(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yosef Mendelevich is a former Prisoner of Zion, who arrived in Israel in 1981 after 11 years of being jailed in the former Soviet Union.
Born in Riga, Latvia in 1947, Mendelevich grew up in the Communist Soviet Union, with atheist, communist parents who still clung to Jewish traditions and the Yiddish language.
At age 16, Mendelevich began to work and attend school in the evenings, which was his first exposure to Jewish communal life. He became inspired by the Hebrew language and religion, started an underground Zionist organization and applied unsuccessfully twice for an exit visa to emigrate to Israel. He also became editor of an underground newspaper, Ha’iton, writing about Jewish and Zionist issues.
“Because of the aspiration for freedom, a young man takes part in an attempt to take control of a Russian aircraft,” writes Mendelevich, of his plot – along with 15 others, to hijack a plane and fly it to Sweden.
On June 15, 1970, the group entered an airport near Leningrad all holding tickets for a local flight, where they were ostensibly flying to attend a wedding. But before they could carry out their plan, KGB secret agents arrested the group on the tarmac.
“The Russians laid a trap for the freedom fighters and all of them are arrested at the airfield,” Mendelevich wrote.
“From that moment there begin a series of amazing stories about the trials experienced by the freedom fighters.”
Mendelevich, then 22, was sentenced to 12 years in the gulag.
“From within the KGB cellars Yosef (for that is the young man’s name) discovers God and dedicates his soul to his belief. Thus, from being a freedom fighter he becomes a martyr for his faith,” wrote Mendelevich. “One amazing story ends and immediately a new one begins. Like a string of pearls threaded expertly. It is hard to believe that all of this befell a single man. Yosef succeeds in bluffing the warders and smuggles into the top-security prison a Hebrew Bible, a siddur and also a tallit.
He prays in a pit dug in the snow and carves in the wall two Shabbat candles and they light for him.”
While in prison and then a Soviet labor camp, Mendelevich struggled to keep Jewish traditions.
He was later retried for the crime of observing Jewish commandments while in prison, and sentenced to three years at the maximum security Vladimir Prison, where he first encountered fellow refusenik Natan Sharansky.
After he was returned to the labor camp, the KGB confiscated his siddur and Bible. In response, Mendelevich launched a hunger strike, and was placed in solitary confinement. By this time his story had leaked to the West, and after 56 days of drinking only water, international pressure saw Mendelevich released from solitary confinement and his books returned to him.
That international pressure, in particular from US Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, led the Soviet Union to strip Mendelevich of his Russian citizenship in 1981, and expel him from the country, after which he gladly fled to Israel.
Arriving at age 34, he then 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 in Jerusalem, and is married with seven children and many grandchildren.
“There are books which are small in size but great in context,” says Mendelevich. “Like a small bottle filled with a fragrant scent. That is the case with the book ‘From the Edge of Heavens.’ The whole book is constructed with short stories drawn from the life experience of a young freedom fighter who was imprisoned by the KGB.
“Miracle upon miracle. It is hard to believe that such things really happen and are not the fruit of his imagination...
All the story is told with the pure joy of a man who fights for freedom and for humanity with not a trace of hatred or nervousness. A book about love of life.
“And all ends happily. Love triumphs.
The hero is released. The Iron Curtain falls. The struggle of the few, filled with a sense of mission and belief in human values, wins freedom for millions of people in the Soviet empire.”