Feature • Eva Zeisel
My mother, Eva Zeisel, was born in Budapest in 1906 to an upper-middle-class, intellectual, assimilated Jewish family. She is now considered one of the most important designers of the twentieth century, but she began as a painter. When she was nineteen, at her mother’s suggestion, she decided to learn a craft, so as not to have to starve in a garret, and apprenticed herself to the last master potter in the medieval guild system. Learning all aspects of pottery, from mushing clay with her feet to selling the wares on the marketplace, she graduated as a journeyman.
Eva worked first at a Hungarian factory, then in a shop in the red light district of Hamburg, and for two years at the Schramberger Majolika Fabrik in the Black Forest of Germany. From the small town of Schramberg, she moved to Berlin in 1930, where she worked for the Carstens factory. She often gave large parties for all sorts of artists and intellectuals—her guests included the young physicists Leó Szilárd and Victor Weisskopf, the writers Anna Seghers and Arthur Koestler (a childhood friend), and two future husbands, Alex Weissberg and Hans Zeisel—and according to her grandmother became “inebriated on amusements.”
Then rather suddenly she decided to “see what was behind the mountain.” A visit to Russia turned into five years, the last sixteen months in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. She was caught in the early Stalinist purges and accused of plotting to kill Stalin. We’ve heard these stories about her Russian adventure since childhood, but for many years Eva did not want to make her prison experiences public (in part because she was afraid that the KGB would come after her in the U.S.—this fear was not far-fetched).
When a friend read these memoirs, he found them disingenuous. He did not believe that one could write about such a serious situation with so much humor and charm. But that is Eva. She often saw herself from the outside. She felt like a tourist in life. This allowed her to see herself in a different, sometimes bemused way. All the details of Eva’s memories that we could check have been accurate.
In 2000, Eva was invited to visit the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in Saint Petersburg—the same factory where she had worked in the early 1930s. My family and I accompanied her on the trip. At the factory, Eva immediately sat down with the model maker and started to design an exquisite tea set. Before we left Russia, we looked across the water at the prison where Eva had been locked up. Until then I had thought of her prison stories almost as fairy tales. I was very moved; Eva was not. After all, she said, I only saw it from the inside.
Memories of long ago are not true. They have been gilded by time, the way I remember them now, with love for my youth, sentimentally, of myself—slim and energetic, resistant, sad, alert. I speak of myself as much as of the things that happened to me. None of it is true, but I shall be precise reporting my memories.
It all started with Mother bending over me to wake me up. It all ended with this. This, for a long time, was the end of my good life. Even today, my heart repudiates this memory bitterly. Even now, I think of this moment when my mother bent over me as one of the happiest of my life. I had slept particularly well, probably dreamed very happily, and when I saw her, I put my arms around her neck and we smiled at each other. It was only four o’clock in the morning, hardly light, and no time to get up.
The day before, I had been particularly cheerful. I do not remember why it was such a happy day. I had gone to the beauty parlor and had my nails manicured, my hair done, and a facial massage. I felt pretty when I got back to the office to have a meeting with my boss’s boss; there was a flirting atmosphere between him and me. It was May 27, 1936. I walked home through the park. There were people lying in reclining chairs, children playing. Everything seemed clean and friendly.
I do not remember the evening. Mother and I shared a room in the little apartment in Moscow we rented with my brother, his wife, and small child. After dinner together, we must have had a good evening before I went to bed. And now Mother was bending over me to wake me up. Mother was very pretty, but it was not customary between us that she was openly tender or loving. So her smile and maybe her kiss (this I forget) must have come as an unexpected present.
“Well,” Mother said, “there are some people here to see you.”
It never occurred to me that I could have done something wrong. Not even then did it occur to me that something might happen to me personally. I looked around and saw a woman and the building superintendent. I got up and put on my housecoat, a green-checkered one of wool flannel. Suddenly there were more men in the room. I became quite ill at ease. They looked at my letters and at my photographs. They stopped at two of them. One was an enlarged snapshot of me on a beach with my eyes closed. It looked like a mask of my dead face. The men passed the photograph from one to the other and they smiled, and it scared me. I do not know whether I realized then or later that they thought I would soon be dead.
They also found a picture of a pistol, an enlargement I had made. It had been the fashion at that time to make partial enlargements of things so they looked like something else. Like speaking a word over and over again and changing the meaning of a syllable. At the time I got my camera, which I had bought with my first earnings from the Schramberg factory, I was living with the Leichsenring family. They had a little girl, and I took pictures of her dolls’ heads, heads of broken dolls. I also took a picture of her father’s pistol, a tiny one, with many little bullets laid out in a row, and I enlarged it into a pattern. They took other photographs, too. It must have been interesting for them to see what a foreigner had among her letters and photographs and personal belongings.
I remember feeling life receding from me and myself being set apart. They were not rude. They were extremely polite. After a while they said, “Well, you’d better come along.” This was a shock. They showed me the order for my arrest. I started to pack a few clothes and Mother helped. Then the woman said, “Take more handkerchiefs, you might need them.” And I wondered, “Just for a few days? It can’t be for long.” The woman answered, “Just take your handkerchiefs and a little more underwear.” She watched while I dressed.
My garter was broken. The button that held the stocking was missing. As usual in such cases, when I didn’t have a penny or a kopeck I took a little piece of paper, folded it into a square and put it into my garter holder to hold my stocking. The woman pointed toward the wad of paper and said, “Give me that piece of paper.” She unfolded the little piece of newspaper, which was not much bigger than a fifty-cent piece, noted that this had been clandestinely put into my stocking, and took it away. I asked her whether I could talk to my mother alone and she said no, only in front of her.
I had to go through the other room, where my brother and his family lived. When I passed them, my brother, Michael, had a doll in his hand, a puppet, and holding the arm of the puppet between his fingers, he waved the little hand to me good-bye. The baby was in the corner sleeping. I do not know whether I kissed my mother good-bye. I might have, under the eyes of this woman.
Then we all walked down to the car. The light of the morning had flooded the courtyard, unexpectedly gray and cold. The man and woman asked the building superintendent to cut them some branches from the flowering bushes surrounding the house, and he got a knife and cut big branches of Japanese cherries and peach blossoms. They filled the open car with flowers. I sat in the back, between two of them. There were two more plus the driver. It seemed so incongruous that I forgot that it was me they had arrested, and I smiled.
One of them turned back and asked the other, “Do you have a cigarette?” I had some and offered my packet to him, saying, “Here, have one.” But he refused. Suddenly I understood that I was no longer a part of the people who were well and harmless. To take a cigarette from me was wrong. I was set apart, and my heart fell again.
They asked where else I had things and I told them I had been given an apartment recently. I had to put something in there, to take possession, kind of like a squatter, so I had some old suitcases filled with newspapers. We went to my new apartment and they said, “Eva Alexandrovna, is this all you have?” And with their saying “Eva Alexandrovna,” I felt a part of humanity again. It was good to be called by my name and my father’s name, and for this, I was grateful to them.
I do not remember entering Butyrka Prison. I do not remember the door opening and closing behind me. I remember walking through the courtyards with a Red soldier behind me, being led to be searched, showered, and photographed. I was surprised that the photographer was just a simple man, like any photographer, who asked me to look forward and sideways. He put a number in front of my chest and I thought, This will make me look like those pictures of criminals one sees, Wanted for Murder. Then they took me to be fingerprinted, one finger rolled in the ink after the other, and again I thought, It’s like the movies. Again, we walked through many courtyards and the funny thing was that I did not see anybody. It was all empty. Finally, I was in my cell, and I still did not know what it was all about.
My heart was not heavy, not appropriately heavy, not as you might think it ought to have been. The cell was really a small room with a wooden floor. It was part of a round building so it was lopsided and had an irregular window with a shield in front of it so you could not see out. In the corner stood a bucket, and that was terrible. It smelled and it was an indignity. There were two cots for beds.
Here was a new life and I had to be in control of it. I knew that every thought from now on was to be the work of my mind. I thought of the car trip. The trip had been beautiful. We had driven through town, through the waking city and past the house of my last lover. His curtains were drawn. He lived just on the second floor, and I had looked up and smiled.
Every so often something would strike me as funny, like the pussycat. It was Natasha’s pussycat. Natasha was my cell mate. She had been arrested just the day before I arrived; taken from a train on the way to visit her aunt with a basket full of food and a pussycat. Now it was meowing outside the cell, and it made my heart sad, reminding me of how small and helpless a pussycat can be and how life can be the same way. In prison it is hard to defend yourself from unplanned thoughts.
Natasha was the softest, dirtiest, friendliest girl. We spent the day together, she sat on her cot and told me she had once been in a theater. They had played Eugene Onegin, and in a singsong voice she recited the poem to me. I do not know who Natasha was but she certainly was the most neglected thing I ever saw. There was something fuzzy about her, and her underwear was so dirty.
On the third day they took me away. Quite unexpectedly, I was called out. (They usually called you by asking “What is your name?” through the little peephole in the door. They do this so that others cannot hear your name, because it might not be your real name, or, because if it is, it might be revealed to others.) The voice said, “Bring your things with you.” So I packed my belongings into a scarf (or perhaps it was a kerchief or a paper bag), said good-bye to Natasha, and walked through the courtyards again, two men in front and two in back of me. I entered the prison van from the back. To the left and the right were small cubbyholes, and I was put into one of them. I do not know why it struck me as funny, because it was really rather sordid. It was undignified to be driven around Moscow in a cubbyhole, but it was an experience which did not happen to everyone.
The next thing I remember was that we were standing among thousands of people in a huge hall with a glass dome over it, and I had to go with a woman to undress to see whether I had something on me which did not belong there. It was nighttime. It was not gruesome, although it made a Gogolesque impression, or a scene from Hogarth or Daumier. A young girl in uniform took charge of me and we boarded a train. It was a regular passenger train, with one car reserved for prisoners. In one of the first cages sat my model maker, Hermann Fuhlbrügge, an honest, upright, working-class man, who took a long time laying out his tools before starting to work, who was always spotless. Now he sat here, his head in his hands, with flaming red hair and stubble, unkempt, exploding with fury and indignation, looking the image of a hardened criminal: here, I thought, was great cause for mirth. He did not notice me as we walked by.
We were going to Leningrad, away from anybody who cared. I was getting deeper into it. My feelings embraced me now and pulled me in—away from what had been my life. My “luggage” was taken from me. I heard the life on the platform and the rebellious shouts of the criminals—loud, dirty mouthed, vulgar—next door, and for the first time I was alone, alone with nothing in the world. In my hand I held two clean sanitary napkins. They smelled of disinfectant. When it became too rough in the next cage, the commander admonished the criminals to mind their language because of the lady next door. I smiled; I was still part of the outside world. We arrived in Leningrad after a long night on a hard bench. I had slept with my cheek touching the two sanitary napkins, which were like clean little pillows covered with gauze. I saw Fuhlbrügge get out first, reluctantly and rebelliously; he was pushed into the van. I got out after him and was put into a black limousine. I had not washed that morning, but unsmilingly, in the smelly toilet of the train, my attendant had offered me her lipstick, comb, and pocket mirror. I remember seeing the heavy gates of my new prison swing open. At that moment the girl turned her head and looked at me—so scared and so full of pity and awe; was she wondering what I felt, thinking I would never come out of there?
I was put into a cupboard. The difference between my life now and life just three or four days before was so great and so baffling that I somehow accepted the fact that I was now in a cupboard. From the grunts and snorts I heard, Fuhlbrügge was in a nearby cell or cupboard. He sounded like a rhinoceros.
This was my first chance to prove to myself that I was impervious to inconveniences such as living in a cupboard, and I decided to make myself as comfortable as possible and to keep up my spirits as well as I could. I was in complete charge of the cupboard. I sat up on the bench, sideways, and tried to straighten my legs. The cupboard was not wide enough. That was not good, as it is necessary sometimes to straighten one’s legs. Then I tried to lie down on my back with my knees pulled up, embryo-style, but this, too, was not very comfortable, even though I used my little bundle of belongings as a pillow. It was not as bad as all that, but it was not really good. Well, I thought, if I can’t bend my legs, if I can’t keep my legs straight, if I can’t get my knees comfortable curling up on the bench, neither sideways nor lying on my back, I’ll be rather cramped in this cupboard.
I thought the main thing is to get good brisk movement and circulation because good spirits are dependent on it. And with the vigor of my convictions, I started to do gymnastics. I waved my arms as far as possible, one at a time. I tried to stand on my head. This was rather easy in the cupboard because there is not too much room to fall; you can support yourself by touching the walls. I was standing on my head, my skirt falling down over my face, when I noticed that the little round peephole did not close as fast as before, and I burst out laughing, thinking of the guard at the other end and his puzzled face. My work well done, the gloom conquered and rejected, I started to plan my days.
I was prepared to sort my thoughts into good, long ones—those that were permitted—and those that were to be forbidden. Every so often, the picture of my mother crept into my mind, her bending over me, her smile, her prettiness, her warmth. These thoughts I had to brutally put away. This was the taboo of my days. I knew that if I allowed myself to think of the sun outside, of Mother, of my work, of the flirt in the office, of my lover waiting—the big, lovely, good-looking boy—that my sanity would not be safe, that I, too, would bang the walls and throw myself around like Fuhlbrügge. Righteousness was not here to guide me in the cupboard. I understood that it was I who was now my whole world. In me was all the power for beauty and dignity and strength, and I sat down on my bench and started to think a thought of far away and long ago.
I do not know how long I was in the cupboard, nor who took me to my cell. I pushed away the feeling of finality, but I was frightened: Natasha, the train ride, even the cupboard had held suspense; now I was scared I had been forgotten. The big metallic door fell into place and the big key was retrieved. I was alone. There was nothing to tie me to my life except a small bundle of my things. Mother does not know where I am. She’ll be looking for me. She has not the slightest idea that I am here.
I sat down on the mattress. Time passed. I folded my clothes carefully on the two small shelves. My hand lingered on one blouse. It was white silk with embroidered flower buds to the left and to the right of a jabot of little pleats. I was wearing a good skirt and a waist-length jacket. I had also brought a narrow-waisted dress of brown wool, embroidered with small flowers. It had always bothered me that the hem was not quite even. I also had my green-and-black-checkered woolen housecoat, which I had made. It had a wide, pointed collar with hand-crocheted black woolen lace. Then there were the handkerchiefs, some underwear, a toothbrush, and ankle-high, red saffian slippers with soft sheep’s wool inside and a glamorous, cheerful, fairy-tale beard all around the top. I put them down and feasted my eyes on them.
I had no idea why I was there. I had to take hold of myself. I combed my hair. I walked to the toilet, looked into the distorted mirror of the toilet bowl. I looked at my nails. They were still pink and clean and the polish was still intact. There was nothing by which to count the minutes or hours or to fill them; you have to have a measure of time to be able to plan it. Time was the emptiness and fullness of cell number 4.
Sometimes it seemed as if people were crying but it was the doves in the early morning—cooing and making love. For a long time I thought it was the other prisoners. You fill this whole terrible atmosphere with your imagination. You fill it with fear and suspicion about what is happening to other people. I had the feeling there was a tremendous amount of noise, even though it was tremendously quiet. You could not even hear when somebody came to open the peephole on your cell door. In front of each cell was a rubber mat, and the guards wore felt slippers so you hardly ever heard anybody walk, except a prisoner walking up the metal steps to the doctor, or a door opening or shutting with a bang, or the big soup bucket when it came around, or when a key turned somewhere in the four stories. Every noise was metallic. In the emptiness of the cell, the slightest noise became gruesome. Each noise was so weighty that when I later told an investigator I could not sleep because there was so much noise, he said, “Noise? In the prison cell? It’s absolutely quiet!”
The First Accusation
The first time I was called out, I was taken to a large, elegant office and there was Mr. Nikultsev. He spoke with me in German; he was a very quiet, nice person. I think he started to ask me who my friends were. I saw him each day for about a week, late in the evenings. At around midnight, he would have tea brought in, and usually a cheese sandwich and caviar. He had not yet told me why I was there.
Soon thereafter I was seen by him and a Commissar Berman together. Berman asked me for the names of people I knew in foreign lands, and I mentioned Arthur Koestler and Anna Seghers, who was a good Communist. Berman spoke quite nicely to me and then showed me a piece of paper that was the accusation. I remember that as he handed it to me he said, “Bykhovskii accuses you of wanting to kill Stalin.”
Mikhail Bykhovskii had been a colleague at the Lomonosov factory; he was a technical engineer. Although he had never been unpleasant to me and surely liked me, I found him a slimy sort of person and disagreeable. His wife had worked in the German Trade Commission in Berlin with my mother’s cousin Ernö Seidler. He had been a Hungarian revolutionary, a leader of the Red Army defending Budapest against the Rumanians who marched in bringing Fascism. Today there is a big plaque on one of the streets in Hungary saying he defended Budapest, and my mother always said, “That’s why we lost it!” He was a very gentle person and a good friend in Russia. About two weeks before I was arrested I had seen Seidler at a party and he told me that Bykhovskii’s wife had said that if Bykhovskii had not already been married, he would have married me. This did not impress me.
This was Bykhovskii’s accusation: That he had met me, that I had been very hostile to Stalin in my conversations, that he had tried to hold me back in my hostility but that it had not worked. That I had said Stalin ought to be killed and I knew somebody who was an excellent shot, namely my model maker, Fuhlbrügge, whom I had invited to Russia as my model maker, but would really be the triggerman. This was the worst possible accusation: to have plotted a terrorist act, an attentat on the Great Leader. Of course, I thought I would be shot. I remember I had a blue jacket on, and I wiped my nose with the back of my hand, my tears and my nose. Berman said, “Look what you’re doing, look what you’re doing, you make your hand dirty.” And I said, “Well, that’s the least of my troubles, and you wouldn’t worry about that if you had gotten what I have just been given here.”
Then he asked me when I had last seen Bykhovskii. On my way to this meeting I had seen him in the corridor. He had looked at me in a cockeyed sort of way—kind of pale and apologetic. So I told Berman, “Just now, outside in the corridor.” He and Nikultsev looked at each other. I asked, “Shouldn’t I have said that? Was that a mistake in stage direction? A regiefehler?” Berman said, “We don’t make mistakes in staging.”
My First Interrogator: Nikultsev
Nikultsev did something very important for me. I was in love with a high-up NKVD man, Jascha, a member of the Foreign Section who was at that time on a secret mission. I knew he was in Manchuria, and this was not a healthy thing to know. I told Nikultsev that I knew Jascha, and he asked me about him. Then, putting his eyes down, because whenever something is important they look aside, he said, “Well, this information I am going to take with me to Moscow. It’s really nobody’s business here. It isn’t necessary to make a fuss over it, don’t mix it up with your affairs.”
After about a week, Nikultsev said he would soon be going back to Moscow. “I have told the investigators here everything I know,” he said. “You will have a very hard time and it will last very long. The main thing is the confrontation, because at the confrontation they are going to make up their minds as to who is telling the truth.”
“Do you mean this is like a witchcraft trial, that you have to run over hot coals and, depending on whether you burn or not, your innocence is proven?” He laughed and asked what he could do for me. I told him I was allergic to cold water because of frostbite, and he ordered that I be given a little bit of hot water every day to wash. Then he gave me a newspaper and said, “You must keep your nerves together.”
At that time, and even years later, I felt that Nikultsev had come to find out whether the accusation was true, whether Stalin’s life had really been in danger. I was sure that he soon became entirely convinced of my innocence.
Soon after meeting Berman, I was taken in front of a board of about seven people. The center man had a collar with a big star on it. I knew that if you had a star, you were a marshal, and there were only, I think, five marshals in the whole country. They asked me about Bykhovskii and what Nikultsev had said. For instance, Nikultsev had asked whether Bykhovskii had any reason to wrong me, and I had told him what Seidler had told me—that if Bykhovskii would have married anyone else it would have been me. The marshal tried to convince me that this was why Bykhovskii had wronged me. “Surely you refused his advances.” I told the marshal that he had never made any advances. “Surely he must have loved you and he must have…” He tried to make me say that this man had a grudge against me. If it could be shown that he was a jilted lover, the denunciation might not stand. There was a legality, a cleanliness. I was often told that if somebody wrongs you because he holds a grudge, they accept this as a legal argument for your innocence. But I declined to do this. I was convinced that I had to say the truth. I was completely innocent. If I now started to say something that was not true, I might be caught in a net. I never doubted that the best thing was to tell the truth.
Then I went back to Nikultsev. He did not push any lies on me. He seemed to want to get to the truth, to find out if Stalin’s life was in danger, and get back to Moscow. He did not want to know anything else. He seemed to be a decent and proper person. I wonder if he was shot? He was too decent not to be shot. I often thought of him. I remember that many, many months later the korpusnoi, the little man who picked me up at my last meeting with Nikultsev, mentioned that he remembered Nikultsev giving me the newspaper and speaking to me in German. The korpusnoi was a small, simple boy. He must have been very much impressed by the way Nikultsev spoke to me because he mentioned it with some respect. Nikultsev had spoken to me as one speaks in the drawing room, and he had wished me well.
Well, Nikultsev abandoned me. There I was, with the hot water and the newspaper. It had a great feeling of unreality. I mean, I was a designer of china; I was not in the business of killing Stalin. Imagine yourself! It’s rather ridiculous. I was not even a political person. Alex Weissberg, my husband at the time (from whom I was already long parted) was a political person. He had strong opinions; he criticized. I did not criticize. I was completely apolitical. I had come as a tourist to see what was behind the mountain. I was interested in the Communist economy, in how this planned economy worked and how the Russians functioned, but I was not critical at any point. Although Stalin had already started to kill the peasants and kulaks, I somehow did not feel strongly about the whole thing. At that time I did not have any political side to me. I did not know anything about Trotsky. I am sorry to have to admit, but all the time I also looked at myself from the outside. You see, most of the time I did not believe that I would have an opportunity to relate this to anybody. I really did not. There was very little probability that I would live—nobody wished me well after Nikultsev had gone.
My Investigator: Elias Semenovich
Elias was to become my personal investigator. His last name was Shmalts and his patronymic was Semenovich. He was tall and good looking. He came out from behind his desk and reached out his hand to me, saying, “I am your investigator. I am twenty-six years old and I am a lieutenant.” That was a source of great pride for him because he was very high up for his twenty-six years. He sat down and talked to me in a friendly kind of way. He said, “How do you do?” and he meant: “Here I am. I will do everything I can so that you will end up in here for good.”
Unfortunately, I do not remember much of the first investigation with Elias. I do not remember what one can talk about for hours. All the other people were shouted at: “Fuck your mother!” for hours. The shouts sounded like whips! He could not tell me to fuck my mother, I mean, he could not tell me for practical reasons! Earlier, they had tortured people in various ways, and when I left they reintroduced it, but they never physically tortured me. Throughout the next six months, I saw Elias quite often. He did his best to get a confession. Well, looking back, maybe he did not do his very best. What I find so fascinating is that the people who were busy putting me to death were completely nice people. I would have invited them to my home if I had met them in other circumstances.
The way they try to break you is by breaking your dignity. One day his colleague came by and Elias said, “What can I do with her? Look at her, look how she sits!” When I was opposite him, I sat straight; I mean my dignity was absolutely perfect. But he made me very dependent on him: Elias had to sign for every shipment of food from my mother and he also had to sign when I had books. He could deprive me of these benefits. When he asked me what my mother sent in the food packages, I said, “Probably exactly the same as your mother would send you if you were in my position. Just what mothers send.”
One day Elias asked me what I did in prison. I said I wrote poetry. When he asked what ink I used I told him that they gave me cigarettes, matches, and sugar. So I put some cigarette ashes on the sugar and burned it. The ashes helped the sugar to burn and this became a very deep brown molasses. “And what pen do you use?” I used the little piece of wood that was sometimes stuck in the kilo of bread (when the bread was not a complete kilo they attached another piece of bread to it with a little piece of wood). The wood was not very dry so I pulled some threads out of my clothes and, by winding them around it, compressed the wood until it had a very fine point. For paper, I took the wrapping off the cans Mother sent me. (They took the cans out of my cell, but I could keep the wrapping.) I could write as much as I wanted in these tiny, very clean letters, not bigger than a sixteenth of an inch high. Eventually, I memorized the poems, and the papers went down the toilet.
I also had a quill; I took it from a pigeon—I put some bread in the little opening in the window, and one beautiful day I was sitting there with a pigeon in my hand and I took the feather out of his behind and told him to go out again. But the quill did not help too much because I was not very well acquainted with what to do with it. One day they forgot to take a can of something out of my package so I took it and later with my two hands tore it into pieces, which is very difficult. I kept one of these small pieces in my shoe. I kept this “knife” with me all the time. Occasionally, my mother sent an apple. I could peel this apple with my teeth so that the whole spiral stayed absolutely intact, which alarmed the guards greatly because how could I do that without a knife? But it really was my teeth. When I came out, I still had the knife in my shoe.
What were my feelings? First of all, you are in a cage, in a dark gray-green cage, without any books, without anything to do. You cannot survive if you say, “This is a mistake. I must be released!” You can only survive by saying, “I have closed my life. I have had a wonderful time, but I have nowhere to go from here.” You cannot think of your mother, you cannot think of a pussycat, you cannot think of a child, you cannot think of anything in your recent past. And there is no future. I was twenty-nine and a half. You can think of your long-ago past, or speak French to yourself.
The Daily Routine
Let me tell you about my daily routine. You went to bed at nine at night, unless you were called out for an interrogation. At seven in the morning, they opened up the little wicket in the door and said, “Give me your spoon.” I had an aluminum bowl, an aluminum mug, and a wooden spoon, a carved Russian spoon, with a narrow handle and a round bowl. I put the spoon through the opening and she ladled two teaspoons of sugar into it. Then the tea came from a huge teakettle, and a block—one kilo—of dark, sour, moist bread. There was a way to call the attendant. I forget what it was. When you needed toilet paper, she came and gave you a small square of brown paper. I did have a toothbrush. Some people had their toothbrushes taken away (you can use it for choking yourself), but I had a toothbrush to clean my teeth, and then I brushed my hair and washed my face. Then I would do gymnastics. Once when I was standing on my head, bicycling with my legs, the guard, the second-youngest one, opened the peephole and said, “Your arms look as if they were turned out of wood.” That was Russian. She opened the peephole just to say that my arms were beautiful. Then came lunch. There was often a soup, mostly a cabbage soup with a little bit of potato and meat at the bottom. From time to time, we had a fish soup; it was obviously given to us after the hospitals or other institutions had gotten the rest of the fish. It was full of fish fat, with these big eyes floating around, many big eyes. That was too much. That could not be eaten.
After about three weeks, one of the guards, the skinny one, said, “Your bowl is not very shiny. Wash your bowl better.” When I asked what I should wash it with, she said (in Russian), “With human bone.” In English, you would say “elbow grease,” but I did not know that, so I swallowed and said, “All right, give me some.” I had the feeling that once my fellow prisoners had died their bones were ground up for me to wash my bowl with!
At the beginning, I had the newspaper, so after lunch I sat down to read it. The one Nikultsev had given me lasted a long time, six months. I can tell you what was in the newspaper: there was one article about the Armenians. They began to endear themselves to me more and more because they had kept the Greek philosophers for us in their monasteries during the Middle Ages. Then there was—there must have been one more newspaper because all that could not have been in one newspaper—there was the draft of the new Russian constitution, which I came to know by heart. I had learned Russian mostly from a dictionary with a little grammar in the back, and I had memorized a great deal. After reading the newspaper, I would walk from one corner of my cell to the other systematically. Six and a half paces diagonally. Then I composed poems. Most of my poems had the cadence of the six and a half paces. In the evening, the little wicket opened again and someone said, “Pass your bowl,” and there was soup, and then the light went on for the night.
There is so much time to be consumed without despairing—it is very hard work; it is a constant effort. And then, of course, your feeling of time changes. When I came out, I hardly started on a thought and it was already midday. In prison you are happy to have one thought in an hour and a half. One of my thoughts involved constructing a bra. I knew how it would be sewn and designed and constructed, and that made a very good day because it was so well filled. I had another very good thought. Just before I was arrested, I had received half a room as my own living space from the commissar because I worked so well. This room was still whole when I saw it but it was supposed to be cut in half. In my cell I thought about how to make a very elegant party in such a room, how one would come in, where who would sit, and I furnished this entire room.
The main thing was to prevent your heart from dropping. I also played chess with myself, or mühle, making little square tic-tac-toes out of pieces of the soft bread. I was not in control of who won; I could say which side I wanted to win, but I always won in spite of myself! And then there was the sunshine. I had the sunshine from here to here, and then it disappeared. Every third day I was taken for a seven-minute walk in the courtyard. Every ten days they took me down the hall for a shower. In the shower, someone had scratched the name Pushkin, and I was touched to see the national hero remembered here.
There were two korpusnoi, and several women guards. One of the korpusnoi was a big fellow, the other a small Jew, who at the very end of my sixteen months, when I was being sent out of the country, said to me, “You will be back. You’ll see, all this will change and you’ll come back.” Of the women guards, one was an old, roundish sort, one was very thin, and one was a middle-young girl. It was the latter who said to me, “This job is all so educating, so educating.” She was about twenty-five and very soft. She once poured out her heart to me, telling me of her terrible troubles, not noticing that mine were so much greater.
The Other Prisoners: My Neighbors and Cell Mates
For sixteen months, I lived in cell number four. I talked to my first neighbor, in cell number five, through the faucet, which I had jiggled enough to be able to talk through. She was a very normal person, a dentist, I think, from Arkhangel’sk, and a Social Revolutionary. But after some time, she started to repeat on and on and on: “Shtolanya… what evil did I do, what terrible thing did I do?” When somebody came into her cell, I heard him say, “Why do you bite your hands? They are bloody, why do you bite your hands?” She was punishing herself by biting her knuckles. Then a man came in and said, “Well, if you committed a crime…” pretending that he thought she had done something wrong. But what she had really done, she told me later, was to accuse innocent people. Apparently, she just gave up and nodded yes to everyone they asked about. They were all arrested, and she went off her rocker.
My neighbor in number three tried to commit suicide by hanging herself. Her name was Natasha, and she was accused of belonging to a “social group.” Someone in the group had said something that by law had to be denounced, and by not denouncing this person, everybody was now involved and was open to blackmail. I taught Natasha how to knock on the wall so we could “talk” to each other. How did I know about knocking? From two sources. I had seen it in a Russian movie showing how the old revolutionaries knocked on the prison walls to communicate with each other—they had shown the grid and the letters—and the same grid was engraved on the wall of the shower. I saw it in the shower and I think that reminded me of the movie. I saw Natasha only once. When you walked somewhere there was a guard in front and a guard behind you. They knocked on the walls to announce their coming, and when you passed another prisoner you had to turn away. But I still saw her. She was a very tall, blond girl with straight braids, completely straight blond braids, down to her ankles. After Natasha tried to hang herself they came into her cell to cut her down and I heard her shout and cry. Much later I knocked to find out what had happened. We always said only the beginnings of words. Whenever a word is already understood you knocked quickly a few times, because it is a very long process to make a whole word. So I said, knocking, “I heard you shout and cry.”
“They beat me,” she answered.
I knocked back, saying that I thought they had cut off her braids. When she asked why, I said, “Because they’re so practical for hanging yourself with.” She knocked immediately: “Ha, ha, ha.” Laughing through the wall like this was very funny.
When Natasha was being cut down, the girl in number six shouted through the whole cell block, “Don’t get the korpusnoi, get a doctor!” Number six was always indignant. Of course, one had every reason to be indignant; there was injustice in every cell. But one could not be indignant without going crazy. Finally, I did hear number six being dragged out on the floor.
I knew several people in number five. Whenever somebody new came, the perfumed soap could be smelled through the carefully jiggled faucet. One neighbor was Galina, a young married woman Her husband was a hydroelectrical engineer. At that time a great percentage of hydroelectrical engineers were being arrested. Poor girl, she said she knew that her husband belonged to a Russian Fascist organization that was connected to the German embassy, and that anytime the boss came in she was sent out of the room. But it was certainly not a counterrevolutionary organization—her husband had told her it was a revolutionary organization, so why were they accusing her of being a counterrevolutionary? And I said, “My dear, against whom was this revolution?” I do not know why she did not know what her husband was doing. She certainly was not bright. She did not know what Fascism was. She was completely apolitical.
Galina and I developed a great friendship. We never discussed sex (I was completely frigid when I came out), but we did not mind indulging in food. We read about it with great pleasure. She got the books I recommended, with very good menus: Dickens always had very good things to eat, so had Gogol, so had Cellini. After a while, we talked in Cellini’s terms: “I have a dagger and I will push it through your heart,” and such things. Then I told her what Fascism was. I had a book there by Kronin, a history of the Party. The prison librarian had left it with me for my instruction—until one day he retrieved it with great alarm, as in the meantime it had been declared dangerously counterrevolutionary. One day she was told she was going to be put in a much worse prison. Ours was really a very good prison, it had a toilet, it was more or less clean. Before she left, Galina came to the faucet and said, “Eva Alexandrovna, you will be my lightest memory throughout my life.” Then she left. That was Galina.
Then there was another woman, who sang Offenbach—Orpheus in the Underworld or Beautiful Helen. You were not supposed to sing or to whistle, you were not to make any noise except giving your name when the guard came to take you out. She was arrested for having guaranteed an affidavit. She was a high Party functionary who had stood up for someone else. The rule was that anybody who guaranteed for anybody else got the same prison sentence. She was humming these Offenbach tunes, very gently and very sweetly, and I asked her if she did not want to think about her case—about her defense? She said there was nothing to think about and continued singing, deep into the night, until she was taken away.
During the time of Galina, I had a roommate for four months who was my scourge. She was my scourge because of her complete idiocy. Actually, she was a nurse. She went to the German school. One day she came back from her investigation and said that the investigator had told her something she could never repeat, it was so horrible. I told her to try to repeat it and she whispered: “Donnerwetter!” That means thunder-weather. It is as if you would say “Darn it!” in English. She was so pompous and stupid that I could not resist educating her, a bit upside down—telling her that Hamlet was a musical and Africa a mountain. I told her all sorts of wrong things. She was very religious, and when I asked what language Jesus spoke, she said, “Of course, Old Church Slavonic!”
And then there was this prostitute in my cell. She was there only six or seven days. She said that before she had been arrested, she had taken her silk shantung to a seamstress somewhere out of town to be made into a blouse, and that this seamstress and her husband were old aristocrats who always turned on Hitler’s speeches when she came in. This was, of course, forbidden. She constantly complained about the loss of the silk shantung blouse. But she wanted to use the time very well, so she asked me how foreigners make love. She was an industrious professional and wanted to know everything. I am not really going to tell you all she told me, but she did give me some very important advice. When we had nothing to do, my prostitute roommate and I tried to see how many different types of dogs each of us knew, Saint Bernard, dachshund, et cetera. We had to use the time somehow. But then she started to say, “Well, Stalin is really terrible, oughtn’t he be killed?” or some such thing. To this I said, “I’ll call the guard if you don’t shut up.” She was just a very stupid agent provocateur, I think, because later I noticed her washing the floor outside the cell, which meant that she was a criminal, not a political prisoner.
Just before the end, a lovely, high-spirited German girl was put in with me. She had worked as a Russian spy in Hitler’s Germany. She was careful not to disturb the spiderweb spanning my cell, which I had protected for so long. She somehow understood that my life hung by this thread.
My Mother’s Packages
My mother and I had talked about an acquaintance who had been arrested long before me, who had become phlegmatic after only six months. My mother wanted to avoid this by amusing me with packages. Mother, who was a historian and in no way a housewife, started to bake different sorts of fine, little cookies, including in each package a great variety, with vanilla, with nuts, with God knows what. The things she sent me were really rather extraordinary: a tiny, complete cauliflower, wool underpants (although it was July), lemon crystals to make lemonade, crabmeat. When Mother had no money, mayonnaise arrived—the label described it as accompanying fish, crab, and other wonderful dishes. I still secretly love mayonnaise on bread.
Once or twice I got a reasonable package, like one would imagine a package to be—some cheese, some sausage—and I feared that Mother was sick. Only my sister-in-law or my brother could make such a normal package. I broke into deep depression. But then again came her usual packages, full of charm and loveliness. One package had powdered Jell-O, which was a great sensation because it was new to the guards. They wanted very much to see how it jelled. Another time she included a photograph of my little niece, whom I had left when she was two months old. Now she had a fur hat on and was smiling. It was a real baby, a real child. As usual, the man who was chief of this department delivered it to me. Although I was always very controlled, when I opened this package I broke into tears for the first time. I had rejected all thoughts of children and animals, of things which were close to life, and this brought it back to me.
Much later, when I came out, Hans asked me whether it wouldn’t have been a great comfort to have had a kitten. I looked at him in amazement. A kitten would have killed me. The only way for me to survive those months was to detach myself from any soft feeling, to keep myself aloof from sentiment and warmth. Had I had a cat I would have gone mad.
The Second Accusation
All through the first six months, June to December 1936, Elias Semenovich continued to do his best to have me confess to the original accusation: that I had planned to kill Stalin. But now they were preparing a second accusation, which I found out about by accident. I was saved from this second accusation by a coincidence that I consider a miracle.
An Overheard Interrogation
At night in the summer, one heard, like whips going all night long, “Fuck your mother! Fuck your mother! Fuck your mother!” When this started, you could hear the bang, bang, bang of the windows being shut. You could not take listening to that all night long. Everyone closed his window, but on this one night, I did not close my window, and suddenly I heard my name. This interrogation must have been going on one flight above me, near an open window. It started with a rude investigator and I recognized the voice. It was Bykhovskii’s investigator, Migbert, a brutal, ugly man who had gotten the first deposition against me and who was now getting a second one from this fellow upstairs.
The accused man was asked, “What did you do?”
He said, “I was a Trotskyite.”
“How long have you been a Trotskyite?”
“Since, I don’t know, twenty years.”
“You’re freezing? You will be even colder!” It was summer. This meant that before the interrogation, he had been held in a cold basement. After a while, the investigator said, “Have you contacted Trotsky?”
“Who brought you the news from Trotsky? Who brought you the information from Trotsky?”
There was no answer.
Then the investigator shouted, “And Eva Alexandrovna Stricker?” and the accused answered, “I don’t know her, I don’t know her!”
The investigator must have been standing next to the window because I heard him so clearly: “We will destroy her anyway. We have enough. Your deposition makes no difference.”
It went on and on and finally, toward morning, the accused said, “I want my glasses.” He wanted to read what he was signing. “You don’t need your glasses. Sign!” It was my impression that he signed.
A day or two earlier Elias had asked me where I had spent my vacations. I had said in Paris, and I do not know where—Austria, Italy, and again in Paris. One of the things I had heard through the courtyard during the night was, “Don’t you know Trotsky lives in Paris? Don’t you know Eva Alexandrovna was in Paris? Don’t you know that she went to Paris and back as a courier?”
So the next day, promptly, I was called out and this time Elias asked, “Did you spend your vacations in Paris?” I answered, “Partly,” and he said, “Sign in the margin.” Elias could prove the man’s confession merely by asking, Were you in Paris? The last time he had asked about my trips he had not taken any notes. But on this day, the day after the overheard nighttime investigation, he made a very official transcript. So I had clear proof that there was a deposition against me saying that I was Trotsky’s courier from Paris. That was the second accusation. You could not have been any deader than having two depositions against you.
After Elias’s investigation, I was brought back home to my cell and I started to think what to do. You know, everything had to be very clean and legal in these investigations; the fact that I heard the investigation against me was not a clean thing. It had been badly botched; it was an absolute mess. So I decided to accuse my accuser. I decided to accuse the investigation of using illegal methods. I asked to see my investigator.
The Two Pistols
As I entered, I could see that Elias’s face was white. He handed me a paper, signed by the super of the building where I had once stayed and two other people, swearing that two pistols were found among my possessions. I knew that this was forged. The house, in Moscow, belonged to a Hungarian revolutionary who was now a high Party functionary in Russia. He and his wife had kindly let me use their maid’s room until I got my own room. It was very small, but I had stored several things in it including a sewing machine, the same sewing machine that is now in my attic. It was there that they had supposedly found the pistols.
Up to now Elias had not really believed I was guilty, but as he handed me this paper I could see he was shaken. He did not want me to have two pistols. If somebody is accused of wanting to kill Stalin, and has two pistols in her sewing machine, it is rather bad. When the paper was presented to me I immediately got diarrhea, not five minutes later, but the same second, and I said to Elias, “Please, I have to go to the bathroom.” I reacted physically. I knew I had no pistols, and I could not believe that they would let a foreigner out of the country with the specific knowledge that the NKVD works with false evidence. “But you wanted to see me,” he said. “You wanted to tell me something. What is it you wanted to tell me?” I shrugged my shoulders and said, “It’s not worth it anymore.” After the false affidavits about the pistols I thought nothing could help me, so I said, “I have nothing to tell you anymore.” I gave up. I was returned to my cell.
By this time, I had already lived for a long time without hope, expecting the confrontation with Bykhovskii at any moment and fully expecting to be shot. It would have been irresponsible to deceive myself with false optimism. I was living a perfectly artificial daily life. I did not live because of my instincts, but because I thought it was unfair to Mother to kill myself.
I had already eliminated any thought that there would be a future. This feeling stayed with me long after I came out. Years later, if someone said, “Well, in September we’ll go there—or let us meet next Thursday”—or even two days hence, I laughed inside and thought, This has no reality for me whatsoever! There never will be a two days hence; there never will be a next month. It was like saying let’s meet on the moon! But each day that came was an unexpected surprise, and I greeted it happily.
From the moment I had been put in prison, everything was so absurd that each time something happened I had to rearrange the reference points of my life. If I was going to be shot before my thirtieth year, that would obviously be the end of my life, and I had to shift the middle of my life to when I was fifteen. This is not quite so easy, rearranging one’s whole life. But whenever you die, life is concluded as a whole. And when I looked back, I had the feeling—yes, I did live well and it was worthwhile.
The Confrontation with My Accuser
I knew that the confrontation and my subsequent death could come at any moment. I had the unappetizing image of my body as a soon-to-be rotting thing. I looked at my hands and feet. I looked at the reflection of my face in the toilet and considered my head as a thing, yellow and decaying. It had become my daily concern, my daily relationship to my own body. I also wondered about the procedure of being shot. I knew that one was shot in the back of the head, and hoped that one was dead immediately. But if not, is one left to die? I also was very curious about the smell. Would it smell like disinfectant, or would it smell like blood when one goes to be shot? This was not an abstract or even a morbid thought. It was logical to think of these things.
I am quite sure now, although I do not remember exactly, that I was not told ahead of time when the confrontation was going to take place. One of the tricks of their trade is to surprise you at every point. In the confrontation room, Bykhovskii was sitting on a chair, facing three people behind a desk: Elias Semenovich; Migbert, Bykhovskii’s rude, ugly investigator; and Migbert’s secretary. My chair was not very far from Bykhovskii and also faced the table. I knew that this was what Nikultsev had referred to as the most important moment.
I do not remember who read the long accusation, which was allegedly in Bykhovskii’s words. From time to time, he was asked whether the words were correct, and he nodded. Every few sentences I was asked to respond and each time I said, “I was not there,” “I could not have been there,” “These conversations could not have taken place.”
I had only a side view of Bykhovskii during all of this, but I felt that he occasionally glanced at me. And then I noticed what in my memory stands out as the most remarkable aspect of the entire confrontation: on the side of his nostril was a huge, protruding, white pimple that culminated in a black point. It hit me with great and deep disgust that he was going to be shot and become a dead body with this huge blackhead on his nose, of which he seemed to be totally oblivious. I had no doubt that Bykhovskii would soon be shot because I had no doubt then that he was guilty. It did not occur to me that the truth was that this poor fellow was as innocent as I, and had been forced into doing this. At one point, I apparently became nervous and wanted a cigarette, and Bykhovskii took out a pack and offered me one. I remember almost shuddering at the idea of taking a cigarette from the hand of a dead body.
The master of ceremonies of the confrontation was Migbert. When the deposition came to the point where I had prepared the pistols to shoot Stalin and invited my model maker from Berlin as the sharpshooter, he stood up, waved the papers in the air, and shouted: “Here is the accusation and here are the pistols. The chickens must laugh at your denial!” They had even inserted a few German phrases into the deposition to make it seem more authentic. When Bykhovskii had allegedly asked me: “With what will you shoot Stalin?” I was supposed to have replied in German: “Und was die Waffen betrift is alles in Ordnung [concerning the weapons, everything is in order].”
When it was over, I felt I had done very well, that everything was fine. Actually the opposite was the case. Much later I wondered whether something had happened in my head, out of fear, that paralyzed my emotions, or whether it is possible that I was drugged. I am absolutely sure that I was not normal on this occasion. I did not feel what I was supposed to feel.
Elias’s Trip to Moscow
Shortly after the confrontation, Elias went to Moscow to find out two things: information about Fuhlbrügge (whether I had known him previously or not) and information about those pistols. When he returned, he told me casually (when he said something casually it was always very important), “Well, you certainly did not want to kill Stalin with those pistols.”
Only three years later did I find out what had actually happened: The pistols were there, only they were not mine! They were Mr. Julius Hevesi’s, the old Hungarian revolutionary in whose maid’s room I stored my things! One was an old army pistol, a souvenir, and the other a small Mauser pistol for which he did not have a permit. Apparently, he carried it whenever he had to go to faraway places in Russia. Of course, he acknowledged that they were his. Unlike many Hungarian revolutionaries, he was not shot, but returned to Hungary where he was in charge of scientific technical inventions. He had a very high position, so he had been given a beautiful villa outside Budapest. Years later, I met Mr. Hevesi there. Tea was brought in, with chestnut puree, heavy cream, and little petits fours, all on the finest china. Here we apologized to each other. “I am terribly sorry to have caused you this trouble with the pistols,” I said. “Oh, my dear, don’t mention it,” he said reassuringly, “because out of the nine years I was in the NKVD prison, the pistols only accounted for two.” So there we were, very politely apologizing to each other over this lovely tea, saying, “Don’t mention it, don’t mention it.”
I still cannot understand why Elias went to Moscow. He had obviously been sent by his superiors—he could not have done it on his own initiative. But he could have happily accepted the sworn affidavit stating that the building superintendent had found them. This piece of paper would have been enough to corroborate the accusation. Why did he go to the trouble of questioning witnesses in my favor? Even more strange, why, when these things had been disproved, did Elias continue to spend so many hours trying to trick me into signing a false confession?
Fighting the Second Accusation
After the pistols had subsided I decided to go back to my plan of fighting the courier accusation, because more than dead you cannot be. So I said to Elias, “I want to complain about the investigation; I want to talk to somebody.”
“But Eva Alexandrovna,” he said, “you never saw anybody but me. If you want to complain about me I will call my superior and you can complain.”
“But Elias Semenovich, I have nothing against you. I do not want to complain about you, I want to complain about the fact that the investigation against me is conducted against the rules of the Cheka.” Cheka is the original, honorable name of the NKVD. “The Cheka has great honor, and its honor does not permit illegal affairs, the way this investigation is being conducted against me.”
He came to me and put his arm around my shoulder, saying, “Eva Alexandrovna, please tell me, confide in me, what do you have in mind?”
“Look,” I said to him, “I cannot tell you exactly because maybe I dreamed it, but I want to ask you, If there is a second deposition against me, in addition to wanting to kill Stalin, a second accusation, will you clearly accuse me to my face?”
He became pale and said, “What do you refer to?”
“I do not know what I am referring to, but I had a dream, and I know when this dream was, and I know where this dream was, and it pertained to a second accusation.” I played a game with him, and he asked me how I knew this. “It’s very simple. I walked out of my cell and I went to find out. I know who directed this investigation and I know that the accused was fed information. It was illegal, the deposition was gotten illegally.”
Elias was obviously nervous. “You could not get out of your cell, you were locked in.”
“Well, in that case,” I said, “it must have been a dream.”
A month or so later, Elias asked, very casually, “By the way, in that dream of yours, do you know whether there was a signature against you?” I told him that there had been no signature against me. Of course, I knew there had but they could not very easily have thrown out something I knew had been signed against me. By that time I was thinking very quickly; I have never been as intelligent as I was then.
In the 1950s I found a book in the New York Public Library. It was called The Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes, by Alexander Orlov. I could tell that the book was written by someone very much on the inside of the NKVD, and in it I found several things that applied to myself: one was a reference to my accuser, Bykhovskii, and another was a reference to a meeting between Stalin and his top aides regarding Trotsky. In May 1936, Stalin needed a courier from Trotsky in order to prove the “conspiracy” against him. Lo and behold, that was exactly the accusation against me, which I would overhear a short time after this meeting in the Kremlin. So whether this was a total war between Mr. Stalin, personally, and me, I do not know. But when I read the book, it gave me the shivers because it seemed to me a very close connection.
So that is how Stalin lost his courier. That is how the whole thing disappeared.
Some weeks later, Elias called me in and told me that my investigation was coming to an end; this was the last time he would be talking with me and the last chance I would have to save myself. “You know I’m your friend, and I want to tell you that if you don’t admit to something, we will accuse you of everything. Oh, we will not shoot you, but you will be in prison and you will never be able to go out again. This I want you to understand absolutely. If, for example, you admit that you knew Bykhovskii was an enemy of the people, you will get two years or you will be sent out of the country. Nothing much can happen to you because you are a foreigner. But if you say that you did not even know he was an enemy, and you did not have such conversations with him, you will be accused of everything. We can accept that he exaggerated, but not that he invented the accusation.”
Sitting here today, you cannot believe there could be such a law—that if you say nothing you will be accused of the whole thing. It was not true; and Elias should not have told me it was. But I believed it then, and when he told me this, I said, “Ladno [okay].”
Then he started to write. After a while I said, “What do you mono-logisierovat?”
“Do you have such a verb in German?” he asked, without looking up. “We do not have such a verb in Russian.”
I asked again what he was writing.
“Well, Bykhovskii must have told you something if you knew he was an enemy, a Trotskyite. What did he tell you?”
Since I had read this book on the history of the Party by Kronin, I knew what Trotskyism was. Choosing the most innocuous thing I could think of, I answered, “Well, he told me about the differences of opinion between the Trotskyites and Stalin on the agricultural question.”
He was writing my confession. When he gave it to me to read it turned out that the agricultural question had turned into the killing of peasants, Stalin’s guilt in this, and Bykhovskii’s saying that Stalin ought to be eliminated, or something like that.
By that time, I had caught on that Elias was dotting the i’s to a dangerous degree, so I said, “Bykhovskii did not say anything about Stalin.”
Elias said, “Well, what would he have said? That Stalin was a good man? Of course he said that he was a bad man, what else would he have said?” We fought all night about this and finally there was very little I confessed to, except that I said I knew Bykhovskii was a counterrevolutionary. Earlier I had been asked what I thought of Bykhovskii and had replied that I thought he was 110 percent loyal to the Communist party. Their response was that 100 percent was fine, but 110 percent—I should have been suspicious.
Anyway, I did confess that there were conversations from which I found out that he was a counterrevolutionary, which of course was not true. It was getting light by then. Elias was standing behind his desk. I told him I was hungry. (I did not know that I had ulcers but I had this sharp feeling of hunger and could not eat the prison food anymore.) The guard had already come to pick me up and I was halfway to the door. As we stood there, Elias said in a deep and kind of shaken voice, “Eva Alexandrovna, for what you have done this night you will be hungrier than you have ever been before. And for a longer time, much longer.”
As I walked back to the cell, I realized that this was not what he had been saying all along. He usually said, “You will see your mother; you will be sent out.”
I later realized that there was no reason for him to tell me this. During the night, I had signed my initials in the margin; he had insisted that I sign every sentence. He had done his duty conscientiously, getting me to sign a false confession. All through these six months he knew that the minute I signed, I would sign my life away, or at least my next years, because many people had disappeared by that time. I had signed a confession. He had won! But at that very moment, he told me something completely incongruous given the situation. It occurred to me that he had broken down out of pity; the remark that he had blurted out as I left was an expression of pity. When I had signed my good life away, Elias’s heart broke for me. And as I went back, I knew I had done wrong and I knew that I was not myself anymore.
The formulation by which I decided to commit suicide was that having lost my identity, my dignity, I was no longer “I.” With my dignity intact, nothing could happen to me in life or death. But now that my self-respect was lost, I was vulnerable.
Back in my cell, I pulled down the piece of copper wire from the toilet tank. I wrapped a rag around it and I set about sharpening it by pretending to scrub the concrete floor. With the sharpened wire, I started to cut my wrist where I thought my vein was. In order not to get blood poisoning before I killed myself, I sterilized the wire with a match because, after all, it was so dirty from the floor. I put my clothes under the bed to absorb the blood and hung my blanket over the side of the bed. With the wire I cut through fiber after fiber, little white nerve after little white nerve. The tendons were very painful, but you had other worries besides the pain. I was told later that I was cutting in the wrong direction. You should cut parallel to your arm if you really want to kill yourself, and I was cutting crosswise. But it went pretty deep and was not a clean cut; there was a mess of flesh there. It was toward three in the morning when I was discovered. The female guard was furious. She called the korpusnoi, and then I think the director of the whole prison came and said, “What do you have against me?” It was a terribly black mark against him, a foreigner killing herself in his prison. “I have nothing against you,” I reassured him.
The next day was the day of rest in the prison. Nevertheless, I was called out to see the major. There were two people, the major and somebody else, and they asked me why I had tried to commit suicide. “Because Elias told me if I would not admit to a certain degree then I would be accused of the whole thing.” I said it exactly as it was, and that it was a false confession. All this was written down. I had to open the bandage in front of the major so that he could judge whether the suicide attempt had been in earnest. I saw Elias once more a few days later. He looked pale. “Why did you do this to me?” he said, looking at the floor. “I was really good to you. I went to Moscow and made the pistols disappear. Why did you do this to me?” At that point, I still did not understand what I had done to him.
At the end of December 1936, Shpigel, the assistant public prosecutor, came and asked me about the last interrogation with Elias: “What happened? What did Elias tell you?” I did not realize quite yet that the public prosecutor’s office had taken it as an accusation against him. Later I told the lieutenant who accompanied me to the border that I had never seen Elias again, and asked what had happened to him. By that time, it was not difficult to communicate without words. By the way he looked at me, I understood that Elias was in prison. Many of the investigators ended up in prison. He certainly did. And I certainly got him there.
Looking back, it is really clear that slip of pity saved me and ruined him. But six months with me at twenty-nine, if you are twenty-six, I mean, surely by that time Elias must have been quite fond of me, and yet he knew what was going to happen to me. I did not, but he knew, and up to that last moment he fought against me. He saved me by his last sentence, without planning it. It was completely genuine. There is no other explanation. He just stood there, and his voice broke when he said it. Later on one of the highest ups told me, “You must have noticed everybody here liked you very much.” I certainly did not notice; I thought they wanted to kill me.
Confusion: Cataloging the Past
For a short time during the winter of 1937, my efforts at keeping sane must have faltered. I got very upset thinking back on my life in Russia and I asked for pen and ink. There had been so many points of danger that I felt the irrational need to defend myself against nonexistent accusations.
I had suddenly remembered that soon after arriving in Russia, while visiting the border areas between Russia and Poland, I was told by an engineer who accompanied me that every word I said was reported back to state security agents in Kharkiv. At the time I had not given any thought to this. But now it alarmed me, so I started to describe my trips, saying that I had had nothing to do with any objectionable activities. I tried to explain things completely unconnected with anything I was accused of, showing how loyal I was. I don’t know what was written on these miles of densely written little defenses. I got very mixed up, weaving thoughts and directions and knotting them together in many ways. I accumulated huge quantities of this written material.
Berlin and Kharkiv
I had gone to Russia practically on the spur of the moment. After almost three years of a lonely life in a small town in the Black Forest as a designer in the Schramberger Majolika Factory, I had come to Berlin where my mother had rented a lovely studio for my brother Michael and me. It was on Tauentzien Straße, just a few houses away from the Romanische Café, considered by many progressive intellectuals as the center of the world. It was possibly the most amusing place in Europe at the time. Our studio was a large, two-story space that looked out on a backyard of trees. Inside were two cantilevered balconies with cozy areas under them. Several times we gave parties for a hundred people, studded with writers, actors, even Nobel Prize winners. I do not know how we collected all these people: my uncle, Michael Polanyi, brought his scientist friends, including the young Leo Szilard. My childhood friend Arthur Koestler and my cousin Anna Seghers brought the writers Alfred Kantorowitz and Manès Sperber. My grandmother, Cecile Pollacsek, who was legendary for her literary salons in Budapest and was living a bachelor’s life in Berlin, brought all sorts of sparkling wits. Among my guests were Alex Weissberg and Hans Zeisel, each of whom I would eventually marry. At these parties I may have appeared more sophisticated than I actually was.
From this life among these colorful people, I suddenly decided to go and see the most interesting, gigantic experiment of my time. To go to the Soviet Union then was an adventure. The great influx of foreign experts had not yet begun. A revolution had taken place and although its scars had not yet healed, the Soviet Union seemed to be in the spring of its hopeful, almost utopian elatedness.
The news of the world always broke in on me as glimpses of history. I did not participate in political activities, like my childhood girlfriend, for instance, who went to fight in the Ruhr land when there was a cause to be embraced, or later to Spain to fight for freedom. This was not my way of participating in the world. I was, I think, mostly curious. It was my curiosity that brought me into contact with my original master potter in Budapest. It was curiosity that brought me to my first job as a journeyman potter in the slums of Hamburg, and then into the working-class way of life in the Black Forest. Now, in Berlin, I listened to a great amount of theoretical discussion. Everybody around me was very much involved in the rights and wrongs of daily politics.
A visa to Russia was very difficult to get. Tourism had not yet started, and unless you were invited as a foreign expert, you could not just apply for one. The only way I could go there on the spur of the moment was as Alex Weissberg’s future wife as he had already been living there for several months working as a physicist. Alex was very pleased with this prospect, although we were not particularly in love, and it was not a very important aspect of the trip. So on January 1, 1932, I left my secure position and my beautiful studio in Berlin. I only intended to spend a lengthy vacation in Russia—to have a good look around. And I said so to my boss. Later, in Russia, I got frantic letters from him: “How about the designs for the butter dish? You promised the butter dish!” Of course, I sent him the drawings.
Three of us traveled together by train from Berlin to the Russian border—Alex, myself, and a slim young man who for some reason was leaving Vienna to settle in Russia. We arrived at the border at night and had to change trains because of the different width of the tracks. I knew that I had come to a different world—different smells, different poverty, different luxuries: everything was different. The three of us walked through the third-class cars with three wooden benches, one above the other, on either side of each compartment. Night Asylum by Gorky was nothing compared to what I saw then. Peasants dressed in rag or felt boots, with big coats, sitting and lying on these hard benches, filling the space up to the top, smelling, talking, looking like a theater performance—a wild, weird theater performance. I am sure we traveled first class and only walked through these compartments to get to the dining car. But the smell of these cars—of wet, old, poor material, of poor old stuff on the backs of people—still lingers.
Soon after we arrived, Alex took me to the weekly market, where you could still buy lovely hand-loomed aprons and other parts of the local costume. Inside the train station (I think the market was near the station), men were lying on the floor with their feet wrapped, covered with sheepskin coats. Others stood patiently, leaning against the wall. I do not know if there was a loudspeaker, but somehow I understood that one of these peasants leaning against a wall had found out that his train was leaving not when he expected, but some twenty hours later. So he went back to the same spot at the wall, leaning against it in the same position as before. It seemed to me that time was timeless here, and that the patience of the Russian peasant was as alarming as his poverty.
It did not take long for me to understand that this was already a time of great emergency, of real famine in this part of the world. Almost immediately after my arrival, I started to work at the China and Glass Trust of the Ukraine. I was settled in an office in the Gosprom, a fortresslike building, a symbol of progress, industrialization, and probably the Five-Year Plan. It was a forbidding place. These people were very new to town life, which meant just one step away from peasants. This you could see in the toilets, which were Western toilets, but which were obviously used by squatting on the edges of the porcelain bowls and discarding the used toilet paper in baskets nearby. The users did not want to soil these beautiful sanitary-looking objects by throwing dirty paper into them.
The head of the central administration of our industry was Comrade Viazelskii, a kind and excellent person. He put me in the charge of an engineer named Chokolov, the son of a factory owner who had stayed on in order to run his father’s factory for the Communists. He had studied in Heidelberg and his beautiful wife was a granddaughter of Lermontov. They were rather aristocratic people. The first thing Viazelskii asked Chokolov to do was to take me out to the plate factory in Budyansk. Up to that time, peasant families ate from one large bowl in the center of the table. But now there was collectivization and people were supposed to eat in long rows in communal kitchens and communal dining rooms, and each person was supposed to have a plate. Well, that created the need for about 180 million plates! The Budyansk factory, a few hours from Kharkiv, produced nothing but plates.
We visited the factory’s director, who sat behind his desk while Engineer Chokolov and I sat facing him. The door opened and someone brought him a small package, nicely and neatly wrapped in clean newspaper. We saw that it was a piece of light gray, fragrant sort of bread, with a very hard, crisp, beautiful crust. He broke off a piece and handed it to me. Then he broke another piece and handed it to Chokolov, saying, “Take it, please!” with a most gracious and hospitable gesture. I, who just a week earlier had been in my Berlin studio among my elegant and intellectual friends, did not understand what he meant by this gesture until I realized that he was giving us a great present—part of his valuable cherished daily bread. It was the first time I understood what hunger was and what daily bread was. And, of course, I accepted it gratefully.
Two weeks later, back in my office in Kharkiv, I received a huge folder entitled “Standardization of the Sanitary Porcelain and the Household Porcelain of the Ukrainian China Trust.” I did not understand a single word of it and I did not know what to do with it. Looking around, I did what everybody else did—namely sharpen pencils. After two weeks of sharpening pencils, I complained about my uselessness to Comrade Viazelskii. He told me not to worry, “We are not a company like you are used to, but a rich, big country. We will use you well when the time comes, and we can afford to pay you meanwhile. Be patient.”
Soon thereafter he sent me off again with the engineer to visit several china factories in the border areas. (It was these visits that alarmed me later. I do not think I said anything suspicious, but somehow, like a nightmare, my visits to this area intruded upon my consciousness in prison.) I was there late in 1933, just before the harvest, and again in 1934. At some point, I stayed there with Fuhlbrügge. It must have been in the spring, and we took horses and rode out into the countryside and sometimes swam in the river. As we rode over the steppes, we often saw pillboxes camouflaged in the low hills, and sometimes it sounded hollow under our horses’ hooves, and we would meet some peasant who would stamp the ground and say: “Aerodromy!” I believe that possibly I and my model maker were the only foreigners permitted in that area, and it was not so foolish of me to feel that there was something to explain or something that might have been thought suspicious in our stay there.
I wrote about these memories for days, and everything was given to the state’s attorney. The writings were tangled skeins of thoughts and must have been impossible to decipher; even I had difficulty unraveling these memories in the long months that followed.
Once during these months I was called out by a very high-up man whom I had not seen before. It seemed strange. He said, “You know the way we function. If there are two people in the room and one says that we had some hostile or counterrevolutionary conversations, if there is no third witness, we believe the accuser, and you have to prove that you did not say this. That is our rule.”
“Well, in that case,” I said (and I always remember these words in Russian), “jurisprudence is a pitiful craft. Why don’t you call Bykhovskii, and then you will see who says the truth.” At which point he leaned forward and said slowly, in French, impossible, which gave me the creeps. Evidently, Bykhovskii was already dead.
Shortly after this strange meeting, I was called in again and told that I would soon be sent out of the country. I was even asked which way I wanted to be sent. I was flabbergasted. I had been waiting to be shot; now they were asking me about my travel preferences. I decided that I should say I wanted to go to London, to my uncle; I could not very well be sent to Germany. Then I went back to my cell and started to wash my slippers, the slippers of red leather with the big, beautiful, long goat’s hair all over. I washed the goat’s hair of my slippers perfectly white, snow white.
The next day I was called out again by the same investigator. “We have now found new evidence against you,” he said, “and we are going to accuse you of everything and put you in front of a military tribunal.” This meeting took place in May 1937, exactly one year after my arrest. He showed me the photograph I had taken seven years earlier of Mr. Leichsenring’s pistol with a clearly legible serial number, and told me that they had found this very same pistol. I protested. “This pistol belonged to somebody I stayed with in Germany many years ago.” (This was the photograph they took away when they arrested me.) I said, “Anything can be fabricated and certainly a number like this,” and got up. From the window, I could see a huge courtyard of cell blocks. I made a big gesture with my arm, “With this power you can prove anything, and I am totally powerless to prove otherwise. If you say there is a submarine under my bed, I am not able to prove there is no submarine under my bed.”
Then I was taken back to my cell. I had washed my slippers and permitted myself to dream about freedom, the sea voyage. For the next five and a half months I had to push those two days of dreaming out of my memory. That was the last human contact I had for five and a half months, except for the guards. Nothing, nothing, nothing. That was May 1937. I knew that if the door opened I would be handed my written accusation, or the date of my tribunal, or a miracle would happen. With such an accusation I could be shot at any time. So I waited. I got a tic in my face and my shoulder was jumping.
Then without any notice, on September 8 the door opened and I was taken out to the same colorless investigator. “This is your last chance to admit your guilt; this is your last chance. Now you will be going to trial. We know everything about you.” After he shouted for maybe two hours (they had lots of time to shout), he gave me a paper that said, The highest Soviet Tribunal decided to change its decision to send you out of the country. What it meant was they had changed their decision to put me before the tribunal and really were going to send me out of the country. But I didn’t understand that—there was a comma missing between “change its decision” and “to send you out of the country.” So I waited for the next paper: the accusation. Instead of that, they gave me my passport, with a new picture in it, and told me to sign it. My God, I thought, what pedantic sorts of people, to be shot I need a new passport. I noticed some extra papers in the passport and asked what they were. “We want to get you out of the country and this is your Polish visa.”
I was taken back to my cell and was in bed asleep by 9:00 p.m. At midnight, I was woken up and taken to see the head of the whole Leningrad GPU, whom I had never seen before. I thought I looked very beautiful because I had pressed all the little pleats on my blouse with my spit and I wore what had been a nice, blue skirt. The skirt was unfortunately full of spots, but I still thought I was elegant. They were my own clothes, but I mean how much can you have left after sixteen months? I had put this on specially when they woke me because I thought I might be let out. It did go to pieces a little bit. Anyway, I was called to this very beautiful office. I remember that I could not stay awake and asked to wash my face. There was a little powder room there, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, I did not believe my eyes. I looked terrible; there were huge dark circles under my eyes. A few days later, when I was on the train going out of Russia, I asked a stranger sharing my compartment how old he thought I was (I was exactly thirty). Trying to be very complimentary, he said, “You can’t be a day over forty-five.”
Then the head of the GPU spoke: “So many people have signed for you: Joffe, the greatest physicist—I play tennis with him. He was here to guarantee for you. You must know what that means! How well do you know him?” I answered, “Not well enough to guarantee for him!” I wasn’t very bright late at night. Apparently, the last five months had been “waiting time,” not punitive time. Anyone who is to see someone high-up in Russia must wait for many months; not only I, anyone.
Then he changed the subject. “What are you going to do when you are sent out? You will certainly now go to a sanatorium for a few weeks.” Unfortunately I didn’t go to a sanatorium, but they were quite clear that I should. “Well,” he said again, “what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to marry Hans Zeisel.”
He asked me who else I could marry, and when I said nobody, he nicely said, “Don’t be silly, of course there must be many people waiting for you.” They were quite complimentary that way. They were now convinced I was their friend, he went on, and would like me to tell them if I knew of any hostile action against them. “You are such a believable person,” he said, “everybody believes you.”
“Because I tell the truth! Of course I am believable!”
“Well, from now on, if you know of something that is against us...” and then he told me to write to a certain address with some disappearing ink between the letters, and gave me a code name, which I promptly forgot.
A guard accompanied me back to my cell. And as we went over a bridge, he said, “This is your last trip over the Bridge of Sighs.” And so I was back in the cell.
Suddenly they called me out again, and I thought, Oh my God, something terrible has happened. He had called me back to tell me that they had had a real spy, named Ladislas Farago, and let him go by accident. The head of the GPU wanted me to try to find Farago. I told him I would try. I heard nothing of Mr. Farago for a long, long time until, when we were in Europe in 1957, our friend Leo Frischauer sent someone to rent our house in Rockland County. Who else but Mr. Farago! He turned out to be that man who wrote the book about the Nazi living in South America. He was an official spy. It was terribly funny, because suddenly there he was living in our house. I don’t think he paid the rent.
This was the very last hour. After sixteen months of being a very good prisoner, never in any way making any fuss, I started banging at the door and shouting, “My God, my God, I’m going to miss my train!” They got the big korpusnoi, and I said, “I must go away!” He brought me two suitcases—my mother had sent them; she thought I was going to Siberia and wanted me to have warm clothes—and took me to the place where you wait when you first come into prison. They took out a document that said when I had arrived. “You came in May 1937,” the guard read. “No,” I said, “May 1936.” I had been there longer than anybody else. A lieutenant who was supposed to take me to the border asked me what I wanted for the trip.
“Toothpaste,” I told him.
“Toothpaste? But you must have pomadochku and pudruchku [lipstick and powder].” I told him that I did not need pudruchku and pomadochku, I needed toothpaste, but it did no good. He asked me what shade I used, and I told him Rachelle (a brownish pink). So I sat in this place, where there was a big clock, and I just watched the clock and waited while he went off to find Rachelle pudruchku. Suddenly he appeared, put his hands up, and exclaimed: “I couldn’t get Rachelle, I got this other color.”
By that time the train was about to leave. There were four other guards and they all took me and the suitcases and we ran out to a large black limousine, two guards with bayonets sat in front and two in back with me. When we arrived at the station we jumped out of the limousine, my guards running with the heavy suitcases, and came to the train just as it started slowly moving. We just barely made it, and I began to laugh, because I always “just barely make the train.” They tossed up the suitcases and the four of us jumped onto the train.
When the conductor came, he saw that the lieutenant and two guards had first-class tickets and I was third class. It was very hard to convince him that they were guarding me, and therefore we had to be together. I remember that, although it was September, I had on a raccoon jacket which Mother had sent to me. I felt very elegant in it, even though it wasn’t in very good condition.
By the time we came to Minsk, where we were to spend the night, the lieutenant had taken a liking to me. He said he would try to phone ahead so they would put me in a hotel instead of the prison, but when we got to the station he said he had received instructions that I had to go to the prison. Then he saluted and said, “But it’s a very good prison, we prepared it for ourselves.”
I was taken to this very good prison, prepared especially for GPU people! It was an old kind of fortress, with walls three quarters of a yard thick, and a very narrow staircase. The walls were painted a greenish gray and on the stairs was a brand-new, braided runner, very colorful and folkish. It was quite a contrast to the gray walls. I was searched again, and then I came into a rather dark, large roomlike cell. Next door somebody was knocking with such speed that I knew he must have been in prison very long. When I knocked it was much slower. His knocking sounded just like Morse code; it was so fast I couldn’t follow it.
The next day I was joined on the trip to the border by two other former prisoners. One of them was a German math teacher who had a red afro because his hair had been cut everywhere the same length and it stood out. The other was a small, lively Polish spy. He had been in one of the camps for nine years and said proudly, “Now I will be hailed as a hero in Poland.” He had been a bookkeeper, and actually had not been treated terribly badly, and now he was going home to be a hero.
When we finally came to the border, the three of us were taken into the office of the head of the GPU, who sat behind a large desk. Each one of us had a guard behind him with a bayonet. The GPU man asked us whether we held any grudges or had any bad feelings about Russia. We all said that we had no grudges, and then he gave us each ten dollars to spend on the other side of the border. “Whoever has any Russian money left can buy sausage or something to take along.” Since I had money (Mother had sent me some to buy cigarettes) I bought for everybody.
The head of the secret police found this whole thing very funny and said, “Well, now you can order some dinner.” At the border was an Intourist restaurant for visitors, but we sat in the GPU office. They brought in a table with a white damask cloth, china, glassware, and heavy silver. I sat at the head of the table, and behind each one of us stood a very hungry guard with his bayonet! First came a big metal tureen on a pedestal, full of borscht, with sour cream next to it. The man at the desk said, “Eva Alexandrovna, you are the little hostess, why don’t you serve?” So I was the little hostess, giving everybody his borscht and smetana. We had this very elegant meal, on china, after none of us had had anything but an aluminum bowl and a wooden spoon for years.
When the train came we were given a whole compartment to ourselves. The three of us and the three guards got in. We rode through no-man’s-land toward a big arch. When I had first come to Russia the banner on it said, “Welcome, World Revolution!” Now it had been changed to “Welcome to the Home of the Working People.” The train slowed down under the arch and the guards jumped off. We were so excited that we ran back and forth in the corridor; it was the first time we were able to walk without anybody behind us. On the other side of the border was a telegraph bureau where I telegraphed Mother to tell her I was out.
After I came out of prison, my friends who had been Communists turned sharply against the terror in Russia, which by then was at its height, and which some of them, like Alex, had experienced first hand. Many of them, long before the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, had become anti-Communists. The anti-Communism of these intellectuals was just as wild and outspoken and full of hatred as their Communism had been before. My friends, Koestler and Alex, and even people later in America who knew that I had been in prison, could not understand why I had not become a wild anti-Communist. In fact I never was an anti-Communist, even in prison. I was what I called a “former non-Communist.” I could not accept the bitter attitude of former Communists against their earlier ideals. Having been a tourist in the world and not a participant, not a fighter like they were, I did not become a fighter against Communism. In fact, I have kept my sentimental love of Russia with all its tints of pity and respect. When I first entered Russia, it hit my soul deeply, and ever since, my heart has gone out to the Russian people, with their suffering, patience, poverty, and naïveté, their kindness and patriotic chip on the shoulder, and particularly their vulnerable pride.
Looking back on my five years and nine months in Russia, I see myself in all these peculiar situations—galloping over secret aerodromes, hearing the wolves howl at the edge of the snowy steppes, riding in a troika, standing in tears in the mud in Polonnoye, speaking in a dark hall to thousands of Yiddish workers, sixteen months in Stalin’s prisons—in all these situations I see myself still as a young girl from a good family who considers herself the quintessence of normalcy. Even being shouted at by investigators, or standing in front of a marshal of the Soviet Union, or up in the tower of Notre Dame with a Red general, or washing the floor of my cell with a rag hiding a copper wire, sharpening it to cut my veins while I produced a cheerful poem to accompany me to the other side—in all these circumstances, I felt I did the proper thing, always using common sense and minding my manners. Through all the friendships and the passionate loves and tears, I remained a prude.
I first met Eva Zeisel by chance. I was researching Natalia Dan’ko, the chief sculptor at the Lomonosov State Porcelain Factory during a period of unique and unparalleled creativity, and was surprised to learn that one of the key participants of that era, Eva Shtrikker, a designer of innovative tea sets, was already known to me as the influential American industrial designer Eva Zeisel.
Our first conversations were brief; she was warm and helpful, but she was taken up by the final illness of her husband, the eminent legal scholar Hans Zeisel, and it seemed impolite to intrude. I was also unsure of how to respond when she informed me, with a chuckle, that her Russian sojourn came to an abrupt end when she was arrested and imprisoned for organizing an attempt on the life of Stalin.
I spent the next several years traveling between the U.S. and Russia, where I explored museum storerooms and meticulously organized archives. Here were all of Eva’s Soviet designs, usually painted by the best artists of the period, though her work had been quietly reattributed to others—for much of the Soviet period, any mention of Eva Zeisel would have had terrible consequences.
The Soviet government officially overturned the charges against Eva in 1990. When she was declared legally rehabilitated, Russian law granted her access to the files the NKVD had compiled during her arrest and investigation. This turned out to be easier in theory than in practice, but eventually, in 2000 Eva and her daughter Jean were able to get a full copy of Eva’s restricted file. I volunteered to translate the documents.
Eva had many questions about the ordeal she had endured, and I hoped to help her answer them. The texts were an immediate shock; arcane and opaque, written in the stilted and formulaic language of official Soviet discourse of the mid-1930s, they seemingly revealed little.
Occasionally, I plug in all of the names of the key players into various Russian-language search engines to see if any newer resources have become available.
In 2004, I found one of Hermann Fuhlbrügge’s sons. Using an online German telephone book, I sent perhaps 150 vague inquiry letters searching for descendants of Fuhlbrügge, a ceramics modelmaker who had worked in the Soviet Union, who had a wife named Gertrude, a son named Paul, etc. After several weeks, a son, born several years after Fuhlbrügge and his wife returned to Germany, replied via e-amail.
It became clear that he had no idea that his father had been imprisoned and had narrowly escaped execution. Fuhlbrügge died in 1974. He hadn’t lived to receive news of his rehabilitation and was still officially guilty of a serious crime in the Soviet Union.
Fuhlbrügge and his wife had never mentioned this to any of the children. This is a common reaction among many of the former prisoners. I sent the family copies of the entire file, together with my translation into English. I’m not sure what they made of those documents, in the end. I’m having a little trouble reestablishing contact with the family.
I found that Mikhail Bykhovskii’s great grandnephew, now a postgraduate student in Israel, had posted a family tree online in English and Russian. We corresponded, and I learned that Bykhovskii’s family had burned most of his papers and photos to protect themselves. Mikhail Bykhovskii does not emerge as a heroic figure, although he reacted as I think many of us would have. Detainees were pressured to confess while being kept in isolation and without news of family or friends, or the right to consult an attorney; it’s clear that many hoped to end the ordeal by signing the statements composed by the interrogators. They seemed not to understand that the confessions were taken at face value. It also seems clear that Bykhovskii gave up everyone he knew.
Jascha is undoubtedly the most difficult figure. I found information in the Party archives about the man who is the most likely candidate. If his own story followed that of his fellow INO (Foreign Section) officers, after he was shot his wife would have been arrested and his six-year-old son placed in one of the horrific orphanages established for the children of “enemies of the people.” He probably would have been renamed and may have forgotten the names of his parents. I’ll keep looking for him, but he is the right age to have perished in World War II. And, if we can find him, he may not choose to reopen old wounds.
I have found no trace of Elias (Ilya) Semenovich/Semyonovitch Shmalts. He does not appear on the lists of those shot and prison and arrest records are not available online. I did once visit a museum of the secret police in Saint Petersburg to see if the GPU/NKVD/KGB/FSB had a historical society or organization like those for the former prisoners that might help me trace him. It did not occur to me how strange it might seem for an American woman to arrive unannounced at the museum asking all sorts of questions about locating former NKVD officers. I was regarded with great suspicion and came away empty handed.
I knew that Alexander Orlov, the author of A Secret History of Stalin’s Crimes, had died, but I wondered whether there might be additional material about Eva’s case in his notes. I found out that Special Agent Edward Gazur, Orlov’s last FBI debriefer, eventual close friend, and the executor of his estate, was still very much alive and had written a book about his relationship with Orlov (Alexander Orlov: The FBI’s KGB General). When I called his home in Kentucky he answered somewhat warily, in fact a bit gruffly. He never picked up the phone, he said, but his wife happened to have laryngitis. I told him about Eva’s imprisonment and that we had a few questions he might be able to help us with.
There were three mysteries I was hoping to solve. The first was: Who was Eva’s first investigator, Nikultsev? There was no trace of him in Eva’s Russian files. Whoever he was, he had taken all his notes with him.
Mystery number two: Who was Eva’s great love, Jascha? We wanted to know more about him, as well as what became of him. We knew he was a general in the NKVD, and that Eva saw him last when he left for an assignment in Manchuria. She had met him on a train en route from Berlin to Moscow. He was traveling as a German businessman. Only later did she find out he was an NKVD general. They fell in love and spent vacations together in Paris and Italy. His full name was Jacob Alexandrovich Ravitch, and he was born in Białystok. He was about ten years older than Eva.
Jascha told Eva about his experiences as an investigator at the 1931 Menshevik trials. He knew that his prisoner, an old Bolshevik, was innocent, and greatly respected him. When he didn’t confess, Jascha was ordered to torture him, but he refused. Then Jascha, himself, was put in prison. Jascha was the model for the principal character of Ivanov, the investigator, in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Eva had related her prison experiences to her old friend, Koestler, shortly after she was released, and he used many details of her prison life in his famous novel. When Jascha was sent to the Far East, Eva saw him off from Venice. As they parted, he told her that no one would ever love her as much as he.
The third mystery: Why did Eva get out, why was she expelled rather than shot? Gazur thought it was likely that Stalin himself made the decision to expel Eva. Among the documents in her NKVD files was a letter signed by Vyshinsky, Stalin’s chief prosecutor, ordering Eva expelled from the Soviet Union. Gazur thinks he would not have written this without orders from Stalin. Why would Stalin have done this? By early 1937, rumors of Stalin’s crimes and the purges were leaking out, and Stalin was very concerned about his reputation. He did not want more bad foreign publicity.
About Jascha, Gazur had no notes or recollections. Later, we found Jascha’s name on a list of those executed.
About Nikultsev, the first mystery, Gazur wrote me this: “During one of our regular debriefings, Orlov told me about a matter he had handled in the spring of 1936, a priority matter requested by Stalin. The KGB had arrested a young woman charged with threatening Stalin’s life. Stalin wanted Orlov to make an independent judgment as to the merits of the case, so Orlov went to Leningrad to interview her and concluded that the lady was telling the truth. Orlov described the woman as attractive, adventurous, bohemian, and artistic. He also said that she talked too much for her own good. Following our regular debriefings, we always went into another room to discuss lighter, social matters over a glass of Drambuie. That evening, Orlov surprised me by again bringing up the same woman. This was unusual, as we rarely overlapped the work and social parts. From what he said, I had the impression that he was somewhat infatuated with her.”
Of course, Nikultsev was Orlov! Later I realized that both Eva and her investigator came to this country in the same year, 1938—she as an immigrant, he as a defector. Imagine if they had bumped into each other on the streets of New York City, just two years after facing each other in the Leningrad prison.
1. Throughout this piece, NKVD, GPU, and KGB are used interchangeably to refer to the police organization of the Soviet Union.
2. In 2002, the Russian government published 383 lists of names dated between 1936 and 1938 that were held in the top-secret Archive of the President of the Russian Federation. These lists, including more than forty-four thousand names of persons sentenced to death by the Military Tribunal of the Soviet Supreme Court, had been sent to Stalin and the members of the politburo for their approval. The list of 114 names of persons living in the Leningrad area includes Bykhovskii, his cousin Adolph, and everyone else that he accused. They were all innocent, and they were all shot. Only Eva and Fuhlbrügge survived.
3. Eva’s mother and Alex Weissberg mobilized many famous Russian scientists to write letters vouching for Eva. Such letters were taken very seriously because, had Eva been shot, the letter writers would have shared her fate. That was the rule. Her mother personally delivered these letters to the chief prosecutor of Leningrad. She also visited, probably hounded, other Russian officials. Eva was amused afterwards when she learned that her mother had appeared before these officials wearing a tsarist medal her grandfather had received.
4. Hans waited seven years to marry Eva. He had known her in Vienna and Berlin and had visited several times in Russia. They were married in England in 1938.
RECORD OF INTERROGATION of FUHLBRÜGGE, Hermann.
20 July 1936.
Q: You concealed SHTRIKKER’s connections among those in the military in Moscow. Will you now testify truthfully?
A: I know it is the truth that SHTRIKKER was closely connected in Moscow with an officer of the NKVD, with whom she lived and by whom she became pregnant and had to have an abortion. I don’t know the surname of this particular member of the NKVD.
Q: How did you come to know about SHTRIKKER’s intimate connections to an officer of the NKVD?
A: In the winter of 1935/36, I don’t exactly remember which month, I went to pick up my wife at SHTRIKKER’s. My wife worked for SHTRIKKER as a dressmaker. While I was waiting for my wife, a citizen who was unknown to me came to visit SHTRIKKER. He spoke German well and SHTRIKKER presented him to me as a close friend. This citizen sat and chatted with me for ten minutes while SHTRIKKER got dressed and then he went out to the town with her.
My wife was good friends with SHTRIKKER and often went to see her. I assumed that my wife would know who this was who came to pick up SHTRIKKER and I asked my wife about him. My wife told me that this man served in the NKVD in some sort of high position and my wife has seen him at SHTRIKKER’s in his uniform. SHTRIKKER was very friendly with him, they had an intimate relationship and perhaps they were married. Soon after that, he had to travel abroad, I think, on some sort of clandestine work. I later learned from SHTRIKKER that this citizen did serve in the NKVD and had three rhombuses on his uniform, that he would soon be leaving for work abroad (zakordon), and that she regretted that she had so little time with him before he left the USSR to carry out some sort of illegal work and that she had had an abortion.
Q: What else do you know about the above-cited employee of the NKVD?
A: When SHTRIKKER returned from vacation abroad, in the spring of 1936, she secretly told my wife that she had met the above-cited employee of the NKVD, who was already engaged in illegal work outside the border, while she was on vacation. If my memory serves, they met somewhere in Prague, but I’m not sure.
I have read the record in full and it is transcribed faithfully from my words and my signature attests to this FUHLBRÜGGE
Interrogator: Investigator of the Special Department, 8th Division, Jr. Lieutenant, State Security TAMM
Verified: [Signature: Tamm]
Eva Zeisel is one of the most important designers of the twentieth century. Her designs are part of permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the British Museum. She has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts and named an Honorary Royal Designer by the Royal Designers for Industry, London, a part of the Royal Society of the Arts. Eva Zeisel: A Prison Memoir, an eBook for iPad, will be published later this year through iTunes. Compiled and edited by Brent C. Brolin, Jean Richards, and Karen Kettering, it will include the complete text, plus poems Eva wrote while in prison; documents from her NKVD file; audio clips with Eva recalling her prison experiences; maps of her travels in Russia; and personal photographs from her years there. A book about her life and work is in preparation; for more information, contact Eva Zeisel Forum.
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