Friday, June 14, 2013

Josef Mendelevich

On June 15, 1970, 43 years ago, a dozen Soviet citizens (10 of them Jews) in desperation at their plight attempted to steal a small civilian airplane at Leningrad airport.  They had bought all the seats on the flight ostensibly to attend a wedding.  They intended to force the pilot out of the plane and one of them, a former pilot in the USSR airforce, Mark Dymshits, would take over and fly the plane to Sweden.  Another participant was a 22 year old Zionist activist Josef (Yossi) Mendelevich, who had been born in Riga, Latvia, and had helped organize an underground Zionist organization with branches in Riga, Leningrad, Moscow, Tbilisi, etc.  However, their plan had been detected by the KGB and they were arrested and interrogated.  As a result most of their colleagues throughout Russia were also arrested. They were tried in Leningrad in what became a notorious case, in which they were given stiff sentences.  The leaders of the group Eduard Kuznetzov and Dymshits were given death sentences and the remainder were jailed for 15 years.
Although the Soviets expected the accused to be broken by their treatment, the contrary happened, and all of them spoke out against their treatment and the repression of Jews in the USSR, not allowing them to practice their religion and to emigrate to Israel.  Remember this was 1970, long before Gorbachev and perestroika. The harsh sentences, given that noone was hurt and no passengers were involved, caused a strong international reaction.  I remember being at the corner of 16th Street near the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC where we used to organize demonstrations, and I had arranged (against the wishes of the Jewish Community Council) for a group of Jewish students to burn the Soviet flag.  It was the end of Dec, 1970 when the verdicts were announced and it was the holiday season with little news, and when we burnt the Soviet flag it appeared on the front pages of most newspapers around the world. 
As a result of the international pressure, including that from the US Government, the Soviets commuted the death sentences.  Mendelevich spent 12 years in the Soviet prison system.  He was first in the Ural Mountains, where he and another Jew decided to take action, but what?  If they demanded kosher food they would be left to starve, or if they demanded Hebrew prayer books they would be laughed at.  So they decided to start wearing kippot.  They cut them from their trousers and wore them, and they also arranged with the prisoner trustees to do all their work during the week and not work on Shabbat.  Both of these actions resulted in time in solitary confinement in punishment cells.  But, they persisted, and after about a year the prison guards gave up and let them keep their privileges.  They also smuggled in Hebrew prayer books with bribes to guards, and kept them hidden.  Mendelevich copied the Hebrew text on to small pieces of paper that he kept hidden in a match box.  While he was in solitary confinement he learnt the whole book by heart, so for him it was an ideal situation. 
After continued clashes with the prison authorities he was moved to Moscow where he underwent special interrogation.  By, this time, 1981, the Soviet Jewry movement was in full swing and Jews were being allowed to emigrate from the USSR. So the KGB told Mendelevich that they were fed up with him, that they were going to strip him of his Soviet citizenship, which is what he wanted all along, and they expelled him and the other so-called "hijackers."  He was then able to move to Israel and finally realize his dream.  He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and son, and is an ordained Rabbi teaching in a Yeshiva.  He spoke in English (that he taught himself while in prison) at Netanya AACI on Thurs evening and was a very inspirational speaker.  The English translation of his book "Unbroken Spirit: a heroic story of faith, courage and survival,"  was only now published (by Gefen) although the Hebrew version was printed 30 years ago.  His epic story is part of the struggle for survival of the Jewish people and deserves to be widely known.


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