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Forgotten Hero?
The author with Mendelevich in the US shortly after his release from prison camp
by Judy Lash Balint
N.Y. Jewish Post
April 12, 2005

"Feldheim isn't interested, and Mesorah says my story is 'too Zionist,'" says Yosef Mendelevich, mentioning two Jewish publishers, when I ask if his story of contemporary Jewish heroism has been written up in English.

Mendelevich is one of 15 Jews from the former Soviet Union who attempted to hijack a small Soviet plane in 1970, in a crazy scheme to dramatize the longings of Jews to leave the Soviet Empire.

For his Zionist commitment, the 22 year old from Riga spent the following 11 years in a Soviet prison camp before being allowed to leave for Israel in 1981. Since his arrival, Mendelevich studied for the rabbinate, married and became a father to seven children. He lives quietly in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem where he teaches at the Machon Meir Yeshiva.

Today, Mendelevich, 57, is slender, sports a long grey beard and grey hair topped by a large black knitted kipa. His steely grey eyes, commanding voice and natural charisma make it easy to understand how he was a leader of the Riga refusenik movement at a very young age.

Mendelevich was invited to address a group of English speaking students at Machon Meir the other night. The event was open to the public, but few outsiders attended. Mendelevich spoke (in fluent English) for two hours, but no one fidgeted or fell asleep. The more Mendelevich's dramatic tale unfolded, the more it became clear that he was almost reliving the period in the retelling. Just as on Passover, all Jews are commanded to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt to feel as if they themselves came out of Egypt, so Mendelevich's extraordinary anecdotes revealing his contribution to modern Jewish history beg to be retold.

With this young audience, he started from the beginning, by giving a brief overview of the essence of communist ideology and how it was that the Jews were supposed to assimilate into the happy family of nationalities that made up homo Sovieticus.

The Mendelevich family paid dearly for their unwillingness to conform to communist ideals. In the late 1950s, Yosef's father was arrested in one of Khruschev's mass arrests. One of Mendelevich's most powerful childhood memories is when he stood outside the courthouse with his mother and two sisters. "I just thought about what I could do to save my father--and I ended up asking for help. But I didn't know to whom I was directing my requests," he says. "But my Jewish soul had an answer--there is Someone," Yosef reflects, as he tells the students it was the first prayer he uttered in his life.

Sentenced to five years imprisonment, leaving his wife alone to take care of their three children, Mendelevich's father managed to return home after two years hard labor. Shortly after his release, Mendelevich's mother became ill and died. His father was physically broken and unable to work and so, "What was left but to dream?" Yosef asks.

"He told us of a country with blue sky, beautiful scenery and warm people who were all Jews like us," Yosef marvels."Of course we thought it was a crazy dream--but it became part of our reality."

When he was 16, Yosef went to work during the day to support the family, and studied engineering at night school. There he met other young Jews and they began to share their dreams. "It was so important just to find other Jews," he recounts. "It doesn't matter what you do--but just to have Jews gather together, it's very special--Yachad!"

Yosef was invited to take part in the first project of the Riga Jewish activists. Every Sunday, they would gather in the forest of Rumbula, on the outskirts of Riga, to rehabilitate the mass grave of more than 30,000 Jews massacred there by the Nazis. On Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Memorial Day, which they knew about through their clandestine listening to the radio broadcasts of Kol Yisrael, several hundred Jews gathered at Rumbula. Yosef recounts the speech he gave to the assembly. "I told them that it was because of the merit of the dead that we were there. There's no killing the Jewish spirit! You can never stop Jewish life. Here we were in the hundreds, commemorating our heritage, when the Nazis thought they could wipe us out..."

The Rumbula activity connected the young Jews to the remnant of the Shoah generation, and Yosef explains how the older people were called upon to teach everything they knew about Judaism. Although this was already the second generation to have lived under communist rule where Jewish teaching was illegal, vestiges of knowledge remained and were passed on. "That's how we learned about Jewish holidays and Jewish songs, " Yosef says. From that step, it was just a short distance to arrive at the understanding that there could be no complete Jewish life in the Soviet Diaspora. "Our answer to our enemies was to go..we believe in geula (redemption)," Yosef explains.

In order to prepare people for the day when they could leave for Israel, it was necessary to start an underground Zionist organization with a network of teachers. Yosef himself taught Hebrew: "I knew 300 words then--my students perhaps knew 100, so I was an expert!"

Parallel to the Zionist activity, the Jews began to test the limits of the Soviet juggernaut. They applied to leave based on family reunification. With invitations from fictitious relatives in Israel who happened to have the same family names, Jews approached the OVIR state Ministry of the Interior and tried to get permission to emigrate. Almost everyone in the late 1960s and early 70s was refused making them "refuseniks," vulnerable to being denied entry to universities or being fired from jobs.

Yosef realized that if he were to continue with his engineering studies, when he would graduate he would end up being forever enslaved to the Soviet system. So he quit and lost his deferment from the Soviet army. Again, if he were to serve in the army, his chances of ever leaving the country would be minimal, since Soviet authorities claimed that anyone serving in the armed forces had access to "state secrets" and could never be permitted to leave.

The night before his induction, the young Mendelevich prayed again. "I realized that perhaps it would help, but maybe I would have to make a sacrifice for it to work. So I decided to sacrifice my freedom, and swore to become religious if somehow I was saved from the army."

Indeed, a series of circumstances persuaded his army interviewers that he was not fit to serve, and as soon as he got back to civilian life, Mendelevich began to observe whatever commandments he knew about. The most visible was the wearing of a beret as a head covering, instead of a kipa. "I was proud to wear it because I knew that Israeli soldiers wore the beret," he exclaims. "More than anything, I wanted to serve in the IDF as a member of the Golani brigade," he tells the audience.

This was just after the 1967 Six Day War, which ignited the flame of Jewish identity amongst Jews in the Soviet Union. Groups of Jewish activists sprung up all over the Soviet Union with similar goals of pushing for the right to emigrate, and preparing Jews for that eventuality.

Thus Mendelevich came into contact with Jews in Leningrad (St Petersburg today) who hatched a plan that revolved around a former Soviet Air Force pilot, Mark Dymshitz. The group decided the time had come for a dramatic gesture that would highlight the desperation of Jews to leave communist oppression, and galvanize support for their cause. They bought tickets under false names on a small plane flying to a border zone. As the plane would land to let off the tourist passengers, Mendelevich and his associates would politely inform the pilot and co-pilot they were being left there, Dymshitz would take the controls and fly low, under the radar, landing in Sweden where they figured they'd hold a news conference and be arrested by the Swedes. A few days or weeks of detention and they'd be on their way to Israel.

Mendelevich tells the Machon Meir students that the group was armed with one machine gun. "It's a real war, we thought, not a game. If they try to kill us, we'd be smarter."

He mentions as an aside that Dymshitz is now close to 80 years old and living in Rehovot. Another "hijacker," Edward Kuznetsov lives in Motza, just outside Jerusalem.

In fact, the hijackers never got off the ground. The KGB had been tipped off and knew the entire plan. All 15 of those waiting to board the small plane were arrested that day, along with several hundred other Jewish activists from all over the country. The KGB hoped the arrests would derail the Zionist movement.

Mendelevich describes how the euphoria of his imminent departure turned in an instant to the grim realization that "I had lost my life, I had nothing." All through the interrogation period, Mendelevich was abjectly guilt -ridden that by his actions he had caused the arrest of so many other Jews. Eventually he realized that had the group not undertaken their action, Jewws would have been worse off, their weakness and vulnerability exposed.

"Prison is like a grave," Yosef explains to the rapt students. "There's total silence. It's supposed to make you feel as if you're forgotten." Yosef recounts several prison stories. He determined that he would observe Shabbat. In preparation, he started to clean his cell as his guards looked on in astonishment. While cleaning the walls, Yosef discovered a nail protruding from the wall. He used it to etch a depiction of candles into the wall. "When I "lit" these candles and said the blessing, they were truly radiant and I imagined I could see Jerusalem through the flames," he recalls. He had hoarded the best parts of the week's bread to use on Shabbat, and tore off a piece of material as a "challah" cover. "What a magnificent Shabbat I had.." marvels Yosef. "In this way I felt myself completely free.. I had my own private geula (redemption) in prison."

As the hour at Machon Meir grew late, Yosef didn't have time to tell the students how he ended up in the same prison camp as Natan Sharansky, and how he taught Sharansky Hebrew and exchanged messages with him in a bizarre variety of ways--including by pumping the water out of the toilets in their cells and communicating through the toilet bowl. When news arrived that Sharansky's father had died, Mendelevich prepared the kaddish prayer for the dead for him on a tiny piece of paper and threw it over the wall of their adjoining exercise yards.

The lives of the two former Soviet Prisoners of Zion have diverged since those days. Sharansky, father of two teenage daughters, entered the world of politics and is a minister in the Israeli cabinet. Both his Hebrew and English are marked with a heavy Russian accent. His books have met with great acclaim, particularly his most recent effort: 'The Case for Democracy,' that zoomed up the New York Times bestseller list after a ringing endorsement from President Bush. Sharansky is a much-in-demand speaker on college campuses, conferences and high level meetings all over the world and just made Time Magazine's Top 100 List.

Meanwhile, Mendelevich's powerful message of Jewish spiritual survival that could be inspiring a new generation is sadly heard by only a few.