How Judaism survived the gulag
Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival by Yosef Mendelevich, Gefen Publishing House; 2012; ISBN 978-965-229-563-7; 337 pages.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO –Feeling desperate that Jews were not allowed to emigrate freely from the Soviet Union, Yosef Mendelevich and a few compatriots planned some 42 years ago to hijack a plane from the tiny airfield of Priozersk, near the USSR border with Finland, and have it flown over Finland to neighboring Sweden. From there they would seek asylum in Israel. One of the troubles with the plan was that too many people knew about it, and it came to the attention of the KGB, which successfully arrested the plotters on June 15, 1970.
Yosef Mendelevich was in the vanguard of those brave souls who came to be known as Soviet “refuseniks,” Jews who had sought to emigrate but were refused permission to leave. Although not all tried to hijack airplanes, all felt the oppressive opposition of a state that couldn’t admit to itself, much less to the world, that great numbers of people desperately wanted to leave its “worker’s paradise.” Tried and convicted for his role in the plot, Mendelevich was sentenced to 15 years, but this later was reduced to 11 years.
Like many Soviet Jews who were denied formal education in the precepts and practices of their religion, Mendelevich had only a spotty knowledge of Judaism and Israel. However, he knew in his heart that both the religion and the land were essential to his identity. Once he was imprisoned, he began a quest to transform himself from an uninformed Latvian Jewish citizen of the Soviet Union, who had been force-fed communism his entire life, into a pious, Shomer-Shabbos, Israel-bound Jew.
The problem was that materials about Israel and Judaism were prohibited in the prison system. If any such materials were found, they were confiscated by the authorities Any prisoner involved in the chain of custody was punished. So prisoners often had to pool their fragmented knowledge of Judaism and create clandestine study groups. Materials smuggled on rare visiting days into the prisons by friends or relatives were hidden in cells, or clothing, or within body cavities, until they could be copied on pieces of paper more easily hidden. However, among the prisoners, there were always the spies who in exchange for a more generous food allowance, or other “privileges,” would report any strange behavior, as well as any non-regulation reading material, to the authorities.
Much of the Mendelevich’s book, which was first published a quarter century ago in Hebrew and only recently translated into English, describes the cat-and-mouse game that prisoners played with the authorities in order to increase their knowledge of Torah, their knowledge of Israel’s geography and people, and their knowledge of the Hebrew language.
As the West became more aware of the Soviet refuseniks, and names like “Yosef Mendelevich,” “Ida Nudel,” and “Anatoly Sharansky” became household words, even White Household words, the cat and mouse game became more intense. The fate of well-known prisoners would often be raised by Western negotiators during Arms Limitation treaties and other meetings. So from the Soviet standpoint, it wouldn’t do to kill these celebrated refuseniks, but on the other hand, it wouldn’t do to give into them either. And thus there was a tug of war.
Mendelevich, and other “prisoners of conscience” to protest their treatment, would declare hunger strikes, word of which eventually would make its way to the West. In response, these political prisoners would be carted to solitary cells, where they would continue their hunger strike. At some point, when their condition became alarming to prison doctors, they would be force fed.
Sometimes, prison authorities looked the other way when prisoners engaged in Jewish practice. Mendelevich was allowed to grow his beard, and wear a yarmulke, even though both violated prison regulations. Then, suddenly, the yarmulke was snatched from his head, and guards held him down as he was roughly shaved. Sometimes, he was allowed to turn in piece work he had done in excess of his quota during the week, and that would be considered his Saturday quota. Under such circumstances, he could rest on Saturdays , and thereby observe the Shabbat. On other occasions, however, he was forced to work and therefore the sanctity of Shabbat was violated.
To an outsider, it might seem that for Mendelevich, prison life was “win some, lose some.” But every battle, whether he won or lost, kept his mind fully occupied with his commitment to learn Judaism, Hebrew and about Israel.
Over 11 years of tussle, harassment, arbitrariness, vindictiveness and pettiness on the part of the prison authorities, Mendelevich survived, his faith in Judaism and knowledge of its rituals growing fragment by fragment until he became one of the most knowledgeable Jews in the entire prison gulag system.
After his release, and a tumultuous hero’s welcome in Israel, Mendelevich went on to formally study the Torah, and eventually gained ordination as a rabbi.
Reading his tale, I realized that in an ironic way, prison had liberated him from many of the distractions that Jews today–especially Jews in the West — face. Rather than bouncing from one subject to another, or from one social fad to another, prisoner Mendelevich was able to concentrate intensely on the object of his desires –Jewish knowledge — and to internalize it.
There were no great Jewish libraries, the very size of which might discourage him, to browse and learn from. He had no access to Jewish learning on the Internet. He had no rabbi with whom to consult. Instead, he obtained every tiny scrap of Jewish knowledge through cleverness and willpower, and his intense effort made the information thus gained all the more meaningful to him.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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