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Chapter II: Spalerno

Chapter II: Spalerno

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"Stand and descend from the vehicle 'distingueshed citizens,'" was the command. The guards abruptly formed a path from the vehicle to the gate. My neighbor descended first, for he had sat to my right and was closer to the door. I noticed that I had been wise not to hurry, for when he descended, they took his personal belongings, which were in a large trunk on which a guard had perched during the journey. It was a handsome trunk, with finely carved details and of foreign make, for such elegant objects are not seen nowadays.

I then realized that he was indeed a foreigner and unable to speak Russian. The guards gestured to him to proceed to the gate. Two men came out of the gate and carried in the trunk, and afterwards, Nachmanson signaled to his comrade Lulav from within the gate. Lulav turned to me and with subdued joy said, "Now would you please exert yourself to proceed. I will take your bag if you wish or if you do not. You are now a guest with us, and you are obligated to submit to our orders."

"Yes, this is a great victory, but I hope that it will only be a brief one," I replied patiently and with confidence.

"Speaking is forbidden!" shouted an armed guard. It seemed that he could no longer suppress his cruelty and his hatred for Jews, especially a Jew respected by his religious brethren.


Nachmanson went before me. There were now two new armed guards accompanying me, for the earlier ones remained outside. One was on my right and the other on my left, and Lulav walked behind me.

We passed through a large courtyard within a building, six stories high and extending to all four sides of the courtyard. On each side there were two or three entrances. No one else was in the courtyard except for the guards at the entrance. Nachmanson walked quickly, but he was compelled to wait for me because I walked with unusual deliberateness. This was because my legs were in pain and, in fact, I was not in any particular hurry. Even before I entered the gate, I began requesting that Nachmanson keep his word about restoring my tefillin and letting me pray.

I walked step by step with occasional short intervals to rest as I moved from one level to the next. With difficulty I climbed upon the rungs leading to the administrative headquarters, as Nachmanson went before me. He turned to me, his face red with rage, and said: "Even before entering the administrative headquarters to be informed of your obligations, you are already badgering me with such demands. This is astonishing. Are you oblivious to your situation? Are you unaware of the rigorous discipline of prison? First you will be brought to the administrative headquarters. There you will fill out the required questionnaire. Only later, when you are brought to your cell, can you pray. I think that in a short while you will forget your present concerns and realize the seriousness of your situation. You will no longer be preoccupied with these foolish matters. Forget that you are Schneersohn, the distinguished Bogamolnik (one who prays to G‑d). You are now a simple person who is being punished with imprisonment or other punishment for your flagrant acts against the proletariat. Now you will pay for everything."

I did not respond but gazed at him intently, and I perceived that this had a far more piercing effect than any words.

Nachmanson turned to Lulav, "What do you think will happen to this distinguished citizen, who has waxed and thrived for many years in the affluence and luxury of bourgeois life, when he comes to his new apartment-Spalerka Salon? The simple fare of black bread and kasha will not rest well with him. There he will leave behind his pride. There, at the interrogation table, he will speak, declare, answer all the questions put to him. Right, distinguished citizen?"

As though oblivious to Nachmanson's conversation with Lulav, I pursued my former inquiries: "Where are your assurances in your official capacity as a representative of the G.P.U. that I would be permitted to put on my tefillin and to pray? Why didn't you reveal to me while I was still in my home that you would not let me pray? What prevents you from being truthful? Whom did you fear? Why did you give me such firm assurances? Is this the normal conduct of a representative of the G.P.U.?"

Nachmanson laughed sardonically, with a mixture of pleasure and vengeance. I saw then that I was dealing with a totally different person. This was not the Nachmanson who was in my apartment, nor the man in the courtyard. This was a G.P.U. official, whose primary task was to frighten the prisoners, to confuse them and render them submissive -- ultimately to extract confessions and admissions about imaginary events.

At that moment I recollected the text in Reishit Chachmah at the beginning of the Tractate Geihinom: "It is written, 'Who can stand before His anger? And who can be upright before the fierceness of His wrath?' Rav Zeira commented, citing the verse from Proverbs, 'The leech has two daughters who cry out, Give, give.' Rabbi Elazar commented further, 'Two groups of angels stand at the gates of Geihinom and cry, Give, give, bring, bring.'"

We advanced a few more steps. Nachmanson opened the door to the corridor of the administrative division. He whistled, signalling to one of the guards, "Take this citizen," he ordered, handed him a paper, and said, "Here are his documents. Escort him to the administrative office and give this to official X."

He turned to me laughing, "Now you will begin to understand where you are." Even before he had finished the sentence, he hastened to descend and run after Lulav, who had already gone down. They were obviously in haste to accomplish important tasks. Apparently their night's work was still incomplete.

The guard lead me and indicated with his finger that I should walk the length of the corridor to the wide open door. He told me that I would then be given a questionnaire by one of the secretaries and that I should answer all the questions in writing.


This corridor was a long room, more than 150 feet long and twelve feet wide. On both sides there were many closed office doors, and at every 30 feet was a small burning candle suspended from the ceiling. Along the length of the room stood ten or twelve armed guards, each armed with a Cossack pike at his back, a polished sword in his left hand, and a rifle in his right. They stood like marble pillars, unmoving, yet their eyes attentively surveyed the entire area.

The dreadful, bizarre scene would inevitably frighten any normal person, who could not begin to comprehend the reason for the elaborate display of weaponry and the intended targets of these instruments of destruction. Indeed, where could people be found so callous and corrupt as to be capable of wielding such weapons? Could a person be such a wild animal that such things must be used to tame him?

The enveloping silence, the darkness, the blackness of the walls, the small candles, the malevolent statue-like soldiers with massive powerful figures, their height, the broadness of their shoulders, the harsh outline of their features, their uniforms of stark red and black, the excessive display of weaponry-pike, sword, rifle -- all merged into one composite image that terrified the eye of the beholder and made the heart shudder.

Through the two rows of soldiers in the frightening dimness and in death-like stillness, I walked to the end of the corridor. In my mind the question arose, "Where am I going and for what purpose? What is required of me and how will this all end?" As if in internal dialogue with my soul, I responded clearly, excluding all doubt: "I shall shortly arrive at the open door, exactly as the guard told me. Did he not give me clear instructions that I must write out the answers to the questionnaire?

"And what then? Later, surely Nachmanson's promise will be fulfilled, that I will be brought to the place where one speaks willingly or unwillingly." I advanced slowly and thought:

Tractate Geihinom - First Section.


Whether inadvertently or deliberately I do not know, but apparently because of my intense inner reflection or the agitated confusion of my thoughts, I veered to the right. As I approached the open door I perceived another hallway extending to the right. It seems that without any forethought I had turned in this direction.

The corridor was exactly as long as the one through which I had just passed. But aside from this there was a stark contrast: here the walls were plastered, and there were many windows. There were no armed guards, and long benches extended along the entire length of the room. In this area there were also many doorways, but they were white, with numbers written on them, and signs printed with thin, sharp words. I did not pay attention to them, however, because I was very much shaken by the incredible contrast between the first corridor, coarse and dark, with its intense security, and the present environment, so normal and civilized. Somehow, under the influence of these new surroundings, I walked with longer and more confident strides, and no one challenged or directed me. As I advanced I realized that I had erred in my movements, for I had been instructed to go forward up to the door open for all prisoners. How had I somehow turned and arrived here? Would this magnify my supposed violation of the law? Perhaps now they would accuse me of intruding into an area prohibited to prisoners, thus enabling them to bring harsher and more perilous accusations: that I was now attempting to ferret out knowledge of the ins and outs of the Spalerno Prison.

Nevertheless, I did not hurry back. Had I been aware originally, I would not have ventured in this direction; but since I was already there, I had already crossed the line, though without conscious intent. And indeed, this is the way of Divine Providence. Were my actions any less significant than those of the wind-buffeted wisp of straw, or a driven swirling leaf? Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov had taught that even these seemingly minor incidents were all due to G‑d's exalted Providence.

I noticed a bench standing a few steps away, approached it, and sat down to rest a while. I suddenly remembered that I did not have my bag. I was surprised at my forgetfulness-where might I have lost it? I concentrated and recollected that I misplaced it when I was separated from the second escort group, from the "angels of Geihinom," namely Nachmanson and Lulav, and transferred to the guard who had escorted me to the dark corridor. Apparently I was so concerned and preoccupied that I had forgotten it.

Like myself, I thought, my bag is also here in this section. Whatever the circumstances, no one would steal it. If Lulav had taken it to the administrative headquarters, it would certainly be there. If he had entrusted it to a guard of the dark corridor, it would be there. At any rate, it was most certainly secure. At this time, I must use these precious moments to prepare myself for the "room open for all prisoners."


"What is happening in my home right now?"

This thought possessed me: Conscious of the different personalities in my family, I could imagine their reactions and behavior, and the composite scene. I pictured the sobbing of my mother; the white, apprehensive face and the deep inner anguish of my wife and her shocked muteness; the shattered hearts and the confusion of my helpless daughters; the apprehension and concern of my son-in-law. I also thought about my future son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem [Schneerson], who had gone to the home of my secretary, Mr. Lieberman. I hoped to G‑d that he was not also ensnared in this net of intrigue. What of all my dear friends and my chassidic disciples? What were they doing at this very minute? This vivid panorama excited me, and my eyes flowed with hot tears. I was deeply agitated and my entire body trembled: G‑d forbid, was it possible that the sacred chassidic manuscripts and writings were also taken? I now realized that they were attempting to exact revenge from me. The angry words of Nachmanson, his conversation with Lulav, clearly indicated that I was dealing with people set on vengeance, on weaving lies, improvising dangerous charges against me. Who knew if they had not touched the core and apple of my eye, the sacred chassidic manuscripts and writings. And if, G‑d forbid, this had actually occurred, how awesome was this situation. How incredible the catastrophe that these sacred manuscripts would also be swept into custody and imprisoned!

I felt the need to still this surge of thought. Like a flash of lightning there gleamed within my mind, "And what of G‑d? Who has done this? Who has generated this entire sequence of events? Everything has its source in G‑d. True, I am indeed a son, a husband, a father, a father-in-law, one who loves and is beloved. They are all dependent upon me, but I and they in turn are dependent upon G‑d Who spoke and created the world. I have done all that I am capable of doing, and G‑d will do according to His will, may He be blessed. At that moment I emerged from the mire and constraints of my situation, and ascended to transcendent spiritual heights, with thoughts beyond the confines of finite, physical existence. I was bolstered by pure faith and absolute trust in the Living G‑d, secure in the merit of my holy ancestors - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - (thought letters)

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