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.

Act I

1

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 mum­bling 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.

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Relat­ed Content:

Paul Gold­berg’s debut nov­el The Yid was pub­lished in 2016 to wide­spread acclaim and named a final­ist for both the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award’s Gold­berg Prize for Debut Fic­tion. As a reporter, Gold­berg has writ­ten two books about the Sovi­et human rights move­ment, and has co-authored (with Otis Braw­ley) the book How We Do Harm, an expose of the U.S. health­care sys­tem. He is the edi­tor and pub­lish­er of The Can­cer Let­ter, a pub­li­ca­tion focused on the busi­ness and pol­i­tics of can­cer. He lives in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.