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The Doctor’s Plot of 1953

A daughter remembers

On January 13,1953, the official press agency Tass announced the arrest of a group of “killer doctors” who were allegedly systematically doing away with prominent public figures in the Soviet Union. Nine doctors, six of them Jews, were cited, and in the next few weeks many more were carted off to the dread prisons of Lubyanka and Lefortovo.

The arrests of prominent physicians (mostly Jewish) created hysteria throughout the country. Clinics were empty, patients refused professional medical advice, rumors abounded of poisoned medicines in pharmacies and murdered infants in maternity wards. Public opinion, including rank anti- Semitism, was primed to accept the Doctors’ Plot, and to this day no one knows how many hundreds or thousands of doctors, prominent and ordinary, were executed and victimized.

Here Natalya Rapoport, who was 14 years old when her father, a distinguished pathologist, was taken away, tells what it was like for her to have family and friends “disappear”.

My mother was a physiologist. Most of her life she worked with Lina Stern, the pre-eminent woman academician in the Soviet Union.

Lina was talented, brilliant, and domineering, with a sharp tongue. I was afraid of her. She demanded that her colleagues match her own total dedication to work, but others, unlike Lina, had husbands, wives, children. Returning from wartime Siberian evacuation, my mother had trouble placing me in a kindergarten, so she took me along with her to the institute, deadly afraid that Lina would discover me.

I spent part of my childhood in a laboratory cupboard that was specially emptied for me to hide in whenever Lina entered. (Was it then that my interest in natural science was born?) Sitting there in shadowed silence, I listened to the laboratory sounds: the zzzhhh of an instrument recording the rhythms of frogs’ heartbeats and muscular contractions; the clicking of thermostats; the shrill voice of Lina, swearing at her colleagues.

Lina and I were born on the same date, August 26, separated by sixty years. You can be sure, my mother always had to leave my birthday parties for Lina’s: from my celebration, which my friends and I prepared all summer, with games, songs, and performances in which I was the star, to the dull old people whose life was almost behind them.

I was about ten years old when Lina suddenly disappeared from our lives. Vanished totally. My parents answered my questions in a very evasive way, and I didn’t persist. Without Lina, my life became much better. Now my mother belonged to me completely; there was even a period of time when she didn’t go to work. Of course I saw that my parents were terribly dispirited by Lina’s disappearance, but at the bottom of my heart, secretly and shamefully, I relished the new situation. Now when I became ill, my mother was at my bedside; she read aloud to me from wonderful books and even played games with me. It was a joy to be sick!

But outside my protected life, unimaginable horrors were occurring. One after another of my parents’ friends disappeared, and even in their own home my parents spoke their friends’ names only in whispers.

January 13, 1953.I am fourteen. Oblivious, I am listening to the radio for the fifth time that day. I am accustomed to trusting it completely. Suddenly my brain refuses to comprehend what I hear. It just cannot be, it simply cannot be!

Dr. Vovsi, Miron Semyonovich Vovsi, whose gentle hands and radiant eyes had always been there throughout my childhood and my illnesses. And other doctors too. Many close friends of my family. They have turned out to be killers, monster-freaks of the human race, evildoers dressed in white coats, with but a single goal—to murder the devoted leaders of the Communist Party and the government.

…I had fainted so deeply that I didn’t hear my parents return or my father being taken away. I regained consciousness much later, still in complete ignorance. Mama was kneeling next to me. A strange male voice asked:
“Is this your daughter?”
“Yes.”
“Yours and the arrestee’s?”

The arrestee? A powerful wave seized me, whirled me around, thrashing me, breaking my bones, and bearing me away forever from my rosy world, my happy childhood. I regained consciousness the second time as the daughter of a killer doctor.

In our apartment there is a search going on. Every book, page by page. Every pillow, every drawer. Here they find a letter from my friend Jan, whom I befriended in Estonia last summer. How could I have known that Jan’s father was an imprisoned Estonian priest, an important leader of the Estonian church, and that my friendship with Jan would be one of the links in the chain of my father’s criminal actions?

Now they’ve found several books by Freud. They leaf through them muttering, add them to the evidence. Suddenly, a sensation! In the medicine cabinet, among other harmless ampules, they find one with a skull and crossbones and the inscription “Poison.” Here it is at last—the necessary, irrefutable evidence. Everybody looks at the discoverer with respect and envy.

“And how many is it possible to put to sleep with one such ampule?” asks the lieutenant, the only one in military uniform at the search.

“It is not possible to kill anybody with this ampule,” my mother tries to explain. “This is medicine, atropine, a remedy for heart disease. My husband had a heart attack, and we keep medicines at home to be on the safe side.”

“Oh yes, I understand, of course, what you keep it for,” says the lieutenant venomously. “I understand what kind of heart medicine you have here. Just how many hearts were stopped with this medicine?” He is happy.

All my mother’s attempts to explain are in vain. They call somebody by telephone, informing them of the find. (It is late at night, but there they never sleep.) They wrap the ampule carefully in cotton wool, seal it into a small box and insert that into yet another box, which is also sealed. They draw up a document stating that poison was found in the arrestee’s apartment and demand that my mother sign it. She categorically refuses. They urge, then threaten her. If she doesn’t sign, she will have to go with them. For a long time? Forever? I am in despair. But Mama doesn’t sign.

The excited mood of our visitors associated with finding the ampule soon evaporates. There has been an accident: one man has cut his finger on a razor blade, and there’s a drop of blood. This unlucky fellow has cut his finger in the home of a killer doctor: his days are numbered. He is sitting in a chair, paler than the walls, his wounded hand extended. His comrades circle around him and worriedly discuss the situation. What to do? Can he be saved?

Mama proposes an inventive solution. She brings the distraught man iodine. The tension now hits its apogee: should the iodine be applied or not? One volunteer with courage born of despair puts a drop of iodine on his nail. One after another, each man sniffs it. It is decided not to take the risk. They phone somewhere for a car and the suffering one is taken away— most likely to a special clinic where his scratch will be treated by a trusted, dependable Russian surgeon.

The search is over. They have sealed the apartment and have left us my room, the hallway, kitchen, washroom, and toilet. As they had warned. Mama was taken away. Neither she nor I knew if we would see one another again.

As it turned out, Mama returned just twenty four hours later. She found me in the same chair in the hall, just as she had left me. I hadn’t budged. I myself don’t remember anything about those twenty-four hours except the heartbreaking howling of our dog Topsy. Most probably we were a duet.
With Mama, my life returned.

I was morbidly attached to my mother. In my childhood, when she would travel somewhere with Papa, I would simply fall ill, stop eating, vomit, and, it seemed to me, die until she returned. I would count the days, the hours, the minutes. I was prepared to do anything for my mother.

During the days after my father’s arrest it was very important to my mother that my life not be disrupted and that I continue going to school. So I went. But two fears took over my life, two fears that merged into one uninterrupted horror: the daytime fear that my classmates would uncover my disgrace; and the nighttime fear that my mother would be taken away.

The nighttime fear began at eleven and lasted until five in the morning. For some reason, I was convinced that she couldn’t be arrested earlier or later. My fear was so strong that during those hours I trembled all over as if in a fit; I even slept in the hall on a cot rather than in my room, listening tensely the whole night to sounds and rustlings on the staircase. The slamming of the elevator door on the nearby floors made me cry out in terror.

The daytime fear held me in its grip during school hours, turning me into a small compressed spring. Only three girls in my class knew my secret, three girls who lived in my apartment building. Their parents sternly forbade them to breathe a word, even to their closest friends, probably thinking that tomorrow any of them might share the same fate. And the girls were silent, although it’s easy to imagine how difficult it was to keep such a sensational secret. The secret, desperate to come out, burned the ends of their tongues.

How did we live? My mother was fired the morning after my father’s arrest. All the money in the house as well as our bonds and savings passbook were taken during the search. There was, I believe, some method in this. They wanted to see who would come to our aid and, following this thread, could haul in the whole evil chain to the very last link.

People understood this and were afraid. Encountering me in the street, neighbors averted their eyes, tried to slip by; they didn’t recognize me. But not everyone. I will never forget our neighbors, Vladimir Nikolaevich and Nina Petrovna Beklemishev, from the old Russian intelligentsia. Vladimir was a tall, handsome man with a pointed beard, an academician who looked as if he had stepped out of the portraits of the great nineteenth-century scientists, aristocrats of the spirit. Whenever he’d meet Mama in the street, he didn’t simply greet her, he bowed deeply to her, displaying to others a conspicuous example of courage and nobility.

His wife Nina bravely came to our apartment right after Papa’s arrest and offered us money. My mother didn’t accept it—there was no way she could ever pay it back—but Nina would not leave until she received Mama’s solemn promise to turn to her for help the moment she needed it, day or night.

Once I met a close friend of my parents’, Julia Moshkovsky, a historian and specialist in medieval Germany, in the street, and she took me to her apartment. She fed me, questioned me about everything, gave me extra food for Mama, and quickly sent me on my way. God forbid that her husband Shabsai should return from work and catch us—he would die of fear.

Julia’s taking me to their home smacked of heroism and I admired her for it.

Soon the anxiety of being in school became too great, and I stopped going. Natashka Tomilina, a girl from our apartment building who was in my grade at school, would drop by. Before she had visited only rarely, now almost every day. She would take out the sandwich and apple from her school case: “Listen, eat up, huh? If my mother finds out I didn’t eat lunch at school, she’ll kill me.”

Not once did she glance at the sealed doors or ask why I sat on a cot in the hallway— just a normal thing, after all, a person living in a hallway on a cot. Natashka took out her textbooks: “Listen, help me with these physics problems. Look at the stupid stuff we studied today. Look.”

To this day, Natashka claims that she did this without an ulterior motive; what kind of fool would rack her brains to solve those silly problems when there was a simpler, more elegant and reliable way—just have me do it.

She is most likely lying. She herself was an excellent student and could easily solve those “silly problems.” But in any case, thanks to Natashka, I stayed abreast of school news, gossip, and the curriculum. When I returned to school I wasn’t behind at all.

The classics also helped us to get through. There was a bookcase in the hall with the collected works of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Hugo. Mama took them to the bookstores, returning with bread, milk, and kasha. We survived. But the classics left our house in suspicious looking, bulky sacks, and someone informed on us: Mama was selling things from behind the sealed doors. Again a search.

This time I almost died with fear. I thought they had come for Mama. They broke the intact seals, immediately saw that the accusation was false, but were obliged to verify everything from the beginning, according to the list. I took a fit, kicked and screamed. But they didn’t take Mama. They sealed everything up again and left.

There was one family who helped us unfailingly throughout.

My mother had shared the same desk with Raya Guber in high school. The friendship that developed lasted their entire lives; they were closer than sisters. When I was born, my mother fell ill with typhus, and Aunt Raya breast-fed me along with her own Marishka, who had been born two months earlier. The Gubers were my second family.

What an attractive couple! Aunt Raya—diminutive, graceful, joyous; Andrey— tall, elegant, gray-eyed, inventor and soul of our childhood games: lapta, lotto, catch, he played them all enthusiastically. He was an art critic, a professor at Moscow University, a specialist in Renaissance art, and head curator of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art. He was a wonderful raconteur with whom my father composed extraordinary duets of storytelling; with those cadences we grew up.

In those terrible days, Andrey sent Marishka to our house and ordered me to come to their home every day for dinner. My daily visits were a tremendous risk for the Gubers, the more so since they lived in a communal building where any tenant could inform on them. But the Gubers were beyond fear. They took me in each day, fed me, gave me food for Mama and packages for Papa. These trips I will never forget.

In our stairwell, in the street, in the courtyard, there were always MGB [Ministry of State Security] agents waiting to follow us. I could easily pick them out of a crowd—it wasn’t at all difficult. Mama taught me how to lose them. I would go into the subway, get into a car, and stand close to a door. As the doors were closing, I quickly jumped out, hopped on a train coming in the opposite direction, and rode for two or three stations. On my way to the center of town, I would repeat the operation several times. I had to be absolutely sure I had lost them; otherwise I was supposed to return home.

To go out into the street was torture for another reason as well. There were barrack like tenements in our courtyard. The inhabitants of the barracks had already informed everyone around that my father had taken pus from cancerous corpses and rubbed it into the skin of healthy people.

The young boys from the barracks enthusiastically took it upon themselves to avenge my father’s monstrous crimes, hurling at me everything they could get their hands on—rotten vegetables, dead mice and rats, and sometimes even cobblestones. No matter how humiliating it was, I had to turn tail and run; if I wasn’t fast enough, I would get a beating.

One day in February 1953 my mother returned home looking like death: they hadn’t accepted a package for my imprisoned father. “Don’t bring any more, they are no longer necessary,” said the MGB man on duty, looking at some list. He refused to answer Mama’s questions. There could be only one explanation: Papa was no longer alive.

The days dragged on—bleak, empty, dark.

March 4, 1953. Stalin is ill. Mama can’t tear herself away from the radio—tensely, eagerly she listens. Cheyne-Stokes breathing, the end is near. Mama is silent, waiting.

March 5, 1953. It is finished! Stalin is dead. For the first time, some kind of faint, uncertain light penetrates the black night of my mother’s eyes. If only Papa were alive— so much could change now!

The 8th or 9th of March. A phone call. A male voice spoke: “I am calling at the request of the professor. The professor asked me to tell you that he is healthy, feels fine, and is concerned about his family. What should I say to the professor?” Do you understand? Not the murderer, not the monster, not the scum of the earth—but the professor. He is alive!

“We are fine,” my mother almost screams. “Tell him we are fine, we are healthy, we are—happy!” (This was hardly an appropriate word to end a speech in those days of national mourning.)

He is alive! With my earthshaking news I fly to the Gubers. They embrace me, cry with me, and Aunt Raya runs to the kitchen for cake. “For the wake,” she awkwardly lies to the shocked neighbors. “We want to to remember Joseph Vissarionovich in the Russian tradition!” I fly back home with cake and treats for the great celebration.

He is still in the Hall of Columns. Yet even his corpse thirsts for new victims, as hundreds of onlookers are trampled to death in the crowd coming to view Stalin’s body. But at our home there is a celebration.

For the first time in my life I feel my alienation piercingly and acutely, and 1 am conscious of it not as a child but as a grownup. It is the beginning of my adulthood.

Now my mother and I live on hope. Mama again sends off packages.
Days and weeks pass. No news, no news.

Then late on the night of April 3rd, our dog Topsy suddenly goes wild. She starts running up and down the hallway, banging up against the sealed door of the dining room, then against the door to the stairwell, clearing my cot with a single bound. I’m in a panic: they’re coming to arrest Mama!

The telephone rings. My father’s voice: “My darlings, it’s me! I’ll be home in an instant. I’m calling from the telephone booth downstairs. I didn’t want you to faint at my sudden appearance.”

After a minute, the doorbell rings. Papa! With him is a MGB colonel and the same lieutenant who had taken him away—now he carries Papa’s little suitcase. The colonel says, “We return the professor to you.” While the lieutenant removes the seals from the doors, the colonel telephones somewhere: “Comrade General, the professor has been delivered. There is much joy, many tears.”

Six o’clock in the morning. The radio announces to all the world the end of the killer doctor affair and the full rehabilitation of all the accused. The doorbell immediately rings; our neighbors the Beklemishevs, and behind them the Kaplans. From that moment on the door of our apartment never closes.

Everyone comes with a flower in hand! One by one, each gives a flower to Papa. I am crying. (Even now I am crying as I write these lines.) Then my school teachers come, asking when I’ll return to school. I answer, “Tomorrow!”

Lord, what a day, what a celebration! Papa calls around to his friends; all of them are back home. Not all are yet able to move about or even to talk, but all are back home.

Life gradually returned to normal, and I was back at school. Studying was as natural to me as breathing. Soon my classmates’ burning interest in me cooled, and my life became easier.

A little later, Lina Stern, my mother’s domineering boss, re-entered our life, from prison and labor camp—as the sole survivor of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee—this at the age of about eighty. I became very close to her.

April 4th—the day of my father’s return— became a traditional holiday in our family. In the first post-Stalin years, twenty five to thirty survivors of the Doctors’ Plot (those who had been imprisoned and others who had waited fearfully) gathered around our table on this day. Their number decreased gradually, as age took its toll; today only my father remains alive. Yet we continue to celebrate the day—the day of our family’s rebirth,

This article was excerpted and adapted from Natalya’s preface to The Doctors’ Plot of 1953 by Yakov Rapoport, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991. Used with permission of the publisher.

Natalya Now
by Susan Schnur

When LILITH set out to find Natalya Rapoport, the internationally known polymer chemical physicist, it was a surprise to discover that she lives not in Moscow, but in Salt Lake City. “I am happy here,” says the 53-year-old professor who currently holds a research position at the University of Utah. “One of the first things I did in the States was join a synagogue. I feel I belong to something now. During my whole life in Russia I only felt that I didn’t belong.”

“I came on invitation to occupy a distinguished chair reserved for foreign scholars,” she continues, “and for three months of work here I was paid—this is not an exaggeration—six times more salary than for 30 years of work in Russia at the Academy of Sciences!”

Rapoport, who has been in the States for three years, is involved in two research projects. One concerns targeted drug delivery (in Rapoport’s words, “how to send medicines exactly where they should go in the body”); the other deals with artificial vision for blind people in which video cameras are put into eyeglasses, and electrical signals are then sent from the cameras to encapsulated electrode arrays implanted into the visual cortex.

Politics has wreaked geographical havoc with Rapoport’s family. Her father remains in Russia (“He is 93,” comments Rapoport. “Too old and too weak to move to the U.S.”), her husband has finally been allowed to join his wife here in America after more than a year’s separation, and the couple’s 25- year-old daughter. Victoria, a well known stage-set designer, lives newly in Israel. Russian authorities refused to grant Victoria a visa to America, even though she had won a scholarship to the New York Academy of Art. When she finally received permission to emigrate to Israel, next America twice denied her a visa, claiming that she had not spent enough time in Israel to prove that she would return there after receiving an American education.

It is clear that Natalya’s noisy politics are the cause of Victoria’s having been denied a visa from Russia to the U.S. In 1988, Natalya’s memoir of the Doctor’s Plot was the very first publication inside Russia to mention that gruesome episode of Soviet history. Natalya also spoke freely about Russian anti- Semitism to reporters from the B.B.C. and Voice of America. A founder (with Andrei Sakharov ) of the most liberal political movement in Russia, Rapoport had “big hopes for democratization during the first years of perestroika. But,” she adds, “by the time Sakharov died, I realized that all my efforts were gone to the sand. I lost hope. We applied for immigration then, because I feared a totalitarian coup during which time I’d go to prison and never see my daughter again.”

“Anti-Semitism is a theme through my whole life”, she continues. “For example, I had tried many times to go to International] Congresses for chemistry. The authorities always refused to let me leave Russia.” When Rapoport turned 50, she obtained permission for the first time to attend one of these symposia. Her sense of humor never abandoning her, she began her presentation (she was a featured speaker) with these words: “It seems I attend these International Conferences once every fifty years.” The audience, savvy to her plight, applauded.

Back in Russia, Rapoport reports, she refused ever to stand in a food line. “It was too costly In hours,” she says. “I told my husband, ‘You have to choose. If I stand in line, we will have food but I will come home like a witch.’ So my husband sometimes stood in the lines; me, never. Our meals were consequently very, very modest”

When LILITH last spoke with Rapoport she was just returning from a visit to Russia to see her father, bringing him suitcases full of food. “I cried for 21 days over there. 2.5”. pounds of butter is 400 rubles – more than my father’s monthly pension. He’s too old to stand in lines. He has a group of old friends, they hunt for food every day in different places. He is starving, after all this life.”