEF’S FATHER I delivered a valise to the prison with everything you asked for, but they immediately confiscated the prayer book and the Torah in Hebrew.
YOSEF hugs his FATHER. A long, lasting embrace.
YOSEF’S FATHER Here’s some money.
Secretly, he hands YOSEF some folded bills.
YOSEF Don’t worry, Papa.
EVA stands by as her FATHER and YOSEF hug as if they never want to let go.
EVA We’ll demand another trial. The world will hear about this.
CUT TO: HANDS FERVENTLY TYPING ON A TYPEWRITER. CAMERA TILTS UP TO REVEAL YOSEF’S FRIEND. He types up his notes as fast as he can.
HANDS INSERT PAPERS INTO A LARGE MANILLA ENVELOPE ON THE STREET, YOSEF’S FRIEND PASSES THE LARGE ENVELOPE TO A COURIER
AN UNSEEN PERSON READS THE CONTENTS OF A PAGE OVER THE TELEPHONE
CAMERA PANS ACROSS HIGH-RISE BUILDINGS IN MANHATTAN AND ZOOMS IN TOWARD A WINDOW WHERE A PERSON HOLDS A TELEPHONE TO HIS EAR
A SERIES OF NEWSPAPER HEADLINES FROM LEADING NEWSPAPERS AROUND THE FREE WORLD: “DEATH SENTENCES FOR REFUSENIKS IN LENINGRAD”
And we all know what happens next. And it all began on Hannukah...