I was ushered into the main courtroom and told to sit in the defendant’s dock. Soldiers stood on both sides of me with their swords drawn, but I paid no attention to them. They were just doing their duty and did not frighten me. This was the day I had longed for, the day when the veil of mystery would finally be lifted and the world could see that the case against me was a baseless lie perpetrated by the evil Black Hundreds who were dedicated to my destruction.
The courtroom on the opening day of my trial was a sight to behold. There were several thousand spectators, from many different stations in life, from various countries around the world. The ladies were resplendent in the latest fashions, while the pompous generals and prominent officials were similarly bedecked, in dazzling uniforms impressively decorated.
What impressed me the most was the array of international newspaper correspondents who had come from all over the world to cover my trial. The District Attorney, the Prosecuting Attorney and other sundry officials were standing off to the side, engaged in heated conversation, while the judges, who were seated on the dais in the middle of the room, were preparing to begin.
All these people seemed like participants in a play, who had come either to satisfy their curiosity or perform their role. But whether observers or actors, they all focused their attention on me the moment I entered the courtroom. My seat became center stage.
I was most interested in the jury, those twelve men in whose hands my fate actually lay. They had the power to decide whether I would live or die, be imprisoned or freed. I took one look and my heart sank. My first impression was that there was no way I would win the trial. I could not believe that the entire jury was composed of mouzhiks, ordinary peasants, who would never be able to comprehend such a complicated case.
If the members of the jury had been educated and scholarly, as I had expected, then I would not have been afraid of them weighing the evidence and determining my future. I did not doubt that such men would be able to understand everything involved. But mouzhiks! They wouldn’t even be able to understand my attorneys’ most rudimentary arguments. Besides, I knew how easy it would be for the officials to influence these ignorant, simplistic people who feared authority. They could easily be bullied into believing I was their enemy, especially since I was a Jew.
The setting of the courtroom was also bound to have an effect on the jury. On one side were Russian generals and other high officials royally attired as representatives of the imperial Czar. The Prosecuting Attorney and his assistants also made a distinguished appearance, and they could be relied upon to slander me in any way possible. It is true that the jury could also see a few Russian lawyers on my side of the room, but everyone can hire advocates to defend himself. Who wouldn’t be prejudiced by the contrast? The gullibility of the Russian is well-known. The wilder the rumor, the more apt he is to believe it.
The jury members were just the kind of people who would believe that the Jews used blood for Passover. For all I knew, they might already believe this idea. If that were the case, then there was nothing I could do. There was nothing anyone could do. I would have to trust in God and await the outcome. I glanced at the lawyers, both my own and those for the prosecution, Schmakov and Zamislovsky. Scanning the faces of the audience, I noticed my wife sitting in a remote corner. She sat alone, with her head down and tears in her eyes.
When I had entered the courtroom, there had been a considerable amount of activity. Many people were conversing in loud voices, others were walking back and forth. Various officials were coming in with their briefcases and reports. The confusion and din reminded me of an orchestra tuning up its instruments prior to the start of a concert.
When the Sergeant-at-arms shouted, “Silence, the Court is entering!” all in attendance rose from their benches as one. More officials came in, and immediately, it became very quiet. It even sounded as if all breathing had been suspended.
The Presiding Judge, Boldirev, broke the silence. He directed himself to me with a question.
“To what religion do you belong?” he asked.
I did not recognize my own voice as I answered in a tone approaching a shout, “I am a Jew.”
I noticed that the District Attorney and the lawyer for the prosecution, Schmakov, exchanged smiles when I exclaimed that I was a Jew. Instantly, the lawyers of both sides became embroiled in an argument. The Presiding Judge asked my lawyers if they objected to the prosecution lawyers being seated so near to the jury.
Karabchevsky answered at once. “Yes, we are most emphatically against that. They are sitting too close to the jury, and every word they utter is liable to sway them.”
The prosecution attorneys denied the charge, but they were over-ruled.
Then came the administering of the oath to the witnesses. This was no trifling matter. One hundred and thirty-five witnesses were summoned for the defense and thirty-five for the prosecution, making a total of one hundred and seventy witnesses. As the witnesses were being sworn in, the silence that had prevailed gave way, and once again, the babel prevailed.
As each witness came up to take his oath, he had to pass by my seat. All of my witnesses paused a moment to greet me. Even a number of witnesses who had been called by the prosecution acknowledged me with friendly smiles. This swearing-in procedure lasted the entire day and well into the night, and I was forced to sit there the entire time, as if nailed to my seat. I almost fainted from the boredom and exhaustion. When it was all over, I was transported back to the prison in the black coach.
All during my imprisonment, I had slept on a floor that was practically bare, and no one had ever considered making it any more comfortable for me. In fact, if anything, the reverse was true, and they tried to make me as miserable as possible. I was thus shocked to discover that a cot with a mattress had been placed in my cell. And the guards acted like such friends, I hardly recognized them. I could not figure out the reason behind their change of heart. Did they feel I would soon be liberated and the whole bubble of lies would burst? But the trial had barely begun!
Apparently, an order had come down from the superiors that I should be treated more civilly for the time being. I thanked God for that. I was happy for any relief, even if it was only for one hour. I collapsed on the cot and fell asleep.
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