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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Yuli Margolin

Isaak the Fifth

Translated by Kenneth Lantz


Translator's Preface

A Journey to the Land of the Zek (Путешествие в страну Зэ-Ка), Yuli Margolin's account of his seven years of prison, labour camps and exile in the Soviet Union, is all but unknown in the West.  Yet it is a remarkable book that stands out among the many Gulag memoirs that have appeared over the past half-century or more.  Margolin writes from a unique perspective:  he was raised with the Russian language and immersed in Russian culture, but at the same time was educated in the West and deeply committed to  European values.  He writes of the Gulag, then, as both an insider and an outsider; as one who understands the Russian mentality and Soviet values but appraises them from the standpoint of a cultured European.  Thus he not only conveys the raw experience of the camps but also provides a perceptive and informed commentary on that experience. Margolin is also a superb stylist (he had published journalism, essays, poetry and literary criticism before he was imprisoned) who writes with grace, wit and irony and the journalist's eye for the telling detail.

Margolin was born into a cultured and Russified family in Pinsk in 1900 and completed his education at Berlin University with a Ph.D. in philosophy.  He became a Zionist and moved to Palestine with his wife and son in 1936.  He maintained his Polish citizenship, however, and in the spring of 1939 he returned to Lodz for what was to be a brief stay.  By the end of that summer he was fleeing eastwards to escape the advancing Germans;  his refuge in Western Ukraine was soon occupied by Soviet troops.  In June 1940, after being repeatedly denied permission to return to Palestine, Margolin was arrested in his native Pinsk.  Charged with violating passport regulations, he was sentenced to five years and sent to “Square 48,” one of the camps of the White Sea-Baltic Canal complex.  After a year in which heavy labour and malnutrition had transformed him into a semi-invalid, he was moved to a hospital camp at Kruglitsa, Arkhangelsk Oblast, where the following chapter of his memoir takes place. 

Isaak the Fifth

As time passed, life in the camp took on the features of quiet, unvarying lunacy, like an experimental Bedlam or a film that has been wound upside down and viewed in a distorted mirror.  Sometimes we would go to the farm to pick caterpillars; sometimes we would gather stones from the fields or build fences from uprooted stumps or strip the needles from spruce branches.  Each of these jobs was necessary in that special world in which we lived.

I see myself crawling along a sodden furrow between rows of cabbages patch.  Worms are devouring whole hectares of young cabbage plants.  The green leaves are thickly covered with fat, green worms—large caterpillars and tiny ones that can barely be seem.  You can collect twenty to forty of them from a single plant, depending on how thorough you are.  Each of us is armed with a board and a little pointed stick for picking off the worms.  It’s awkward using the sticks, and we soon drop them and begin squashing the caterpillars with our hands.  This seems disgusting at first, but after half an hour’s work we no longer care.   Fifteen zeks, who themselves resemble enormous, grey caterpillars, creep along fifteen furrows.  Sometimes they squat, then rush ahead when they see that their neighbors have passed them.  This is no work for anyone squeamish or particularly sensitive.  No matter how many worms you collect, there are still plenty of them left, and no one has the patience or the time to fuss for long over a single cabbage plant.  The cabbage plants have been sprayed with something pungent and bitter, and the green leaves are inedible.  But everyone is stuffing them into their mouths, and the next day half the brigade will have aching bellies.  How much time can you spend picking worms from cabbages?  Half of us have been reduced to near-idiocy, the other half are severe neurasthenics; but within a few hours, both halves are only pretending to work.  They can easily be accused of criminal negligence (‘wrecking!”)—leaving the rows they have gone over swarming with worms as before—and be forced to do the work all over again.

Meanwhile, there’s some sauerkraut in the warehouse on the farm, and we need only seize the moment when the guard is dozing to sneak off to the warehouse some 200 meters away.  Its doors stand open, and workers are rolling enormous empty barrels outside.  There’s no way to get inside the warehouse.  The prisoner who supervised the warehouse, Anisim Petrovich, a foul-tempered peasant with a beard, the eyes of a wolf, and a fist the size of a clock weight, is close at hand.  But now there’s a full barrel of sauerkraut stuck in the entry to the warehouse.  This news spreads through the whole farm like lightning.  The more daring prisoners approach the warehouse from all sides and peer in the door.  Anisim Petrovich is busy with something in the back.  Someone screws up his courage, darts inside, and tips the heavy lid from the barrel.  He thrusts in his hand, still covered with the whitish-green juice of the cabbageworms and, in a flash, pulls out a handful of sauerkraut and then another.  Where to put them?  In the pocket of his bushlat.  His teeth ache from the freezing cold of the sauerkraut.  The first fellow’s had success, so a second and then a third follow.  Suddenly, Anisim Petrovich darts out from behind the doors, his face distorted by malice and rage.  The prisoners flee at full speed, but one young lad from Berlin, with a sensitive mouth and sad, Semitic eyes, won’t give up.  He keeps hastily stuffing his pockets until Anisim rushes up and tears the sauerkraut from his hands.  Keeping the entrance behind him, he punches the boy on the back of his neck with all his might:

“Bastard, bloody thief!”

Still, the sauerkraut in his pocket is ours.  We fill a pot with it— the young lad from Berlin and I—and set it on the stove in the hothouse.  In a couple of hours we’ll have some cabbage soup.  Unfortunately, someone was watching us put our pot on the stove.  A half-hour later the young Berliner comes running, his face pale as death.  Isaak is pained to the point of tears:  both the pot and its contents are gone, and worst of all, he’s suffered a punch in the neck from Anisim Petrovich for nothing.

There have been five Isaaks in my life, and he was the fifth.  All five were different from one another.

Isaak the First was my uncle, my mother’s elder brother.  He lived in Pinsk, and I lived with him from the age of ten while I was going to school.

He was a gentle man, kind and weak-willed.  It is because of him that I’ve been playing chess since I was ten.  As a ten-year-old, I was entranced and perplexed by his mastery of chess, but by the age of fifteen I could already outplay him.  Uncle Isaak went bankrupt the same year I moved into his house.  Noisy creditors would gather to raise a fuss by his windows, and everyone in the house was unhappy; but nothing could shake Uncle Isaak’s inherent good nature.

Before going bankrupt, Uncle Isaak was well to do; after his bankruptcy, his children grew up to be communists and helped make the October Revolution in Ukraine.  Uncle Isaak died in the home of his communist daughter, somewhere in Soviet Penza.

Isaak the Second was my beloved elder cousin, a proletarian and revolutionary.  He fought against the tsarist autocracy, spent time in various prisons, and it from him I first learned that one could love “freedom” and that there was nothing tastier than a piece of bread with a head of garlic.  It was he who taught me to eat bread and garlic.  He had rust-colored hair and merry grey eyes; he was a Bundist.  In 1920 my cousin Isaak took part in the Red Army’s invasion of Poland, helped capture his native city of Pinsk, and became a member of the city’s Revolutionary Committee.  During the withdrawal from the city he was killed—or, rather, he went missing.  He was the last person to leave the city, and all trace of him was lost.  No one ever saw Cousin Isaak anywhere again.

Isaak the Third was an excellent tennis player.  He graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in Zurich, and when he came back to Poland it turned out that he, as an Isaak, could not even find unpaid work.  This Isaak was neither a Jew, nor a Pole, nor a Russian.  Therefore, he became an American.  He left Poland for America in time, i.e., in 1938.  There he had to work as a photographer at first, but at last the Americans consented to employ him as a doctor, and my brother-in-law Isaak named his daughter Francis Carol and bought himself a rather good car on the installment plan. 

Isaak the Fourth was not a relative, just a friend.  His family had a very comfortable home in Poland, but when his father refused to let him go to Palestine (the father, in Częstochowa, had decided to wait for the coming of the Messiah), young Isaak fled his paternal home and spent a year and a half in Warsaw, sleeping on a table in the “organization.”  Then he left illegally for Palestine.  A little illegal ship, sailing along the Dalmatian and Albanian coast, past Zadar, past Corfu and among many other islands, brought about 300 people to the Jewish coast.  This was in 1938.  Isaak had to go hungry for a time in his homeland.  He rendered at least one service to history:  he undertook a heroic struggle to transfer possession of a string of cesspool-cleaning carts in Tel Aviv, then occupied by the Arabs, into Jewish hands.  He was one of the first to go out with a barrel to collect sewage, but within a year, everyone saw Isaak working at something for which he was better qualified.  The chronicle is silent about his subsequent metamorphoses (for the time being, at least).

I told the story of the four Isaaks to Isaak the Fifth in considerably more detail than I have done here, since in camp we had little concern for being concise.  Our sentences were long, we had a lot of time, and to kill time we told stories, exchanging our present for the past so as to shorten the wait for the future.  We met each new month like an enemy, and saw it out with no regrets.  We believed that someday a month would come that would be our friend.

Isaak the Fifth attached himself to me in the Kruglitsa Hospital Camp that spring, a time when neither of us was very well.  We had both been excluded from the amnesty.  He could not be amnestied since he had not been sentenced.  He was in camp “indefinitely,” waiting for the time the authorities would remember him and give him a sentence of some sort.  He was the son of a man named Knopf who owned a house in Berlin.   His parents were Polish Jews who had settled in Berlin before the assassination of Rathenau.  His father owned a little haberdashery somewhere in the vicinity of Uhlandstrasse; he saved up his money for twenty years and bought a house in Charlottenburg.  Isaak was born in Berlin and spent the first seventeen years of his life there.  He was a genuine Berlinerjunge, with all the grimaces and dialect of a Berliner; he was the only son, a mother’s boy, with a tender face and large eyes.  The family stayed on in Berlin for five years after Hitler seized of power.  The Germans confiscated both his house and his little shop, but evidently the Jews of Berlin were still not living too badly if 80,000 of them stubbornly stayed on where they were.  At last, in 1938, the Germans forcibly returned them to Poland, and young Isaak ended in Galicia, seventeen years after his birth.  After Berlin, he found Galicia not at all to his liking.  Over the course of a year he managed to learn some Polish, but then the war broke out and divided his family.  His parents remained in “German” Cracow, while young Isaak lived with an aunt in “Soviet” Lvov.  He went to work as a waiter in a restaurant, but in the spring of 1940 he blundered by putting down his name to be returned to papa and mama in Cracow.  He was arrested in June and sent to Kargopollag without being told of his sentence.  Now, two years later, before me stood a skinny, lanky, feeble young man who was seeking protection and some explanation—just what was going on in this world?

The fact that he had been raised in Berlin and spoke German like a real Nazi had strongly compromised him in the eyes of the Soviet authorities.  They left him in camp just in case, “until further notice,” a notice that, perhaps, has not come even to this day.  I know nothing of the subsequent fate of Isaak the Fifth.  But we were great friends in Kruglitsa.  We lived in the same barracks and we worked and studied together.  Isaak the Fifth became my spiritual son.  We met when he came to me to ask if he could read my book.  He smiled shyly when he spoke, lowering his eyelashes and looking “within himself”—as if there was no point in looking at everything around him.  He expressed himself very politely, in German, and was curiously unlike the usual young camp type.  He was neither a wolf cub nor a jackal; he was, rather, a meek little housedog that would be lost on the street.  He picked his lice and discovered for the first time that there were people on earth ready to flay him alive.

I tried to explain to him that he was only the fifth:  not the first and not the last, but one of those fate tosses about like a rubber ball; I told him he must fight off his unhappiness by mobilizing his inner resources.  But, young as he was, he had no such resources.  The sweet days of his German childhood had turned into animal fear and shame.  Then he came to a Poland that was alien to him, with its alien and disagreeable Jews wearing caftans and side locks; and then came “Soviet humanism,” which could lead a person with much more wisdom born of experience to lose his head.  What supported this little German Jew, on the surface at least, was his knowledge of a different life:  he knew and remembered that there was a Europe of magical beauty, utterly unlike this camp quagmire; but something had happened to him that he could not comprehend.  And so I set about telling him of people, things, events and ideas, about all the things that, I hoped, could help support and strengthen him.  I taught him; I wanted to make him a “strong man” in the camp.  He took an interest at first, but stories alone are not enough in the camp.  Then began the process that I had been vainly trying to hold back—the process of “choking.”  A man begins to choke in camp, just as does a person drowning in the salty water of the sea.  He holds himself up for a time, hanging on to a plank or a life preserver.  But at last, if no one pulls him from the water, he sinks to the bottom.

We were planting potatoes on the farm.  They hauled in seed potatoes, under armed guard, and dumped them in the field; guards with rifles protected the sacks from the zeks, who circled about them all day.  The guards themselves had their pockets filled with stolen potatoes and vegetables:  they had hungry children at home.  Isaak the Fifth and I also tried to swipe a few potatoes, but we failed disgracefully.  There were no guards to be seen when we first arrived, and we were dazzled by this breathtaking stroke of luck.  We quickly crept up and each put about ten potatoes in our pockets.  But the guard was lurking in ambush behind some empty boxes and had seen everything.  He let us move off a few paces and then jumped out and made us come back.  As we returned under the muzzle of his rifle, we forced ourselves to drop our potatoes on the road.  By the time we reached the guard our pockets were empty, but a treacherous trail of potatoes lay on the ground behind us.  Other zeks rushed in to pick them up, and while the guard was tearing them out of their hands, we managed to escape.

They never let us come near the potatoes again.  Isaak and I found another specialty as “markers.” 

We were planting spring onions.  Baskets of onion seedlings would regularly be brought in from the greenhouse.  This job was done by women.  We moved ahead of them, carrying a heavy plank that had ten teeth set in two rows.  We would lay this plank across the vegetable beds and step on it, pressing it down on both ends with our feet and doing a little Indian dance on it.  The teeth sank into the loose soil, leaving ten little holes in two rows in the bed.  We would reset the plank and go on to cover the whole bed with even rows of holes.  The women with the onions would follow us, placing a seedling in each hole and packing the soil around it.  Our job, easy enough for a healthy man, made us break into a sweat.  When we finished a bed eighty meters long we would lie down on the ground and rest without saying a word to each another.

Our ears pricked up when a woman with seedlings drew near, and we would follow her every movement intently.  We could not approach her directly, but we pleaded with her with our eyes.  She would inconspicuously toss a few bunches of onions on the path between the beds.  When she left—and not before—we would gather up these onions.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to eat many green onions.  Day by day we grew weaker.

In the midst of this work I was summoned to “headquarters.”  It was a continuation of my chat with Bogrov.  This time a man from the Kargopollag administration—an investigator, perhaps, or a high-ranking security officer—was sitting in the office.  He began questioning me very politely, but suddenly I noticed that he was writing down my answers.  My heart sank.  I cursed my unfortunate and foolish letter to Ehrenburg that had focused the NKVD’s attention on me.  I had at last grasped that in a Soviet camp the safest thing to do is keep as quiet as a mouse and not get into any unnecessary conversations with the authorities.  Gordeyeva had passed me on to Bogrov, and Bogrov had passed me on to this man.  I decided that this would be the end of my dealings with any camp officials.

“You’re a doctor of philosophy,” he said, “and you’ve been educated abroad.  So you must be a bourgeois philosopher, is that right?”

“No,” I said, “I’m not a bourgeois philosopher.  My views are even quite close to dialectical materialism.”

“What would call your philosophical orientation?”

I thought for a moment and then said resolutely:  “Dialectical realism.”

The man quickly wrote down this term.

“What’s the difference between dialectical realism and dialectical materialism?”

“Scarcely any,” I smiled…  “Lenin, you know, used the word ‘materialism’ as an equivalent to ‘realism.’”

“Hmm…” he said, and began trying to recall something.  “And what’s your view of Hegel?”

“Hegel,” I said firmly, “has enormous historical significance.  Marx was the first to stand him on his feet; before that he’d been standing on his head.  We’ve borrowed Hegel’s dialectical method but cast aside the outmoded content of his idealist system.”

At this point my interrogator gave in.  He set aside his pencil and laughed.

“How can I write that down?” he said.  “Frankly, philosophy isn’t my strong suit.  Tell me, though:  the camp must have made a deep impression on you.  You’ll certainly remember it and, perhaps, you’ll write something about it?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, with great enthusiasm, “It’s made a huge impression on me.  I have every reason to be grateful to the camp.  We bookish types have learned many new things in the camp and have had a re-education.  It was only here that I truly understood the meaning of genuine Soviet humanism.  I believe that my stay in the camp has improved my health and been of real benefit to me.  It’s a pity, though, that it… drags on a bit.  And as far as writing is concerned, yes, of course I’m going to write.  Not about the camps, though, just about my area of specialization.  I believe that I can develop the theory of dialectics and move it forward…  in the spirit of classical Marxism.”

“You’re a valuable man!” the interrogator said with conviction.  “Such a man truly needs to be helped.  It would be a pity if a highly cultured person like you were to perish in camp.  By the way, do you discuss any philosophical issues with other people here?”

“No,” I said sadly.  “There aren’t any philosophers here.  I don’t have anyone I can talk to about philosophy.  You’re the first…”

“You know, as an educated person you could really help us.  There are a lot of secret enemies of the Soviet Union here.  You must often hear what they are saying and, of course, you can understand what they mean much better than some ignorant fellow could.  We’d be very grateful if you would pass these things on to us from time to time…”

They make offers like that to almost every zek, and without any implication that they regard him as “one of their own.”  Any timid and hungry person can be turned into an informer if he’s drawn in bit by bit through friendly chats and personal contact.  First they ask about the state of his health and his impressions, then about specific people, and then they invite him to come again.  Now he’s greeted like an old friend.  Then they put on some pressure and resort to threats.  You have to know how to untangle yourself from this web without rousing the wrath of your sweet and kind interrogators. 

I began laughing quite sincerely.

“Everyone in Kruglitsa knows me well.  If I ever come to you and offer my services as an informer, you should push me away with both hands, Citizen Chief.   I’m not suited for such work:  everyone can see me, while I’m half blind.  I’m no good at dealing with people, only with books…”

“That’s not what I had in mind!” the man said.  “I didn’t mean that you should make systematic reports.  But if you should hear something, you have a clear duty to pass it on to us!”

“Of course!  That goes without saying!  There’s no question about that!  It’s not just a duty—for any decent person it’s a pleasure.  That’s true of every zek, without exception.  It’s just that I can’t undertake to do anything special.”

We parted on very good terms.  My chat with this fellow was one-to-one, and later the local authorities nervously questioned me about what and whom he had shown an interest.  I had nothing to report, and I reassured them with a clean conscience, telling them that our conversation had not touched on anyone from Kruglitsa.

Meanwhile, Isaak the Fifth began to upset me.  This young fellow’s case helped me understand a malady that can be called “camp neurosis.”  Prisoners are not supposed to have nerves.  No one can cry in the camp, yet there’s not a single person in it who has not suffered the shock it causes.  There are no normal people in camp, and this is but a consequence of the fact that the camp as a whole is not a normal institution.  None of my fellow prisoners was a normal person.  Isaak the Fifth was relatively healthy, in an emotional sense, when we first became friends; he was merely very frightened.  This fear began to take on hysterical forms right before my eyes.

Isaak the Fifth’s fear was focused on one point:  he was terrified of hunger.  We would no sooner come back from work before he was running to the office to check the “work data.”  Every brigade had a register posted that indicated who would receive what size of ration and how much bread for that day.  Sometimes we were given the “first kettle.”  Then he would be beside himself with grief.  His face would darken.  He would wring his hands.  He was unable to bear such a misfortune and setback.  I was also distressed when this happened.  But his reaction was extreme, as if his soul had been enveloped in a black cloud, and the profound dejection into which he fell was incommensurate with its cause.

As he lay beside me on the bunk, he would sigh so deeply and heavily that I would get angry.  But I was no longer able to console him.  To the contrary:  he would fly into a rage when I tried to draw him out of his state of deep despondency.  He would accuse me of refusing to admit how terrible this was and what irreparable damage was done when, once again, they deprived us of 200 grams of bread.  The outrageous injustice of it—as well the criminal way I tried to make light of it—made him tremble, and he would turn away from me.

But why did the others not react with the intensity he did?  Isaak the Fifth was a faint-hearted Jewish boy, neurotic, tender, and easily frightened.  Since childhood he had been afraid to enter a dark room; then he was afraid of dogs and afraid of life—because he had grown up in Hitler’s Berlin, and because at his age, groundless fears could develop because he lacked the resources to adjust to a sharp and abrupt change of direction in his life.  Kruglitsa was not only a sharp and abrupt change of direction, it was a pit of horrors.  And he had no way to respond to one abnormality other than by another abnormality.

What I saw in Isaak the Fifth was not yet a neurosis.  It was the psychological prerequisite of all neuroses:  a setback with which a person cannot deal, an affliction that washes over the soul like salt water washing over the nostrils of a drowning man.

I didn’t spend much time fussing over him because neuroses in a camp do not respond to treatment.  The remedy is not analysis, it is a stick over the head, i.e., a shock so rough that it immediately resets the psychological dislocation—or destroys the person altogether.

One summer morning they took seven of us to the railway line to unload sacks of cereal grains.  A loaded flatcar stood beside a wooden platform on posts.  Beyond the platform was the warehouse.  We were unloading sacks of barley and oats from the freight car to the platform along a ramp.

The warehouse area had been swept clean, but there were bits of grain between the planks and near the walls.  The prisoners shifting the bags would dig out these grains with knives and steal them.  Some grain also leaked from the sacks.  There were trails of it everywhere.  We had worked in this place before, and the first thing we did in the morning was to check the warehouse floor to see if any spilled grain was left.  The watchman, Titov, an old zek with the bald head of a Socrates, had filled his pockets with stolen grain (as the watchman, he could get away with this).  He kept a close eye on us to make sure we didn’t openly steal any grain.  The grain we could pick up from beneath our feet wasn’t enough to cook:  we ate it raw or roasted it on a sheet of iron at the edge of a bonfire until it turned as brown as coffee grounds.

That morning I found a whole handful of barley by the warehouse door.  It struck me, though, that no one apart from me had discovered this grain.  Even Stetsin, that walking skeleton and former photographer who boiled any sort of grasses he could get his hands on and assured us that we could eat anything a cow could eat, had ignored to the grain.  I couldn’t understand what was going on.  “Stetsin, come here!”  He didn’t come!  I had been given the job of lifting the sacks on the scales.  The warehouse supervisor was hovering nearby.

This general indifference to a pile of grain would give me no peace.  I could feel something in the air.  People were crowding on the railway car and staying longer than normal.  Something was going on there.  At last, I could no longer hold myself back; I and crept up and peered over the edge of the crowd.

My breath caught:  it was hunchback salmon, a beautiful salt fish with rosy flesh, the Archangelsk “salmon” of the zek.  Once in a while we would get a little scrap of it in our rations.  Behind the sacks of grain were some long, flat boxes of fish, and one of them had already been broken open.  The board on the side had been pulled away.  One zek picked up a silvery fish—first one, then another, each weighing a good kilogram.

On the other side of the railway line was a sloping green meadow.  Silvery birds few off the railway car into the grass.  We threw a few fish into the grass.  Meanwhile, I was sent back to the scales to the supervisor wouldn’t get suspicious.

We worked until noon.  Then we went down the slope and gathered up the fish.  We took them away to one side and covered them with a bushlat.  The whole team was filled with excitement.  We still had to divide up the fish and take them back to the barracks.

It was only Stetsin, the blue-eyed grass eater, who balked:  he wouldn’t wait, and he didn’t even want a whole fish; half would be enough, but he wanted it right away.  Someone cut him a piece, and he disappeared.  “Where’s Stetsin?” shouted the guard from the embankment.  “He’s gone to the toilet, Citizen Guard.”

Stetsin went behind a pile of firewood and finished off a half-kilo of fish in an instant.

It was quite by chance that the supervisor realized something was wrong.  The opened box of fish had been closed up again and put at the very bottom of the stack.  But something told him that this box should be reweighed.  More than six kilos were missing.  He didn’t say a word, but he hid behind the railway car and began watching us.

Our whole team was lying around the bonfire.  We had a rest break from twelve to one.  But we were scarcely able to rest.  We were whispering to each other.  Only Stetsin lay apart, belly-up and dozing.  Someone else couldn’t resist and began hovering around the bushlat and glancing at it.  The supervisor jumped out of his ambush, went straight to the bushlat, and picked it up:  the missing fish lay beneath it.  He called in the guard to help:  “Whose bushlat is this?”

In camp, an incident like this is enough for them to tack on a second sentence, i.e., another five or ten years.  We were searched, and they found another zek with a fish that he had hidden from his comrades and tucked inside his coat.  He and the owner of the bushlat had been caught with the evidence.  The rest of us managed to escape scot-free.  We were immediately taken off this job and escorted back to the guardhouse.  A report on the incident was compiled.

While we were sitting in the guardhouse, Gordeyeva, the head of the General Supply Unit, passed through the camp with her businesslike, energetic gait, her cropped grey hair aquiver.  The guard told her what had happened.  She cast a cold eye over us.  “Margolin, were you stealing fish as well?”  “I didn’t take any personally and didn’t eat any…  I didn’t have a chance…”   Gordeyeva went out the door and, as she left, said:  “Send the lot of them to the cooler.”

The cooler in Kruglitsa was located outside the camp, in a separate little hut surrounded by its own fence.  The supervisor of the punishment cells was Goshka, a kindly, good looking young fellow with a military bearing.  He was an ex-policeman sent to camp for drunkenness.  He himself told us his story:  once he had to arrest one of his friends.  Business is one thing, friendship’s another, as they say:  he arrested the man and was taking him away, but along the road their throats grew dry—“Let’s have one last drink together”—and they dropped in on a third friend and had a proper send-off for the arrested man, i.e., the three of them drank until they passed out.  Then the arrested man and the other friend took Goshka to the police station, one propping him up on each side.  He was given four years and, as a former policeman, was entrusted with running the camp cooler. 

Goshka’s cooler was clean, with separate sections for men and women.  It was the best cooler I was ever in during all my years in the camps, and in the winter it was even better than being in the Kruglitsa workers’ barracks.  Goshka’s practiced hands searched us rather gently but adroitly.  He made everyone undress and confiscated a few small things.  He took away the little knife I had hidden in the sole of my boot (this was the Nth time this had happened!) and gave me the record book to sign.  When I looked at it and saw that it said “for theft of fish,” I refused to sign.

“I didn’t steal any fish and never ate any!” I said.  “They put our whole team in cells!  They might just as well put in the whole brigade.  I refuse to sign, and I’m declaring a hunger strike until I’m let out!”

This was a bit of unpleasantness for Goshka, and he was cross with me.  He had to inform the camp commandant of the hunger strike, but he had no choice but to accept the food for me from the camp kitchen.  At six o’clock he brought in a bucket of balanda for the prisoners, unbolted the door, and passed everyone some soup and bread across the threshold.  Goshka was a genial fellow, and the kitchen would generally add something extra to his bucket, so that there was more soup than called for by the norm.  He put a cup of soup for me on the bunk and set down the bread.  I didn’t touch them.

The situation was complicated by the fact that all around me sat zeks who were not used to looking at someone else’s bread and soup while their own stomachs were rumbling.  The sight of the food irritated them.  Hungry people began edging towards my supper, and someone started begging:  “Hand it over, if you’re not going to eat it.”

It was a ridiculous situation, since if I give it to anyone else, the camp administration would regard it as if I had eaten my own supper.  Once the food had been accepted and eaten, there was no hunger strike, and my supposed hunger was of interest to no one.  Goshka should have taken my untouched supper away.  I had to take this bread and soup to my upper bunk and sit over it like a watchman so that no one would steal it.

I don’t know how long I could have held out on a hunger strike in such conditions, but the next morning Goshka jingled his keys and said:  “Well, you’ve won!  Get dressed and go back to the camp.”

I went out in triumph, but back in the barracks my joy faded at once when I was told to collect my belongings immediately and go to the guardhouse:  I was being sent off on a transport, to Onufrievka!

A transport!  This news struck me like thunder.  I had grown used to the Hospital Camp; people here knew me; there was the farm here and the possibility of getting a bit of extra food.  This Onufrievka—twenty kilometers away—was a timber-cutting camp like Square 48, with hard labor in the forest, and I was going to be cutting timber.  There were thirty people in the group, and we were being sent as “replenishment of the work force.”

I tried every way I could think of to cling to Kruglitsa, for it was the only place where I had a hope of surviving!  Until now I had managed to wriggle out of every transport, thanks to Maksik’s help.  Being in the Medical Unit, he knew of each transport a day in, and if I were on the list, he would admit me to the infirmary for few days until the transport had gone.  But now it was too late:  the transport was leaving in half an hour.  I could still hide somewhere, as many did.  But if I showed so blatantly that I was afraid of a transport, they would deliberately include me in the next one…  To lie in an attic somewhere or under a bunk in another barracks, listening to them search for me all over the camp—no, that was not what I wanted.

The only person I managed to say good-bye to was Maksik.  He gave me a note for the doctor in Onufrievka with a few words of recommendation to provide me with my first “connection” in the new place.  Within an hour I was already walking along the uneven road, loaded down with a sack of my belongings.  Farewell, Kruglitsa!  In the evening, Isaak the Fifth would return from work and not find me.

We went half the way on foot.  The people in the group were generally under par.  Whenever they transfer a group of workers from one detached camp to another, they take advantage of the opportunity to get rid of people they don’t like.  Onufrievka needed healthy sloggers.  But the administration of the Kruglitsa Detached Camp was not fool enough to give away any strong, healthy workers.  They needed them themselves.  So the group was full of goners, slackers, rebels, hooligans and other unruly types.  Margolin’s declared a hunger strike?  Send him on a transport.  Let him go hungry in some other camp. 

At Kilometer 10, in Medvedevka—otherwise known as Detached Camp 3, a place for invalids—we had a rest stop.  From here we were to be taken farther by train. 

While waiting for the train, the prisoners took their sacks from their shoulders and lay down on the slope beside the railway line.  I walked along the row of lying men and found a spot on some planks, where there was more room.  I had no sooner lain down than the black-bearded peasant beside me began tossing about as if he’d been stung by a bee.

“Move off!” he said.  “Move off right now!”

“What’s wrong?  Not enough room for you?”

The urka rose deliberately, picked up the smooth white plank on which he had been lying, raised it over his head, and with all his might struck me across the chest as if I were some inanimate object.

I couldn’t breathe, and my eyes grew dim.  I was gasping for air.  Every sensation apart from the physiological effect of the blow had left me.  I felt that I was dying, and the unbearable pain made me nauseous…  Had it not been for my padded bushlat, he would have broken my chest cage…

The urka raised the plank once more.  But others had already dragged me away.

“Don’t you know who you’ve tangled with?  That’s Afanasiev.”

Afanasiev was a famous bandit in Kruglitsa—a mad dog who attacked both prisoners and guards.  When I heard that name I immediately moved farther away.

Within a few minutes I could feel the tears pouring involuntarily from my eyes.  I was not crying, but could do nothing else:  the tears were simply coming out of me…  I had no strength left for feeling wretched or resentful.  All I could feel was how terrible it was to be a weak man among strangers and enemies.

It was about five o’clock when we arrived in Onufrievka.  Once again, a palisade with pointed posts stretching around the camp; once again, the same guardhouse and the same slogans:  “Long live…  Long live…  Long live.”  “We shall supply the Motherland with as much timber as possible.”  The camp commandant came out of the guardhouse to check on the goods that had been sent to him, and when he saw the transported prisoners lying in a row on the ground he groaned:

“They’re all invalids and freaks!  I won’t accept them!  Send them off for a medical inspection!”

They took us straight from the guardhouse to the bathhouse, where a group of doctors sat at a little table in the changing room.  I could barely get undressed.  I had no strength left to pull off my rags, footcloths and tattered bushlat, to untangle the cords I used to bind up or tie together all the things I carried.  But I never actually made it into the bath.  A miracle occurred.

Onufrievka had a particularly diverse mix of nationalities.  Even before we got to the bathhouse, a thin, sinewy dark fellow with an enormous nose had hooked on to me and addressed me in French.  He was a Jew from Alsace named Levy.  How on earth he turned up in a Soviet labor camp was something I didn’t manage to learn.  In the bathhouse I gave Maksik’s note to its addressee, a Russian medical assistant.  But my attention was immediately drawn to another doctor at the Medical Unit table:  he certainly looked like a Central Asian, yet he wasn’t a Kazakh, an Uzbek, or a Turkmen, but some other Easterner whose features seemed oddly familiar.  I could have sworn that I had seen faces like his somewhere before, though not in Russia.  And this face was smiling at me like the face of a friend, and I was drawn to the kindness in his expression.

“Margolin from Kruglitsa—yes, we’ve heard about you,” said the strange Easterner.  “I’m pleased to meet you.  You’re the Palestinian!  You should stay with us here in Onufrievka.  We’ll put you down for a scurvy ration and find you some easy job…  You should really stay here…”  This was Doctor Selam, an Arab from the Levant, an Arab from Alexandria who, no doubt, had spent time in neighboring Palestine.  So here was a place where Arabs and Jews were, at last, friends:  Onufrievka.  When I heard them ask me where I wanted to go, I simply glowed.  I wanted to go back, just to go back!  And nothing they could say made any difference.  Selam wrote me out a piece of paper, a proper certification that I was unfit for any physical labor except for “sorting sponge cakes.”  This well-worn camp witticism he repeated about three times, with his funny accent and dazzling white teeth.  And so they sent me back, along with fifteen others—half of those who had been sent—as incapable of any heavy labor.  We were quickly brought through the guardhouse and herded back along the railway line along the same route by which we had arrived.

It was eleven o’clock when I at last tumbled into the Kruglitsa barracks, where everyone was fast asleep.

I was very pleased to come back to my old place.  But I still could not rest:  my spot on the bunks was occupied.  I found a place on the floor of the overcrowded barracks.  Then I went to the Supply Unit, where the timekeeper gave me a chit for bread and supper.  We got some leftover soup in the kitchen.  But what struck me most was Isaak the Fifth. 

His face had a rosy glow, and he was beside himself.  The work assigner had just told him that a warrant had come for him from Yertsevo, and tomorrow morning he was being sent to the Yertsevo Camp Complex Headquarters.  Since he had no sentence, this individual summons had, in his mind, been transformed into a message that he was being released.  Everyone else immediately thought that he was going to be released, and he himself was all aglow, jittery with excitement, unable to sleep or to comprehend what people were saying to him.

I listened to this surprising bit of news and lay down to sleep on the floor.  But Isaak sat on the bunk for a long time, looking about him on all sides, stunned and frightened by his happiness.

The next morning I told him that we had to have a serious talk before he was sent off.  I thought that if I were destined to perish in the camp, this young fellow might be able to pass on the news to my family at some time in the future.  I had grown very attached to him and thought of him as a member of my family.  But to my amazement and chagrin, we never managed to have this last conversation.  Isaak the Fifth, my camp comrade and spiritual son, with whom I had spent many hours in intimate conversation, with whom I had shared hopes and dreams, had forgotten about me even before he left Kruglitsa.  Nothing I could tell him on the threshold of his liberation was of the slightest interest him.  I was deeply wounded and distressed; I couldn’t understand this awful capacity to forget, or this incapacity to remember that is one of the characteristics of the frail human heart.  Time heals all wounds, but not much time is needed—a day, an hour, a twist of fate is enough—to blow away forever the things we lived by, the things we thought were important, our joys and sorrows, our intentions, decisions and vows.  I felt that I had been betrayed.  Isaak ran off to the exit with barely a nod to me.  I didn’t even manage to pass on my family’s address.

I bent down from the upper bunk—I had inherited his place—and called out wildly after him:

“Be a man!  Remember, be a man!”

But my words never reached him.

Isaak was not released, and his dream of liberation was shattered in Yertsevo.  He spent another whole year there, and then disappeared into the sea of Russian camps.  And to this day I don’t know whether he survived or perished and how he endured the crushing disappointment of his imagined “liberation.”

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