Rumors had circulated in the prison that a journalist by the name of Brazul-Brushkofsky had written to the Prosecuting Attorney that he had certain information indicating that Vera Tchebiriak’s lover was the one who had committed the murder of Andriusha Yustchinsky. It was further rumored, however, that even though Brazul’s story was based on Tchebiriak’s own admission, there was not enough corroborating evidence to support his contention. Evidently, a new investigation launched in the spring of 1912 was on the right track, and Brazul-Brushkofsky, aided by a friend named Krassovsky, disclosed the additional information. As a result of this, the first indictment was set aside, another one was drawn up, and Vera Tchebiriak was subsequently arrested. When I heard about all this, my hopes soared. However, my optimism was short-lived. That summer, a new District Attorney was sent down from St. Petersburg, provoking yet another upheaval in the investigative process.
A day or two after the incident with Pashlovski, I was summoned to the District Court. I went joyfully, for I was happy to see the outside world again and breathe fresh air. This time, my escort took me in the tramcar. As ill luck would have it, the car caught fire, and we had to go the rest of the way on foot. Many people knew I was going to be taken down to the Court, and some came just to get a look at me and take my photograph. I was led into a hall where District Attorney Mashkevitch and a certain professor were waiting for me.
“Look here, Beilis,” Mashkevitch said. “Three hairs were found on Andriusha’s trousers. If you don’t object, I would like you to give me some of your hair so I can show it to an expert.”
I was so startled by the request, I could scarcely look at the man, but I answered politely, “If you need it, you can take it.”
“No,” said the District Attorney. “You must do it yourself.”
I took the scissors from his desk, cut off some of my hairs and put them in an envelope. Later, I began to regret what I had done. Who knows what tricks these people might be up to? They might dye the hair or something. I calmed myself when I figured out they could do whatever they wanted, even without my help. Since, for the time being, my hair was all they wanted, I was immediately sent back to jail under armed guard.
Three days later, I was again ordered to the prison office. This time they wanted my fingerprints.
“Is this done in every prisoner’s case?” I asked.
“No,” I was answered. “But it is required in those cases where the indictment calls for katorga.”
“What is it for?” I inquired further.
I was told that fingerprints were found on Andriusha’s belt-buckle. My fingerprints had been wanted in order to compare the two. Once the imprint of my fingers was obtained, I was dispatched back to the cell.
At about this time, my wife was given permission to come and see me in prison. “To see” is about all that she was able to do. The visit only lasted five minutes, and we were separated by double bars. We tried to speak, but there was so much noise and tumult in the visiting quarters, we could hardly hear each other. Nevertheless, seeing her brought me much joy.
One day, I was given the good news that my wife and children were being allowed to visit me in the prison office. I was escorted there forthwith, but when I entered, my family was nowhere to be seen. I sat down to wait patiently, but soon I became restless. I had not seen my children for a very long time, and I wondered how they were. I could only imagine how much they must have suffered. And for what? The minutes seemed longer than the years. The wait was interminable.
The six officials who sat in the office were watching me the entire time, exchanging remarks among themselves. District Attorney Mashkevitch was one of them.
Finally, my wife, the children and my brother were brought in. My wife’s sister was not allowed to come. When I saw my youngest son, who was four years old, I took him in my arms and began to kiss him. A guard rushed forward and snatched the child away from me. He said I was not permitted to kiss my child.
My little boy began to weep. He had been frightened by the rudeness of the guard, the presence of the officials with their polished buttons and, most of all, by the way I was dressed. I lost my self-control and began to cry out, with tears in my voice.
“What right do you have to do this?” I pleaded. “Have you no children yourselves? Don’t you know a father’s feelings? Are you so heartless?”
I noticed that several of the officials turned their faces away and were wiping their eyes with their handkerchiefs. I was permitted to take the child into my arms. I asked my wife how things were going with her.
“Even if I have enough to live on,” she answered sadly, “what good is it when you are suffering so cruelly and unjustly?”
We were able to spend a few minutes together, and then, my family was told they must leave. I remained alone. Tchaplinsky, the Prosecuting Attorney, came over to me and offered me a cigarette. In a voice full of “compassion,” he began to speak to me.
“Yes, Beilis, this is how your Jewish friends are acting,” he said. “When the Jews needed you, they gave you money and told you how loyal you were. And now, when they don’t need you anymore, they forget all about you. Your poor wife is also suffering terribly. She, too, must be very angry at the Jews.”
Tchaplinsky had spoken very slowly and distinctly, and he had assumed a tone full of friendly sympathy. His every word, however, was like a stab in my heart, and the cunning, malicious expression on his face only added to my bitterness. I turned to him and asked for permission to say a few words.
“Certainly,” he said.
“If an atrocious villain could be hired to murder an innocent child,” I said, “and if, because of this murder, the mobs would be incited to carry out a pogrom and kill many Jews, do you think the Jews would have a part in it? Why would the Jews want to cause a pogrom? Let me be kept in prison. I have become a patient man. The trial will show that I am innocent.”
None of them said another word to me, and Tchaplinsky turned away. He obviously was not satisfied with what I had said. I was led out of the office.
My imprisonment had lasted for over a year. Four hundred days had elapsed since that fateful morning when I was first arrested by Colonel Kuliabko and torn away from my wife and family. For a long time, I kept hoping that “tomorrow I will be free.” Instead of freedom, I had to content myself with hopes and expectations.
One evening, while I was sitting in my dingy cell alone with my thoughts, I heard footsteps and several voices in the hallway. A woman was speaking outside my door.
“I am curious to see this rascal,” she said.
The door opened, and four persons entered. One of them was wearing a general’s uniform. The woman looked at me and said in a horrified tone, “What an atrocious creature! How fierce he looks!”
The general came closer to me and said, “Beilis, you will soon be set free.”
“On what grounds?” I asked him.
He replied. “The three hundredth year anniversary of the reign of the Romanov dynasty is soon to be celebrated. There will be a manifesto pardoning all katorjniks.”
“That manifesto,” I said, “will be for katorjniks, not for me. I don’t need a manifesto. I need a fair trial.”
“If you are ordered to be released, you will have to go,” the general persisted.
“No. Even if you open the doors of prison and threaten to shoot me, I will not leave. I will not go without an opportunity to prove my innocence. I am strong enough to endure this suffering until my trial.”
While I was speaking, they had all stood quietly, listening attentively to my every word. Even that persnickety lady, who had been so frightened by my appearance and had thought that I looked so cruel, came closer to get a better look. When I finished, the general continued in the same vein.
“Listen to reason, Beilis,” he implored. “You know very well that you are suffering unjustly. I would probably do the same thing if I were in your place. You were a poor man, and you did what you were told. If you tell us the truth, you would be making a very smart move. You would be sent abroad and taken care of for the rest of your life. By cooperating with us, you would provide an answer to the question that has captured the attention of the whole world. However, by remaining silent, you are continuing to conceal the truth. Do you think you are protecting the Jewish nation and only ruining yourself? Why should you suffer for nothing? It is your decision, but if you would just talk, you could be happy for the rest of your life.”
I could hardly contain myself while the general was speaking. I was disgusted by his every word. He had actually come to give me some advice. He must have sincerely believed he was expressing sympathy for my situation. According to him, I had been hired by the Jews to do this piece of dirty work, and now, he wanted me to tell “the truth.” He came to try and exert some influence over me. I saw that any further discussion would be useless. I couldn’t stand it any longer. My answer to him was short.
“You’re right,” I said. “The whole world is waiting for the truth, and the real truth will come out during my trial.”
“Well, we shall see,” the general muttered. Waving his hand as if hopelessly giving up, he left my room with his companion.
The first year of my imprisonment had drawn to a close. I found it hard to believe that I had subsisted for so long in such a place. During the frosty winter, the heating in my prison cell was so poor that the cement plastered walls were coated with ice. During the warmer days, the lime on the walls would thaw, causing the walls to drip with moisture. The trickling from the ceiling made it almost impossible for me to sleep.
I had to wear the usual prison garb, which consisted of a long coat of ragged cloth and a sack-linen shirt that had to be worn for stretches of two to three months. In the prison itself, the mortality rate from typhoid fever alone was about six or seven men per day. This was not surprising at all, considering the unbelievable filth, the disgusting food and the unheated rooms. There was also no lack of the usual cooties. At times, it was so cold I would awake to find my hand frozen to the ice on the wall. All of these factors created a perfect breeding ground for various diseases and epidemics.
The door of my cell was sealed shut with no less than thirteen locks. This meant that each time the door was opened, all thirteen locks had to be released. The sound of the rasping springs used to set my nerves on edge. My mental state had so deteriorated that I was obsessed with the illusion that somebody behind me was hitting me repeatedly on the head. It was one blow after another.
In addition to these hardships, I was tormented by frequent searches conducted by the officials. The searches were usually performed by a squad of five under the supervision of one of the deputy wardens. Every time they would come in, the first order was for me to undress. Often they had to unbutton my clothes themselves, because my fingers were too stiff from the cold to perform this simple task. They were quite rude and usually tore off a number of buttons during this operation. Some took this opportunity to display their “sense of humor.”
“You liked to stab the boy Andriusha and draw his blood. We will do the same thing to you now.”
That was the standing joke, but I never knew if they were serious. They would also look into my mouth to see if I had something hidden there. They would pull my tongue out to see deeper and better. I had to undergo all these tortures and insults six times a day. It is hard to believe, but it’s the truth. Protests were useless. They intended to harass me as much as possible. They wanted me to die without having to actually murder me. They would not poison me outright, for that would create trouble. I believe they wanted to drive me to suicide. Cases of suicide were quite frequent in the prison. Prisoners would hang themselves to escape the persecution and torture. The administration must have thought I would succumb to the abuse. They presumed I would not be able to tolerate such treatment and would take my own life. If this occurred, then the charge of ritual murder against the Jewish people would never be disproved. The authorities could depend on the Black Hundreds to circulate the rumor that my “suicide” had been caused by my fear of a trial, rather than any remorse for the murder I had committed.
My life was thus hanging by a hair. I once saw another prisoner shot to death in the prison hallway because of an altercation with one of the guards. This murder was easily explained away. The guard tore one of his sleeves and reported that he had shot the prisoner in self-defense.
There was no punishment, of course, for such “self-defense” was deemed justifiable. On one of the walls of my cell there hung a set of prison rules. One of its clauses stated that a prisoner who was insubordinate or assaulted a guard could be shot on the spot. The term “assault” required no special definition, nor was the term “insubordinate” any more specific. If a guard ordered the prisoner to walk more quickly or to stop and wait, and the guard was not instantly obeyed, the guard could claim that this constituted resistance and insubordination, thus warranting an execution of the prisoner. Incredibly, the guard even received a reward in the amount of three rubles for this noble act.
Generally speaking, the life of a prisoner in jail is hell. From the very moment the prison gates are closed behind him, a prisoner is completely under the command of the administration, and his life is in constant danger. Nevertheless, in spite of the danger and all the abuse heaped upon me, or perhaps because of it, I was more determined than ever to go through with this great trial. I knew that the administration was just looking for some excuse or pretext to do away with me, so I was always on my guard and accommodated them in every possible way.
More than once, there were incidents of foul play where they intentionally attempted to provoke me. They tried to make me resist or act in an insubordinate manner. They often strove to put me in a situation where they could resort to force against me. But I was extremely careful. I always kept in mind that the honor of the Jewish people must be protected and that the shameful charge of ritual murder must be erased. It was my fate that the responsibility for this fell in my lap. And the only way I could fulfill this responsibility was by remaining alive. It took every ounce of my strength to suffer silently, but I could not allow the enemies of my people to triumph.
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