Anatoly Altman

Translated from Russian
by Ilana Romanovsky

Part 2. The Riga Running Start

Excerpts from an uncompleted book

Around the same time a group of Rigans, mostly former prisoners, were allowed to leave the country. The Zionist movement was growing in Riga – the influence of the recent liberal “bourgeois” past. Young people, almost teenagers, united around the idea of creating a memorial in Rumbula, a place where thousands of Jews were shot during the German occupation by polite and methodical Latvian politsai [collaborationists, members of local police under Nazi occupation - translator’s note] .

The former prisoners who had served time for “Zionism” formed the nucleus, and they were probably considered to be the most vicious and hostile people and therefore, they were to be exiled or liberated – whatever. It is an interesting feature of that time: the Reds sent away the most problematic Jews with the aim of stopping their pernicious influence on others. But the result was exactly the opposite. After their departure a lot of literature and documents were left, and people competed for filling the “vacancies”. In short, the putrefying ideas were attracting more and more people. In general, in the Baltic republics the fighting spirit was rising; in Vilnius a musical group was organized and it almost openly united young Zionists around it. Jews from Riga were going to Rumbula and several times erected a monument of their own making at the place of mass killing of Jews – several times because every time somebody demolished the monument. Yasha Kazakov sent his passport to the Central Soviet with a demand to let him go to Israel. He was called to a police station and the “lost” passport was returned to him. Then he sent it again, and again the “lost” passport was returned to him, with a warning…

The Reds soon got fed up with it and – an unheard of case – Yasha received permission. Then he went on a hunger strike at the UN building and managed to drag his father out of the country. Grains of sand and heavy stones were rolling out of the press that was crushing everyone and everything, and everybody wanted to try their chance. Only – when and where? Georgian Jews sent an open letter to the UN, then open letters were sent from Riga, Moscow and Kiev. Both Rosa Palatnik in Odessa and Kochubievsky in Kiev went to jail instead of receiving permissions (in the periphery the authorities were harder).

Our small Odessan community was waiting for invitations from Israel in order to knock at the doors again and again – “Let my people go!”

Meanwhile, Avram was in Moscow. His condition was deteriorating, a thrombus occluded a blood vessel in his heart and he was sent to the Intensive Care Unit unconscious. The tissues of the sore leg were putrefying, and on September 19 his leg was amputated. Some months later we met him at the railway station. He came in the same carriage with Arab students - they might be going to one of Odessa’s military schools. Fellow countrymen!

The winter was cold and food was scarce. There was almost no food in Odessa, the market prices were five, ten times higher than usual. Avram moved to another apartment. I wrote to my Riga friends. It looked like things were not so bad there – the tiny flow of those who received visas did not stop, and I decided to try again.

Parting with Odessa resembled going to exile, but from some moment all my actions and strivings acquired a uniform character – in my memory Odessa remained a filthy from lack of love and care place, its streets grey from dust mixed with a thin layer of snow. From time to time the wind dragged this filth along the streets and threw it in people’s faces. Everything augured disaster. In the summer of 1970 an epidemic of cholera broke out in Odessa. I was going on the lam, leaving in Odessa my friends and memories, my hopes, boulevards and beaches, everything that could gladden and warm the heart and remained my golden treasure that stayed with me for long years after that.

Riga started for me with the cordial and noisy Alexandroviches’ home. The soul of the house was the mother – Revekka Iosifovna, Aunt Riva, Rivka – large and warm, any minute ready to burst into merry laughter or tears. With her nothing had limits – neither joy nor grief. In the kitchen that was her kingdom there was a radio receiver and every time when there was a “Kol Israel” broadcast everything froze in the house. The latest news was the source of energy and they called Israel “our place”.

Ruth Alexandrovich had been our guest in Karolno-Bugaz and she astonished everyone by her categorical views which she never concealed, nowhere. On the second day after my arrival she took me for a walk in the city, introduced me to her numerous friends and showed me the city sights. The most important of them was the KGB building. During the war it housed the Gestapo. Ruth maintained that under the five visible storeys there were five more ones underground – less well decorated, just cells where up to 1,000 people could be packed. Both of us later had an opportunity of exploring the truth of this assertion – that is, personally, in the flesh. For some more time I took leisurely walks, enjoying the town, the snowy northern winter, the pine and fir forest where the air was fresh like in its pristine state, the delicious and plentiful food, after the hungry Odessa. Meanwhile, it turned out that I, myself, had become an object of study. The Riga activists had substantial experience in Jewish activity, which meant that their “office” gradually took notice of everyone, and someone suggested creating two groups within the movement – “Aleph” and “Beth”. These terms were adopted after the names of the legal and the illegal Aliya. In Riga there were trouble-makers who went to meetings in Rambula, openly taught and learned Hebrew, signed all kinds of petitions (always giving their addresses). This division also implied that there also were “moles” for specific activities of which few people knew. No doubt, this amateur secrecy was child play in the eyes of the KGB, for it was impossible to remain “kosher”, unknown to them. Anyway, this arrangement helped to feel safe in the underground activity, for the “status-quo” was kept for quite a long time.

One day, early in the morning on a Sunday, when the city was still sleeping, I was taken to a new neighborhood of Riga and there, in the apartment of one of the Group “Beth” members, I started calling upon myself Article 65 of the Latvian Republic Criminal Code [anti-Soviet propaganda and especially dangerous criminal offence against the state, including preparing, dispersing and keeping the literature with the said content. The punishment was imprisonment from six months to seven years and exile from two to five years – translator’s note]. With the use of simple homemade devices, they arranged producing an informational periodical of material on Israel’s army, wars and kibbutzim. It contained articles by foreign and local authors.

Yosef Mendelevich, who printed the collection with us, was also the author of an article. We always had to work in the conditions of great haste - that is, we had to print on photo paper thousands of pages, dry them, smooth the buckled sheets, arrange them according to page numbers and pack; after that we had to clear the apartment of any traces of our activity and then disperse unobtrusively.

I remember a trip to Vilnius. We hired a whole bus (an unheard-of thing in the Soviet Union, where everything was under state control) and our merry bunch set off on our way. On the way we sang Israeli songs and songs by amateur authors, told jokes – for the first time we felt that we were on our own, everything was allowed, the spirit of freedom was floating over our heads. We were going to a Jewish amateur concert at a trade union center. The huge building on a raised platform was crowded. Among others, there were KGB officers with university pins on their uniforms. Just have a look at it – “and the lion will lie with the lamb” [this is an inaccurate quotation from Isaiah 11, 7: “and the wolf and the lamb will live together” – translator’s note]. Where are Kremlin doctors-murderers, where are Mikhoels [Jewish actor murdered in1948 in an incident arranged to resemble a road accident – translator’s note], Kvitko [Jewish poet executed in 1952 – translator’s note], Babel, [Jewish writer who died in prison in 1940 – translator’s note], where are the trains ready to carry Jews to the place that had been prepared for them?

The concert, as it should have been expected, started with eulogies and swiftly passed on to entirely Jewish matters. They sang “Partisan Song”, in which everyone recognized the Palmach anthem; the “Schtetel Quadrille” was performed with humor and ingenuity, in a way in which Jews can laugh at themselves; they also performed Sholom-Aleichem, Babel and thousands of anonymous authors of Jewish jokes. The concert was over late at night – the performers were called to the stage over and over. After that, they split up our Riga group and took us to their homes for the night. But sleep was out of question. The real parties only started at private apartments – singing, drinking, dancing. We calmed down only towards the morning. Aizik and I got up rather late and went out for a walk. We walked around the center of the city and the Old Town. I almost recognized the streets and the houses. It looked like all the historical movies had been shot there. Vilnius is different from the frowning Riga – its spacious streets are painted in gay colors, its old houses are adorned with red tiles. I stumbled upon the church of St. Sophia. The legend has it that Napoleon had planned to dismantle it and move it to Paris. In another place I saw something that even now still keeps to excite my curiosity. I saw another church, on a small hill surrounded by a fence – iron bars about two centimeters wide between stone poles. The bars were fixed with horizontal iron bands about 40-50 centimeters lower than the upper ends. Now, in one place the free ends of these vertical spear-like bars were curled - two into spirals and a small remaining vertical end was curled once more into a ring, as if ready to be tied in a knot. Only a tipsy Ilya Muromets [Russian folk-epic hero – translator’s note] could do a thing like that.

We continued our walk around the city and after some time we entered a coffee shop to have a bite.

The food and drink places in the Baltic republics have a good name to them – they are always very clean, designed in good taste, without the heavy style of Russian taverns or the elaborate decoration of Oriental eateries. I came up to the woman at the counter and asked her what she could offer us. Judging from her dignified manner, she was the owner of the establishment, and she answered something in Lithuanian. I had already heard of ways and manners in Lithuania and Estonia and, without feeling hurt, I said that I would be glad to talk to her in her language, but unfortunately, I didn’t know it. The answer was again in Lithuanian. Then Aizik, who knew Latvian and probably a little Lithuanian, joined the conversation. I don’t know how they managed to communicate, but suddenly Aizek laughed. The Lithuanian woman said: You see, you can talk a normal language, why should you dirty your mouth with Russian (this is a word-for-word translation). It looked like the locals did not exactly like the Red melukha, to put it mildly.

Late at night we came back to Riga, full of new impressions. The turmoil of the previous day, the tiredness and the evening serenity brought forth disturbed moods. My neighbor Yaffa recited poems by Akhmatova, by Krug [he most probably means Shimon Shmuel Frug (1869-1916) – poet who wrote in Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew – translator’s note]: “From far off spheres, from near spheres, I call for you, oh Ahasverus”. Could it be true that the wanderings and humiliations were coming to an end? We always were only passengers, here and everywhere, but we could be something else, we just had to be. Where? How? I think that these questions were asked not only by the free-thinking Jews of Baltic republics, Leningrad, Moscow, Kishinev, Tbilisi, Kiev, Novosibirsk, Minsk. A new young breed was rising – Jews were no longer afraid, no longer kept silent.

I could not stay with the Alexandroviches any longer, even though they assured me that I wasn’t disturbing them and so on, whatever people usually say in these occasions. Their apartment was well known and most probably bugged; somebody drew a picture on the wall and wrote “microphone”, as a joke, or maybe it was not really a joke. The KGB installed microphones at the neighbors’ adjacent walls. The most important things were discussed in the bathroom, with the water running and drowning all the sounds.

I started looking for a job and a place to live in the suburbs. Friends helped me to get employed as a turner at the paper producing works, in the section for producing spirits. I managed to rent a cozy lodge in a yard; the owner was a nurse at the same works. This place was in a beautiful pine wood, which for an unclear reason was called the Beach village (I don’t remember the Latvian name for it). I occupied a snug little house, there was enough firewood for heating it; I kept my simple grub near the entrance instead of a fridge. Once, while walking in the wood, I found a stray dog, a young sheep dog. I called it and petted it, and it went after me. We sat in the empty hut, wet firewood was hissing in the stove, sausages were baking on long chips of wood, fragrant tea was steeping in the pot. Time seemed to have stopped, I sat without moving, afraid to break this silence and tranquility, the dog looked at me with its yellow eyes, rarely raising its head and pricking its ears to the sounds of the wood in the night. Indeed, something crackled and hooted there, but it was clear that no evil forces could break into our house.

Then the dog got up and started scratching the door. I went out, the dog ran after me to the right, to the left, around all the corners, marked them and rushed into the bushes, rustling there and tending to its own business. The moon shone in the night sky, the few unhasty clouds floated across the sky acquiring hues of pink; there was almost no wind, the slightly frosty air cooled my face. And suddenly, in a brief moment, I absorbed all the joy and harmony, magnificence and stillness that were filling this world. As if I, the coiled within itself misery, had suddenly grown to the size of the whole universe and was absorbing into myself everything that existed in this world. The dog suddenly rushed to me and started jumping, stepping on its forelegs, inviting me to play. Reluctantly I threw a cone into the bushes, I did not feel like playing; it was late, time to go to bed, I had to go to work for them again on the next day, I was fed up with their talk to which I had to listen during breaks. Again I had to face the efforts of gaining the residence registration in order to be able to apply for exit permit in the OVIR.

It happened so that I became the trusted listener for the laborers of the repairs team, which consisted of Russians and Latvians. The Latvians would come to me and start talking about “these Russians” – “krievs”, who had occupied Latvia and were pumping everything out of it. The Russians, in their turn, called Latvians “Forest Brothers” [anti-Soviet partisans in WWII – translator’s note], that should have to be killed. They cited recent cases of assault and murder. To these accusations I paid no heed either. As the popular in those years song went - “I don’t want your vodka, I don’t need your cabbage soup”. Divide all of that among yourselves, dear comrades. Go on strengthening the proletarian solidarity and international friendship, no wavering or doubting.

I was unexpectedly called to the personnel department and asked to clarify the number of the house which I had stated as my last residence place. I said that it was the same number that I had given earlier.

- No, this is not that house,- the inspector insisted.

- But what is the matter? Why is it so important?

- You are lying deliberately.

- I may be mistaken, but I have no reason to lie.

-The information you gave us was checked, you did not live in that house, so where were you living?

- Who checked, why?

- The recruitment office did, they gave us instructions to clarify the information in the record.

I later went to that address and found out that indeed, there was a mistake, due to lack of attention. But it had been clear even before that I was “being taken care of”. Evidently, the inspector was lying – I was not registered anywhere, the recruitment office couldn’t care less about me since I was not registered anywhere.

Meanwhile the time was coming for the next issue of our magazine. I shared with friends my apprehensions about being shadowed. We decided that in spite of that I should take all the possible precautions and go to Boris Maftsir’s apartment. We spent 24 hours almost without sleep, but finished our work. We decided that I would leave group “Beth” and start taking steps towards obtaining the exit visa openly. On the next day we planned to go to Rumbula for a meeting. We were expecting somebody to come with a car to take away the defective pages, but no one showed up. It was not safe to leave them in the apartment, so we packed everything and took a taxi, intending to take the stuff somewhere far away from the house and there to get rid of this dangerous “cargo”. To do it we had to play a little performance for the driver. I get out near some large building and say to Misha: “Wait for me here, I will fetch him and we will come together”. Then I disappear from their sight, find a garbage bin, empty the briefcase into it and after that I come back and say: “He is not in, and we can’t wait for him any longer”. Rumbula was buzzing with lots of voices, from some distance we could see police cars and athletically built young men. The speeches were short, both young and old people spoke, everything was calm and subdued, without emotional outbursts, and only sometimes somebody would break down and start sobbing. Everyone left almost without talking.

I went on with my work and all the time I pestered the personnel department with requests for residence registration. It was clear that it did not depend on them. I only wanted to get a formal refusal that stated the reason.

Everything started on one day in spring – I was called to the personnel department and they announced that during the testing period I had not demonstrated the required qualities and they were firing me as a good-for-nothing, that is, they were not employing me. I want to remark that during that period I, the only turner at the works, had done more work on the side for those who asked for it than at any other time of my life.

My dog ran away, I was fired from my job, the snow was melting, mud and puddles covered the ground. Maybe I was bearing on my brow, using a grandiloquent style, the mark of an outcast, a hapless man; maybe there was something in me that always pushed me out of any state of good order and contentment. The confirmation of this is the next, insignificant episode of my unsuccessful attempt to get a job at a collective farm souvenir co-operative. After a couple of weeks there I had a talk with the manager who had recently employed me at the request of Iliya Valk. He straightforwardly declared that I had to quit on my own accord, he could not keep me anymore. I did not ask questions and left.

Revekka Iosifovna constantly consoled and helped me. She had a fixed idea that is actually characteristic of all Jewish mothers – to find matches for everyone. She promised me a bride that could be desired by anyone. Soon, in the summer, the brother of Ruth’s father would come - this very Alexandrovich, with his daughter, and of course, you can’t find a worthier bride, and maybe they will not object to leaving the country.

I started making wooden souvenirs and jewelry in a carpenter’s workshop where an acquaintance of mine allowed me to work. Ruth and Revekka Iosifovna offered them to everyone who came to visit them. This money was my food, my clothes and my lodgings. I rented a room together with another guy, in an apartment that stank of urine, where the owners made a dozen of kids without giving a thought to bringing them up and providing for them. Every morning started with a request to lend money. I came back home only for the night. I was definitely stuck – no job, no residence registration, to future.

One day Revekka Iosifovna asked me if I was ready to leave for Israel in a, let’s put it like this, not quite an ordinary way. I did not really understand it because the question was put in very vague terms and answered in the same style. Soon holidays came – Passover and the Independence Day – and this washed away the remembrance of this short talk. On the Independence Day we went to the sea and to the forest – had bonfires, raised an Israeli flag, drew caricatures and performed short scenes. For the Passover Seder I was invited to the brothers’ Valkov place. For the first time in my life I heard and saw the ritual of this night, different from all other nights. There were guests from Moscow, a lot of people and a lot of noise.

Soon after that Revekka Iosifovna invited me to her place, and there was a man who was a stranger to me there – Mark Dymshits from Leningrad, who had come for a visit. We talked a little, I said good-bye and left. I found out later that this was a “bride show”. It looked like he was satisfied with what he saw and I was invited to talk with Silva Zalmanson’s husband, Edik (Edward) Kuznetsov. I knew that he had served time in the GULAG, several years for the “misdeeds” of which I knew from samizdat [“self-publishers”, the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state – translator’s note].

The narrow room of the newlyweds was filled cram-full with books. Edik was sitting at the desk (I knew that he was making a little money translating fiction from English), on the desk there were piles of paper and stationary, a tape-recorder, a mug of tea – prison camp tea, I had already drunk it at Avram’s in Odessa. “Want a cup?” – he offered. “OK”. The tea rolled your tongue into a tube, it was hot, black and bitter. But you couldn’t add sugar - they said “you can blow up the engine” – that is, it was bad for your heart. Edik started with small talk – the Deribasovskaya street in Odessa, this and that, the job, the residence registration, and then he asked if I was ready for a “dash” – that is, to break away from the Reds. I felt like I was petrified, but I tried to conceal my feelings with questions: “How? Where? With whom?” Edik gave the details in very general terms – a trainer plane in an airfield near Leningrad. They had a pilot, there would be about ten participants. He asked me to prepare tools, to use in case we had to break open a locked plane. Naturally, it was supposed to be at night. A guard or dogs could be an obstacle, something should be worked out. And that’s it. We parted.

That night I could not fall asleep. That’s it, the line is drawn, you can refuse, other people will go, and you… and you will be dragging on here, marry the daughter of that Alexandrovich or somebody else’s daughter, go to work – the useful and faithful lackey. I kept snoozing and waking up from visions that were drowning me – we are walking along the airfield at night, coming up to the plane and suddenly everything is lit up and we hear the command: “Hands up, stand still!” No, it was better not to sleep at all, but something was already taking shape, the visions were settling down and the decision was forming itself. A little more rage was needed to conquer the fear. My memory brought me images of friends who were staying in Odessa under this wall of hopelessness - Avram, who had left his leg in a trap, like a running away wolf, friends who refused to pass their graduation exams so as not to create additional difficulties with the rules for leaving the country, weddings, that had been cancelled (it looked that it was easier to take the risks alone), hopes and disappointments of hundreds of thousands of people doomed for slavery and trying to escape from it.

One wedding did take place in Riga, though – and it was the wedding of two most inveterate Zionists, Arye Khnokn and Mary Mendelevich. The wedding took place in the short break in “sfirat ha-omer”. Everyone assembled in the synagogue, the rabbi was nervous – the sunset was nearing. Arye was going to be late, the backbiters remarked ironically: “As usual, he is going to be late”. At last the couple arrived. Arye seemed upset and ill at ease, the bride looked troubled as well. Arye told us later that it had cost him tremendous effort to convince her that brides normally did not walk under the “khupa” in torn old jeans. For these cases there were dresses – the pretty white things with ribbons and flowers. That last thing was totally unacceptable - Mary usually carried a fixed blade Finnish knife in her purse. She worked at a biology lab and her fingers were always bitten – a rat’s bite, she used to explain. The wedding was joyful, everyone drank to the newlyweds’ health and few people knew that they were getting married in order to go to the plane as a unit, a family. Yosef took me aside and asked me about my decision. I gathered that he was there, too… Almost everyone who planned the “dash” was present at the wedding: Zalmanson Silva and her younger brother Izya, and also some people who had decided not to take the risk. Hanele was pregnant and Tsvi considered their participation in the escape impossible.

In the course of looking for the most appropriate plan we thought about the possibility of hijacking the plane of Tolstikov, First Secretary of Leningrad District Party Committee. All of a sudden, somewhere in the beginning of June, Edik informed us of the final version of the plan. Mark, who was combing through small airports in the country, had found a recently opened short distance flight – Leningrad – Priozersk – Sartavala. You could not invent anything better than that. Mark’s daughter Yulya and her friend tried this flight, then somebody else whom at that stage we did not know did. The date was already set – June 15. We would book all the tickets for the flight – twelve seats all in all. We would fly as tourists, there will be no strangers, so no problems should be expected. In the intermediate airport of Priozersk everyone has to get out, you can’t go farther without a pass – this is where the frontier area starts. Instead of that, we attack the pilots, tie them up and get them out of the plane. Mark takes control of the steering and we are joined by another four people who came to the place on the day before.

We were supposed to meet again before the action and discuss all the details. We also had to discuss our next moves in the case of… success? A week before the planned day we met for a preliminary discussion. There were four of us – Silva, Izya, Yosef and I. We left the Zalmansons’ house and on the way to the nearby stadium we tried to see if we were shadowed. It looked like all was clear, but then – who can know… We later found out that in big cities, in the centers, TV cameras were installed and there was no need to be disguised as a “lamppost”. Hardly had we reached the stadium when a group of soldiers arrived there. They were laughing and cracking sunflower seeds and settled near us. We had to speak softly and that drew more attention to us. The fever of the last step had started. Are we being shadowed or not, are we doing the right thing when we hurry to book that very convenient for us flight and why had this flight appeared exactly at that time – it looked that there was too much luck. When I recollect my state during those days I find it difficult to describe adequately my feelings and emotions – like, amid a crowd I imagined… no, that’s wrong… I felt like I was already in Israel and I was dreaming that long, long ago I had lived in a different place, in Russia, maybe in Odessa, in Riga… no, I did not remember its name, somebody, an acquaintance, hurries to meet me, and I want to ask him about that city and he says: “Hello, how are you?”

Edik suggested that we meet in the wood near a village called Shmerli.

- Yes, yes, let’s go, let’s go now; what do you think, are they “looking after” us?

- What’s the use of arresting us now, if they knew anything they would be taking us to their place and asking questions, no, no, we are in quiet waters.

It was for the first time that nearly all of our whole group met in that wood near Shmerli. We discussed in detail who would sit near the cockpit and who at the entrance door. “We have to take the pilots without a scratch”,- says Edik, - “otherwise the Reds will scream about banditry. Mary, take everything for first aid. We must leave sleeping bags for them, so that they won’t, God forbid, catch colds. We should seriously control our emotions, the pilots should not be hurt in any case”. At that time a blue Volga arrived and stopped not far from us, but it would be sheer madness to suspect that they were listening to us – they were still too far away from us for that.

Edik continued: “Four people are going to Priozersk separately and will join us after we take away the pilots. We will try to get to Sweden, to Boden near the border. If we can’t make it, we will land somewhere on a meadow in Finland and then walk to the border with Sweden”. A merry guy this Edik was. “And what if something goes wrong with us?” I was probably not the only one to think of it. Edik went on: “There is something more, listen to it”. Yosef read aloud the text of the “Appeal” and asked everyone to sign. We did. The “Appeal” was to be kept by somebody in Riga and made public only in case if the Reds decide to shoot down our plane. Then, to prevent their declaring us to be hijackers and aggressors, the “Appeal” was to be transferred for publishing in the West.

All that time the “Volga” did not move, nobody got out of it, maybe there was a young couple there, kissing in the wood.

I had to collect my belongings, write a letter to the Alexanroviches, then I planned to go to Daugavpils to Pinya and Dina Khnokh – to take a book to them. What should I take with me? What does a man take with him when he is going to flee abroad? At photographs in Soviet newspapers and magazines one could even then see piles of gold coins and necklaces, old icons, packs of foreign banknotes – all these, the press told us, had belonged to smugglers or criminals who had illegally acquired these treasures. “A chain of bloody crimes followed these lovers of jewelry” – a typical line for such photos. I counted my money – I had enough to go to Leningrad through Daugavpils and even enough for food, and after that… after that… no, that was a forbidden subject. What should I take with me? I had an elegant light colored leather bag which I had brought from Odessa – it had room for photographs, passport, school leaving certificate, driving license, diver’s and diving instructor’s certificates, the military identity card. The reference from work was lacking, but everything was clear even without it – here and there, moral character and attitude to work – attended, did not attend, participated, did not participate, what else? Maybe a knife, swimming trunks (they looked nice, it would be a pity to leave them behind), a change of underwear… that’s all? That’s all, you have not acquired anything more, only this. No problem, I will get more things, the important thing is to stay safe! I had to say good-bye to the Alexandrovich family. I had long ago invented for them a story of going to a summer camp to work as a swimming instructor. It wasn’t a complete lie, there had been an offer like that and I had agreed, but then there was another offer… (to another camp?). This story was supposed to explain my leaving Riga. The letter was short; I was taking leave of them and thanking them for their kindness. I asked Ruth to sell what was left of my handicrafts and pay my debts – I made a list of names and sums. I put the letter in an envelope and took it to Ruth’s father, to the shop where he worked. I asked him to give the letter on Monday, June 15, to a friend of mine who would come for it. I wrote a short good-bye note for her, too. I knew that he would keep the letter till Monday, but things turned out a little different. Before leaving my house, I called my friend, told her that I was leaving and that Ruth’s father had a letter for her, but she could take it only on Monday. She must have guessed something, and she went to the shop immediately. She read the letter and everything became clear to her, but this early warning helped a lot. Because something really unusual was about to happen, everyone was on the alert and they took all the “compromising material” out of the house. Meanwhile, I went to the dacha to see Revekka Iosifovna. We talked a little, I told her that I was going to a summer camp, but at the last moment I couldn't restrain myself and, feeling that I was seeing her for the last time, kissed her hand. She was surprised by this emotional farewell and asked something, but I made a joke of it. They reminded me of that kiss at the investigation. My train was leaving early in the evening and I hurried to the station. On the way I tried to figure out if they were tailing me, but everything was as clean as inside a funeral coffin.

On coming to Daugavpils I went to the Khnokhs’ apartment. Pinya and Dina were at home, Arye had informed me that they knew everything, so I was open with them and we talked about everything. Their Simona was a tiny little girl, but she behaved very independently. All the house, including her Latvian nanny, was circling around her little finger. We went out with Simona for a short walk and I gave her a record of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. Pinya asked me to give Arye a ring for Mary. The train for Leningrad was leaving at night and I decided to take a walk in the town, and at the same time to try to guess – was I being shadowed? At the station I came to my carriage and handed my ticket to the conductor. He looked at the ticket and said that I would feel better in another carriage, which was almost empty. “Aha, that’s it! But then, what was the trouble with this offer? Nothing, but why should he be so kind?” The carriage, indeed, was empty, except for two men who could be father and son, judging from their ages.

I had already been in Leningrad, sometime in April, I was visiting my second cousin. There was also a girl from Chernovtsy whom I had met a year before that, she was a student at the Academy of Arts. I knew that her parents were planning to leave the country and had even tried to win their sympathy, but they probably couldn’t think of matchmaking at that time. We met and spoke mostly about Leningrad. The city was recovering from its slushy and unhealthy winter. The sunny sides of streets were drying up, snowdrops and mimosa were sold here and there. We wandered in the center of the city, passing from narrow yards to lanes and side-streets, then taking a streetcar or a trolleybus at a stop. St. Isaak’s Cathedral, Vasilyevsky Island – so many books we had read, so many movies and pictures we had seen about this city. The city was beyond one’s comprehension, there was always something else behind what you could see and understand. Oh, those mysteries – the Bronze Horseman, three cards, three cards, three cards… [Allusions to a poem and a story by A. Pushkin – translator’s note].

And now I am again in Leningrad, it smells of warm dust, the air is damp. Probably every city looks especially beautiful at sunrise, but Leningrad is a phenomenon that beats all the rest. The sky above Leningrad is pierced by numerous spires, gables and flagstaffs. And on each of them rays of the early sun play a unique melody. And then, this unusual stillness of this mass of buildings, palaces, granite colonnades – will its magic come to an end one day? I stopped again at my cousin’s. He had graduated from the Institute of Theatre and Cinematography and was working at a theatre. I had little hope of making him change his plans and talked very little on Jewish subjects. Then I went to see that acquaintance of mine and again we took a short walk in the city. I told her that I would soon go away. - Where to? What for? – She would probably soon find out and if it was not too much of trouble, could she see my mother if she goes to Chernovtsy? At that we parted. The last hours that were left until Monday, June 15 were coming to an end.

<==Part 1 Part 3 ==>