IV To a Far Shore
A couple of days later, the
alarm clock rang at five o’clock, as usual. I staggered out to the
window, sleepily clutching my work clothes. I had to wipe the sleep off
my eyes—was I dreaming? I could see a pickup truck slowly turning
the corner. Perched on the truck bed I could distinguish, by the dim light
of the street lamp, three NKVD, secret police. What could the NKVD possibly
be doing in this quiet part of the city, at this time of the morning?
My heart beat furiously—even if the mind cannot not take in the
full implication of a sight, the heart knows. An inner voice urged me,
“Hurry, hurry. You’ve got to hurry.” I hastily finished
dressing, slipped on my overcoat, and ran down the steps. I stuck my head
cautiously out the gate, but the street was now empty. The truck had disappeared
and there was nobody to see me hit the street. I ran all the way to work,
clutching the angry scar in my groin.
My fellow counselor met me at the door, ashen-faced. He looked like he’d
just been hit on the head with a rock. “My apartment has been cleaned
“Oh,” I asked, “what happened? Have you been robbed?”
“Worse,” he stammered. “My relatives—I live with
them—they were arrested last night—they were taken, they are
gone—God knows where—what a night from Hell. Now I’m
told to go back as a witness while the police confiscate their property.”
Glad to be of assistance, I filled in for him while he ran back home.
But he was one of the lucky. As hours went by, news of mass arrests trickled
in. Entire families had been pulled out of bed in the dead of night, at
one, two, three o’clock. With small children, babies, aged parents,
with no time to pack, they were loaded onto open trucks and carted off
to the rail terminal, and eventually herded like cattle onto freight cars.
Men were separated from their wives, the elderly from the young, those
who resisted shot where they stood. Anybody and everybody was a target:
apolitical people like me; people who owned property; those known to have
worked against the Revolution; and people whose only sin might be a good
education or a prominent role in the community.
I did not go home that evening. The chief of staff advised me to stay
in the hospital. The wave of terror receded as mysteriously as it had
swept over the city. After the initial tens of thousands of “enemies
of the People” had been shipped off to Siberia on eastbound trains,
the city became reasonably quiet again, and after two days’ absence
I was able to return to my family.
As I entered our church property, I was given another piece of evidence
of God’s hand at work. I was met at the entrance by Sister Feldman,
our custodian’s wife. She told me the following story:
Brother Tarziers, you won’t believe what happened two days ago.
I was still in bed at five o’clock—my husband was in the factory,
he has a night job, you know—when I heard the doorbell.
Our church had a high iron fence on the street side, with two iron gates.
One gate was wide and always locked. The other, smaller gate was intended
for foot traffic, and it was locked from ten in the evening till six in
the morning. To gain entrance one had to use a bell which rang in the
custodian’s apartment. She continued:
The bell rang and rang. Normally I answer in two or three rings, but
that morning I could not get out of bed. I’m sorry, I really wanted
to answer the bell—the ringing was quite insistent—but my
legs were paralyzed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get
going. I even tried to massage my legs, thinking that I had slept wrong,
but nothing helped. So I let myself fall back into a sleep full of dreams.
When I woke up a half hour or so later, the bell was no longer ringing.
I got up—my legs were all right again—and went to check the
gate but there was nobody to be seen. Believe me, I have been doing all
my chores and there is nothing wrong with my legs. I have no idea what
happened to them that morning.
Did Sister Feldman think I would fire her for sleeping on the job? It
took me a while to calm her down. I told her that God had sent His angel
to immobilize her and save the six of us from being carted away by Stalin’s
death machine. That day I gained a new understanding of Psalm 91: ".
. . thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for. . . the
pestilence that walketh in darkness nor for the destruction that wasteth
at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy
right hand, but it shall not come near thee."
I can only classify as miracles the two events of that morning in 1940’s
Riga, in the midst of Communist terror: Sister Feldman’s paralysis
and my narrow escape at five o’clock. I can hazard a guess how I
personally happened to be spared, even though I showed up at the street
as the Party lackeys went about their dirty work. I think that the NKVD
had a quota to fill and so they could not wait long. The truck that waited
outside our door while the driver rang the doorbell in the custodian’s
apartment may have had to surprise another family two blocks away—perhaps
the family of my coworker at the hospital—before sunrise. They did
not come back to try to rouse Sister Feldman again, because by then people
would have heard shouts and shots and gone into hiding. But I still have
no idea why God singled us out. Thousands perished who were no worse or
better than us.
I was also saved from betraying my friends and colleagues. The Communists
employed many tricks to flush out their “enemies,” and it
took us a while to catch on. I personally experienced their trickery on
one occasion. The telephone rang one evening after I had just been discharged
from the hospital after surgery. A man vaguely known to me, an Andrejs
Klaupiks, was on the phone. He informed me that a brother had just arrived
in Riga from Moscow, and he wanted to meet the Baptist pastors in the
city. In the past, I would have agreed instantly. But this time I told
“I am still recovering from surgery—sorry—I really don’t
feel up to a meeting just now.”
He sounded miffed: “Do as you wish. The meeting is not mandatory.”
Later I heard that Robert Fetler and Janis Bormanis had met with the “brother”
from Moscow—probably a former pastor who had sold out to the NKVD.
Trust cost them dearly, because they were shipped off to die in Siberia
shortly thereafter. After his work in Riga, the “Moscow Brother”
went on to Tallinn and proceeded to send Estonian pastors into the Communist
maw. His forays became legendary in the Baptist community. In retrospect,
I figured that the purpose of my arrest and interrogation a few weeks
before was the same, to make me into a “brother” like him—truly
a golden carriage to Hell.