On March 4, Chabad of Briarcliff Manor and Ossining hosted a presentation by Yosef Mendelevich.
In lieu of a formal introduction, the audience viewed a short video about Mendelevich which was shown at the Jewish Learning Institute’s retreat in November 2018. The film explained how he is best known as one of the Prisoners of Conscience of the Free Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s.
A spell-bound crowd sat in total silence for over an hour as he described his incredible life story. Mendelevich began his presentation explaining how he was raised in a good Communist home by his loyal Soviet parents who saw that he received a university education but taught him little of his Jewish heritage. Mendelevich explained how a volunteer opportunity to restore an old Jewish cemetery in his native Riga, Latvia, led to an epiphany. Realizing that this cemetery was actually the site of a joint Nazi-Latvian mass execution of 28,000 local Jews in December 1941, he felt connected to his Jewish roots and made a conscious effort to learn about Judaism.
Joining the underground Jewish resistance, he befriended other Jews who also yearned for religious freedom and the right to emigrate to Israel. Mendelevich found old books and taught himself Hebrew, and eventually taught Hebrew to other members of the Jewish resistance. Mendelevich revealed how, in 1970, a small group hatched a plan to hijack a flight to freedom. The plan was to purchase all the tickets on a 12-seat plane for what was considered a tourist flight.
“The Soviet pilot would fly the plane to a remote location near the Finnish border. Upon landing, we would ask the pilot to get off the plane and Mark Dymshytz would fly the plane to Sweden.” Once in Sweden, they hoped to hold a press conference to expose the plight of their fellow Jews in the Soviet Union. Mendelevich explained that the plan did not go as designed; the team was arrested and Mendelevich received multiple consecutive jail sentences which would have essentially meant life in prison. Dymshytz and another co-defendant were given death sentences, but these were commuted after many world leaders protested.
Mendelevich went on to describe how his faith and observance evolved while in prison, which also helped him survive. He explained how a prison captain tried to convince him that he was a good Russian boy and how he should just serve his sentence and then go back to being a good Russian. Mendelevich believes that these words challenged him. In response, he wanted to behave as Jew. Mendelevich described how he accomplished this. The first was tying two knots in a handkerchief and placing it on his head in lieu of a kippah; the second was writing a prayer and praying towards his tiny cell window; the third was saving a slice of his daily bread ration. When he had six slices, he would observe Shabbat. Additionally, Mendelevich etched two candles on the wall of his cell, and stated, “In prison, I can be a free man.”
Mendelevich noted, “My trial began on Chanukah, the holiday of courage and miracles. This was better than a press conference in Sweden; the trial brought world attention to the plight of Soviet Jews.” Mendelevich added how world leaders once again joined together in a massive effort to gain his freedom. “Soviet leaders felt this pressure and acknowledged how the Jewish nation united is a real super power.”
Mendelevich described that after 11 years as a Soviet prisoner, he was formally stripped of his Soviet citizenship and escorted to an airport. Since there were no direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv, Mendelevich was flown to Vienna. He joked, “Just like a condemned man is given a last request, I was given a first request. I asked to wear Tefillin.” Rabbi Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress was present and coincidentally had a pair of Tefillin for him. Singer explained how he had visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe on his way to Vienna to meet Mendelevich and the Rebbe told him to bring Tefillin for the freed prisoner.
At the conclusion of the evening’s event, participants had the opportunity to ask questions. Mendelevich also signed copies of his 2012 book, “Unbroken Spirit-A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival,” describing his personal journey. He apologized to the crowd that he only had one hour to speak. Noting that the book has 380 pages, he suggested a return visit for Shabbat, allowing him time to tell more of his incredible story.
By Judy Berger