Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Mendelevich)
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a little boy on the first day of first grade at school, just a slip of a kid sent out with a lunch packed by Mom and maybe an admonition from Dad to be good — ‘cause you’re a big boy now.’
You sit with 40 other wide-eyed little kids in a classroom, looking at the teacher. There is only one thing that separates you from the others, which you are about to find out for the very first time, a painful piece of knowledge that will come up again and again throughout your life until, along with the pain, comes great pride.
The teacher smiles and says, “Let’s go around the room. Each one of you will stand up and say your nationality.”
The first kid jumps up: “I’m Latvian!”
“I’m Ukranian!” says the next kid.
“I’m Russian!” says the one after that.
And so it goes, 39 answers shouted out with pride until it comes your turn. You already understand that if you are to tell the truth, your answer will be different from everybody else’s — because the one thing that separates you from the others is that you’re a Jew, the only one in the class.
Yosef Mendelevich, now in his early seventies, recalls the moral dilemma he experienced on the first day of first grade in the Soviet Union, all those years ago.
He remembers thinking, “Why does a small child have to tell his nationality? I’m a Soviet citizen — that’s not enough? I speak Russian just like them! Nobody knows I’m Jewish. I can stand up and tell a lie.”
He stood up. “Then, all of a sudden, I saw my father [Moshe ben Aaron], before my eyes — like Yosef HaTzaddik saw his father, Yaakov. I felt if I made like I don’t know who I am, it would be like I don’t know who’s my father. So I whispered ‘I am Jewish,’ hoping nobody would hear.”
They heard. His words unleashed a mini riot in the class of six-year-olds, all of them yelling, “Zhid! Zhid! (Jew! Jew!)” “I ran away, crying,” says the man with the long white beard, now known as “Refusenik” Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich.
When Yosef would grow up, his internal passport, required for every Soviet citizen, would be stamped on the infamous Line #5 stating nationality: EVREI (JEWISH).
In 1957, when Yosef was ten years old, his father was arrested and tried for “economic crimes” (selling a few grams of lead on the black market). Khrushchev had made stopping this type of crime into a crusade — with Jews, primarily, as his targets to be accused, arrested, tried, and sometimes executed.
On the day of the trial, he accompanied his mother and sister to the court.
“I felt that I could do something, I could help my father! So I prayed, ‘Please, please, help my father! I promise You I’ll be a good boy! Just help my father get out from the prison.’ Nobody had taught me to pray! [Yosef grew up in a secular Jewish home.] I had discovered, in my soul, that the only way to look for help was to pray. This was how I discovered G-d.”
Moshe Mendelevich was convicted and sent to prison. After a year and a half, another trial was held and this time Moshe was pronounced innocent, acquitted, and allowed to return home. His wife, Chaya, Yosef’s mother, became depressed, believing nothing would improve, and she died of a broken heart.
As a teenager, Yosef worked as a carpenter’s apprentice in a factory by day. At night, he went to School 25, a high school where, amazingly, most of the students were Jewish.
“Can you imagine how a child, a teenager of 16, can feel working with the Russian goyim who were saying, ‘You are a man? Sit with us, drink vodka!’ At my factory job, they wanted to corrupt me, make me like them. I hate drinking vodka, even now. On Purim, I don’t drink anything. It was a blessing.”
At the high school, a friend of Yosef’s announced: “Friends, we don’t study today. Today is a holiday — a new year. We are going out!” Yosef asked him, “What new year? It’s September now. The new year is in December.”
“He told me it was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, that the Jews have different holidays than others. Then he said, ‘We are going to the synagogue!’
“I had nothing to do with religion, but I couldn’t stay alone, so I followed them. When I came to the synagogue, we met friends. I enjoyed it, this beautiful holiday. They told me in ten days, there would be another one. I thought, ‘Every ten days, we have another holiday? What a beautiful religion!’”
The boy and his father were close. “My father would say: ‘It’s true that people here don’t like us. But, there is another country where everybody likes Jews. Why? Everybody’s Jewish!’ And he would say, ‘In that country the sky is blue and the sun is shining. What country is this? Israel.’”
Moshe Mendelevich was not alone in speaking to his son that way. In those years, Jewish families in Riga secretly played Israeli music records, listened to Kol Israel radio broadcasts, tried to teach themselves Hebrew, and read any Jewish material they could find. Leon Uris’s book “Exodus”, over 600 pages long, was secretly translated and handed out by the Jewish underground, a best-seller under the radar.
“And everybody played the same game,” says Yosef, “called ‘Going to Israel.’”
But Soviet citizens, Jew and non-Jew alike, were locked behind an Iron Curtain. Those who sought to leave had to apply to the OVIR office for permission, something rarely granted. Such an application was not made lightheartedly; it led to being fired from one’s job and being watched by the KGB for anti-Soviet actions, such as — in the case of Jews — learning Hebrew and studying Torah, offenses which led to imprisonment.
In the early 1960s, defying Soviet law, Yosef and other young Jews made frequent trips to the Rumbuli forest outside Riga, the site of a 1941 massacre of at least 25,000 Jews by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. There, the Jews had been forced to undress, lie down in five narrow ditches, and wait to be shot, one by one, in the head. Twenty-plus years later, there were still bones sticking out of the ground.
Seeing it for the first time, a big trench covered with sand that had receded, he understood that “this was the biggest mitzvah, to help make a Jewish grave.”
Strangely, there was no memorial to mark the spot. Yosef asked himself, “What would be the reason that the Russians themselves wouldn’t establish a memorial to make people remember? And then I understood. If they would erect a memorial, people would come and say Kaddish — and remember. They would have liked us to assimilate and forget that we are Jewish. So the moment I put my first handful of sand in the trench, I became the enemy of the Soviet authorities — because they would like me to forget and I would like to remember.”
Normally, one can never be repaid for such a mitzvah as this, burying the dead. But not in this case, comments Yosef. Rumbuli “was the only place that hundreds of young Jews could meet. My sister met my friend there, and they married. So you see, the dead people helped us and taught me that I am a Jew.”
Going to Israel: Hijacking a plane, arrest, trial, imprisonment
Yosef became a member of the Jewish underground and editor of the illegal newspaper, “Ha-Iton.” He studied Torah the best he could without formal instruction and stopped working on Shabbat. He applied and was turned down for a visa to immigrate to Israel.
Desperate to live a truly Jewish life in Israel, he and a group of like-minded friends attempted to hijack an empty plane and escape the Soviet Union. Caught and arrested, the sentences were harsh. Yosef received 15 years imprisonment in the Gulag.
Due to an outcry in the West — from American Jews and Israelis — the death penalties given to Mark Dymshits (the pilot) and Eduard Kuznetsov (leader of the group) were changed to prison time and Yosef’s 15 years were reduced to 12.
Unbelievably, Yosef became a fully observant Jew while locked up in the Gulag — fashioning himself a yarmulke out of a handkerchief, scratching the impression of Shabbat candles on the wall, davening and rejoicing all by
himself, and singing “David Melech Yisroel.” When he learned that Anatoly Sharansky was imprisoned in the next cell, the two communicated by removing all the water from their respective toilets and talking through the empty bowls.
Released in 1981, he flew immediately to Jerusalem, served in the IDF, earned a master’s degree in Jewish history, and became a rabbi, teaching at Machon Meir Yeshiva. He is the author of the best-selling book, “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival.” He is married, with seven children and many grandchildren.
Looking back, the now famous and esteemed “Refusenik” says, “On the way to prison, I asked myself: ‘Do I regret? No, I am proud that I did it.’ Because I know that if you love something, you have to sacrifice — sometimes money, sometimes comfort, sometimes … your life. What a transformation from a child afraid to admit that he’s Jewish.”
This article is reprinted with permission of the author, Beth Sarafraz, a freelance published writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.