Keeping faith in the Gulag

Yosef Mendelevitch, faced with constant anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda at work and on the street, became obsessed with learning about Israel.

Yosef Mendelevitch (center) , Chaim Chesler (right) and a local Chabad singer in Kazan, Tartarstan, during a meeting between Limmud FSU and Chabad emissaries (photo credit: LIMMUD FSU)
Yosef Mendelevitch (center) , Chaim Chesler (right) and a local Chabad singer in Kazan, Tartarstan, during a meeting between Limmud FSU and Chabad emissaries
(photo credit: LIMMUD FSU)
“A man without faith soon loses his sense of reality in prison. No newspapers, no letters, no word from home. You are alone all the time, except when you are facing an interrogator… I have no prayer book, but I compose my own liturgy in my mind – prayers for the peace of the Jewish people, for my father, for my release from prison.”
– Yosef Mendelevitch: “Unbroken Spirit”
It is June 15, 1970. There are 16 people from across the Soviet Union (all but two of them Jewish) on their way to a small airport near Leningrad on a mission to highjack a small airplane and fly it across the Soviet border to Sweden.
The plot has been meticulously planned by a group of so-called Refuseniks (Jews who had been refused permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union): Eduard Kuznetsov, who had already served seven years in prison for editing and publishing an anti-Soviet magazine; their leader, a former USSR military pilot, Mark Dymshits, who was going to pilot the plane; Sylva Zalmanson, Kuznetsov’s wife – the only woman; and a 22 yearold activist and dissident named Yosef Mendelevitch – the only religious Jew in the group.
However, the KGB had apparently been aware of the plot almost from its inception, and the luckless group was rounded up and arrested as they made their way individually to the airfield.
All of the plotters were charged with high treason. Dymshits and Kuznetsov were sentenced to death and Mendelevitch to 15 years imprisonment.
The others, including Sylva Zalmanson, received prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.
But the failed mission had one important success – in the final analysis, one that justified the whole abortive enterprise. Demonstrations, protests and outrage swept across the Jewish and non-Jewish free world. On appeal, and under enormous pressure, the Soviet authorities dropped the capital sentences; the punishments for Kuznetsov and Dymshits were commuted to 15-years imprisonment.
Fast forward 40 years. I am sitting with Yosef Mendelevitch (now Rabbi Mendelevitch - he gained his master’s degree in Jewish history from Touro College in Jerusalem and received rabbinical ordination from the Chief Rabbinate in 1989), in the middle of a Russian forest near the city of Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, 800 kilometers east of Moscow. His spare figure, long straggly gray beard parted in the middle and wild hair escaping in all directions from under his kippa make him look a decade older than his 68 years. Only his eyes and rare smile reflect his real age.
We are participating in a conference organized by Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union), part of a world-encompassing educational project that promotes Jewish identity and culture. I am fascinated to learn how a religious Jew managed for 12 years to observe the basic tenets of Judaism while serving time in prison, hard labor camps and the Gulag.
WITH THE Nazi invasion of Latvia in 1941, the Mendelevitch family had fled to Kazakhstan, returning to Latvia after the war. Yosef was born in Riga, the capital, in 1947. Both his father and mother were committed communists, and despite some manifestations of Jewish life, including speaking Yiddish at home, the family was irreligious.
Young Yosef’s religious experience was confined to helping his mother make kneidlach on Passover, latkes on Hanukka and hamantashen on Purim.
There were no Jewish schools in Riga; Yosef and his two sisters were educated in the standard Soviet system.
In 1957, Yosef’s father was arrested on trumped-up charges of corruption and sentenced to five years in prison.
Following his release he lost faith in Communism and the Soviet system of government, and began thinking about the possibility of emigration to Israel.
At the age of 16, to help support the family, Yosef left school and began to work in the carpentry shop of a local metal plant. After work, he would continue his studies in the Working Youth Movement, to which he belonged together with many other Jewish students. One day, one of them announced that he was not going to work the next day. Yosef asked why.
“Because tomorrow is our New Year and we don’t work. We should go to the synagogue.”
“But the New Year is in January,” responded a bemused Yosef, surprised to learn that the Jews have a new year of their own. Moreover, “a synagogue is a place for only old people; we are modern men. What would we be doing there? I have no connection with religion; why on earth should I go?” Nevertheless, milling around in the street outside the Riga synagogue on that initial Rosh Hashana, Yosef met many young Jews like himself and evidently a spark was lit. His quest for Jewish knowledge ensued 10 days later with his first experience of Yom Kippur. He says, “That was my first encounter with Judaism and the Jewish festivals.”
As time went on, Mendelevitch, faced with constant anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda at work and on the street, became obsessed with learning about Israel, especially when an elderly relative managed to leave and sent back postcards from Kfar Giladi. Without knowing a word of Hebrew, he would listen avidly to Kol Israel and he hung on the words of a cousin, Mendel Gordin, who, engaged in illegal Zionist activities, became his mentor and guide, bringing him a Hebrew primer from which he began to study the language.
In 1966, Mendelevitch set up a clandestine group to study Hebrew.
Like many fellow Soviet Jews, he was enthralled by the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War, and by reading Exodus by Leon Uris, which had been passed hand-to-hand in a samizdat (clandestine) Russian translation. Following Israel’s stunning military victory in the Six Day War in 1967, more Jews began to take an active interest in Judaism and Mendelevitch became more engrossed in Orthodox Jewish observance.
Another trigger was his participation in the annual memorial event for the Jews of Riga murdered in Rumboli.
On November 30 and December 8, 1941, some 25,000 Jews were killed in the Rumboli forest near Riga. Second only to the notorious Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine, this was the greatest Holocaust atrocity before the death camps. Listening to the mourner’s kaddish at Rumboli, Mendelevitch had an epiphany of sorts, and decided to make a radical change in his life. From then on he stopped eating non-kosher food, refrained from working on Shabbat and began to observe the festivals and fast days.
In the wake of the Leningrad hijacking and the verdicts following the trial, Mendelevitch spent his first Yom Kippur in prison in Leningrad in 1970.
He rejected any form of cooperation with the authorities and refused to eat.
He was transferred to the Serebski psychiatric institution in Moscow for evaluation and subjected to a series of brutal physical and mental interrogations by KGB doctors. After being returned to prison, he recalls, “I felt that, in the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy, I had been ‘inscribed in the Book of Life.’” The outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 found him in Labor Camp 17 in the Russian Republic of Mordovia, together with Mark Dymshits, the pilot from the Leningrad hijacking. Still not quite sure of the religious significance of Yom Kippur and having no one to teach him, Mendelevitch decided that the holiness of Shabbat overrides Yom Kippur so that eating was permitted.
The prison officers taunted them by saying they had seen Israeli tanks burning in the desert and Israeli soldiers fleeing for their lives. Deprived of any ability to determine the truth, the Jewish inmates were beset by impending panic. When then-general Ariel Sharon crossed the Suez Canal, it was reported in Pravda that the Israeli forces on the Egyptian side had been wiped out. “Only when we read in the paper the next day, that fighting was still going on, did we realize that the reports of a disaster were untrue.”
By 1978, Mendelevitch, back in the Urals, steadfastly refused to work on Shabbat. As a punishment, he spent the next three years of his term in a closed prison with a severe regimen, as opposed to a more open environment. This distinction led to a substantial worsening of his living conditions.
He was transferred again, this time to Vladimir, a town near Moscow.
One of his fellow prisoners, whom he had not met before but knew by reputation, the 30-year-old dissident and fighter for human rights Anatoly Scharansky (now Natan Sharansky), was in an adjoining cell. Although they were prevented from meeting, they and other prisoners found a unique if rather insanitary method of communicating. They would empty the water from the lavatories using old rags and by thrusting their heads down the bowl, they could communicate with each other, the prison piping system carrying the sound along.
The Soviet authorities were concerned that Vladimir was a little too close to Moscow for comfort during the forthcoming Olympic Games, when Soviet human rights could become even more of an issue, so the prisoners were transferred east to the town of Chistopol near Kazan on the Volga river. Here too, Sharansky and Mendelevitch were not allowed to meet, but the lavatory communication system again proved useful. Sharansky knew all about Mendelevitch and had, in fact, campaigned for his release.
PRIOR TO the Limmud FSU conference near Kazan, at which Mendelevitch and I were to speak, Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, had applied for a permit for us to visit the prison in Chistopol. Unsurprisingly, the police refused to grant permission.
The rather far-fetched idea of arranging a conversation in Chistopol between Mendelevich and Sharansky – presumably not through the toilets – had to be discarded.
In 1980, after three years in Chistopol, Mendelevitch was transferred yet again, this time to Prison 36 near Perm in the Ural Mountains. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the authorities carried out a general search of his cell and confiscated his prayer book, kippa, postcards from Israel and Hebrew novels – but he managed to keep his Bible and some Hebrew textbooks. In retaliation, he appealed to the UN Committee for Human Rights, demanding that his property be returned and embarked on a hunger strike that lasted for 56 days.
On Hanukka his property was indeed returned and on Purim, in 1981, Yosef Mendelevitch was deprived of his Soviet citizenship and expelled from the USSR.
His next Yom Kippur – his first as a free man in Israel – found him at Mercaz Harav Kook, a national-religious yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he has spent every Yom Kippur since.
By a strange coincidence, adjoining the yeshiva was the headquarters of an organization called “Saving our Brothers” established by Avital Sharansky, who had worked desperately for many years, traveling the world, in order to secure the release of her husband – which eventually took place only in 1986.
One of the volunteers in the organization was the woman whom Yosef Mendelevitch eventually married.