By Esther Rapaport

He didn’t know how much was being paid for him to get this room and the privilege of being alone. He just knew that without the room, there would be no chance of him surviving here. The first week and a half in a shared cell, and the few subsequent encounters after that, had been enough to make it clear that he could not live in another cell with all the others.

“Zhid.” Just that regular call was enough to send the chills down his spine each time he heard it. He didn’t know if the wardens here meant to insult him particularly, or if it was just what he was in their eyes, but “Zhid” had horrible connotations.

From another cell, a prisoner began singing loudly; the warden’s call must have inspired him. Shlomo didn’t understand a word aside for the term “Zhid” that kept repeating itself in the song. He knew this tune; each time he was taken out of his cell and came face to face with some of the other prisoners, he heard it. And it didn’t sound like the words expressed lots of admiration or appreciation for the Jewish nation.

“Zhid!”

“Da,” he replied obediently. The warden, who didn’t know a word of Hebrew or English, opened the bars on the window in the door and threw a torn package inside. He stuck in a yellow pad with a pen; Shlomo already knew where he was supposed to sign his name. The warden said something in Russian, took back the pad and pen, and with a slam, locked the bars again.

Shlomo picked up the small package, a box inside a torn black bag, and sat down on the mattress in the corner. He knew he was fortunate. His two lawyers were doing whatever they could to ease the terms of his incarceration here at Lefortovo, the notorious prison, and it could be said that they were being successful.

During the days of the NKVD and the KGB, political prisoners were kept here, and they endured interrogations and torture. Masses of opponents to the Soviet regime, among them many prisoners of Zion, knew this place well.

Shlomo imagined that if they would have been told then how “good” his days were now, they would not have been able to comprehend such a reality. A cell alone, without antisemitic cellmates? Kosher food three times a day? Just a few interrogations that included “mere” screaming, but no beatings or worse? An entire mattress, and a pretty thick one at that, with a sheet and blanket that he had gotten from the outside?

He met with his lawyers at least once a week, which served as his only connection to the normal world that continued to exist beyond the walls of the prison. Sometimes, he returned to his cell in a good mood. Other times, he felt very dejected; it depended on what they had said about any progress or preparations for the trial, his chances for things going this way or that, and dozens of other things that he’d never known about firsthand.

He? Shlomo Struk, detained in a Russian prison?

He thanked Hashem for everything, because he had also read stories about imprisonment in Russia years ago, and he knew very well that even today, his life could have been very different if not for the intense work of his lawyers and the local frum community.

But that didn’t mean it was easy for him.

It was hard, so hard he was suffocating.

Esther Rapaport is a author whose novels include Diamond in the Rough, Divided Attention, Behind the Scenes, Without a Trace, Dance of the Puppet, Blood Brothers, and The Kenya Conspiracy. She resides in Israel. Stay tuned for the next installment in next week’s Five Towns Jewish Times or visit 5tjt.com for more.

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