Back to Warm Wisdom Press
The books and gifts were to be delivered in Odessa. We had been instructed to go to the first rice-paper address, and then the second, and so on, until we made contact with someone. We would deliver the entire cache to the first person we connected with. Since we'd arrive in Yalta first, the plan was to do a test run there in order to learn the ropes.
All four of us were very nervous and did not sleep well the night before landing in Yalta. We woke up in the morning to find letters which had been shoved under our doors. They were from the captain of the ship and Russian Customs. We were required to be in the ship's library at 8:30 a.m. to meet with Russian Customs and Security officials. Please be prompt, etc. We had anticipated that this would happen because of the special visas.
The choice of the library for this meeting was of some concern, as the library was where we had hidden the books we were to smuggle into the Soviet Union. We were advised not to keep the books in our cabins, as there was a good chance they would be searched, probably upon the ship's arrival in Russia. We had taken the unwrapped books and put them on the shelves of the library with the other library books. They did not stand out and were not noticeable. This idea of hiding something in plain sight had worked well in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter," and worked well for us.
We met for breakfast as usual and chatted nervously. We did not discuss any details about our plans for the day aside from the most tourist-like topics. First we'll visit the Museum, and then the Royal Palace, and then the Palace of Count Voronofsky. We hardly mentioned the meeting coming up in the library. We just got up and went.
When we arrived in the library the stars, braids, medals, and campaign ribbons indicated that the four or five uniformed officials were of various levels of importance and rank. There was also a well-dressed, tall, thin man who was clearly in charge. He had to be KGB. He spoke English, and as soon as we entered the room, he started to attack us. How could we possibly go ashore without speaking Russian? We'd get lost, we'd get into trouble, and so on and so forth.
Marvin went into a catatonic state. He was paralyzed. He sat down in a corner and said nothing. Carol was shaking, sweating, and nervous. This guy had gotten to her. Doctors don't like situations where they're not in charge. Barbara and I looked at each other and she indicated that she'd deal with this guy.
I took one step back and Barbara took several steps forward until she was nose to nose with KGB. She let him have it. We know exactly what we're doing and you better not get in our way. We don't have to speak Russian. She produced the pile of maps and guidebooks we had accumulated, and shoved them at him. What's your problem? He barked at her that we wouldn't even be able to get a taxi as we couldn't speak to the driver. She pulled out a pile of postcards and pictures and barked back that we'd show the driver the picture of where we want to go, and we'll have no problem. Well, then, how will you get back to the ship and not get lost? She produced a postcard with the picture of the ship on it.
She was powerful and assertive, and the officer gave up. The entourage of Russians then departed, leaving the captain and us in the library. The captain said he had work to do and left, and we were alone. It took Marvin a couple of minutes to recover. Barbara and I then knew we were in charge; Marvin would be going along for the ride.
This special meeting had been designed to intimidate us and to put us off going ashore on our own. If anything, however, this clumsy attempt to frighten us had the opposite effect and strengthened our resolve to complete our mission as planned.
The line began to form to get off of the ship about 8:45. We were close to the front of the line and were anxious and nervous. This first encounter with Russian Customs would help shape our conduct the next day in Odessa. All of the people on the Intourist tour were wearing badges, with each person having his own large printed number. We did not have any badges. When we got to the first clerk and presented our visas, he called over a couple of his comrades and a long discussion ensued.
Finally they decided our visas were not valid or acceptable. We yelled, they yelled, but we made no headway. It started to look like we were going to see Russia from the deck of the ship and no closer, so I went into my full lawyer routine and demanded to see the person in charge. Within a couple of minutes we were in a private office with glass walls and very plain, beat-up furniture. The martinet across the desk, sitting in a chair that was far too small for his enormous frame, was wearing one of the silliest uniforms I had ever seen. Imagine what a clown would wear at the circus to make fun of an army uniform. The badges, epaulets, braid, buttons, medals, campaign designations, etc., were literally so plentiful, and so covered the entire outfit, that you could hardly make out the color of the jacket. This guy was puffing on a cigarette, and it seemed like his intention was to produce as much smoke in the room as possible.
We remembered our lessons and did not laugh or comment, but it was tough to keep a straight face. I at once launched into a tirade. Do you know who I am? Do you know whom you are dealing with? Can't you see that these documents were issued in Moscow? Do you dare go against the wishes of the great Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Foreign Relations, etc.? Do you know how much trouble you are going to have when I return to the ship and call Moscow and complain? What is your name, rank and identity number? As soon as he started to object, I would repeat myself louder and more forcefully. I pointed out to him that we had just dealt with the KGB in the library and they had approved our visit, no problem. After a couple of minutes of this he took out various colored stamp pads from his desk drawer, together with a large box of rubber stamps. He asked for our visas, and we each placed a visa on the desk in front of him. He'd open a page in the visa and then use each and every stamp he had. Some stamps he initialed. Others he wrote sentences inside and over. Some were stamped in black, some in red, and some in green. The page had a ridiculous appearance when he was finished. He picked up the second visa and repeated the process, then again and again, until we were all stamped to capacity.
He then picked up the phone and a less important person came in and asked us to follow him. He took our pictures with us holding the visas open to the fully stamped and initialed page and then again with the page with our photographs. We were then turned over to another functionary will less braid and medals than the first two guys. He escorted us through the customs and immigration lines as VIPs. The cruise-ship passengers stared as we were rather regally escorted past the various tables and clerks with their stamp pads and full complement of rubber stamps.
We were the first people to get out of the customs building. We were now in a port area with no visible transportation. The Marlboro trick would now be put to its first test. I took out a pack of Marlboros and held it up prominently, making a show of lighting a cigarette. I continued to hold it up until a port guard came over to me and motioned that he wanted a cigarette. I gave him one, and showed him the picture in the guidebook of the town's central square. I then pantomimed that we wanted a taxi to get there. I put another cigarette in his pocket. He ran off to an office.
Within a minute or two a taxi arrived. A very small, dirty, and cramped Soviet vehicle, but it was a taxi. I got into the front seat and Barbara, Carol and Marvin jammed themselves into the rear seat. Marvin is a big man and it was a tight squeeze. I showed the driver the same picture of the main square, and off we went in a cloud of exhaust fumes and bad smells. I was still smoking the cigarette, which the driver pointed to as he floored the gas pedal. I handed it to him. He pointed to the package of Marlboros in my other hand. I shook my head no. He drove fast and recklessly into the city. There was very little traffic on the wide roads, only a few busses full of locals on their way to work, school, or whatever. Everyone stared at us.
Our initial impression of Yalta was that it was like a very poor city in Mexico or South America, except that the busses and trucks were not colorfully decorated as they are in most poor countries. Here they were dour Soviet gray-green. The taxi driver wore clothes that had seen a better day. He smelled, the cab stank, and the city reeked.
Despite the slide show preparation, we were astonished by the poverty of this place. We were overwhelmed by a bad smell, a stench. It was unlike anything any of us had ever smelled before. It was a mixture of cooking smells, body odor, gasoline fumes, chemical fumes, and something more that we couldn't identify.
We drove past an industrial zone, which had a very third-world look to it. Then we passed block after block of large apartment houses with laundry hanging outside of almost every window. The buildings were all gray concrete and extremely poorly kept. There was no color anywhere. There was an occasional tree, but that was about it. There was a Soviet emblem on a sign now and then, with some slogan written below it, but the signs added very little to the lack of color.
All of the apartment buildings were about a block long. Each building had one entrance in the middle, and was about ten stories high. They were all the same. Same height, same concrete, same plainness. It was a very boring landscape. We turned a corner and entered the city itself. It was a downtown area made up of mostly pre-revolutionary buildings, which, just like in Romania, were lovely but badly in need of paint and repairs. This bleak scene was once again intensified by the lack of color.
We arrived at the central square of the city. It was quite large, but had very few people walking about. There were a few older people sitting on benches playing chess. The cab driver indicated the price of the ride with his fingers. We had special tourist rubles that we were able to buy onboard ship just to buy trinkets and food. This was not the normal Russian currency, but rather special money for non-residents. The person to whom we gave this special money had to go to an office and exchange it for real currency. Of course, his name and details and the amount of money exchanged were noted, so the dictatorship could keep track of anyone who dealt with tourists. This would not be good for one's KGB dossier.
The driver pointed to the Marlboros. He held up three fingers. He was willing to be paid for the entire ride with three cigarettes. I was really shocked at this incredible exchange rate and the value of cigarettes. I got caught up in the swing of things and offered him two. He took them with a smile, and sped off with a cloud of dust and fumes. The four of us stood there amazed at the price of the cab ride, and were quite gratified that the sign language worked.
We set off to find the Museum. The maps we had collected from the ship and guidebooks were fine. After a short walk and look around we found the Museum, which was closed, and would not open for another twenty minutes. We decided to walk around and poke our noses into the few open shops and stores.
The people and the store clerks were very disturbed to see us. They were not used to foreign visitors. Cruise ship passengers always went on a guided tour, and were taken only to special tourist shops. Here we were, four nicely dressed westerners, appearing out of nowhere, as if through a time warp. We stood out egregiously among these drab and colorless people. We felt like aliens on a strange planet.
No one owned any of the stores, or much of anything for that matter. The state owned all of the apartments, which were occupied at the sufferance of the state. The taxi was a government vehicle with government gas, etc. There was no reason for these people to make an effort to please a customer or make a sale, because there was nothing in it for them on the positive side, whereas they might get into trouble for selling to the wrong people.
In most of the stores there was nothing we wanted to purchase, which was just as well because the clerks would have nothing to do with us. Showing the cigarette pack would thaw them out for a second, but they'd quickly recover and point to the doors. A few old women actually physically pushed us out the door.
The most memorable thing about the stores was the lack of merchandise. What was available was of a very poor quality. One store, a fabric store, was the only place with any customers. It seemed to be the hangout for the local women. The fabrics were coarse and plain and ugly.
At a tobacco and liquor store, the clerk was already so drunk that he didn't seem to mind when we came in. I was going to buy a package of Russian cigarettes to take back to the US with us as a momento but as soon as I took out the special tourist money, the clerk became sober and threw us out of the store. We headed back to the Museum.
It was in an old and once elegant house. Here we first encountered a "babushka." A babushka is an older woman with a scarf wrapped around her head. The scarf itself is actually the babushka, but the term is applied to any old (but not young) woman who wears one. They sit in the corner of every room in every public building. It was never clear what their jobs were. Possibly they had make-work employment, so that everyone could be said to be employed. This was crucial to the Soviets, whose main propaganda about the greatness of communism was that they had full employment in Russia.
There was a ticket booth just outside the door, with several babushkas seated on old beaten-up wooden chairs. There was no admission price, as one of the major "greatnesses" of communism is that culture is free and open to everyone. Nevertheless, we had to get into a single-file line at the ticket booth, and each of us had to present our visas for inspection. There was a man in the booth wearing the standard ill-fitting and dirty uniform. He took a great amount of time and feigned interest in each and every page of our visa booklets. They were similar in size and style to a passport, and had many pages, most of which were empty. This guy seemed as interested in the blank pages as the full pages. He did not miss a page. Each of us was then given a large, poorly printed, ticket, made of what looked like thick, poor quality, toilet paper. Each ticket had a hand-written number, and he carefully entered each of our numbers in a logbook.
We then had to present our tickets to one of the babushkas who had been watching this entire process. She examined the tickets as if they were things she had never seen before, and she seemed to wonder where they came from. It was bizarre to the point of comical. But, remember, no laughing at the people, whatever they do. She tore off a corner of ticket and put it in her pocket.
Then the next babushka repeated this same process. Then the next, and then the next. We were finally left with a small portion of the original ticket and then allowed to go inside the Museum. The entrance was the mansion's entry hall. The curved staircase going up to the second and third floors was baroque and beautiful, except for the peeling paint and desperate need of repair. Once it had been fantastic. Most of the building was adorned with carved and ornate marble moldings and decoration. There were niches in the walls with marble and bronze statutes of a variety of nymphs and family busts. Probably not the originals, as most of those were destroyed in the peasant rampages which took place during the revolution. Still, there were some very lovely sculptures and I enjoyed examining them. Everyone else was bored quickly with the place. We wandered from room to room, and through each floor, spending about an hour in the Museum. Some of the paintings fit into marble frames carved into the walls. They were nice and probably original because they were very large and too difficult for looters to steal, since you couldn't roll them up under your arm and run out with them.
Every room had one or more babushkas. Some sat in their chairs and attempted to avoid looking at us, behaving as though we had the plague. Others followed us around closely, suspecting that we had designs to steal or damage something. They were all the more suspicious of us because we didn't have the usual tour guide, and they didn't know what to make of us. The ominous state had stifled all individual initiative, and they wouldn't have thought to ask any questions.
We departed, and began to look for our next tourist sight. There was another museum, which had also been an elegant and large palatial residence, located in the center of town. This museum contained objects d'art, furniture, dishes, and clothing that had belonged to the Czarist nobility. The ticket procedure and details were as before. Everything in this place needed to be dusted and washed. The beautiful china was last washed about sixty years earlier. Nothing was clean or cared for, and it was sad to see such beautiful things so neglected. We did enjoy seeing the finery that the nobility had lived with. There were many items that we found to be mysterious; we had no idea what they could have been used for. The gowns were spectacular in their detail and embroidery.
When we finished looking, we felt hungry. It was time to find a place for lunch. All of the guidebooks recommended the same hotel, so the choice was not tough. The hotel had been used almost exclusively for royalty and diplomats in the days of the Czar. The marble columns and facade were beautiful and impressive. There was a brass sign in French, English, and Cyrillic that made it clear that this establishment was for tourists and diplomats only. Citizens could enter only with special permits.
The guards at the door here were not babushkas, but rather proper soldiers, who looked better and sharper than anyone we had seen so far, including the guards at the customs house. These guards were not overtly hostile, but we sensed an undercurrent of antipathy.
The guards carefully examined our visas and our passports. Up until now we had been asked to produce only the visas. They looked up and down at our photos and at us, to be certain we were the document holders. It didn't take long, but was a more proper appraisal than had taken place at the dock. Once convinced we were OK, they pushed back a heavy green velvet curtain and ushered us into the lobby, which matched the exterior. It was opulent, and embellished in marble to the point of being gaudy. Everything was clean and polished and must have looked very much as it had looked for the Czar and his guests. It was beautiful. It took our breath away after the drabness and colorlessness of the city. A liveried bellman came up to us and asked what were our requirements. He asked in French and I replied in French that we would like to have lunch. Everyone else was speaking English, so he switched to English. He spoke both languages with very little accent, which was impressive.
He inquired if we had a reservation. No? Then he would check to see if they could accommodate us. We waited, and he returned in a few minutes and said they would be pleased to serve us. Would we please follow him into the main dining room, as lunch was being served only there today.
The enormous pink marble dining room was spectacular. The décor was in varied shades of marble, some almost white and some almost red, with many shades in-between to form designs on the floors and walls. The columns around the room had to be 8 to 10 feet in diameter. There were crystal chandeliers, with thousands of crystals on each one of the dozens of them. The tables were set with beautiful china and crystal. There were pink roses in a large spray in the middle of each table. There were about twenty large round tables set for lunch.
We were the only ones in the dining room.
Immediately upon entering the room, a maid wearing lovely clothing came to check our coats. We declined. A very specific and strongly-worded warning had been issued by both the cruise ship and by our handlers in LA - "Do not give up your coats!" Never, ever give anyone any piece of clothing to be checked. Never give up your coat anywhere, because that is the very last you will ever see of it. They will deny you had a coat or came in with a coat. They will laugh when you show them your claim check, and they will no longer be able to speak English. Your coats will be gone. OK, OK we got the message. So we politely declined, but then a long argument ensued. The maid demanded our coats. It is the law. These are the rules. No overcoats in the dining room. She would not back off. Soon a waiter appeared and joined in. Together they loudly demanded that our coats be surrendered to them for safe keeping.
I finally started to yell, which had no effect whatsoever. We decided to leave, as lunch was not worth the loss of our coats. We needed our coats not just for the weather, but also for our smuggling the next day in Odessa. Large, bulky coats can hide a lot of stuff. We were dressed exactly as we would be dressed the next day, because our dry run had to duplicate the actual operation as closely as possible, even down to the clothes. As a last-ditch effort I brought out the Marlboros and offered a couple of cigarettes to each of our adversaries. No, they wanted the entire pack, which was about three quarters full. Fine, here is the pack of cigarettes. They were now very happy, and went from antagonistic and hostile to overflowing with warmth and helpfulness. The waiter asked if they could have their tips for lunch in cigarettes. Sure, I replied, relieved that we still had our coats.
We were shown to one of the many tables and given menus. I have eaten in many places, from the best to worst, and never have seen anything to compare to this menu. It was a leather bound book of hundreds of pages. There was a table of contents in five or six languages. Each language had its own section of the book. The English section was forty or fifty pages. I was then handed a second book of equal girth and beauty and with gilded lettering on the outside. This was the wine list. Great!
We spent twenty minutes going through the menu. We decided that we would each order something different, so that we could taste a variety of delicacies from this impressive menu. Marvin selected two wines, a white and a red.
When the waiter finally reappeared, after a long absence, we started to order. Barbara and Carol began. Barbara wanted a veal dish with roasted potatoes, etc. The waiter said, "Nyet." The answer to everything we wanted was Nyet. This went on for a good fifteen minutes. Every item we wanted was nyet. Nyet, Nyet, and more Nyet.
Our wine selections were also Nyet. It became very funny, but we kept straight faces and didn't laugh or make jokes, as very tempting as this was. Finally Marvin had had enough and took over, which is not Marvin's style. But Marvin likes to eat, and was very frustrated. He pounded his fist on the table and demanded to know what do you have to eat? The waiter, who has never lost his cool, said he had chicken with potatoes and tomatoes. Boiled chicken and potatoes, with stewed tomatoes. That's it. No other choice. OK, fine, we will all have the boiled chicken and potatoes and stewed tomatoes.
Marvin's wine ordering went exactly the same way. They had one wine, red. OK we'll have a bottle. Do you have Vodka? Oh sure they do. OK we will also have some Vodka. We all needed a drink by then, but the Vodka was not only for calming us down, it was for sanitary and medicinal purposes. Another of the adamant instructions from the handlers was not to trust the cleanliness of anything anywhere. So even in the best restaurant in Moscow, you must dip all the silverware in Vodka and let it sit there for a minute or two. Pour Vodka on the plates, and let it sit there, and then wipe it off. Any vegetables that are not cooked must be immersed in the Vodka for a while before being eaten. Never eat raw food unless it is Vodka treated.
The first item brought to the table was a large glass bowl filled with ice. Into the ice was pushed an amphora-shaped Vodka bottle with a pointed bottom. It would not stand on its own and had to be pushed into the ice to stand upright. It was a large container, probably a half-gallon of Vodka. We went to work sterilizing everything. First the tall shot glasses for the booze, which we put to immediate use. The Vodka was superb. The very best that any of us had ever had, bar none. The Absolute that one buys in the US does not compare with this stuff. It was smooth and excellent. We consumed enough to take off the edge, and then more. Lunch was going to taste good, no matter what it turned out to be.
Next came sliced raw vegetables (tomatoes, and carrots), which we at once immersed into the Vodka. So the veggies were dripping in liquor, which we no longer needed. When the chicken and potatoes and stewed tomatoes finally came, everything tasted great. I don't know if it was even edible, but it tasted great along with the large amounts of Vodka we had in our systems. The dark brown, almost black, bread, was also very good.
The waiter came back with the leather bound menus to have us select a dessert. By now we knew the system, and asked what they had. Fruit and ice cream was just fine, we will all have that. Why the charade with the leather bound menus and all that nonsense? I don't know. They must have assumed that this was required to be considered a good restaurant. I'd bet that once upon a time they really could serve everything listed in that menu.
Several hours had now passed in this establishment, and we were still the only customers in the room. The meal had been an experience, and was well worth the initial frustration. The amount of tourist money that we had to leave to pay the bill was ridiculously small. The Vodka, which was the best part of the meal, came to about one dollar for the half gallon. We left a few more Marlboro cigarettes on the table as a tip, as promised.
We next had our first opportunity to lose a tail. We had left the hotel, and were standing on the street deciding which way to go. We had no trouble spotting the two ridiculous characters who were standing across the street staring at us. They were such clumsy spies that we broke the rules and laughed out loud. How could we have not noticed them this morning? Two men, dressed in bright colors, totally out of place. We had been told that if we were followed, it would be by characters dressed in San Francisco type clothes. This was one of those things that you can't believe until you see, but there they were. One had on pink slacks and a bright yellow shirt, which looked very Hawaiian. The clothes just about glowed.
We walked to the main square, and sure enough they were following us. Soon we saw two more of them, also dressed for a gay party by the bay. As previously planned, we went into the only department store in the city. It had more merchandise than the other stores, but not much more, and of no better quality. Each counter and table had its own babushka on guard. They glared if we touched anything, and growled if we even looked too closely. We knew the KGB would be in the large square out in front waiting for us to emerge from the only entrance and exit of the store. We hung around in the store just long enough to make it appear we had been shopping. It was now time to try out our plan.
Each of us left the store, one at a time, with a minute or two between each departure. We each went to a different corner of the large square. I was the last to leave and walked directly past the group of four KGBs standing in the center of the square, totally unsure of what to do, and babbling among themselves. I smiled and waved to them as I went by. I strolled to the now one unoccupied corner of the large plaza. I stood there and held up a pack of Marlboros at the passing cars, of which there were not too many. The first taxi to come by screeched to a stop, pointing to the cigarettes. I got into the front seat and directed the cab to drive around the square. He stopped at each corner in turn, and picked up Barbara, Carol, and Marvin. The KGBs remained in the middle of the square, clueless.
The plan was not to lose these guys yet. If the cab had continued to drive we would have lost them. This, however, was only a trial run that the handlers had assured us would work well. We were not to be concerned, because the tails would not report this incident to anyone, as that would be an admission of incompetence and failure. It was almost too easy and we couldn't help but laugh. I had handed the taxi driver one cigarette per corner, so he was already a very happy Russian. I now told him with hand signs and pantomime to park for a minute, which confused him, but two more cigarettes bought his acquiescence. This was to allow the tails to catch up with us. Within a few minutes they were behind us in their car. It looked like an old black checker cab, like the ones used in New York. Out of place with the other vehicles on the road, it stood out loud and clear.
Barbara showed the driver a postcard with a picture of the Palace of Count Voronofsky. This was a palace about the size of the Versailles in Paris, with gardens, and fountains of equal opulence. The Count had owned about 80,000 people who worked for him full time. 80,000 people. He could do with them as he wished. Rape, murder, torture - all acceptable and permitted because these serfs were not viewed as people, but as property, like one owns a chair or a car. He had his own private army to keep control, and they could also rape and pillage to their full satisfaction.
A few more cigarettes were required as our destination was out of town. We promised to give him an entire pack if he took us, waited, and brought us back to the ship. He nodded. We were quickly out of the city and into the country, riding along a narrow highway. The entrance to the Palace was a beautiful tree-lined road, which was a mile or so in length and which opened onto a huge circular drive with an enormous white marble fountain in the center. We walked around briefly to case the joint. We located the visitor's entrance and the exit. We took a short tour of the gardens, which were full of practical jokes. One example of many, was that you step on a paving stone and water squirts up at you. It had the mandatory hedgerow maze of all 16th and 17th century castles, and miles of stone walkways.
The tails were right behind us all the way. They were like the negative side of a magnet repulsing the positive; no one would go near them. The people would move as far away from them as possible. The crowds would split around them. It was now time for our second losing-the-tail test.
We picked up our pace and walked briskly towards the Palace. We entered into the "exit" of the tour. Pink pants was running after us, followed by the other three. When they got to the doorway, which was the exit, they stopped and just stared after us. No good Russian, even the KGB, would enter through an exit, and violate a posted sign. A few babushkas yelled at us as we walked around the Palace. We were going against the flow of traffic. We walked against all the arrows, exited through the entrance, and departed. We got into the cab, and showed him the picture of our ship. He was happy to leave and drove fast. The KGB checker car was still parked, and no tails were anywhere in sight.
Losing the tail had been an exhilarating experience. We all had a real rush and high from the excitement. During our backwards tour of the Palace, all of our juices were flowing. We didn't calm down from it for many hours. Wow, that was great! We hadn't done anything wrong or illegal and wouldn't have been concerned had we been caught. We had no contraband or illegal items on us at the time. Had we been caught, however, it would have meant scrapping the next day's task as we would have been watched even more closely.
The taxi pulled into the customs area. We gave the driver his pack of cigarettes and hurried toward the ship. The formalities for getting back on board were strict, as they wanted to make sure we weren't Russians trying to escape. The Iron Curtain was designed to keep the citizens in far more than it was designed to keep foreigners out. The machine guns at the Berlin wall were fixed to point eastwards. When we were identified as non-Russians, their next concern was what, if anything, of military value we had photographed. We had been warned not to photograph the police, or anything possibly military, and we hadn't. If they see you taking any such photographs they take your camera away from you at once, never to be seen again. We were using cheap dime-store models for this very reason. You don't take a Leica into Russia. The admonitions not to take pictures had been so strong that we took almost no pictures whatsoever. Best not to be seen aiming a camera anywhere.
We had been twice successful in getting rid of the tail. We felt we had had a good day and were ready for tomorrow. Still, the nervousness increased. That night at dinner we must have changed our minds six times; we are going to smuggle the stuff, we are not going to do it. Why take this crazy risk? How can we not help those poor people? Our feelings were on the end of a pendulum, swinging back and forth. One moment we felt exhilarated and were ready to go ahead tomorrow, and the next moment we experienced white-knuckle fear of what could happen to us if we were caught. None of us had ever experienced such wild swings of feelings in such a short period of time. Marvin and Carol, being analysts, confirmed this was a most unusual mental state. Strangely, the fright was interesting and energizing, and the pendulum swing of emotions was somehow exciting and pleasurable.
None of us slept much that night. Breakfast was quiet. Fear and nervousness hung in the air. We went to our cabins to prepare for going into Odessa. Marvin and I made a stop at the library to pick up the books.
I put the Timex watches on each of my arms. One dozen on each arm. Marvin did the same. Every pocket was stuffed with books and packages of cigarettes. Our camera cases were also stuffed. We wore our raincoats, which were also stuffed full. We felt ridiculous, and worried that our overstuffed pockets would give us away.
We got into line to disembark from the ship. The procedure was similar to that of Yalta, with the stamp pads, rubber stamps, and the tables of clerks. This time we had no problems as we had the many stamps on our visas from our previous day; therefore we were not subjected to the same questioning. There were what appeared to be random checks of the passengers getting off. Some ladies' handbags were inspected. Some camera bags were opened and rummaged through. A soldier walked toward me, stopped, and then patted down the guy right in front of me in line. The sweat was pouring off of me at this point. It was running down Marvin's face like Niagara Falls. This in a cool place on a cool day. I was very concerned that our nervousness would be a tip-off, or that our bulging pockets would give us away.
The customs people ignored us. Here we were, the only four people out of six hundred with open visas, and we are ignored by customs. Soon we were standing on the street. The city was more opulent than Yalta, with elegant buildings fronting the seashore. The famous Odessa Steps went down from the street to the dock. This was where the revolutionaries took over the Battleship Potemkin in 1917, and it's at least as famous as the other landmarks of the revolution. This place was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein's "The Battleship Potemkin," the 1925 film with the famous Potemkin Steps sequence. The steps themselves were executed in ornate marble and the detailed balustrades are beautiful. The several hundred steps go down from the main boulevard to the water's edge. There's an optical illusion, which distorts the width looking from the top or the bottom. We weren't going to do any tourist stuff whatsoever in Odessa because our goal was to make our delivery and then get back on board the ship. We did not like having our pockets loaded with illegal books and contraband. However, Barbara and the others very much wanted to "do the steps," so we did. We then walked toward the main square of the city, planning to use the same devices to get a taxi and to lose the tail as we had used the previous day in Yalta.
As we were walking to the square, we came to an intersection and stopped for the signal. There was a line of Russians waiting patiently for their turn at a large dark-green machine. It was like an oversized Coke machine. We had seen a couple of similar machines the day before in Yalta, and were curious.
When a person's turn came, he put a coin into a slot, took the metal cup hanging from a metal chain, and put it under a spout. The machine filled the cup with a whitish thick liquid. The person would gulp it down in one or two large swigs, and most would then go back to the end of the line for another turn.
The line was composed of a cross section of the population. There were babushkas, old men, young men, children, housewives, and, well, everyone. I was fascinated and insisted on getting into the line. I traded a cigarette for a coin to use in the machine.
When my turn came, I put in the coin and the cup filled. I did not want to drink out of the same cup that every person in line had been drinking from. Who knew what disease or illness I could pick up from that cup. So I only smelled the contents. Whew - this was some very strong alcoholic beverage. It was, I later learned, moonshine made from potato peelings and other kitchen scraps. I handed the cup to the next person in line, who gratefully chugged it down. This stuff had to be pure alcohol and it stank terribly. We walked on, shaking our heads in disbelief. These machines were everywhere, with lines at each machine. It was nine in the morning and the citizens, including children, were already getting drunk.
During this stop we noticed four men tailing us. They were a couple of dozen yards behind us along the street. They were dressed in the same loud and bizarre fashion as the tails of yesterday. We assumed that this was routine KGB procedure; if the law enforcement officers stand out, people are less likely to break the law, as they know they are being watched. Well, these guys certainly stood out. This was very good for us as we could spot them so easily. We walked quickly to the main central square of the city.
We entered the square and implemented the plan. One of us to each corner. The tails accommodated us, and went directly to the center of the square, just as the other four tails had done on the previous day in Yalta. I got the cab and drove around and picked everyone up and we were off. Barbara showed the driver a postcard of one of the palaces just to get out of the center of town. I offered Marlboros, which worked as usual. After we had gone a short distance, Barbara took out a rice-paper address. We had already removed the names and eaten them. She handed the address to the driver.
So the only thing the cab driver saw was a small strip of paper with an address written on it in Cyrillic. Cyrillic is the Russian printed language, which was invented by a guy named Cyril.
The driver stopped. He was very upset. He refused to go any further. I put a full pack of cigarettes on the dashboard, and I stuck a few loose ones in his shirt pocket. I motioned for him to drive and was relieved when he took off, made a U-turn, and drove. And drove. And drove. We left the city and were now in the countryside. We were going far away from the town. No wonder he had resisted this trip. We became extremely nervous and uncomfortable. The landscape was bleak.
At this point, serious fear set in. We were in an uncivilized wilderness. If this cabdriver decided to roll us, or kill us, we were lost and there was nothing we could do. We stole looks at each other filled with fear and desperation. I put on an act of bravado and appeared to keep a sharp watch for the benefit of the driver, but I was really looking at nothing, just hoping we would reach our destination soon. We drove on and on, our nervousness and tension and fear became more and more acute. Finally, in the distance I saw a group of large buildings. I hoped this was where we were going, as I did not want to go any farther away from the ship.
We approached a large collection of apartment houses. There were dozens and dozens of them. All identical. All about fifteen stories tall, unpainted, gray concrete. No landscaping, no trees. Dirt, sand, and rubbish. There were no streets or sidewalks, just paths worn into the dirt. No streetlights, no stop signs, no signs of any kind. Just this large group of buildings stuck out in the middle of nowhere.
The driver had to stop a couple of times and ask several people for directions to the number of the building we were looking for. Finally we arrived at the entrance to the building. There was no posted number anywhere we could see. He nodded, yes, this is the building. We all started to get out of the cab, but then Barbara hesitated, and insisted that one of us should stay in the cab and guard it, to make certain it did not leave, or we would be real in trouble. Barbara volunteered to guard the cab, and remained sitting in the back seat. She gave Carol, Marvin, and me all the books and cigarettes she was carrying. I gave her my opened pack of Marlboros and told her to feed them to the cab driver one at a time to keep him smoking and happy.
The feelings of fear had, if anything, increased. Going into this large apartment building felt like going into a haunted house. We didn't know what to expect. Someone could jump out at us from a dark corner and attack us. Was there a guard on duty, or any security of any kind? We were going in blind, looking for an apartment number given to us in Los Angeles.
The three of us went into the building looking for apartment #27. There was no directory of any kind. There was no elevator. The overwhelming smell of urine, cabbage cooking, feces, sweat, smoke, rotting food, mold, and a complex mixture of revolting smells permeated the building. We were disgusted by the stairway we now had to climb to find apartment #27. It was narrow and steep. It was filthy and had probably not been cleaned since it was built. The smell of urine was even stronger on the stairs than it had been in the entrance. I refused to touch the walls or railings, which Carol reported were sticky with something. Yuk. We were on the brink of throwing up, which was another smell we recognized in the mixture of odors.
The first floor had about twenty apartments. The numbers were totally at random. We had to walk around the entire floor looking for #27. It wasn't there although numbers 6, 123, 74, and 86 were there. There was no plan or sequence whatsoever to the numbers. The halls were as filthy as the stairwell. Certain areas in the halls had far stronger smells than other parts. The odor was something I will never forget.
We repeated our search on the second floor, the third floor, and the fourth floor, and so on, until we arrived at about the 10th floor. We had lost count of the floor numbers by then, having walked up and down many revolting corridors. We were gripped by total fear. Would someone jump out of doorway and attack us? Would the KGB come and arrest us? The higher up we went the more frightened we were. The more area we covered, the more we were exposed to discovery and the greater was the distance back to the car. We did not know what was around the next corner or on the next floor. Marvin was in an almost-total state of panic at this point. I worried that he would go into shock, or collapse on us at any moment. His face was ashen white and he was breathing in gulps. We pushed him on.
We were all breathing hard, sweating, and physical wrecks despite the fact that we exercised and were generally in good shape. The exertion mixed with the acute apprehension and fear caused us to feel weak and shaky. I can't remember if my knees were actually buckling, but I am certain that they were. We feared for ourselves, we feared for Barbara sitting there alone with the cab driver, and we feared the terrible things that would befall the people we were looking for if they would be found out.
We climbed up the stairs to the next floor, huffing and puffing. And then there it was, #27, right in front of us. We knocked on the door. The door barely opened, and a young man peered out of a crack, and examined us intently. I said "Shalom" in a loud whisper. He quickly opened the door, pulled us into the room, and shut the door behind us. From his actions we assumed that we were more or less expected, or at least hoped for. Our handlers had told us that the Jewish underground had obtained a list of names of people who were willing to be visited, and willing to risk banishment to Siberia, where they'd face torture and starvation, in exchange for any contact with other Jews.
Out of the next room came a small old woman and two other women. We could now see into the other room. The apartment had only two rooms. No bathroom. No kitchen. Just two small rooms, about twelve by twelve feet each. The second room was wall-to-wall mattresses. There was one table and a couple of chairs, all old and worn. There was a couch, if you could call it that. The paint was faded and peeling off the walls. The floor was plain concrete with rags covering it here and there. Naked bulbs hung from the ceiling.
The occupants began to cry with joy, and then hugged us warmly and firmly. This was the most emotional experience I have ever had. We had never seen each other before, but we were family. The hugs and kisses and crying went on a long time. I was not able to tell how much time went by because I was completely caught up in the intensity of the situation.
I finally came out of my stupor and started to act. Our instructions had been clear and firm. Find the first people you can, and give them everything you have. Destroy the other names and addresses before you do anything else.
So Carol, Marvin, and I took out the remaining rice-paper slips and ate them. This didn't raise an eyebrow, as these people were accustomed to the subterfuge necessary to deal with a cruel enemy.
We started to unload our pockets and stack the books and cigarettes on the table. Marvin and I then took off our jackets, rolled up our shirtsleeves, and took off the Timex watches. The people watched all of this with wide-eyed and happy amazement.
The old women picked up a book, looked at the first few pages, and began to weep. Before I could stop her, she was on her knees and was kissing my feet. I frantically tried to help her up, but she held on to my legs and continued to kiss my shoes. She was saying, "Torah, Torah, Torah" over and over again. The Torah is the Old Testament. The scene was beyond description, and it was many minutes before I could get her to stop kissing my feet. I pulled her up and held her in my arms and we both cried. But for Meyer Greitzer leaving Russia when he did, this could have been my grandmother, and I held on to her as if she really was my grandmother. It was difficult to stop and to compose ourselves, but we knew we had to get out of there as quickly as possible and get back to the ship.
We had been told to anticipate an emotional experience and not to enjoy it too long. Do not take any of their hospitality. Do not stop to drink tea. Do not do anything, except unload your cargo and depart. Marvin was again in a catatonic state and I was forced to grab him physically and push him out the door. Carol followed. We wanted to stay, but we knew we had to go for their safety if not for our own. However, leaving was very difficult for us.
There were 22 people who lived in that two-room apartment. There was one communal kitchen, which served the twenty apartments on that floor. There was one communal bathroom for the entire floor. This explained some of the strong smells. We left during a non-stop stream of thank-you's and God bless you's. They spoke in Yiddish, which we understood just enough of to get the message. The second we were out the door, it closed quickly.
People would quickly turn in their neighbors for the small reward given to them by the KGB. Neighborhood watch had a far different connotation in Russia than it does in the United States. We were very lucky that we had not seen anyone during our search for apartment #27. No one had opened a door and we had not encountered anyone in the hallways. We did not want to press our luck. The further we got from apartment #27 the safer its occupants would be. Every floor down meant there was less chance they'd be discovered. We ran down the stairs as quickly as we could, without touching the walls, and as quietly as possible. This wasn't as easy as it sounds because we were still crying and shaking from emotion. It seemed to take forever to get down those stairs.
The occupants of that apartment would at once distribute the booty to other members of the Jewish community. The books would be read and then passed around. We were told that literally hundreds of people would read each and every book. They would be read and re-read until they fell apart. The cigarettes would be shared with hundreds of people so that as many people as possible could get a little extra to eat. Each Timex watch would go to a different family, and would be used to barter for enough food to feed the twenty people or so in each group for many months (six months if they were careful). So it was not only the 22 people who lived in #27 who would benefit from what we had done; hundreds of others would also receive help, and we felt great about the whole thing.
We were in a state of euphoria. We ran to the taxi (which was mercifully still there) and jumped in. I motioned to the driver to return to the city, which he was glad to do, whereupon we each began to talk at once, bubbling over with excitement. We couldn't contain ourselves. Each of us wanted to repeat the story to Barbara, yet we were huffing and puffing, and out of breath. Our legs hurt, and we were all shaking. We couldn't calm down. We told Barbara every single detail, over and over again.
Barbara took out the picture postcard of the ship and handed it to the driver. He took us straight there, much more quickly, it seemed, than the journey out. We babbled on wildly about our successful delivery mission the whole drive back. When we arrived at the dock, I gave the driver another pack of cigarettes as a final payment. We reminded each other to calm down and look normal. We went through customs trying to look just like tired tourists and trying not to arouse any questions, as we didn't feel we could handle anything more. Soon we were back onboard the ship, and safe again. We felt like kissing the deck of the ship in gratitude for its safety and protection.
We had a big and great celebration that night. Many bottles of very good wine were consumed. We lived and re-lived the experience many times. This was the greatest rush and thrill we had all ever experienced. The peril, the danger, the fear, and then the safety of returning, the accomplishment, all added to the overwhelming emotions. Knowing that we had helped so many people in such great need was incredible. That so many Jews living under oppression and hatred were a little better off because of what we had done made us high, and the great feeling lasted for a long time. In some ways it has never gone away.
We no longer sat on the sidelines. We all became involved in the movement to save Soviet Jewry. The sights, sounds, emotions, smells, and the extreme fear we had felt were deeply engraved on our hearts. We saw the aching poverty and oppression of these people. Barbara and I became zealots in our efforts to get out the message to the world. We tried without success to get other people to duplicate our trip to the Ukraine. We tried to persuade our friends and acquaintances to go, but nobody was interested. We raised a good deal of money for the cause, we wrote to our Senators, and we discussed the situation with our friends who were members of the US Congress.
I must admit that we couldn't have done it again. It was one thing to smuggle aid into Russia when you didn't really know what you were doing or what to expect, but it was another thing to do it knowing what it actually feels like. We couldn't have been as cool as we were the first time, because we had had innocence on our side, which we'd never have again. I never want to re-experience that feeling of terror that I had had while driving in the cab towards the unknown, and knowing how unsafe and at risk we were. We were told it would be impossible for us to obtain visas to the Ukraine a second time anyway.
As it turned out, the Soviet Union collapsed and the evil empire is dead, or at least dying. Nevertheless, there are people over there who are still in trouble.
We later learned that the United States State Department would have done virtually nothing to aid or assist us had we been jailed. It was a good thing we didn't know at the time how exposed and unprotected we were, and that our government wouldn't have taken any steps to save us. I am sure we wouldn't have proceeded had we known the truth of the risks at the time.
Barbara and I are grateful that we had the opportunity to do what we did. We are glad we were in ignorance of the total risk or we would have said no. We helped other people, and put their needs before our own. For one brief shining moment all of our resources, that is, our backgrounds, our jobs, our money, our interest in art, our love of cruising, everything, had come together in a completely unified way so that our whole lives seemed to have been pre-designed for this one good deed. And, while all of this was happening, that nagging little voice that so often told us something was wrong had been stilled.