The Imprisonment of 1927 Part II1

1. Decision: “I will be fearless”

These thoughts raised my spirits and lent me vigor. Forgetting my present status, I sat in perfect tranquility. My thoughts became organized and I began to accustom myself to the realities of my situation. I am under arrest at Shpalerka, I told myself, though I do not know why. As soon as I enter the room over there I will be inundated by questions, both ordinary and extraordinary. From my answers they will seek to weave a libel, or strike a match to kindle the flame of their revenge.

As I took out a cigarette and prepared answers in general terms, I decided absolutely that I would be bold, unbending, and fearless. I would speak clearly, and would utterly ignore my environment.

This firm and unconditional decision raised my spirits and gave me a sense of personal worth. As the sun lit up the white wall in front of me, I felt as if I were sitting in a garden or taking a midday stroll.

I was about to stand up and walk back towards that room whose door is open wide for every prisoner, but then I thought again: Why hurry? Will I come late?! Besides, I would like to be able to think through my words once more. Before I open my lips to teach Chassidus I am accustomed to thinking through my subject once more, even though my thoughts on it are already familiar and organized. So at this time, too, I was able to follow my usual custom.

2. I am in good hands

What a lofty thing is the simple inner faith that every Jew inherits from our Patriarchs, the fathers of the world! How great is the power of complete trust! They are not only the foundations of our faith but also the foundations of every Jew’s ordinary material life.

“Give thanks to G‑d for He is good!”2 Through His lovingkindness the opportunity arose for me to make a wrong turning into this corridor, which proved to be a refuge, a shield against the net of intimidation which Nachmanson and Lulav prepared for me.

Divine Providence led me like that well-known bit of straw or that leaf, which is blown hither and thither by the wind.3 I was like them, but even more so, since the realm of the medaber (“the speaker” — man) is loftier than the vegetative realm; moreover, those who possess a holy [Jewish] soul are of higher standing than other members of the mortal realm. In a word, I was in the hands of Divine Providence.

3. Preliminary encounters

As I was still sitting there, I heard a lot of noise coming from one of the rooms behind the wall opposite me — not an outcry, but the laughter of complacent people who were self-satisfied in their wicked lot. One of the doors soon opened and three people were about to leave the room. It seems that they were taken aback at the sight of a strange man sitting confidently and smoking, because for a moment they stood still on the threshold and scrutinized me.

I remained seated at ease exactly as before, as if utterly unimpressed by their sudden appearance — even though my pulse accelerated at the thought that they might ask me why I was sitting right there.

They soon continued to the left, in the direction of the room with the open door that has been mentioned several times, but one of them turned back and entered one of the rooms; I did not notice which one. I decided that since someone was sure to interrogate me now as to why I was sitting there, I should not proceed to the head office but wait for someone to arrive.

And indeed, the same individual now came out of the room accompanied by another official, who asked me what I was doing there and whom I was waiting for.

“I did not come here,” I said; “I was brought, and told to go to the head office. I’m now waiting here for my tallis and tefillin, because the man who brought me promised me, when he was still in my home, that he would give me a place where I could pray. He also told me that I had been summoned here for a few hours only, in order to answer some questions.”

My speech was so smooth, naive and composed, that the official stood wordless and amazed, and gazed upon me from head to foot. I cannot say for certain, but it appeared to me that he was a Russian gentile born in the region of Vitebsk, Smolensk or Mohilev. He was coolheaded and deliberate, though no older than twenty-five, and his eyes bespoke the warm inner feeling of a farmer.

We looked at each other without exchanging a word. Without any particular intention I took out a pipe to smoke. He too took out a pipe from an inside pocket, quickly gave me a lighted match, and took a seat on the bench next to me.

I now discovered that it was not sinful to be found in this corridor, though it was still possible that Nachmanson and Lulav could succeed in cooking it into some hybrid brew of slander and anti-religious hatred. At any rate, though, fear had left me.

4. “You must be guilty of some grave offense”

“It’s only 3:30 a.m.,” said the man to himself, “and they’ve already brought in so many people tonight. So many people! Our comrades are working overtime. Me, too: four hours overtime!”

He turned to me and asked: “Where are you from?”

“I come from a little town,” I said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. I was born in Lubavitch. On one side there’s the Rudnia train station between Vitebsk and Smolensk, and on the other side the Krasnoya station between Orsha and Smolensk.”

Lubavitch?” said the young man. “I know it well, and already knew it well as a child. It’s not small: it had a big market place and two houses of prayer. Do you know a place called Gossin?”

I did not know Gossin, nor its railway station, nor the surrounding villages. Many of my acquaintances lived there — Jews, of course. I did not know the local squires or landowners or villagers, for I had no contact with them.

It now became clear that my earlier guess that this man was a gentile who came from those southern regions was correct.

He continued: “The family of a holy man lived near the market place of Lubavitch, in a big courtyard in which there was a well. Every time I visited the market place with my father I used to drink water there, and we used to take water for our horse, too.”

“Yes, yes!” I responded, and my heart beat faster at the awakening of old memories. This was certainly a remarkable encounter, but who could tell whether this conversation would prove to my advantage or not? I almost decided to go to the head office.

As I stood up I said, “I have to go to the head office.”

“Sure,” said the man. “I’ll go with you and show you what to do and with whom to speak. Have you been here before? Do you know what has to be done? Can you write?”

“This is my first time here,” I answered. “I don’t know what I have to do nor what I have to write.”

“There are secretaries over there,” he explained. “They’ll ask the questions and write down whatever you answer. When you’ve filled out the questionnaire they’ll escort you to the examination room. There they will take from you whatever is superfluous for a prisoner — your money, watch, and so on. You will then be handed over to one of the warders who will take you to the officer in charge of a certain wing, and you will sit in one of his cells.”

I rejoiced that G‑d’s mercy had given me the strength not to be alarmed by his words. I had evidently accustomed myself to my current situation and hoped to G‑d that I would be able to maintain myself properly; that I would not allow Yiddishkeit to be trodden upon; that fearing no wicked or violent man,4 I would be able to transform my former firm decision into reality.

“Tell me,” said the man, “by which corridor were you brought here?”

“I was brought by the corridor to the left of this one,” I explained. “I was tired from climbing the stairs, so when I saw the benches in this corridor I sat down to rest.”

“In that corridor?!” exclaimed the man in anger, and stood still in astonishment. “Who are you? Where do you come from? How long have you been living in Leningrad?”

“I am Rabbi Schneersohn of Lubavitch,” I replied. “In 1915 we fled from the approaching Germans, we lived in Rostov until 1924, and in May of that year we arrived in Leningrad.”

“Why did they bring you through that corridor?” he asked in surprise. “Where were you arrested? Were you found in the company of rebels? Who was with you at the time of your arrest? Did they find seditious literature or other writings in your possession? Who brought you here?”

My reply was calm: “I was arrested in my home at 22 Machovaya St., apartment 12. I was having supper in the company of my family and no one else. Since there were no writings or seditious literature in my possession, none were found. I was brought here by two officials called Nachmanson and Lulav.”

“May darkness devour them!” He scratched his head and muttered to himself: “Why through that corridor? Did they bring a traitor?! So they’ve started to use that corridor?!”

He turned to me: “But that’s not true!5 You must be guilty of some grave offense. They would not have brought you through that corridor in vain! Tell me the truth, comrade, otherwise you’ll suffer for it!”

“I have nothing to say,” I replied. “I have already told the truth — that these two officials, Nachmanson and Lulav, brought me to the door of the corridor; Nachmanson whispered something to the sentry and handed me over to him; the sentry told me to walk straight ahead towards the big room whose door was open wide; but since I was very tired and saw that there were benches in this corridor, I sat down to rest. I know nothing beyond that.”

“No,” the man insisted, “that’s not true! There’s something fishy here. Comrade, you’re lying! For that you’ll be imprisoned; you’ll be given an extra two or three months, if not more. Pity! What was your offense? Tell me the truth!”

My friend was suddenly addressed by a voice from behind: “Chimke! What are you yapping about? Come here, quick! Cut out all that small talk!”

The man answered: “Wait a moment; I’m coming right away. There’s something I need in the office.”

And to me he said: “No! We have to know what this is all about!”

It was clear from Chimke’s surprise that the choice of corridor indicated the gravity of the offense, and that Nachmanson had sent me into a corridor reserved for particularly grave offenders. I was left unimpressed, however, and turned towards the head office — to the room whose door was wide open, the room where people speak both willingly and under duress, as Nachmanson had phrased it.

5. Tractate Gehinnom, Stage One

I stepped into a room six meters square, with long tables along each of the other three walls. About twenty women secretaries, backs to the walls, most of them smoking as they wrote, faced the arrested citizens who sat on benches.

There were three entrances. The first door was open wide for the most important prisoners, who were brought through the dark corridor; the second door to the right was apparently for the ordinary or common prisoners brought from a different corridor (which Chimke thought I had used); the third door led to a second chamber. On the floor to the right of the entrance from the dark corridor but before the second entrance, I saw my bag and my blanket.

It was a strange sight. There were forty people or more sitting in this room, secretaries and prisoners; each secretary would frequently look up at the prisoner facing her, ask one of the questions printed on a long form, and write down the answer that he willingly or unwillingly gave. Yet the room was as quiet as if it were empty — as silent as a snuffed out candle, as dumb as a dying breath. Everything was asked in a whisper and answered in a whisper; the only sound was pen on paper.

The supervisors in the middle of the room did not exchange the slightest word. They scrutinized every direction and every corner — every individual there; the whispered exchanges on all sides; the faces of the prisoners; everything.

Though these armed men wear regular uniforms, their appearance projects terror. Their faces are red and angry, their eyes glance fiercely, their buttons are of polished bronze, and they are of husky build.

The overall impression is that this is where the net is woven. Every syllable uttered here and recorded in the long form is a foundation stone for the edifice which the interrogator will ultimately construct. All they do here is to collect the material for libel and incrimination. Here they record the prisoner’s story: his family name, personal names, age, place of birth, race, religion, place of residence, activities, and the names and ages of other family members. However, by means of dozens of additional questions, the prisoner finds that instead of merely narrating, he is confessing to all kinds of things that would never have occurred to him. Helped along also by the softly-spoken demeanor of the secretary and the mental confusion of the dispirited prisoner, the replies recorded on his form serve as a rich source that will enable a later interrogator to argue that the accused has already pleaded guilty.

6. Human beings become numbers

As I was observing my surroundings in this room, Stage One of Gehinnom, one of the superintendents beckoned me towards a newly-vacated seat opposite one of the secretaries at the end of a table to the left of where I had entered. I watched as she handed the previous prisoner’s documents to one of the escorts — the various officials had distinguishing uniforms — who was to conduct him to the second chamber, together with a numbered slip of paper known as his yarlik.

At the cashier’s desk of a department store, each customer is given a yarlik which indicates the number of his package. Anyone sending a parcel by train is likewise given a slip of paper with the number of his yarlik. In Shpalerka, however, they give a yarlik to human beings — except that they do not attach it to his body, as is done with merchandise, but to his soul. In other words, his name is replaced by the number that appears there.

So long as any man is in the present chamber, the various officials call him by name. Once he has signed one of those forms, he is known by the number appearing on his yarlik.

I did not know whether the yarlik number of the prisoner whose place I was about to occupy related to a month or day or whatever; I did know that it was 26803. He was a kindly man of about sixty, dressed in ordinary clothes, possibly a bookkeeper or factory manager, whose speech was deliberate and polite.

As he stood up his escort approached him, took a look at his form and said, “Wow! Just look how much is written here!” The face of the man numbered 26803 changed colors, he began to tremble, and his glasses fell to the floor.

“Follow me!” ordered the escort. “Don’t get all worked up. In an hour’s time you’ll be able to stretch out and get some rest on some thin boards and a straw mattress.”

That was as much as I heard as the man was led to the room on the left.

7. How to fill out a questionnaire

“Citizen, take a seat,” said the secretary. “Here’s a questionnaire. Write a clear answer to each question in the space provided.”

“I have nothing to write,” I said. “Nothing that is written here applies to me, and there’s nothing here for me to answer.”

“What?!” she exclaimed. “Don’t you want to obey the regulations of the head office? It’s a well-known law: whoever comes here is obliged to complete this questionnaire by giving a clear answer to each question.”

“But I didn’t come here for a visit,” I explained; “I was brought here. And those who brought me here know who I am and what I am. So why should I do something for which I have no need?”

“Have you forgotten where you are?!” she asked. “Are you in your right mind? Are you trying to tell us how to run this office?! What’s your name?”

“I know that I am a prisoner who was arrested and brought here to Shpalerka,” I said. “I am in my right mind, thank G‑d, and I have no desire to tell you how to run this office. My name is Schneersohn, and I live at 22 Machovaya St., apartment 12. I will not fill out a questionnaire. Those details you can write.”

The secretary wrote my full name and address on a form, and asked: “What title do you have?”

“I am a Citizen of Hereditary Honor,”6 I said.

“That title no longer exists in this country,” she said.

“I don’t know whether it exists here or not,” I replied, “but my title is Citizen of Hereditary Honor.”

“What do you do?”

“I study — the field of divine scholarship known as Chassidus, and the laws governing the practice of the Jewish religion.”

“Religion?! Divine scholarship?!”

“Yes, divine scholarship,” I explained. “One G‑d created everything that exists, and continues to conduct the world together with all the created beings within it — the creatures swarming in the sea, the little worms in the barren wilderness, and the humans on the face of the earth.”

“But how can I write that on this questionnaire?”

“Who says you have to write? As far as I am concerned, you don’t have to write a word. If you want to write, write; if you don’t want to write, don’t write.”

8. Even the officials froze with terror

Three men appeared at the door leading to the second chamber and scanned our chamber with their eyes. When they spotted me it was clear that they had located the subject of their search.

One of them was the driver of the van which had brought me here. All three were young and dressed in civilian clothes — short pants and silk shirts in colorful English or American style, high brown buttoned boots, wide belts with a pouch at left for a watch and a pouch at right for a revolver; their hair was combed back sleekly; their faces were complacent and frost-cold.

Though with their entry neither the secretaries nor the superintendents uttered a word or acted differently, the very air of the whole chamber froze with terror. Their wordless presence imposed a deathly dread even on the officials. The secretaries shrank into intense concentration. The superintendents changed colors as their eyes raced desperately in all directions, like violinists under the baton of a furious maestro.

One of them took out a silver cigarette case from his trouser pocket and asked his friends to join him as he smoked. From the way they were all looking at my table it was obvious that they were seeking a polite and petty pretext to approach us. I could see that they wanted to know what was being written on my form, even though they certainly knew all about me. Whether they worked in the second or third chamber, they were clearly in positions of considerable authority and unaccustomed to visiting here; hence the electrified atmosphere.

They presumably wanted to tamper with the form, to embellish its plain answers with elements that would furnish grounds for an eventual libel. But if high officials were to intervene in the routine work of an ordinary secretary, would this not arouse suspicion?

9. “Whoever comes here must obey!”

“What shall I do?” mumbled the secretary, half to herself, as she puffed away. “I can’t write things like that! I’ve got to ask all these questions and write down the answers. But... G‑d?! Religion?! Ritual practices?! I can’t write things like that!”

“Are prisoners also allowed to smoke?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “In this chamber smoking is not forbidden, but prisoners do not smoke. If you would like to smoke I will request permission from one of the superintendents.”

She gave this answer loudly enough for the three newcomers to hear.

With a flicker of a sarcastic smile one of them approached us and said to the secretary: “Do I understand that this citizen would like to smoke?” And to me he added: “Smoking is not forbidden here; you may smoke.”

I declined his offer of a light from his cigarette, thanked him, and told him I had matches.

The secretary now complained to him: “I can’t fill out the form of a citizen who does not answer its questions because he claims that none of it applies to him. He is willing to provide only his full name, address, and title.”

After examining the form he turned to me: “You have answered none of the questions. You must fill it out completely. It cannot be otherwise.”

He spoke with the calm confidence of a managing director, and added: “This citizen no doubt knows exactly where he is. Our office has its own conventions and laws, and whoever comes here must obey whatever he is asked to do. The officials stationed here are accustomed to having their requests fulfilled punctiliously — and promptly.”

“I would like to use this opportunity,” I responded, “to clarify whether one may rest assured that promises made by the representatives of this office — or, more precisely, the emissaries of this office — will likewise be fulfilled punctiliously.”

“Citizen,” he protested, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

I explained: “The emissary of this office who arrested me in the middle of the night told me that I would be permitted to put on my tefillin and pray. I’ve been wandering around here for an hour and a half, and his promise has not yet been fulfilled. On his own initiative he said that he had not been asked about this because I was being summoned here for a few hours only, and on my arrival a few high officials would be waiting here to ask me some questions and then allow me to return to my home. I don’t know why your man found it necessary to say this. Perhaps he intended to delude my family; perhaps he intended to be vengeful. It is immaterial to me whether I understand the conduct of your officials or not.

“At any rate, I am an observant Jew and I want to put on my tefillin and pray. There is no man on earth who is able to prevent me from serving G‑d. That is what I demanded at the moment of my arrest, and that is what the emissary of the GPU head office promised. In fact he concluded sarcastically: ‘Even though I am a communist, I will keep my word.’ That is what he said, and I now demand that his promise be fulfilled.

“As far as the questionnaire is concerned, I have already stated that I did not come here but was brought here by emissaries of GPU headquarters. I may safely assume that both they and their superiors know who I am and what I am. I am making the following declaration only:

“I am Rabbi Schneersohn, son of the celebrated Rebbe of Lubavitch, and I am entitled ‘Citizen of Hereditary Honor.’ I was born in Lubavitch and studied in a yeshivah; lived about eight-and-a-half years in Rostov and about three years in Leningrad; I study the field of divine scholarship known as Chassidus, and the laws regulating the practice of the Jewish religion. Like all religiously-observant Jews I have no connection with politics. I have nothing more to write.”

The decisive tone, the clear reply, the unruffled coolness and the cigarette-smoking, together constituted a natural means towards a supernatural result. Speaking as if to himself, the official said: “Whatever is written will suffice.” And to the secretary he said with an angry smile: “Just write down what the citizen says.”

“And what about my prayers?” I reminded him.

His response was arrogant: “That question will be answered by the official in charge of the division in which you will sit.”7 And he left in repressed irritation.

The secretary took out a new form and very carefully wrote down what I had just stated. Before I signed it, however, I crossed out all the questions that I had ignored so that it should be unmistakably clear that I had not answered them. While I was reading, the three men conducted a private discussion, though looking all around them in an effort to keep it inconspicuous, and finally left.

10. A flicker of compassion?!

“Just wait here a moment,” said the secretary, and took the form to the second chamber. When she returned she took out a slip of paper the size of a postcard whose bold large letters said Yarlik No. ....... So in a moment I, too, would become a yarlik. Its number I did not yet know, but that would only take another minute. Like all the secretaries, she wrote something or other in a number of hefty books, and sealed the questionnaire that I had signed.

I must confess that I was pleased that the form was sealed. In fact, of course, I would have been even more pleased if I had never been brought there in the first place. Since, however, I had been brought there and had been forced to write and sign, it was good that my form was now sealed and could not be exchanged for someone else’s, or even for a new form.... For all I knew, those officials were capable of creating a case ex nihilo. These seals, however, would provide protection.

The secretary finished writing in the big books, filled in the number 26818 on the dotted line, and at that moment I became a yarlik. In a moment an escort would no doubt appear in order to conduct me to the second chamber, or else — according to Chimke and the high official — directly to the head of the division in which I would be incarcerated.

The secretary looked over the form and said, half to herself: “Looks like everything’s ready; there’s not much written, but plenty said.”

Then, with a look of compassion, she whispered to me: “Perhaps you’d like something to be passed on to your family? If you tell me, I’ll find a way to pass it on straight after work.”

I made no answer whatever. I was only waiting for the escort, because I was beginning to feel the pressure of their delays: I already wanted to know the bottom line, and felt that all these unwanted preliminary stages were affecting my equanimity.

Finally, collecting all her documents, the secretary told me to follow her, because she had been ordered not to entrust me to an escort.

11. “Realize: The situation is awesome!”

The clock struck four-thirty and I was feeling distressed. I had been through quite enough: the conversation with Chimke; being reminded of market day in Lubavitch with the villagers and their horses drinking at the well; the arguments with the secretary; the dialogue with the high official; — all these I was heartily sick of. I wanted to arrive at something solid, to speak with an interrogator or to sit in a cell, so long as I would be rid of this mental torment.

Fortifying my heart and at a regular pace I went where I was led. We passed through the second room which I had mistakenly thought was the second stage in the process, and a third room as well. From there we came to a dark corridor, though not the same one to which Nachmanson had brought me, lit by a few lamps and without armed guards. We now had to climb down four or five flights of iron stairs.

“I left my bag in the room in which I filled out the questionnaire,” I told the secretary. “Will I be able to return later and take it? It is between the door leading from the dark corridor and the entrance to the second corridor — a wrapped-over reddish bag covered with a greenish blanket.”

“Why didn’t you take your things?” she asked. “You can’t go back at this point. There has to be a special written request for permission, and that can’t be done now. My only suggestion is that I should go and bring your things here. Or, better still, that I bring them after I return there, or that they give me permission to send them through one of the escorts. You should understand that the security here is extremely high. If a worker here wrongly utters one superfluous word or shows any sign of friendliness to a prisoner, it can cost him three or four months’ imprisonment. The best thing is that when we arrive at the room to which I am taking you, tell them that you forgot to take your things, and no doubt they’ll allow me to bring them here. You might as well know that they are preparing a major charge. I know that a lot of material has been accumulated against you. Now I know who you are: I heard it from the officials, B. and R. You should know that what they want to do to you is something very heavy. The situation is awesome. And by the way, one of the three high officials was R. himself.”

12. “Last night’s firing squad”

As we continued to climb down, this talk of hers sometimes appeared to be all frightening lies, and sometimes appeared to be truthful. Who knows — perhaps this secretary still harbored a spot of humanity within? I cannot deny that I had some very difficult moments. My thoughts were confused, my heart was beating fast, my feet were faltering, and my whole body trembled from within.

Despite this I did not ask where I was being taken to, even though I knew that the secretary would certainly tell me, for I was afraid lest her words leave a strong impression and make my spirits fall. So long as I was ignorant I felt strong.

“Twelve people were brought here tonight,” she said. “Most of them were ministers of religion: Russians, Lutherans, Germans, Poles, a Moslem, and one Jew — just you. One Russian Georgian and one Pole were brought under armed guard through the dark corridor” — that was the one through which Nachmanson had sent me — “directly to the third chamber.” This was apparently behind one of the doors in that corridor. “From there they were taken to the second underground floor, where they were put to death by firing squad without having been interrogated. (We were only instructed to make a note of this in our books.) This is not the procedure with those who are told to fill out a questionnaire. You’ll no doubt stay in the fortress here for a few more days, and then there will be an interrogation.

“I was instructed to bring you by this path to the first floor, where the inspectors are located. All the prisoners brought to Spalerno pass through there.”

It was now clear that the present route was intended simply to terrorize and intimidate, because the darkness, the iron stairs, the gloomy walls and the foul air all aroused an intense feeling of foreboding in anticipation of a fearful destination.

A sensitive writer could no doubt find material here for long books on my reactions and feelings in the course of those two hours, from the moment I was brought here until my arrival at the office of the inspectors to which all regular prisoners found their way.

13. A comrade with the teeth of a lion

In response to a knock on the door, an ordinary armed sentry opened up and asked in surprise, “Where is the guard?”

“There is no guard,” replied the secretary. “I was directed to escort this arrested citizen to Room 4. Let me through.”

“Password?” he said.

“I don’t know. Call Comrade [...].”

“Go out to the corridor,” he said, “I’ll close the door and call him. He’ll give you permission to come in. I can’t let you stay here.”

“What security!” she commented. “At every step there’s a sword and a spear, a revolver and a lance!”

This whole game was becoming distasteful. Intimidation by terror was obviously a vital stage in their conspiracies. I stepped aside, leaned against the wall and waited.

A few minutes later the door was opened by a man as black as a crow, with long wild hair and an unbelted green robe.

“Good morning, Comrade [...],” the secretary greeted him. “I was instructed by [...], the official, to escort this prisoner to Room 4 of the inspectors’ offices via this corridor. Please allow me to carry out my orders, for there is something that I must personally tell Inspector Comrade [...].”

The dark-faced comrade scrutinized me and my clothes from head to foot. In his eyes I was obviously dust and ashes.

Having first scratched his head, spat, and yawned, he muttered through his clenched lion’s teeth: “An evil end upon all the prisoners! Tonight I’ve had twice as much work as usual. Only an hour ago I finally got to sleep, and now some dark demon brings me this garbage! Couldn’t he have gone to the trouble of taking the same corridor as all the other prisoners? Why did he choose this corridor? This corridor is for those who are heading for the lowest floor, on their way to everlasting rest....”

“I’ve got no time to waste,” responded the secretary. “Just tell the comrade on guard to let me carry out my orders. There’s a lot of work waiting for me at headquarters and I can’t wait around!”

“Off you go,” said the comrade with the picturesque speech, and embarked on a long and unmelodious yawn. As we left, all I caught of his farewell blessings behind my back was the phrase, “May the devil take you, you and all the other prisoners with you!”

14. Yarlik no. 26818

Passing through a short, dark corridor we turned right into a well-lit corridor and after a few steps found ourselves in a room of about four meters square. Two of the four writing desks were vacant, and two clerks were working their way through open books and stacks of papers.

The secretary quickly approached one of them and said, “I have brought yarlik no. 26818,” and put the documents on the table.

The clerks looked like all their colleagues always looked, idly leafing through the fat books and piles of documents that covered their tables. Whether they were on duty at this hour voluntarily or under duress, they looked weary. From time to time they yawned at length and scratched their heads, picked up a sheet of paper here and there, and slothfully put it down again.

The secretary whispered something to the clerk that roused him to overcome his tired sluggishness.

“Wait in that room,” he told me, and pointed at a door to the right of the entrance.

“Very well,” I said, “but my things are still in the room in which I filled out the questionnaire. How can I get them here? Can someone be sent to bring them?”

The clerk reacted angrily: “We haven’t got any servants here to deal with the belongings of prisoners! Besides, why do you need your belongings? In your cell over there you won’t need any belongings! What have you got over there?”

“I have a bag,” I explained, “containing a few things that I need: tefillin, tallis, a prayer book, a book of Psalms, and a thick silken greenish blanket. If you will tell one of the servants to bring it I will pay him for his trouble.”

“Bourgeois practices?!” he fumed. “So now we should give them servants?! Are the prisoners too weak to carry their own bags?! No religious garments are allowed inside these prison walls! And in any case, the official in charge of the division to which you will be sent will disburden you of any religious garments or books, so it’s all the same to you whether your belongings stay at headquarters or in his storeroom. Forget all your foolishness. It’s time you knew that you’re a prisoner!”

My reply was impassioned: “In the course of my two hours here I’ve heard dozens of times that I am a prisoner. I don’t know whether I alone am a prisoner, or whether all the officials here are prisoners too. Like me, you too are not allowed to budge from your allotted positions. Just as I am obliged to obey orders, you too are obligated to fulfill your duty. Stop making scornful declarations about every religious matter that is holy to me. The law allows me to demand my belongings and gives me permission to pray!”

In response to my excited tone the other clerk, who had dozed off, woke up and gaped at us all in awe; my clerk irritably smoothed his moustache and fiddled with stacks of papers. It seems they had never heard anyone speaking out clearly. And in truth, at that moment I poured out all the anger that had built up within me while I sat in the first chamber.

My clerk finally stood up and approached me, opened a door, and said: “Sit in this room until I call you.” And he closed the door as he left.

15. Tractate Gehinnom, Stage Two

The room was two meters by four and painted red, and had no other door. Its sole large window was barred like the windows of any prison, but in Shpalerka more so. I took one of the chairs at the table and thought. The clock on the wall showed 4:40 a.m. What was my family doing now? Word of my arrest had no doubt already reached the homes of all our friends of the chassidic brotherhood, including those who lived in the new village.8 A deep sigh escaped my heart.

16. In the caverns of tyrants, focus on Divine Providence

I said to myself: “I am neither able nor permitted to think such thoughts that lower my spirits. There is no room here for being melancholy or downcast. The place and the time demand G‑d’s lovingkindness and help in fortifying one’s heart and raising one’s spirits and focusing one’s mind and heart on the detailed workings of Divine Providence. And all this can spring only from contrite meditation upon a mental picture of the holy face of my revered father, [the Rebbe Rashab,] whose soul is in Eden.... (The continuation of this thought is spelled out in thought-letters.) Father, saintly father!”

For a few moments it seemed that this might be the room in which I would be detained. But then, I thought, would this be the room for a prisoner? — especially no ordinary prisoner, but one who had to be vengefully maltreated and tormented, one whose mouth would have to be forced open so that he would talk.

No, I told myself, I cannot allow myself to think such thoughts. I must prepare myself for a different kind of conduct, for the different situation of a prisoner — for this was a situation which I had not known until that day, the situation of the Peter-Paul Fortress or the Tainy Soviet.9 I must accustom myself to this situation in order that I shall not be alarmed or afraid, so that I will be able to remain steadfast and faithful to my decision, wavering neither right nor left. I shall not let the pride of Jacob, Jewish self-respect, to be trampled upon — and G‑d will no doubt lend me strength.

Three hours had not yet passed and I was already exhausted and ailing all over. My head ached, my heart ached, there were sharp pains in my left side, and my throat was sore as well.

At a time like this, I told myself, I should pay no attention to all my bodily aches and pains but only to my aching soul — and my soul was aching indeed.

I entreat You, G‑d: Look upon the afflictions of Your people! It is not me that they have imprisoned, nor me that they want to punish. For what am I? It is only that I descend from holy forebears, and am one of the stones which underlie the pillars of Your courtyards, the courtyards of the Torah. G‑d, I entreat You!

In five minutes it will be 5:00 a.m. Wouldn’t it be good if they were to bring me my bag and allow me to daven here, in this room! Who knows? Perhaps for this purpose I was brought here. After all, He-Who-spoke-and-the-world-came-into-being decreed a short while ago that in the well-lit corridor (in which I had sat down to rest) a Jew should come along at a certain hour of a certain day and recite there the Morning Blessings and the Psalm for Protection.10 Who knows? Perhaps He has now decreed that a Jew should pray here, in this room. And to transform this mysterious Divine intent from the potential to the actual could not have been engineered otherwise.

At that moment it occurred to me that one thing is clear to every Jew whose pure faith in G‑d is guided by the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov and our holy forebears, the Rebbeim: The footsteps of upright men are like a Dew of Resurrection11 upon the stone and wooden floors of these dismal passages and upon these iron staircases, which were built only in order to visit suffering and distress, anguish and oppression on all those who ever trod them.

If so, a Jew who arrives here should surely orient his brain and heart in readiness to read verses of the Torah and verses of Tehillim; to meditate upon the utter Unity of the Infinite One, Whose glory fills the entire universe — including the caverns of tyrants and the castles of bloodthirsty men.

This thought brought to mind a wonderful sight which my revered father [the Rebbe Rashab] showed me when I was five or just six years old.

17. On the way to Crimea

At that time, in a covered wagon drawn by four horses, according to local custom, we were traveling among the mountains of Crimea12 between Sebastopol and Yalta — my father (May his memory be a blessing!); my mother (May she be spared for many long and pleasant years!); and the cook (she was also my governess), who sat next to the wagon driver.

Our road wound its way around the foot of the tall and rocky mountains to our right, and the sea was at our left. We passed through a hilly station and continued to travel through the mountains. At one point between two stations we stopped to rest out in the open, where the wagon drivers liked to let their horses pasture.

We sat down on one of the rocks. My father went aside to a little valley between two high boulders to daven Minchah, even though it was only 2:00 p.m. My mother prepared something to eat, because we still had another five or six hours ahead of us, either in this wagon or in another.

I would have preferred to be in the company of the driver who was busy with his four horses, but a heavy stone lay on my heart: My father had told me that when we arrived at Yalta, a teacher would also arrive there to teach me privately. I didn’t know what he looked like, nor did I know whether he would be the same kind of person as my former teacher, R. Yekusiel (of blessed memory).

18. A gifted melamed

Though R. Yekusiel the Melamed was over seventy, he had the gift of finding his way into the world of four- and five-year-olds. They loved him and the lessons he taught. Whether his rare practical gift for teaching was inherited or whether G‑d granted it to him alone, it was exceptional.

The examples and clever analogies with which he used to clarify the shapes of the letters of the alphabet aroused interest in the hearts of his tender listeners and sealed them firmly in their minds and memories. One day he explained that the letter alef, with a yud on either side of its diagonal line, is the rod on the shoulders of a watercarrier, with a bucket at each end. From that time on, whenever we saw a watercarrier we were reminded of the letter alef. And in this way, whether he was teaching letters or other subjects, everything we encountered in our childhood lives came to remind us of something we had learned.

At the time the journey to Yalta was decided upon, my father had begun to teach me personally. I was already studying the Siddur and knew the meanings of many words. During this journey we stayed in Kharkov for about two weeks for the medical tests which the specialists had prescribed for my father. Throughout this time he taught me himself instead of hiring a tutor, and promised me that if I would behave as I should he would continue to teach me personally. When we left Kharkov, however, he told me that his doctors had ordered him to speak little. He would therefore arrange for a tutor, but from time to time would teach me himself.

I already understood that a son should regard himself as responsible for improving his father’s health, and was pained by his physical weakness. Above all, my desire that he himself should teach me was so strong that I believed that I would improve things by behaving well. And in fact, from the moment we left Kharkov, I did nothing without first thinking how I could do it best.

So it was that at this break in our journey I took out a Siddur, sat down on a little rock, and reviewed my lessons on the Psalm that says, Hashamayim mesaprim — “The Heavens recount13 the glory of the Almighty.”

19. Everything has a purpose

As we sat down to our refreshments, my father pointed out to us what appeared from the distance to be a cleft very high in the rock at the top of a mountain. He told us that when he had traveled with his brother, my uncle R. Zalman Aharon, in 5644 (1884), they had passed through the station which we had passed during the night, and at six in the morning they had stopped to rest where we were now resting. They then went to daven Shacharis at that spot high up on the mountain. At first it had appeared to be merely a cleft, but on their arrival they discovered that this was the entrance to a spacious cave in which there were small rocks on which one could sit.

My father now explained that G‑d created the world in a way that allows every Jew to fulfill His commandments. Since a Jew may be traveling away from home and it is time to daven, but one may not pray out in an open field, G‑d created caves such as this in which he can pray.

20. “A house of prayer – here?!”

Well, I mused, it is possible that I will daven in this room, but I do not yet know what lies in store for me and my prayers today, for who can know what Divine Providence has ordained?

The door suddenly opened and the clerk snarled: “Come here! Is this your bag and blanket?”

The other clerk was no longer at his table. There was only a soldier posted at the door, with a sharp and shiny sword in his left hand, a revolver in his right hand, and two long knives attached to his belt.

“Yes,” I replied, “these are mine. Could you kindly allow me to pray and put on tefillin as my faith obliges me to do — in this room, perhaps, for fifteen or twenty minutes, under the supervision of the guard?” And I took out the tefillin from my bag.

“No!” he raged. “What’s going on here? Do you want to turn this place, too, into a house of prayer?! No! Tell me, what do you have in your possession? Money? A watch? Items of silver or gold? Hand me over whatever you have, because a prisoner is not allowed to have any valuables with him. Here they’ll be looked after. Prisoners who are released are given their valuables. Those who are exiled have their valuables sent to the same place. The valuables of those who are liquidated are passed on to their families after the event.”

I handed over whatever I had with me. The clerk counted the money, made a note in a book, and gave me a receipt for a plain watch and 58 rubles.

He turned to the armed man: “I hereby hand over yarlik no. 26818 to you. Take him to the chief of the sixth division; he already knows which cell to put him in. As to his bag, I was ordered to tell you that you are to carry it, because this citizen is ill and he was promised this service.”

“Very well,” said the soldier. “But what about the blanket?”

“I hereby give you permission,” said the clerk, “to put the sword in its sheath and the revolver in its pouch. He won’t run away from you, that’s for sure! I’m sure you can squash any of these fleas with two fingers!”

The tefillin remained in my hands. The soldier laid down all his finery, gave me a look of tough arrogance, opened the door for me, and we walked along the half-lit corridor until we reached the iron gate.

Inside and outside it, as motionless as marble statues, stood the armed sentries who guarded the yarliks incarcerated in the six divisions. Each division was said to comprise a hundred cells. As my self-important guard strode proudly towards them, accompanied by a Jew with a gold-brown beard and a rabbinic hat, the marble sentries allowed themselves the shadow of a smirk.

Their commanding officer read the confidential message that had been addressed to the chief of the sixth division, and signed it and the yarlik. The iron gate was thrown open and we entered Stage Three.