Thus it was that at 6:00 AM on Wednesday, the Rebbe found himself in cell number 160 in Division Six. Nevertheless, even after a night of threats and suffering, he was staunch of spirit and had only one demand – that he be given his tefillin.

The cell was intended to accommodate one prisoner, but he found that he was joining three prisoners, two Jewish and one Russian. They greeted him warmly, and showed their respect by crowding together and leaving him a little extra space.

They now heard the voice of the warden outside the door, who opened the latch of the peephole and announced: “A hundred and thirty men were shot today in the basement.”

True or not, that malevolent announcement succeeded in its intention – to strike terror in the bravest of prisoners, whether or not they had been sentenced to death. In the same heartless spirit, when one of the prisoners asked for a little hot water, the warden taunted him: “Why fatten your bones? Anyway you’re due to be shot pretty soon!”

The Rebbe, unintimidated as always, told the warden that he wanted to speak with one of the officers in command of the prison, who asked, when he finally arrived, “What do you want?”

“I want my tefillin,” said the Rebbe, “and I need a visit from the doctor, because I am ill and also wounded.”

The officer explained that the doctor would not be able to visit him until the following Monday. The Rebbe would thus have to wait, bleeding and in pain, for five days.

“And what about the tefillin?” he asked.

The reply was clear: “Forget all your nonsense; you won’t get that here!”

“If so,” replied the Rebbe, “I am hereby declaring a fast in protest. I will not touch food or drink until you bring me my tefillin!”

“You can starve as long as you like and as long as you last,” said the Chekist.

Realizing that the authorities could later argue that he had not fasted because there was a tap in the cell, the Rebbe said: “You can’t cut off the water supply here, because there are other people here who need to drink – but be assured that the three prisoners here will testify that my fasting strike is observed one hundred per cent until you give me my tefillin.”

The Chekist remained at his post outside the door, while deep in the gloom of that stark cell in Spalerka, the three other prisoners listened in awe as the Rebbe, bare of tallis and tefillin, blended the earnest words of his morning prayers with the evocative strains of an old Lubavitcher melody. The warden outside cursed and swore, but the Rebbe disregarded all of that, just as in his mind’s eye, the very walls and terrors of the prison now vanished out of existence.

After davenen, the Rebbe sat down to share a Torah teaching with the two Jewish prisoners, and his words restored a glimmer of light to their eyes that had been darkened by fear of their impending doom.

The gentile prisoner – a simple, uncultivated fellow – listened, too, and then said: “I’ve already sat in solitary. On my first day there, I didn’t yet know the rules. I heard the command to go to sleep, but I didn’t feel like sleeping, so I sat up and smoked a cigarette. The warden looks in through the peephole and yells at me: ‘Lie down to sleep!’ I give him back a lush Russian curse – but before I finish the cigarette, the door swings wide open, the warden tells me to follow him. So I follow him. We go downstairs, ladder after ladder, till we reach the corridor of the basement. He opens a door and shoves me inside, but I see he doesn’t follow me. It’s pitch black. The door closes, I take one step back, and find myself sinking in mire. The stench is choking. I strike a match and find that I’m in a big room, about five meters square. Long slugs, back and white ones, were crawling all over the slimy walls. All night long I stood in that gunk up to my ankles. My hands were busy trying to ward off the rats that sprang on me. Their squeaks were so scary. It seemed as if I was stuck there for a whole day. Food? In that place you don’t want to eat, you don’t want to smoke, you don’t want anything.

“Then all of a sudden the door opens. ‘Okay,’ I say to myself, ‘now they’re going to shoot me.’ Someone screams, ‘Come here!’ So I say, ‘But I can’t see nothin’ in here. Where am I meant to go?’ The warden opens his flashlight and I see an iron bed, just like we have here – but heavens above! What a cell that was! He roars at me, ‘Get out of here!’ So I get out. Then he says, ‘Go upstairs!’ So I think to myself, ‘Thank G‑d, I’m not going to be shot after all….’

“ ‘From now on,’ he says, ‘you’ll know how to address a warden. You’re not allowed to curse a warden. You’re the prisoner, I’m the warden in charge of you. I’m now going to put you to sleep. Will you go to sleep?’

“ ‘I’ll sleep, Your Honor, I’ll sleep!’

“He slaps me twice, hard, and I don’t know why – until he says, ‘What kind of Your Honor am I to you? Rotter that you are! You’re a slave to the counter-revolutionaries! You’re a spy! I’ll stick you in the basement for three days, not just for three hours like you had just now!’

“I broke into tears. I begged him: ‘Dear father! My master! My warden! I’ll obey!’ So again he slaps me in the face, three times. It hurts. My teeth are chattering, my nose is bleeding, but I still try to stand up straight, as one ought to in the presence of a warden. I remembered the old-time discipline in the army. There I was a he-man. Four years I served my czar in the war against the Japs. I’ve seen generals. I know that rules are rules, and discipline is not a joke. After you’ve been through all that, you remain a faithful soldier until your last breath – not like the young guys nowadays, who just sing marching songs and wag their tongues, Right! Left! They’re just mixed up.

“Again he screams: ‘What kind of master am I to you? You should be calling me comrade! Nowadays there are no masters: all are comrades.’

“So I say, ‘Okay, then, comrade, I won’t say the wrong thing any more.’ But he punches me again and again, and says: ‘What kind of comrade am I to you? That’s not how you address a warden! Get it into your head that you’re the prisoner, and I’m the warden in charge of you. You’re meant to address me as Comrade Warden!’

“So I walk on, all beaten up. If only I could already lie down to sleep in my prison bed! My teeth ache; my body hurts; and in my head I keep on repeating to myself, ‘Comrade Warden,’ because I’m scared stiff of what will happen if I forget.”

* * *

Imprisonment in that fearful solitary cell in the basement is exactly what the Rebbe was threatened with, dozens of times, in the course of his incarceration in Spalerka.