Menachem Begin was arrested in September, 1940, near Vilna, in Soviet-annexed Lithuania. He spent a year in prison, first in Vilna itself, then in the Arctic north. This is his story.
Begin, his wife, and other members of Betar, a militant and anti-Communist Zionist organization, had fled to Vilna as the Germans neared Warsaw in 1939. His record was widely known; the arrest was predictable. So was Begin's response: He had, after all, been trained as a lawyer. Just as he aiready had rejected the "invitation" to report to the authorities, so he now insisted that the detectives present their credentials and a warrant, and then polished his shoes!
They let him take two books: the Bible, and Andre Maurois biography of Disraeli. Significant choices, these books -- the one, a history of the ancient Jews in their greatness and their tribultations; the other, an account of an assimiliated Jew who rose to glory while shedding his Jewish heritage.
With arrest came interrogation. There were no beatings, no torture, nor were other prisoners handled that way. His execution was not an issue; perhaps, given the uncertainties of wartime, the possibility of eventual alliance with the Americans or British, the Kremlin preferred to let this Jewish leader live. In any case, the great purges were past. But there was semistarvation, and systematic deprivation of sleep, it being forbidden by day, while nights were reserved for incessant questioning, as Begin grappled with his inquisitors.
These officers of the N.K.V.D. bore little resemblance to the self-possessed interrogators of "Darkness at Noon," with which Begin's eloquent book deserves comparison. His tormentors accused, demanded, threatened, sometimes shouted and raved when his ripostes cut deep; mutual contempt was the keynote.
The officers tried not to extract information about Betar, whose activities were common knowledge, but to get Begin to admit in writing that Betar was fraudulent, deceitful, a tool of pro-British and anti-Soviet forces. A trial was promised him, but this was chicanery: "Trial," a major snorted, "Give him a platform." But uninterrupted sleep, an end to interrogation, also was offered, and this simple lure was very powerful.
Begin's goal was equally simple: to preserve his honor, and thus his self-respect and future effectiveness, by rebutting these charges and somehow arguing his captors into accepting certain revisions. So a battle of words continued for nights on end, a harsh seminar in contemporary history, with right-wing Zionism versus Communism, Begin's legal precepts and political analysis versus the interrogator's sweeping (and often blatantly mistaken) certainties.
The result was predictable: Begin signed. Nevertheless, "I had not given in!" for he had scored occasional points, especially a change by which his admission of holding high rank in Betar lost its original implication of guilt and confession.
What does all this reveal about Begin (or about his self-image, for the precise accuracy of these unwitnessed recollections is hard to assess)? That he was both skilled and stubborn at argument? Hardly a revelation! But there is something more. Begin's behavior was that of vigorous Zionism, of Betar in particular, which stressed courage and assertiveness, self-respect and self-discipline. Basic compromises with the gentile world were rejected. Jews were to live -- and die -- heroically, gloriously, building the moral strength which alone might enable an unarmed and outnumbered nation to withstand a hostile world. Begin's father, an ardent Zionist and community leader, died under German guns while carrying his grandson and singing "Hatikvah." And Begin writes of a Betar member who smuggled a message into prison, and ultimately fell into German hands. "She lived like a fighter and like a fighter she died."
Begin's personal fight for honor became a struggle for life itself. Sentenced to eight years, he was among the prisoners transported in mid-1941 to hard labor along the Pechora River, near the Arctic Circle and the Barents Sea, in European Russia. His account of the horrors he encountered of the cold, the scanty food, clothing, and medical treatment, the general disregard for life -- helps enlarge the vast literature that this century has produced about prison life.
More important, it partially explains his intense anti-Communism, and concern for the emigration of Russian Jews. For Begin here portrays Russia as a corrupt society, with neither bread nor hope, culture nor efficiency, but with the N.K.V.D. in total, exploitative control. He saw much in Russia during late 1941, when he and other Poles gained amnesty after Germany attacked. They trekked southward to help form the Polish army within whose ranks Begin eventually reached Palestine, a new life, and a new round of struggle.
These memoirs, tone and style of which underscore their authenticity, are both terse and passionate. They were written in 1952-53, when Begin's relatively minor political position perhaps encouraged greater frankness, and received English publication in 1957. That edition now has been reprinted, although the present publisher skips lightly over that fact, which nevertheless bolsters the book's standing as a remarkable historical -- and human -- document.