Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
Yakov Bok, a fixer, decides in his thirties to leave his native village and go to the big city of Kiev, in search of a better life. His father-in-law, Shmuel, comes to see him off. They talk, a bit gingerly, about the fact that his wife, Raisl, daughter of Shmuel, left him a couple of months earlier and ran off with a stranger. Yakov feels humiliated by this, because he is the laughingstock of the village. Yakov reminds Shmuel that his daughter is also barren, for in the nearly six years they lived together she failed to give him a child. Yakov is also pessimistic about the village’s economic future; he is finding it harder and harder to make a living there as a fixer and fears there will likely soon be pogroms in the area.
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Shmuel gives Yakov his horse and wagon in exchange for Yakov’s cow, which he hopes will prove more profitable. His parting advice to his son-in-law is to recall that it is illegal for Jews to live in Kiev, except in specified Jewish districts, and to advise him to settle in the Jewish district near the synagogue, because without spiritual support a Jew will be vulnerable in a hostile world. Soon after Yakov sets out, his wagon fails him. A wheel breaks, and even the fixer cannot repair it. He continues on horseback as far as the sickly horse can take him, then sells the horse as meat and completes his journey on foot. He settles in the Jewish district but finds no adequate housing there, and too little work as a handyman. He concludes that he ought to try other district and ventures into the larger city in search of better luck. Winter comes. One cold evening he encounters an elderly man lying face down in the snow. The man, who appears drunk, wears a button with the two-headed eagle of the Black Hundreds, a notorious anti-Semitic group. Nevertheless, Yakov feels obligated to help the man. He is joined by a young woman with a crippled leg, who says the man is her father. Yakov helps her carry the man to their nearby house, and as Yakov is leaving, the young woman urges him to return the next morning so that her father, Nikolai Maximovitch Lebedev, can thank him properly.
Yakov worries about going back to the home of an anti-Semite, but, hoping for a reward for his good deed, he goes anyway. The result is that Yakov is offered the job of manager of the brick factory the old man owns. With the job comes living quarters right in the factory. Yakov gives a false name, realizing it would be illegal for him to live in an area forbidden to Jews. Noting that the old man does not ask for his passport, Yakov decides to take the job and risk the consequences. To complicate his situation even more, Zinaida Nikolaevna, the old man’s daughter, invites him to dinner, then tries to seduce him. He refuses, for fear of the discovery that would result, more than anything else, and knows that he made an enemy of her.
Through the winter and early spring, Yakov works as a manager, overseeing the making and shipping of bricks and trying to prevent theft by his workmen. One day, he reads in the newspaper that a twelve-year-old boy was found dead in a cave near the brick factory. It says the boy had dozens of stab wounds all over his body, which bled white. The newspaper article hints at ritual murder. Yakov anxiously watches the boy’s funeral from a distance and sees that anti-Semitic pamphlets are distributed, blaming the boy’s death on the Jews. He decides it is time to flee, since a pogrom is brewing, but as he gathers his belongings, he is arrested.
Yakov is first interrogated in the courthouse and held there in a cell. After many weeks, he is sent to a prison, where relentless interrogation continues, and he is kept in solitary confinement for eighteen more months. The one glimmer of light for Yakov is his frequent sessions with the investigating magistrate, whose name is Bibikov, who proves to be a man of integrity and compassion. Bibikov and Yakov even have one long discussion about Spinoza (whose autobiography Yakov read, in a volume he found in a junk shop). In his simple way, Yakov, untrained in philosophy, understands that Spinoza’s main concern is how a man may be free, and Bibikov, impressed, helps Yakov understand a bit more by explaining some of Spinoza’s complex ideas to him. Bibikov is the only person in authority who treats Yakov humanely during all the nearly two years Yakov is in custody. One day, Yakov has the horrible experience of passing a jail cell in which a man hanged himself with his belt. The man is Bibikov.
During Yakov’s long travail in prison, he is abused every day by humiliating body searches and even served poisoned food. The purpose of the cruelty is to force him to confess to the murder, since the prosecutors are unable to obtain any positive proof against him. Yakov has no way to prove his innocence, either, since the evidence against him is vague and circumstantial. While in prison he has two especially painful visits. One is from Shmuel, who shows great sympathy but makes the empty promise to try to get him some help. The other is from his wife, Raisl, who wants him to sign a paper acknowledging her illegitimate child as his, so the boy will not be stigmatized as a bastard. Yakov wearily agrees. It is announced that Yakov is formally indicted, and he is led out of the prison and marched through the crowd-lined streets. Much shouting, some hostile, some friendly, accompanies him on his way to the courthouse to be tried for ritual murder.