excerpt from Prisoner of Red Justice pp.162-164
by Leonard Kirschen

Photograph by Tom Kinter

The Crows are a Godsend

The warders always tried to find out where we obtained our information concerning prison or the outside world. Whenever we demanded better treatment or dropped any hint that we knew what was happening elsewhere the immediate reply was: "Where did you find this out? Who told you?" The majority of the prison investigations were centered round the matter of information. Where did it come from? What means had we of obtaining it? How did we communicate? News reached us with a time lag of anything from ten days to a year. We learned from people going to the courts, from people travelling in the railway prison vans, from new prisoners who were coming in all the time and from scraps of paper found in outside WC's. No warder could enter the prison with a paper. Not even newspaper to wrap their cold lunch, for it was ranked with explosives high up on the danger list. They were searched daily when they passed the first gate.

The spring of 1955 came earlier than usual and by the end of March it was already warm outside. The first new blades of grass were pushing through the moist earth, in the milk of the snow as the Romanian peasant says, and the few trees in the moat were budding. We sat in our cement cell under the huge vaulted roof, fairly content like animals. The food was relatively improved. The stoves which had provided us with a suspicion of heat were taken out, leaving the round hole of the chimney. The fort had forty chimneys and what could be more suitable for the crows who were then beginning to search around for nesting places? What intelligent crow could miss such an opportunity?

So forty pairs of crows began to build forty nests in the chimneys. After reconnoitering, they discovered that the best position was in the right-angled corner. This was a tricky business because the nest could easily fall down into the cell below. But the crows were patient. They would fly, male and female, and gather very long twigs. Then they flew into the hole, walked up to the bend and dropped their twig. Often it would fall straight down into our cell. But as soon as the first one was wedged in between the walls, the foundation of the next could be laid.

This nest building was a very noisy business and the crows refused to observe our afternoon hours of silence. The loving cackle of the pair was most annoying. At first we laughed and some wag would say: "That's Radio Moscow again." But we soon tired of the joke and held council. Something would have to be done to stop such a fearful row and the only solution was to destroy the nest. We tied together two hidden broomsticks with wire filched from the entanglement on one of our walks. Someone pushed the urine barrel under the hole and another stood on the lid poking the broomsticks up the chimney. To our great satisfaction, the whole nest came straight down over the man's head.

On the floor lay a mess of twigs, grass, hay, rags and... newspaper! Sure enough as we rushed over, there were little bits of newspaper, dirty, torn and wet. Realizing what had happened, we followed the crows outside when they began rebuilding the destroyed nest. Mr. Crow would scour the fields for padding, and what was softer than little bits of paper. He would pick up a whole sheet in the fields, tear it up in his claws and then fly straight back to begin padding it out. Though surprised at not finding their nest, they immediately began to build another. Now we held our breath and rejoiced every time we heard their cackling. About four days later we struck again. Down came the nest and… another edition of the crow magazine. We repeated the game about twice more and then finally with the news came a couple of eggs which burst on the floor.

Each time we rushed for the bits of paper and then sat down in complete silence as one man began reading, perched on the highest bed. First we learned that Malenkov had resigned and the reasons for his resignation. There were quite large bits with his speech. That was indeed news. Then we found out that Winston Churchill had resigned. For that we were sorry but glad to hear that Eden was carrying on. Then we learned that the Romanian Legation in Berne had been broken into, at which we rubbed our hands. We dismissed with a shrug another bit informing us how cows should be milked. Finally there were many little tidbits of local interest. The session lasted about two hours because each item had to be read over and over again. Then the political commentary began which lasted about two days. What a godsend!

The old colonel in our cell begged for all the scraps and we gave them on condition that he destroyed them after digesting the contents. At night he would hide them under his pillow and during the day he would read them at least a dozen times. Then suddenly the door burst open: "Out all of you against the wall and hands up." The monthly search had come and ten of them had rushed in with the political officers. After fifteen minutes there was a triumphant shout: "Whose are these?" We stared at the wall without moving. "Turn round," ordered the political officer. He was holding the scraps of paper in his hand with an ominous glint in his eyes. "Whose are they?" The colonel stepped forward and stammered: "Mine." "How did you smuggle them into the cell? Who gave you the papers?" roared the officer. After a few seconds of hesitation, back came the reply: "T-t-t-he c-c-crows, sir." A snigger broke the silence. It took the colonel a lot of explaining but they eventually accepted it. Next day forty pairs of crows were raising Cain and lamenting in front of their homes which the authorities had bunged up overnight with bricks. Our crow newspaper had ceased publication.