JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
A tale by Johny Noer
… don’t say: ’Let my people go’!
The police cars stood black against the darkening sky, and the sky was a mass of racing clouds – but no rain! Hot in a way. Temperatures rising along the coast of the Black Sea. The roads leading to the church were strewn with pebbles and red mud. People were everywhere, five thousand at least, singing songs of praise…
In retrospect, a fabulous moment. Tremendous! How can I ever describe it?
It was April 9th, a sombre date in my homeland Denmark; all flags at half-mast, the day the Nazis took over! But here, in Bulgaria, the communists were still in control. Just another seven months, and it would be November 9th, 1989, the day, when the Berlin Wall tumbled down, and waves of freedom flooded through the East European countries.
At the moment everything seemed tight! Depressed! As if swept away en masse by an ugly, totalitarian spirit – which for us, I suppose, seemed clinical madness, irreversible! How it is possible that Bulgaria, years after, could once more turn red and vote for Lenin and Marx? Communism is more than politics, I’m sure…
Before we reached Varna, the convoy was stopped; the road wasblocked with police. I was taken to the office of the red boss. When I entered he leaned back in his chair and trained his watery, red-rimmed eyes on me. "Well, you know", he said, "There will be no meeting of yours in Varna! We won’t have you! You’re not welcome!"
"I know, sir", I said hastily. "We can’t move a meter, but the people in town are awaiting us. Thousands!"
He leaned forward again and cleared his throat. "And what", he said, "Is that supposed to mean? Thousands or millions, it doesn’t matter to me! You’re not getting in. Understood?"
"I understand", I said shifting to the other foot. I did not like the tone. "Only it’s a kind of emergency…"
His hands, folded on the desk before him, were gnarled with veins. "And what", he repeated sarcastically, "might that be?"
"I don’t know", I answered, "but something will come up! You can be sure of that, sir: Something will happen! We’re going to have that meeting anyhow!"
He furrowed his eyebrows impressively, perhaps to scare me. His manner was not a façade. His anger was quite genuine: Despotic! With unexpected flashes of evil ideas. "I know what I’ll do to you!" he grumbled, and the way he rubbed the bluish, pearly sheen around the knuckles of his hand was evidence that he had something in mind.
"What will you do to us, sir?"
He rubbed the tips of two fingers together groping for the right word. "You’ll see!"
I stared at his fingers and knuckles. This man was clearly at the height of his career. As police chief of Varna he held a high rank in a system that wielded absolute power. He looked smart and a little alcoholic. He probably lived in style in a comfortable, old fashioned apartment block. His monthly salary no doubt ran into thousands. He only had to lift a phone, and his word would come true, something would indeed happen to us…
At that time people were appearing from everywhere. Through backstreets, lanes and tunnels, over hedges, bridges, fields and roofs, through windows, backyards, doors, gates and gardens, like a rushing river bursting through every obstacle, checkpoint or police barrier, thousands kept heading toward the small church at Lenin Boulevard 117. This was the day exactly (as I have already mentioned) seven months before that November morning, when the Berlin floodgates broke open. It was – I would say – a prophetic moment and I was eager to see, what would happen.
I had already arrived at the spot. The car, which carried me, passed without problems through all the checkpoints. The driver, a tall distinguished gentleman in a leather coat (a believer from a secret house group in the country side) said something in Bulgarian. He pointed significantly at me sitting in the back; the uniformed men looked in, nodded their heads, and waved us on.
When I arrived at the church I realised that the enormous crowd of people couldin no way be packed into the building. Outside worship songs filled the air. Ragged clouds were still drifting in the sky and dark uniformed shadows with guard dogs were watching us from everywhere, but there was something around that church, which lifted thousands and thousands of voices high above the prison of mortality and time.
I looked up. The only place from where I could address the crowd was from the roof of the church. I decided to climb – but was called back by my friend in the leather coat. "The police boss wants to speak to you."
The temperature continued to rise slowly. I continued to try to get to the top of the church. Together we entered the building through some hidden entrance and started to walk up a back staircase, which I could see – was hardly ever used. Pushing our way past a heap of broken chairs we ended on a third floor. I gazed out of a small window. Down in the yard was a sea of people. Between 8.000 and 10.000. The songs grew in force and adoration.
"Watch out!" my leather coat friend said. "He’s brought with him a judge! He has something evil in mind."
"The police boss. You had better go and see him!"
"You think so?"
My friend, Ivan was his name, had put on a large pair of spectacles, which made him look tougher and more severe. He looked out of the window. "Yes, I think so", he said.
I climbed down the staircase again. "I’ll go with you!" he said.
The judge was unpacking some black law books, pencils and a little tape recorder. His face showed a prison pallor and there was a web of hairline cracks around his eyes. A doctor would prescribe fresh air…
The building, where we met, must have been some church property. The wall of the room had been scrubbed clean and painted. A large lamp up above glowed over an icon of the Virgin and Child.
The police boss sat at the end of the table. We were asked to be seated. There was a silence. Obviously we were waiting for somebody.
Sounds of discreet talk could be heard in the corridor, footsteps muffled by the carpets and women’s voices. There was a rustle of skirts and into the room walked a secretary and an interpreter. The secretary gave me a look of compassion, and they both sat down in a couple of armchairs.
At the back of the crowd in front of the church were 400 security guards, only a small part of them being connected to the police in Varna. They were all armed, had dogs, and around the corner lurked a high water-canon. The black dogs were barking with a strange ferocity. In the midst of the singing crowd stood persons, who seemed gifted at blending themselves into any given milieu – you’ve never seen such typical praying and praising believers, lifting up their arms and ‘closing’ their eyes while they were secretly looking around. But somehow, despite their efforts, they were never able to blend themselves in entirely, but remained, in spite of their cotton coats, quite distinct from their surroundings… in the same way that a green chameleon remains a distinct entity from the green leaf upon which it sits: The secret police were on the spot!
The judge (I’ve forgotten his name: ‘Yakonov’ or something like that) was known – so I’ve heard – to be an object of hatred because he maltreated people; so did the police boss! The two of them worked together. Not that they were evil men, but they would be genuinely indignant, if somebody insulted the state. Neither of them had ever found pleasure in any form of cruelty that was an end in itself; they were concerned only to prevent people from committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts, and to them, I suppose, I was doing both…
Yakonov looked at me, picked up the phone, pretending to dial. Then he put the phone down again and said: "Serious allegations!"
The interpreter translated.
He turned to the red boss: "Did you keep a copy nearby?"
The boss shook his head: "A matter of policy to keep as little sensitive material here as possible!"
The interpreter translated; I had a feeling that all this was going on to intimidate me…
"Four things I want to make clear to you", the judge said mildly. "Number one: ‘You are not allowed without our permission to preach in any church in Varna." He reached up behind his spectacles to rub his eyes. Then he read aloud a paragraph from his law book. It was in Russian, and the interpreter didn’t translate. He continued: "Number two: ‘You are not allowed by the laying on of hands to pray for the sick’!"
He lit a cigarette, looked at me and then at the flame of the match burning between his fingers.
"You’ll not be allowed to say anything negative or speak out any sort of insult against our Republic!" He shook out the match looking thoughtfully at the thread of smoke that curled from the burned end. "That’s number three", he added.
"… and number four: Don’t ever say the words: ‘Let my people go!"
For a moment no one spoke. The apartment room was getting blue with smoke. Music from a neighbour’s stereo was filtering through the walls.
"What do you mean?" I asked boldly.
"Well", the judge said, "you may or you may not know this, but we actually don’t believe in that phrase. It’s against our socialist upbringing."
I looked at the icon on the wall; the glowing lamp over the picture of the Virgin and the Child. His eyes followed my regard. There was an awkward pause, finally broken by the red boss: "You have understood quite well", he said. "Don’t ever use the Jewish slogan ‘Let my people go!" He spoke as if he felt a compelling kind of moral outrage.
The secretary stared at me. There was a terrible tension in the air. I felt something threatening coming on. Unmistakable! The noise from the other side of the wall got louder. My peripheral vision darkened. I hardly knew what washappening, but I heard myself saying:
"… and if I do?"
"Say: ‘Let my people go’!"
Everybody in the room was stunned… and then all of a sudden the red boss pushed back his chair. "Don’t worry", he smiled. "You won’t say it?"
"’Let my people go’! You won’t say it! You wouldn’t dare…"