“When you have a bleak reality, you try to escape to dreams,” said Yosef Mendelevich on the night of Oct. 24, before a rapt audience at the Seattle Kollel. The former Soviet refusenik came to Seattle on short notice while touring the United States with his book, “Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival” (Gefen).
Mendelevich is best known for his involvement in the Dymshits–Kuznetsov hijacking affair. On June 15, 1970, Mendelevich and 15 other men attempted to hijack a plane out of the Soviet Union to Sweden. Once in Sweden, they planned to hold a press conference to bring awareness to the plight of the Soviet Jews.
But Mendelevich, then 22 years old, and his comrades only made it as far as the Smolnoye airport before they were arrested and faced with a possible death penalty.
“It was a trap of the secret service,” he said.
Before the audience at the Kollel, Mendelevich, now a wiry man of 65 with a long white beard, peyot, and playful eyes, described the many times during the next 11 years of imprisonment the Soviets tried to break him.
“They tried to break me, but for some reason, I don’t know why, I wouldn’t cooperate,” he said.
Armed with growing faith in God and unwavering faith in the people of Israel, Mendelevich withstood life in the Gulag and, upon his release in 1981, immigrated to Israel to the great enthusiasm of the country.
“Unbroken Spirit” was originally published in Hebrew in 1985. Recently, friends had urged him to publish it in English for the sake of “Am Yisrael.”
“The moment it will be needed,” he said, “it will happen. And it happened.” “Unbroken Spirit” was translated into the English by Benjamin Balint, former editor of Commentary magazine, author of “Running Commentary” (PublicAffairs, 2010), and a 1994 graduate of the Northwest Yeshiva High School.
Benjamin’s mother, former Seattle resident Judy Lash Balint, organized Mendelevich’s stop in Seattle with Rabbi Avroham David at the Kollel. Judy Balint was active in the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and ‘80s, and helped bring Mendelevich to Seattle in 1983.
While in town last week, the former refusenik also visited Northwest Yeshiva High School, Seattle Hebrew Academy, the University of Washington, and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.
“His case was such a linchpin of the movement,” said Balint via Skype from Jerusalem, where she now lives. “If not for the hijackers, the movement would not have happened.”
Balint reflected on her work with the Soviet Jews in the days when no one was allowed out, and no Israelis were allowed in.
“You’d have to book a phone call,” she said. “Invariably, the Soviets would come back and say, ‘You can have that phone call at two, three in the morning.’”
Balint first visited the Soviet Union in 1974.
“You felt these instant bonds with the people in the USSR,” she said. “You felt this was your closest misphacha [family].”
The effort to get the Jews out of Russia and into Israel was “a coming together of disparate parts of the Jewish world…it was a very profound experience,” she said.
Born in Riga, Latvia in 1947, Mendelevich describes Jews in the former Soviet Union as victims of a “biological Holocaust” by forced assimilation. Although raised secular — a product of his environment — Mendelevich and his family dreamed of Israel, where “the sun is shining all the year” and where “there are good people; nobody hates us, for one simple reason: All of them are Jewish.”
If religious identification was killed off by the Soviets, then Mendelevich was resurrected. Upon discovering a number of Jews in his university classes, Mendelevich began attending synagogue and helped to clean up the site of a mass Jewish grave of 28,000 bodies.
“We sat at the graves and sang Jewish songs — ‘Am Yisrael Chai,’ ‘David Melech Yisrael Chai Vikayam,’” he recalled. “The dead people are listening to our songs, and they are glad…I imagined that the moment they were shot, they thought that everything was lost.
“The dead people taught us a lesson. There is Am Yisrael, and we belong,” he said. “It is me being shot, and coming up. I got my strength, my being a Jew, from the dead people.”
From there, Mendelevich said, “I suggested we have to establish an underground movement to save Am Yisrael.”
Now the head of the religious-Zionist Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Mendelevich described his first encounters with Jewish practice.
“Strange people,” he thought, “having a new year in September. It’s not snowing yet.” He credits not his classmates, but God, with bringing him to Rosh Hashanah services. As his fervor to save the people of Israel increased, it occurred to him: He had to take on traditional Jewish observance, little that he knew about it.
“I had a feeling I had to sacrifice something,” he said. So he called out to God: “If you make me free from Soviet army, I promise you to become a believing Jew.”
According to Mendelevich, God came through on the promise. Even in prison, after the foiled plot, Mendelevich proudly identified as a Jew.
“When I got involved in this activism, I discovered meaning!” he exclaimed. “My life was joyful, you know?
“Admitting that I am not a Jewish activist would mean for me to finish my life,” he said.