A tale of Jewish valor
A tale of Jewish valor

When speaking about the Holocaust, one doesn’t immediately think of the Jews of Russia, but they were victims of Nazi atrocities. In fact, it was his encounter with the horrors of the Holocaust, as a young assimilated Russian student, which sparked Yosef Mendelevich’s decision to become a fighter for the freedom of Soviet Jewry.  

Just a hundred years ago, Russia was the center of world Jewry, with many great yeshivot and famous Torah Gedolim. But under a cruel Communist dictatorship which was determined to eradicate Judaism, 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 immigrate 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.” 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.  Today, he teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. His new book, “A Hero of Jewish Freedom,” translated by David Herman, recounts many of his ordeals in a reader-friendly fashion certain to strengthen everyone’s faith.(The book is also available here.)

What ignited your activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry?

I had just started high school in Riga when a friend dragged me along with him to clean up the Rumbuli Cemetery where some fifty-thousand Jews slaughtered by the Nazis were buried in several mass graves, including one for children. The victims had been murdered in the month of November, 1941. The area had been neglected by the Russian authorities, who refused permission to put up a sign commemorating the site as the burial place of Jewish victims.

It was here, at the very place that Amalek sought to destroy us, that my nationalist Jewish awakening crystalized.
I was surprised to see that a crowd of Jews were already at work with shovels and rakes, building a rudimentary monument to the dead. I had learned a few things, here and there, about Jewish history and Zionism, but it was here, at the very place that Amalek sought to destroy us, that my nationalist Jewish awakening crystalized.

All at once, that very day?

My feelings matured and deepened over time, but the lightning bolt from Heaven was here. I volunteered to be a worker at the site, where the work of creating a memorial park continued. On Sundays, Jewish activists would gather at the cemetery, which we called, “Little Israel.” Singing Israeli songs, it was my initial experience with the feeling of brotherhood and pride in being Jewish.

Continuing to sing Hebrew songs on the bus back to the city, we caused other passengers to flee in fear that they would be associated with a group of proud Jews. In our unity, we all discovered a reservoir of valor and strength.

One Hannukah, at the Rumbuli Cemetery memorial service in 1965, we discussed the need not only to remember the dead, but to take concrete action to ensure the survival of Judaism and the Jews. In the freezing cold Russian night, after lighting the Hanukah candles and reciting Kaddish, I spoke about our obligation to the dead to carry on the flame of Jewish life and freedom.  From that moment, I made an inner commitment to determine the course of my life for myself, and for the Jewish People, rather than allowing my actions and beliefs to be determined by others.

“Our fate is in our hands,” I declared. “We must act to resist the forces of assimilation and oppression, and emigrate to Israel. I propose that we establish an underground Zionist organization. All those in favor, raise your hands.”
Afterward, the main group of activists gathered at my home. “Our fate is in our hands,” I declared. “We must act to resist the forces of assimilation and oppression, and emigrate to Israel. I propose that we establish an underground Zionist organization. All those in favor, raise your hands.”

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

The KGB learned of our plans to hijack an airplane to Israel. When we reached the airport, they were waiting for us. 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.

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?’

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