I Speak for the Silent Prisoners of the Soviets - V. Tchernavin

Torture in the Lice Cell

The night following my rowdy encounter with the examining officer the old jeweler was summoned to his first cross-examination. He was gone for four days. After having sat in prison for four months he was so upset at being called out that he left behind his set of false teeth. He was unrecognizable when he returned on the night of the fourth day. As soon as he entered the cell he began to talk excitedly. He ravenously attacked the food we had saved for him, choked over the soup and bread, shook with laughter, stumbled over words, but still kept on trying to eat and talk at the same time.

"What fun, what fun! I'll tell you all about it, but you won't believe it. You will never believe what I've been through.—Fun.—How smart they are—they certainly know how to do it. They took me to the Gorokhovaya and put me in the 'lice' cell. Yes, the 'lice' cell. You know, you've heard of it—the 'lice' cell. What fun!"

Then he choked over his soup and bread and began coughing violently. We admonished him to calm himself and rest, but he hadn't eaten for four days. He continued eating and chattering at the same time.

"There are between two and three hundred people in the 'lice' cell, men, women and some children all thrown in together. How hot it is! And how crowded, without room to sit or lie down. They shoved me in and there was only standing room. The crowd sways back and forth incessantly—red faces and bulging eyes. It's fearful! But I found a friend in there who urged me to squeeze forward towards the grill. May God reward him—my friend—for telling me this, for showing me what to do; otherwise I would not be living now. Towards the end of the first night I lost consciousness. What happened and how—I don't know. When I came to I was lying down. I had been hauled out into the corridor. If I hadn't been near the grill I would certainly have died. My head was resting on a woman—a fat woman with large breasts who was also unconscious, and beyond her there was another woman. What fun! Oh, what fun!"

He rocked with hysterical laughter, choking and coughing. We passed him his teeth so that he could eat more easily.

"Thank you, thank you!" he sputtered. "I'd quite forgotten about my teeth, and I was wondering why I couldn't eat. That's fine. Thank you!"

Although he was still trembling and laughing, his story soon became more comprehensible, and for the first time we were hearing directly from the lips of a witness a description of perhaps the most vile method of torture used by the GPU—the "lice," "crowded" or "foreign currency" cell. Gradually out of his incoherent words and answers to our questions we were able to get quite a complete picture of the unbelievable way in which the GPU finances much of its work.

According to him the "lice" cell at the Gorokhovaya is only about half  the size of those crowded common cells of the Shpalernaya, but two to three hundred persons are jammed into it. There the people must stand pressed closely together. To add to the torture a high temperature is maintained in the cell. Everybody is covered with lice and fighting them is quite impossible. There is no toilet in the cell. The prisoners are taken out, three at a time, heavily guarded; men and women are taken together to the same toilet. This goes on continuously throughout the day and night. And every time even one person squeezes his way to the grill a general motion is started, resulting in a continuous swaying or rocking throughout the entire cell.

No one may sit or lie down. From time to time a GPU official enters the cell and stands up on a stool in the middle of this exhausted mass of people. If he finds that any one of the prisoners is sitting he makes the entire cell do a squatting exercise—lowering themselves slowly with bended knees and then slowly raising themselves up again time after time. This is such torture when everybody's legs are swollen from long standing that the prisoners themselves watch over each other so that no one may slide down to the floor.

The underwear of those who have been in the cell for several days becomes completely rotten and worn out and their entire bodies covered with lice bites and often a rash from nervous eczema.

"Do they have anything to eat there?" we asked, horrified at this picture of torture.

"Yes, yes! Each person gets 200 grams of bread and a mug of water a day. All drink water, but no one eats the bread—it would stick in one's throat. What a farce! The whole cell can be seen from the corridor. People are taken to see it before examinations and later, on the threat of being thrown in there, give up all their money, jewels—anything to save themselves from it. They are cunning, very cunning, those devils of the GPU."

"But you, Ivan Ivanovitch, why didn't you immediately say that you'd give up everything?"

"They didn't ask me to. That's just it—they didn't ask for anything. They kept me here four months without saying a single word to me, you know that. For almost four days they kept me in the 'lice' cell and I couldn't even speak to them about it. That's just one of their ways of terrifying people. Some are put in the cell and others are shown it from the corridor. The GPU knows how to frighten people, they're cunning!

"It was not until the fourth day," he continued, "that forty of us were picked out and taken to another cell where we waited for one hour and then another. At last a young fellow came in; he was young and alert and explained everything so clearly that we understood what it was all about.

"'You are parasites,' he said, and enemies of the Soviet Government. You all ought to be executed without mercy, but the Soviet Government will be lenient towards you for a time. It will let you cut your own roots. The Government needs money for the Piatiletka, real money! Foreign currency and gold coins will do, and those who haven't any can give gold articles and precious stones. The richer the Government is, the sooner will it be able to fulfill the Piatiletka  and establish a classless society where there will be no room for parasites like you. In a word, you must give voluntarily to the Piatiletka  that amount which will be assigned to each one of you. And those who refuse will be returned to the "lice" cell or sent to the "conveyor." And don't forget about the concentration camps.' Then after considerable swearing at us he sent us one by one to the examining officer.

"This officer was, I'll have to admit, a clever guy—very clever, and an expert in precious stones. When he told me that my contribution must be made with a certain value in precious stones, I agreed to it all. It meant I must give away all the jewels that I had collected in my fifty-five years of work. My only worry was that these might not be enough to cover the amount required from me. He told me to sign the agreement and I did. 'I will send you today to your apartment and you, yourself, can show us where these precious stones are hidden. If there aren't enough to meet the amount you must contribute, we shall put you back into the "lice" cell.'

"And everything happened as he had said. A man was appointed to go with me and we went in a street-car straight to my home."

"You rode in a street-car and you've been home?" we asked in amazement.

"Yes, we simply took a street-car—and how strange it felt. I couldn't believe it was true, that I actually was outside, riding on a car, that the people all around me were free. And I myself seemed free, but I knew that actually I was a prisoner. Oh Lord! Oh Lord! When my old woman answered the door-bell she almost fainted. But she immediately understood that something was wrong because I was with a stranger; she didn't know what to do. But my companion took me straight to the place where the stones were hidden. I took them out, counted them and entered them all on a slip of paper. Then he ordered me to get going back to the prison. But my old woman begged that she be allowed to give me some tea. And he was a good fellow and gave his consent. Well, you know, at home there is nothing to eat, but I had a glass of tea and changed to clean underwear. I cheered up the old woman as best I could, saying that everything was all right and I would soon be back home. She was crying. We are both old. And he, the Gepeist, was hurying me, saying, 'Let's go, old man, stop moping!'

"When we got back to the Gorokhovaya the same examining officer looked over my stones and made an expert valuation. 'Good,' he said, 'everything is all right. This will be enough from you for now, old man. The day after tomorrow you will be free, and for some time we'll let you alone.' And here I am."

"But Ivan Ivanovitch, how did it happen that they let you go so soon?" we asked. "We've always heard that people were kept in the 'lice' cell for weeks."

"Many of them are," he replied. "There was a jeweler friend of mine who'd been in there for thirty days, and twice he'd been taken to the 'conveyor.' You see, some people would rather lose their lives than give up their money. Either they won't give it up or they try to bargain about the amount. And there are still others who are asked to give up something they've never even had. That's what's really so horrible, for they're tortured, really tortured, until they wish they were dead; then they're deported to the concentration camp for insubordination.

"And there are all kinds of people there: merchants, dentists, doctors, engineers—all sorts. Anyone who might have some money is being taken. No matter how carefully money or gold is concealed, the GPU scents it and demands that it be turned over to them."

Ivan Ivanovitch finished his story and we went to sleep, and the next morning he woke up the same as he had always been—silent and reticent. We tried to find out more but he would not talk. Evidently the memory of his talkativeness of the night before, occurring because of nervous strain for perhaps the first time in his naturally quiet life, was very unpleasant to him. He told us nothing more.

The following day he was sent home "with things." Ivan Ivanovitch had bought himself out of prison.