An Israeli flag in a Soviet high security prison
An Israeli flag in a Soviet high security prison

It was 1980. I was near the end of three years spent in the “Hell-Hole” Prison – serving a penalty term for keeping the Sabbath in the forced labor camp in which I had been incarcerated previously.

The place: A special confinement cell in Chistopol Prison into which all security prisoners were abruptly transferred, far away from Moscow. 

The occasion: the opening of the 1980 International Olympic Games in Moscow- lest G-d forbid, Western journalists covering the event might want to seek us out.

It was Israel’s Independence Day. I wasn't sure about the date, but according to my calculations, it was due.

How should one celebrate the holiday in prison, particularly, when one is in isolation?

Then came a flash! I came up with an idea. I made matchbox-size flags and drew two stripes and a Magen David (Star of David) on them.

The prison cell walls were deliberately made of rough cement - so that the prisoners could not scribble anti-Soviet slogans on them. But this time it only helped to serve my purpose. I affixed my flags along the walls on the two sides of my cell.  I could now take a victory march on the Israel Independence Blvd. I created!

I marched to my heart’s content and sang Israeli songs: “Hatikvah” (“The Hope"),   Jewish partisan songs, "Am Yisrael Chai", "Jerusalem of Gold" and all the Hebrew songs I knew, endlessly.

And just then, one more miracle  occurred.

It dawned on me that opposite my cell, on the other side of the corridor, Anatoly Sharansky was being held. I raised my voice, so that he, too, could hear the songs.  He chimed in and we sang our duet. Not that I'm a great singer, but the pleasure was above and beyond. Then I switched to Hebrew, conversing with my friend in a singing rhythm until the guards wised up to the antics of these two Jews and began to shout.

This is how I conducted myself everywhere – allowing myself to feel "a free nation in our own country”.

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, former Soviet refusenik and Prisoner of Zion, a leader of Soviet Jewry, was imprisoned for 11 years in the Gulag for attempting to hijack a plane to reach Israel. His autobiography, Operation Wedding, describes the story and his release in 1981.