Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich: Soviet gulag survivor’s courage

It was standing room only at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, as a crowd packed the Hertz Theatre to hear Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, the celebrated Russian refusenik and author, stress the importance of standing up for one’s principles. 

The former prisoner of conscience, now 65, discussed the turbulent years in the former Soviet Union leading up to an attempt to hijack a Soviet plane to Sweden and his eventual 12-year imprisonment in a Soviet gulag. The Riga, Latvia-born Mendelevich, who had a nonreligious upbringing and became an Orthodox rabbi after his release, is touring following the English-language publication of his biography “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival” (Gefen Publishing House). 

The Oct. 28 evening discussion, followed by a Q-and-A session and book signing, likely will not be Mendelevich’s final visit to Los Angeles or to the Museum of Tolerance. In addition to helping to launch the West Coast leg of the “Unbroken Spirit” book tour, the museum is hoping to assemble an exhibition on the oppression of Soviet Jews that would prominently feature Mendelevich, according to the museum’s director, Liebe Geft. 

Museum officials and volunteers have a personal connection to Mendelevich and his story. While living in Israel in the 1970s, Geft helped Mendelevich’s sister petition for her brother’s release and bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews, even meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and doing a presentation for then-CIA Director George H. W. Bush. 

At that time, in Los Angeles, another future Museum of Tolerance volunteer, Myrtle Sitowitz, was among the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry. This group of housewives sent countless letters to the Soviet Union and, on one occasion, staged a silent protest at a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet.

“We were not getting a good name for ourselves,” said Sitowitz, “but when you fight for something with a purpose, you’re not going to get a good name.”

Geft called Mendelevich “a hero of the Jewish people and of freedom-loving people the world over.” The rabbi, who now lives in Israel and teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, said he had far more practical motives. 

 “My reason for publishing the book was to help all Jews, (including) new generations, to prevent assimilation, to teach them Jewish values,” Mendelevich told the gathering. “Everything needs sacrifice. If you buy the book, use it as a weapon to continue the fight.”

Fight, Mendelevich did and has done for most of his adult life.

“Unbroken Spirit” chronicles Mendelevich’s work with the Jewish underground (he edited a newsletter on Jewish issues). In the late 1960s, as anti-Israel sentiment increased in Russia, Mendelevich and his fellow dissidents began to seek out ways both to leave the country and to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Along with former Soviet military pilot Mark Dymshits and several others — including non-Jews — Mendelevich hit upon the idea of taking a 12-seat civilian plane, diverting it to Sweden, holding a press conference and then ultimately returning the plane to the Soviet Union … with a full tank of gas, no less.

“We figured we certainly would be arrested, but it was the price to publicize our struggle,” said Mendelevich. “We were willing to pay the price, and we understood that we could be killed during this attempt. But if there is only even a 1 percent chance to succeed, I’m ready for that 1 percent. There was no life for me anymore in Soviet Russia.”

The group was arrested at the airport. At their 1970 trial, Dymshits received a death penalty sentence while Mendelevich received two 15-year sentences plus an additional seven years “for my Jewish activities.” The sentences were later reduced on appeal to a total of 12 years for Mendelevich and 15 for Dymshits. By the time Mendelevich got to his first labor camp, the restrictions on emigration from the Soviet Union had already begun to loosen. In 1971, 12,000 Soviet Jews were able to leave, followed by 30,000 the following year. 

“It was a real victory,” Mendelevich said. “Somehow it is ironical that the winner is being arrested, but I told myself that I felt comfortable in a prison and I am ready to serve as much as needed. Thanks to me being seated in prison, other people got freedom.”

The fight did not end there. Mendelevich talked about having privileges revoked for his refusal to remove his kippah or to work on Shabbat. For the former offense, Mendelevich lost his annual visit with his father — himself an agitator who demonstrated against Nazi anti-Semitism. Toward the end of his imprisonment, Mendelevich endured a 50-day hunger strike over the right to study Torah. 

When they finally released him, the Soviets promptly exiled Mendelevich, who immediately thanked God for the miracle of his deliverance. Rather than being forced to leave his “motherland,” Mendelevich saw his release as an opportunity to relocate to his true motherland — Israel.

“I don’t have a strong will. I am a normal man.” Mendelevich said, insisting that his principles rather than personal attributes gave him strength. “It was our common struggle, not specifically for Jews in America or people in the Soviet Union. Nothing can withstand our good will to bring freedom to the people. Through struggling for all Jewish rights, we brought freedom to other nations.

“So I suggest to everybody, including [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, not to start with us. We have a strong will.”