Not so long ago, the entire Soviet Union was one huge prison. Its citizens were deprived of many freedoms we take for granted, including the right to practice our religion and live anywhere we choose, or even to emigrate to another country if we so desire. Any Russian citizen who wanted to leave the Soviet Union was considered a traitor to his country. In increasing numbers, the Jews of Russia began to openly declare their desire to leave Mother Russia and resettle in the Land of Israel. These fearless Jews were called “prisoners of Zion.” Among them was a young man named Yosef Mendelevich.
Remarkably, not only did Yosef proclaim his intention to live in the Land of Israel, he tried to fulfill his dream in a bold, dramatic move that finally made the plight of Russian Jewry known to the whole world.
The day he attempted to escape to Israel in a stolen airplane, he was arrested by the infamous KGB – the Soviet secret police – and condemned to death. Due to pressure applied by free countries all over the world, his sentence was eventually commuted to a long and harsh prison term in Siberia’s dreaded Vladimir Prison.
Vladimir was a terrifying institution devoted to the destruction of the human spirit. Inside the prison compound the living conditions were appalling. Rations varied in caloric content from sub-average to starvation level, exercise and fresh air were minimal, and contact with the outside was also strictly limited and, often suspended. Yosef was denied all religious articles, as well as permission to perform the mitzvot. But for all its unspeakable terror, intimidation, demoralization, and frequent punishments, the KGB couldn’t break Yosef’s iron will to fulfill God’s commandments.
One frigid winter, a single thought managed to warm Yosef’s soul: Chanukah was approaching. Yosef dreamed of lighting a Chanukah menorah, a virtual impossibility under the circumstances. Certainly the prison authorities would never permit the performance of this mitzvah and would react harshly to the very notion. Regardless, Yosef put his mind to the mission and developed a clever, viable scheme.
Every day he saved a little of his meager rations, even though this meant subsisting on a starvation diet. When no one was watching, he secretly slipped a crust of bread or a sliver of potato into his pocket. Later on, he carefully stashed these precious scraps on a small ledge in his cell, and prayed that no guard would notice his curious cache. Hoarding food was considered a criminal act, and if discovered, not only would the food be confiscated, but the perpetrator would suffer a cruel punishment as well. As with every other mitzvah he performed in Vladimir Prison, Yosef accepted the risk.
The day before Chanukah, Yosef could scarcely contain his excitement. Now there was only one final, critical detail to be arranged. Trying to attract as little attention as possible, Yosef traded some of his rations with another prisoner for a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. He had no use for the cigarettes, but the matches were the crucial missing ingredient for his plan. Fingers trembling, Yosef opened the box of matches and found forty-four matches inside, exactly the number he needed, to serve as the Chanukah lights.
And so, late on the first night of Chanukah, when everyone was finally asleep and no guards were in sight, Yosef inserted the matches into his scraps of bread and potato and fashioned a secret Chanukah menorah! The matches burned for only a few seconds, but they provided endless light and inspiration for Yosef Mendelevich in the depths of the Vladimir Prison in Siberia. (From Light in the Darkness, Best of Storylines, by Hanoch Teller NYC Publishing, 1991.)