Yosef Mendelevich just gets on with things. Considering his personal narrative, that may seem more than a little in the realm of over-simplification. But the fundamental fact of the matter is that he is a doer, regardless of the circumstances.
If the name doesn’t seem instantly recognizable perhaps the term Prisoner of Zion, or of Conscience, may do the trick. If you’re still scratching your head then, how about Natan Sharansky? The latter, as most of us know, served nine years in Soviet prisons, after being arrested, in 1977, on various trumped-up charges, including high treason and spying for the Americans. He was the highest-profile Prisoner of Zion, and subsequently served as chairman of the Jewish Agency and in various government ministerial posts. Mendelevich also added his considerable stature and public standing to helping to secure Sharansky’s eventual release in 1986, attending and speaking at numerous demonstrations in support of the feted prisoner.
Mendelevich may not be quite as well-known as his old pal, then called Anatoly Sharansky, but was at least equally as active on the Zionist front and had more than his 15 minutes of fame after finally being released from Soviet Union’s fearsome gulag punishment system – largely due to pressure exerted by leading politicians in the West and continued supportive demonstrations around the world – and leaving the USSR, after 12 years of harrowing incarceration.
I recently met the slightly built gray-bearded 72-year-old former Prisoner of Zion at his home, in Jerusalem’s largely religious Kiryat Moshe neighborhood. He is an energized, though soft-spoken, character with a twinkle in his eye. Nothing about his physical presence, or demeanor, intimates the physical and emotional wringer he went through, although he did drop an aside about his health now starting to suffer the repercussions of his less than five-star treatment from the Soviet penal authorities.
Mendelevich exudes a sense of unhurried determination, and even allows himself the odd dosage of humor.
“I served the longest sentence of everyone,” he laughs. “Even longer than Sharansky.”
“Everyone” refers to the other 15 Soviet refuseniks who audaciously attempted to commandeer a small civilian Soviet plane, and divert it to the West, in an attempt to get to Israel. The Dymshits–Kuznetsov aircraft hijacking affair, also known as The First Leningrad Trial or Operation Wedding, which took place in June 1970, did not quite work out as planned – all 16 were arrested by the KGB even before they made it to the aircraft – although it was definitely not a complete failure.
Arrests, unfair trials and long-term imprisonment, under the harshest of conditions notwithstanding, the event turned out to be a game changer in the Cold War, and brought the plight of Jews living under Soviet rule, and other human rights violations there, to the attention of the outside world. In fact, Mendelevich goes as far to say that it created the first crack in the Iron Curtain, and eventually led to the collapse of the USSR. The jury is still out on that one, but there appears to be some collateral for that take on East-West politics of the day, and Jewish emigration from the USSR rose steeply for a few years.
Next week, February 18, marks the 39th anniversary of Mendelevich’s release from captivity after which he quickly found himself achieving his long-held dream and boarded a plane to Israel.
You might have thought that, having finally won his hard-fought freedom, after enduring such trying conditions for so long, that he might have just happily got on with his new life in the Promised Land, unrestricted by draconian political constraints. But Mendelevich is clearly made of sterner stuff.
He is currently working on a documentary, along with longtime friend and fellow former Prisoner of Zion Boris Maftsir, about his years in the Soviet Union, his dogged efforts to assert his right to live a full Jewish life there, and to later move to what he considered to be his true homeland. Like Maftsir, Mendelevich was born in Riga, Latvia in 1947. They were both arrested in 1970, for “anti-Soviet activities,” although the filmmaker was handed only a one-year prison sentence and made aliyah in 1971.
Work on the documentary, which, due to lack of funds, Mendelevich fears may never see the light of day, began last year. True to his unstinting zeal to tell his story, Mendelevich and Maftsir traveled to Riga and shot a number of scenes that took in Mendelevich’s pre-incarceration underground activity to disseminate Jewish education there in the 1960s. The film storyline also takes in efforts to establish a fitting monument at a site of mass execution of Soviet Jews in Riga. Maftsir is also working on another important project, a documentary series about the murder of around 2.7 million Soviet Jews during World War II, called Searching for the Unknown Holocaust.
Religious heritage has been a constant throughout Mendelevich’s life. In his 2012 autobiography Unbroken Spirit, he recalls one of his earliest formative memories when, at the age of six, he identifies in school as a Jew, the only Jew among around 40 Russian, Ukrainian and Latvian first graders. Ridiculed by the teacher for not being able to say exactly how his father made a living, Mendelevich says that his estrangement from the Soviet Union began then and there and, “when the time came, I didn’t have to forcibly detach myself from Russia in order to emigrate to Israel.”
So much for emotional ties, but physical surroundings and the suffocating limitations of a dictatorial regime can prove to be a more challenging matter. Although he says he did not have a Jewish upbringing, in his book Mendelevich relates how his father taught him and his two siblings the aleph-bet, and to recite the “Modeh Ani” morning prayer. Later he marks his bar mitzvah by reading a Yiddish translation of Jud Süß, a 1925 historical novel by Lion Feuchtwanger based on the life of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, an 18th century Jewish courtier in the employ of Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg in Stuttgart. The book was later reworked in 1940, at the behest of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, into a hideous movie designed to arouse antisemitic fervor.
Mendelevich’s path in life was clear. He was determined to maintain his Jewish identity at all costs, and to achieve his ultimate goal of living in Israel. He made it in the end, but at a sizeable cost.
I found out more about his tortuous journey through Soviet prison facilities, across the USSR, from Unbroken Spirit than from the man himself. In our conversation he, typically, did not make much of his physical and emotional trials.
All these years on, Mendelevich is just as resolute about spreading the Jewish word in the former USSR, and has made several visits there – on an Israeli passport – to talk to members of the Jewish community about Judaism and Israel. While the Soviet Union may be officially consigned to the historical scrap heap, he says the Russian authorities are none too pleased about his ongoing educational forays. In fact, things became more than a little hairy for him.
“Last summer I was told that I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go to Russia anymore,” he explains. Naturally, it was going to take more than authoritarian disapproval to stop Mendelevich in his driven tracks. “I decided to make a film, to relate what we actually did there. And what our ‘terrorism’ there was about.”
It seems that is not just a fanciful epithet designed to up the publicity ante.
“In a city called Novosibirsk [in southern Siberia], where I spoke, there was an article in a local [mass circulation] newspaper with a special name, Komsomolska Pravda, about ‘what Mendelevich is actually doing here. We know he is a terrorist.’ Yes, they still talk about me as a terrorist,” he adds noting my raised eyebrows.
It was time to join creative forces with Maftsir.
“He makes films for Yad Vashem about Holocaust survivors in Russia. He is now retired and I said we should make a documentary about our time in the Jewish underground, to show people some of the wonderful things we did back then.” Mendelevich is trying to find the requisite wherewithal to undertake the editing stage of the incipient filmic exercise, partly through fundraising trips to the US.
They started from Riga where, Mendelevich says, the Latvian authorities have no problems with their documentary venture.
“For them, we are heroes. We fought against the occupying [Soviet] regime,” he chuckles.
Holocaust memorial sites are an important element of the evolving documentary, and were instrumental in efforts to keep the flame of Judaism flickering back in the bad old days.
“One of the ways of bringing [Jewish] people closer together, to get to know each other, in the 1960s was to rehabilitate Holocaust sites. The Soviet authorities, like with Babi Yar, were in no way willing to admit that Jews were executed. They said they were Soviet citizens. For them, as soon as you focus on Jews that is nationalism.
While he does not express too much emotion while relating his tale, surely, returning to Russia, for the first time in over three decades, must have stirred some deep-seated feelings.
“Yes, it was emotional,” he admits. “But I mainly felt that Russia is not my place. Every time I go there I regret being there. I ran away from there. But, at least, each visit gives me justification for having escaped,” he laughs. “I look at myself, from afar, and I ask myself what am I doing there?”
Amazingly, Mendelevich says he was in good physical shape when he was released from prison. “They say that over-eating is not good for you. So I had good conditions,” he jokes. “I think the Soviet authorities should be happy because I gave them good publicity for the gulag.” Dark humor aside, he experienced extreme physical and psychological duress, and once went through a 50+ day hunger strike in support of his demands to be allowed to practice religious observance.
Mendelevich managed to keep his spirits up through thick and thin, sometimes with a little outside help.
“After the trial, after I’d been sentenced, my lawyer said he didn’t know how to comfort me, but that he could only tell me something he’d heard from other gulag prisoners – there is life there, too. That explains everything. You don’t sit in solitary confinement the whole time. There are hundreds of people around you. There are friendships, ways of obtaining things. All sorts.”
He should know. After all, he went through it. Then again, it is hard to imagine surviving such hardship in one psychological piece. But, somehow, Mendelevich always managed to find some beacon of light and, on at least occasion, in the most literal corporeal sense.
Before he scooted off to attend the Mincha service at the nearby synagogue, I got a touching Hanukkah tale from him.
“There were eight of us Jews – we didn’t have a minyan – and most were not observant,” he recalls. “I was one of those who decided to become religious, when I was in the Jewish underground.”
He was determined to mark the Festival of Lights come what may.
“We had a wooden hanukkiah, by a Latvian nationalist who could lay his hands on wood,” Mendelevich continues. “And we stole some nails from the concentration camp factory, and got some candles. It was a concentration camp. They didn’t murder people there, but it was like Auschwitz. Some people did die there. If you stayed there long enough it harmed your health.”
So, they had all the raw materials for observing the holiday, but there was the matter of camp rules and regulations.
“They wouldn’t allow us to light candles there, but we managed to do that, for a few minutes.” They also, somehow, lay their hands on five potatoes. “We wanted to have latkes,” Mendelevich laughs. “We put them in the wood heater. They weren’t tasty, but it was the least we could do. We also made a sivivon (dreidel) from a piece of potato.”
Had they been caught they would have all ended up in solitary confinement.
“That would have been a small price to pay for celebrating Hanukkah,” he chuckles. “But not one guard came in to disturb us. There was a Hanukkah miracle in the gulag too!”