Mendelevich in prison (for movie)
Mendelevich in prison (for movie) courtesy

As everyone knows, the Hebrew word Pesach means “to pass over.” Therefore, in English, the holiday of Pesach is called Passover. This reminds us how Hashem “passed over” the houses of the Jews when He smote the firstborn Egyptians in the land of Egypt, thus bringing the Children of Israel out from oppression and bondage to freedom.

The word Pesach has another meaning as well. The Hebrew word peh means “mouth,” and the word sach means “to speak.” Thus, on Pesach, we speak about the miracles which Hashem performed for us at the time of our redemption from Egypt, as He led us toward national freedom in Eretz Yisrael. Our Sages teach that on Seder night, it is praiseworthy to recall other miracles of our history, the times when we witnessed the “outstretched hand” of Hashem in the life of our Nation, and in our own private lives.

In recent times, one such heroic saga of freedom is how the Jews of Russia escaped from a terrible bondage and oppression in the Soviet Union, under a cruel Communist dictatorship which was determined to eradicate Judaism.

Just a hundred years ago, Russia was the center of world Jewry, with many great yeshivot and famous Torah Gedolim. But under the evil Soviet regime, Torah learning was banned, and Torah scrolls were burnt, along with tefillin, prayer books, and holy Jewish texts. Synagogues and yeshivot were closed. Any Jew caught observing the Torah’s holidays and commandments could be imprisoned for years. Jews lived in fear of the KGB, Russia’s secret police, which had undercover agents and informers everywhere.

Within a generation, the Torah was nearly forgotten. Only the most dedicated and daring continued to learn from books they had hidden, at the risk of severe punishment. Jews who wanted to emigrate to the Jewish homeland were denied permission to leave Russia. For them, darkness spread over their lives, as deep as the darkness of Egypt.

Among the six-million Jews who lived in Russia, there arose a small Jewish underground resistance. They met clandestinely to learn about Jewish Tradition, the Land of Israel, and how to speak Hebrew. A small group even tried to hijack an airplane and escape to the State of Israel. They were arrested on the runway and brought to trial in Leningrad. News of their plight spread through the Jewish world, igniting the “Struggle to Free Soviet Jewry.”

One of them, a young man named Yosef Mendelevich, was sentenced to twelve years in prison. His incredible dedication to Torah, under the harshest conditions, and his unwavering dream of reaching the Land of Israel, even when he was thrown into solitary confinement for weeks on end in a tiny, cold cell in the Gulag, at the furthest ends of Siberia, is one of the most heroic stories of our times. On several occasions, he conducted long hunger strikes to protest his not being allowed to wear a kippah, study Torah and to keep its commandments.

Fishman, Mendelevich
Fishman, Mendelevich Tzvi Fishman

Today, he teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. On this Festival of Freedom, I asked him to share some of his memories.

This year, Pesach fell on Shabbat. When the holiday candles are lit in your home today do you have any special recollections of your incarceration in Soviet prisons?

For most people, lighting the Sabbath and holiday candles is a simple thing to do, but in Soviet Russia, it was almost impossible. With the rise of Communism, the authorities cracked down on Judaism. Nonetheless, if a Jew dared, in the privacy of his own home, or in some dark basement, under the risk of being seen and apprehended, he could secretly pray, study from a Chumash he kept hidden, or light the Sabbath candles.

But in prison, such behavior was out of the question. A prisoner has no privacy at all. Guards are posted in the prison corridors, just outside of the cells, to keep careful watch. Often, prisoners themselves become informers on their fellow inmates, in order to gain special privileges. I decided that this wouldn’t prevent me from doing the things that a proud Jew must do, even though the authorities attempted, again and again, in ruthless and unrelenting ways, to break my determination and spirit.

I don’t imagine that the prison guards handed out candles and matches before Shabbat to the Jewish inmates. What could you do?

My first Shabbat in prison, I asked the guards to bring me a mop and bucket of water so I could clean up the mess in my cell, in honor of the holy Sabbath day. While I was scrubbing the walls, I felt something sharp. There was a nail in the wall. Yanking it out, I used it to scratch out the outlines of two Sabbath candles on the stark cement.

Remembering the blessing from a postcard which an underground friend had received from Israel, I closed my eyes in concentration and recited the blessing out loud. When I opened my eyes, I saw two flames flickering from the wicks I had drawn! How happy I was! Swirling around, I began to dance and sing, ‘David, King of Israel, lives and endures! Am Yisrael chai! Am Yisrael chai!’ In my ecstasy, if felt as if King David was dancing with me in the cell. As darkness enveloped the prison outside the tiny cell window by the ceiling, the Sabbath lights glowing from my drawing on the wall ignited a great flame in my heart. ‘Am Yisrael chai!’

You were raised in a secular home. How did you become so determined to keep the Torah?

Before our trial, my interrogators tried to convince me to squeal on other Jews in the Jewish Underground Movement, whereupon they could be arrested as traitors to the Soviet regime. Of course, I refused.

‘Mendelevich, don’t be a fool,’ the investigator told me. ‘You are still a young man. You have your whole life ahead of you. Don’t throw it away. Give us the names of the other members of your group, admit that you made a mistake in betraying your Motherland, and we will lighten your sentence. Otherwise, you may be sentenced to spend the rest of your life in prison, or even be executed.’

I kept silent, unwilling to betray fellow Jews.

‘You are a Russian,’ the investigator continued. ‘You were educated as a Russian. Give up your foolish insistence on being a Jew and on immigrating to Israel. There is no G-d. Your Torah is just a make-believe fairytale that no enlightened Russian can accept, and you will only suffer for your stubborn rebellion.’

‘I am a Jew, and I am proud to be Jewish,’ I answered, not flinching from the look of hate in his eyes. ‘It is true that I was born in Russia, but my Motherland is Israel. And the laws of the Torah are the laws that I must follow, not the unjust and immoral laws of the Soviet State.’

The interrogator growled and sent me back to my cell. I felt a great turmoil inside of me, enraged that the Russian authorities were trying to strip me of my Jewish identity. I sensed that I must hang on to my Jewishness at all costs. If not, they would succeed in breaking me, and turning me into a traitor to my friends and to the Jewish People.

But, I had a problem which seemed even more insurmountable than the bars of my cell, the hostile interrogators, the uncaring guards, and the frightening dogs that patrolled the perimeters of the exercise yards. I knew very little about Judaism - just things that I had gleaned from our underground meetings. Confronted with beatings and arrests, Jews were afraid to act like Jews. But here and there, I had learned some things from my father and uncle. There were no Sabbath candles at home, the holidays came and passed with little celebration, and I hardly knew how to pray, or to Whom I was praying to.

But now, in defiance of my prison captors and the evil Soviet government that wanted to stamp out the faith of our People, I understood that I had to act like a Jew in every way that I could, just like Jews had throughout history, from generation to generation, in defiance of endless persecution, from the time of our slavery in Egypt, up to the bondage of my brothers and sisters in Russia, decent peace-loving people who were treated as criminals if they wanted to keep the Torah and return to their own Jewish Homeland in Israel.

Didn’t your family celebrate Pesach when you were young?

Not for most of my childhood. My father wasn’t a believer. Even though he was a steadfast Communist, he was arrested for being a Jew and imprisoned for two years. My mother died of heartbreak. When my father returned and Pesach arrived, he decided to hold the rudiments of a Seder. He said he had attending a few Seder Nights at the home of my mother’s parents in the early years of their marriage. We didn’t have a Haggadah, so he told us about Jewish History from the time of Avraham, through the Exodus from Egypt, until the establishment of the State of Israel.

This was my father’s way of observing the mitzvah, “And you shall teach your children.” All of the saga was a big revelation for me. Growing up, I knew nothing about Judaism or Jewish History. So I guess you can that Seder Night was the spark which triggered my Jewish awakening.

I know that you managed to procure matzah, raison wine, and bitter herbs in order to organize a Pesach Seder in prison with your cellmates. You relate the story in a book you wrote, which has recently become available in English at Amazon Books, A Hero of Jewish Freedom. Let’s jump forward to your own personal Exodus and freedom after eleven years in Siberian work camps and prisons. How did it transpire?

After prison authorities confiscated my Chumash and Siddur, I went on a hunger strike for 55 days until they returned the books to me. After recovering in what was called a medical clinic, I was sent back to the prison factory, hauling coils of heavy wire weighing 60 kilos. At the end of one work day, two officials appeared in the barracks and told me to pack my belongings because I was being transferred. Handcuffed, I was driven away in a jeep through a dark forest, squeezed between an armed KGB agent and a huge guard dog, panting as if it couldn’t wait to get a taste of my bones. No one bothered to explain where we were headed. I was confident they wouldn’t kill me because my struggle had become well known in the West. I figured I was going to be interrogated as a disobedient political prisoner. After a long train ride and an almost equally long airplane flight, I was driven to some prison and left alone in a cell.

After a nervous two weeks, I was once again told to pack my belongings. This time I was led to a large office in the prison where a small squadron of KGB captains and generals were sitting. One held up a large piece of paper and read aloud: ‘Decision of the Supreme Soviet Council. In light of the criminal and anti-Soviet behavior of the exceedingly dangerous prisoner, Yosef Mendelevich, the Supreme Soviet Council has decided to cancel the criminal’s Soviet citizenship and to expel him from the boundaries of the Soviet Union.’ After a startled moment, I exclaimed, ‘Baruch Hashem.’

‘What did you say?’

‘I thanked G-d for the miracle he has done for me,’ I replied.

‘Swine!’ he shouted. ‘He is expelled from his homeland and he is happy!’

‘Russia is not my homeland. The opposite,’ I told them. “You are expelling me from a foreign land to the Homeland of my People.’

When I left the room, my handcuffs were removed, and I was driven to the airport with an escort of motorcycles like an important person. I felt like Yosef in Egypt who was taken from prison, dressed in clean garb, and brought before the king. Before boarding the airplane, I said to the KGB commander,

‘Eleven years ago, the KGB arrested me on an airport runway to prevent me from leaving for Israel. Now you have brought me to this airport to make sure I depart. And tens of thousands like me will follow. You should admit that you made a mistake.’

‘We didn’t know you people have such unbreakable spirit and resolve,’ he said.

Agents led me to the airplane before I could answer, not that he would have understood what I wanted to tell him. It wasn’t only the spirit of the Prisoners of Zion, and the resolve of the people throughout the Free World who supported our struggle, that brought down the Iron Curtain.

Just like in the Exodus from Egypt, the power came from our Father in Heaven and from clinging to His Torah.