(photo credit:courtesy gefen publishing)
Mankind should remember these few brave individuals who by their faith and
personal example changed not only Israel’s, but the world’s history. They all
stood fast against their oppressors, and they succeeded in exposing that
terrible lie whose name was the Soviet Union.
Yosef Mendelevich wasn’t
born a hero.
Nobody is. Life had taught him how to fight for his rights
and how to serve his people. He was 10 years old when his father was arrested on
trumped-up charges and sentenced to five years in prison, leaving his mother
alone with three children. Sent to a summer camp, Mendelevich found, for the
first time, a “pure” Soviet reality: kicks, insults, abuse, curses and all kinds
He ran away and found a Jewish home and an illegal Zionist
company, an island of intellectual challenge and deep faith, greatly different
from the alien world outside.
Young Jews took care of the destroyed and
abandoned Jewish graveyards at Riga’s Rumboli cemetery and this became their
university. The sacred ground of Rumboli, where Amalek sought to wipe Jews out,
aroused their nationalist feelings. They worked feverishly to build memorials to
the dead, and prepared themselves for the sacred tasks to come. They differed
from others who protested against the Soviet regime, for they considered
themselves to be Jews who wished to return to their native country,
The Six Day War imbued them with a new spirit, and they feared no
They knew that once they applied for a permit to emigrate to
Israel, they would be considered traitors, the sworn enemies of the regime. They
would be fired from their jobs and lose their homes, and be exposed to scorn and
Zionism was a dirty word in the Soviet vocabulary.
Mendelevich’s official application for immigration to Israel was rejected,
nothing could stop him and his friends any more. On June 15, 1970, they
attempted to hijack a Soviet plane and escape to Sweden on their way to Israel.
But too many men learned about their planned operation, and the Soviet secret
police jumped at the opportunity.
Arrested at the airport and sentenced
to 15 years of Gulag, Mendelevich never gave up his struggle and continued his
Zionist and Jewish work without interruption.
This was a long odyssey
through the most notorious Soviet prisons, mental hospitals and the dreaded
“re-educational work camps” from Latvia to the Ural Mountains. Nothing could
stop him, not a 56-day hunger strike fought for permission to keep his Jewish
books, nor facing additional trials for observing the Jewish commandments,
including Shabbat, in a strictly anti-religious Soviet prison.
of Mendelevich’s difficult, almost impossible struggle against the Soviet
establishment, smuggled abroad by a few kind hearts, had attracted wideworld
attention. World Jewish leaders and US Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson finally
won Mendelevich his freedom.
He was expelled from the Soviet Union in
1981, and arrived in Israel.
Here he served in the IDF, and earned his
rabbinic ordination, as well as a master’s degree in Jewish history. He
currently teaches at the Nachshon Meir Yeshiva, and is married with seven
children and many grandchildren.
THIS ENGLISH edition of Unbroken Spirit,
which was originally published in Russian and subsequently in Hebrew as
“Operation Wedding,” was Mendelevich’s dream since the fall of the Soviet Union.
There was not a day in his life that he did not seek to bring Jews not only to
Israel, but back to their sacred traditions. He certainly considers this book as
a statement, a window to the torn-by-assimilation-and-intermarriage Jewish
English-speaking world. No doubt he became a true rabbi, an educator, long
before his official ordination.
All his activities in prison demonstrated
a tremendous faith that was stronger than the ridicule and cruelty of the
authorities. All his religious activities, from proper Passover observance to
abstaining from work on Shabbat, were cruelly punished. But the truth, he
believed, demanded sacrifices.
The refuseniks – Jews who were refused
permission to emigrate – were determined to live as free men under the
totalitarian regime, and they won.
While they prayed for Israel, their
activities encouraged other persecuted nationalities of the Soviet Union to
claim their rights, contributing to its ultimate collapse.
unpretentious, easy style, his memory and keen observations won my deep
admiration. As a former Soviet prisoner I can testify that all his experiences
reflect the bare truth of the Soviet regime.