Anatoly Altman

Translated from Russian
by Ilana Romanovsky

Part 5. Going at last… but in the wrong direction

Excerpts from an uncompleted book

Before the planned transit to prison camp I was brought together with Mendel Bodnya. At the trial he was supposed to play the role of a lightning rod, which allowed to demonstrate to the world community the humanitarian socialist approach to every person who had gone astray. Mendel was the only one of us who had a mother in Israel, that is, in standard language, “first-degree kin” and “reuniting of separated families”, that is why he was only sentenced to four years behind the bars. He was cheerful and was finishing the food parcel that he had received before the departure and he generously shared it with me. Soon I also received a food parcel. The life in confinement has some characteristic features, and one of them is the ability to enjoy things that have no value out of prison. One evening, soon after my moving to Mendel, both of us were taken out of the cell with our belongings. THE TRANSFER. Up to that day our convicts’ trips were, one can say, first class – a flight to Riga, a flight to Leningrad; besides, we were allowed not to have our hair cut. We travelled in our civilian clothes, and if not for the handcuffs, we looked like any decent Aeroflot passengers. In the dark KGB yard a Black Maria was already waiting. Both of us were taken to the yard and passed on to the Home Office escort. These fellows looked at us with great curiosity, they probably saw in us something extremely dangerous, but fortunately, already rendered harmless. They placed us in separate cubicles, so that we would always be labeled as outcasts who cannot even for a moment be left with regular thieves, murderers and rapists. On the packages with our files there were red warning lines and an inscription “Especially dangerous criminal”. But like everything else in this empire is trivialized, so attempts to dramatize the KGB’s activity also get ruined at the first contact with Russian reality. In the camp I met a laborer from some high security plant. One day he and his friend had no money to get drank on, so they decided to steal a machinery part from the plant. They knew that it was a top secret one, with a symbol that looked like a three-blade propeller, and any foreigner, if he is not a fool, would buy it. They went to a hotel with this thing and tried to thrust it upon the people. The potential buyers pulled back, turning pale at the sight of that symbol. Later, when they were already a little tipsy, they lost this secret part. They heard that foreign intelligence services spent enormous budgets for obtaining all kinds of secrets... When no one opened their wallets to give them enough for a bottle, they found the lost secret part and dumped it in the garbage, and then, against all odds, they managed to get the money for booze.

In the cubicle you are pressed by the door and the car side, the cold gets in both from the front and from the back, but you are not thrown from side to side like in the part of the car where everyone else is placed. Though there is no throwing back and forth even there – they push inside so many prisoners that they can hardly breathe. The car is further loaded in Kresty [Kresty is a famous prison and a detention center in Saint Petersburg – translator’s note] – the voices and the speed of the loading show that the people are young and optimistic; they curse with gusto. They yell when pushed around and squeezed into the car; the soldiers pack the Black Maria to the utmost. It is dark and cold, tobacco smoke gets mixed up with the exhaust gas of the engine and cuts into my eyes, I can hardly breathe, but nevertheless, I am comfortable - I am alone. They take us to a place at some railway station, we are the first to be pushed out – “Quick, quick” – the head of the convoy is impatient, but I manage to notice the heavy cordon, dogs and gun muzzles that are menacingly pointed at our faces. They cram us into a “triple” – the instruction on isolation of especially dangerous criminals works in our favorr, so far. Later a strange creature joins us, it sits on the floor and does not respond to our invitation to sit on the bench with us – it must have been a sick man. The more people got into the carriage, the more yelling, pushing around and squabbling there was there. The vocabulary had a strong component of filthy words, mostly incomprehensible, though women in separate cells, men and teenagers communicated quite easily. I heard love coaxing, financial talks, discussions of judicial subtleties and legal relationships between the natives. Under the impact of the acquaintance with this world everyone comes to the thought that next to our world there exists another, yet unknown world. A world with its own laws, passions and systems of relationships. There is a feeling that the time of our existence differs for split seconds, and that is why all the time we either run ahead of this world or lag behind it, but if the speed of time changes somehow, you get into this unknown world that has caught up with you in this time gap. Solzhenitsyn calls this impression “sewage” because everything is hidden by the darkness, night and roadways. Avraam called his book about prison camps “The Fourth Dimension”; I think this image comes closest to what you feel in these circumstances.

The first stop is in Tallinn. The feeling is that you are travelling inside the city. There is a blind alley at the station, no one sees us except the soldiers; then there is an inner yard of a prison, a feverish unloading. At last I see the locals from a short distance. They have mugs of highwaymen, but do not allow themselves any violent behavior – the disciplinary lock-up is too close. I saw a sergeant hit a convict in the face with his fist when the latter was a little slow in letting him pass. Everyone is pushed into a cell where they are frisked. The guard on duty is in a predicament – where to place us, with the red lines on our files, there are no empty cells in the prison, it is packed full. He solves the problem of isolation in an original way – he separates us and we go to regular cells. I go to the teenagers (which is forbidden by law) and Mendel goes to the investigation cell. The kids meet me with an astonished silence. The cell is long, filled with smoke, the slop-bucket is at the entrance, on the bunks sit and lie kids with innocent faces, even though they try to scare everyone with their tattoos. They look at me in surprise – my hair is not cropped, and most important, I am an adult among youngsters. They ask cautiously – from where and where to am I “flying”, what article? I enumerate my articles, the whole bouquet of them, but all of them are in a special part of the Criminal Code. They had never seen this part and they look at each other in bewilderment. “Don’t hold out on us, Uncle, what is the charge?” I tell them in short. The boys are Russians and Estonians, it looks like there is not even one Jew among them. They listen respectfully, then free some space on the bunk and put there a straw mattress with an unbearable stinks of salted fish. At that moment there is a shout from somewhere behind the cupboard in the corner, somebody rushes there and they find out that a hole has been cut between the two adjacent cells and somebody from the other side informs my cellmates about a new man. They answer that they also have a new man. The din lasts until midnight. In the morning I get bread and thin soup in an aluminum bowl so slimy with fat that it is difficult to hold it. After eating it I study the cell, go to the window niche - its depth allows to estimate the thickness of the walls. It must be about one meter thick – looks like some Viking masonry. I notice the thick bars of the grating in front of the window, some of which were pierced, probably, by bullets.

In a couple of days there was another transit, a search and then the next transfer – to Pskov. Dirt, neglect and squalor are common signs of prison, but Pskov strikes you with its yokel stupidity. Maybe the reason is the local dialect, or the untouched by civilization provincial customs that depress you like the autumn sky. But the prison guards don’t allow themselves to disobey the instructions and place Mendel and me in a corner cell which is generously aired by wind with snow from the numerous slits between the window frame and the wall. A little later they bring into the cell our “baby” – Izya Zalmanson. They arrested him when he was a freshman– a real child, but physically a well-developed one, doing bodybuilding and gymnastics. He cheerfully starts his day with exercises and running on the spot – the cell is narrow, there is no room for turning. We are cramped for space, okay, but the lice… It was the first time in my life when I felt the physical dirt of everyday life so keenly. The combination of dirt and lack of room was depressing. We started quarrelling and it was even harder. Later, after many a time in cells and isolation cells, I started taking these squabbles and fights that happen in crammed living conditions with more tolerance. One day I had a pain in the back and asked to see a doctor. A nurse came to find out what was wrong; she produced a bottle of iodine and drew a net on my back with a piece of cotton wool. I was surprised at this treatment, but the young lady assured me that there was nothing better than that, and anyway, she had nothing else at her disposal. For two weeks in this Pskov transit prison I lay with a kettle of boiling water on my back. By the next transfer I was almost well.

Now we were in Riga again. Familiar cells, familiar cops. The status of a convict gives new rights, but takes away the right to receive parcels and partly, to shop.

I started receiving letters, and one of the first ones was from Revekka Iosifovna. The letter contained many warm words and wishes. In the middle of the text some lines were crossed out and covered with ink; naturally, my interest was drawn to these lines. I turned the letter this way and that way, but nothing came out of it. On the next day I resumed my attempts and tried to read it in bright light. In the morning, at some hour, a ray of sun, reflected by a window on the opposite side my of the yard, got into my cell and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the bright letters written with a ball-point pen that became visible under the coat of ink. “But you have to stand up to it, to endure”, - Rivka wrote – “neither the suffering nor the victims disappear in cosmic emptiness, they always find their addressee, you can stand up to it and endure it!”. There was another letter that I “washed”- that is, I soaked a piece of cotton wool from the mattress in water, put it on the stripe of ink, moistened the ink and then let the blue water be absorbed in a piece of dry cotton wool, and the text, to my pleasure, informed me that so-and-so had left the USSR, and these people had left, too, and some people I knew would soon go, and some that I didn’t know also would. Before that, I had no idea of what was happening outside. People were flying away, going away, leaving. I knew that my turn would not come soon, but all the same, I felt happy for those who made it now.

I was informed that I would be brought to court as a witness in the case of four people from Riga – Boris Maftsir, Ruth Alexandrovich, Aron Shpilbeg and Misha Shepshelovich. Two of them – Boris and Misha – were charged with the same offence as I, the charge for which I had already been sentenced. Boris was the “steam engine” - [the chief accused in a case where several people are involved – translator’s note] in the case – he inspired new ideas and directed their execution. Aron “served” as a witness in our process. His behavior was almost defiant – at the interrogation he was cheeky with the prosecutor and refuted all the definitions of his own and our activity as anti-Soviet. I had lived in his apartment about a month before the arrest and he gave me a letter of application to Brezhnev to read. I remembered the end: “If a Jew has made his first step towards Israel, he cannot be stopped. Do not make us live our lives constantly packing the suitcases". Once I had “a call” from the next cell, Arye was there, he was also supposed to be a witness. It turned out that Arye had also learned “to wash” letters, and we exchanged our good news. In Israel we were awarded the status of “citizens of honor’. On the day of the trial torches were lit at the Western Wall, according to the number of the accused. There was a great commotion everywhere in the world about the ill-doings of the Reds, and under the pressure the Reds were letting out dozens of Jews. Going, going, who could have thought half a year ago that this would happen. I stopped thinking of the long term, I had to adjust to this life, to live and do something. I had to occupy myself somehow, even in the cell with the dim-witted Latvian politsai [a politsai was a local dweller, a collaborator who served in the police under the Nazis during World War II – translator’s note] who smoked all day long looking into one point. The joy of contacting with the cellmate started and finished with checkers. At last I received a Teach-Yourself English book and I dived into learning with the enthusiasm I never suspected to have.

The winter passed. Sometime in May they took me to court. From the basement where they had kept me before taking me to the courtroom I could hear through the loudspeakers everything that was said there. I entered the courtroom without escort. Because my future was doomed to be bad, I behaved in an independent manner, and actually, the questions were asked only as a formality. Probably there were instructions from the big bosses to go soft on it. The terms were ridiculous – a year, two or three. Three for the greatest villain – Aron, who was indicted on several grave offences. Out of two people who were sentenced, together with me, under Article 65 of the Latvian Criminal Code [anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda – translator’s note] Boris -“the steam-engine”, got a one year term and Misha Shepshelovich got two years, while half a year earlier, under the same article, I received seven years of strict regime camp. So, “sooner in, sooner out”, as they say, didn’t work there. Ruth was returning to the isolation cell during the trial. Before the trial she decided to do some handwork. She managed to obtain blue thread and a needle and started embroidering a Star of David on her white sweater. When her cellmate, a common criminal, told on her, the sweater was taken away and Ruth was punished with seven days of isolation cell. On the other hand, her term would be over half a year later, even though she had to travel with long convict transits in Stolypin cars [Stolypin railroad carriage was designed to take Russian settlers to Siberia and it had two parts – a standard passenger compartment for the peasant and his family and a large zone for their livestock and tools. After the Bolshevik revolution these carriages were used for convicts, who travelled in the cattle part, whereas prison guards used the passenger part – translator’s note] to a camp in Mordovia, and from there she was released and went to Israel. All of us were transferred together, the Leningrad bunch and the Riga people, except Maftsir. After almost a year of investigation his term was nearly over and after about a month he was released from the KGB isolation prison and went to Israel. Long convict transfers were taking us in stinking Stolypins to stinking transit prisons, the jails of Pskov, Gorki and I don’t remember where else.

Mordovia –the zeks’ [zek is a Russian slang word for prison or forced labor camp inmate – translator’s note] and the cops’ land in the middle of nowhere, the center of prison camps of all times. Cops’ barbarity, cops’ corruption. Zeks who tried to escape were caught [by locals] and brought back to camp for some kilos of flour. Actually, the locals lived and made their living at the camp zone. A story was told that when at the beginning of the war Stalin had a problem of housing prisoners of war he ordered to clear up the Mordovia camps. There is a tale that is often told and is still living, about nuns who were driven to marshes and machine-gunned there. There is indirect evidence of “utilizing”, confirmed by finds of human bones during ground works in zones 19, 3 and 17 in Mordovia, when we were there. Potma, Yavas, Saransk [Saransk is the capital of Mordovia; Potma and Yavas are urban localities in Mordovia – translator’s note] do not sound encouraging or welcoming; a holy place would not be given a name like these.

The train gets to Potma. Without any scruples, they unload us onto the passenger platform, although for the time of unloading it is surrounded by a convoy. People cross the railroad over the bridge over our heads, almost without noticing us. We are standing on our knees, the women in the front line, then we, the especially dangerous criminals, then the less dangerous ones – murderers, robbers, rapists. Dogs seem never to lose the sense of acuteness of what’s going on, they always strive to get off the leash, to scratch or snatch. The soldiers keep to the accepted style of dealing with zeks – cursing, hitting, etc. They move us to the narrow-gauge railroad and we enter the GULAG kingdom. Now all the Soviet institutions are under the Home Office command, everyone is “political”, and under the KGB surveillance into the bargain. After a short stay in Yavas they split our bunch into “zones”. Misha and I get zone 19. One of the inmates says that this is a large zone, with many decent people. This sets me on the lookout – what does he mean, “many”? Isn’t everyone in “political zones” a decent person? My naivety was for a long time nourished by accessible samizdat [“self-publishers” – clandestine copying and distributing of literature banned by the state – translator’s note] sources, like the periodical “The Chronicle of Current Events”. It appears that some of the Gulag inmates are “military criminals – the politsai”, some are activists of national movements of the Baltic republics, Ukraine and other Soviet republics, and these are people of all generations and ages. That is, together with the partisans who fought in the forties and fifties, today’s camp inmates are young villagers, students, and the intelligentsia. Apart from those mentioned, there are many soldiers who fled from Soviet Army’s occupational contingents. There are also criminals who escaped from camps for various reasons, like being in debt or expecting bloody revenge. The method of “escape” was simple. When an inmate was anticipating a turn of events that could cost him his life, he wrote by hand an anti-Soviet leaflet or slogan or even pricked an anti-Soviet writing on his forehead. He was then given a new term, for a political crime and sent to a “political” zone. There they inevitably got into the care of the sleuth and worked hard.

The last, the shortest but also the hardest transfer. They are driving us in a Black Maria along a rough forest road; at first we reach Zone 3 and they drop off Izya Zalmanson and Simos Kudirka – a sailor from Lithuanian merchant marine; at Zone 17 - Arye Khnokh and Izya’s brother – Vulf. Misha and I, half dead, fall out of the Black Maria at Zone 19. The road bumps leave their traces on our heads, sides and backs. From the Black Maria they herd us to the guard’s room. A sullen, non-Russian looking man carefully compares our answers with what is written in the files. We sit in the guard’s room awaiting admission to the zone (maybe they won’t accept us?). Cops off duty hang around and stare at us – they must have read the case materials and they look at us and wonder – these? A plane? They ask a question in private – how could you venture a thing like this? I give them a piece of my mind – fortunately, my Odessa experience is not so far away yet. A lame supervisor comes – an inmate nicknamed Shuffle-foot, a “politsai”. He writes us down in the provisions list and we get food at once, in the guard’s room – the pearl barley soup after a long and hungry trip raises our spirits, even though the cops’ mugs promise nothing good. Feeling full and rested, we enter the zone. It rained, the earth generously evaporates the cool smell of freshness, there are many flowers, trees, and the gardens are well cared for. We walk along a short alley from the guard’s room where a piece of a rail hangs, with a rail spike tied to it with a string. We should have rung, but we did not know yet that a zek sits from bell to bell. Strangely looking people walk towards us, for some reason all of them are old, many lean upon canes. We found out later that all the rest were in the work zone, but the first impression for a long time left a distressing sense of arriving at the last refuge. All of a sudden, a young man with a black, almost blue beard and narrow slanting eyes rushes to us and hugs us, neglecting the cops’ order not to get near us. He mumbles something, I understand almost nothing except the word “idn”, I guess that this means “Jews” in Yiddish. Unfortunately, my Yiddish is poorer than my criminal argot and my English. I answer in Russian, to cool off his enthusiasm - we can talk later, after all the formalities are finished. We go to the store through the zone. A round, well-fed old man with a fez cap on rigs us out with all the necessary things with a welcoming smile. We change on the spot, our own duds are taken away. That’s it! We look at each other. Zeks – the kind that we have seen a lot at transfers. The black work clothes will become blue-gray after the first washing, the shoes will crack and become crooked, mimicking our feet and our gaits. At the entrance our new acquaintance impatiently grabs our bundles and pulls us to his place. He lives in a tent, his room-mates are lying on the beds – old men who hardly react to our presence. At last we get acquainted. Yuri Vudka. I have never seen Jews with such slanting eyes and protruding cheekbones, but his cordiality and care tell us that he is one of us. He never stops smiling and showing his white teeth, good enough for any advertisement and framed by the black beard and moustache. He treats us to royal delicacies – canned fish in tomato sauce, bread with margarine, gingerbread, candy flavored with aromatic essences, we drink tea and talk. They live in tents because their barracks is on repair. They have to return to their barracks before fall, otherwise they will have a hard time –wintering in a tent is an unpleasant business. We are feeling the bliss of good food and talk, of some minimal comfort. We will soon get places for sleep and work – the first day in camp gets colored in optimistic hues. We longed for rest after the tiresome endless squabbles of zeks during transfers, the convoy’s yelling and the dirt, the dirt that permeates through the clothes and the body. We go to the bathhouse, there is a real shower there, we shower until we are totally exhausted, then go to the barber and all the beauty of our long transfer gets cropped short. We have no energy to move, but we are called to the headquarters and have to go there. There, at the zone commander’s – “the boss” – all the officers have assembled, they receive us as if we have come to look for jobs on our own accord. “Do you condemn your crime against the Motherland?” I look at the walls in boredom and see the portraits of the holy fathers – Lenin and Dzerzhinsky. I have no energy for disputes with every pig with shoulder straps, there are so many of them and I am just one man. I answer something in the hope to bring down their ardor and their interest in me. The political officer gives his parting guideline: “…and to atone for your wrongdoings by honest work…”. “Oh, go to hell…”. I slip out of the room and go outside. The zeks come in clusters from the work zone. Boris Penson rushes to us, he came a couple of months earlier and being an old timer, he explains the rules to us, takes us to another feast, this time in his barracks. He introduces us to his friends, talks about the convoy transfer, about the trial in Riga, shares news from Israel with us, we estimate the number of permissions and people who have left. The signal for drawing up is given. The distance from our barracks to the dining room is forty meters, but it has to be covered in formation. We draw up, the first ones are almost at the dining room, the last ones are at the barracks. The command is to move, and we get into the dining room. It’s a huge room that serves as a club as well, posters are hanging on the walls, it smells of rotten fish and slops – the smell of utter poverty and hopelessness. For a moment, I am gripped with a sense of immense compassion towards these wretched people with gray faces, though I don’t actually see the faces, only spots of a lighter shade of gray against the background of gray work clothes, gray steam coming from the plates, gray walls. An old man, almost blind, gropes for something across the table with his stiff fingers. I don’t know who he is and why he is here, but I can’t look in his direction. I only eat because I am afraid of spending a sleepless night from hunger. After the meal the old men collect fish bones from the tables and carry them to their pet cats. The cats rush towards them mewing loudly and look in their faces. The old men talk with them about something and draw them away to feed them where they can’t be seen, out of jealousy. I was later told that these almost demented old men shot Jews during the war, carrying out the “Juden frei” order. Today their service is similar to their former one - they snitch to the camp “nose” (detective) of all that they see and hear. They sent me to work at construction. A barracks was under repair and construction workers were working inside. I work with another young man – we carry concrete blocks and wheel cement in wheelbarrows. “We wheel” is a nice way of describing it. The first attempt of wheeling half a barrow fails. You have to wheel it along a board, which you don’t see because of the barrow, there is one wheel and one board and to make them form a team is an art beyond my ability. After several hours the barrow runs out of the tricks aimed at dislocating my arm joints and stops in a defiant pose, with the wheel pointing up and the cement solidifies in an indecent patch, the monument to my shame. “Hey, move, student, bring the cement!” “Take it”, I say and point to the puddle. “They didn’t feed you during the transfer?” “Let them feed my enemies and their families like this, non-stop”, I retort. “Okay, have a look”. Sergei Khakhayev, a Leningrad postgraduate student, a specialist in dosimetry, skillfully maneuvers the barrow between the stones and garbage. It looks like the barrow would go even without him, but it is afraid to get out of his control. High class driving, did he drive Rolls-Royces out there? – No, learned it here, in the firm “Dig the Pig”. I will make friends with him. In the first day, delighting in the sun’s warmth and light, I developed blisters from sunburns; the pain from wearing clothes was unbearable, sweat corroded the burns and I went to the medical service unit for help. The unfriendly warden’s wife applied some ointment on my back and the pain subsided. She used the opportunity to fill in my medical file and told me to go to work. I went to work three weeks later – I got to the infirmary with an ulcer attack. Once more on the way there I flew up to the ceiling and hovered in the air while the Black Maria was falling into the next pit. The infirmary was near Zone 3 and bordered on the women’s infirmary. There were only common convicts there, but the women’s political zone, which shared with them a restricted area on the other side of the women’s infirmary, was getting grub from the women’s infirmary kitchen. In a couple of days Sado, the paramedic, arranged for me to see Silva and Ruth at the time of getting food in the infirmary zone. Sado and I, on the pretext of repair work, climbed the roof of the barracks and waited for them to appear. I saw them and shouted to Ruth something to tell friends in Israel, because she was soon finishing her exciting journey to the land of Gulag.

Some words about Sado. His face was a mixture of Barmalei [scary cannibal from a tale for children by Kornei Chukovsky – translator’s note] and Ashurbanipal, some kind of a relict. I had never suspected that Jews had living witnesses of their history. He was an Assyrian, had lived in Leningrad and studied at the Oriental Studies faculty. He knew Hebrew and was in charge of security matters in a monarchist Christian organization. A familiar Criminal Code article – high treason – fifteen years. He served his term in the infirmary as a nurse and as new zeks’ best friend, he took care of them, helped to bring to zeks in special regime cells “the heater”, that is, a mixture of tea and coffee. It became clear later that the green light for these beneficial deeds came from his colleagues, those who served in state security. His “case-mate” – Igor Ogurtsov – the “steam engine”– was at that time serving his term in Vladimir. I met Igor Ogurtsov in zone 35 in the Urals. He was the last surviving knight of honor and he entered into a “business partnership” with Jews, Ukrainians and people from the Baltic republics, notwithstanding the orientation for “the one and undivided Russia” (a classic case of victory of mind over feelings). He could not believe that Sado was a snitch – for him the notion of betrayal was totally incompatible with noble ideas that were declared aloud. Sado was pardoned and for a short time he lived in Kaluga and worked as a painter; he later taught at his faculty.

Soon after the encounter with our women I was sent back to the zone. To make my work conditions easier they sent me to concrete cinder block unit. The camp was building itself and providing concrete blocks for the camp construction. Even though carriages for the furniture that was made in camp entered the camp territory, it seemed unpractical to buy bricks and construction blocks all the time. The zeks’ work was so attractive, almost no pay, and even if they did earn something, half of it, according to the law, was used for maintaining the restricted area. But we were just starting our terms and made an agreeable team; also, you were supposed to get some grams of milk for working with cement, and in general, working in the industrial zone was better than in the living zone – there was grass there, and mushrooms in the grass. You could be caught and punished for picking mushrooms, but who paid attention if there were mushrooms there… We were three at the beginning. The cement mixer was on a two-meter ramp. Again, sand, clinker, cement and water were taken up there in a barrow. Then we shoveled the mixture into steel molds and after that compressed it in the molds with a vibrator machine. When you worked with this thing (everyone called it vibropenis) you felt like all the fillings were falling out of your teeth. Then we moved the wet block weighing about thirty kilos to the drying chamber where the horrible heat burned your body and your shirt instantly became wet. Now that’s it, you could close the drying chamber and rest for a while. The break didn’t last long – you would run out of the mixture and start again from the beginning. Nevertheless, we valued this place of torture for certain privileges. There was a shower there and a self-made electric hotplate, something worth mentioning. You took a white fire-resistant brick and soaked it in water for several days, then carefully, so as not to crumble it, you scratched a groove and deepened it to insert a spiral that you could obtain from electricians in exchange for tea or simply buy for money. The hotplate was a valuable object and we buried it in a different place every time. There was also a frying pan made of an aluminum sheet and it was just big enough for frying two slices of bread. This frying pan attracted the whole insatiable gang to the cinder block unit. The cops knew their job and dropped in when nobody expected them and wrote reports. Our gang became larger when our Leningrad and Kishinev “colleagues” came, so we had to fry bread non-stop. Once an incident like this happened to me. I was taking a shower and somebody was frying bread and giving it out to everyone in their turn. To my bad luck, my turn came when I was still washing myself, with soap on my hands and eyes only just rinsed, but even though I had doubts about enjoying a meal like that, I would not lose my turn after a day of work, and I got my ration directly in my teeth, even though I asked to put it on a board or a block. I knew who I was dealing with – the young wolves, clicking young teeth, were already circling around the frying pan. Keeping a watchful eye on everything, I retired to the shower – to rinse the hands, with the bread in my teeth; I was almost at my destination, and then… I told him right away that I would never forget it; there is a saying “to lead the blind to hit lamp posts”, describing certain moral degradation, and to snatch from a naked man his legal rations share … He now lives in Beer Sheba, quite a respectable man, a professor, they say. You should have seen him then, a beard covering his face, his glasses always under a layer of cement dust. On the way to camp he picked some foul language from criminals. When his academic upbringing failed him, he would curse us in this dirty criminal cant. But of course, it was not this that shaped our relationship. We lived like in a kibbutz, sharing everything. A year later we parted – we were driven farther from home, to the Urals.

<== Part 4