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Tuesday
Apr252017

MENDELEVITCH CLOSES THE CIRCLE

R’ Yosef Mendelevitch is one of the famous Prisoners of Zion from the historic struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry. He and his colleagues planned to hijack an airliner and use it to escape from Russia. However, the KGB was already waiting for them inside the plane… In an interview with Beis Moshiach, R’ Yosef describes those difficult days when he sat in solitary confinement on a two-month long hunger strike, and the unexpected miracle that occurred in the Rebbe’s merit. He also tells about the gift that the Rebbe sent him, arriving at exactly the right time: “The Rebbe instructed me to tell about what I went through, being an example and a symbol for other Jews. Since then, I work on the Rebbe’s shlichus.” An amazing story.

Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry

Photos by Ronen YanshovskyIt was during Kislev of last year when Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch from Yerushalayim, one of the world’s most famous Prisoners of Zion, had an equally stirring and uplifting experience. This was when he was invited to visit the Rebbe’s shluchim in the city of S. Petersburg, Russia. The last time he stepped foot in the city’s airport had been thirty-five years earlier, when he was arrested and jailed in the local Soviet prison after he and his cohorts planned to hijack a jet and use it to escape past the Russian border. “Our plan was to call a press conference immediately after landing, during which we would reveal to the world about the religious persecution against Jews taking place inside the Soviet Union.”

His visit last year to S. Petersburg was quite different; this time, he stood tall without any fear or concern about the watchful eye of the KGB. “Who would have believed that the status and rank of Jews of Russia would be so prominent?” he said in a voice filled with emotion.

To their great misfortune, the hijack plan that had been so carefully arranged was discovered by KGB agents and the plotters were subsequently caught and convicted of treason. Mendelevitch was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment. He served eleven years, three of which were spent under extremely harsh conditions.

His thrilling story, from the time he was a boy until the period of his imprisonment and release, was made known in two books he published. “Operation Wedding” – the story of his life, imprisonment, and release, and “Unbroken Spirit” – observing mitzvos in Soviet prisons. What is not mentioned in these books is the Chabad angle to the story of his release and the miracles he experienced with the Rebbe’s bracha. “With my landing in Vienna, the Rebbe already knew to send a shliach there to greet me, carrying a pair of t’fillin,” he recalled. “However, it was only last year that I learned from Rabbi Yitzchak Kogan that this was just the tip of the iceberg.”

THE FIRST SPARKS OF JEWISH CONNECTION

Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch was born in 5707 in Riga, Latvia in a non-Torah observant Jewish home. His sense of Jewish identity grew with greater intensity specifically through interactions with his non-Jewish classmates. “My parents sent me to learn in state-run public schools. One day, the teacher decided to ask each child to which ethnicity and nationality they belonged. Our classroom contained a mixture of nations: Kazakhstanis, Ukrainians, Russians, and more. He moved from child to child and inquired about each one’s family. I sat silently in my chair, concerned what would happen when he came to me.

“My mother and father had already managed to give me some direction on how there was no need to publicize that I was a member of the Jewish People. I knew all too well that the moment I said that I was a Jew, I would lose my friends, and they would ridicule and bully me. During those brief moments I considered simply saying, ‘I don’t know.’ When the teacher came up to me, I stood up, ready to utter this ‘little white lie.’ Then, I suddenly thought of my father, Moshe, who had a very Jewish appearance, spoke Yiddish, and knew no Russian. How could I possibly deny this? I opened my mouth and spoke the truth: I am a member of the Jewish People. I didn’t know what it meant to be a Jew, but it was the truth nevertheless.

“As I had expected, the eyes of all my peers were directed toward me as a sudden commotion engulfed the classroom. Children who only minutes earlier had been my friends began yelling at me, cursing, and calling me names. I burst out crying and ran home. But I was already back in class the very next day. As is typical with young children, the whole matter was quickly forgotten, but for me, this was my first lesson in developing my Jewish identity. Even then, certain thoughts started entering my mind: Why do they hate us? Why are we different from all the other nations?”

The second experience that got Mendelevitch thinking about his Jewish identity took place when he was in the fifth grade. He went together with his mother and two sisters to participate in a secular New Year’s party. He didn’t have the slightest idea about the concept of a Jewish New Year. “I remember the clown who gave out presents to everyone. We enjoyed the event very much and we returned home happy and content. As soon as we entered the house, we noticed that the house was filled with policemen. Father was standing in the living room in handcuffs as my mother became frightened and hysterical. ‘Where have you hidden your money?’ the policeman repeatedly asked. I didn’t understand what they wanted; if only we had some.

“After they turned the house inside out and naturally found nothing, they took my father to the police station. I later learned that this was the standard approach of the Communist regime to calm and distract the inciting masses. Instead of developing trade and creating economic possibilities for its citizens, they act as despotic tyrants, threatening any hint of disobedience.

“When Father was taken to prison, I was deeply shocked. We were then living in a city of half a million people; it had no organized Jewish community. Our source of sustenance had been broken and we had no one upon whom we could rely. After several long months, a trial date was set. My mother, my sisters, and I stood in the freezing cold under a barrage of snowfall outside the court, waiting for the verdict. We were not permitted to enter the hall.

“As I stood outside, I found myself praying. I asked that my father be released, and in return, I would promise to be a good boy, helping others and learning properly. I directed my request Heavenward, despite the fact that I had never heard about the existence of the Creator. In retrospect, I have no way of understanding where this desire to pray came from, having received a strictly atheist education. It would seem that this is the proof that a Jew is different from a Gentile; a Jew has a soul, so even when he has not been educated about G-d and religion, a spiritual tug and belief in the Creator will often bubble up on their own accord.

“To my great regret, my prayers were not immediately answered. My father was sentenced to five years of exile in a Siberian work camp. Mother was broken - no parnasa and no husband. Soon after, she fell ill and passed away. A year later, the Communist authorities decided to give my father a retrial. Anyone familiar with Soviet policies in those days realizes how great a miracle this was. The judge heard the arguments on appeal, and to our great surprise, he acquitted him on all counts and ordered his immediate release.”

LONGING FOR YIDDISHKAIT

When Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch’s father returned from exile, the children began hearing from him for the first time about Eretz Yisroel. “Father told us that there is a land with many orange groves where they don’t persecute Jews. Why? Because everyone there is Jewish! The yearning that my father expressed when he spoke about Eretz Yisroel affected all his children. We would pretend that we were in a train traveling to Eretz Yisroel by arranging a line of chairs, as we said goodbye to Russia and arrived in the Promised Land.”

When Yosef reached the age of sixteen, he started helping to bring parnasa into the home by doing hard physical labor in a lumber factory. However, in order to complete his studies toward an academic degree, he registered with a night school. “To my great surprise, I discovered that most of my fellow students, including the instructor himself, were Jewish. Each of them worked at whatever jobs came their way, and we met during the evenings for our studies. In this classroom, I had no concern about saying to which people I belonged.

“A couple of months later, one of the students wrote with chalk on the blackboard that there would be no classes the next day due to the Rosh Hashanah festival. I was amazed. Until then, I was only aware of the secular New Year holiday. I asked this student about this, and I discovered that Jews also celebrate the start of the new year, albeit on a different date. My classmates suggested that I join them for a visit to the local synagogue the following day.

“This was the one house of worship in the city that had survived the inferno of the Second World War. The Nazis, may G-d blot out their name, had chosen not to set it ablaze due to its close proximity to a monastery, as they were worried that the fire might also spread there. I happily agreed to accept my friends’ invitation, and I walked to the shul the next day. The older Jews sat inside and davened, while we, the younger crowd, formed groups in the synagogue courtyard. When the service concluded and everyone returned home, I shared my feelings with my friends about this most pleasant experience, and I asked when we would be gathering the next time. They replied that it would be in another ten days, on Yom Kippur. At the time, I was totally ignorant about Jewish holidays. Naturally, I arrived on that day as well.

“The next time I came to the synagogue was for the Sukkos holiday. My friendship with other Jews had exposed me to considerable information about my people and the path of Torah that I had previously known nothing about, information that the Communist regime had tried with all its strength to suppress. With the passage of time, I started going to the synagogue and leafing through s’farim. The language was totally foreign to me, and I realized that if I wanted to understand the written text, I had to learn Hebrew.

“Several months later, one of my fellow students informed me that there would be no classes on the following Sunday. He suggested that we gather in the local Jewish cemetery to renovate the headstones. While some of my classmates declined, preferring instead to have a good time, I was captivated by the idea.

“When I told my father about this, he became frightened and begged me not to go. He claimed that I might get entrapped, as there would surely be secret police monitoring our activities, who would then blacklist me and prevent my acceptance to university. In contrast to my father’s worries over the long reach of the KGB, I remained unconcerned and went as planned. I remember my visit as a formative moment that aroused my soul.”

In 5726, Mendelevitch decided to share his discovery of the path of his forefathers with other Jews as well. He founded a Jewish underground organization dealing with the study of Hebrew and Judaism. A year later, he began editing an underground journal – “HaIton”.

In 5727, during a memorial ceremony he and his friends held for the Holocaust victims of the Rumbula massacre, he made the decision to do t’shuva. “The person who had a tremendous influence upon me was Mendel Gordin. He showed me the way as an individual example. While I was still very far from being a religious Jew in the fullest sense of the word, I had already resolved that I would choose the path of Torah.”

Since then, he has never stopped learning, and whatever he learns, he teaches to others.

One day he decided, to the great displeasure of his friends and family, that he would go to the Soviet Interior Ministry and request an exit visa to Eretz Yisroel. “I had a strong desire to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel. When I submitted my application to the clerk, he rejected me in a tone of ridicule. ‘Do you honestly think that we’ll let you emigrate there and then enlist in their army to fight against the interests of Mother Russia in the Middle East? Go to work and stop the nonsense.’ This was shortly before the Pesach holiday, and I was struck by the similarity between the clerk’s statement and the words of Pharaoh to Moshe Rabbeinu…

“Instead of getting dejected, I continued to immerse myself in Torah study.”

THE DARING MISSION SHATTERED BY THE SECRET POLICE

At a certain stage, Mendelevitch and his friends discovered underground Jewish groups gathered in other cities throughout Russia to study Hebrew and Torah. “A connection began to form between us. We distributed the newspaper we printed among all the young groups, and the connection become extremely close.

“Once, when I met with the members of another group, one of them asked me if I was planning to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel, and I said yes. He then told me about another Jew who had recently joined them in the underground Torah study program and at a certain point, he admonished them for dealing with talk and no action. He said that he had been a deputy air force commander in the Red Army and suggested that they hijack a plane. He knew how to fly all kinds of aircraft, and after subduing the pilot, the plane would be ours. The plan was to navigate the airliner toward northern Russia and land in Sweden, where we would hold a press conference and tell the world about the terrible suffering endured by Jews behind the Iron Curtain. We considered the serious personal risk we were taking; it was quite possible that the pilot or the air defense crew would cause us physical harm and we might even lose our lives. However, we remained unconcerned and we were determined to fulfill our objective. We meticulously planned things out from every possible direction, calling the plan ‘Operation Wedding’ – a most original name based on the contrived reason for the flight: a large family wedding.

“One day, the pilot informed us that he knew of a small tourist plane with twelve seats, scheduled to take off from the S. Petersburg airport for a tourist site in the middle of a thick forest. Since the plan coordinator had told us that every pilot had a pistol under his seat, we also equipped ourselves with a pistol in the event that the pilot didn’t follow our orders. We disguised ourselves as tourists, and we each came separately to the gathering place. We didn’t want to arouse any suspicion among the customs policemen. The date was the eleventh of Sivan. As I walked toward the terminal, my colleagues cast angry glances in my direction, but I did not understand what they meant.

“It took a little time before I realized that they were pointing out the beret I was wearing. I had already become a baal t’shuva by then and always went around with my head covered. They were concerned that this might arouse suspicion. However, I soon collected my thoughts as the public-address system announced that it was time for us to board the plane. We looked around us and were amazed to discover that the pilot, Mr. Lifschitz, was nowhere to be found. How could we go without him? Had he backed out at the last minute? Suddenly, we saw him at the entrance to the terminal with his wife and two daughters. I signaled to my friends out of the corner of my eye that he might not have heard the announcement. With my heart beating frantically, I offered to go and call him.

“To my great surprise, I saw him sitting at the terminal entrance with his wife and two daughters, eating a sandwich. ‘What are you waiting for?’ I whispered to him, and he replied with a question. ‘Why has the flight’s departure been moved up by half an hour? Doesn’t that appear strange to you?’ I hadn’t thought about that. Eventually, he agreed to join me at the entrance to the aircraft. Just as we boarded the plane, I felt a hard blow to my face and fell. As I looked around me, I noticed dozens of border guards and paratroopers as all the other members of our group stood on the side in handcuffs. I’ll never forget the screams of Mr. Lifschitz’s wife and daughters as they shot at him. We were taken in for interrogation and realized that the KGB knew about the whole plan.”

At first, the group was interrogated in the police room at the airport and afterward in the city’s secret police headquarters. Although the attempted hijack had failed, this was a critical event in the history of emigration from the U.S.S.R. Their trial attracted considerable international attention to the subject of human rights violations in the Soviet Union, eventually leading to an opening of the gates to a large wave of emigration in the 1970’s. The trial of the group members became known as “The First Leningrad Trial.” They were found guilty of treason, a crime that carried the death penalty in the U.S.S.R. However, the judgment was eventually commuted, and Mendelevitch was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment. After considerable international pressure, his sentence was reduced to twelve years’ exile in the Ural Mountains.

THE REBBE’S GIFT AT THE RIGHT MOMENT

Eleven years later, in the winter of 5741, Mendelevitch was suddenly taken to the KGB headquarters in Moscow, where they informed him that he was deemed unworthy to bear Soviet citizenship and was being expelled from the country.

Mendelevitch heard what happened prior to that surprising and welcome expulsion a few years ago from Rabbi Yitzchak Kogan, the Rebbe’s shliach in Moscow. During this period, the Rebbe had sent a special emissary to Russia to bring back holy s’farim and check up on Rabbi Kogan’s sh’chita activities. The special emissary was very enthused by Rabbi Kogan’s tremendous self-sacrifice. Instead of making a good living in his profession as a nuclear engineer, he made certain that Jews ate kosher food through his work as a shochet. Not settling for this alone, he also taught students the art of ritual slaughter.

The Rebbe’s shliach was most impressed by Rabbi Kogan, and he suggested that he ask the Rebbe for a bracha. Instead, Rabbi Kogan passed up the opportunity for himself and requested a bracha from the Rebbe for Yosef Mendelevitch, who was then languishing in a Soviet prison.

“During that time, I was in the middle of a fifty-eight-day hunger strike because they had taken away my siddur and Chumash, and my physical condition was seriously deteriorating,” recalled Mendelevitch. Rabbi Kogan’s request was that the Rebbe should bless me to escape from the valley of death and come to Eretz Yisroel.

“Several days later, the prison commander came to my solitary confinement cell - #36 - and reproved me for continuing to fight against the revolution. Despite his great anger, he had decided to give back the s’farim that had been taken from me and I stopped my hunger strike. When I returned to the cell where I had been prior to my period of solitary confinement, the Gentile inmates were thunderstruck. ‘You’re still alive?’ they asked in bewilderment. The truth was that I didn’t understand why the prison authorities had given in. However, when I heard years later that the Rebbe had given me a bracha, I realized what had happened. Immediately afterwards, during Chanukah, I was sent to work in a metal factory.

“I was thin and frail, but no one cared about that. Just a month later, on Purim Katan, I was suddenly taken to the prison commander’s office. It had been eleven years since my incarceration began, and I still had four years left to my sentence. To my amazement, he informed me that I was being sent to the central KGB headquarters in Moscow. While I didn’t know why, when I arrived there, I presented myself before the senior officer who was ‘sorry to inform me’ of the decision to expel me from the U.S.S.R. due to my anti-Soviet conduct…

“It happened almost immediately. Before leaving for the airport, they dressed me in an elegant French suit, and I even received a police escort to my plane, destined for Vienna, Austria. Waiting for me in the Austrian capital were public officials and representatives, including those whom I knew had worked for my release. Heading the delegation was Eretz Yisroel’s ambassador to Austria, who welcomed me with great warmth. I remember the first thing he said to me: ‘Whatever you request of us, I promise to fulfill it.’

“During the years I sat in prison, I had no t’fillin, and therefore I could not fulfill this mitzvah. When I saw that it was still before sunset and there was still time to daven, I asked the ambassador for a pair of t’fillin. The ambassador was surprised; he never imagined that this would be my request. He consulted with other members of the delegation, but none of them had a pair of t’fillin on hand. The diplomats stood perplexed, not knowing what to do. Then suddenly, Rabbi Yisroel Singer, representative of the director general of the World Jewish Congress, came toward me and handed me a pair of t’fillin. He said that the t’fillin were a gift for me from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I was deeply moved. He told me that before his flight from New York to Vienna to greet me on my arrival, he had gone in to see the Rebbe to tell him about the journey and to ask for a bracha. The Rebbe asked him to take a new pair of t’fillin for me. I was quite stunned by the Rebbe’s ruach ha’kodesh. How did he know that this would be my first request?

“Only now, with the passage of time, do I grasp the intensity of what happened: A Jew sits in New York five thousand miles away and knows exactly what Yosef Mendelevitch would ask for as soon as he lands.

“At a party held last year in honor of Rabbi Kogan’s seventieth birthday, I also participated and told this part of the story that was known to me. Following my talk Rabbi Kogan got up and said that the Rebbe had not just made sure that I had t’fillin, he had also responded to his request that he bless me that I would get out of jail, and so it was. Shortly after he asked the Rebbe to bless me, all these miracles unfolded.”

This story has a postscript, no less amazing to Rabbi Mendelevitch:

He gave the t’fillin that he received from the Rebbe to his nephew, serving in a highly-classified role with the Israel Defense Forces on dangerous missions, as a source of spiritual protection. The nephew put the t’fillin on every weekday and his life was miraculously saved on more than one occasion.

THE TREMENDOUS MIRACLE OF JEWISH REVIVAL

Rabbi Mendelevitch has many warm words for the Rebbe’s shluchim throughout the Russian Commonwealth. “There is no greater miracle than going around the former Soviet Union and seeing Yiddishkait blossoming and Jews proud in their Judaism. In the past, Judaism had virtually been wiped out in Russia, and today, you can see a vast and growing network of kollelim there, with Jews who went through the years of the Communist regime now sitting and learning Torah with great joy. This is a great wonder. This is truly a fulfillment of what the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya about how a Jew has a soul and he neither can nor wants to be detached from G-dliness, no matter how far away he may appear to be.

“During my visit to Odessa, I realized how tremendous the spiritual revolution had been throughout the former Soviet republics. After I spoke before the audience there and told them my story, Jews of all ages came up to me and asked for a blessing. I felt that they were connecting to something from the depths of their souls. A person who comes to ask for a bracha shows that he already has some understanding and yiras Shamayim.”

Rabbi Mendelevitch concluded the interview in a very moving tone as he says that since he has become aware how involved the Rebbe was in his release, he publicizes this story wherever he goes. “In early 5752, I was privileged to come to 770 and meet the Rebbe. I stood at the entrance to the beis midrash and waited for the Rebbe to go out after Shacharis. As the Rebbe passed by, I went up to him and introduced myself. The Rebbe was pleased to see me and then said something that I have made every effort to fulfill. The Rebbe instructed me to tell about what I went through, being an example and a symbol for other Jews. Since then, I fulfil the Rebbe’s shlichus, and wherever I’m invited to speak, I tell my life’s story.”

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