Excerpt: The Yid (Continued)
Excerpted from The Yid: A Novel by Paul Goldberg, published by arrangement with Picador.
In the early morning of March 1, 1953, when Iosif Stalin collapsed at his dacha, he was preparing to solve Russia’s Jewish Question definitively. Military units and enthusiastic civilians stood poised to begin a pogrom, and thousands of cattle cars were brought to the major cities to deport the survivors of the purportedly spontaneous outbursts of murder, rape, and looting. Stalin intended his holocaust to coincide with the biggest purge Russia had seen.
The West would have to choose between standing by and watching these monstrous events or taking the risk of triggering a world war fought with atom and hydrogen bombs. Stalin’s death was announced on March 5, the day his pogrom was scheduled to begin.
At 2:37 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, 1953, Narsultan Sadykov’s Black Maria enters the courtyard of 1/4 Chkalov Street.
A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.
At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.
The arrest of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater, is routine. An old, likely decrepit Yid, Levinson lives alone in a communal flat at 1/4 Chkalov Street. Apartment 40. No hand-wringing wife. No hysterical children. No farewells. No one to hand the old man a toothbrush through the bars of a departing Black Maria.
In the parlance of state security, arrests are “operations.” This operation is easier than most: collect some incriminating rubbish, put a seal on the door, help the old man into the truck, and a little before dawn, the Black Maria drives back through Lubyanka’s armored gates.
Lieutenant of State Security Sadykov is slight and pale. His hair is straight and dark red. He is a Tatar, a dweller of the steppes, a descendant of the armies of Genghis Khan, an alumnus of an orphanage in Karaganda. With him are two soldiers, naïve nineteen-year-old boys from the villages of Ukraine, dressed in anemia-green coats, each armed with a sidearm. One of the boys carries a pair of American handcuffs.
Another night, another knock-and-pick. The function of the green, covered light trucks that fan through Moscow at night is clear to everyone. There is no reason to hide their purpose or to flaunt it. It’s best to approach through the courtyard, turn off the engine and the lights, and coast gently to a halt.
The driver, one of the nineteen-year-olds, skillfully pilots the vehicle through the dark, narrow cavern of an archway built for a horse cart. With the engine off, he surrenders to inertia. Bracing for a burst of frost, Sadykov and the boys step out of the Black Maria. A thin coat of crisp, pristine snow crunches loudly underfoot. Sadykov looks up at the darkness of the five-story buildings framing the sky above the courtyard. The night is majestic: dry frigid air, bright stars, the moon hanging over the railroad station, pointing toward mysterious destinations.
Whenever possible, Sadykov avoids going through front doors, favoring tradesmen’s entrances. The back door of 1/4 Chkalov Street is made of heavy oak, devilishly resilient wood that has defied a century of sharp kicks and hard slams. Protected by an uncounted number of coats of dark brown paint, it stands impervious to weather and immune to rot. Opening the door, Sadykov and his entourage plunge into darkness.
Since 1/4 Chkalov Street is close to the Kursk Railroad Station, travelers use the building’s stairwell as a nighttime shelter. As they await morning trains, these vagabonds curl up like stray dogs beneath the staircase, their bodies encircling suitcases and burlap sacks. If it’s your lot to sleep beneath those stairs, you have to be cold or drunk enough to tolerate the overpowering smell of urine.
Ignoring the odor and the sound of a man snoring under the stairs, the three soldiers feel their way to the second floor. Sadykov lights a match. A blue number on a white enameled sign identifies apartment forty.
With the match still lit, Sadykov motions to the boys. When duty takes Sadykov and his comrades to large communal flats, the arresting crew has to wake up someone, anyone, to open the door and, only after gaining entry, knock on the door of the person or persons they’ve come to collect for the journey through Lubyanka’s heavy gates. More often than not, the proverbial “knock on the door” is a light kick of a military boot.
Three men standing in cold, stinking darkness, waiting for someone to hear the kick on the door is not an inspiring sight. They might as well be scraping at the door, like cats, except cats returning after a night of carnage and amour are creatures of passion, while nineteen-year-old boys with sidearms are creatures of indifference, especially at 2:55 a.m. on a February night.
On the tenth kick, or perhaps later, the door opens. Sadykov discerns a frail face, an old woman. Blue eyes set deeply behind high cheekbones stare at the three men. These old crones are a curse, especially for those who arrest people for a living.
Whenever a Black Maria or its crew is in sight, a Moscow crone is certain to start muheambling prayers. Sadykov regards prayers as futile, yet he secretly fears them. He has an easier time with handwringing middle-aged wives; their hysterics affect him no more than a distant cannonade. (As a product of an orphanage, Sadykov has had no exposure to familial hysterics.) For reasons Sadykov cannot fathom, a prayer threatens, even wounds.
“Does Levinson live here?”
Making the sign of the cross, the old woman disappears into darkness of the hallway. The three men walk in. It’s a long hallway of a five-room apartment, with three doors on the right facing Chkalov Street, and two on the left, facing the courtyard.
Sadykov lights another match.
He hears a door creak. It has to be the old woman. She is watching. Her kind always watches. No, righteous she can’t be. She may be the resident snitch, and now she lurks behind the door, pretending to drag God into this purely earthbound affair while in fact savoring the results of her anonymous letter to the authorities.
Sadykov doesn’t know which door is hers, yet hers is the door he wants to avoid.
According to instructions, Levinson’s room overlooks the courtyard. That leaves a choice of two doors.
During operations, neighbors sit behind closed doors, like trapped rodents. And in the morning, they feign surprise and indignation. Just to think of it, Levinson, an enemy! A loner. Always grumbling. Had no use for children. Hated cats. Fought in the partisan bands along the Trans-Siberian Railroad during the Civil War. Would have thought he was one of us, a simple Soviet man, but with Yids nothing is simple. Treachery is their currency of choice. And if he really is a traitor, fuck him, let him be shot!
Have you seen old Yids creaking down the street, going wherever it is they go, carrying mesh bags and, in their pockets, rolled-up newspapers? With the pigmentation of youth wiped off their faces, they still look dark, bird-like, bleached angels ready to fly to God, or the Evil One.
Such is Sadykov’s mental image of Levinson.
Lighting his third match of the night, Sadykov steps up to another door. This time, he doesn’t order the boys to kick.
He knocks three times with the knuckles of his clenched fist. There is movement behind the door, no more than what you’d expect.
“Dos bist du?” asks a raspy voice in a language that isn’t Russian.
“Poshel v pizdu,” answers one of the nineteen-year-olds in Russian. Sadykov and the boys don’t know the meaning of the question
Dos bist du? Why would they know that these words mean, “Is this you?” But, of course, the Russian words “poshel v pizdu,” translated literally as “go in the cunt” or “fuck off,” rhyme with this enigmatic question.
It’s a dialogue of sorts:
“Dos bist du?”
“Poshel v pizdu.”
It’s more than a rhyme. It’s a question and an answer.
When you are nineteen, you play with your kill. On your first operation, you get a sense of newness that you think will never go away.
You get the power to choke off another man’s freedom, even end his life. Sadykov’s first operation took him to a big four-room apartment on the Frunze Embankment; it was a colonel, a war hero.
The man was silent at first, placid, but in the middle of the search, he grabbed a Walther he had hidden in the desk drawer, placed the muzzle against his lower lip, shouted “Long live Stalin!” and pulled the trigger. He did this in front of his wife and daughter. Another crew had to be called for cleanup.
You never forget your first operation or the second, but after you get to the fifth, you realize that one man’s suffering is like another’s, and your memories start to change shape around the edges.
Sadykov is beyond the exhilaration of the job. He is almost twenty-five, and he has been doing this for over six years. He wants every operation to end before it begins. Perhaps one day he will get a transfer, perhaps to investigations.
“Otkroyte!” Sadykov knocks again. Open the door!
“Ikh farshtey. Nit dos bist du.”
The meaning of this exchange escapes Sadykov, but it merits unpacking.
Had there been a Yiddish-speaking audience present, it would have surely rolled with laughter.
Try to imagine the situation described above as a vaudeville skit:
They come to arrest an old Yid. They knock on the door.
“Is that you?” the old man asks in Yiddish.
The goons answer in juicy Russian. (The rhyme: “Dos bist du?” / “Poshel v pizdu.”)
“I see,” responds the old man. “It’s not you.”
In this scene, the audience never learns whom the old man refers to as “you,” but it’s a safe guess that he is not anticipating the arrival of Lieutenant Narsultan Sadykov and his boys.
You can imagine what the audience would do. They would emit tears and saliva. They would slap their knees. They would turn beet red from elevation of blood pressure and constriction of air supply. Alas, at 2:59 a.m. February 24, 1953, a Yiddish-speaking audience is not in attendance at 1/4 Chkalov Street, apartment forty.
The time has come for Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a man known to friends as der komandir, to take a journey in a Black Maria.
Yet, surely you will agree that the absence of spectators makes his final, decisive performance more pure. It merges comedy, tragedy, absurdity, fantasy, reality, and—voilà—the material becomes endowed with a divine spark.
“Please wait, comrade, I will pull on my pants,” says Levinson in Russian.
Standing at that door, Sadykov realizes suddenly that Levinson is the first man who shows no trepidation upon the arrival of a Black Maria. His voice is calm.
More surprised than angered, Sadykov knocks again.
He hasn’t arrested an actor before. His past hauls include one violinist, an opera singer, two writers, three geneticists, one architect, several military officers, many engineers, and many more Party workers.
“Otkroyte,” Sadykov repeats. Open the door.
“Otkroyte-shmot-kroyte . . .” Levinson’s voice responds in broken Russian. “What, are you? Robber?”
“Prokuratura,” says Sadykov.
Sometimes Sadykov is instructed to say “state security,” shorthand for the Ministry of State Security, or the MGB.
Other times he says “prokuratura,” the procurator’s office. Though these entities are technically different, when Sadykov knocks on your door, it makes no practical difference which arm of the government he claims to represent.
“Prokuratura-shmok-uratura,” says the old man, and the door swings open.
Yes, in this career-crowning performance, Levinson deserves a Yiddish-speaking audience, for he has combined the word “shmok” (a limp, at best modestly sized, penis) with the word “procurator.”
Through its unforgivable failure to exist, the audience is missing a tour de force by Solomon Levinson, formerly an actor of one of the most respected theater companies in the world, the Moscow State Jewish Theater, known to Yiddish speakers under the Russian acronym GOSET.
Was Solomon Levinson a GOSET star?
No, another Solomon—Solomon Mikhoels—was the star, the face of the theater, an actor who could move from a village idiot to a Shakespearean king to a conniving, villainous contrabandist, an actor who could direct, a writer who could act, a laureate of the Stalin Prize, the Soviet Union’s unofficial ambassador of goodwill, a leader of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, a star in Moscow, and a celebrity on Second Avenue, the Yiddish Broadway.
His fans in America understood that under capitalism, every Jewish theater had to pay for itself or even produce a profit. Under Socialism, Mikhoels and his GOSET received a state subsidy. Indeed, GOSET was the only state-subsidized Yiddish theater on Earth and, presumably, in the universe.
In 1943, when Mikhoels was sent to America to raise money for the Red Army, New York Jews and leftists of various shades stumbled over each other for a place in line. Tens of thousands came to hear him speak. He returned with millions of dollars and a big, new fur coat for Comrade Stalin, its lining emblazoned with greetings from New York Jews. He met with Albert Einstein, who, at the height of 176 centimeters, towered over him like a giant. He debated the place of politics in art with Charlie Chaplin, the courageous American comedian who had dared to lampoon Hitler in the film The Great Dictator. A committee of the U.S. Senate was preparing to investigate that comedian’s effort to get America into the war. “I was saved by Pearl Harbor,” Chaplin told Mikhoels. In New York, Mikhoels met with Chaim Weizmann, the man who would become the first president of Israel. He caught up with his old friend, the German theater director Max Reinhardt, shared the podium with the New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and bowed his head at the grave of Sholem Aleichem.
Alas, for Solomon Levinson, Mikhoels was a mighty nemesis and GOSET not a happy place. If you regarded yourself as a talented actor like Levinson and if you were unfortunate enough to spend your entire career at GOSET, you couldn’t even rise to Number Two.
The Number Two slot belonged to another actor, Venyamin Zuskin. It was beyond mere favoritism. In GOSET’s established order, Zuskin had to be Number Two.
When Mikhoels played Benjamin in The Travels of Benjamin III, the Jewish Don Quixote, Zuskin played Senderl, his male companion in a dress, Sancho Panza in calico. When Mikhoels was Kinig Lir, his most famous role, Zuskin was his Nar. They played it like two sides of the coin, der Kinig and his Nar.
If you worked at GOSET, you worked in the shadow of Mikhoels and in the shadow of Zuskin.
What opportunity was there for Solomon Levinson to demonstrate his talent?
None. Which explains why you may not have heard of Solomon Levinson.
At the time a boy kicks the door of apartment forty, Mikhoels has been dead for five years. Killed in an “auto accident.”
Where is the truck that killed him? Find it, please. Zuskin is dead, too. No phantom truck. A bullet in the head. An execution in a Lubyanka cellar.
No Mikhoels. No Zuskin. No Kinig. No Nar. No GOSET. No audience. No stage. No subsidy. No truck. Gornisht. Nothing.
After opening what sounds like a heavy latch, the occupant of the room, presumably Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, noiselessly retreats into deep darkness.
Something about the setting—the night, the snow, the long hallway, the dark room—prompts one of the Ukrainian boys to cross himself. Not much can be made of that. He is a village boy in a big city, where many things seem menacing, evil—and where many things are. Lieutenant Sadykov walks in first, the boys behind him. He fumbles for the light switch, but it’s not next to the door, where he would expect to find it.
Sadykov lights another match. Ideally, the circumstances of every death reflect the life that precedes it. Death should be life in miniature, a microcosm. Arrest also. Sadykov hasn’t paused to verbalize this maxim, but he feels it within the depth of his being.
As flickering, living light fills the room, the silhouette of a tall, thin man appears before the heavily draped window. The man’s nose is elongated, yet proportional to his dark, deeply wrinkled face. Slowly, with considerable arthritic stiff ness and with the pomp one would expect from an actor of a provincial theater, the old man bows deeply, his left hand resting on a cane, his right making a slow, ceremonious spiral on the way to the floor.
Sadykov reaches the only conclusion available to him: this man exhibits no fear, no trepidation, because he is mad.
Occasionally, when he allows himself to succumb to compassion, Sadykov believes that his passengers are better off being mad, or deathly ill, because death would spare them what lies ahead: weeks or months of interrogations, then weeks in the prison train, and, finally, felling trees or mining for gold or uranium ore somewhere in the taiga or the permafrost.
“Dear friends, welcome!” says Levinson, shooting a grin from the nadir of the bow.
Encountering unpredictable behavior is part of the job. Sadykov has seen men collapse, women tear their robes (literally tear their robes), children barricade the doors until they have to be kicked out of the way. But he has never seen a deep bow.
A clinician usually makes the diagnosis within seconds of laying his eyes on a patient. Perhaps a lieutenant of state security should be required to have similar diagnostic skills. He should be able to predict that an old man like Levinson will inevitably proceed from strange performance to muttering and singing softly in his dungeon cell.
There would be no point in subjecting him to rough interrogation, because what can a madman tell you? What art is there in beating confessions out of the demented and the frail? They will sign any protocol you place before them. They will acknowledge any political crime—plotting to vandalize the Dnepr hydroelectric power station, blowing up the smelters of Magnitogorsk, intending to change fundamental laws of physics, spying for the Grand Rabbinate of Israel and its American masters.
Sometimes, very rarely, you encounter resistance from arrestees. Suicides, too.
Sadykov has heard many a man sing “The Internationale” in the back of the Black Maria.
Arise, ye prisoners of starvation
Arise, ye wretched of the earth . . .
Lacking the depth of intellect required to realize that the words of the great anthem of the World Revolution beautifully describe the dignified, defiant spirit of the men and women crated in the back of his truck, Sadykov is unable to feel the mockery.
If there is one thing this job has taught him, it is to take nothing personally.
“Allow me to introduce myself: Solomon Shimonovich Levinson,” says the old man, straightening to the formidable extent of his frame. “Artist pogorelogo teatra.” Actor of a burned-down theater.
“We have an order for a search,” says Sadykov. “Turn on the light, Levinson.”
Sadykov will handle this in his usual restrained manner. If liquidation of enemies is your objective, why not accept disease, both mental and physical, as your allies? Is it not much easier to let the madmen rave until they wear themselves out?
The single bulb under a fringed silk lampshade that hangs from a wire on the ceiling in Levinson’s room is decidedly unmanly. You would expect to find it in the room of an operetta singer. Its bulb is no brighter than Sadykov’s match.
Of course, Sadykov believes in the absolute necessity of his job.
He believes in Comrade Stalin, and he believes in purging his country of internal enemies. However, he also realizes that, inevitably, mistakes are made, and some of the arrestees are probably harmless. It is unavoidable that when you need to arrest so many people, some of them will be innocent. Even with no training in statistics, not even knowing that there is such a thing as statistics, Sadykov grasps the concept of the margin of error, something you have to recognize and accept like any other fact of life.
With experience, Sadykov has developed a plethora of his own approaches to conducting an operation.
Doctors often speak of patients who taught them something about life, or helped them sharpen their methodology. People whose job it is to arrest their brethren similarly learn on the job.
In one prior operation, Sadykov heard an old Bolshevik—a man who knew Lenin and Stalin and had photographs on the wall to prove it—demand a private audience with Stalin.
The old Bolshevik said something about the Party having taken a wrong turn and refused to budge when the time came. Fortunately, he lived alone, like Levinson. The old Bolshevik had been deathly pale, and Sadykov couldn’t see a way to lead him out without breaking his limbs.
To avoid unpleasantness in that situation, Sadykov had assured the old Bolshevik that an audience with Stalin was exactly what was being planned. He was being taken to the Kremlin, not to Lubyanka.
The old Bolshevik brightened up, and all the way to Lubyanka he sang in a language that he said was Georgian. By the time the Black Maria passed through the heavy iron gates, the man was in a subdued state. He muttered passively, locked in an intense conversation with an imaginary interlocutor. Sadykov heard something about London and the Fifth Congress of the Russian Socialist Democratic Party.
“Soso, didn’t I warn you about Trotsky?” he said to Sadykov when the lieutenant opened the door.
Levinson is wearing baggy, sky blue long underpants, a dark brown undershirt, a deep purple robe, and a matching ascot. (Actors of burned-down theaters have an affinity for ascots.)
He has to be in his late fifties, old enough to start to soften, yet clearly he has not. He looks muscular, angular; his movements are powerful but choppy. His imposing physique notwithstanding, Levinson looks like a clown.
“What is your name, young man?” asks Levinson, turning to Sadykov.
Usually, MGB officers do not reveal their real names, but in this case, bowing to the sound of authority in Levinson’s voice, Sadykov can’t avoid making an exception.
“Lieutenant Narsultan Sadykov.”
“Sadykov . . . there was a Sadykov in my detachment in the Ural. A brave man,” says Levinson, pointing at one of the framed photographs on the wall.
It’s a small photo of a dozen men dressed in leather and sheepskin coats and a mad assortment of uniforms: the White Guard, British, American.
A tall man in a pointed Red Cavalry hat stands in the front row, his riding boot positioned on the barrel of a Maxim machine gun, his hand brandishing a curved cavalry sword. The boys behind him have the unmistakable devil-may-care look of brigands, their commander exhibiting the Byronesque spirit of a soldier-poet.
No formal education would be required to recognize that the photo was taken in 1918, when Bolsheviks had lost control of Siberia and the surviving Red Army detachments disappeared into the forest. The fact that young Levinson was fighting for the World Revolution so far from his native Odessa, in the Siberian woods, was part of the spirit of the times and didn’t need to be explained any more than one needed to explain the landing of American Marines and British troops in Vladivostok. The world’s most powerful nations joined to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle, and Levinson et al. came to defend it.
It’s not difficult to see how a man as imposing as Levinson would be elected the detachment commander. It’s more of a challenge to grasp how he could have survived the clashes alongside the Trans-Siberian Railroad. If images are to be believed, he displayed no signs of a capacity to avoid unnecessary risks. Such is the nature of Byronism.
In 1953, would it matter to anyone—least of all Sadykov—that thirty-five years earlier, in 1918, at a time when Bolsheviks lost control of Siberia, Levinson and his band fought in total isolation, moving through the taiga between Lake Baikal and the Ural Mountains?
“Can you see the round face next to the Maxim?” asks Levinson.
Then, without receiving an acknowledgment, he adds, “That’s my Sadykov. Stayed in the Red Army, fought in Manchuria, Spain, rose to colonel. A carriage like yours took him to oblivion in 1938. A cousin, perhaps? Perhaps you’ve seen him caged someplace?”
It seems that someone forgot to instruct Lieutenant Narsultan Sadykov that a man whose job falls on the continuum between arrest and execution must not acknowledge the humanity of individuals upon whom he discharges his duties. If a person of any intelligence had written the manual for operations, it would read:
Do not—under any circumstances—engage in polemics with the arrestees and the executees.
Of course, Narsultan Sadykov is not in any way connected with Levinson’s Sadykov. Many Tatars are named Sadykov, just as many Russians are named Ivanov, Ukrainians Shevchenko, and Jews Rabinovich. How would anyone, least of all Lieutenant Narsultan
Sadykov (an orphan whose father’s name was unknown to anyone, likely including his mother), know whether he is related to Levinson’s Sadykov?
“Young man, are you, perchance, familiar with commedia dell’arte?” asks Levinson, turning abruptly to one of the nineteen-year-olds.
Though it’s impossible to verify such things, it’s unlikely in the extreme that any previous victim of Stalinism had ever mentioned commedia dell’arte at the time of arrest.
“Pidaras tochno,” responds one boy, addressing the other. (Definitely a pederast would be the exact translation, but the expression really means definitely a fag.) The boy utters this nonsense as though Levinson doesn’t exist. Onstage this would be called an aside.
Had Sadykov understood the situation, he would have rewarded this soldier’s perfect execution of denial of humanity.
“No,” replies Levinson casually. “Not a pidaras. Why would you think that? I said commedia dell’arte. Commedia dell’arte is a theatrical movement, which began in Italy in the sixteenth century. It spread, and it never fully went away. Molière’s characters are based on commedia character types. Our Gogol was influenced by commedia.”
“Pedrilo,” mutters one of the boys, summoning another variation on the theme of buggery.
“You are being dismissive out of ignorance. You will see in a minute that you do know something about commedia,” says Levinson, making eye contact with the boys, then casting a glance at Sadykov.
“Madness,” Sadykov concludes, but says nothing. He rifles through the old man’s desk, as per instructions. No Walther there, just an empty holster from a Soviet pistol, a basic Makarov.
The irrational should be handled indirectly, if at all. Though Levinson seems to be failing in his effort to engage the audience, his story is as accurate as he can make it.
After returning to Moscow in 1920, on a lark, Levinson auditioned for a theater troupe started by a young man named Alexander Granovsky.
This was an experimental theater company inspired in part by commedia dell’arte, badly in need of clowns and acrobats.
Commedia was making a return as art for the people, and Granovsky recognized Levinson’s ability to play a sad, angry clown, akin to a recurring commedia character named Pulcinella. In Russian, Pulcinella was renamed Petrushka.
“I played variations on Petrushka for a long, long time. Of course, you’ve heard of Petrushka.” Levinson stops, as though he has just told a joke. “That would be within your intellectual grasp.”
Of course, there is no childish laughter of delight, no sign of recognition, no aha moment.
An argument can be made that the joke is on Levinson. His revolutionary past and obvious ability to inflict great bodily harm were the source of comedy.
Granovsky’s goal was to build a great European progressive theater company. What could be edgier than a menacing Petrushka? Komandir Petrushka, a sad, angry clown battling the forces of history. Levinson was an anachronism from the beginning. He was perfectly static, an actor who would not get any training, who would get neither better nor worse.
Levinson liked being a clown. After two years of being the agent of death, is there anything wrong with wanting to make audiences laugh, just like his father had made him laugh what seemed like centuries earlier? How is that different from becoming, say, a doctor? From his first performance to, now, his last, Levinson’s default has always been to go for laughs. A critic might call this pandering.
Levinson has learned that he loves being a part of an ensemble even more than he loves the sound of laughter. It reminds him of being in the forest, surrounded by his band. Onstage, as in the woods, the river of adrenaline runs wide and missteps are fatal.
Onstage, Levinson realizes that the line between reality and imagination is perilously porous.
Giving Sadykov no chance to say a word, Levinson places his hand on the young lieutenant’s shoulder and points at a photo of an acrobat, standing on his head, wearing tefillin. The object’s leather belt wraps around his right leg, from the knee to the ankle, like a black serpent or a weird garter.
“That’s me, in 1921,” says Levinson. “Twice wounded, demobilized, but, overall, no worse for wear. Standing on my head, with tefillin. Do you know about tefillin, what that was?”
“Khuy sobachiy,” says one of the boys. A dog’s penis.
“Not quite a khuy sobachiy,” says Levinson, treating the idiotic insult as an argument in a learned discussion. “Jewish prayer rituals required every man to strap on two small black boxes, containing sacred texts: one on the forehead, another on the left arm. The ways of the shtetl had to go away. We were there to kick them down the stairs of history. With tefillin, we were slaves. Without it, we were free. Naturally, with tefillin, I stand on my head. Without it, I’d be right-side up.”
Surely, the young man has no way to put this knowledge to use in his everyday life, but awaiting the lieutenant’s orders, he is in no position to get on with the well-choreographed business of search and arrest. The boys know nothing about Sadykov’s strategy of stepping back to let the maniacs rave till they weaken.
“Here I am, in 1935 . . .”
Levinson’s cane now points at a photograph of another group: actors on a large stage. It is difficult to find Levinson in that photo, and knowing that Sadykov will make no effort to do so, he points at a man in a harlequin’s leotard sitting atop a throne.
“Yours truly as Nar. Pardon me, Shut. The English name of this character is Fool.
“Kinig Lir, the opening scene. I sit atop the throne. Lir’s throne, until they chase me away. The Nar is on the throne.
“Zuskin was in one of his dark moods. He stared at the back of the couch and couldn’t say a word. I was his understudy. Nar Number Two.”
That performance marked the only time Levinson and Mikhoels, the two Solomons, played in the same scene. They were a poor match. What sense did it make for the Nar to stand twenty-two centimeters taller than Lir? Levinson would not have objected to reversing the roles. Indeed, he would have been a splendid King Lear. He would have played Lear as a wreck of the great, fierce monarch. He would have been a larger-than-life Lear.
Alas, at GOSET, this wasn’t in the cards.
Sadykov should not be judged harshly for failure to understand. Records show that in 1935, when this photograph was taken, he was trying to stay alive in an orphanage. GOSET’s celebrated production of Kinig Lir was outside his life experience.
The reason for denying the humanity of your arrestees and your executees is simple in the extreme: you block them out, because as humans we have little control over our ability to listen. And when we listen—sometimes—we hear what is said. And sometimes this leads to a dangerous bond between the arrester-executioner and arrestee-executee. Nothing good comes of such bonds.
Not trained to deal with floods of complicated memories, Sadykov and the boys simply stare.
More important, let it be a cautionary tale that something in the photos sparks Sadykov’s curiosity, and, perhaps unbeknownst to himself, he stands by the pictures, studying the strangely shaped ladders of the stage sets, the large crowds of actors frozen in midpose.
There is real Levinson brandishing a Japanese sword in the Civil War; Levinson, his foot resting atop a Maxim; Levinson wielding a dagger in the GOSET production of Bar-Kokhba, a thinly veiled Zionist extravaganza about strong Jews. With great displays of swordplay, this story of a rebellion against Rome gave Levinson something Mikhoels was hell-bent on denying him: a chance to shine.
“Next, we were going with Richard II or Richard III; I confuse them,” says Levinson in a barely audible whisper aimed at no one. “Imagine that . . . But then that war . . . Are you familiar with Richard II or Richard III?”
Silently, Sadykov congratulates himself for allowing another old man to rave harmlessly on the way to Lubyanka.
Sadykov notices the photo of a dozen actors using the back of a Red Army truck as a stage. The truck is American, a battered Ford that ended up in the USSR by way of Lend-Lease. (Americans took too long getting into the war in Europe, but, thankfully, they did finance it, shipping arms and supplies to their allies.) Sadykov drove a truck like that once, years earlier, in training. Similarly to the Black Maria, the Ford was given a diminutive name: Fordik.
Oddly, recognition that they have a truck in common makes Sadykov almost sorry that Levinson slips into a rant before he reaches that photo. Sadykov fails to recognize that in any house tour—as in any museum—it is crucial to notice what is left out.
When World War II came, Levinson experienced a fundamental physical urge to fight. Whatever it was, it emanated from his very essence, and was an expression of who he was and why he lived. You can get in touch with such feelings onstage if you are very, very good.
Under normal circumstances, Levinson would have returned to service in the rank of major. He would have preferred to enlist as a private, or perhaps as a commando, a leader of a small detachment that crosses enemy lines, operating under cover of darkness. In the previous war, this was Levinson’s biggest strength. In that war he sometimes felt the pangs of remorse for slitting the throats of fellow Russians, mowing down clueless Czech legionnaires, and running one raid into the camp of U.S. Marines. Sensitivity, even a little compassion, started to creep into his soul, and the saber wound (a slash across the back by a White Army officer just as Levinson’s sword entered his chest) came almost as a relief. He thought he was done with killing.
In the fateful summer of 1941, with Panzers roaring through the former Pale of Settlement, the urge to kill had returned.
In his late forties, Levinson was no longer prone to Byronism. Now, the urge was to kill and survive, and kill again, as directly as possible, preferably silently, in darkness. Levinson understood both who he was and who he wasn’t. He was a lone fighter, at his best in a detachment of fighters he knew, fighters he had learned to trust. No, a soldier he was not. He required autonomy. Taking orders was not his forte.
Yet, on June 27, 1941, five days after German troops poured across the Soviet borders, a commission of doctors found Levinson unfit for service. This finding came with no explanation. It was utterly absurd. He felt no less battle-worthy than he had been in his early twenties.
Within a week, Levinson was on a truck full of actors, heading toward the retreating Red Army. Yes, while the Red Army was abandoning positions, moving eastward, toward Moscow, Levinson and his players were heading westward, toward the Panzers.
He wanted to find the front even as it moved back toward Moscow, toward catastrophe. Whatever history dragged in, Levinson would be on its cutting edge. He fi red few shots in that war, but he was there, always as close as he could get to the front. There were a dozen of them: musicians, singers, actors. For four years, der komandir brought the Bard to the trenches, mostly in Russian, sometimes in Ukrainian, and sometimes in Yiddish.
Since Mikhoels was nowhere near that truck, Levinson could choose any part he wanted. Mostly, he played Lir. These performances invariably concluded with the stunt that made Levinson famous.
After the bow, Levinson came out of character and said, “I fought with swords in the Civil War, but I developed this leap onstage, to slay Romans. I think it will work just as well against the soldiers of the Third Reich.”
Levinson then picked up a pair of small swords and, with no visible preparation, suddenly allowed his body to unfold into a dazzling leap, a pirouette with a sword in each hand.
With repetition, the leap became higher, faster. You might dismiss this as a vaudevillian display not grounded in character, but if you are inclined to be charitable, you might see that Komandir Levinson was leading Red Army soldiers on an airborne journey across the chasm that separates the stage from life.
The doctors who found Levinson unfit t for service in the Great Patriotic War could have been right.
As Lieutenant Sadykov and the boys continue to search Levinson’s room, the actor’s demeanor swings suddenly from animated to deflated. Just as Sadykov expected, Levinson starts to settle down. He is wearing himself out; psychopaths always do.
A physician might have begun to suspect a presentation of cardiac symptoms or a sudden seizure.
Levinson eases his frame onto the floor, letting the cane drop in front of him.
This is of no concern to Lieutenant Sadykov and the boys.
They look into desk drawers and rifle lazily through Levinson’s belongings. Sadykov opens the mirrored glass door of an armoire, bracing for a strong scent of stale wool and naphthalene.
They aren’t looking for anything in particular, for surely they’ve realized from the outset that if this man has any material of a conspiratorial nature, it would be outside their intellectual grasp. It would likely be in a foreign language, or in some sort of code.
Squatting, Levinson sways lightly, his hands clutching his chest beneath the loose cloth of the robe. This is a position that suggests a combination of prayer; chest or gastrointestinal pain; and, perhaps, a stiff, arthritic spine.
With eyes wide open and focused on Sadykov and the boys, Levinson starts humming a tune, swaying with its simple rhythm.
A student of Yiddish culture would recognize it as a nign, a singsong that starts softly, slowly:
Biri-bi-bomba, biri-bi-bam . . .
Since an ordinary nign is intended to express feelings, not to impart verbal messages, this nign cannot be described as ordinary, for Levinson molds its sound, dropping in fragments of familiar words, gradually shaping partial phrases. Tatatatambadi, yambadi yam . . .
Several of the sounds that creep into that rubbish pile make the boys chuckle, and when the Russian phrase “Gruzinsky khuy sosyot tatarin-kurva” (a Tatar traitor sucks a Georgian cock) emerges as a leitmotif, Sadykov realizes that Levinson’s behavior can be ignored no longer.
“Stop the noise, Citizen Levinson,” orders Sadykov.
Levinson drops his response into the flow of his nign: “Ne mogu.” I can’t.
They stare at each other.
Sadykov is, by function, a predator, but an exploration of his eyes reveals that he doesn’t live to hunt.
Untouched by the passion of pursuit, he is going through the motions of playing a role, an actor badly cast. Why would any arresting officer allow his arrestees to rave? Why would a hunter establish contact with his prey? These are fundamental errors that could have been prevented through better training.
Levinson’s stare reveals something completely different. This dying scene is his alone: the set, the cast, the costumes, even the orchestra is his.
The boys look away. They have nothing at stake. Deployed, they are lethal. Undeployed, they drift into passivity. They await orders. They feel no urgency to slit throats. They are the opposite of citizens. They are your basic cogs, and can anyone imagine anything more soulless than a cog? Would anyone be surprised that Levinson’s biggest fear involved leading men of their ilk on a nighttime raid?
Levinson has no particular dislike for Tatars, Georgians, or, for that matter, men who plea sure each other orally.
On the night of February 24, 1953, his goal is to use the so-called problem of nationalities and what will later be known as homophobia to his tactical advantage. The formula is remarkably simple: the nineteen-year-olds are Slavs (Ukrainians), their lieutenant a Tatar, and their ultimate commanders—Beria and Stalin—Georgians.
To defend the honor of his uniform, to defend his manhood, Sadykov now has to beat this old madman into submission.
Sadykov takes a step toward Levinson.
Levinson is not an inviting target. There can be no assurance that he will not stiff en or even fight back. His exaggerated courtesy and deranged singing notwithstanding, something in his eyes says plainly, “Don’t come near.”
The instant he bends over the actor, Sadykov surely understands that he has made a mistake, for Levinson’s arms are no longer clutching his chest.
As they swing open, suddenly, forcefully, spring-like, Sadykov feels a cold intrusion beneath his chin. It’s far short of pain. Sadykov wants to emit a scream, but cannot. His legs no longer support his body. They buckle, and black arterial blood gushes onto the front of his tunic.
Levinson continues the trajectory of his twirl toward a Ukrainian boy whose hand grasps the handle of a sidearm. He is spring-loaded, graceful.
This movement is not rooted in Levinson’s bloody adventures in the taiga along the Trans-Siberian. There, he was unburdened by technique. This is all stage.
In 1937, the pirouette with small swords, which Levinson first performed in a shepherd’s getup as the curtain fell at the end of the second act of Bar-Kokhba, made Levinson famous among Yiddish-speaking audiences in Moscow and in the provinces. Indeed, in the touring company, Levinson was promoted to the part of Bar-Kokhba.
And now, in 1953, Levinson is airborne once again, a one-man Judean Air Force: a single pirouette, two Finnish daggers, two throats severed, a nign stopped. An acrobat would have bowed, but an acrobat Levinson is not.
The third boy is spared in the leap.
He is becoming cognizant of the fact that his tunic is smeared with the blood of his comrades. This is only his third operation. He started the night with a sense of power. Now, in a flash of smallswords, the sense of power has vanished, replaced by what can best be described as a porridge of questions: Why? How? Who is this man?
The boy raises his hands, an absurd gesture that bespeaks his inability to think strategically.
What is the meaning of surrender to a resister of arrest? How would you expect Solomon Shimonovich Levinson to take you prisoner in the center of Moscow? How would he feed you? How would he house you, especially if you happen to be a soldier of the MGB? Most important, do the Geneva Conventions apply to individuals who find themselves in situations of this sort?
These largely theoretical problems resolve themselves as this would-be prisoner takes a panicked step toward the door. Levinson is all adrenaline now. Movement of the adversary is all it takes to make him pounce. A moment later, the boy lies on the floor, the handles of two Finnish daggers protruding from his back.
It’s anything but an accident that der komandir aims at the throats of his would-be captors.
This choice of targets is consistent with his frustration with what is known as the Jewish Question. The Jewish Question is the subject of many conversations in the winter of 1953. In the streets, people say that Jews have always used Christian blood in their rituals, and that they continue to do so.
They say that Christian blood is used in matzos—dry, cracker-like bread they eat on their Easter. They say that if you look at it, you see the scabs. Also, they say blood is added to sweet pirozhki called hamantaschen. The victims are usually children, who are bled painfully, slowly. But if the Jews can’t find a child to bleed, they use an adult, and if they are afraid of being discovered, they slit their victim’s throat instead of waiting for the blood to drain out of the pinpricks.
They say that when Jews pray, they strap little black boxes with magic writings onto their heads and arms. They hide diamonds in those boxes, too.
They say that the Jews who had become doctors since the Revolution are now secretly killing Russians under the guise of medicine. They do this out of pure hatred, not as part of religious observance, so no bleeding is involved. The newspapers say that a group of them, who worked at Kremlyovka, brought on the death of Comrade Zhdanov and conspired to kill Comrade Stalin. They were caught and imprisoned. Murderers in white coats.
They say that a Jewish doctor was draining pus from the swellings of cancer sufferers and injecting it into healthy Russians. He was caught on a bus, and it couldn’t be determined how many people he had injected. They say he used a special thin needle of his own invention. You wouldn’t feel it, but if he stuck you, you were dead.
They say he was a professor named Yakov Rapoport. They say he was arrested and kept in a Lubyanka cellar.
Levinson surveys the carnage. A smile creeps onto his elongated face. A line pops out of the mass of all the lines he’d ever committed to memory. It flashes before him, a spark from a play never staged, a text never translated:
Ikh for bald opvashn, inem Heylikn Land,
Dos merderishe blut
Fun mayn zindiker hant.
It’s wordier than the English original, and the meter is off, but Levinson is not a poet. This is the best he can do to relay the words spoken by Henry Bolingbroke in the final scene of Richard II, as the coffin of the murdered monarch is brought onstage:
(I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land,
To wash this blood off from my guilty hand . . . )
On February 24, 1953, at 3:34 a.m., exactly four hours before sunrise, as a consequence of Levinson’s brilliant pirouette with Finnish daggers, Bolingbroke’s parting line is awash in fresh blood, and comedy, tragedy, and history abruptly join into one mighty stream.
- Murdered Poets Reading List
- David Shrayer-Petrov and Maxim D. Shrayer: A Fictional Model of the Former USSR: Part I of a Three-Part Conversation
- David Evanier: Red Love and Betrayed Ideas