Sukkot in a KGB prison

How he triumphed by creating his own spiritual world during 12 years in jail for attempting to hijack a plane to Israel
President Reagan and Vice President Bush meet with Avital Sharansky (wife of then-jailed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky) and Yosef Mendelevitch, May, 1981 (photo credit: White House staff / Wikipedia)
President Reagan and Vice President Bush meet with Avital Sharansky (wife of then-jailed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky) and Yosef Mendelevitch, May, 1981 (photo credit: White House staff / Wikipedia)

There is something sad about the sequence of the festivals – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. After all, we are in the transition from summer to autumn and winter. Nature is no longer in bloom. It has fallen asleep in anticipation of the renewal of spring. And we are bidden to rejoice: “Rejoice in your festivals and be happy!” And perhaps the command to rejoice comes like an order, so that despite the sadness we must be happy. Here the Torah teaches us that the life rhythm of the People of Israel does not belong to the natural process. Nature has gone to sleep whereas the People of Israel awake to a new life and to new plans: “Shana Tova! A good year, a year of renewal!” Thus do we greet our fellow men.

I think that this contrast can help explain the saying of the Sages that, under certain circumstances, “the vices of the penitent are accounted as virtues.”

Basically, the saying means that if you feel remorse and contrition after committing a bad act and the determination to never repeat the mistake, it means that the bad action has led you to reform and repentance, thereby, in retrospect turning the bad action into something good. This can also apply when bad things happen to us.

In my lifetime I have experienced several major events which happened to me during the festivals. It seems to me that if I relate them you will see how the principle I spoke about works – to turn the bad event into something good.

A synagogue? That’s a place for senior citizens!

To begin with, I will tell you about my first Rosh Hashanah.

I was born after the Second World War in Riga, the capital of Latvia, which was conquered by the Russians.

My childhood was not an easy one. In 1957, when I was ten, my father, Moshe Mendelevich was arrested by the police in the course of the Soviet regime’s persecution of the Jews. (This was already after Stalin, in the days of Khruschev.) This was a tragedy for my family. My mother could not take it. She fell ill and subsequently passed away. When my father was released ill from prison, I decided to go and work in order to help my father financially. You can imagine what happens to a Jewish child who comes to work in a Russian factory – around him drunkenness, lawlessness, moral corruption. Nothing of the dirt of that life clung to me.

In the evenings I went to night school to finish my high school studies and begin my university education. I suddenly discovered that Working Youth School No. 25 was special – attended by a large number of Jewish boys. In my previous school I had got used to the fact that there were very few Jews, perhaps a single one in each class. And so I had always felt myself to be in the minority. But in this school, and especially in my class, the majority were Jews. I felt myself very much at ease. Among us were friends who were closer to Jewish tradition. Once, during the break, one of the boys, Lev Levinson strode to the front of the class and announced-

“Today is the festival of the New Year, no lessons!”

“Which new year?” I asked. “The new year begins on the first of January and now it’s the middle of September!”

”It is the Jewish New Year” – Lev explained.

What a strange custom! Unlike the rest of humanity.

But we had no choice. All the Jewish classmates began to leave the class.

“Where are you going?”

“To the synagogue”

“What!? What are we going to do in a synagogue, we belong to the new generation, people of science and technology, and a synagogue – that’s a place for senior citizens.”

What to do? I didn’t want to be left alone, so I reluctantly went with all the rest. Actually we didn’t enter the synagogue. We remained in the courtyard and in the adjacent street where there were already many Jews, as well as young boys and girls of our age. It was pleasant. So much so that I asked Levinson – “Is there any other festival coming soon?”

“Definitely – in nine days’ time.”

I didn’t know that this was Yom Kippur. I didn’t care what festival. The main thing was that I would once again be able to be in the company of my new friends. And so for the first time I came to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Quite possibly, if my family had not known tragedy, perhaps I would not have come so quickly to a synagogue.

Hijack attempt and detention in a KGB mental hospital

I have to note that then, in 1963, Zionist activists decided to exploit the official standing of the synagogue in order to establish a semi-legal meeting place for youth and to set up on this basis an underground Zionist movement. And this was indeed what happened.

After Rosh Hashanah came Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur about which I wish to relate took place six years after the first encounter with Rosh Hashanah. I was 22 then, and one of the leading activists in the Jewish underground in the Soviet Union, the editor of the nationwide underground magazine.

And then there was something else.

Since there was no opportunity of emigrating to Israel, I decided with a group of friends to hijack a Soviet aircraft and flee to Israel. We hoped that this exceptional act would attract the attention of the Jewish world to our plight, and enable the lifting of the Iron Curtain to permit free emigration from the Soviet Union.

We were unsuccessful. We were arrested. They attempted to break our spirit and make us cooperate with the regime. I was not broken, and so one day they transferred me to a mental hospital called “Serbski” in central Moscow. This was a KGB facility. If someone was dissatisfied with the situation in the Soviet Union, he must surely be crazy! Because every normal Soviet citizen had to love Communism.

For my first “medical” visit there came to see me a colonel of the KGB with a white gown over his shoulders. He said to me at once, “If you cooperate, you will go back to prison. If not, we shall register you as being a mental case and will give you special drug treatment.”

Some time later they brought me for examination to the chief psychiatrist, Professor Daniel Luntz. He sat on a tall chair, as if on a throne. Around him were doctors. I saw Jewish faces. They were enjoying the show.

“So, you wanted to be the King Messiah?” the professor asked me. He spoke the words in Hebrew. Apparently, he had once studied in a yeshiva before the Bolshevik Revolution.

I understood that they wanted to accuse me of megalomania.

“No, I am a simple man and we have family in Israel, therefore I wanted to be with them.”

The answer did not satisfy him, and he continued to ask me all kinds of trick questions.

After they took me back to my cell I was very disturbed. What would they do with me, would they really begin to give me injections to make me go out of my mind? There were there some patients who had already undergone the “treatment.” It was terrible.

A few days Professor Luntz summoned me again. This time he was alone.

“Young man, you have a problem. Do you think that I can help you?

The question was unexpected. I hesitated about what to say. Apparently, he wanted me to ask him to pass a letter to my friends and thereby to trap me. But perhaps he really did want to help me? Perhaps he felt sorry for a young Jewish boy?

Suddenly there sprang into my head an evasive answer: “I don’t know, perhaps you can help me. I only ask one thing of you- don’t harm me.”

“Is that all you are asking for?” He was silent for a moment – “OK”, he pressed a button and a policeman arrived to take me back to my cell.

I was extremely stressed, and felt that at any moment I would go out of my mind.

Back to prison, what luck!

“Where are you taking me?” After a month of tension, a young KGB lieutenant had come and said that I was leaving the “hospital.” I knew that in Moscow itself they didn’t do the forced “treatment.” I reasoned that they were taking me to some secret facility to continue the torture.

But the young lieutenant said, “Professor Luntz, who is a major expert, decided that you are pretending to be a mental case in order to evade the trial, but that in truth you are well and able to stand trial. Therefore, we are returning you to the prison to continue the interrogations.”

What good fortune, what happiness! I would be on trial with my friends. I preferred to be given a death sentence than to remain in the asylum.

My luck didn’t end there. Instead of loading me on to the prison train, the lieutenant took me to a regular train and for a moment I could imagine that I was a free man. During the journey the young officer asked me whether I was perhaps hungry. “I have some apples here.” And he took out two fine apples the likes of which I hadn’t seen in the prison.

I must emphasize that before the plane hijacking attempt I had learned by heart some dates of the Jewish festivals. That date was the last one that I remembered — it was the eve of Yom Kippur! Those apples reminded me of the apple with honey we eat on Rosh Hashanah. Did the KGB officer know about the festivals of Israel? He took out a book. “Perhaps you want to read?” I looked. It was Leon Feuchtwanger’s “The Jewish War,” about the great revolt against Rome.

I almost felt that they had sent Elijah the Prophet to me.

The trial

We believe that on the eve of Rosh Hashanah two books open — for life and for death, and on Yom Kippur they are signed. I don’t know for which book was I inscribed on that Yom Kippur. Perhaps it was for a third book, a book of hope. At the trial, the People’s representatives demanded the death penalty for me and my comrades. But through international pressure, which the Russians hadn’t anticipated, they annulled all the death sentences and mitigated them. I got “only” 12 years imprisonment in a forced labor institution.

Sukkot in a forced labor camp

After Yom Kippur comes the festival of Sukkot. In the forced labor camp I tried very hard to observe the mitzvoth — Shabbat, prayer, festivals — even though for everything I was punished. I spent three years in the harsh conditions of the closed prison for observing the Shabbat.

There was only one mitzvah I was unable to keep: the Mitzvah of Sukkah. Who was going to permit me to build a sukkah in a KGB camp!

MendelevichSome years later, I saw at the edge of the camp a pile of straw. I knew that if I could scrape the straw so that I would be able to see the stars from underneath, this would be considered as observing the mitzvah of sukkah. The problem was that this pile of straw was near to the camp’s electric fence. It was forbidden to approach it. One might be suspected of an escape attempt and be shot.

But the desire to observe the mitzvah overcame the fear. Towards evening, when they had not yet lit the projectors on the guard towers, under cover of the darkness, I ran toward the pile of straw, got inside it, scraped the straw looked at the stars and made the blessing “who has sanctified us by Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to dwell in the Sukkah.”

As soon as I finished the blessing, I rapidly retreated from the Sukkah. But my heart was filled with joy. I did it!

Thus, from that first miserable Rosh Hashanah of the start of the long trek, I had reached the Sukkot of confidence and faith. Shortly thereafter I was released and straight from the prison “expelled” to Israel.

It seems to me that this story exemplifies how, despite the sadness of the approaching winter, a Jew can rejoice and create his own world of struggle within himself and achieve victory. In the end it all depends on you!

Translated from Hebrew by David Herman

This is an excerpt from Rabbi Mendelevich’s book, “From the Ends of the Heavens,” (soon to be published) in which he relates how he maintained and developed his Judaism despite the horrific conditions in the KGB prison camps.

About the Author
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich was a Jewish refusenik in the former Soviet Union who spent 12 years in prison. He is now a Religious Zionist rabbi living in Jerusalem.