At the Interrogation
By Lili Berger, translated by Judy Nisenholt
- Written by:
- Lili Berger
- Translated by:
- Judy Nisenholt
- Summer 2022 / 5782
- Part of issue number:
- Translation 2022
The subject of this story by Lili Berger (1916–1996) is the interrogation of a woman writer by Polish security police. They are in pursuit of evidence against a Jewish/Yiddish writer known to the narrator. The setting is Poland in 1961, before the full-blown government-sanctioned antisemitism that would rage in 1968, but here we view the tools of state already being deployed against suspected subversives. The narrator is brought in for eleven hours of questioning as investigators attempt to draw out some shred of testimony that can be used to keep an innocent man in jail. The story is likely close to Berger’s own experience, as she was interrogated when Naftole Herts Cohen [alternately spelled Kon], the Yiddish writer and poet, was arrested in 1960. In the story, a woman coolly attempts to strategize while struggling to remain in control and summon the courage to maintain her integrity in the face of state intimidation.
An unfamiliar, plump, middle-aged woman had come into the house. Her face was indifferent, cool, with a crafted veneer of affability. Her gleaming eyes gave nothing away. Her voice was restrained and colorless.
“Are you Mrs. Nadel?”
“You are requested to come tomorrow morning at ten.” A hall and a room number were mentioned.
“Do you have a printed notice for me?”
“No; I was sent to inform you.”
It was evening. There was no time for Lena to ask anyone’s advice about this, though it came as no great surprise. She could have expected it but had not foreseen that it would happen in this way. It was not hard to guess that it was about the writer Nathan Rabinovitch. She was not the first and would not be the last to be taken in for questioning. Like a filthy drop of greasy oil that falls on the water, his arrest had expanded outward in ever-widening circles. Quietly the news went around from one to another, whispered in an ear. Speculation was rife. This one and that one tried to guess, but no one knew or understood for what sin Rabinovitch had been arrested.
Nathan Rabinovitch had been rehabilitated all of a sudden and repatriated from the Soviet Union. After more than a decade of incarceration in Soviet prisons and camps, he had, after obtaining rehabilitation, come to Poland, where he had gotten a whiff of fresh air and had begun to breathe deeply. An enthusiast by nature, he had embraced life, and for three years or so had felt in Poland’s capital city like God in Odessa, as we say. Though he had come back from the camps with assorted ailments, and it was said that he got a bit touched in the head there, in the new climate all his troubles were resolved, and he spread his previously clipped wings. One small matter: when a person becomes free as a bird, and can follow his heart’s desire, his heart can desire a lot of things: having ties to people in the outside world, choosing words freely in a letter, taking trips (for the time being, at least, in the “fraternal” lands), and speaking and writing with an honesty that had been suppressed for years. In all this there was in no way any opposition to government. On the contrary: Nathan Rabinovitch had, with a child’s nature, rejoiced in everything that was being accomplished in the newfound land.
The misfortune came like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky on a sunny summer’s day. On a still night, when the city was sunk in sleep, the electric button by the door received a deliberate buzz. The household was ordered to remain quiet so as not to disturb the sleeping neighbors, and a search of the house was undertaken. After five or six hours of looking around and rummaging with great professionalism through all the furniture, the pictures, and the carpets, the night visitors put together several packets of manuscripts and books and took them away, along with Nathan Rabinovitch.
Months flew by, and people were still scratching their heads about what they had on Rabinovitch. Some supposed that there were still fringe connections with the places he had come from, and others wanted to imagine that it was because of his loose tongue. Still others said it was because he nosed around where one shouldn’t, that he met up in tourist-friendly hotels with foreign guests. People with an eye on practicalities didn’t want to make guesses and avoided all those who brought up his name. They didn’t know anything and didn’t want to know anything. Best not to get involved.
But the investigators thought the contrary. They actually wanted to get even more people involved. A person is only human, and if you pull on his tongue certainly something will drop out. In secret people began to learn that this one and that one had been called in to give testimony. What did they ask? What did they want to know? It’s not always easy to find out. People don’t want to tell. But the fear in people’s eyes does tell something. If possible, you generally don’t let on that you’ve been taken in for questioning. When something like that is found out, you beg for mercy to be left alone. You only confide in your nearest. The director, Emanuel Kremer, had occasion to let Lena know that an uninvited guest had made a call at his office and, among other harsh questions, asked how a highly placed person such as he had given the arrested man a recommendation to join the writers’ union. And he, Kremer, had in the heat of the moment found a defiant retort: What do you mean ‘how’? Rabinovitch had come to him with a valid identification from the Soviet writers’ union. How could he, Kremer, cast any doubt on such a significant document? How could he not respect an identification with a Soviet stamp? The argument had been like a stick used to ward off a dog.
But Lena had not been able to make contact with Kremer after her unexpected invitation. Her husband figured that they wouldn’t keep her long at the interrogation because they were mainly calling in those who were connected to Rabinovitch before the war. Neither Lena nor he had known the arrested man at all before the war. He was a new acquaintance of Lena’s. Her husband only advised her to say as little as possible. But it’s easy to give such advice. Lena was not one of those who could hold her tongue when her toes or someone else’s got stepped on. However, she repeated to herself the sage directions of her spouse and resolved to answer with only a yes or a no.
The next morning at ten she entered a large building surrounded by a fence. At the door she met the plump woman with the cold expression. They acknowledged each other silently. Without a word, she led Lena through long, twisting corridors. It occurred to Lena that she was leading her through labyrinths from which there was no getting out. On some floor, at the end of a long wide hallway, a heavy double door opened; it was upholstered in heavy fabric, a door from behind which no sound would escape. Behind a wide office desk sat a man who looked like a boxer. He pointed with his hand to a chair opposite him.
“You probably know why we called you here.”
“I don’t know.”
“You know Rabinovitch well, correct?”
“I know him.”
“How long have you known Rabinovitch?”
“And before the war, when did you get to know Rabinovitch?”
“I didn’t know him before the war.”
“And when did you get to know him after the war?”
“As I said, in 1958.”
“In what month?”
“I don’t recall.”
“You don’t recall when he came to Poland?”
“It could have been in the spring.”
“Where did you meet him for the first time?”
“At the writers’ union . . .”
“On what occasion?”
“I went to a reading.”
“Had you agreed to meet him there?”
“I said that I hadn’t known him before.”
“Who introduced you to him at the writers’ union?”
“No one . . . we were sitting together and we got acquainted.”
“No one introduced him?”
“Do you always meet people in this way?”
“It happens sometimes that you get to know a person that way.”
“How is it possible to meet a stranger on one’s own?”
“You feel at home at the writers’ union. You can get to know someone without a third party as a go-between.”
“You get to know a stranger and right away you become close friends?”
He considered this for a moment as if he were deliberating how to put the next question.
“You know why Rabinovitch was arrested, is that not true?”
For a moment Lena forgot her husband’s advice and answered: “No, I don’t know, but I believe—I am sure—that it is a mistake. He is certainly innocent.”
“You believe, you are certain, that we arrest innocent people.”
“I did not say that.”
“You said that you believe and are certain that he is innocent. That means that according to you we arrest innocent people.”
“It happens that mistakes are made. An innocent person gets arrested.”
“You said something different. According to you, it seems that we arrest the innocent; you’re sure of that.”
Lena could no longer restrain herself. She had already also forgotten what she had promised herself, but she managed to make it short.
“You, Director of Inquiry, know better than I that it has sometimes been the case that the innocent are arrested.”
He laid two piercing eyes on her. His lips, tightly pressed together as if holding back a shout, made a slash of his mouth. He opened his drawer, took out a sheet of paper, and looked at it. Lena noticed his hands: broad, thick, muscular; fingers that were full, short, and round as wooden bobbins. She remembered the many times she had seen hands crafted by the master Rodin. Why had the great sculptor fashioned human hands with such passion? Was it not because hands can betray the human character? Or express a person’s inner state? These hands looked as if they were constantly ready for a fight. A blow from them would not leave faint marks. Had he already put them to the test? How long had it been since these hands had been at full throttle? Rabinovitch had more than once felt such hands on his body.
He put the paper back into the drawer and turned his eyes on Lena. He stared daggers at her, but his voice remained calm and restrained: “Rabinovitch was once arrested in Warsaw, so can you tell us how he came to be released and how he traveled to the Soviet Union after that.”
“How could I know, since I didn’t know him before the war?”
“Why won’t you admit that you did know him?”
“I don’t want to admit to a thing that is not true.”
“Did you study in Warsaw before the war?”
“Did you frequent Jewish circles? Yiddish literary associations? The Jewish institute?”
“Had you never met Rabinovitch there? Had you never even heard of him?”
“I didn’t know a lot of people then; I hadn’t heard of them. I was a high school student then.”
“How old were you in 1936 when Rabinovitch was arrested?”
“At that time I had already been abroad for a year.”
“You had ties to the Red Help. It was involved with political prisoners. Rabinovitch was among them, true or not?”
“I don’t know. I had never heard anything about him!”
“Not admitting to knowing him when you knew him makes his situation worse. Why will you not help to clarify this matter?”
“Because I don’t want to tell any lies or things that I am coaxed into saying.”
“You are being spoken to calmly, we are being polite with you, and you’re screaming as if you were being beaten up.”
She glanced at his hands spread out on the desk. She forgot herself entirely and responded: “Insisting that I ‘admit’ that I knew Rabinovitch before the war when I did not know him reminds me of the times when there were beatings.”
His eyes were riveted on her and she felt as if she were being stared down by a pack of dogs. The artificial composure vanished from his face. He made some kind of a movement with his hand. Did he press on a button? Lena didn’t notice. But then, as if emerging from the ground, a person appeared. He came in by an unseen side door and began to fuss away in an archival cabinet. The inquiry director again turned his attentions to Lena in a coldly polite way. “You forget, Mrs. Nadel, that you are in a government office, where you must behave correctly and be honest.”
“I have not forgotten, Director. But I have also not forgotten that I find myself here in 1961 and not ten or twelve years ago when one made confessions to everyone. I did not know Rabinovitch before the war; I see nothing wrong in that, but nevertheless, I did not know him!”
The person who had entered was a tall, robust, elegantly dressed man with shiny hair combed in a side part. He broke away from the cabinet and shot a question in Lena’s direction: “And did your husband know Rabinovitch before the war?”
“I’m sure that he didn’t.”
“Where does this certainty come from?”
“If my husband had known him he would have told me.”
“Does your husband tell you everything?”
Lena felt a cold shiver go through her. She herself didn’t know why. Was it because they wanted to drag her husband into this business or because she was reminded that her husband had also known the taste of a Siberian camp? But she pretended to be ignorant and took the question as a matter of wifely concern. “This is my private affair.”
“Where does your husband work?”
“Why was he removed as the director of the institute?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is this also your private affair?”
“As I understand it, today an accused does not have to answer all questions.”
The first inquiry director now interjected: “You are not here as an accused but as a witness; an accused has the right not to answer all questions. A witness has no such right. We are asking you to tell us what you know about Rabinovitch from before the war.”
“Before the war I had never laid eyes on him and had never heard about him.”
The one who had come into the room intervened: “Let us assume that it is as you say. Today you are friendly with him; what do you know about him from before the war?”
“I know that he was a persecuted communist and was held in the Mokotow Prison.”
“Is that all? Is that all that he told you about himself?”
“That is all.”
The fellow who had come into the room closed the archive cabinet and went out through the same door. The inquiry director stood up and paced the room several times, probably to stretch his legs. Now for the first time Lena saw his massive athletic figure. It was an uncommon feature in someone of a solid, wide build. When he sat down again the chair gave a creak. “You say that you know nothing of Rabinovitch from before the war. You know about the recent years. Tell us about his connections.”
“I don’t know about any connections. I only know that he is a writer and a sick person, constantly dealing with doctors.”
A sarcastic smile came across his large face. “So do you actually know anything about Rabinovitch?”
Lena said nothing. Her mouth and throat felt very dry. Should she ask for a bit of water? No, she would hang on; she had only to speak sparingly. She recollected her husband’s advice: “Say as little as possible.” Maybe if he was getting tired, as she was, he would let up. He did not. After a few seconds he dropped a new question: “Did Rabinovitch come to your home often?”
“And did you go to him?”
“I don’t have time to socialize.”
“Do you mean to say that you seldom met with him?”
“Understand this as you will, Mr. Director.”
“I not only understand but I know that you often met and spent time together. Can you perhaps tell me what he talked to you about during these meetings?”
“About whatever we wanted; who can remember?”
“When two people such as yourselves, a writer and a historian, in particular friends, come together, you don’t speak like housewives about just anything but about important matters.”
“About important things and also about literature, history; these are our fields.”
“And about another area, about his own history—did he not speak to you about that?”
“I don’t know a thing about his history.”
“You are not going to convince me that as a close friend of his he never told you what had happened to him, around him. What did you find out from him?”
Lena felt a pain in her chest cavity as if a wound had opened there. It seemed to her that if she tossed a bundle of words in his face it would get easier for her. But she measured her words and forced them with reticence out of her dry throat.
“I didn’t need to find out from Rabinovitch all the things that you are thinking of, Mr. Director. We found out everything openly from the Twentieth Congress.”
“It isn’t about that; it is about him personally. What do you know about Rabinovitch himself?”
“I know that he sat in prison a guiltless man for many years, like a lot of other innocent people.”
“Don’t you know that a ‘guiltless’ person can turn out to be guilty?”
“I don’t understand the question; I don’t see the connection.”
“As a historian, you must know the workers’ movement. Don’t you know any occasions when people showed loyalty to the party and at the same time served the enemy?”
“What does this have to do with the current testimony?”
“Instead of answering questions, you are posing questions.”
“Because the questions are not clear to me.”
“It’s not that they are not clear to you, but you are refusing to give evidence in the case of Rabinovitch, and a witness has no right not to answer.”
“As a witness, I can only speak about what I know.”
The side door opened again. The tall, elegant man came into the room to take care of some matter and once again began to occupy himself in the archives. The athletic inquiry director leaned into the back of his padded chair as if he were seriously exhausted. His questions were short, they came quickly, and they fell like stones on Lena’s head. Her nerves were as taut as wire. She answered with either a yes or a no. Suddenly the person at the archives cabinet turned around. He listened for a while, approached the office desk, put his hands into his pockets, and turned on Lena with biting irony in his voice: “How did you learn that Rabinovitch had been arrested?”
“I found out like everyone else; it was no secret.”
“Didn’t you find out before everyone else?”
“I don’t know when other people found out.”
“You know when you found out. Did you find out before or after other people?”
Now Lena realized that they had spied on Rabinovitch’s wife. After they took her husband from the house she did not wait long and came running to Lena to tell her what had happened. How should she answer? It was best to feign ignorance.
“I am not obliged to keep a register of who found out first.”
“When was the last time that you ran into the arrested man’s wife?”
“I don’t write down such dates; I’ve got other worries . . .”
“Do you remember perhaps when you were with her at the lawyer’s?”
Lena’s heart gave a jab. They were also spying on her. Before she had figured out what to answer the athletic director of inquiry interjected; he began in a conciliatory tone: “It’s normal; you are friends; you concern yourself with him. Is it not also normal that you should know what Rabinovitch was writing and putting aside for the time being? Didn’t he show it to you?”
“A writer doesn’t show unfinished work until it is ready; you put it aside, you go back to it . . .”
Bad luck! She had taken the bait! She wanted to evade the matter, but he blocked her way with a further question: “He puts it aside, he goes back to it when there is an opportunity to send it abroad; not true?”
“That is not what I said!”
“Yet you speak about what you know! You said that he puts it aside and goes back to it.”
“I was speaking in general about how writers work.”
“And how does Rabinovitch work?”
“I am not in a position to know.”
“Interesting. A close friend of yours, and you don’t even know how he works. So what do you actually know about Rabinovitch?”
Lena felt her face heating up, her knees began to tremble, and she wanted to scream her words, but with effort she held herself back and spoke with a lowered voice. “All I know is that Rabinovitch is a respectable man, a Jewish writer, who suffered unjustly and continues to suffer as an innocent man.”
The elegant fellow raised his head as if challenged to a duel. His face was alight. His eyes began to spark with outrage and his voice grew heated: “What does it have to do with this, his being a Jewish writer? It is all the same to us if Rabinovitch is a Jew or not a Jew. We do not ask that any nationalistic considerations be brought into inquiry! We are internationalists. Do you understand? Internationalists! What is your purpose in mentioning that the arrested man is a Jew?”
Lena bit her tongue. She had stepped onto a slippery slope. Her husband had cautioned her. She rallied her remaining strength. She must be careful, retain her equilibrium like an acrobat, stepping along a wire in midair. She answered with seeming nonchalance: “I have no purpose at all. I answered the question on what I know about Rabinovitch. I know that he is a Jewish writer, that’s all.”
“You are not answering our questions. You have ready-made answers. It would be better to tell us from whom you collected money for the lawyer.”
Lena’s heart gave another jab. She collected herself again with effort and answered calmly: “I didn’t collect money from anyone.”
“And if there are some who will remind you that you took money from them?”
“There can’t be any; if . . . if someone says that, he is telling a lie . . .”
“And you tell the pure truth?”
“I say what I know.”
The square, solidly built inquiry director interrupted the duel. Not long before he had gingerly stepped out of the room, probably for a bite to eat. On returning, he picked up paper and a pen. It was a signal to end. His deputy went off somewhere.
“It is time to write it down. We will now put it on record. You don’t want to tell us what you know about Rabinovitch, so we will record what you did tell us.”
He wrote slowly, and it took a long time. From time to time he straightened himself out and threw Lena a question about a date, a place. Lena grabbed a look at her wristwatch: five in the afternoon! Already seven hours without a break. He had calmed down, and the tall dandy came to replace him. She could not catch her breath. Now too she had to stay watchful. The tension grew. How long would he keep writing? Finally he finished and handed her the document.
“Read it over and sign it.”
She read it over once and then a second time and gave it back.
“I won’t sign this.”
She pointed her finger here and there in the manuscript. “I did not say this, and not this either. It has come out differently than I expressed it. Almost everything is different.”
His cool politeness grew colder.
“You refuse to sign your own statements?”
“Mine I’ll sign, but not these.”
He tried to put it forward in a way that they might come to terms: “You formulated it in different words, but the meaning is the same, with a change to a word here and there.”
“It isn’t about a few words; it doesn’t correspond to my answers.”
“If you want to sit a few more hours we can start from scratch!”
He tore up the few sheets and took to writing again. This time he did it more quickly.
Lena read it and once again refused to sign.
“You do not have the right not to sign! You are going too far! It is a desecration of the fundamental statutes. Do you realize the consequences of not signing a report?”
“I will sign it when it declares correctly what I said.”
His full face became even poutier and turned red. He angrily crumpled the report and threw it into the basket. The questions and answers started up again. Then he wrote quickly and in agitation, and it took longer than before. After more than ten hours of interrogation, Lena again received a text to sign. She felt dizzy. She read, and the words leapt from the lines; her thirst and hunger had put her stomach in knots, and all her limbs were prickling. She read the same sentences two or three times. No, here is not what she had said; in another spot it was open to interpretation. Should she refuse to sign again? The dryness in her throat was getting worse. She thought of her husband, her children. He had said “consequences.” She went back to specific sentences; they were blurry. The letters began to spin in circles. She signed.
“We will take you home in our car.”
“I can go on foot. It’s not far.”
“No. We will escort you.”
The three of them got into the car. Were they taking her to the Mokotow prison on the same street? Otherwise why were they escorting her by car? How great was her astonishment when they brought her to her house. As she was accompanied by them up the stairs, a new thought flew like an arrow from a bow through her mind: a search. This time as well she did not guess correctly. They brought her into the house and immediately invited her husband to come with them.
“Relax. Your husband will come back today.”
They shared a few words. He did come back the same evening. But he was not escorted in a car. There was no longer any need to avoid, as previously, communication between husband and wife.
 Red Help was the name of the Polish arm of the International Organization of Support for Revolutionaries (MOPR). It was an outgrowth of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern of 1922, which offered legal, material, and moral support to the incarcerated.
 Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, when the abuses of Stalin’s regime first became widely public.
Lili Berger is the author of over a dozen books in Yiddish, among them stories, novels, essays, and translations. She was widely published and reviewed in the Yiddish press throughout her writing life. Born near Warsaw, Berger took up residence in Brussels as a student and then in Paris in the mid-1930’s. She managed to survive in occupied France using a false identity, all the while assisting in the rescue of Jewish children. She returned to Poland in 1949, drawn by the hopes of rebuilding the new Poland and reinvigorating Jewish life there. The rise of antisemitism and its attendant discriminatory practices drove her from Warsaw in 1968. Her writing life continued in Paris until her death in 1996.
Judy Nisenholt works as a teacher of ESL and has come to Yiddish translation after many years of acquiring and studying other languages. Her Yiddish acquisition began at home, hearing the language spoken by her grandparents and parents. It was fostered in Winnipeg’s I. L. Peretz Folk Shul, from which she graduated. She has built upon her Jewish day school education through Yiddish reading groups and by translating hand-written Yiddish memoir and letters. Her translation of Lili Berger’s The Last Night appeared in Jewish Fiction.net. She is currently working with a group of other Yiddish translators on a collection of Lili Berger’s writing. This translation has never been published.