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Before the Arrest
Yosef Begun
A Story about One Demonstration
Michael Beizer
Misha Eidelman
by Pamela Cohen
Pesah of refuseniks
by Zinaida Partis
Bygone times
are passing...
Part 1
by Natalya Yukhneva
Bygone times
are passing...
Part 2
by Natalya Yukhneva
In memoriam of
Eduard Usoskin
by Roald Zelichonok
Remember and Save!
by Rimma and Ilia Zaraisky
How I became a Zionist
by Barukh Podolsky
The Journey Home. Part 1.
by Grygory Gorodetsky
The Journey Home. Part 2.
by Grygory Gorodetsky
The Refuseniks’ Struggle for Freedom.
by Dahlia Genusov
Notes of a Prisoner for Zion. Part 1.
by Roald Zelichonok
Notes of a Prisoner for Zion. Part 2.
by Roald Zelichonok
Notes of a Prisoner for Zion. Part 3.
by Roald Zelichonok
Gish's Story.
by Gish Robbins
Lest We Forget,  Part 1.
by Evgeny Lein
Lest We Forget,  Part 2.
by Evgeny Lein
Lest We Forget,  Part 3.
by Evgeny Lein
Lest We Forget,  Part 4.
by Evgeny Lein
Memoirs of 1984.
by Yuri Tarnopolsky

Some Rough Notes of a Prisoner for Zion

Part 2.


by Roald Zelichonok


       However, let us get back to our subject. The purpose of these notes is the same as that of Volodya Lifshitz (former Prisoner of Conscience - Prisoner for Zion, arrested January, 1986, released October, 1987, now in Israel -Tr.), who wrote "What I Saw". It can be formulated as "Jews in the Gulag Archipelago through the observations of an eye-witness". My own "Jewish Impressions" began from the very first moments of my arrest (no, I don't intend to write about my "case" as that would need a special essay on its own). As Investigator Pristanskov was unable to obtain my agreement to sign a confession he read out the warrant of arrest and I was immediately whisked off into a Black Maria (which is now more frequently called a "zek-car") and taken from the Municipal Procurator's Office to the KPZ (Preliminary Detention Cell) of No. 1 Police Division on ulitsa Yakubovitcha. There I was subjected to my first frisk (body search) - how many hundreds more frisks I would have to undergo The frisking sergeant asked: "What have they got you for?" I tried to explain in brief the essence of Article 190-1. (Criminal Code of the RSFSR - "Circulation of Fabrications Known to be False which Defame the Soviet State and Social System"). His eyes opened wide. "But what was your real offence?" "I don't know yet, probably teaching Hebrew." "Is that possible?" "Well, you can see for yourself." "Listen, in that case, I have a question for you - what are the guttural sounds in Semitic languages?" This time it was my turn to be surprised, but I had to explain. "Thank you, now I understand. You see, I myself am a "Mohican" [6] from Chernovtsy, and at school I was friendly with a Jewish girl. Now she's emigrated and gone to live in Israel. Right, off we go now to the cell."

       My next conversation on the Jewish question with a representative of the authorities of approximately the same rank took place about two months later, on 8th August 1985, in the famous "Kresty" prison in Leningrad, when I was being taken out for my trial. For this purpose they get you up at 5 a.m. "with all your things" and hurry you at the double into the "étape" call known in Kresty as the "Dog's Kennel". Prom there you are put into the Black Maria, but before that you have to undergo a full-scale frisk. I was given a going-over by a middle-aged warrant-officer with a very large moustache. I shook out the entire contents of my "siddor". He picked up two Hebrew books - both "Gesher" publications [7] . "What language are these?" "Hebrew." "So you're a Jew are you?" "Yes, I'm a Jew." "My God, why don't you all get the Hell out of here and go to your Israel?" "Quite simply it's because they won't let us out of this country". "I wouldn't stop you going. The quicker you go the better for us". "I wish your words would carry some weight with them up on high!”. "Pack your things," which meant that the frisking was over.

       I quickly found out that in most cases the Gesher books helped me in the process of being frisked. When he came to them the guard doing the frisking would be amazed, would examine them and start asking questions, and meanwhile time was passing. And there was still a long line of prisoners to frisk. The officer taking the convoy would start yelling: "Come on now, quicker there, you f..., what are you dawdling over, you stupid ...!" And your warrant-officer would push everything to one side: "Pack your things, look lively!" and he doesn't notice that you've got two sets of underwear, contrary to regulations, and an aluminium spoon (they're scared out of their wits if they see any metal of any sort), and a scarf of coloured wool instead of a black cotton one, and the forbidden toothpaste instead of the permitted powder, and a terrylene towel (also forbidden!) and, worst of all, a track-suit. Someone has got it into their clever heads those track-suits, which they call "tricots”, have been made specially for escaping. I took this very same "tricot" with me through innumerable friskings and, when I finally said farewell to the labour camp I left it with my cell-mate. But as for the terry towel that Galya had sent me when I was still in the KPZ (Preliminary or Pre-Trial Detention Cell -Tr) - I still have that.

       However, how did the Gesher books get into the Kresty Prison? Well, from the very first days of my detention there I had found a channel of communication with the outside world. This channel was, of course, arranged for me by the officials (an old and widely used system, not only with "politicals", but also with criminal prisoners) with the obvious aim of by hook or by crook acquiring material for their own purposes to make up a case. But what in fact did the investigator have as evidence against me? Six of my letters, five of which were illegally intercepted in the post, in which even under a microscope you would not be able to discern the slightest "fabrication known to be false which defame ..." and also that very inoffensive "interview recorded on a videotape". And that's all. "Their desperate attempts to scrape together some sort of evidence can be distinctly perceived throughout the entire investigation of Case No. 46132. Here for example is the enquiry sent to a certain military unit requesting them to send the data on radio interception regarding R.I. Zelichonok and the texts of these interceptions from broadcats of "The Voice of Israel" taken down on an American computer - and again nothing of any great consequence. There was a letter I wrote to Vassily Byelov. There was "The Finale of the Korneyev Affair" under that letter, presenting a summary of the work that had gone into exposing one of the forerunners of "Pamyat", carried out under the leadership of Ivan Fyodorovitch Martynov, and there was my signature. A large number of other documents were included in the file. Some of them give a good indication of the low standard of competence of those who love to repeat their proud boast that "We never make mistakes", (the motto of the KGB - Tr.) There is the KGB certificate regarding the persons to whom I sent letters (vol.1 pp. 66-67), in which Martin Gilbert the world famous English writer and historian, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, is referred to as a functionary of Zionist organizations. There, also, Helen Abendstern is classified as a leader of the Zionist organization calling itself "The 35's Women's Campaign" whilst Helen has never been a member of this group.

       And finally there are translations of my letters and of letters addressed to me. This makes really very interesting reading. There is for example the phrase "explore different avenues". This was translated by a certain Baskakova, a lecturer in the Faculty of Foreign Languages of the Leningrad Section of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, as: "The writers of the letters advise the addressee to conduct correspondence with various unnamed persons". This is just a little closer to their beloved Article 64 of the RSFSR Criminal Code - "Treason and Espionage", but still not sufficiently close. For her translation the lecturer was paid about 400 roubles and the voucher for the payment is filed in the Documents of the Case (vol.1 pp.95-94).

       In this sort of atmosphere one can assume that the efforts to open up a "channel of communication" played no small part. What did they expect to find? Perhaps they hoped that I would write to Galya - what? - where explosives had been cached? - or the whereabouts of a transmitter and code-signals for contacting the CIA, the Mossad and Pinochet's secret police? They couldn't get that, so, losing patience, they tried to get my cell-mates to persuade me to write to my "foreign friends abroad" and send it through the same channel. I did precisely that and wrote to the Committee of Concerned Scientists (in the USA - Tr.) who had only just prior to that started up a correspondence with Gorbachev. The reason for my making such an approach was simply that one of the letters incriminating me was part of my correspondence with a member of that committee. But again it didn't give them what they wanted. It didn't contain any details about or numbers of any secret bank accounts in Swiss banks. It was simply an appeal for urgent aid, for giving publicity to what was happening to me. In addition I wrote and handed to the investigator a statement addressed to the Procurator of Leningrad: "... I request you to permit me to send letters to the USA, addressed to the Committee of Concerned Scientists and to private individuals there as well as to private persons in Belgium, Israel and England, in an arrangement to be agreed with the investigator ... " There remained one final course - to take letters from me to Galya and in reverse, to insinuate themselves into gaining her trust and then to play on that trust.

       I sent her three or four letters (25 roubles for each one! And I wondered if the "messenger" handed over the money to the correct recipient, or whether, forgetting his honour as an officer, he pocketed it himself?). Then Galya was told by word of mouth that I "had asked" her to send to the Kresty Prison for me an airmail envelope of the special kind for posting abroad, and for her to write on it the addresses 's name and address - "You know which one". The organizers of this brilliant operation did not know that as we had foreseen the possibility of being arrested, Galya and I had arranged in advance a simple and effective countermeasure to such games. Galya and our friends could see clearly that it was time to call a halt. She did not hand over any envelope and as "they" could see that the game was up, that channel of communications dried up abruptly.

       It was through this channel that the two Gesher books had reached me. In order to explain for what purpose I required them there, we have to go back in time to when, after the long process of reception (being frisked, photographed, handing over money for personal account, followed by "playing on the piano" i.e. being finger-printed, then signing that I had been informed and was aware that the prison was surrounded by a high tension electrified fence, handing over my personal things to the storekeeper, bath, medical inspection) I was pushed into cell No.304 of the interrogation "cross" [8] . Here I made the acquaintance of my "fellow passengers". One of them spoke to me in a mixture of Russian and Yiddish. "Are you a Jew?" "Yes" "Me, too".

       His nickname was Marlborough. He was of the type of young Jewish playboy. He led a bright life, full of gaiety, and made plenty of money. He slipped up through carelessness. One night he and his friends came out of a bar and as each one got into his own "Zhiguli" they started a motor race through the streets of night-time Leningrad. However they quickly came up against a patrol of traffic police and had to stop. In an attempt to rescue a friend Marlborough drove his car at one of the policemen who had to jump out of the way. The friend got away but Marlborough landed up in Kresty, charged under Article 191 "Offering Resistance to Representative of Authority ...”

       It was Marlborough who suggested that I use his channel of communication, and in return for this service he asked me to teach him Hebrew. Ought I to accept this offer ? It was fairly obvious that if I did accept I would be included in "their" game. The one thing that was not clear was whether Marlborough was a conscious provocateur or whether he was not aware of the part he was playing. The former seemed the more likely, but I had my doubts because he really did have a channel, not one staged specially for my benefit. So, on thinking it over I came to the conclusion that Marlborough's true role in this instance did not matter. I understood what enormous moral support it would give Galya to receive even only a few lines from me and I, too, would not sneer at such support. Obviously "they" would look upon me as a "lokh" (prison slang for a gullible, naive simpleton) and this gave me some prospects for success. Taking into account the agreement made with Galya that I have mentioned above on the caution in regard to "their game" I decided to take the risk and I now know that I was justified in doing so.

       To this day I do not know for certain just what Marlborough's true role was. Until his trial came up I taught him Hebrew with the help of those very same Gesher books and I thus became the first "Moreh" - the first Hebrew teacher - in the glorious history of the Leningrad Kresty Prison. And God grant that I be the last!

       There were a few words such as "lekhem" - bread - that he just could not pick up but mostly he remembered with no difficulty. Before his trial he was quite calm: "It's all fixed - I'll get a maximum of two years "khimia" [9] . But a few days later, via the "grapevine" [10] a note was slipped into cell No.304: "They've given me 4 years hard labour in a prison camp. They must be from across the river [11] . What harm did I ever do to them? Forget my name. Marlborough".

       Was this some kind of show they were putting on? Or were they venting their spite for the failure of "their game". I don't know. Shortly after my trial I was summoned for a talk with a lawyer regarding my appeal. In the Kresty there is a special section with small rooms where the zeks are taken when they are summoned by investigators, lawyers and the like.

       And here I was sitting in one of these rooms. The lawyer was at a writing desk and I was facing him. Suddenly I noticed that on the edge of my side of the table a word had been scratched into the wood - three Hebrew letters: lamed, khet, mem-sofit, making up the Hebrew word "lekhem" - bread. It was in Marlborough's handwriting. My heart stood still. I closed my eyes. But the lawyer had not noticed anything.

       Natan Sharansky in his book "Fear No Evil" recalls how he saw scratched on the wall in the cell where he was awaiting trial, written in Hebrew: "Yosif Begun, Asseer Tziyon. Hazak VeEmatz" (Josif Begun, Prisoner for Zion, Be Strong and Of Good Courage). I myself left similar graffiti in dozens of prison cells on the etape, where, in spite of the "fur coat" [12] you can always find somewhere to write and in the "coffins" [13] where I spent no little time, and in the Stolypin coaches, and on the walls of the exercise yards. If there was very little space to write I would inscribe the five Hebrew letters making up the Hebrew name "Israel" or the four letters of the word - "Shalom". Or perhaps only the three letters of "lekhem". God grant that there be nobody to follow me to read those words.

       For a long time these Gesher books were all that I had in Hebrew. I learned by heart the Tales of Natan Shaham, and Aharon Megged's play "Hanna Szenes". There is no doubt that the administration of the "Bloody Spets" knew of their existence. My personal belongings were frisked over and over again, openly as well as secretly, amateurly and professionally, and there were stool-pigeons everywhere. But the Gesher books were not taken away even though according to the letter of the law they should have been confiscated: zeks are permitted to have only books published in the USSR. It was not until the spring of 1986 that they were taken from me. Captain Lobanov, Deputy Head for Discipline and Labour, Number Two in the Prison Camp Hierarchy and, so it was said, the representative of the KGB, said to me: "I must take them away. You understand, they are not Soviet publications. I'll try to get you something published in Hebrew in the USSR". "There is nothing", I replied, "These are in Hebrew, not Yiddish". "You're not up-to-date" was his answer "something is published in Hebrew as well".

       Captain Lobanov was a hard man, perhaps even cruel. I remember very clearly his introductory talk for prisoners newly arrived on etape, of whom I was one. He described with strangely scrupulous exactitude the camp punishment cell and the terrible times experienced there; he told about the effects of tear gas labelled "Cherry Tree" (canisters of tear-gas were always available at the ready in the internal camp armoury); but he dwelt especially on the rubber truncheons: "At every blow of one of these truncheons a pressure of up to 80 kg is brought to bear on a square centimeter of the surface of a body, which therefore causes the skin to break even if the blow is made through your clothing. Well now, what did you expect? A prison camp is not a sanatorium. Here we have thieves, robbers, embezzlers, anti-Soviet agitators" and he stared at me.

       Soon after I came out of the etape cell into the camp zone he sent for me and started to question me about my "case". I replied that I had been sentenced on account of some letters I had written but I politely, though firmly, refused to discuss their contents; they were my letters and they affected only myself and the addressees. Lobanov started to insist but I added that I had been forbidden to discuss my "case" with anyone and everyone, for such conversations would be construed as a continuation of my criminal activity. I was not lying. This was precisely what I had been told on the eve of my trial by Investigator Pristanskov, who added: "Whoever is entitled to know about your case will know what he is entitled to know without your telling him."

       Apparently Captain Lobanov "was entitled" and very soon afterwards he sent for me again. "As an operativnik (an operative of the Security Services) I must tell you that you incorrectly summed up the situation and placed the officials who administered your case in such a situation that they simply had no other alternative". (Another officer who was evidently "entitled to know" said the same thing in a confidential conversation, but he did not beat about the bush. "Everything that you wrote in your letters was true, and your case was a frame-up"). "I've sent for you" said Lobanov, "to give you some post from home. By the way, I'd like to ask you — this is clearly Israeli paper, what is the picture on it, is it the Wailing Wail ?" "No", I replied "it's the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem".

       He sent for me under various pretexts and I realised quite definitely that he was an intelligent, informed person, without any anti-Semitic prejudices. Why, then, did he give instructions for the Hebrew books to be confiscated? To understand this it is necessary to appreciate the whole system of inner-camp relationships. Prison, like the army, is an encapsulated reflection, taken to its extreme limits of that society, which it "serves". It is like a snapshot made on super-contrasting photographic paper. Therefore it is not surprising that one of the pillars of GULAG life is total reliance on informers, and this affects not only the zeks. The screws, including officers, regularly squeal on each other [14] . The one who was spying on Lobanov (and the staff "goats" hinted to me who it was) had found out about the Hebrew books, while Lobanov through his own informers had been told that the other one had found out. So Lobanov had no choice. An interesting point is that eventually the man who was squealing on Lobanov "cut his own teeth" (i.e. he gave himself away). He stopped me one day and said: "I know that you are getting Israeli postcards in the mail. I'll put a stop to that". But he did not manage to stop it, for soon afterwards I was sent away on étape.

       After the Gesher books were taken from me, all that I had in Hebrew was a "Catalogue of Incunabula in Ancient Hebrew", published by the Library of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Leningrad in 1985. The Shapiro Hebrew-Russian Dictionary (published in Moscow) came to me when I was already in Turkestan. To my misfortune it fell first of all into the hands of KGB operative Mahmoud, who deservedly enjoyed a very bad reputation. "This I'm not giving you" he declared, "This isn't a language, it's some sort of secret code". "It's not a code" I replied, "it's a language. I am a Jew and I have the right to receive books in my own language". "And I'm a Kazakh and I say that it's a code and you're not going to get it. And in any case I advise you not to try to be too clever".

       There began lengthy negotiations through intermediaries. I have reason to believe that the matter was settled in Alma-Ata. When they gave me the dictionary (after first obtaining my verbal promise that I would not write any letters in this most bizarre dialect) I think I almost wept. The members of my work-gang gathered round and stared in wonder at the strange letters. And then, not long after, the dam burst. I shall never forget that autumn day in 1986 when I was handed 40 letters from Israel, many of them from Kibbutz Gezer, sent for my 50th birthday. A pilgrimage began: from all over the camp men came to have a look at this unprecedented miracle - letters from abroad. Then an important visitor turned up. On the outside he was an unremarkable pedlar of shashlik in Chimkent in Kazakhstan, but inside, in the prison camp, he was a very big cheese, a member of the highest rank in the zek hierarchy. Our conversation lasted over an hour and I gave him a present of several Israeli postcards. Lyonya Tendler started to send me on a regular basis cuttings from Israeli newspapers, and with them he enclosed a diplomatic explanation: "I'm sending you an interesting article from the Birobidzhaner Shtern" (published in Yiddish in the so-called Autonomous Jewish Republic of Biro-Bidzhan on the border with China).

       There began lengthy negotiations through intermediaries. I have reason to believe that the matter was settled in Alma-Ata. When they gave me the dictionary (after first obtaining my verbal promise that I would not write any letters in this most bizarre dialect) I think I almost wept. The members of my work-gang gathered round and stared in wonder at the strange letters. And then, not long after, the dam burst. I shall never forget that autumn day in 1986 when I was handed 40 letters from Israel, many of them from Kibbutz Gezer, sent for my 50th birthday. A pilgrimage began: from all over the camp men came to have a look at this unprecedented miracle - letters from abroad. Then an important visitor turned up. On the outside he was an unremarkable pedlar of shashlik in Chimkent in Kazakhstan, but inside, in the prison camp, he was a very big cheese, a member of the highest rank in the zek hierarchy. Our conversation lasted over an hour and I gave him a present of several Israeli postcards. Lyonya Tendler started to send me on a regular basis cuttings from Israeli newspapers, and with them he enclosed a diplomatic explanation: "I'm sending you an interesting article from the Birobidzhaner Shtern" (published in Yiddish in the so-called Autonomous Jewish Republic of Biro-Bidzhan on the border with China).

       In general my specific "Jewish emotions" were first and foremost connected with my yearning for the Hebrew language. Let me quote from letters I wrote home: ... "In the film (I was referring to a T.V. serial "Sofia Kovalevskaya") the heroine, who lives in Stockholm where she is a university professor, complains that she finds life difficult, because she has no possibility of having conversations in her mother tongue. "Sometimes I feel that I have a mask glued to my face" she says. I can well understand how she feels. I can pull off this stuck-on mask only when I walk to and fro in the local [15] singing the songs of Naomi Shemer, Arik Einstein, Shlomo Artzi and others. Today I was remembering a Naomi Shemer song:

And sometimes the festival ends,
The lights are put out,
And the trumpet bids farewell to the fiddle,
The middle watch of the night becomes the third,
So that we can get up tomorrow morning and start afresh. [16]


       But you mustn't do this too often - it brings on "the chase" [17] .

       "At other times you start imagining for yourself something quite exotic. When I stand in line waiting for my turn to see the medic, I translate mentally into Hebrew the medical notices and bulletins hanging on the wall".

       "... There is no problem with regard to reading matter in Russian and English. But so far with regard to Hebrew this place is a desert and it makes me feel very sad. I even have dreams about it. The other night I dreamt that I had to say urgently in our language "the assembly of radio-electronic details on a printed circuit" and I couldn't do it and something dreadful was going to happen as a result. I woke up in a cold sweat, but I clearly remembered ..."

       "... I don't want to learn French. I want to study Arabic. If you can find something in Hebrew published in the Soviet Union (apart of course from prayer books) [18] please send it. I'm sure that Gorbachev's speech at the 26th Session of the CPSU will be published in all languages including Hebrew. Can you send it to me please?" [19].

       "... Sometimes I forget myself and I start to talk, or rather to mutter in Hebrew, to the consternation of my cell-mates".

       "... I've already started reading the "Catalogue of Incunabula" I must confess that I don't understand all of it. But that's not important. When it comes to Hebrew I become just like Petrushka in Gogol's "Dead Souls" for whom, when he was reading, there was less interest in the content of the reading matter than in the process itself of making up words from the letters".

<== Part 1 Part 3==>
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