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Chapter V: On the Staircase

Chapter V: On the Staircase

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Tractate Geihinom, Third Section

We proceeded along the right side of the gate to a dim corridor lit by small candles. I began, not merely to ask but to entreat, in the profoundest sense of the word, my guard to permit me to put on my tefillin. I also told him that it was difficult for me to walk quickly. His answer was a curt "no," and he warned me that if I persisted, he would place me in solitary confinement.

I persisted in my request, asking for five minutes, or at least three minutes. I explained to him that I was a religious Jew and that donning the tefillin would entail only a very brief interval. The guard was smoking a cigarette; he answered that he knew full well what tefillin were. He had lived in a small city not far from a synagogue, and he was familiar with Jewish worship, but he would not grant my wish.

We proceeded, he in front and I behind him. Realizing that he would not relent, I decided to put on my tefillin as I walked. I placed the tefillin on my hand, and barely managed to place them on my head, when the guard saw what I had done. He struck me and pushed me toward the left to the ladder leading downward, and I fell down all the ladder steps. It is only with G‑d's aid that I did not break a hand or leg. With great effort I managed to climb a few rungs; my pain was great.

I realized that the metal buckle of my belt had broken and that it had apparently cut a gash against my stomach. My heart contracted with pain; I felt that in another instant I would faint.

My guard screamed at me, "You will soon see the fine treatment which will be granted to you by the head of the sixth division: then you will forget all about your requests and your prayer. When you lie three or four days in the darkness with the mice in slime and mud, you will understand that you cannot transform Spalerno into a Jewish prayer house."

We came now to a broad corridor, with three ladders remaining before the third platform, where the office of the head of the sixth division was located. There he would judge me for my infraction of prison regulations.

I felt compelled to sit on one of the rungs to rest, for I felt an intense pain and I sensed blood flowing from my wound. I found movement very difficult, and I tried to repress my pain.

I gripped the iron rail of the ladder and climbed with great difficulty from rung to rung. My guard had already reached the third ladder, and I crawled forward like a broken old man.


The head of the sixth division stood on the landing to welcome his "distinguished guest." It appeared that he had already received word from the central administration. It was impossible for me to tell if he had been told to be lenient or strict, for his face was expressionless, like stone.

"Prisoner 26818," called out the soldier, extending his documents to the head of the sixth division.

"Good, good," barked the official, "hand over the merchandise. It is tedious sitting here with folded hands." He looked down and saw that I had still to climb up the third flight. "Hurry up, old man, why the slowness?-time is precious!" I reached the landing with the tefillin in my hand.

"Proceed for the search," shouted the officer, taking his leave joyously, whistling a melody. As he walked a few steps, he called out a command: "Petia, take the merchandise yarlik 26818 and get to work," meaning that he should receive me from the accompanying guard and bring me to his room, the administrative room of the sixth division.

The man, or beast, called Petia emerged from one of the cubicles or holes at the top of the landing, and approached me. When he finally reached me, he scrutinized me closely and murmured to himself, "Astounding, the rags that they have begun to bring here. Words are useless. A real parasite, a Jew with a long beard. Proceed, old man, to the search! Don't worry; we will clean you out as you deserve. We'll pull you apart bone by bone."

This specimen, Petia, was in charge of storing the belongings of the yarliks brought to Spalerno.

Petia was not armed, nor did he carry any kind of weapon, but nevertheless he resembled a destructive demon. He was of average height, but his face was livid and his voice like a lion's. He was cross-eyed, and he was unable to look directly forward like a normal person.

Petia proceeded before me to show me the way, leading me to the office of the head of the sixth division.

"Why do you limp?" Petia called out to me. "Has the Spalerno air affected you? Isn't the air good here? Like a scent, like fragrant scents. For parasites such as you we have such pleasant odors that prisoners on their very first day here collapse to the ground as though gripped by illness. They lie for two or three days in such a state, until the doctor comes. Sometimes he arrives late and all he needs to do is write the death certificate."

The wound made it difficult for me to walk. I needed to rest after every step. I felt the blood oozing, I was in intense pain, and my heart contracted within me.

"Why is your face so white," Petia asked, "Are you ill? After the search you can die. Things here are quiet. No one will disturb you, and no one in your family will know. The doctor will write a certificate for the office, the official will sign, an entry will be made in the office ledger. They will erase your file and throw your body into one of the dungeons below the building."

I cannot claim that his words did not affect me, yet I also considered what spiritual lesson could be derived from them.

All are fully aware of the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that every utterance and breath, everything one hears and sees, contains guidance in the service of G‑d.

Even one not endowed with superior intellect can easily understand how such words as Petia's can awaken a feeling of repentance, a feeling of fear of Heaven, a feeling of Divine Providence, a feeling of faith and trust. But even in such a situation the Evil Inclination can be found. There, too, Satan dances and tries to mislead with his guile and deception. Even in such circumstances, evil intervenes and tries to prevent an individual from being what he should be.

The pain overwhelmed me, and it was impossible for me to take another step. I rested for a moment.

"Why are you so slow?" he cried out, "Shall we bear you on a stretcher to the official for the search? Jew-face, cease your arrogance!"

"Petia!" the head of the sixth division called out, "where have you gotten lost? Where is prisoner 26818? Bring him immediately. I am waiting!"

"I am coming right away," Petia replied, and turning to me he said, "See, his patience has worn thin. The demon! A dog's carcass."

With G‑d's help we reached the official's office, a small room approximately nine feet square, without a window, lit by candles, and with an iron door.

"Here he is," Petia said to the official, "This rag belongs to you; this is also merchandise? In a short while he will expire."

The official, hearing Petia's eloquence, smiled and with obvious delight responded, "What can be done, brother? If nothing else is available, this, too, will suffice. We cannot be without work."

"Very well, then," he said turning to me, "let us proceed with the search. What is it you have in your pocket?" He searched me briefly, finding nothing. He then looked through my bag and found the Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, the tefillin of Shimusha Rabbah, my gartel, and the books; he took them all. I was still holding my Rashi tefillin in my hand. He turned to Petia: "Return to your place. When I am through with the search, I will call for you."


Only one broken chair stood in that room, and I sat on it. The official continued with his search of my bag. I turned to him with a plea that he permit me to pray.

"No," he answered, with intense rage.

Since I was sitting behind him and held my Rashi tefillin in my hand, I did not wait a moment and placed them on my head and hand, recited the Shema, and commenced the silent prayer of Shemonah Esrei. At that very moment he concluded the task of searching and examining my belongings and turned to find me wrapped in tefillin. For a moment he stood astounded, gazing at me wide-eyed with eyes of bewilderment and panic; and at that moment he was transformed into a wild beast. The blood rushed to his face-with his two hands he grasped at my head tefillin, screaming, "Jew-face, I will place you in solitary confinement. I will pulverize your face, you demon!"

As I concluded the blessing "And reign over us, You, G‑d alone, with kindness and mercy," I was compelled to remove my tefillin for fear that he would tear the straps.

"Petia!" called the official, roaring like a lion, and then he said, "I pity you, old man. Even if I do nothing, you will die quickly. Your white face and black lips tell us clearly that we will not be busy with you for long here. What is your disease? Tell me."

I did not answer. I understood clearly that the single purpose of the officers and orderlies was to frighten and confuse the prisoners. They attempted to manipulate the prisoners the way a small child would play with cards.

"So, what do you wish?" asked Petia angrily, his eyes to the floor.

"Why do you ask? Don't you know what you need to do!" answered the official.

"What? To remove the refuse? Has he been registered already?"

"Not yet, I will shortly enter him into the large registry of the newly-arrived prisoners. Give him a number, then attach his file. Everything will be done according to rules and regulations".

Petia said, "Why are you so preoccupied with this refuse? Hand him over to be taken out. It doesn't really matter. He won't last for long anyway. A day or two and then he will die."

"No, things are not done in that way. Everything must be done strictly according to regulation. The file must be prepared properly and numbered in proper sequence. If he is ill, we will enter it in the necessary registry and send a certificate for the doctor. What is today, Wednesday? If I can manage to send it off today, then approximately by Saturday or at the latest, Monday, there will be a medical examination. Who knows? Perhaps before then he will be completely released from all his illnesses."

"One puff of smoke from a gun barrel and it is done," commented Petia radiantly.

The officer replied, "That is a decision reserved for the upper levels. If I receive an order to dispose of the merchandise, I will do just that. Petia, you are thoroughly aware of the procedure. You have a good deal of experience."

Petia responded: "I know, I know full well. I love watching the prisoners quivering in their agony for two or three hours. There are, however, some who are so frail that when you lead them in, they walk like the dead. You just begin to remove their clothing and they die from fright; that's not satisfying. But when blood flows, its a pleasure to watch. We sometimes need to wait five or six hours till it's all over. Then, only then is it gladdening. It's delightful for me to see them then-it's sheer pleasure!"

The officer commented: "I have already finished. Everything is prepared, file 26818. He should be taken to room 160, number four."

Turning to me the official said, "Now, old man, your name is number 160/4. Go! Petia, receive number 160/4. Sign that you received 160/4, and that's it."

Petia wrote and signed. The officer stood nearby, looking on with a proud air and beaming face, and concluded, "Good, everything is in order."

Petia said to me, "Now you're all mine. Come, now you can rest. Take your belongings."

I extended my hand to take the tefillin resting on the table because they were all tangled. Thank G‑d, that the officer had not opened the boxes. I picked them up and arranged them properly. I hoped that perhaps I could have them with me in my cell.

I pleaded with the officer that the tefillin be given to me because I had been promised them. The officer laughed and said, "Old man, forget everything. You must realize that you are a prisoner. Forget your nonsense. You will get nothing except what has already been given to you: your underwear, handkerchiefs, and nothing more."

"If it really means so much to you," continued the officer, "then you can write to the higher officials: if the order will be forthcoming, I will give you everything you want."

"Here," I said to the officer, "you are my officer. I have no need for superior officers in the higher echelons. I plead only with you to do this one act of mercy for me. Give me the tefillin and the religious books. My underwear, handkerchiefs and food are unnecessary."

How remarkable is the effect of a humbled self and soft words, so great to soften even a heart of stone. For a brief instant it seemed that the officer had been transformed from a tyrant into a human being. He stood reflectively scratching his head.

"Forbidden," Petia said, "it's forbidden. Stand and proceed!

"Forbidden," repeated the official, "I cannot grant your request without authorization. If you wish, make a written request. Here is some paper; you may write."

Sitting in the office, I had noticed a bulletin board with a page of printed prison regulations. It stated that every prisoner who had money entrusted to the prison administration could submit his request or communication by telegram. It was only necessary for him to state in writing that the expense for dispatching the telegram should be deducted from his money, which was in the custody of the prison authority.

Invoking this privilege, I requested that I be allowed to communicate my plea by telegram. Petia petulantly protested that I could write it in my cell, for in a very short while he had to wake the prisoners. Nevertheless, the official granted my wish.

I wrote three telegrams, all with the identical text:

I herewith request to immediately order the head of the sixth section to give me my tefillin.

Religious Rabbi, Y. Schneersohn,
Sixth Section, cell 160

I sent the telegrams to: 1) the chief prosecutor; 2) the chief administrator of Spalerno; 3) the investigator, Nachmanson.

The prison official nodded his head after reading the telegrams and commented: "He has great aspirations-look how he writes to the chief prosecutor, the chief administrator and the investigator!" Then he burst out in loud, echoing laughter.

I understood that I needed to ask for a receipt verifying his acceptance of the three telegrams, with the assurance that they would be immediately transmitted.

Petia asked, "Are you finished? Have you calmed down already? Let us proceed."

I, however, turned to the official and asked, "And where is the receipt for the telegrams?"

"What receipt?" he replied.

"The law states that an official must give written confirmation permitting, and then verifying, the transmission of a telegram," I answered calmly.

My citing legal obligations compelled him to yield, and he immediately took a sheet of paper and wrote a receipt. He placed his seal upon it, then affixed his seal to each individual telegram and placed them in a large envelope, apparently used for collecting all documents and papers that were to be transmitted to the administrative office.

Prior to my leaving the small room of the chief official of the sixth section, I asked him the time, and in his kind graciousness he permitted me to look at the watch on his left hand, which showed five minutes to six.

Thus I had concluded Tractate Geihinom, Third Section. I walked beside Petia, who was cursing me and all humanity, trying to terrify me with mortal fear.


I did not take Petia's harsh words to heart but looked around at the huge structure of the Spalerno Prison. I marveled at the unusual skill of the architect of this remarkable edifice; it was built to provide for all prison matters. Moreover, there were special areas in which to oppress, persecute, torment, and torture human beings.

Spalerno was a building within a building. An outer wall enclosed the entire area on all four sides, with dimensions of approximately 300 feet by 300 feet. The inner wall was like a square box, and within the wall there were cells with iron doors.

Between the inner and outer walls extended a corridor some 18 feet wide, and there were large windows in the outer wall approximately 24 feet high. There were three levels within these 24 feet; a lower platform, above it a second, and above it a third platform. From the sides of the inner wall there extended a walkway somewhat more than four feet wide. Iron ladders led up to it, providing access to the rooms and cells. The space between the outer and inner walls on ground level was like an alley from which one could go up to the first walkway which provided access to the second floor and also to a ladder leading to the second walkway, which is the third floor of the prison.

I proceeded on the walkway from the office of the head official to room 160. I did not know its exact location but followed Petia, who spoke continually, trying to frighten me with his many recollections, describing his great pleasure at witnessing the execution of rich people and clergymen. Once he waited for one of the executed to expire because it was his task to cast the cadavers of seven slain victims into one of the pits under the second dungeon in the subterranean section of the building. He had already disposed of them all, except for one who continued to shudder and "refused to die."

He continued: "He was like you, pale and large in build. Though he was the fifth victim executed, he outlived them all. He kept twitching his hands and feet the whole time.

"My comrade went to receive his payment. He was well rewarded for his labor, receiving 420 rubles (the payment for each execution was 60 rubles) and three bottles of vodka. My job was to bring them from the cell, prepare and separate them, and when it was all over, it was my responsibility to remove the corpses and clean the blood from the floor and walls of the room.

"That prisoner had still not died and I decided to drink some tea. When I returned he was still quivering. It was so pleasurable for me to gaze upon this scene that I drank the tea without sugar! My patience finally ran out. I kicked him twice with my foot and he lay there lifeless. Blood began to flow from his throat and his color immediately changed to the black of a beetle."

Although his words didn't frighten me, they nevertheless made a strong impression. I shuddered at his long, detailed story.

"Actually, you should have been placed in a cell all by yourself," said Petia," for you are among those scheduled for execution. For those prisoners there is a special room for solitary confinement. But apparently all the rooms are full, so you were assigned cell 160.

"Here is your room." He took a large key and unlocked the latch of one of the iron doors. Then he took another key which opened the lock within the door itself. When the door was ajar he told me to go in and lie down on the floor. Before I could enter, he grabbed me sadistically with both hands, threw me into the room, and flung my bag after me. This greatly intensified the suffering and pain from my earlier wound.

He hastened to close the door, saying, "Sleep on the floor till the order comes to give you a bed, a container, a bowl, and spoon." I was disoriented and did not understand his references to the eating utensils. Petia closed the door and left.


The room was 2½ archin wide, five archin long and 2½ archin high. The walls were of stone and one archin in thickness. The door was of iron. High on the wall close to the ceiling and facing the courtyard was an opening for a window. This opening was one archin in length by half an archin in width, covered by vertical iron bars and one horizontal iron bar, forming an intersecting barrier. The window was imbedded in an iron frame; the glass itself was only a handbreadth by a handbreadth.

Three thick iron chains, one on each side and the third in the middle extending from above, made it possible to open the window by suspending it on these iron chains. On the outside, an extended iron railing blocked the prisoners' view of the outside and prevented them from communicating with prisoners in the cells across the courtyard.

The room contained an iron bed fastened to the wall and an iron table, approximately three feet square, also fastened to the wall, and a water faucet. In a corner of the room there was a hollow vessel for the hygiene needs of the prisoner, an electric light, and a hot water pipe passing through the cell to provide warmth.

This cell was normally for one prisoner, but with the increased number of prisoners, two, three, and even four prisoners were placed in such rooms.

The thickness of the cell door was approximately the size of a handbreadth, but I could not discern if the door was totally made of iron or merely iron-plated on both sides. The door was approximately six feet high and and three feet wide. There was a small opening the size of an egg in the middle of the door with an iron cover, to enable the guard to scrutinize and supervise the actions of the prisoners in the cell at any time. Approximately ten inches below this opening, there was a small square window through which the prisoners received food and drink. This window in the iron door was shut, locked with a latch.

Translation by Rabbi Dr. Alter B. Z. Metzger; from The Heroic Struggle, published by Kehot.
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