Tarzier Memoirs

Part IV  To a Far Shore



One fine day, I was called to appear at the administrator’s office. I did not think much of it—probably just paperwork, since he seemed happy enough with my performance. But when I walked into the office, it was not the administrator who greeted me—it was a stranger with Party insignia on his uniform. He proceeded to question me:

“Robert Tarziers, are you or have you ever been a clergyman?”

I replied, “No, I am not a clergyman and I do not intend to be one.” I knew that the question implied a catholic priest or orthodox rabbi or Protestant minister, so my reply was not much of a lie.

“Oh,” he said, “then our information is not correct—but don’t you have any connection with religion of any sort?”

“I am a Baptist pastor, preaching not for personal gain or salary—I use my free time working in the church.”

He proceeded with an obviously well-rehearsed speech: “That still means you are engaged in religious work. You must understand that this hospital is a government institution. We cannot have any religious person employed here.”

I protested, “I receive no pay for my religious activities. It is only a spare time activity for me. It doesn’t involve any money.”

But he wasn't about to budge: “If you want to work here then you have to stop going to any religious institution or function, not to mention preaching. No more preaching.”

I told him, “I can’t promise that. I really cannot. Maybe that means I will starve, and I will be unable to feed my family, but I cannot promise to stop preaching.” At this he left, and I continued with my work, both at the hospital and at Golgotha Church. But that was only the beginning.

A few weeks later, I walked home in the afternoon and had just taken off my coat when the telephone rang. A woman’s voice asked: “I need to see you, Reverend. Are you planning to be home this evening?” She could have been calling on church business, though I didn’t recognize her voice.

I replied, “I have no plans for the evening.”

Long before evening, in a few minutes in fact, the owner of the voice was at our door. A black car was parked at the curb, engine running. Without delay, she came to the point: “You have been ordered to go to the Bureau of Religions to clarify some questions regarding your church work.” She handed me an address, but I knew the street well—it was an area of warehouses. I told her, “There is no Bureau of Religions at that address.”

She insisted,  “Yes, a section of the Bureau of Religions operates at that address.”

“If you say so then it must be so. I will hop on the streetcar and go there immediately.”

But she would not hear of it: “No, don’t take the streetcar. I have a car waiting for you outside.”

I turned to my wife Olga: “My dear, try not to worry about me. You know where they are taking me.”

The woman turned a little defensive: “No one has been arrested for religious beliefs.” Best to agree, in hopes that it might just be so, though in my heart I knew she was lying.

I replied, “Yes, I know that.” I put my overcoat back on and followed the woman to the black car. We sat in the rear seat and drove off. Nobody said a word. Taking a back street, we arrived at the side entrance to the former Ministry of the Interior, which now housed the infamous secret police, the NKVD. The woman flashed a pass at the two burly Secret Police mongols who stood guard at the door. I was ushered into a back room on the fifth floor. Dante’s inscription on the door of Hell passed through my mind: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here). A single small window faced the paved interior yard of the compound, crisscrossed with barbed wire. The room was bare except for a table and several chairs.

Having done her dirty deed of delivering me to the Communist Hell, the woman left, and I was alone in the room. I waited, alone, an hour or so, which of course stretched out to eternity. My pounding heart and racing thoughts made it difficult even to pray. Eventually three men and a skinny dark-haired woman with Semitic features entered the room. Two of the men were dressed in NKVD uniforms, the third wore normal street clothes. I was ordered to one end of the table, the four occupied the other end. The uniformed men spoke only Russian, the civilian, brought in as an interpreter, spoke a little broken Latvian—I pretended not to know Russian, in order to buy a few extra seconds to think while the third man translated.

My interrogation lasted eleven hours, from seven in the evening until six o’clock the next morning, with no bathroom breaks and nothing to eat or drink. The sinister character in civilian clothes never said a word. He stared at me while clicking open and closed the safety lock on his automatic rifle. Their questions went on and on and were endlessly repeated. They questioned me about my fellow pastors’ political beliefs. They questioned me about William Fetler, my old boss. Safe in the United States, Fetler was out of their reach. I told them that he was openly unfriendly to the Communist ideology—“if you really want to find out, look him up in the back editions of the newspapers.”

“But what about Robert Fetler, his brother?”

“I know nothing about Robert Fetler.”

They heaped scorn on me: “Ah, you tell us the truth about William Fetler, because he is out of reach in America, yet how can you possibly know nothing about his brother who lives here?” But that was the truth. Robert Fetler was reserved almost to the point of unfriendliness, and I had never had discussions with him, political or otherwise. They tried a different tack: “What about other pastors? What do you talk about?”

“We don’t talk politics. We read the Bible and pray together and discuss church matters and aspects of the Gospel.”

“What then do you know about Augustus Korps?”

“He is a working-class man, the son of a blacksmith.” They could interrogate me to death if they wished. No way would I ever betray Korps, a friend of two decades. “He served in the Red Army during the revolutionary war. He is just a poor man’s son.”

“What about yourself?”

“I know nothing of politics,” I hedged. “I have never belonged to any political party.”

When threats did not work, they tried seduction. If I would only tell on my friends and colleagues, I would be taken care of, I would no longer have to work in the hospital, and I would be allowed to preach whenever and wherever I chose.

This went on interminably. One questioned me while the other rested. My brain began to reel from fatigue and lack of sleep. I did my best to remember, at three in the morning, the answers I had produced at ten in the evening. All the while, the armed man stared at me with icy blue eyes and clicked the lock of his gun. My nerves got to the breaking point. I could not have gone on much longer.

But then, suddenly, like a miracle, they rose from their seats and escorted me out the door. I was ordered to report back a week later at a different site. As I walked out, drinking in the fresh air of the Riga dawn, Psalm 124 ran through my mind: “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side . . . then they had swallowed us up alive . . . then the waters had overwhelmed us, the streams had gone over our soul. . . “

Before my new date with Hell arrived, divine intervention came in the form of illness. My body was not in much better shape than my mind, and my hernia acted up. I landed in the hospital for hernia surgery. The rest was wonderful, never mind post-surgical pain, and nobody bothered me in my sick bed. After two weeks’ sick leave, spent recovering in the hospital and at home, I returned to work.

Another version of Robert’s arrest and release was told by their son Pete:

“It was ten o’clock at night, when we heard a car drive up to the church grounds and stop. Mother told us, you boys go to bed. We heard a knock on the front door, and a woman’s voice asking, ‘Reverend Robert Tarziers? Are you the pastor of the church?’, and he said yes, and the woman said, ‘Please come with me.’ And immediately out of the shadows came two men, and they arrested him. The woman led everybody to the car and they drove off and disappeared. Before leaving, the woman turned to my mother and said, ‘we will bring him back shortly after we question him, we will bring him back.’”

“But one day went by, twenty-four hours, without sign of our father. So Mother decided, ‘I am going to see what happened to my husband.’ She found out that he had been taken to the Secret Police Department, the NKVD. On the way when she was walking over there, she prayed, ‘Lord, I need to get my husband out of their hands, and the only way I can do that is if You show me the way.’ So she appeared at the NKVD secret police, identified herself, and told the guard at the door, ‘I want to see the Kommandant,’ the head of the police department. At first they wouldn’t let her in, but she insisted. She repeated over and over, ‘I know my husband was brought here. I want to see the Kommandant.’ So finally, perhaps tired of arguing, they ushered her into a second floor office. A man sat behind a desk. She again explained who she was and why she came. The man said he didn’t know anything about any Reverend Robert Tarziers, but she insisted—‘I know he is here! The woman that arrested him said he was going to be held for a day and then released. I want him back where he belongs. He has done nothing against the law. He is a minister of the Gospel.’”

“The man behind the desk was curious about who she was, and where she worked—he was obviously impressed with her. He promised, ‘I will look into the matter. If he is here, I assure you, before nightfall he will be home.’ But he added, ‘I don’t know how you got in here. No outsider knows his way around here. If you say that your Lord showed you the way, then let your Lord lead you out of here. I am not helping him.’ She said ‘fine, I’ll find my own way out.’ So she walked out the door, down a flight of steps, and walked out into a courtyard—obviously the prisoners’ courtyard. And she thought to herself, ‘oops! I am in for it now.’ But then she remembered to pray: ‘no, Lord, you brought me in here, and you are going to lead me out.’ By the time she had finished this prayer, she said, a squadron of eight to ten Russian soldiers marched in cadence right past her. Her heart said to follow them, and she fell right in step behind the squadron. They marched through a tunnel-like entrance up to a gate, which was closed and guarded by a soldier pacing back and forth. The squad kept marching, though, without breaking cadence, and she says, ‘I kept right on behind them. They did not look to the left or to the right, and neither did I.’ When the squad reached the gate doors, the soldiers swung them open. The squad marched through to the street without missing a beat, with Mother behind them. ‘When they got to the corner,’ she said, ‘I took off. I ran all they way home.’”

“By the time darkness fell, the same black car that took our father away brought him back. They left him off right by the front door of the church. Dad was home again.”

Another Close Call