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Iosif Mendelevich Released from the Soviet Union and is on His Way to Israel; Role of Wjcongress in

February 19, 1981
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

— Iosif Mendelevich, the last Jewish imprisoned 1970 Leningrad hijack trial defendant, arrived here today after his unexpected release from a prison camp in the Soviet Union and departed shortly afterwards for Israel on an El Al flight due at Ben Gurion Airport this evening.

The 33 year-old Orthodox Jew, soon to be reunited with his mother and sister who live in Israel, looked haggard from the effects of his prolonged detention and a hunger strike he began late last October.

He said on his arrival at Vienna airport, “I thank the Almighty for having secured my release.” He was in tears when he was presented with a prayer book and tefilim (phylacteries) by Israel Singer, director of the North American branch of the World Jewish Congress, who met him at the airport along with Dr. Gerhart Riegner, Secretary General of the WJC, and Israel’s Ambassador to Austria, Elissar Ben Yaakov.

The surprise release of Mendelevich, who served nearly II years of a 12-year sentence in prisons and forced labor camps, was arranged privately by the World Jewish Congress, specifically its president Edgar Bronfman through his personal relationship with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador in Washington.

WJC sources said the major factor in the unprecedented negotiations between a private organization and the Soviet government was Bronfman’s relationship with the Russian envoy. According to the WJC’s Geneva office, when Mendelevich left the USSR he was directed to ask for a Mr. Singer, the WJC official, and identify himself to him when he reached Vienna. Singer was apparently involved by Bronfman in the negotiations for Mendelevich’s release.


Mendelevich’s family in Israel had not had direct contact with him for several years. Because of his hunger strike to protest the denial of religious artifacts and other maltreatment, they were particularly concerned for his health. Recently, his sister, Rivka Dori, a resident of Gush Etzion, received a disturbing message from friends in Moscow who said that their inquiries into the condition of Mendelevich, who was transferred to the Perm 36 prison labor camp in the Urals a year ago, had elicited a reply from the camp commandant that the prisoner was no longer there.

His apparent disappearance gave rise to fear that he was seriously ill and transferred to a hospital or that he may have died. Premier Menachem Begin who met with Dori in Jerusalem Monday, told her that Ambassador Dobrynin had promised over the weekend that he would make inquiries as to Mendelevich’s whereabouts. Begin did not elaborate.

On Sunday, after he raised the question of Mendelevich’s disappearance at the weekly Cabinet meeting, the Cabinet decided that Israel would mount a world-wide public opinion campaign to ascertain his whereabouts and obtain his release. It is not known whether Begin or his government were aware of Bronfman’s negotiations with Dobrynin.

Mendelevich was one of 12 persons charged at the Leningrad trial with being the ringleaders of a plot to seize a Soviet aircraft, fly it to a neutral country and make their way to Israel. Two others, Eduard Kuznetzov and Mark Dymshits were sentenced to death, later commuted to 15 years imprisonment. They were released in 1979 in a prisoner exchange that also included imprisoned Soviet Jewish dissident Aleksander Ginsburg. Their release was reportedly in exchange for two Soviet spies serving 50 year sentences in the U.S. Two remaining defendants of the Leningrad trial, Ukrainians Yuri Federov and Aleksei Murzhenko, are still imprisoned.


Mendelevich had been sentenced to 15 years, later reduced on appeal to 12. Singer told reporters here today that he considered the release as a sign that the Soviets want to improve relations with the United States, especially since it was a unilateral gesture and no prisoner exchange was involved. Other Jewish sources indicated that Mendelevich’s release was “not an isolated case” and that the release of other Soviet dissidents had been discussed.

During his imprisonment, Mendelevich became known as “the rabbi of the labor camps” because of his strict adherence to Orthodox religious practices, including observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws. For that reason and because he gave Hebrew lessons to other Jewish inmates, he was allegedly singled out for especially harsh treatment by the camp authorities.

Mendelevich declined to speak to reporters here today, saying he was “worn out” from his ordeal. Jewish sources told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he was brought to Moscow from the prison camp only yesterday without being told that he was about to be released.

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