Interview: Yosef Mendelevitch, A Real Life Hero
Have you ever wanted to sit and chat with a real life hero? I don’t mean some famous athlete or rock and roll star, although that would certainly be interesting, but rather someone who risked his life for the greater good and displayed a level of courage that most of us could only dream about.
On a recent Saturday night in Jerusalem I was blessed to have such a privilege as I met for an hour with a real life Jewish hero, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch. Born in Riga (Latvia) in 1947, the rabbi was part of group of 16 individuals (14 Jewish, 2 non-Jewish) that attempted to hijack an airplane in 1970 as a way to bring world-wide attention to the struggle of Soviet Jewry. Unassuming and low-key on the outside, it was the rabbi’s inner strength and conviction that enabled him to overcome the dreaded KGB and eleven years of prison in Siberia.
Some details of that episode, as well as the events leading up to it and its aftermath, were the main topics of our late night conversation.
Background in Riga
Yoel Meltzer (YM): Growing up in Riga, did you have any Jewish or Zionist awareness?
Rabbi Yosef Mendelevitch (RYM): That’s a complex question with a very complex answer. Latvia at that time was a new republic of the Soviet Union. While the former generation of Jews in Riga grew up under a liberal democratic regime and received Jewish education, we were the first generation in Riga of “Soviet Jewry” and therefore we didn’t receive any Jewish education. Nevertheless, we still didn’t feel like Soviet citizens and somehow I think we were in a better situation than our Jewish peers in Soviet Russia.
My parents spoke Yiddish and we heard lots of stories about the past. They both were from Dvinsk, which was known for several famous rabbis such as Meir Simcha (known as the “Ohr Somayach“), Rabbi Kook and the Rogatchover Gaon.
At the same time my father was a communist and active in Latvia in the communist underground. But being a unique type of “Jewish communist” he would also teach us world history and Jewish history.
Overall Jewish education was prohibited and my parents were not interested in me having any Jewish education.
YM: So when did you start feeling a stronger connection to Israel?
RYM: Good question. About feelings you never know, it’s a process. I wrote a whole book about that trying to analyze certain developments that brought me close.
Nevertheless, if you ask about a certain time it was definitely my experience at Rumbula, a forest near Riga where the Germans killed 28,000 Jews from Riga. It was there that I met with other people and it was there that something started.
YM: How old were you?
RYM: 16 or 17 years old.
A Strong Sense of Purpose
YM: Something lit inside?
RYM: Maybe the very meeting with that place pushed me towards some sort of development. I’m not sure. All I know is that I was involved in a project, externally the rebuilding and taking care of the place, which was an initiative of an underground Zionist movement. They intentionally brought us to the forest in order to start educating us, and that’s how I got involved.
You have to understand that Jabotinsky’s Betar Movement began in the early 1920s in Riga and the people who met us in the forest were members of a regional Latvian Betar movement that had been arrested under the Soviet occupation and subsequently released after Stalin’s death. When they came back to Riga in the early 1960s they were astonished to see the sad condition of the Jewish youth, half assimilated and far from anything Jewish. So they decided to act and they sought the best way to influence. This was the reason for the meetings in the forest, an act which was of course illegal and had we been caught we would have been punished.
YM: What kind of activities were you engaged in?
RYM: At the beginning there were just meetings in the forest. Then over time you start talking, you meet in an apartment and study Hebrew and listen to Kol Yisrael (Israeli radio), you read all kinds of materials and basically you start attaching yourself to your group.
So I began my activities in 1964. I’m proud that I’m from the first generation of the Zionist movement after the war. I’m glad and feel privileged that things happened the way they did. Please keep in mind however that the reason I came to the forest was not by chance, it was not simply a coincidence. The moment I got involved, I felt this was exactly what I was looking for. I felt I was prepared for this.
Anatomy of a Hijacking
YM: I’m jumping ahead to 1970 and the hijacking attempt. Where did the idea come from? I mean, did you or one of your friends just wake up one day and say “hmm, let’s hijack an airplane”?
RYM: Don’t forget I began my activities in 1964 so by 1970 I was already involved for six years in a Jewish movement. In 1969 a whole underground national Jewish movement was created and I was appointed editor of a newsletter.
YM: How many people were involved in this national underground movement?
RYM: I’d say hundreds, although being an informal movement there was no exact number. Nevertheless, I’d say the core group was about one hundred people.
At this time Mr. Mark Dymshits, a former pilot in the Soviet air force, became a member of an underground ulpan (a place where Hebrew is taught) in Leningrad. He was a Zionist and for the first time he met a lot of people that felt like him. It made him think about our aspiration to do something so he suggested the idea of hijacking a plane to the head of the ulpan, Mr. Hillel Butman. Then through connections the idea came to me in Riga and thus it started.
YM: What was the goal of the hijacking and what was the logistical plan?
RYM: Let’s start with the goal. On an individual level everyone’s dream was to go to Israel, something that was simply impossible for Soviet Jews.
YM: Were you considered “refuseniks”?
RYM: Technically this was before the refuseniks which started in the 1970s although we were certainly similar. People simply couldn’t go abroad to any country, not just specifically to Israel.
So the first goal was a private one. I dreamt of being drafted into the Israeli army and studying in a yeshiva. In the Soviet Union there were no yeshivas and nothing similar.
The second goal was a national one to publicize our struggle for freedom, “let my people go”. We found out later that a parallel movement had started during approximately the same time period, mainly in the United States or as we used to say in “the free world”. It’s very interesting that both movements started together in the 1960s. Yaakov Birnbaum, Rabbi Kahane and others raised the issues exactly as we were feeling them. It was certainly from Heaven.
We felt we had to publicize the fact that there really were Jews in Soviet Russia that wanted to come back to their Jewish roots and were not interested in being assimilated and becoming a part of the Soviet nation. This was to counter the Soviet propaganda at the time which had succeeded in making an impression in the west that the Jewish issue was solved.
The lingering question was whether the Russians were so strong in their propaganda or the people in the west were simply ready to buy the lies in order to carry on with their comfortable lives – “It’s a pity but there’s nothing we can do”. Although we didn’t know all the details about the Jewish community in the west, we were surprised that it was so silent. We wanted to yell out “We’re still alive. Am yisrael chai! Don’t you care about us?”
Regarding the logistical part, Mr. Dymshits was himself a pilot. He felt if we all buy tickets and get on the plane we can just take over. While normal hijackers endanger the pilot and intimidate him, this was not our case.
The first plan was to take over a big airplane that we wanted to load up with Jewish families and children in order to demonstrate that it’s not just a small group of young men. Thus no one could call us hijackers.
In the end however we purchased all twelve seats for a small plane, while four members of our group for whom there was no room were to wait for us in a forest.
YM: Where was the flight supposed to be from?
RYM: From Leningrad to Sweden. We would take over in the midst of the flight.
I’ll tell you a very interesting point concerning what was known as the “Leningrad Group” or the “Leningrad Zionist Committee”. They discussed what they knew of the plan and came to a decision that it was counter-productive and dangerous, not just for Butman (the head of the Leningrad ulpan with whom Mark Dymshits had shared his hijacking idea) but for the whole national movement and that we’d all go to prison. They wanted Butman to disclose all of the details and they demanded that it be stopped.
While Butman felt that it was the solution to our problem, they insisted on the slower process of Jewish revival, group meetings, some Jewish theatre, etc. We felt that under the Soviet reality their path was a waste of time.
When they felt that Butman was too stubborn and wouldn’t give up they proposed a compromise and suggested that the Israeli government be contacted in order to ask if it’s helpful to Israel. At that time some Israeli tourists would come to our activist meetings so we had a way to send an inquiry and receive an answer. It was obvious though that the answer would be negative. We in Riga told them that we cannot involve the Israeli government in any way since it was dangerous for Israel and its state interests. But some people in Leningrad were afraid and the request was sent. Finally we got a veto from Israel. It turned out that the request made it to the desk of Golda Meir, the Prime Minister at the time, so the answer we received was real.
We then decided that since we in Riga are not Leningrad, we’ll do it alone. In this way the whole plan came to our group.
YM: Did you really think there was a chance to succeed? After all, this was the Soviet Union and the KGB?
RYM: Did you ever hear of Mordechai Anielewicz and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising? Did you think they had real plans?
Sometimes it happens in your life that you simply feel it’s the right thing to do. People that make all kinds of calculations frequently never act. We felt, at least a few of us, that it was our mission to do it for Am Yisrael (the Jewish people). Although I never actually knew whether all sixteen of the people drafted for the mission believed it was a way to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause, I knew for certain that for me and two or three other leaders of the group that’s the way we felt. We had to start, we had to cry out.
15 June 1970 – The Day of the Planned Hijacking
YM: What was going through your mind the morning of the attempted hijacking? Were you scared? Worried?
RYM: I can only speak for myself. I felt that I was a soldier of the Israeli army, going out to perform the task the best way I can. The moment you are in battle you don’t think, you are not permitted to think. You have to go straight and fight.
YM: So what happened that day? How was the hijacking foiled?
RYM: Perhaps because of the blown operation that started in Leningrad a lot of people knew about the plans, so certainly it somehow reached the eyes and ears of the KGB. They then decided to let us play into their hands in order to arrest us red-handed on the spot. This way they could vilify our Zionist activities – “hijackers, bandits, weapons” – in order to crush the growing national movement exactly as the friends of the Leningrad Committee thought they would.
You have to understand that since this was not Stalin’s time but rather a time when Soviet Russia felt they had to be closer to the west, our movement had created a certain dilemma for the Soviet authorities. Namely how could they arrest people that only wanted to learn Hebrew or religion at a time that they were trying to be “socialism with a human face”? Such a move would certainly not make them look good. For this reason our hijacking plan gave them the perfect pretext to arrest us.
YM: Where did they stop you?
RM: They allowed us to come close to the airplane before they emerged from the plane and arrested us on the spot. This way they had real evidence.
The Miracle of Hanukah
YM: What happened once they caught you?
RYM: Their scheme was to have us make a harsh declaration against Zionism. You must understand, a person that came into a KGB prison was like Play-Dough in their hands. They do whatever they want with you. On the spot we were told, at least the leaders, that we would get the death penalty. So they expected us to be broken in order to have us denounce Zionism and tell Soviet Jewry not to be involved anymore in Zionist activities. The death penalty was not as important to them as the performance.
At the trial six months later they tried to stage a big game and they expected us to be compliant actors. They didn’t ask us, they just expected it would happen once we were broken.
Since some of the people were in fact already broken I felt it was a dangerous moment for the cause. However, what happened in the courtroom after half a year of KGB interrogation was nothing short of a miracle. It’s not by chance that this occurred on Hanukah so we’re talking about a real modern day miracle of Hanukah. Rather than denouncing Zionism as the KGB was certain we would do, on the floor of the court twelve people declared that they are true to am yisrael and that they demand from the Soviet Union free emigration! “Let My People Go!” started in this courtroom.
It was a tremendous victory of will against the KGB and the Soviet system. Although all was in their hands, the KGB lost and we won. The moment they arrested us they felt “they did it”, they’ve crushed the movement, and then after half a year they discovered “we did it”, the movement is still alive! However it was not us specifically but it was am yisrael. It was a victory of the Jewish national cause.
The news of what happened in the courtroom reached America, Europe and then the big movement started.
YM: The phrase “let my people go” started with you guys in the courtroom?
RYM: Some people say it started in the 60s in the States. I read a famous book by Gail Beckerman (When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry) and he brings two sides to the story. Although the movement to free Soviet Jews started earlier in the west the real momentum was created that Hanukah in 1970.
People in the west were fighting without getting any response from the other side and then all of the sudden they got a response, a very clear one, a very strong one, which inspired the people in the west to say “It’s not in vain, it’s not a dream. There really are fighting Jews in Soviet Russia.” That’s when everything really changed.
YM: Did the Jews in Russia hear about it?
RYM: The authorities tried to keep it quiet but still the word got out. Leonid Brezhnev, who was the head of the Soviet regime at the time, sat together with the heads of the Communist Party to discuss the waves of protests and pressure and the possibility of an economic boycott on the Soviet Union. As a result they decided to slowly lift the ban on emigration and within a year of our trial 17,000 Soviet Jews got permission to leave. And believe me, there were 17,000 Jews on the spot that were ready to leave! Then the following year 35,000 Jews got permission to leave.
I assume that when they decided to let a few thousand leave they never thought that more than 10,000 or 20,000 would really want to leave since they believed that most Jews were loyal Soviet citizens. As it turned out this was the beginning of a big bang that created the momentum that led to hundreds of thousands leaving.
YM: What punishment did you receive?
RYM: They demanded the death penalty for me but since I was the youngest in the group they decided on 15 years for attempted hijacking, 15 years for treason (“betrayal of the Soviet motherland’) and another 7 years for “Jewish activities”, a total of 37 years.
Dymshits and Kuznetsov (the other leaders) got the death penalty but within in a week due to intense international pressure their penalties were softened to 15 years each while mine was reduced to 12 years (of which 11 were eventually served).
YM: How did you psychologically and emotionally survive being in a prison in Siberia for 12 years?
RYM: A prison in every country is a part of some social reality of the place. It doesn’t differ too much from the situation outside the prison. Taking into account that I worked in a factory as a simple worker from age 16 I was very used to these kinds of social relations, the type of food, whatever. I didn’t feel that something changed dramatically in my life. I was also out to do something for my nation so I was ready to pay the price.
Also keep in mind that it wasn’t like the Stalin years (On a side note the Rabbi adds that during the Stalin years they didn’t have the death penalty and that people were “only” sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment. Of course, he adds, that almost nobody survived those 25 years.). During the 1970s you could survive in a Soviet prison since it was like a compulsory work camp. Nevertheless, it was still a struggle.
The difference for me during my prison time was that I tried, or experienced, Jewish tradition. This gave me strength. I had started becoming religious before my arrest and when I came to prison I decided there is no reason to give it up. For me to be Jewish means to be a believing Jew and I did my utmost to influence other Jewish inmates as well by trying to convince them to observe the Sabbath, to keep Jewish tradition, to study Torah, to pray, whatever, all of which was illegal.
Eventually I was punished for these “illegal activities” and for three years out of my twelve-year sentence I received imprisonment in harsh conditions. I was removed from the labor camp and sent to a closed prison called Vladimir. A closed prison means you are closed in your cell for a couple of years.
YM: You were alone?
RYM: No, not alone. There were other inmates in the cell with me. But you can’t get out. Everything was there; bathroom, food. For some people being alone can be a terrible experience. But to be together in a cell with three or four other people for a few years is much, much worse!
YM: What happened after Vladimir prison?
RYM: After three years I was returned to the labor camp to finish my time in prison. I then found out that all my friends from the hijacking plot had been released. So I spent a few more years in prison without my friends but I was never alone. There were other nationalist groups – Ukrainians, Lithuanians – that were fighting for their freedom.
YM: Sounds like interesting people?
RYM: Yes, some of them were. They considered us, the Jewish activists, as the leaders of the Jewish nationalist movement in the Soviet Union. We were very strong, with connections and money, and they knew that we were strong and true to our convictions. They respected us as fighters since we were stronger than them and more successful than them.
I remember once when I was in the punishment room together with one of the leaders of the Ukrainian movement he told me that since in the Ukraine they never had their own independent state they weren’t sure if their aim was actually feasible. But he said when we look at you and see that you didn’t have a state for 2,000 years it provides us with optimism!
YM: Is it true what I’ve read many times that while in prison you taught Natan Sharansky Hebrew via the pipes of the toilet or radiator?
RYM: Something like that.
YM: Did you know it was Sharansky?
RYM: Certainly. I was already in prison for seven years when Sharansky was arrested and we knew about it since it was in the newspapers (we received newspapers as part of Communist propaganda). It was a big political process and another attempt to break our Jewish movement. We expected that he would end up in prison with us so the moment he arrived I immediately established communication with him, illegally of course, and we began to communicate.
YM: What happened the day you were released? Did they just walk in the room and say “gather your stuff and get out of here”?
RYM: They didn’t say anything. One day they just flew me from the prison camp in the Ural Mountains to Moscow. But they wouldn’t explain the reason why all of the sudden they did this. I was incarcerated there for two weeks without any explanations. I finally assumed that this was just another attempt to break me. Then all of a sudden they declared that according to the decision of the parliament they ban my Soviet citizenship and they’re throwing me out of the country, like a scoundrel. They said I never deserved to be a Soviet citizen, so they told me to just go away.
YM: I’m sure you cried at losing your citizenship!
RYM: Certainly! I cried from excitement that I was finally going to Israel. At that moment I was put in a big black car and taken to the airport to an airplane that was waiting to take me to Israel.
YM: Did your family that was back in Riga come to Israel as well?
RYM: My mother died when I was a child and my father died while I was in prison. My three sisters came to Israel immediately after my arrest as part of the first 17,000 that got permission to leave.
Reflections on Israel
YM: After all you fought for and suffered for the Jewish people what are your thoughts in Israel now that you’ve been here for roughly thirty years?
RYM: Our struggle was to come to Israel and to become a part of Israel, with all the problems and issues. So in that aspect I’m happy because I feel we succeeded. Also on a personal level I’ve been able to fulfill my dream of learning in a yeshiva.
The moment I stepped out of the airplane in Lod Airport in Israel an Israeli reporter came up to me and asked, “What do you envision as the future of the State of Israel?” I immediately answered with the biblical verse that Israel is to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. So he immediately closed his microphone since he probably thought to himself, “another extremist has arrived!”
Although it’s true that as a people and as a country we’re still very far from that, we hope it will change, as it can change at any moment. I’m very optimistic. Although we’re familiar with the problems and shortcomings, we have to open our eyes and see the positive process in am yisrael and in the State of Israel.
YM: What are the main areas or problems that need to be rectified in order to see your vision realized?
RYM: I think more than anything we’re lacking real national leaders. Of course we have Torah giants but they’re mainly good in teaching or setting rules and laws but not too good in providing real leadership and vision for this complicated reality we live in.
YM: Do you think there’s any chance that within the next twenty years someone who is a leader imbued with real Jewish idealism and vision can become Prime Minister of Israel?
RYM: I’m not sure for in addition to vision and ideals such a person needs to be real strong so that when he becomes part of the political game he won’t be corrupted. A lot of people started out with high aspirations but the moment they entered this field everything changed.
In order to progress in the political realm you have to cooperate and make compromises, otherwise people will say you’re not realistic. So we need someone who is ready to not be realistic! In order to change the situation here we need a big transformation and for that we need a big dreamer. We need someone that people will look at, at least in the beginning, and say “What is he talking about? He’s not realistic”. This of course is the opposite of someone like Ariel Sharon who once said “Okay, I was an idealist but the moment I got to the top of the stairs I see the difference”. We need someone who will reach the top floor and stay the same. For such a person I’m more than ready to help.
YM: If all the doors were open and money was not and object, what you like to be doing for the Jewish people?
RYM: I would like to influence people by explaining the Jewish dream.
In a world that is full of challenges and problems, Rabbi Mendelevitch’s story should be a lesson for all of us that any mountain, no matter how high, can be overcome by the unlimited power of the human spirit.