The riots throughout the United States and in cities around the world, protesting the killing of George Floyd, trigger recollections of the sometimes violent freedom protests during the Civil Rights Movement in America in the Fifties and Sixties. But today, I would like to recollect another historic struggle for freedom, the Struggle for Soviet Jewry, which first grabbed world attention on this day, exactly 50 years ago, with the arrest of Yosef Mendelevich and a group of his friends in the Jewish Underground, at an airport in Russia, as they attempted to hijack an airplane to escape from the Soviet Union and fly to freedom in Israel.
That dramatic event, and the famous “Leningrad Trial, which followed their arrest, became the banner of Russian Jews who longed to escape from a terrible oppression in the Soviet Union, under a cruel Communist dictatorship which was determined to eradicate Judaism. Just a hundred years ago, Russia was the center of world Jewry, with many great yeshivas and famous Torah Scholars. But under the evil Soviet regime, Torah learning was banned, and Torah scrolls were burnt, along with tefillin, prayer books, and holy Jewish texts. Synagogues and yeshivas were closed. Any Jew caught observing the Torah’s holidays and commandments could be imprisoned for years. Jews lived in fear of the KGB, Russia’s secret police, which had undercover agents and informers everywhere. Within a generation, the Torah was nearly forgotten. Only the most dedicated and daring Jews continued to learn from books they had hidden, at the risk of severe punishment. Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel, the Jewish Homeland, were denied permission to leave Russia. For them, darkness spread over their lives, as deep as the darkness of Egypt.
Among the six-million Jews who lived in Russia, there arose a small Jewish underground resistance. They met clandestinely to learn about Jewish Tradition, the Land of Israel, and how to speak Hebrew. Twenty-year-old, Yosef Mendelevich, now a Rabbi living in Jerusalem, was a leader of the small group which tried to hijack an airplane in order to escape to the State of Israel. News of their arrest spread through the Jewish world, igniting the “Struggle to Free Soviet Jewry.” Mendelevich, was sentenced to eleven years in prison. His refusal to bow down to the Soviet regime, under the harshest conditions and torture, and his unwavering commitment to observe the Sabbath and perform the commandments of the Torah, even when he was thrown into solitary confinement for weeks on end in a tiny, cold cell in the Gulag, at the furthest ends of Siberia, is one of the most heroic stories of our times. On several occasions, he conducted long hunger strikes to protest his not being allowed to wear a kippah and to study Torah and to keep its commandments. Today, he teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Yesterday, on the eve of the anniversary of his arrest, I asked him to share some of his recollections on the theme of freedom.
“For most Jews, lighting the Sabbath and holiday candles is a simple thing to do, but in Soviet Russia, it was almost impossible. With the rise of Communism, the authorities cracked down on Judaism. Nonetheless, if a Jew dared, in the privacy of his own home, or in some dark basement, under the risk of being seen and apprehended, he could secretly pray, study from an Old Testament that he kept hidden, or light the Sabbath candles. But in prison, such behavior was out of the question. A prisoner has no privacy at all. Guards are posted in the prison corridors, just outside of the cells, to keep careful watch. Often, prisoners themselves become informers on their fellow inmates, in order to gain special privileges. I decided that this wouldn’t prevent me from doing the things that a proud Jew must do, even though the authorities attempted, again and again, in ruthless and unrelenting ways, to break my determination and spirit.”
I don’t imagine that the prison guards handed out candles and matches before Shabbat to the Jewish inmates. What could you do?
“My first Shabbat in prison, I asked the guards to bring me a mop and bucket of water so I could clean up the mess in my cell, in honor of the holy Sabbath day. While I was scrubbing the walls, I felt something sharp. There was a nail in the wall. Yanking it out, I used it to scratch out the outlines of two Sabbath candles on the stark cement. Remembering the blessing from a postcard which an underground friend had received from Israel, I closed my eyes in concentration and recited the blessing out loud. When I opened my eyes, I saw two flames flickering from the wicks I had drawn! How happy I was! Swirling around, I began to dance and sing, ‘David, King of Israel, lives and endures! Am Yisrael chai! Am Yisrael chai!’ In my ecstasy, if felt as if King David was dancing with me in the cell. As darkness enveloped the prison outside the tiny cell window by the ceiling, the Sabbath lights glowing from my drawing on the wall ignited a great flame in my heart. ‘Am Yisrael chai!’”
You were raised in a non-religious home. How did you become so determined to observe the Torah?
“Before our trial, my interrogators tried to convince me to squeal on other Jews in the Jewish Underground Movement, whereupon they could be arrested as traitors to the Soviet regime. Of course, I refused.
‘Mendelevich, don’t be a fool,’ the investigator told me. ‘You are still a young man. You have your whole life ahead of you. Don’t throw it away. Give us the names of the other members of your group, admit that you made a mistake in betraying your Motherland, and we will lighten your sentence. Otherwise, you may be sentenced to spend the rest of your life in prison, or even be executed.’
I kept silent, unwilling to betray fellow Jews.
‘You are a Russian,’ the investigator continued. ‘You were educated as a Russian. Give up your foolish insistence on being a Jew and on immigrating to Israel. There is no God. Your Torah is just a make-believe fairytale that no enlightened Russian can accept, and you will only suffer for your stubborn rebellion.’
‘I am a Jew, and I am proud to be Jewish,’ I answered, not flinching from the look of hate in his eyes. ‘It is true that I was born in Russia, but my Motherland is Israel. And the laws of the Torah are the laws that I must follow, not the unjust and immoral laws of the Soviet State.’
The interrogator growled and sent me back to my cell. I felt a great turmoil inside of me, enraged that the Russian authorities were trying to strip me of my Jewish identity. I sensed that I must hang on to my Jewishness at all costs. If not, they would succeed in breaking me, and turning me into a traitor to my friends and to the Jewish People. But, I had a problem which seemed even more insurmountable than the bars of my cell, the hostile interrogators, the uncaring guards, and the frightening dogs that patrolled the perimeters of the exercise yards. I knew very little about Judaism – just things that I had gleaned from our underground meetings. Confronted with beatings and arrests, Jews were afraid to act like Jews. But here and there, I had learned some things from my father and uncle. There were no Sabbath candles at home, the holidays came and passed with little celebration, and I hardly knew how to pray, or to Whom I was praying to. But now, in defiance of my prison captors and the evil Soviet government that wanted to stamp out the faith of our People, I understood that I had to act like a Jew in every way that I could, just like Jews had throughout history, from generation to generation, in defiance of endless persecution, from the time of our slavery in Egypt, up to the bondage of my brothers and sisters in Russia, decent peace-loving people who were treated as criminals if they wanted to keep the Torah and return to their own Jewish Homeland in Israel.”
What do you recall about your release after eleven years of grueling incarceration?
“After prison authorities confiscated my Bible and Prayerbook, I went on a hunger strike for 55 days until they returned the books to me. After recovering in what was called a medical clinic, I was sent back to the prison factory, hauling coils of heavy wire weighing 60 kilos. At the end of one work day, two officials appeared in the barracks and told me to pack my belongings because I was being transferred. Handcuffed, I was driven away in a jeep through a dark forest, squeezed between an armed KGB agent and a huge guard dog, panting as if it couldn’t wait to get a taste of my bones. No one bothered to explain where we were headed. I was confident they wouldn’t kill me because my struggle had become well known in the West. I figured I was going to be interrogated as a disobedient political prisoner. After a long train ride and an almost equally long airplane flight, I was driven to some prison and left alone in a cell. After a nervous two weeks, I was once again told to pack my belongings. This time I was led to a large office in the prison where a small squadron of KGB captains and generals were sitting. One held up a large piece of paper and read aloud: ‘Decision of the Supreme Soviet Council. In light of the criminal and anti-Soviet behavior of the exceedingly dangerous prisoner, Yosef Mendelevich, the Supreme Soviet Council has decided to cancel the criminal’s Soviet citizenship and to expel him from the boundaries of the Soviet Union.’ After a startled moment, I exclaimed, ‘Baruch Hashem.’
‘What did you say?’ the stone-faced official asked.
‘I thanked God for the miracle he has done for me,’ I replied.
‘Swine!’ he shouted. ‘He is expelled from his homeland and he is happy!’
‘Russia is not my homeland. The opposite,’ I told them. “You are expelling me from a foreign land to the Homeland of my People.’
When I left the room, my handcuffs were removed, and I was driven to the airport with an escort of motorcycles like an important person. I felt like Josef in Egypt who was taken from prison, dressed in clean garb, and brought before the king. Before boarding the airplane, I said to the KGB commander, ‘Eleven years ago, the KGB arrested me on an airport runway to prevent me from leaving for Israel. Now you have brought me to this airport to make sure I depart. And tens of thousands like me will follow. You should admit that you made a mistake.’
‘We didn’t know you people have such unbreakable spirit and resolve,’ he said.
Agents led me to the airplane before I could answer, not that he would have understood what I wanted to tell him. It wasn’t only the spirit of the Jews who were called the ‘Prisoners of Zion,’ nor the resolve of the people throughout the Free World who supported our struggle, that brought down the Iron Curtain. Just like in the Exodus from Egypt, the power came from our Father in Heaven and from clinging to His Torah.”