High school and middle school students from the Bais Yaakov School for Girls gathered in the auditorium at the school’s Mount Washington location to hear famed refusenik Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch share his story of fighting Russian oppression from behind the Iron Curtain.
Mendelevitch, whose “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival” was recently translated into English, traveled from his home in Israel to address Baltimore audiences March 27 to 30. He spoke at Bais Yaakov the morning of March 28.
Prior to Mendelevitch’s presentation, Bais Yaakov seniors Ruty Nadoff and Shaindee Schmell said they were looking forward to the event.
“[I want to hear] how people struggled for something that is so easy for us,” said Nadoff. Schmell said she expected an inspiring story that would “lift her heart” and provide encouragement to “keep on growing in this beautiful religion.”
Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1947, Mendelevitch grew up in a secular household and received no formal Jewish education. Nevertheless, the rabbi’s parents spoke Yiddish, and Mendelevitch was aware that the family was Jewish.
At Bais Yaakov, he began his address with memories of his childhood in the Soviet Union.
“When I was a child, our teacher [in public school] decided to ask every child in my class to stand up and tell their nationality. Each child stood up and proclaimed [his or her nationality] proudly. Only one boy, 7 years old, sitting in the back row, was afraid,” said Mendelevitch. “That was me. For I did understand that to be a Jew was something shameful. I was afraid I would lose my friends. This demanded courage and I didn’t have it.
“So I decided to say that I didn’t know what [nationality] I was,” he continued. “I stood up and saw [the image of] my father before me. I felt if I didn’t know who I was, I would be saying I didn’t know who my father was, so I whispered, ‘I am a Jew.’ Everyone started yelling. ‘Why am I different?’ I asked myself.”
Mendelevitch went on to share pivotal experiences, such as his father’s arrest and imprisonment for fabricated crimes, his decision as a high school student to take pride in his religion, his discovery of an underground movement of people who shared his views, and, most remarkable, his involvement in a 1970 plot to hijack an airplane to Sweden and eventually to Israel, where he desperately wanted to be.
Mendelevitch and more than a dozen other underground refuseniks bought all 12 seats on a small civilian airplane. They claimed the plane was transporting them to a family wedding. Once in Sweden, the hijackers planned to hold a news conference to inform Western audiences about the oppression that existed in the Soviet Union.
“In the airport, when we heard the announcement, ‘Boarding,’ we were excited,” recalled Mendelevitch. “[We thought] we would be free and would bring freedom to Russia. But the moment we came close to the plane, we were arrested by Russian soldiers, who brought us to prison and started questioning us.”
Although he knew he was risking his life, Mendelevitch refused to cooperate with the KGB authorities, who were trying to intimidate him and the other hijackers. The plan was to put the hijackers on trial, where they would be forced to give false testimony about the state of affairs in the Soviet Union. By doing so, the KGB hoped to fool leaders of Western countries into complacency.
Once they realized that Mendelevitch wouldn’t cooperate, the KGB threw him in jail. Over his 11 years of imprisonment, Mendelevitch would spend time in labor camps and confined to a small cell.
In prison, Mendelevitch did his best to practice Judaism. Despite the ridicule and threats from the prison guards, he attempted to keep as many mitzvot as he could.
He created a yarmulke out of his handkerchief, saved a portion of his meals so he could have a Shabbat meal each Friday and prayed by remembering as much as he could from his studies with members of the underground. Mendelevitch even missed visits from his beloved father, because the prison guards insisted he remove his makeshift yarmulke before the visits and he refused to do so.
Despite the Russian government’s attempts to hide its anti-Semitic activities, the arrests of Mendelevitch and his co-conspirators raised red flags for people elsewhere in the world. Responding to pressure from world leaders in 1981, thousands of Russian Jews, Mendelevitch among them, were finally permitted to leave the country. Mendelevitch went to Israel, where he continued his Jewish studies, eventually becoming an Orthodox rabbi.
Speaking after the event, Mendelevitch expressed appreciation for Baltimore’s Jewish community but also shared concerns about the broader Jewish community.
“American Jews are not much involved in supporting Israel, as we are accused of all these crimes we haven’t done,” said the rabbi. “They are just sitting back. Do something to pressure the White House. Don’t send Kerry to make us compromise. Jews are being silent, and Arabs are winning the war of propaganda.”
“I fought against assimilation in the Soviet Union, and as an outcome I went to prison. These days in America, the same thing is happening with 68 percent intermarriage,” he added. “American Jewry has to say this is an emergency and an obligation. We are losing people. It is like a silent Holocaust.”