Yosef Mendelevich's memoir Unbroken Spirit, which tells of his life and times as a refusenik in the Soviet Union, begins with a bang, both stylistically and quite literally.
Back in 1969, the 22-year-old Latvian-born Mendelevich and a number of other young Jews were involved in a daring plot to hijack a Soviet plane and fly it to Sweden; once in freedom, they planned to head for Israel. As the book begins, we are in the thick of the hijacking with the group of Jews heading for the plane at a Leningrad airport. The young men carried backpacks, some of which contained gags, ropes, a rubber-coated club, a small ax and a hunting knife, and were feeling remarkably optimistic.
But all of the careful planning in the world had not stopped the KGB from getting wind of the plot. The group was swarmed
by soldiers as they approached the aircraft. The author writes: "I am tackled to the ground, my head hitting the concrete tarmac. I put up no resistance.
" 'You're under arrest.'
"My wrists are cuffed. … I'd been prepared for this — even for this, and when I am put back on my feet, though my glasses have fallen off, I see before me a tragic sight: swarms of soldiers, policemen, canine teams, and border police, and amid all of them my colleagues, cuffed and bound, one of them still struggling with our apprehenders. Not a moment after registering this mental image, I hear shots. As I turn to the sound, I see that Mark [Dymshits], our pilot, has been shot, a severed sheet of his scalp covering his entire face. … Tragedy. I've never seen such an awful sight.
"All is lost."
And so begins Yosef Mendelevich's long struggle as a Prisoner of Zion — with more than a decade of his life condemned to the horror of Soviet prison camps.
But as his book — which was recently translated into English — makes clear, his struggle began much earlier than this stark and highly dramatic moment at the airport. It's a struggle he revisited here last week in an interview during a stop in the area.
From its beginnings, his effort was not just to free himself from an intransigent, anti-Semitic regime that had refused him aliyah, but it was also an inner struggle — to come to some understanding of what it means to be a Jew.
The religious nature of his battle against the Soviets is best exemplified by his depiction of his father's arrest and the effect it had upon the 11-year-old Mendelevich.
His father had been detained on trumped-up charges. And as the family waited for word of his fate, Mendelevich writes in his book that he felt a need to do something — and so he prayed.
Asked where this religious impulse came from in a child raised by a devoted communist father, he answered that it has no explanation.
"And it is, by itself, an explanation," he said, struggling to explain himself in a language hardly native to him. "When a Jewish child starts praying without being instructed to do that, it means that it is a normal way.
"It is strange — a child of 11 feeling that it is his responsibility to do something," he continued. "Somehow I think it reflects my nature as a human being. There are people who are more active and less active. I was born it seems to be more active — from the beginning, it was my primary impulse to do something and not just wait. And then it came, this prayer."
Praying, he said, left him with a strange feeling he could not explain or describe but the memory remained with him. And it grew through his teen years and became stronger still when he was sentenced after the hijacking plot failed.
By that time, he had already applied and been denied a permit to make aliyah and had been involved in several underground student Zionist movements, where he got wind of the hijacking scheme.
He was first sentenced to 15 years, but the sentence was reduced to 12 years in camps in the Ural Mountains. Wherever he was, he surreptitiously taught Hebrew and Torah to interested inmates.
Eventually, he was tried for conducting religious practices, received an additional three years and was transferred to the infamous Vladimir Central Prison, northwest of Moscow. When officials there confiscated his Jewish books, Mendelevich decided to go on a hunger strike. It lasted 56 days.
Asked where the strength to accomplish such feats of courage came from, this small, thin man in his mid-60s with a long grey beard and peyes that he tucks behind his ears spoke in a self-effacing manner.
"It was a slow process," he said. "I thought to myself, 'If they take my books, I must do something. Either I will die or they will give me my books.' "
When they could not break his spirit, they put him in a punishment cell. But by then, the Soviet refusenik community had gotten word of his efforts out to the West and pressure from officials and organizations, especially in the United States, began to have some effect.
"They sent a strong Russian guy into my cell and he announced that I was a threat to the Soviet Union," Mendelevich said with a laugh. "This big guy is telling this little Jewish guy he's a threat."
Some days later, they took him from his cell and told him he had damaged himself as a Soviet citizen. For this crime, they were going to expel him from his motherland.
"No," Mendelevich answered, "you are expelling me to my motherland."
When he arrived in Israel in the early 1980s, he continued his political work to free fellow Prisoners of Zion, like Natan Sharansky, and he thought he might study international relations. But he was urged by many — even the Lubavitcher Rebbe — to remain "an example for religious people." That's what you were in prison, the rebbe told him, and "now you have to be an example for religious people in the free world."
Mendelevich eventually received his smicha and now teaches Talmud and Jewish philosophy at Machon Meir Institute in Jerusalem.
He wrote Unbroken Spirit very quickly when he first arrived in Israel in the early 1980s and it was published soon after. There have been several Hebrew editions and yet only now has it been translated into English.
When asked why, the author explained that he'd been contacted by Pamela Braun Cohen of Chicago several years ago; she had been active in the Soviet Jewry movement and was now insisting that his book was important for young American Jews to read.
" 'Your book is full of values. You can be a hero for them,' she told me. So she collected $30,000 to invest in a translation and publication.
"I have to educate young people by bringing this book to them, Pamela told me. Well, it is the story of an inner search of a young Jew for the meaning of his life and this is the same for everybody who is searching. It may be a good solution for some people who are also searching.
"But I am not a hero," he said, adding that, as in the past, he is "ready to take this part," if necessary.
"I do not like to promote myself. I hate it. But I am ready to do it."