Contact Us

Chapter IV: The Interview

Chapter IV: The Interview

 Email

Tractate Geihinom, First Section

I stepped across the threshold and gazed into a room approximately 36 feet square. Along three walls of the room sat some 20 women, most of them writing and smoking. They faced the center of the room, and on the other sides of their tables stood the benches where the "guests" were brought in to sit.

The room had three doors: one, open wide for the prisoners who were brought through the dark corridor; a second door, to the right, seemingly for petty prisoners who came through a different corridor (through which Chimka thought I was led); and a third door, leading to the next section. On the right side of the entrance from the dark corridor, I saw my bag lying on the floor, together with the plaid blanket.

It was a strange sight: there were approximately forty people in the room: the twenty secretaries writing on long forms and the twenty prisoners answering their questions, either willingly or because of the force of circumstances. Nevertheless, absolute silence prevailed; a deathly stillness. The questions and answers were exchanged very quietly. Only the scratching of the pens on the sheets could be heard.

In the open center of the room stood a group of people. It appeared that their task was to supervise the interrogation procedures, for they did not speak to each other. No detail was lost upon them as they peered at every side of the room and at each person. They were armed, and although they wore simple military garb, their very appearance was frightening. Their faces were red and sullen with rage, their eyes glimmered, their buttons were of burnished copper and they were of massive build.

My general impression was that here the web was woven. Here the prisoner would begin by giving basic information: his name, age, birthplace, family, religion, residence, etc. But by means of the innumerable questions, the person was transformed from one stating simple information to one admitting matters that he never dreamed of. The sensitive manner of the secretaries, and their soft speech, together with the confused thought and crushed state of the prisoners, served to elicit answers for the questionnaire that would later provide ample basis for the prosecutors accusation that the prisoner had, in fact, already acknowledged his guilt.


As I stood viewing and assimilating all that was taking place in this first section of Geihinom itself, one of the officials lifted his arm, indicating that I was to proceed toward a table to my left. An interrogation place was now available for me, as the secretary had just finished with a prisoner.

I saw the secretary hand over to one of the escorting guards the papers and documents of the prisoner and his yarlik number. The term "yarlik" is to be encountered under various circumstances. A customer coming to a large department store to buy merchandise from the different departments proceeds to the cashier and is there given the yarlik package number of his purchase. A package is dispatched through railroad mail, express or regular, and a receipt is given with the yarlik number.

But in Spalerno, yarlik numbers are imposed on human beings. Customarily, the yarlik number is pasted on the merchandise package, but this yarlik number is not actually affixed to the body of the prisoner; rather it is impressed upon his very soul. His personal identity is lost. He is transformed into a number.

Up to this point, the prisoner is addressed by his actual name, but from the point that the questionnaire is signed and sealed, he is addressed by his yarlik number. I do not know if the yarlik is a reference to the month, day, or some other numerical sequence, but I am aware that the person preceding me, in whose place I sat, was designated as yarlik 26803.

His clothing was of medium quality, and he seemed to be about 60 years old. He had a kindly face and appeared to have some white-collar profession-bookkeeper or director of a business; he was mild mannered and spoke quietly and politely.

As he stood up, he was approached by the escorting guard, who upon reading his form exclaimed: "Aha! So much is written here!"

The face of yarlik 26803 turned green, his eyeglasses slid off his nose and his whole body trembled.

"Follow me!" commanded the guard. "Don't be so agitated, in a short while you will rest upon bedding of straw and stretch out on thin, narrow planks . . ." (I could not hear anymore, for they had left the room).


"Sit, Citizen," said the stenographer. "Here is a sheet of questions. Answer each question clearly, and answer each question in the correct space."

"I have nothing to write," I replied, "this does not relate to me, and I have nothing to answer."

"What?" inquired the secretary, "you do not wish to follow the official procedure? It is an established law that each individual arriving here must fill out this answer sheet and clearly respond to all the questions."

"I did not come here to visit," I stated. "I was taken here. The persons who brought me know who I am and what I am. Why do something utterly pointless?"

"Do you forget where you are? Or is your mind confused? Do you mean to institute new procedures in this department? What is your name?"

"I know very well that I am a prisoner brought to Spalerno, and my mind, thank G‑d, is in good order. I do not seek to institute new procedures. My name is Schneersohn. I live at 22 Machovaya Street, Apartment 12. I will not write any answers to the questionnaire, and you can enter the information just given."

The secretary took the form, entered the facts given, and then continued: "What is your title?"

"I am an Honored-for-Generations-Citizen." *

[Note * Czar Alexander I had bestowed the title "Citizen of Hereditary Honor" upon the Rebbe's ancestor, Rabbi Schneur Zalman on Liadi, in recognition of his active role in the Russian effort to repulse Napoleon's invasion in 1812.]

"That title no longer exists."

"I do not know if it does or does not exist, but my title is Honored-for-Generations-Citizen."

"What is your vocation?"

"I am involved in studies, the study of the knowledge of G‑dliness known as Chassidus, and the study of Jewish Law and its observance in accordance with the Jewish religion."

"Religion! G‑dly knowledge!"

"Yes! The knowledge of G‑dliness. One G‑d has created and formed all existence, and His Divine Providence extends over all creations: the crawling creature in the sea and the small creatures in a desert wasteland, and mankind in civilized society."

"How can I possibly write such answers on the questionnaire?"

"Who compels you to write? As far as I am concerned, you need not write anything. If you want to write, then write, and if you don't want to, then don't."


Suddenly three men appeared at the threshold of the Second Section and gazed into this one. Their eyes searched the room, and upon perceiving me, the expression upon their faces indicated that they had found what they sought.

I recognized one of the three as the driver of the arrest vehicle which had conveyed me to Spalerno. They were all young and dressed in normal civilian garb: breeches, silk shirts of different colors of either English or American make, and red knee button boots. Their thick belts had holders for watches on the left side and holsters for guns on the right. Their hair was finely combed, and a look of pleasure could be discerned on their stoic, frozen faces.

Their entrance cast a chill throughout the entire room. Though the guards in the center of the room and the secretaries made no sound or additional movement, a definite change of atmosphere could be sensed in the room.

The three stood silently, but their entrance seemed to instill a deathly fear that affected even the prison workers. Each secretary tended to her task with greater intensity and rigidity; the faces of the sentries in the center of the room changed perceptibly from flushed red to pale white, their eyes moving about and scrutinizing all within their gaze, driven like violinists in an orchestra following the baton of a raging conductor.

One of the three took out a gleaming silver holder filled with cigarettes and offered it to his companions. They all looked toward my table, and I was certain that they sought a plausible reason, any slight pretext to approach.

I understood that they wished to know what was being written in my questionnaire. I was certain that they knew of me and my work. I did not know whether they were of the Second or Third Section, but be that as it may, they were officials of high station who did not customarily visit this department. And this was the cause of the fear which had gripped the entire room.

I surmised that they wanted to involve themselves in my questioning and to augment the explicit questions already on the form, to pound in pegs on which they could later suspend false accusations.

But how could this be done-that high officials should dabble in the tasks of a simple secretary? This itself would reveal their devious intents.


"What am I to do?" said the cigarette-smoking secretary, as though speaking reflectively to herself,"I cannot write such answers. It is my responsibility to ask every written question and to transcribe the answers. I am unable to write of such things as G‑d, religion, and G‑dly commands."

"Is it possible," I asked, "for a prisoner to smoke, too?"

"Yes," she replied, "it is not forbidden to smoke in this room, although the prisoners do not customarily smoke. If you desire to do so, I will request permission from one of the officers standing in the center of the room."

She spoke in such a tone that the newcomers who stood nearby could hear.

With a light smile upon his lips, one of the three high officials approached and with simulated surprise inquired, "Does this citizen desire to smoke a cigarette?" And turning to me, he declared, "Here it is not forbidden to smoke. You may take a cigarette."

I took a cigarette, while the official offered me his cigarette for a light. I thanked him saying that I had matches.

The secretary complained to the official who had approached the table, "I am unable to fill out this citizen's questionnaire since he does not provide any responses. He asserts that this is completely unrelated to him, and he refuses to answer anything but his name, address and family title."

The official took the form, scrutinized it for a few moments, and then turned to me: "You have not answered any of the questions in this form; you must fill it out completely. There is no other alternative."

He spoke calmly, like an administrator scrutinizing a report written by a subordinate. He added, "I am sure that the citizen knows where he is at present. This official division has special laws and regulations, and all who come here must comply with them. The officials of this department expect their demands to be fulfilled immediately and precisely."

I responded, "I wish to take this opportunity to clarify whether the assurances of those authorized by your agency, or more precisely, the representatives of your agency, are trustworthy, and if one may rely that their assurances will also be observed meticulously."

The official replied, "I do not understand what you are saying, citizen?"

"A representative of this agency who came to arrest me tonight assured me that I would be allowed to put on tefillin and to pray. It is already an hour and a half that I am here and his word has not been kept. He told me on his own initiative that I would be here merely for a matter of hours and that upon my arrival, a number of high officials would ask me a few questions and then permit me to return home.

"I do not know why he said this to me. I do not know if his motive was solely to calm the members of my household or whether it was his malicious intent to perpetrate this bizarre jest.

"Frankly, I am totally unconcerned as to the rationale for his conduct. But I am a religious Jew. I desire to put on my tefillin and pray. No one on Earth has the power to disturb my service of G‑d. I demanded this at the time of my arrest, and I was given this assurance by the representative of the G.P.U. His final words to me were 'Though I am a Communist'-this was with irony-'I will not lie.' These were his words and I now demand that they be fulfilled.

"As to the questionnaire, I have already stated that I did not come here of my own free will; I was brought here by the emissaries of the G.P.U. I am certain that those who arrested me, as well as the high administrative officials, know who and what I am.

"All I have to state is as follows:

I am Rabbi Schneersohn, son of the famed Rabbi Schneersohn of Lubavitch. I bear the hereditary title of Honored-for-Generations-Citizen. My birthplace is Lubavitch; I studied there at the yeshivah and I subsequently lived for eight and a half years in Rostov and three years in Leningrad. My primary preoccupation is religious study. I am involved in the philosophical system known as Chassidus and also concern myself with clarifying the laws and statutes of the Jewish religion. I, like all other religious Jews, have no link with politics. I have nothing else to write."

The firm answer, the clear response, my cold composure and the equanimity reflected in my smoking calmly were all natural vessels for that which transcends nature, and the official, as though reflectively talking to himself, said, "What is written is adequate." He turned to the secretary and with light laughter, but with burning eyes, said, "Write as the citizen states."

Directing my question to the official, I asked,"And what of prayer?"

He answered majestically, "You will receive an answer from the prison administrator of the division where you will be escorted for confinement."

He left with restrained rage.

The secretary took a new form and wrote my statement with great care and handed it to me for my signature.

I took the questionnaire and read it carefully. I drew a line through all of the blanks of the remaining questions to clearly indicate that these questions were unanswered. After I had finished reading it, I signed the document.

During these last few moments, the three officials conversed with each other, and attempting to conceal their primary interest in me, they glanced around the room and then left.


"Wait here a few moments," said the stenographer. She took the form and went to the second room. She returned and took a piece of paper the size of a postcard upon which was written in large black letters thus:

"yarlik number&. ."

I perceived that in a moment, I would also be transformed into a yarlik; I did not yet know the number, but in a moment I would know this also. She was still writing in books: large thick books, of which there were many.

All the secretaries wrote in these books. I did not know what she wrote, but after writing, the secretary placed a seal on the form that I had signed.

I will not deny that the placing of the seal pleased me. I would have been far more pleased if the entire arrest incident had not occurred. But since I had been brought there and had been compelled to sign, it was much better that it bear the official seal so they couldnt substitute a similar form or one totally different. Who knew the mentality of these officials capable of creating something from nothing? But hopefully, the seal would prevent this.

Her entries into the four thick volumes were completed. She wrote on the dotted line of the card next to the word "yarlik" my number, 26818. At that moment I was transformed into a yarlik. I thought to myself that most certainly in another few moments a guard would come to escort me to the Second Section, or, as I had been previously told by Chimka and the senior official, directly to the head of the division where I would be imprisoned.

"Yes, everything is prepared," said the secretary, and glancing at the form, she said, "Yes, little is written, but its content is highly significant." Her face assumed a compassionate expression and she whispered, "Perhaps you wish to send a message to your household. Tell me and I will pass it on immediately after work."

I did not reply at all. I merely awaited the escort, for I had already begun to experience the painful anguish of this ordeal. I wished that the matter would be brought to a head. I suffered emotional turmoil from these unnecessary preludes.

The secretary gathered all the documents and told me to follow her, for she had been instructed to do this personally and not to use the customary escort.


As stated, I was agitated. The clock struck half past four, and I had already undergone innumerable painful experiences-the talk with Chimka, the memory of the market in Lubavitch, with the farmers bringing their horses to drink the well water, the argument with the stenographer, the talk with the senior official-all of which disgusted me. I hoped that something concrete would occur, to speak to an authoritative interrogator or to finally be in a cell, but in any event to be released from this psychological manhandling.

With strengthened heart and a regular stride, I proceeded on.

I passed through the second room, which I had taken to be the Second Section when I sat in the first. Now I saw that I was mistaken. We passed through a third room, and I came to a dark corridor, but not the one that Nachmanson had brought me through at first. Here, there were a few burning candles and no armed guards, and in this corridor we had to descend on iron steps in four or five ladders.

"My traveling bag," I said, "I left it in the room where I wrote the form. Can I return later to obtain it? It is in the area between the entrance door to the dark corridor and the threshold to the second corridor, a reddish sack wrapped in a cover with a green, plaid blanket resting on it."

"Why didn't you take all your belongings?" she answered. "Now you cannot return. It will be necessary to write a special request form, which cannot be done now. The only choice is that I go and bring them to you, or even better, when I go back, I will be able to bring them or send them to you. Perhaps they will permit me to send it with one of the escorts. You should know that the security here is very strict. The slightest infringement of the rules through unnecessary speech or the slightest sign of communication with one of the prisoners can result in a punishment of imprisonment for three or four months. It is better, therefore, that upon arriving at your destination, that you inform them of having forgotten to take your belongings, and they will certainly let me bring them here.

"You should know that they are preparing very serious charges against you. I know that they have gathered much evidence. Now I know who you are, for I have been informed by officials B. and R. They intend punishing you severely and the situation is very dreadful. Among the three officials was R. himself."


We climbed from ladder to ladder as she spoke. My feelings alternated between fleeting moments when it appeared to me that her words were lies intended to frighten me and then for brief instants to the impression that she spoke the truth. Who knew, perhaps there existed, even within this secretary, a drop of human feeling. I will not deny that these moments were intensely difficult. My thoughts blurred, my head pounded very rapidly, my feet stumbled, and an inner tremor passed through my entire body.

Nevertheless, I did not inquire where I was being led, though I was certain the secretary would tell me. I feared it would exert a strong adverse effect upon me and make my spirit fall. I felt stronger not knowing.

She related: "Twelve people were brought here tonight, the majority of them clergymen-Russians, Lutherans, Germans, Poles, a Moslem and only one Jew-yourself. A Russian, a Georgian and a Pole were brought through the dark passageway with armed guard directly to the third room (it appears that this was one of the doors in the dark passageway) and from there to the sub-cellar under the building, where they were shot to death without any interrogation. We were only told to make an entry in the book-unlike the case of those instructed to answer the questionnaire; in all probability you will remain in the fortress for a few days and then be interrogated.

"I was instructed to bring you this way to the first story inspector-control. All of the prisoners brought to Spalerno are led through there."

At this moment I realized that the entire procedure was meant to frighten. The darkness, the ladders with their iron rungs, the dark walls, stale air -- all evoke intense emotions and the dread of being led to a fearful place.

I am certain that sensitive and talented authors would find much material for lengthy works on the nature of human feeling and conduct by merely depicting the range of my experiences during the past two hours from my arrival in the prison until my arrival in this place where they brought ordinary prisoners.


She knocked on a door and the guard, an armed soldier, opened it and asked in great amazement, "Where is the escort guard?"

"There is no guard," answered the stenographer. "I was ordered to bring this citizen prisoner to Room 4; permit me to proceed."

"And the password?" asked the guard.

"I do not know it, please call Comrade C."

"Go out to the vestibule," answered the guard, "and I will call the official. He will give you the authorization to enter; I cannot permit you to stay here."

She said: "What heavy security! Every step is guarded with sword, spear, guns and bayonet."

This transparent charade was abhorrent to me. For it was obvious that causing fear and confusion was the primary goal. This was the means for implementing their evil intentions. I moved to the side, leaned on the wall, and waited.

A few moments passed; the door opened and there was a dark-complexioned face, black as a raven with long wild hair. This person, dressed in a green tunic without a belt, appeared at the threshold of the structure.

"Good morning, Comrade," said the secretary. "Official D ordered me to lead the prisoner this way to the fourth investigation division through this corridor. Please permit me to obey this command because I have a message for the comrade investigator which I must give orally."

The comrade with the coarse features scrutinized me from head to toe. I sensed the animosity he bore me and my mode of dress -- I was dust to him.

He scratched his forehead, spat profusely and yawned. Then, sharp, pungent words came out from between the teeth of this lion: "May darkness take all the prisoners! I worked a double shift tonight. It is less than an hour that I lay down to rest. And behold, the black wind brought this refuse! Was he then sick and unable to be brought through the entrance where all the prisoners go? And why did he come by way of this specific entrance? Through this entrance they are led to the basement dungeon to rest in eternal sleep."

"I have no time," answered the stenographer, "tell the comrade guard to let me obey the command. In the administrative section there is much work, and I cannot wait too long."

"Go," said the eloquent comrade. He opened his mouth in an extended yawn, emitting a strange sound. He spoke but his words were unclear. Only the final phrase of his triple benediction was understandable: "May darkness take you and all the prisoners together!"


We came to a small dark corridor and then turned right into a clearly-lit corridor. We took a few steps and entered a large room approximately 24 feet square. There were four writing tables with chairs. Two tables were empty, and two officials sat at the other tables; they were both immersed in their work, and there were open ledgers and papers resting on the tables.

The stenographer hastened toward one of the officials and said, "I have brought yarlik 26818," and placed the papers on the table.

The officials conveyed the image of stereotypical functionaries accustomed to sitting at a desk. They apathetically shuffled the pages of the thick books and lazily picked away at the many accumulations of documents and papers scattered on the table.

It appeared that these officials, too, were extremely exhausted and that their presence here was either voluntary overtime or a function of administrative requirement. From moment to moment they lapsed into sustained yawns. They scratched their backs and heads lethargically, and they listlessly lifted papers and put them down again.

The stenographer whispered some words to the official which stimulated him to the effort of overcoming his weariness and sloth. He turned to me, saying, "Wait in this room," and pointed toward the door to the right of the entrance.

"Very well," I answered, "but my personal belongings are in the area where I filled out the form. How can I obtain them? Is it possible for someone to bring them?"

The official responded with rage, "We have no servants to concern themselves with the personal belongings of prisoners. What need do you have for your belongings? There in your prison cell belongings are unnecessary. What exactly do you have there?"

"There," I answered, "I have my travelling bag; I have some things I need, tefillin, talit, siddur, a book of Psalms, other objects, and a thick green silk blanket. If you instruct one of the attendants to bring them, I will pay him for his effort."

"Bourgeois customs!" exclaimed the enraged official, "give them servants! The prisoners are too sick to carry their bags! It is forbidden to bring any kind of religious garments within the walls of the prison. In any event, the division head, in whose custody you will be placed, will confiscate all clerical garments and religious books. What difference will it make to you if they remain where they are now or in the storage chambers of the head prison official? Forget this nonsense: You must understand that you are a prisoner."

"During the two hours that I have been here," I answered emotionally, "I have heard repeated dozens of times that I am a prisoner. I do not know if I alone am a prisoner or if all the officials here are also prisoners. We are identical to each other. You are not allowed to move from your guard post. Just as I must obey prison discipline, similarly you must fulfill your obligations. Stop your abusive diatribes regarding religious matters which are holy to me. The law authorizes me to request my belongings and that you permit me to pray."

My emotional outburst had a strong enough effect to awaken the other official, and he stared at us with eyes of intense astonishment. My official, with smoldering anger, stroked his moustache and delved into the piles of paper resting on his desk.

It appeared that they were unaccustomed to hear someone speak with such self-assertion. For a moment I had actually poured out all the rage that had welled up within me when I was in the first section. The official rose from his chair, approached me, opened a door, and said, "Sit in this room till I call you." He left and closed the door.


Tractate Geihinom, Second Section

I entered the enclosed room, which had only the one door which I had used. It was a small room, six feet in width and twelve feet in length, and its walls were painted red. The one large window had been enclosed from the outside with iron bars, the normal prison practice, particularly in Spalerno. A table stood in the center of the room with a number of chairs around it.

I sat down on one of the chairs and noted that the time on the room clock was twenty minutes to five. "What is my family doing?" I thought. By now, word of my arrest had surely reached my friends and even those in the new suburb adjacent to Leningrad. I sighed deeply.


I thought: "It is not appropriate, nor can I permit myself at this time to yield to thoughts that will cause me despondency. This is not the place for sadness or anxiety. This time and place require G‑d's Divine mercy and His sustenance to be resolute in spirit, with an uplifted heart. Yet, at the same time, I must be fully aware both intellectually and emotionally of the details of G‑d's constant Providence, a consciousness of the Divine that can only be evoked by bitterness of soul and retrospective reflection upon the sacred countenance of my father, the Rebbe of blessed memory,- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - (thought letters) - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Father, sacred father - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

For a few moments I thought that this would be my place of imprisonment and that I would be confined here. But was it imaginable that they would put a prisoner in such a room, and not a common prisoner, but a prisoner upon whom revenge must be taken, one subject to false accusations, to coerce to reveal information?

I thought, "I must not dwell on these thoughts. I must prepare myself for a totally different mode of conduct in response to a totally new situation: the circumstance of being a prisoner. I must prepare myself for an experience, similar to the ordeal of the Alter Rebbe in the Petropavlovskaya Krepostj-Peter-Paul Fortress, and his questioning by the Taini Soviet-the Secret Commission. I must condition myself not to be panicked nor frightened, so that I can maintain a firm composure and not yield in the slightest to the right or left from my original firm intent, so that the dignity of the Jewish people should not be trampled underfoot. G‑d will strengthen me."

Only three hours had passed and I was already weary. No limb was without pain. I had an intense searing in my head. My heart pained me and I sensed a sharp piercing on the left side, and in addition, my throat hurt intensely.

"At this moment," I thought, "I should not be concerned with the suffering of my body as compared to the anguish of my soul. And indeed my soul endures profound anguish. I plead with You, G‑d, look down and see the suffering of Your nation. This was not an arrest of merely one prisoner, nor do they seek to punish me as an individual. For in my own right, who am I? They only persecute me because I am a descendent of my sacred forebears, one of the stones that support the pillars of the courtyards of G‑d, the courtyards of Torah. I plead with You, G‑d&.

"In another five minutes it will be five oclock. How gratifying it would be if they brought me my bag and permitted me to pray in this very room. And who knows, perhaps it was for this very reason that I was brought here. For G‑d 'Who spoke and created the world' has specifically decreed that in the light-filled corridor-the place where I sat to rest immediately upon my arrival-a Jewish man should come on that specific day and hour. He would recite the morning blessings and the special prayer beseeching G‑d to protect him from all harm. Perhaps G‑d, may He be blessed, decreed that in this place a Jew should pray, so that an exalted and concealed Divine purpose should be brought from the potential to the actual. Any other rationale is inconceivable."

At that very moment I thought that every Jew who believes in G‑d with pure faith and in accordance with the Torah teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, his successors, and my illustrious forebears would view this event with clear faith and certainly perceive that a dew of reawakened spiritual life was caused by the walking of just people on these stones or beams of wood, on this very floor, these dark corridors, and the ladders with steel rungs. This, despite the fact that the entire structure was built from the very beginning for the purpose of torture, to impose an oppressive yoke on the necks of human beings, to stifle and crush all those who enter within its confines.

Thus, a Jew entering this prison must fortify his mind and heart to recite verses of Torah and verses from the Psalms, to reflect upon the absolute, all-pervasive unity of G‑d, Whose glory encompasses the entire world, pervading even this abode of the violent and the dungeons of those lusting for blood.

Suddenly in my mind there flashed the recollection of a splendid scene from nature pointed out to me by my father in my early childhood, when I was five or six years old:


We were traveling in the Crimean mountains between Sevastapol and Yalta in a covered wagon harnessed to a team of four horses, as is customary in that area. The travelers were my father, the Rebbe, of blessed memory, and may she be designated for a long life blessed with spiritual and material goodness, my honored mother and teacher, the Rebbetzin, and sitting on the side of the coach, our cook, who also cared for me.

The journey was between tall mountains, an area abounding with boulders, and we traveled a circuitous path below the mountains; to our right were the mountains and to the left the sea.

We passed through one resting station located on a mountain and from there we journeyed through the mountains. At one point between stations we stopped to rest in a field where traveling coaches permit their animals to graze. We sat upon one of the boulders. My father turned to the side below one of the tall boulders, or more precisely, entered a small enclosure between two boulders, and recited the afternoon prayer, though it was only two oclock in the afternoon.

My mother set out some food, for we still had to journey four to six hours. And though I wanted very much to be among the coachmen tending to the four horses, an intense concern weighed upon my mind. My father had told me that upon our arrival in Yalta, a special person would come to be my tutor. I did not yet know his appearance or his nature or habits, or how he would compare to my previous teacher, Reb Yekusiel.


Reb Yekusiel the teacher was an elderly man, seventy years old, if not more, but he had remarkable insight into the thought and behavior of small children aged four or five years old, and he could elicit their love for him and for the subject he taught them. Reb Yekusiel was an unusually gifted educator, and I cannot discern if he inherited this talent or if G‑d had specifically singled him out and bestowed it upon him. Be it as it may, he was highly gifted, an utterly unique teacher.

The ingenious illustrations and examples used by Reb Yekusiel to explain the form of Hebrew letters would stimulate the interest of his students, and his lessons were impressed upon their minds and seared in their memory.

Thus, an alef is comparable to the burden of the water carrier: a bucket on each side joined by a stick in the middle. Similarly, the form of the letter alef consists of two letter yuds, one on each side with a line joining them.

Whenever we would see a water carrier we would immediately picture the letter alef. Our teacher provided such evocative depictions and illustrations that every occurrence in our lives reminded us of something we had learned.


When we decided to journey to Yalta, my father of blessed memory himself started to learn with me, and I had already commenced the study of the Siddur and knew the meaning of a number of words. During the course of our travels we spent two weeks in Kharkov, where the doctor wished to perform tests on my father and monitor treatments. During this period my father himself learned with me, not entrusting me to a teacher. He also assured me that if I behaved properly, he would personally learn with me. However, when we left Kharkov, he told me that the doctors had instructed him to avoid the strain of speaking excessively, and he would therefore obtain for me a private teacher, and from time to time, my father said, he would learn with me himself.

I had matured enough to realize the obligation of a child to be concerned for his parents well-being, and I was deeply pained by my father's fragile health. However, my intense desire that my father should himself learn with me prevailed on all other considerations, and I thought to myself that through my good conduct I would cause an improvement in my father's health.

So closely concerned was I with my conduct that, from the time of our Kharkov departure, no aspect of my behavior was done without forethought so as to be most appropriate. In this spirit I took a prayer book, sat upon one of the small stones, and reviewed the lesson on the chapter in Psalms, commencing, "The heavens relate G‑d's glory."


We sat down to eat. My father pointed out to us an area in the distance on the heights of a very tall mountain, and from afar we could see a large opening in a boulder standing on its top.

My father related that in the year 5644 (1884) he journeyed with his brother, Rabbi Zalman Aaron along the same route. They left the resting station at night; they stopped to rest in this field at six in the morning. From the distance it appeared that there was only an opening in the stone. Reaching it, they found a long cave, and within it, small boulders providing comfortable places to sit.

At that time my father explained to me that G‑d created the world so as to enable each Jews fulfillment of G‑d's commands. Thus, a traveling Jew may realize that it is time for prayer. According to Jewish Law, he should not pray in an open field, but in an enclosed area. It was for this very reason that G‑d created rocks formed in this fashion, similar to the shelter of a house, so that a Jew could pray in a proper way even in this remote area.


Yes, I thought, perhaps I will pray in this room. I still do not know what my fate will be, and whether it will be possible for me to pray today at all. For who knows what G‑ds Divine Providence has decreed?

Suddenly, the door opened and the official called for me to come forward. He inquired angrily, Is this your bag and blanket? A soldier stood near the door holding a glittering sword in his left hand and a rifle in his right. Two knives dangled from his belt.

"Yes," I answered, these belong to me. "Would you permit me to pray and to put on tefillin in this room?" Taking my tefillin out of the bag, I said softly, "Please, give me fifteen to twenty minutes to put these tefillin on, as my religion requires with the guard watching."

"No," replied the officer harshly. "What is this? Do you wish to make a synagogue even here? What do you have in your possession? Money, a watch, objects of gold or silver? Whatever you have give to me; a prisoner has no right to have precious objects. Your belongings will be well protected; personal belongings are returned to released prisoners. For those exiled, the valuables are sent to the place of exile, and for those executed, the valuables are given to the heirs."

I handed over all that I had with me. He counted and documented it all. He then gave me a receipt for everything I had given him: a simple watch and 58 rubles.

The officer turned to the soldier and said, "I now entrust you with prisoner 26818. Take him to the head of the sixth division. He already knows the prisoner's room. I have been ordered to tell you to carry his bag, for he is ill and has been promised assistance."

"Yes," answered the soldier," but how will I carry his blanket?"

The officer replied, "I grant you permission to place the sword in your scabbard and the rifle in his case, for he will most assuredly not flee. Surely with two fingers you can crush such a fragile insect."

The tefillin remained in my hand, and the soldier rearranged his weapons and stared at me with smoldering arrogance. He opened the door and we proceeded through the dimly lit corridor till we reached an iron gate.

The gate guards, armed soldiers both inside and outside, stood like marble statues with their weapons. Their task was to guard the prisoners caged in the six sections, each section said to contain one hundred cells.

At the sight of my guard walking proudly with the bearing of one distinguished in rank accompanied by a Jew with a reddish beard and a Rabbinical hat, mocking smiles flicked across their faces. The senior guard read the confidential memorandum sent to the head of the sixth division and placed his seal upon it and the yarlik-prisoner document. The gate was then opened and we entered the Third Section of Geihinom.

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