Refusenik’s Translated Memoir Offers Rare Glimpse Into Soviet Oppression

November 4, 2012 12:01 pm 0 comments

The cover of "Unbroken Spirit," by Yosef Mendelevich. Photo: Gefen Publishing.

“With neither family nor human warmth, it was an existence lived against the grain of human nature.”

That is how Yosef Mendelevich remembers the deprivations of his darkest hours in Soviet captivity. In 1971, Mendelevich and several comrades belonging to a Riga-based group of Zionist activists attempted to hijack a Russian airplane and escape to Israel. Thwarted by KGB operatives moments before initiating the operation, their capture ultimately ignited an international movement that helped ease the plight of Russian Jews. Mendelevich, meanwhile, endured a 12-year sentence in the Gulag.

Unbroken Spirit, Mendelevich’s memoir, vividly describes the inner workings of Soviet justice and its harsh penal system. The memoir, originally published in 1987 in both Russian and Hebrew, only recently has been translated into English. In a later-added epilogue, the author recalls one westerner’s encouragement to pursue an English speaking audience: “Your story is critical for Jews on this side of the ocean. You can’t imagine the disastrous toll that assimilation is taking on Jewish communities here.”

In this new era of a perceived crisis of western Jewish culture, Mendelevich’s forceful character and sad story take on renewed significance. Modern audiences may feel distanced from the Cold War political tension that forced his hand and may even criticize the extremism that led the author to hijack a plane, however, the post war history of Jewish displacement and fears of annihilation that Mendelevich recalls, are poignant.

Mendelevich’s account reaffirms the need for Jewish solidarity. Growing up in the aftermath of the Second World War, he embraced Zionism as the only way to repair the damage done to European Jewry by the Holocaust and Soviet atheist totalitarianism.

“Where have I seen this vision before?” the author asks when he witnesses a peculiar smile cross his comrade’s face following his capture by KGB agents. Recalling an image of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a Jewish fighter, arms raised in “triumphal gesture,” Mendelevich passionately defends his principles and his Jewish heritage. Even as the Nazis prepare to execute their prisoner, the captured man is “happy to go to his death this way, in battle rather than as sheep to the slaughter.”

These were the images that inspired members of Mendelevich’s generation to assert their religion and individuality at a time when the sickening realities of Nazi genocide were not yet fully revealed, hostile neighbors threatened Israel’s existence, and the Soviet Union refused to allow Jewish emigration. Without fervent belief in God, devotion to Jewish practices, and a willingness to fight to the death for self-determination, it was unclear to Mendelevich whether Judaism indeed would survive.

In the Gulag, Mendelevich meets a spectrum of Soviet political prisoners. Frozen in time, former Nazis and counter-revolutionaries spout dated, ridiculous propaganda as they cope with the misery of interminable imprisonment. The Soviet Union declared its enemies of the state by Stalin’s ever-changing whims, and many prisoners are forgotten. Likewise, punishments are devised to deprive prisoners of a sense of routine or security in their daily lives, thereby molding people into “mindless puppets controlled by Soviet propaganda.”

This book reads like an interview with Mendelevich. Interspersed between historical analysis and prison-life anecdotes, the author describes emotional encounters like the last prison visit he had with his father, and his philosophical conversations with other inmates about the nature of God.

“The question arises: Did I have in mind to sacrifice myself in order to break open the gates of aliyah for others?” Mendelevich records. As Mendelevitch crisscrosses Siberia on various forced relocations, guards persecute him for his beliefs. Mendelevich, meanwhile, grows defiant in every aspect of his life, demonstrating remarkable survival instincts as he scratches a drawing of two candles on his prison wall to mark the Sabbath and folds a handkerchief to improvise a makeshift kippah. Mendelevich clings to Jewish symbols for guidance and rejoices when reports ultimately indicate a relaxation of Soviet immigration policy. These small emotional triumphs are his only reprieve from the psychological tortures meant to break his courage and impose communist conformity.

“Life without principles is life without meaning,” Mendelevitch writes in his forward to the new translation. Tremendous strength of will was required for him to emerge from this experience with an unbroken spirit. Although a few of his stories may seem redundant, readers will find riveting the author’s bleak depiction of cold Siberian prison cells, a hunger strike that tested his physical stamina, and abusive Soviet interrogation methods.

Mendelevich’s observation that “all enthusiasms wax and wane, but it is up to us to keep the flame bright,” anticipates the declining interest in Zionism and Jewish religious life that his western colleagues fear at present. Time and relative prosperity may be testing Jewish solidarity and tradition around the world, but it is clear that many Jews are unwilling to forget the heroism that Mendelevich has come to represent. This new translation provides English-speaking audiences a rare glimpse into one of history’s most oppressive regimes and forces readers to assess their own strength of spirit.

Jeffrey Barken, Cornell University graduate and University of Baltimore MFA candidate, frequently reports on Israel news topics and Jewish-interest literature. He is currently writing a collection of stories, “This Year in Jerusalem, Next Time in America,” based on his experiences living on a kibbutz in Southern Israel from 2009-2010.


Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Theater US & Canada New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    New Play Explores the ‘Arrogance’ of American Jews Critical of Israel, Playwright Says

    In his new play Mr. Goldberg Goes to Tel Aviv, playwright Oren Safdie tackles an issue that he has a major concern with: the relationship between Israelis and left-leaning Diaspora Jews with their “I know better” critical views. At the heart of the one-act play is Tony, a Jewish and gay Palestinian sympathizer who expresses strong anti-Israel sentiments when the play begins and at one point even sides with a Palestinian terrorist who holds his captive. Tony, who is also an [...]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    Hassidic Parody of Taylor Swift Song Apes Long Jewish Holidays (VIDEO)

    A Jewish comedy troupe released a parody video on Wednesday of Taylor Swift’s hit song Shake It Off in which they joke about taking extensive time off from work for Jewish holidays. “And the goyim gonna stay, stay, stay, stay, stay. And the Jews are gonna pray, pray pray, pray, pray. I’m just gonna take, take, take, take, take. I’m taking off,” goes the chorus for I’m Taking Off. Menachem Weinstein, the video’s lead singer, is the creative director at [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Literature On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    On 75th Anniversary, Looking at the Jewish Influence on Gone With the Wind

    JNS.org – The 75th anniversary of the premiere of “Gone with the Wind” on Dec. 15 presents an opportunity to examine the Jewish influence on one of the most popular films of all time. That influence starts with the American Civil War epic’s famed producer, David O. Selznick. Adjusted for inflation, “Gone with the Wind” remains the highest-grossing movie ever made. It earned the 1939 Academy Award for Best Picture, the same honor another Selznick film, “Rebecca,” garnered in 1940. Selznick [...]

    Read more →
  • Featured Music US & Canada EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    EXCLUSIVE: Matisyahu Provides Most Extensive Analysis Yet of His Religious, Musical Evolution (INTERVIEW)

    Matisyahu got candid in an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Monday about his religious and musical journey – after shedding his Chassidic skin, yarmulke, long beard and all – from the start of his career in 2005 when he became a reggae superstar with hits King Without a Crown and Jerusalem. The singer-songwriter embarks on his Festival of Light tour this month, an annual Hanukkah event that stops in Montreal, New York, and other cities before ending in San Juan, [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Personalities ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    ‘Sheriff of Mars’ Unveils Endearing Life of Jewish Music Star Hidden in the Fields of France

    JNS.org – It was an era of steel strings, guitar heroes, and storytellers—high on heroin, rebellious. Outlaw country music, the hallmark of Nashville’s powerful and angry music scene of the 1970s, was the brew of greats such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt. But there is another, little-known music hero of that era: Daniel Antopolsky. A Jewish lad from Augusta, Ga.—the son of immigrants who settled in the south and ran a hardware store on Main Street—the [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian Actress Replaces Israel’s Gal Gadot for ‘Ben-Hur’ Remake

    Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi replaced Israeli star Gal Gadot as the female lead in the new Ben-Hur remake, Hollywood.com reported on Tuesday. The Homeland actress will play Esther, a slave that Ben-Hur sets free and falls in love with. Gadot quit the movie when it became clear that filming conflicted with her schedule for the Man of Steel sequel. The Israeli actress plays Wonder Woman in the superhero film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Actor Jack Huston takes on the [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    Biography Sheds New Light on David Ben-Gurion’s Place in Jewish History

    JNS.org – There is one sentence in “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” that made me sit up in surprise. I thought that I knew the basic facts about how Israel came into being, but while describing what it was like in the days and hours before the state was declared, author Anita Shapira provides one important anecdote I was not aware of. On the 12th of May, the Zionist Executive met to decide what to do. Moshe Sharrett had just returned [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.