A Zionist In The Soviet Gulag

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In an overexposed age, when every person’s story is deemed worthy of publicity, some life experiences stand out as monumental. Every minor challenge seems to lead to an agonizing self-reflective essay but, life-changing though these experiences may have been, they pale in comparison to R. Yosef Mendelevich’s tale of Soviet imprisonment as a refusenik, as told in his Unbroken Spirit: A Heroic Story Of Faith, Courage and Survival.

Memoirs and personal stories serve not only the purpose of entertainment but primarily as a window into the lives of our fellow people. By examining their lives we gain access to the private experiences of a broader public, what makes people tick and what is going on in the world outside of our immediate experiences. This is certainly valuable, to a point. Voyeurism and self-promotion aside, thematic repetition and ungeneralizable stories are tedious and of minimal benefit. Even worse are the essentially duplicate stories with minor changes for the writer. If you enjoy stories and the rhetorical flourishes of capable writers, you may enjoy these stories. I do not.

However, sometimes a thoughtful author can endow an otherwise forgettable story with profound reflection on the human condition. He can generalize not only from his personal story to that of many other people’s lives but to universal life questions. A wise man’s story stands out even if it is typical because his comments and observations transform the readers.

R. Yosef “Ha-Tzadik” Mendelevich, as R. Aharon Rakeffet calls him, wrote his memoirs of imprisonment shortly after his release and immigration to Israel in 1981, publishing it now in English after over 25 years. He succeeds dually, telling a story that is unusual and compelling and offering profound, universal insights into life. R. Mendelevich describes his religious and ideological transition with its accompanying Zionist activity, culminating in an attempted hijacking of an airplane to leave the Soviet Union. His plot failed and he spent the next ten years in Soviet prison.

The bulk of the book tells the surprising story of life in the Soviet gulag. As R. Mendelevich’s lawyer told him after his sentencing, life continues in prison. Indeed, for him it did. With remarkable courage and dedication, R. Mendelevich continued his spiritual journey, observing as much religion as he could, studying as much Torah and Hebrew as possible. Facing ruthless interrogators, countless prison spies and often incompetent but rarely sympathetic jailers, he and his fellow Jewish prisoners set to grow spiritually despite their surroundings.

My wife’s grandfather told me repeatedly in Yiddish, which I only understood thanks to a cousin, how he managed to secure his release from Soviet prison with the legal help of a jailed Stalin aide. I never quite understood how that course of events transpired until reading R. Mendelevich’s detailed account of his own experience. The prisoner interactions, the arcane and contradictory rules and the vast Soviet bureaucracy allowed for complaints, appeals and reevaluations, even if frequently subject to arbitrary rejection. A master of this maze could work wonders.

Victor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir famously explores the vital importance of purpose in life, without which one could not survive the cruel demoralization and physical struggle of Nazi camps. R. Mendelevich describes a similar experience. Those without a life purpose lacked the necessary tools to resist the mental assaults of monotony and hopelessness. They either went insane or quickly succumbed to physical illness.

More than just a fascinating story of courage and perseverance, Unbroken Spirit contains the observations of a sensitive soul. A philosophical man with keen powers of observation, R. Mendelevich explores universal aspects of life based on his prison experiences–truth, loyalty, dignity, ritual and much more. He redeems the daily monotony with profundity, making it anything but mundane.

R. Mendelevich’s story is the story of thousands of imprisoned refuseniks but also millions of imprisoned Russians. For this alone it is important. Beyond that, it is the story of a deeply spiritual person overcoming the Soviet gulag by mastering its inhumanity with his insight and courage.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

3 comments

  1. John Derbyshire recently linked (with a warning that they’re not for the faint-hearted) to pages describing life in the gulag, and what it does to human beings and their humanity. Not for the faint-hearted indeed. I am in awe of those who survived with their spirit intact.

  2. “Every minor challenge seems to lead to an agonizing self-reflective essay”

    I don’t mean to be crude, but I wouldn’t want to live that. Or is this just lingo for ‘cheshbon hanefesh’?

    Then again, I haven’t read the book.

  3. The original Hebrew memoir, Mivtzah Hatunah, was hard to put down. I highly recommend the story for its content, and for its historical importance.

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