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Invisible Scars of History
By Lazarus Trubman


Months passed since I was liberated from the underground labor camp in Eastern Moldavia. Behind were dozens of blood transfusions, dental tortures and scary chats with a cardiologist. I finally got my so-so bill of health and was waiting patiently for the slow-moving Immigration Department to approve my visa. Once, as I was sipping coffee at a small table outside of the downtown restaurant in Chisinau, someone’s light hand touched my shoulder. 

“What are you up to these days, Lazarus, what are you up to?”

I turned around to see the man. I really hadn’t recognized Professor Oliescu when he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t his voice, but his face; it wasn’t pale – it was utterly different! All I knew was that I knew this face. He noticed my confusion and asked with a short laugh:

“Don’t you remember me? Yes! They can do this to you - they and their newly invented mill-stones!”

I kept looking at his face, in silence. In reality, it was no longer a face, but two cheek-bones with thin skin over them, and the muscles that formed an expression, that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time, that’s why his laugh was short and much too large; it distorted his face; it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back. 

“Professor!” I exclaimed. “Well, well, how the hell are you?”

“I’m great, Lazarus! It’s spring in Chisinau – what can be better?”

I tried to make out why he kept on laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as a professor at the Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth it looked as though he were laughing. 

“Those mill-stones roughed me up quite a bit,” he said, “but I got lucky.”

He paused, and I had a chance to take another close look at him. Actually, he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheek-bones with thin skin over them is laughing; it just looked like it, and now I apologized for not recognizing him at first.  

“You’re not alone, Lazarus, but I’ve gotten used to that.”

I felt embarrassed. I wanted to leave now, but he began coughing suddenly and couldn’t stop, and when he finally did, I saw two bloody spots percolating through his handkerchief. 

“Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “But not as scary as a few other things I’m hiding under my clothes.”

“We all have our scars to show, I guess,” I said. “Some deeper than the others.”

“Don’t we, Lazarus? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”

His skin was like leather or clay, which could crack at any moment, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon held up by his thin ribs. His eyes were the only thing unchanged since I last saw him, lovely, but sunken. 

I glanced at my wristwatch.

“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry, Lazarus?” he asked. “How about a drink for the occasion?”

He was a colleague of mine back in the old days at the university, I respected him more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink. 

“My dear professor,” I said because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go: my conference starts in about forty minutes.”

“Then some other time,” he said, and I knew for sure that this man was really already dead.

“Yes, I should like that,” I said. 

Maybe it was a laugh, I thought suddenly while checking the street for a taxi, maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, despite the rumors that he had cancer of the stomach and died in the camp. 

As luck would have it, a taxi stopped next to us, and a young couple paid and got out. I occupied the back seat, lowered the window and said: “It was nice to see you alive and laughing, professor...”

“We shall meet again, Lazarus,” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”

“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said. “Always.”

I tried to distinguish the color of his eyes and couldn’t.

“In the meantime call me,” he said stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”

I promised and gave the driver a sign to go.

Spring in Chisinau, always surprising, always beautiful!

We’re damaged goods, I thought cranking up the window, but he was right, we survived, and it’s rubbish that we are dying; we’re just getting awfully tired and more often than not need bypasses, transplants, dentures, and blood transfusions. And when none of that helps, when we run out of the last ounce of strength, we move aside. In silence.

“You may take a nap,” said the taxi driver. “It’s quite a ride.”

“Can you make it in thirty minutes?”

“I can certainly try.”

“You’ll be rewarded,” I said, closed my eyes and went back to the very beginning.

*

My wife always thought that someday I’d be a big success. I taught Russian literature and linguistics at Alecu Russo State University of Beltsy, a mid-size city located in the northern part of Moldova, within the historical region of Bessarabia with which the city's own history is closely intertwined. Then came the Seventies, deadly like a marsh Brezhnev’s time, when everybody had to make a choice, and mine wasn’t the wisest one. Despite my reputation as a recluse, I still held regular gatherings in my apartment to entertain close friends and colleagues. They enjoyed wine and food and didn’t notice that I, who was usually in the center of every discussion, was not talking much. Only my wife seemed unhappy. “You used to be witty and cheerful, my love,” she said once. “Now you don’t say a word, as though you’re afraid of your plain language.” I didn’t deny it. Of course I could make an effort to be smart and funny, but what I really wanted to discuss was dangerous and forbidden.  

I was in my late twenties then, healthy and still ambitious.

Time kept going, and I kept teaching Soviet literature in the spirit of socialistic realism. Every day I met plenty of people, killers and those who ordered the killings: you can’t tell by looking at them! All sorts of things happened around me, colleagues taken away in the middle of a lecture, friends suddenly stop answering their phones, but as soon as I stepped onto the porch of my apartment I didn’t feel like talking about it.

More than once I thanked God for television.

In fall of 1980 I flew to Moscow and met with a few of my colleagues from the state university. The meeting took place in a dacha not far from Russia’s capital. We talked about dead friends and those who will die soon, about a small printing shop somewhere in Ukraine or Moldavia, preferably Moldavia. That was dangerous, could’ve cost me more than a job or advancement opportunities, but everything went fine.  

When two months later I was invited by the local KGB office for a chat, it was a shock: KGB? I didn’t know what to think, but this wasn’t an institution I could ignore. In the lobby I was met by a young lieutenant, who escorted me to a Spartan - two chairs and a desk – room and left, wishing me a nice chat. The wait wasn’t long. The man who soon walked in, greeted me with a smile, occupied the chair across the desk and introduced himself as Major Anatoly Orlov. His smile disarmed me. He turned out to be a well-spoken, educated man in his early thirties, polite and a good listener. By the end of our meeting, it became obvious that he knew quite a bit about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Everything seemed normal, somewhat uneventful. Then he suggested lunch at the nearby café, and I told myself that to break a bread with a KGB Major doesn’t seem like a wise idea, but couldn’t refuse. After all, lunch is lunch, a harmless thing. I ordered a beef-stroganoff, and for the next forty minutes there was just a casual chat about nothing. Then we shook hands. Sunny day, everybody in white shirts. 

Anatoly called again a month later to request another meeting, this time outside of his chatting room. 

“A park perhaps?” I suggested. “There’s one close to the university.” 

“I have a better idea,” he said. “The residential complex on Garden Street, apartment 603, at ten o’clock next Tuesday.” 

“Next Tuesday?” I asked. “I need to check my schedule.” 

“I’ve taken the liberty: your first class doesn’t start until 11:45 a.m.”

“So, this is not about my hobbies and stories I recon?”

“Not anymore. It’ll be more practical, I promise.” 

We chatted a bit more, then the line went dead. I stood in the hallway, motionless, with the phone still attached to my ear, unaware suddenly of how to live my life, how to go back into the living-room and entertain my wife and daughters as if nothing happened.

*

It was a nine-story apartment complex about half way between the City Court and the KGB building; it had two elevators, but I took the stairs, as though afraid of meeting a familiar face. My hands were sweaty; I wiped them with a handkerchief. I reached the sixth floor and stopped: remembered suddenly a quick exchange of words I had with Anatoly before he disconnected the line. “The mill-stones of history never stop,” he said. “That’s why it is very important not to get between them.” “So, don’t push me.” “In your case it’s a bit too late, my friend: your hands were already caught when I got you.” And I understood: that’s all they needed, a hand, even a finger, then it was only a matter of time to get my body and mind squeezed between the mill-stones to transform me into a flat, blind, obedient human being. Just one fucking finger!  

I pushed the red button.

“Come in!” invited Anatolii. “It’s open.”

I walked into the living-room.

“Sit down,” he said. “A cigar?”

I looked at him: he was about my age, with a typical – milky-buttery – Russian face. A graduate from Leningrad State University, where he studied philology, he was recruited by the KGB as soon as he completed his first two years of education. He possessed a practical mind, a good memory, and was obviously a good choice.  

“I actually quit,” I said. “About a year ago…”

“I’ll take it as a no, but don’t ever lie to me again,” he interrupted in a slightly raised voice, pulled a tape recorder out of his back pocket, and for the next half an hour I listened to my secret seminars and the conversation with my colleagues in that dacha near Moscow. Then he turned the recorder off and said as if nothing happened: “The purpose of today’s meeting is to offer you a job, to point out the advantages and explain the privileges…”

“Are you offering me to betray my own people?” 

“You’re not betraying anybody! To defend the interests of your country was never considered a betrayal. I’m not asking you to kill people…”

“Don’t see any difference…” 

“…to knock out their teeth. If it makes you feel better, you’ll never know how they were punished or were they punished at all. You’ll be a ghost, Lazarus, an invisible man. Our organization is in need of men of certain qualities, and you possess those qualities. We’re also interested in a circle of people with whom you had established a lasting relationship. The information about their plans, financials, the contents of letters that might be channeled to them from United States and Israel, are just a few examples of what can be used…”

“A risk free job, isn’t it?”

“Nothing is completely risk free, professor…”

“I’m actually a college lecturer…”

“Not for long.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“To avoid punishment? Not really, but that would be something to talk about in details at our next meeting on Monday. For now, I want to remind you that everything I’ve said is strictly confidential and not for public discussion.”

“My wife?”

“It’s for your own good, believe me,” he said shaking my hand. “Till next Monday then?” 

Out of the building, I went to the nearby park and played a couple of timed chess games before my first class of the week.

*

Next Monday I awoke early and took a long shower. A door slammed, then another: everyone was gone, so it was 7:45 a.m. I dried myself, brushed my teeth, breakfasted. At 8:45 a.m. I was ready. I stood in front of a mirror trying to find any doubts in my tired blue eyes and couldn’t. Anatoly was right: if not I – then it’s someone else, more decisive, more ambitious and braver. I finally left the apartment.

Cloudy sky as usual, freshness in the air, magic of chlorophyll.

I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore next to the complex. Once inside, I asked for a telephone.

“Please be quick,” warned the clerk.

“I will,” I assured her and dialed the number.

“I’m listening,” Anatoly answered after a few rings.

“It’s me,” I said. “I’m not coming.”

“It’s very understandable.”

“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday…” I didn’t know how to end this conversation.

“I doubt it,” said Anatoly and disconnected the line.

I thanked the clerk and left the bookstore. Once outside, I inhaled deeply and began walking down the boulevard, an unknown creature in a gray raincoat whose life had just changed forever.

*

A month passed. On Monday, as soon as we finished watching the late night movie, my wife was ready to go to bed, and I promised to join her after a quick cigarette.

“Are you alright, honey?” she asked. “I can make you feel better in a heartbeat.”

“How about a rain-check?” I said.

“A rain-check it is…don’t take too many though.”

On the balcony, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of young Fetyaska Neagra in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the food. What then? I glanced at my wristwatch: almost midnight.

A black “Volga” attracted my attention because it appeared suddenly and stopped under a streetlight. Three men in shiny leather raincoats got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building. A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.

They came for me.

My wife was already in the living-room. 

“Who do you think that might be?” she whispered. “It’s after midnight!” 

“There is something I meant to tell you,” I said, “but I guess I suddenly ran out of time…” 

“KGB!” I was interrupted. “Open immediately!”

“You meant to say we ran out of time, honey?”

“Yes… Kiss the kids for me, OK? I’ll try to make it back as soon as possible,” I kissed her, walked briskly through the hallway and unlocked the door.

“Citizen Trubman?” asked one of the men. “I’m Captain Samoilov. I hope you said your good-byes.”

“I did.”

“After you then.”
There wasn’t any wait at the elevator: the driver of the Volga held the door open. 

*

They were kind to me, understanding, but as soon as we hit the highway, Captain Samoilov’s two subordinates that shared the back seat with me lit their cigarettes, and car became a gas chamber.  

“Is it possible to crank down the window?” I asked.

“I can’t, sorry,” said Captain Samoilov. “And please forgive my colleagues.”

“Where are you taking me, if I may ask?”

“Prison… Great location, surrounded by a forest – you’ll love it.”

I guessed the time to be around one o’clock. Pitch dark, a moonless sky.

“Would you like a cigarette, professor? It’s a drive…”

“I am not a professor!” I interrupted.

“You had your chance, haven’t you?”

I ignored his remark, and there was no conversation for a long while. I tried to guess which way we were going, but in vain. Suddenly, the brights of the car lit up an endless corn field, and I thought for a moment that we were in the vicinity of Faleshti, a small town known for its wide corn fields. But if that’s the case…

“There are no prisons around Faleshti,” I said aloud. “Where are you taking me?”

Instead of answering, Captain Samoilov whispered something to the driver, who turned into a country road and after another half an hour of driving stopped the car.

“I must blindfold you, professor,” said Captain Samoilov, and before I had a chance to say anything, a mask with only two holes for nostrils was pulled upon my face. Everyone got out, and after an uphill walk through a forest, I found myself in a spacious room, where the mask had been taken off. 

A man who soon walked in was in civilian clothes and, contrary to my expectation, did not ask for my particulars or my name; he seemed to know everything already. He was in his late forties, with a short, half-gray Scottish beard. While a young soldier was arranging water and glasses, the bearded civilian said something about the weather, a breakdown due to the south wind. 

“Should I be worried about that?” I said.  

“Probably not, but let’s get back to our sheep so to speak: why didn’t you agree to perform your duties as a citizen of the USSR?”

His Russian had a slight dialect of a Muscovite.

“Are we in the vicinity of Faleshti?” I answered with a question.

“Have some water, Lazarus,” he said, “and give me a moment.”

The water was cold and actually made me feel at ease. Without expecting an answer, I enquired calmly whether my wife will be informed of my whereabouts.

“And what would be the reason for us to reward a traitor?” he asked.

“A humane one.”

“Well, there won’t be a lot of humanism at this place,” he said. “Sorry for the late introduction, I’m Colonel Igor Pinchuck - even in civilian clothes, and I am thinking about your family, your wife in particular… She’s a geography teacher, isn’t she?”

“Thank God,” I said. “I don’t foresee any drastic geographical changes soon, unless…”

“My thinking was of a different nature,” interrupted Colonel Pinchuck. “Is she capable of acquiring a new trade, let’s say, a dressmaker?”

“She’s smart enough not to get in any kind of trouble,” I said.

“You thought you were smart, too, Lazarus, but let’s move on! For the next few days we’ll meet and chat,” said Colonel Pinchuck. “Your family’s well-being will depend on how far we’ll progress during those conversations,” he began walking to the door; then stopped. “Almost forgot: you’ll be assigned a defense counsel while in this prison: we’re still a lawful country, right? An advice though: don’t be too demanding. Good night.”

I sat quietly, waiting for someone to come in and escort me to my cell. It turned out to be the same soldier who brought the water. We walked through a long, dimmed hallway and stopped at the elevator, with a button showing that it could only go down.

“I don’t recall taking stairs,’ I said having a bad presentiment: an underground prison?

The soldier pushed the second floor down, ignoring my remark. The elevator stopped, the door opened – and we were met by a lanky fellow with a face shaved to a light radiance. 

“Prisoner Trubman?” he asked tonelessly. “Cell number 343. Move!”

The frisking at the cell door was fast and professional. 

“Rising time is 6:00 a.m.,” said the lanky fellow. “Roll-call at 6:30 sharp. Questions?” 

“Just one: what’s your name?”

“Ignaty Grosu.”

“Is this really an underground facility or I’m hallucinating?”

He locked the door and left.

*

I hadn’t closed my eyes even for a moment! During breakfast I had a chance to examine as many prisoners as I possibly could. We all seemed to be of the ages between thirty and forty-five, with a few older and younger exceptions. While I was deciding whether or not I should eat the suspiciously greenish pancake, someone’s hand landed on my shoulder. 

“Follow me!” Ignaty!

I finished my tea in a hurry and followed him into the yesterday’s room, where a man in his late thirties, prematurely balding, was already waiting for me.  

“Name’s Boris Cosan, I’m your appointed defense counsel,” he introduced himself. “Very difficult case, between me and you - practically defenseless…but I’ll try my best.”

“Of course,” I said. “Whatever that means.”

“The newly arrived prisoners often complain about the noises from the interrogation chamber,” he said. ”Sometimes they’re very loud, I admit; but what do you expect me to do? I can’t put the interrogation chamber someplace else!”

“You’re right,” I said, and as I then remained silent out of sheer hopelessness, he turned another page and said:

“Well, let’s get down to business, shall we?”

My counsel seemed a thoroughly decent, or at least inoffensive fellow, and rather inhibited, but even his inhibitions were turned into good manners; and above all, he seemed just, no doubt, just in even most trivial matter, just out of almost inborn conviction that justice exists, at least in Moldavia of the early eighties.  

“Let’s do,” I said.

At the same time, he wasn’t stupid. His lack of temperament and his virtuousness irritated me; he was not superior to me in intelligence, so he employed all his intelligence simply to avoid making mistakes. I find such people unbearable. He considered me a thoroughly decent, fundamentally sensible fellow, a man of good will, a Moldavian citizen. This was the basis on which he was planning to conduct his defense, unless there was another reason for his assignment, and every time I looked at him, I nearly explode. I couldn’t just simply walk out of this room, so while he was reading my file, I maintained an almost insulting silence, simply because in the long run I couldn’t stand people of his sort…

“I understand you perfectly,” he said, “You’re annoyed with the Soviets, because they imprisoned you, understandably annoyed, but don’t make it more difficult for me to do my job. How, in your opinion, one can defend your careless meeting in that dacha near Moscow?”

“You’re right,” I said. “It’s practically defenseless.”

“I beg you, in your own interest, to refrain from criticizing our country, which is your country, too.”

I kept quiet.

“People here are sensitive,” he continued. “They do not tolerate any kind of insubordination and disobedience,” he finally closed my file. “To keep to the matter at hand, I have now examined all the evidence, written and recorded, and if you can tell me, at least in general terms, anything regarding your Jewish friends, their phone calls letters…”

Now I laughed.

“This can’t be funny,” he said.

“To you? No.”

“I see,” he said placing a fountain pen and a few sheets of paper on the desk. “How about just write down the truth? Nothing but plain, unvarnished truth.”

His time was limited; that’s my only salvation from this thoroughly decent fellow who seemed offended because I didn’t do as he asked. He stood up, made sure he had everything, his pen and his glasses, and shook hands with me as though he had just lost a game of chess. 

I thanked God that it was over.

He seemed to be glad, too.

*

My cell – I measured it with my step – was small and oppressive. What’s new, I thought: everything in this country is oppressively adequate. The cell was approximately 10 feet long, 7 feet wide and 8 feet high. To measure the height I had to use my shoe, which is exactly ten inches long. No windows to let the outside world in. The toilet I would’ve never used under a gun in any other circumstances, and there was an old newspaper, which finally found its real purpose on earth. A sign above the flushing bucket, written in capital letters, read as follows: “Be crafty and thoughtful: only one centerfold per week!”  

So, they want me to write down everything we ever discussed, the names of all the people who ever participated in our secret seminars, the content of every letter from overseas. I’ve got plenty of paper and a brand new pen. All I need is to stick to the facts, as my defense counsel suggested. I couldn’t even imagine how many people would be imprisoned and sent to labor camps to die because of my admission! 

The doors were unlocked simultaneously, and we were ordered to get out and begin walking in a single file.  

Lunch.

Information I gathered at lunchtime: no one spends more than three months at this facility, unless the usually uninterrupted supply of prisoners drastically decreases or too many die after a visit to the interrogation chamber. As I was told, it isn’t the case so far, and if luck is on my side, I had a chance to go through my time here with very little internal and external damage. Nobody really knows what happens after that.  

“The public prosecutor will visit you this afternoon,” said Ignaty before locking the door.

“Should I be worried?” I asked. 

“The only one you should be worried about is Stepan and his instruments.”

I made a note of that.

An hour later, as I was trying to put my thoughts in a somewhat acceptable order, someone knocked on the door – and in the opening appeared a tall man, with a closely cropped beard and a profile of an antic warrior. My public prosecutor. The first one with the good manners to knock before coming into the cell.

“I suppose you know who I am?” he asked smiling.

“The public prosecutor?” His smile baffled me.

“This is an entirely personal call,” he said lighting a cigarette. ”Please don’t regard it as an interrogation. I felt the urge to make your acquaintance.”

A pause.

“Do you smoke?” he asked.

“Only cigars,” I said.

“I see,’ he said. “My name is Kostake Balan. I’m here to ask a couple of questions. Your answers, I’d like to point out, might change not only the environment of tomorrow’s hearing, but also your well-being for the next few months,” he paused. “The printing shop, for example, was it ever put together as a functional facility?”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Should I regard your answer as serious and truthful?”

“But of course,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked.

“I’m not sure…” I really wasn’t. “Financial difficulties would be my first guess.”

“Well, you know what they say in Russia: a tiny thread from the world will make a long-sleeve shirt for the poor.”

I kept silent.

“I want you to understand something, Lazarus,” he seemed quite nervous all of a sudden. “We have the ability to check the truthfulness of your responses…”

“I’m not coming out of this place or the next in one piece, Kostake,” I interrupted rather unceremoniously, “so why don’t you finish your cigarette and get the fuck out of my cell.”

“I was warned, that this conversation might take an unforeseen path,” he said putting out his cigarette, “but I at least hoped that you’d be smart and conscientious enough to give yourself a chance to get back to a normal life. You’re only thirty-two, Lazarus!”

“I’ll deny everything,” I said, “because at the end of the day it won’t really matter whether I told the honest truth or lied through my teeth.”

Now he stood up and concluded tiredly: “I tried: God’s my witness.”

“Let’s keep the God away from our earthly affairs,” I said. 

At the door he turned around: “I called your wife, and we spoke…a rather lengthy chat.”

“You should’ve kept this punchline for tomorrow’s hearing, Kostake…”

“This wasn’t the punchline!”

“Keep it anyway,” I demonstratively turned away from him, as if saying that this conversation was over. He kept silent, and I was silent, too, waiting for the familiar click of the shut door. Then he punched me.

“She’s pregnant, Lazarus.”

And before I turned around to see the face with which he delivered the punchline, he shut the door. I sat on the plank-bed with my eyes closed, motionless, for a long time. I believed him, and that knowledge was driving me crazy. Some two hours later, I was brought to my senses by Ignaty, who seemed to know what had happened.

“We don’t serve supper in a cell, you know…”

“It won’t be necessary,” I said, “but I would appreciate a glass of water or tea.”

“Tea…and never again, you hear?”

I thanked him.

“Shower is at 7:30 p.m. sharp. Ten prisoners at a time,” he said before leaving. “It’s mandatory. Keep your conversations short and no whispering. Understood?” 

He promised to be back shortly with some tea, and he actually did; then he reminded me again about the rule regarding whispering in the shower.

“Follow the rules, and don’t for a split moment think that I’m a nice guy. I’m not.”

*

Because the groups were arranged according to cell numbers, I for the first time had a chance to see my neighbors face to face. Stark naked that is. One of them, who keeps telling everyone that he is innocent, refused to soap himself out of spite. There wasn’t much to see in the faces under the shower, distorted by strands of wet hair and soap. Ten naked bodies, none of them very pleasant. On the whole, our naked bodies are thoroughly embarrassing, because they are inexpressive; at best they are natural, but generally they are rather ridiculous. I had made friends with a Jew, Isaac Bernstein; we rubbed one another’s backs and afterwards agreed to do it again since we were destined to be on the same schedule for a while. 

“What’s on your mind?” he asked as we stood under the hot water. 

“My wife’s pregnant.”

“You knew that or your defense counsel...?”

“My public prosecutor actually.”

“Be careful,” he whispered. “News like that can get you killed.”

“Because I might become desperate?”

“Rather uncontrollable – which is worse.”

I thanked him.

“You can’t escape the chamber, so this would be helpful,” he also said. “Don’t be stubborn all the time. You must give them something, a tiny bit during every interrogation, preferably something that might take time to check out and won’t hurt your friends too badly,” he looked around. “Otherwise, you will not survive – take my word for it: I already lost two very close friends.”

Later, alone in the cell, I thought about Isaac’s reasoning and came to the same conclusion: desperation could force me to change my mind; inability to control myself will give Stepan a reason to use his endless arsenal of torture. His second advice wasn’t as easy to accomplish as it seemed at first. What’s a tiny bit that won’t hurt anyone? I decided to let it go and think about it after tomorrow’s hearing.

I hadn’t slept a wink and was dead tired, but kept myself upright, just in case someone shows up between now and the time when the lights are turned off and the place dies. And, as luck would have it, the door screeched – and Ignaty walked in and stopped in front of me, his fists hanging down like two sledge-hammers.

“What did you talk about with prisoner Bernstein?”

“My pregnant wife.”

His punch was lightning-fast. When I returned to earth, he handed me my handkerchief. “Spit it out.”

I did. 

“Any broken teeth?”

“No,” I said, “but thanks for asking.”

“Let’s continue: prisoner Gramsky?”

“The musician? His piano: how difficult it is to find a good tuner these days.”

He pulled my chin up: “Your defense counsel will be here after breakfast to get you ready for the hearing.”

“So you weren’t lying,” I said through pain.

“About not being a nice guy? Of course not,” he turned around and left.

For the next few minutes the pain and the tiredness fought a bloody fight, and the tiredness won: I fell asleep and in my sleep I saw a dream. I was standing on the edge of a vertical cliff, facing a judge and two jurors in front of me, and a big crowd of people in the stands. In the crowd I recognized the faces of my friends and colleagues, some of them dead already, but alive in my dream.

They waved their hands, unafraid. I waved, too.

I was asked by the judge whether I will or will not publically point out the individuals who conspired against the government and the System. I was also asked to admit, under oath, that no injury or injustice had been done to my colleagues and friends, dead and alive. 

What should I do?

My defense counsel and the state prosecutor were also in my dream, sitting next to each other. 

What should I do?

“I have an announcement to make,” said the state prosecutor. “Your pregnant wife has also been arrested. The location of her imprisonment cannot be disclosed of course, but it is within a very close proximity.”

Even in a dream I couldn’t say anything.

“She has not been tortured yet,” added my defense counsel, “but they might do that, in order to force you to that public confession.”

I couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

“Your Honor, if I may,” I said. “I’ve committed no crime, not even what they would consider one; things, which had been discussed at meetings and seminars, never came to fruition, and the printing shop…”

“To argue your case is the job of your defense counsel,” interrupted the judge. “What about the injury and injustice to your friends and colleagues?”

“Shit happens,” I tried to inject some humor into the hearing, but the judge wasn’t about to become humorous all of a sudden.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Things happen, Your Honor,” I said, “but I’ve no doubts that the governmental institutions of power always have weighty proofs for their decisions and actions…”

“Is that a no?” asked the state prosecutor.

“As I said,” I repeated, “I’ve no doubts…”

Suddenly one of the jurors spoke: “Your time is running out, citizen Trubman,” he said after a permissive nod from the judge. “You have, according to the orders, two short minutes to make up your mind.”

At that moment, as though in a farce, two soldiers with rifles behind their backs appeared from nowhere and took their stand to the left and right of me.

“I am ready,” the juror continued tonelessly, “to record your confession, if you can bring yourself to make it.”

Suddenly I recognized in him one of my childhood buddies; we lived on the same street and at some point during our high school years tried to get the attention of the same girl, who, incidentally, ended up being with someone else.

What should I do?

“One minute!” he announced triumphantly.

The two soldiers grabbed me by the arms ready to throw me off the cliff…

And I awoke.

The cell was dark and soundless. Really: what should I do? I desperately needed to sleep more in order to be physically ready for the real hearing. My mental strength seemed already non-existent. Grandma’s trick! I closed my eyes and began counting: one, two, three, four… I fell asleep at number 343.

God was looking upon me. For now.
Lazarus Trubman is a college professor from a small town in the ancient land of Transylvania and a labor camp survivor, who immigrated to the United States in 1990. He was assigned to Arizona, where he taught Cyrillic languages and Theory of Literature for twenty-one years. In 2017, he retired to devote his time to writing. His stories, personal essays and memoirs appeared in publications across the United States, Canada, and the UK. A collection of his short stories, Wilderness, is forthcoming in June 2019 from Adelaide Books.