Learning & Values » Jewish History » Chassidic Personalities » The Rebbe’s Prison Diary
Chapter III: In the Corridor
From the writings of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch
Published and copyrighted by Kehot Publication Society
These thoughts sustained my soul and strengthened me greatly. I was unconcerned with the present situation and sat in absolute peace.
Then I began to readjust: "I am a prisoner in Spalerno, I do not know for what cause. In the interrogation room they will subject me to a barrage of questions: some normal inquiries for information and others startling and totally unanticipated. From my answers they will attempt to weave a net of false accusations or provide a match to ignite a blaze of revenge."
I took a cigarette and then began to formulate a general outline of response. I resolved to be strong and not yield to fear, to speak clearly and in no way to be affected by the intrigue in which they sought to enmesh me.
This strong personal resolve caused a sense of inner exaltation and a sense of self-worth, as though I was sitting in a garden or strolling on a sunny day. This specific feeling was evoked by the rays of the sun that shone upon the white wall opposite me.
I was on the verge of retracing my steps and returning to the "door open for all prisoners." But then I reflected: What need was there for haste? Would I miss anything due to my delay? Indeed, I felt the need to organize my thoughts once again. It was my custom that, prior to publicly delivering any chassidic discourse, I would review it once again, even though I was wholly conversant with the concepts involved. I felt that I had now returned to my usual frame of mind, thank G-d.
How great is the inner faith, the perfect faith, which is transmitted through our heritage to all Jews, a spiritual inheritance from our patriarchs. How great is the power of absolute trust in G-d. These are not only the foundation of our Jewish faith, our holy faith, but the foundations of life itself, normal everyday life, the material existence of every Jew.
"Give thanks to G-d for His great kindness," that He had caused the seeming error of my turn into the corridor. For it provided shelter and respite from falling into the web of fright and confusion prepared for me by Nachmanson and Lulav. G-d's Divine Providence had led me like the strand of straw or tree leaf thrust by the driving current of the wind.
I was like them, but my situation was more significant (for those possessed of human speech are above objects of vegetative existence, this is even truer in the case of pure and holy [i.e. Jewish] souls who surpass mortals who are capable solely of human speech). I was fully conscious that I was in the hand of G-d's Divine Providence, may He be blessed and exalted.
I was still sitting in my place when I heard the clamor of voices in one of the rooms behind the wall opposite me -- not the sound of outcry or anguish, but the sound of laughter, of people secure in their existence and fortunate in their lot. A few moments passed, one of the doors opened, and three people emerged. The sight of a strange man sitting with a confident spirit smoking calmly, took them aback. For a moment they stood on the threshold startled, hesitating to emerge and scrutinizing me closely.
I remained sitting with the same serene composure of the past ten minutes as though unaffected by this new occurrence, but my heartbeat intensified. I feared they would ask me why I was on the bench in the corridor.
After gazing at me for a few moments, they continued toward the left, to the wide open door which I have already mentioned a number of times. However, one of them retraced his steps and entered one of the rooms. I paid no heed as to which room and I was sure that someone would shortly appear to question me. I decided, therefore, to wait there and not proceed to the administrative center until the arrival of this person.
My presumption proved accurate. The person who had returned now came out of the room accompanied by someone else, who in turn approached me, inquired about my presence, and asked for whom I was waiting.
"I did not come here," I replied, "I was brought here and I was told to go to the administrative center. I am waiting for my talit and tefillin, for the man who brought me here assured me while I was yet in my home that he would provide a place to pray. He also said that I was being brought here merely for a few hours to answer some questions."
It appeared that the fluency of my answer, my sincerity, and my dispassionate composure took my questioner aback. He stood without uttering a word, scrutinizing me from head to toe in amazement. I could not tell for sure, but it seemed to me that he was a gentile, not a Jew, a Russian from the regions of Vitebsk, Smolensk, or Mohilyev; a calm, deliberate person, though young, not more than twenty-five. His eyes glimmered with inner feelings, the emotions of a toiling farmer.
He stared at me and I gazed back at him. There was no word or communication between us. I took out a cigarette. He, too, took out a cigarette from his container and hurried to offer me his lit match. He turned aside to sit on the very same bench with me.
I now realized that being in this corridor was in no way a trespass of prison regulations. However, who knew what Nachmanson and Lulav could make even of this-to stir up a cauldron of intrigue, a thick morass of hearsay and hatred of religion in order to denounce me? But in any event, my fear had passed.
"It is only half past three and they have already brought many people here tonight. They are bringing in unusually large numbers," the man told me. He spoke reflectively, as if speaking to himself: "Our comrades are working tonight far beyond their duty, and I also have been here four hours overtime already."
"Where are you from?"
I replied, "I come from a small city-I do not know if you have ever heard of it. My birthplace is Lubavitch. It is bounded on one side by the train station Rudnia, located between the cities of Vitebsk and Smolensk, and on the other side by the train station Krasnoya, situated between Arsha and Smolensk."
"Lubavitch," he replied, "Yes, I know it well. Even from early childhood I know of it. It is not small at all. There was a big market place and two houses of prayer. He asked me, Gusin-would you know of that town?"
I knew Gusin, and the station and surrounding villages. Many of my acquaintances lived there, obviously Jews. However, I had no knowledge of the landowners and peasants in that area, for I had no contact with them.
I thus ascertained that my guess that he was not Jewish and from the south was correct.
"In Lubavitch," he continued, "dwelled the family of a saintly man. They lived in a large courtyard close to the marketplace. There was a well in their courtyard, and whenever I would come with my father to the market place, I would go there to drink water. We would also lead our horses there to drink."
"Yes, yes," I answered, and my heart began to pound from great emotion and the awakening of many memories and associations. At the same time I was surprised by this unusual encounter. I could not determine if it could affect me favorably or adversely, and I was on the verge of deciding to proceed to the administrative center.
I began, "I am required to go to the administrative center," and arose from my place.
"Yes," he answered, "I will accompany you and show you what is to be done and with whom to speak. He continued, Were you ever here before? Are you aware of what is required? Can you write?"
I replied, "No, this is my first time here; I do not know what is required of me, nor what must be written."
He told me, "Stenographers will question you and transcribe everything you answer. After you have answered the questionnaire, they will take you to the search room. They will take all those things not needed by a prisoner: your money, watch and other belongings. They will then hand you over to one of the orderlies to lead you to the administrator of a prison division, and you will be placed in a cell under his custody."
I listened attentively. I was gratified by G-d's kindness, that He had strengthened and fortified my heart so that these words did not cause me fear or panic. I sensed that I had adjusted to the current situation. I hoped that I could sustain my present stance with G-d's help, not to allow Judaism to be trampled underfoot. I could not permit any coercion to affect my firm resolve; I had to remain staunch and unwavering.
"Through which corridor were you brought here?"
"I was brought here through the corridor to the left of this one. I was weary from my trek on the stairs, and seeing that there were benches here, I sat on one of them to rest."
"That corridor?" he asked in great anger. He stopped walking, his face glowering with astonishment. "Who are you? Where are you from? How long have you lived in Leningrad?"
"I am Rabbi Schneersohn from the city of Lubavitch. In 1915 we fled from the Germans when they advanced toward our borders. We traveled to Rostov and dwelled there till 1924. In May of that year we came to Leningrad."
"Why were you brought to that corridor?" he asked incredulously. "Where were you arrested? Were you in the company of traitors? Who was with you at the time of the arrest? Did they find in your possession subversive propaganda or other kinds of literature? Who brought you here?"
I answered with equanimity, "I was arrested in my dwelling on 22 Machovaya Street, Apartment 12. I was with my family eating supper, and no one else was in my house aside from my family. I had no literature nor any form of subversive propaganda. Thus, there was nothing to be discovered. I was brought here by two officials named Nachmanson and Lulav."
He exploded in rage: "May darkness take them! And why through that corridor? Have they brought a traitor? Have they begun using that corridor?" He muttered to himself as he scratched his brow.
"No," he said, "what you are saying is untrue. Undoubtedly there was some serious violation of the law. They would not lead you through that corridor unjustifiably. Tell me the truth, comrade, or you will make the situation even worse for yourself."
"There is nothing to reveal," I stated, "I have already spoken the truth. Nachmanson and Lulav brought me to the door of the corridor. Nachmanson whispered something into the ear of the guard standing by the door and transferred me to his custody. The guard directed me to proceed into the large room through the open door. However, I was very weary, and seeing benches to sit in the corridor, I sat down to rest. And there is basically nothing more to relate."
"Ach, not true," he said, "something is irregular here. You speak falsely. For this you will be placed in solitary confinement with an increased penalty of three or four months of additional imprisonment, perhaps even more, unfortunately for you. Speak the truth, what is your actual crime?"
We heard a voice calling from behind, "Chimka, what is all this chatter? Come here quickly and stop the foolish talk there."
He responded, "Yes, wait, I will be there shortly. I need something in the office."
Turning to me he said, "No, this matter must be clarified."
From Chimka's astonishment I understood that the dark corridor through which Nachmanson had directed me to proceed to the administrative center was for serious offenders. Anyone led that way was obviously quite a criminal.
Actually, his words had no effect on me, and I turned toward the administrative center, the room with the open door, the place, as described by Nachmanson, where one speaks either willingly or through coercion.