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Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival, by Yosef Mendelevich

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 25, Numbers 1–2

Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story of Faith, Courage and Survival, by Yosef Mendelevich, translated from Hebrew by Benjamin Balint, Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2012. 337 pp.

Reviewed by Rivkah Fishman-Duker


More than twenty years ago, the Soviet Union fell and its control over Eastern Europe ended. The subsequent massive exodus of one million Russian Jews is history. Unbroken Spirit by Yosef Mendelevich recalls the struggle for the right of Russian Jews to immigrate to Israel which, in the 1970s and eighties, became a cause célèbre. At the time, most Jews who had applied for exit visas to Israel were refused permission to emigrate on the grounds that their departure would endanger the USSR. These “refuseniks” were fired from their jobs, and were harassed or imprisoned by the authorities. They built closely knit communities and spent their time learning Hebrew, studying Jewish culture, history and Zionism, and marking Jewish holidays. Jewish visitors from Western Europe and the United States provided the required books and objects. These courageous acts ran counter to Soviet policy which encouraged Jews to become loyal Soviet citizens, repudiate Zionism, drop religion and cease communication with Jews abroad.

Historically, both Russian society and officialdom were permeated with anti-Semitism, particularly during Stalin’s final years. The necessity of keeping a low profile made Russian Jews into “the Jews of Silence.”1 After Israel’s decisive military victory over the Soviet-armed Arab countries in 1967, virulent anti-Semitism resurfaced. This toxic hatred culminated in the Soviet-backed UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, “Zionism is racism,” on November 10, 1975.2 Many Jews with little or no attachment to Judaism or Israel took pride in Israel’s victory. At the same time, the authorities linked all Jews to Israel and suspected them of anti-Soviet tendencies. This atmosphere led to an exponential increase in applications for exit visas during the 1970s.

The cause of Jewish emigration received encouragement from American Jews and Gentiles, politicians, journalists, tourists and activists who met with refuseniks and publicized their struggle throughout the world.3 It became part of the general battle for human rights and freedom in the Soviet bloc. The leading figures of the struggle for emigration and human rights were Nobel Prize winning physicist Andrei Sakharov and Jewish activist and dissident Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky.4 Their stature and persistence encouraged mass demonstrations at Soviet embassies and influenced important politicians, such as U.S. Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. Together with Representative Charles Vanik, Jackson proposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment in Congress which limited trade with countries that restrict emigration and human rights. It became a law in January 1975.5 While the opponents of this amendment viewed it as irreparably damaging U.S.-Soviet relations, “leading Soviet dissidents of all religious backgrounds … unanimously regard Jackson-Vanik as vital to their cause, as a chisel that helped to crack the Soviet empire.”6 In fact, Mendelevich dedicates Unbroken Spirit to the memory of Senator Jackson “for the great efforts he made to free us from the darkness of modern day Egyptian enslavement.”

In 1976, the Helsinki Accords further encouraged Soviet dissidents, as relations with the USSR became contingent upon respecting human rights.7 U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) supported the cause of refuseniks and dissidents and during the 1980s, many were released from jail and emigrated, signaling the end of Communist regimes and of the Soviet Union.

For most of this period, from 1970–1981, Yosef Mendelevich, refusenik and prisoner of conscience was serving his sentence in Soviet prison camps. On June 15, 1970, along with fifteen other Jewish activists and refuseniks, Mendelevich had attempted to escape to freedom by hijacking an airplane from Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) to Sweden in order to reach Israel. This daring act, dubbed “Operation Wedding,” failed. The Soviet authorities arrested, tried and sentenced the group to many years in the gulag. Two of the hijackers, the pilot, Mark Dymshits, and the intellectual Eduard Kusnetsov were given death sentences, which were later commuted by massive international pressure. The publicity of the hijacking and the harsh sentences increased the awareness of the plight of Soviet Jews. Henceforth, the right of Soviet Jews to immigrate to the Jewish homeland, Israel, became world news and the above-described campaign was launched.


Unbroken Spirit, the story of Yosef Mendelevich (b. 1948), may be understood on several levels. First and foremost, it is the personal memoir of a prominent young Jewish and Zionist activist in Riga, Latvia, during the 1960s, and a prisoner of conscience in the Soviet gulag during the 1970s. Unbroken Spirit is a historical source which belongs to the genre known as “ego documents,” namely, writings of an autobiographical nature in which the individual is affected by historical-political events of his time and may play an active role in them. Such works are usually associated with memoirs of Holocaust survivors, soldiers or intellectual and political figures.8 Secondly, the book provides insight into the revival of Jewish identity in the Soviet Union, the refuseniks and the movement to free Soviet Jewry. It also explores the link between the latter and the movement for human rights in the USSR. Finally, Unbroken Spirit vividly describes the anti-Semitism endemic to the Soviet bloc, the harsh and debilitating life in the gulag, its population of prisoners and their different reactions to physical deprivation and psychological humiliation. Thus, Mendelevich presents a scathing indictment of Marxist-Leninist society and government. He skillfully interweaves these three major themes into an absorbing chronicle of one man’s triumph against totalitarianism through his steadfast dedication to moral principles and religious beliefs, with gratitude to those who supported his cause.

On the personal level, Unbroken Spirit recalls Mendelevich’s childhood and adolescence in Riga, the Jewish customs in his home, and his years as a Jewish/Zionist activist, celebrating Israel’s independence and organizing commemorations of the Holocaust in Rumboli, near Riga, where Jews were shot by Nazis and their local collaborators. The reader follows his journey to increasing faith in God. In fact, it is Mendelevich’s observance of Jewish religious practices and efforts to study Torah and learn prayers that differentiated him from most refuseniks. The latter mainly were academic professionals, nationalists, culturally identified Jews and Zionists, not men and women of religious faith. This was the result of their Soviet upbringing. For example, while leading Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky based his Jewish identity upon culture, history and religion, read Psalms and said Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, for his father, he was not especially observant. In Fear No Evil, Sharansky recalls how, while in the gulag, he wished to communicate with Mendelevich on a Saturday, either by talking between cells through emptied toilet bowls or by throwing a note over a wall. Sharansky remarks that he did not do so because he remembered “how unhappy Yosef had been when I once violated our Sabbath,”9 by writing and throwing his message. Religion gave Mendelevich’s life meaning and structure. It was also an expression of Jewish national identity and individual freedom.

In Unbroken Spirit, we get a taste of Mendelevich’s efforts at Jewish observance in the gulag. Some challenges included wearing a kippah (skullcap) and observing the Sabbath. For example, he filled his weekly quota in the prison factory before Saturday. When he prayed on the job, instead of working, the anti-Semitic guards confronted him. They occasionally put him in solitary confinement (251–256). He tried to follow the Jewish dietary laws and to organize celebrations of holidays for other Jewish prisoners. Freed in 1981, Yosef Mendelevich settled in Jerusalem, studied at a yeshiva, received rabbinic ordination, fought for emigration of Soviet Jews, helped observant Russian immigrants and participated in the religious Zionist movement.


Overall, Mendelevich was respected by his fellow refuseniks for participating in “Operation Wedding,” which he later considered as amateurish. Throughout his imprisonment, he followed the activities of and encouraged fellow refuseniks. His attempts at organizing Jewish observance, learning Hebrew and contacting fellow Jews seem like a continuation of his activism in Riga. Somehow, he obtained information about the activities of other refuseniks. For example, aware of Sharansky’s arrival, Mendelevich met him for the first time in the snowy yard of the camp. As they were leaving the yard, Mendelevich recalls: “His [Sharansky’s] cheekbones stuck out sharply from his ashen face. Only his eyes still shone with kindness. ‘Anatoly!’ I cried. ‘Yosef!’ We embraced. The …guards … tore us apart.” Mendelevich recollects that he would greet Sharansky in Hebrew and loudly sing the Kiddush on Sabbath eve so that Sharansky would reply: “Shabbat Shalom.” “Hearing this,” he writes, “I felt the angels of Sabbath descend and dispel the loneliness.” (304–305)

Despite his admiration and warmth for Sharansky, they had somewhat different views of the refuseniks’ struggle. For Mendelevich, the struggle was almost solely about Jewish immigration to Israel, where Jews could live a full Jewish life. Sharansky viewed the struggle for the right of Jews to immigrate to Israel as linked to the dissidents’ struggle for human rights and democracy in the Soviet Union. These differing views had practical consequences in the gulag in choosing when to demonstrate, go on hunger strike or stage a work stoppage. While Mendelevich did stand up for fellow prisoners, it often was in cases of Soviet violations of national or cultural expressions or of rights to practice one’s religion. It is noteworthy that Latvian patriots or Christian ministers found in Mendelevich understanding and solidarity for their cause. Indeed, he maintained that Russians were inherently racist and wished to impose their culture, language and political system on the peoples whom they ruled. He may have been influenced by his years in Latvia where the national culture was suppressed by Russian authorities and

Mendelevich classifies the prisoners into several categories: those desirous of a perfect and pristine Marxism; monarchists, who wished for a return of the Tsar and the Russian Orthodox church; supporters of a democratic, free, non-Marxist Russia with Western values of human rights; and nationalists, who wanted their peoples liberated from Russian suffocation of their countries, languages and cultures. Mendelevich clearly prefers the latter, who always sought the Zionists in the prison camps. He did not respect Jews who espoused communism or democracy in Russia over emigration to Israel. In fact, when, upon liberation in February 1981, he was deprived of Soviet citizenship and deported, he told the “somber, expressionless” bureaucrat: “’Thank God!’ He then was asked: “’ What are you so happy about, Solzhenitsyn [leading Russian dissident and Nobel Prize winning author] wept when we expelled him.’” Mendelevich replied: “’Solzhenitsyn you banished from his homeland. Me you’re banishing to my homeland.’” (330)


Unbroken Spirit is a welcome addition to the body of literature on the Soviet gulag. Herein is its universal value. Many have forgotten the cruelty of the Soviet system, and today’s young adults are ignorant of the vast number of prisoners of conscience and the appalling conditions in the gulags. Mendelevich’s book serves as a necessary reminder of that era. Its sections on life in the prison camps should be assigned as required reading in schools and universities.

According to Mendelevich, the purpose of the gulag was to break the human spirit and suppress the individual in order to transform him into a homo sovieticus: a cog in the machine of the USSR, a product of groupthink, devoid of individuality, tradition, history and vitality. In order to achieve this goal, the Soviet system had to torture prisoners of conscience through sleep deprivation; relentless interrogation; prevention of visits by family members; taking away correspondence, reading material and religious objects; forced, pointless labor under harsh conditions; lack of suitable clothing for Siberian winters and sufficient food; and psychological torment by prison staff and guards. Frequently prisoners broke down, went mad, became corrupt collaborators and informers on other inmates for extra food and other benefits or simply became lethargic and despondent. Others, like Mendelevich, were able to keep their spirits intact. Despite his moments of despair, such as at the death of his father or when he was prohibited from seeing his mother and sister who had come especially to visit briefly with him, Mendelevich emerged strong, active, purposeful, and Israel-bound.


The English translation of Unbroken Spirit appeared after its original Hebrew and Russian editions. In Mendelevich’s view, the subject of the struggle for Soviet Jewry appeals mainly to former activists and their supporters in the West and in Israel.10 Should there be a second printing, the book should be abridged and carefully edited. Furthermore, as many are ignorant of history, and even of recent events, Unbroken Spirit would require a substantive introductory chapter on the history of the USSR, of Russian/Soviet Jewry and of the refusenik and dissident movements with a chronological table of major events and persons. These are missing in the current version. The map inside the cover of the book, showing Mendelevich’s journey from Riga to Leningrad to the camps in Perm and elsewhere, is amateurish and should be replaced. In addition, a basic glossary of Jewish terms and more photographs would be welcome.

The above notwithstanding, Unbroken Spirit is a document whose message is universal, uplifting, moving and instructive. Like Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel, and others among us, its author, Yosef Mendelevich, is a living example of greatness of spirit and a genuine hero.


1.   Elie Wiesel, The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry, trans. Neal Kozodoy (New York: American Library, 1966).
2.   Joel Fishman, “’A Disaster of Another Kind’: Zionism = Racism, Its Beginning, and the War of Delegitimization against Israel,” Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, volume 5, no. 3 (2011), 75–92.
3.   The comprehensive study of the movement to free Soviet Jewry is: Gal Beckerman, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
4.   On the dissident and human rights movements in the USSR, see: Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer, The Case for Democracy (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), 108–143.
5.   Ibid., 112–123 and Robert G. Kaufman, Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 268–283.
6.   Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics, 283.
7.   Sharansky-Dermer, The Case for Democracy, 123–132.
8.   The leading “ego document” by a Jewish dissident/refusenik is: Natan Sharansky, Fear No Evil, translated by Stefani Hoffman (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1988). Published two years after Sharansky’s release from the gulag, it had enormous impact.
9.   Ibid., 264.
10. Yosef Mendelevich, personal communication, Jerusalem, 28 January 2013.
Rivkah Fishman-Duker is a Lecturer in Jewish history and the Rothberg International School, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.