Alan Lelchuk is the author of the acclaimed novels, American Mischief, Miriam at Thirty-Four, Shrinking, Miriam in Her Forties, Playing the Game, Brooklyn Boy, Ziff: a Life?, and On Home Ground. His most recent book is Searching for Wallenberg, and he will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Meeting Daniel Pagliansky in 2003, the KGB interrogator of Wallenberg in 1945 – 47, was like meeting a soul from Hades. He was a bag of bones in his late 80’s, but his eyes were fierce and his determination steely, and he banged the desk with his fist as though it were a gavel. He yelled at me when he entered the study where I was standing with my interpreter and his son, asked how dare I visit when told explicitly not to! I shivered inwardly at his mad ferocity in his advanced age, but stayed cool and said nothing, letting him beat me up verbally. I knew I was meeting history incarnate here, a Soviet Officer and KGB interrogator who had never before met with a Westerner.
I had heard about the infamous fellow from Nikita Petrov, my friend and guide from Memorial House in Moscow, who had written articles and a book about the KGB, and knew all about its history, rules, protocols. In fact he had warned me, “You will never get to meet with him, you see he won’t even meet up with the FSB who have invited him to speak with them about what went on back then, with Wallenberg, with full immunity in case he needed that.” So Nikita was quite amazed when the meeting occurred, and when I explained to him how it had happened, he nodded. (“Yes, only by crazy chance!”) Here’s what happened. My interpreter and I had called several times, and Pagliansky had politely enough refused, saying he was too ill. But ten days before my leaving Moscow, we were up at Pushkinskaya, a famous square in central Moscow, and we called again, since I knew it was a short walk from his apartment. This time his son answered and said, in Russian to my interpreter, “An American writer? Sure, come on over, Dad is having lunch with mother now, but they will be finished soon.” Rather excited, my fingers crossed, we walked the fifteen minutes to his apartment block, found the apartment, and were greeted cordially by this tall hefty fellow, Gyorgi, the son, a man of about 55. He took our coats and called out to his father in the next room that I was here, the American writer, but then his father yelled back, in Russian, “Why did you let him in! I told him not to come!” But Gyorgi only smiled to us, said father would calm down, just take it easy, and escorted us into father’s study. He asked what I wanted to talk about, I said the World War II era, I was writing a novel about it, and maybe Wallenberg. Gyorgi shook his head, “No, you mustn’t ask him about that, or he will throw you out immediately! Please.” I nodded, and was left to regard the wide oak desk with the glass top covering numerous photos underneath it, and the bookshelves, filled with books in German, Russian, and English. I was tempted to take the small photo of the youthful Pagliansky, handsome in his Soviet officer’s uniform, but instead gazed at the bookshelves, astonished to find Brooklyn leftie writers of the 1930’s like Daniel Fuchs and Michel Gold, as well as Howard Fast. How and why did he collect these hard to find writers?
The interview proceeded for about an hour, with Pagliansky alternately speaking in Russian and English, alternately angry and cool. Once he calmed down after his initial tirade against me and all Americans, he answered my many questions, including that he read those Brooklyn writers to brush up on American idioms and dialogue! I learned that he and his prisoner Wallenberg had much in common: cultural interests, German poetry, architecture, chess. In fact both were budding architects; no surprise, the KGB took special care to assign an interrogator who had close affinities with the prisoner. It was a stunning hour, witnessed by the son and my interpreter.
Immediately afterward I took copious notes, and later on, when writing the novel, I included the scene just as it had happened. But I also extrapolated from it, back to the 1945 – 47 years, scenes of actual interrogation between Wallenberg and Pagliansky, based on the characteristics I had learned from my interview. So I would say that as I was making history, I was also ‘inventing’ history, through literature — an invented credible one based on an actual event and my perception of how it might have gone down years earlier.
Alan Lelchuk’s short fiction has appeared in such publications as Transatlantic, The Atlantic, Modern Occasions, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Partisan Review. He is an editor at Steerforth Press and teaches at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Read more about him here.
Alan Lelchuk is a novelist and professor who was born and grew up in Brooklyn, NY. He received his BA in World Literature from Brooklyn College in 1960 and studied at University College, London in 1962 – 63, receiving his MA in 1963 and PhD in 1965, both in English from Stanford University. He is a co-founder of Steerforth Press, has taught at Brandeis University and Amherst College, and since 1985 has been on the faculty of Dartmouth College.