Chapter 5

Suddenly, quick steps are heard at the door, and it swings open wide.  A prison guard is at the entrance.  Kholmyansky, to the investigator!

I stand up, shifting from one foot to the other.

  • – What investigator? My investigator is in Võru.  Maybe it’s a transport?
  • – No, to the investigator. The guard waves the paper.  It’s written “to the investigator.”

I shrug my shoulders and follow her.  A vague, chilling anxiety creeps in, overwhelming me at every step.  We proceed downstairs, where I see someone pacing back and forth, back and forth.  I haven’t seen anyone like that for a long time.  A confident, middle-aged man, dressed in a well-tailored outfit, exuding the scent of expensive perfume.  What a curious, cold, sharp gaze.

–     Hello, Alexander, I am your new investigator, Colonel Chikarenko, investigator for especially important cases, and here is my colleague, commissioner in charge of especially important cases, Major. . .

Caught off guard, I desperately try to play for time in order to figure things out.  Why the sudden change in investigator, why, has my case been transferred to these imposing gentlemen?  What kind of crazy importance do they attribute to my case if they have sent from Moscow people of such high rank—and two of them?  Are my fears being realized?

–     Your case has been transferred to us, Alexander; it is common practice that we take over cases from the provinces.  You needn’t be surprised at this.

We descend into the basement for interrogations.

Chikarenko turns to me.

–     Alexander, we have an important announcement for you.  On August 29, a search was conducted in your apartment in Moscow.  In the course of the search, a pistol, cartridges, and anti-Soviet literature were discovered.  Tell us, please, who gave you these objects, and for what purpose did you keep them at home?

The meaning of these simple words does not sink in at first, as if my body is frozen and they just slide off without being absorbed.  And then suddenly, a burning sensation envelops me.  I am breathing heavily; my hands are trembling.

Here is the provocation that I was so afraid of! Here is that major case that they were preparing for me in order to bury me behind bars.

I mustn’t show them that I am frightened; I can’t let them see my severe stress.  I mustn’t let them write the interrogation protocol themselves, I have to write it myself.  As if reading my thoughts, Chikarenko hands me the log of the interrogation.

–     You are forewarned, Alexander, about the punishment for giving false testimony.  That is a criminal offense.

I begin to record my testimony in the protocol: “I affirm that I did not keep arms, ammunition or anti-Soviet literature at home.”

How can I keep the pen from dancing in my hands? I am so tense and my hand is trembling.  The lines I am writing are coming out so uneven.  Ugh, how they give me away.  Somehow they have a terrible slant; how can I straighten them?

The interrogation continues:

–     Please explain, Alexander, how is it that all those who were vacationing with you came from different cities and all of them are individuals of Jewish origin? Didn’t one of them give you a weapon? What did you do during your vacation?

I write and write and write and the slant keeps changing all the time.  Chikarenko continues to ask the same question over and over in different guises.  But I hold my own:

–     Extraneous questions are not relevant to the case; I didn’t keep a weapon, this is a provocation.

I stop writing and Chikarenko mockingly turns to me:

–     You, no doubt, have studied the criminal code thoroughly, Alexander? Do you understand what illegal possession of a weapon entails? Up to five years imprisonment.  I am not even speaking about anti-Soviet literature.  I advise you to cooperate with the investigation.  Nothing good will come of being stubborn.  Soon we shall continue our discussion.

I sit vigil, unable to doze off the whole night.  Now the picture has become clear.  I have been tormented by uncertainty, but now I can “rejoice” at this pristine clarity.  They planted the weapon in order to portray us as a group of criminals, terrorists, who, under the guise of studying Hebrew, Jewish culture, and Jewish civilization, are in fact violating the law by keeping weapons and ammunition.  When the time comes, they will use this portrayal of us.  Dangerous people!  Of course they need to be isolated from society.

So. . . they want to break me and use me as an example to intimidate all the others.  They want people to say, “Remember Kholmyansky, remember how he held up at first, but look at him now!”  The others would think, what they did to Kholmyansky, they’ll do to each and every one of us.  And everyone would give in and then everything would collapse; the Cities Project would turn to dust, as if it had never existed.  And they would not just twist our arms on the sly; they would try to organize a televised “show” of “repentant criminals.”  What would remain of the Jewish movement?  How would we raise the spirits of those forty thousand refuseniks and potential olim (immigrants to Israel) who would see and hear all this and be frightened?  Isn’t it of crucial importance now to show fortitude; after all, didn’t the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto revolt even though they knew from the beginning that it was doomed?  And we still have a chance!

How can I best show that I protest clearly and unambiguously against the charges?  A hunger strike!  After all, I have had some training, having fasted many times for medical reasons and for spiritual purification.  Perhaps it will be easier for me than for many others.  I am 34 years old — at the very height of my physical and mental powers.  If not now, then when?  The attention of the entire Jewish world is focused on me.  How I hate our enemies!  This is my antidote, my true weapon.  It is a double-edged sword; yes, it will slash me, but not just me; it will also slash them.  I. . . am ready.

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