Chapter 6        Behind Bars
 Home  Campus  Curriculum  Dedications  News  Archives  Judaica

The guard who accompanied me back to prison allowed me to take the tramcar. However, we did not go inside and sit with the other passengers. We remained standing on the platform instead. While riding to jail, I passed some of Zaitzev’s employees going to work. I even saw a few of my acquaintances. This was all I needed to make my depression complete.

During our ride, a Russian boarded the car. It was Zakhartchenko, the owner of the house where the Tchebiriaks lived. When he noticed me, he embraced me with kisses.

“Brother,” he said, “don’t lose spirit. I myself am a member of the Double-Headed Eagle, but I tell you that the stones of the bridge will crumble and the truth will win out.” With these words he jumped off the car.

Even though he had broken the law by speaking to a prisoner, my guards let him go unharmed because he was wearing the badge of the Double Eagle. Those who bore this insignia were allowed to do whatever they pleased. The gorodovoy was impressed by Zakhartchenko’s speech and treated me in a more friendly manner. Any humane gesture towards me by a Russian both before and during my imprisonment was greatly appreciated and somewhat mitigated the bitterness I felt for my persecutors.

We alighted from the tramcar after it stopped at the last station and continued our journey to jail on foot. When we passed by a fruit market, the gorodovoy went to a stall, bought some pears and offered them to me. I couldn’t contain my amazement.

“I bought them for you,” he said. “You are going to prison, and you can’t get any there.”

As soon as I entered the prison door, the official called out my name, “Beilis!”  All the other officials came running out to see me. Each poked fun at me and ridiculed me with his eyes. Then one got up the courage to come closer.

“Well, here we’ll feed you matzah and blood to your heart’s content,” he snarled sarcastically. “Go on, change your clothes!”

I was led into a small room where I was given my royal attire, the drab prison uniform. As I took off my boots, the blood rushed to my head. Darkness swept over me, and I felt I was going to faint. A guard came over and took off my shoes. When I was put into the chair to have my hair cut, I again felt dizzy. The same Russian guard came over and gave me some water.

Around noon, I was taken to my cell. About forty other prisoners already resided there. The door was locked behind me, and there was no way out. The room to which I had been assigned was not one of the regular prison rooms. It belonged to the hospital. Prisoners were required to spend thirty days in this area before they could be transferred to the real part of the prison. In order to survive these foul and dark quarters, one had to have hope and remain strong, as strong as the bars of the grate. My heart sank as I surveyed my new home and friends.

The walls were painted with tar, and hardly a ray of light could seep through the bars. The nauseating smell of dirt and unwashed humanity was revolting. The crowded prisoners were jumping around, dancing and pulling crazy pranks. One was singing a song, another was telling smutty stories and others were wrestling and sparring. Was I condemned to live in this atmosphere for a lifetime, or was this just part of a horrible dream?

Fenenko’s words came back to me. “It is the District  Attorney, not I.”

I sat down in one of the remote corners of the room to ponder my predicament. I was immersed in these thoughts, with my head bent on my chalat, the prisoner’s overcoat, when I heard the door of the big cell open and a drunken voice call out, “Dinner!”

When I had first entered the cell, I noticed several pails on the floor that were like those used in bathhouses. There were about four or five of these pails, and when the call for dinner rang out, several prisoners rushed towards them. I was later informed that these pails, from which we ate our food, were also used as wash buckets for the dirty laundry from the prison.

No one fought over these pails, because there were enough to go around.  Since ten people could share one pail and since there were about forty men in our room, the four pails we had were sufficient. The problem was that there were only three spoons. A free-for-all ensued to determine who would get to eat first. The fierce scuffle lasted for some time. After a while, when all were tired and some were injured, the spoons ended up in the hands of the strongest and quickest. A peace was declared, and all the men sat down on the floor to eat.

Each person could only have so many spoonfuls, and then the spoon would be passed on to the next man. Sometimes, someone would try to sneak an extra spoonful or two. Accompanied by some of the choicest words in the felons’ vocabulary, another scuffle would invariably result.

As I sat huddled in my corner, watching all that was happening around me, I found it hard to believe I was actually sitting in this prison. When the meal was over, they brought in some tea that looked more like water. Unexpectedly, one of the prisoners came over to my corner and offered me a lump of sugar. He did not say a single word but made some gesture instead. Apparently, he was dumb and could not speak, but he appeared to be a Jew. He brought some tea for me in a small pitcher and then drank his. This was how I spent my first few hours in prison.

Later that evening, a new prisoner was brought into our cell.  He was also a Jew. I hoped his arrival would improve my situation, as I longed for someone with whom I could converse. I went over to him and announced who I was. He was greatly surprised when he heard my name. He had been arrested for setting his house on fire in order to collect the insurance money, so he certainly had troubles of his own to worry about. However, he quickly put his own problems aside and concerned himself with mine.

It turned out that he was a person of some influence. His cousin was a builder-contractor in Kiev and had good connections with the government. Because of this, he was allowed to have food brought into the prison from the outside. He was kind enough to share this food with me. Unfortunately, the following morning my new friend fell ill and was taken to the hospital.

Since my name hadn’t yet appeared on the list for rations, I did not receive any bread for the first two days. On the third day, I was finally registered as a regular boarder and began receiving a bread ration, which was the only thing I could bear to eat. I could not touch the soup, because it was served from the bath pails. Once while we were having dinner, one of the men found a quarter of a mouse in the pail. It must have gotten into the soup from the grits that were kept in the prison storage pantry. The man who found the carcass proceeded to make a big fuss and display it to one and all. His goal wasn’t to incite a protest against the prison administration, but to cause such a loss of appetite among the prisoners that he would end up with a larger portion for himself.

As the days passed, I found myself weakening and knew I had to begin eating. The only day that I could get food from home was on Sunday, which was visitors’ day. I waited impatiently all week for this first Sunday to come. I was especially anxious to receive news about my family. I’ll never forget the eagerness with which I looked forward to Sunday. I was so excited that I was unable to sleep that entire Saturday night. All I could do was lie on the floor which served as my bed and toss and turn all night.  My back and shoulders ached terribly, and I felt as if I had spent the night on a rake. Since I couldn’t sleep, I would rather have gotten up and walked around, but this was forbidden.

At last, the blessed day arrived. On Sunday, a package of food was brought in to me. The parcel was supposed to contain enough food to last for the entire week. When my prison comrades saw the package, they could not contain their joy. They tore it out of my hands in an instant and, in no time, devoured its contents. They fought with one another, each one trying to wrest away a larger share. As they tore at each other like dogs, all I could think about was having to face another week of fasting. Meanwhile, the men in the group constantly kept their eyes on me to see how I was reacting. If I showed any signs of displeasure, my comrades would have given me a beating. So, I put on a happy face and pretended to enjoy watching them eat my food. I was practically forced to say to them, “Eat heartily!”

That autumn was particularly cold. Since almost all of the windowpanes were broken, we froze during the nights. Our suffering was further exacerbated by the condition of the floor, which was wet and filthy and covered by vermin crawling all over the place. My entire body was bitten and scratched.

The month finally passed, and I was transferred to the other quarters. Here, too, there were about forty inmates, most of whom were prison guests of long standing. Fortunately, there were three Jews in this place, and they became my new companions. They made quite a fuss over me when they heard about my case.

I had been transferred to my new quarters on a Saturday.  Since the next day would be Sunday, I anxiously awaited the arrival of another package of food. However, I was apprehensive about what would happen to it. My new Jewish friends told me how to handle the situation so I wouldn’t be robbed again. They said I should give the package to them and they would look after it. They explained that the other prisoners were afraid of them and would not bother us. When my parcel of food was brought to me, I did as they suggested, and we spent the next five days eating and drinking together. However, since the date of their trial had arrived, they were released.

As long as these other Jews had been with me, the Russians left me alone. As soon as they left, the Russians came over to me. Surprisingly, they treated me rather respectfully. They had heard of my case and were fascinated by the questions the investigator had asked me. They all predicted my worries were for naught. One of these men was especially friendly and was continually showering me with compliments. From the beginning, I couldn’t understand his excessive kindness, for he did not seem to be the type of person that had a naturally pleasant disposition. Only later did I discover the real story, and it cost me dearly.

Picture Picture
[Home] [Campus] [Curriculum] [Dedications] [News] [Archives] [Judaica]