-- Chapter from The Mission -- Chapter Three Chapter from The Mission -- Chapter Three
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  Chapter 3 from
The Mission
From the bestselling author of the Spider's Web

By Chaim Eliav 

Other Available Chapters

Chapter Three

Asher Yosef had trouble breathing as, with great difficulty, he revealed his life’s closely guarded secret. The effort necessary for him to speak took an enormous emotional toll and left him weak. The old man leaned his head on his palm; his breath was labored. The memories that had suddenly awakened fell upon him with all their weight. His son, Moshe Aryeh, leaned towards his father and laid a gentle hand on his trembling shoulders.

“Father, you don’t feel well?”

The words came out swiftly, fearfully. The heart disease from which his father suffered did not benefit from such outbursts of emotion.

Asher Yosef’s breathed deeply and more calmly. He pulled his cup toward him and sipped the tea, which had cooled off completely. Moshe Aryeh calmed down somewhat, but occasionally he displayed his shock at the frightening secret that had burst upon them so suddenly.

“How is it, Father, that you never told me this story? It’s incredible!”

Asher Yosef stared at his son with a dull glance. “All my life I believed that I wouldn’t reveal this to anyone. That it would be buried with me in the grave. And today, too, I wouldn’t have told it.”

He pointed his finger weakly at Jeff.

“If not for our guest, your son Yisrael Yaakov, who is about to travel to Russia, the secret would never have been told.”

Jeff fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair. He, too, had been taken aback by the revelation of this secret chapter in his grandfather’s life. But, unlike his father, he felt this strange story was something of a threat. He believed that at some point the tale would have repercussions on his own life. At the same time he simply could not imagine his grandfather, that frail chassidic Jew, taking the lives of two members of the Soviet secret police.

“I still don’t see the connection, Grandfather, between my trip to Russia, that, by the way, I’m not sure will take place, and your story.”

He turned to his father and said, in a barely audible whisper, “This story seems just too implausible. I don’t understand why and how he did it, if he really did. And to escape from Russia, the way it was then? Something here needs to be clarified.”

The old man heard the whispered exchange. He was also quite aware of his dear grandson’s cursory reminder that his very trip was in doubt. He lifted his eyes, gave Jeff an amused glance, a look that contained a spark of mystery as well.

“Ah, Yisrael Yaakov, I understand. You don’t believe my story? I’m not angry. I wouldn’t have believed it either, if someone had told me something like this --”

Suddenly he straightened his bent frame, like a soldier on parade, and declared: “But it is what happened! At my age, one doesn’t lie to children and grandchildren. Do you understand that?”

Jeff accepted the rebuke without batting an eyelash. He waited to hear the rest of the conversation. Luckily, he had slept on the plane and wasn’t tired out by his long flight.

His father, still concerned about the old man’s health, asked anxiously, “Do you want to rest a little? Yisrael Yaakov will be here tomorrow too.”

The grandfather shrugged him off, and a new vigor surged within him. “No, no! I have to tell this today. Yisrael Yaakov didn’t come from America for nothing.”

Father and son exchanged glances and decided to stay.

“I didn’t kill them for no reason, those evil men. And I wasn’t alone. But since then they are after me, I’m certain of it.”

His eyes flitted from his son to his grandson, back and forth. “You don’t believe me, hey? I’ll tell you something. You know that I worked for a few years at the United Nations Center in New York. One day -- it was in the year 1947 -- someone approached me, a young Russian diplomat, and asked me in an offhand way, ‘Do you happen to be Vladimir Paruskin?’”

His eyes gleamed with mischief. It was clear that he was enjoying the surprises he was springing on his children.

“Yes, that’s another thing I never told you: my real name. I adopted the name Handler only when I came to the United States. The name Asher Yosef, my father, whispered into my ear, actually the day before he died of pneumonia. And it seemed that my new name saved my life.”

“What did you tell that diplomat?”

“Naturally, I said that I didn’t know what he was talking about. But I suspect he saw how I grew pale. Against my will, also, I blinked. And perhaps he noticed the trace of a Russian accent in my English. Do I know? But are you listening? He mentioned the name that was mine 15 years earlier, in a completely different country, as if there had been no World War, as if the entire world hadn’t been plunged into chaos. And he mentioned it in New York, when I looked completely different and had another name. Isn’t that terrifying? I am convinced that the NKVD had been on my trail, and that the diplomat was an NKVD agent. Don’t you know that the NKVD were the heirs of the GPO, and the father of today’s KGB?”

“But what could he have wanted?”

“Nothing, I suspect. Just to let me know that they know exactly who I am. And that the Soviets still want to lay their hands on me. Maybe they also thought that they’d put pressure on me to spy for them. That I shouldn’t feel safe. Who knows?”

After a short silence he added, “They did manage to undermine my sense of security. Maybe they’d sentenced me to death in absentia. To tell the truth, I began to be afraid. I remembered well how Stalin had traced Trotsky to Mexico and had him assassinated there.”

Jeff asked, with honest interest: “But Grandfather, how did they uncover your true identity?”

“I wish I knew. But you’re asking about the Soviet secret police? They know everything!”

The old man stared with wide eyes at his impatient grandson. He understood the young man, living serenely in New York, the heavy baggage of his grandfather’s memories far from his consciousness, light-years away from his way of life. It was very important to the grandfather that the grandson identify with him somewhat, at least now, when being asked to undertake a mission for him. Otherwise who knew, perhaps he wouldn’t agree to take on the project in Moscow.

Asher Yosef closed his eyes and covered his forehead with the palm of his left hand for a prolonged moment of thought. Finally he began to speak incessantly; his son and grandson didn’t dare to break the flow of words. He spoke in a slightly trembling voice, but clearly and firmly:

“For many years, my children, I haven’t told you what I went through in those two years in Siberia. I can’t explain, even to myself, why I hid it from you. Maybe it was my way of fleeing the nightmare. Or maybe the opposite: I wanted to keep the hard memory as a constant reminder of the pain. Or maybe I thought you wouldn’t believe me.”

No one answered him. Night had fallen upon Ramat Gan. Moshe Aryeh stood up and turned on the light in the shabbily furnished living room.

Grandfather continued. “As I told you, I was arrested before dawn. They, the men of the secret police, banged harshly on the door. And before I could open it, four of them broke into the room and ordered me to get dressed. My mother -- my father was no longer alive -- and my two sisters, Marisha and Irina, were left alone. I hurried to obey their command: they were the terror of the entire state. The terror of the nation. I didn’t even have time to tremble. Their screams -- ‘Quickly! Quickly!’ -- paralyzed even my emotions.

“They took me in a black car with tinted windows to the GPO’s central headquarters, without ever saying a word. I never saw my mother or sisters again.”

Asher Yosef was silent for a minute. The memory of his mother and sisters brought a look of profound sorrow to his wrinkled face. It was clear to Jeff that his grandfather was now completely surrounded by the images of the past, of those days 50 years earlier.

“I was thrown into a small, dark, and frigid cell. From nearby cells I could hear screams, blood-curdling screams. It was clear that my fellow prisoners were being tortured. We knew that enemies of the government, or those whom the government decided were its enemies, were often tortured horribly by the GPO agents. In the past when we walked -- hurriedly, of course -- past the fearful headquarters of the secret police, we heard nothing. Now -- I was alone, frightened, by myself in a tiny cell, knowing that soon, very soon, it would be my turn. What I had done wrong, I honestly had no idea. But as I have said, in Russia during those times one didn’t have to commit a crime to be thrown into solitary confinement or even killed, after terrible tortures.”

Another moment of heavy silence. He turned to Moshe Aryeh and asked, in weary tones, “Make me a cup of tea, please.”

Grandfather sighed deeply. “To my great fortune, they didn’t torture me. Until today I don’t know why I deserved such kindness. After a short trial I was found guilty of sabotaging the Soviet economy and damaging the rights of workers, distributing false information on the Soviet government to foreigners, of Trotskyism and Zionism. Of course, all the charges were ridiculous; I had never done any of those things.

“The trial took two days. The judges sentenced me to five years of hard labor in a camp in Siberia. ‘Reeducation camps,’ they called them. They hoped to turn me into a productive Soviet citizen. They felt I needed five years of education.

“I was in Siberia for two out of those five years. The cold was frightful, sometimes as low as 45 degrees below zero. We worked like slaves from morning to night. Any slight infraction was punished harshly; some were even sentenced to death. Not many, but some. And many, in any case, died of natural causes, because they simply didn’t have the strength to go on.

“Those villains once tied me to the back of a dog sled. The snow was almost waist high. The dogs raced off and I had to run after them, trying not to fall and be dragged through the snow. I didn’t succeed, of course. I ran through the high drifts as long as I could, until I fell. Finally, they cut me away from the sled and left me, bruised and bleeding and completely drained, in the heavy snow. My friends in the camp saved my life. They found me and took me to their huts, where they revived me.”

Asher Yosef told his son and grandson, as they sat mute, their eyes alert, of his failed attempt at flight, of his long confinement in solitary and how, finally, he and two fellow prisoners managed to run for their lives, to take advantage of the guards’ drunken stupor to escape through the prison’s gate unnoticed. It was during the summer months, after the snow had melted. When they reached the main highway they stopped a wagoner bringing hay to a local kolchoz, or farming collective. They forced him to give them a ride, hiding beneath the hayload. The frightened driver gave in to their demands, left his route, and sent his horses galloping eastward. Towards evening they reached the outskirts of a small village where he stopped.

“I jumped from my place,” the grandfather recalled, “and put the knife that was in my hand to the throat of the wagoner, who trembled like a leaf.

“‘Go! Go further!’ I hissed threateningly.

“The terrified wagon driver begged me. ‘Have mercy on me, my friends. In any case I am going to be punished harshly for not coming on time to the kolchoz. And if I don’t get back there tonight, they’ll kill me. Have mercy!’”

Grandfather told how his grip loosened somewhat. But his two comrades, non-Jews who’d fled with him, said, “Vladimir, haven’t you heard? In any case, he’s going to be killed. Let’s kill him now, take his clothing and his horses and wagon. We need them.”

Grandfather wouldn’t agree. A Jew remains a Jew, no matter what the circumstances. The murder of an innocent man was not to be thought of. After some open confrontation he persuaded them to let the poor wagon driver free.

It seemed that his two gentile companions were right: freeing the driver had, indeed, threatened their own lives. In order to save his own skin the driver betrayed them to the GPO, revealing the precise location to which they had fled.

“At midnight two secret police officers were banging on the door of the barn where we were hidden. They weren’t sure we were there, but they’d searched every corner of the small town, whose frightened citizens had cooperated fully. The darkness in the barn was thick and heavy. I decided to fight for my freedom, no matter what, so I unsheathed the knife in my hand. When one of the secret police approached, I jumped on him from the back and before he could recover I stabbed him in the heart. One stab and no more. A loud scream broke through the silence, a short, shrill scream, and then the body collapsed to the earth. The second GPO agent hurried to the spot from where the chilling scream had come. My two Russian comrades who had run away with me jumped from their hiding place, grabbed the man, and I took care of him too, with one terrible blow from my knife.

“The two Russian men didn’t wait long. They took the uniforms of the two dead men and put them on. They left the barn, started the GPO agents’ car that was parked outside, and swiftly left the village.”

Asher Yosef sighed.

“I didn’t manage to jump onto the car. They left me to my fate --”

Here, in the Ramat Gan apartment, he began to whisper. “Yes, yes, I saved their lives, and they left me. I was left alone in a hostile village, in a barn with two corpses.”

Grandfather took a few sips of the tea his son had brought him. His hand, holding the teacup, trembled.

“At that moment, for the first time in my life, a deep despair seized me. At that moment, after many years, my soul cried out to the Creator.”

Again, he grew quiet. This time, the silence was long and deep. Jeff crossed his legs. He could feel the curiosity within him growing. His resentment against his grandfather for having disturbed him with this sudden demand to come to Ramat Gan melted away. This unknown adventure of his grandfather had gripped him. And here was Grandfather’s voice again.

“At that moment I remembered tefillin. My tefillin. And I made a vow.”

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