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Chapter 11

The Jewish innkeeper was a real blessing. There was something about her manner that conveyed to me the message: you can trust me. She had a motherly attitude towards me. She provided me with extra food in the morning, since during the day I was always out of the inn. I gradually developed a trust, even though life had taught me to be suspicious of everything and everybody. I told her the truth about my mother, that she'd be free in the second half of May and that my big concern now was to find a place for us to live, a very difficult task indeed, as well as official permission to live in Tomsk. My constant fear was that as soon as my mother would be freed from prison, the authorities would force her to go back to Porotnikov. I eventually learned that the documentation and filing of information about citizens is not transferred freely between various departments. This was even truer between various geographical locations.

Mrs. Gorelic, the innkeeper, had her connections especially among the Jewish community of Tomsk. She advised me that as soon as my mother would be free she had to register with the Tomsk militia as a resident of Tomsk. She should insist that she fled to Tomsk from Bucovina, because of the war. If she stuck to the story, she had a very good chance to receive papers entitling her and I to become permanent residents of Tomsk. To get an apartment, we needed proof of permanent residence, even then it was a most difficult task. So we would have to find temporary accommodations, which could be done if you had the money. She gave me some names and addresses and told me to start making inquiries right away, so that when my mother arrived, we would have a place to stay. My first task, however, was to pay a visit to my mother in prison and Mrs. Gorelnic gave me simple instructions how to get to the prison compound. "The distance is about twelve km, about two and a half hours' walk. Just follow the railway line going East, it will bring you straight to the prison, you cannot miss it."

I had a great deal of time to think as I was walking along the railway line. There was quite an emotional upheaval within me. I tried to picture the meeting with my mother, after an absence of almost three years. I resolved not to break down in tears, to put on a cheerful face, to comfort her with good prospects for our stay in Tomsk. I had to be very careful of my phrasing, to say just the right words. I knew, of course, that every word uttered between us would be scrutinized by the prison authorities. I promised myself to be in full control of my emotions, so as not to betray my true plans. Looking back at what eventually transpired during our first meeting, I can say I was indeed in full control of what I said.

My walk that morning was very pleasant, the weather was nice, sunny, warm, the snow was rapidly melting away, the birds were singing in the nearby forest, and I too felt like whistling aloud. I arrived at the prison compound at about ten o'clock and went straight to the main office and made an official request for permission to visit my mother. Within an hour permission was granted, and I was told to go to the guard-house which was located at the prison gates. There I was ushered into a special visitors' room where I was thoroughly frisked and then told to sit down and wait. After waiting for about half an hour, my mother finally appeared. She entered the room with a smile on her face and tears rolling down her cheeks. We embraced and kissed and for a long while said nothing, choked with emotions.

We started talking at the same time about our health, about letters from Dora (my father was not mentioned). I told her that I was well taken care of, had a place to stay and food to eat. She gave me a package and told me to open it when I got home. She obviously did not like the looks of me. My clothes were very shabby and

I was very thin. She told me later that I looked very undernourished and that made her very worried. I assured her that t now ate quite regularly and I would come to visit her next week and she will notice the difference. She said that she would soon be able to take care of me by herself and then my health would improve. The fifteen minutes allotted to my visit vanished too fast. The guard ordered me out. My mother was frisked again (it was done before the visit as well) and led back to the prison hospital, where she was an orderly, a privileged job in prison.

Later, when she was free, she told me about her prison life. The first year was extremely difficult. She arrived in prison, after a two week Etape (forced march), exhausted, undernourished and very weak, but she was placed to work the following day in a land mine factory (the prison system was a crucial part of the war effort). It was hard physical work, long hours and humiliating inhuman treatment. It was also dangerous: there were accidents, because of ignorance, because of negligence and because the authorities could not care less if some prisoners died.

And, like in any Gulag institution, there was a group of real criminals who terrorized the other prisoners by depriving them of their meager rations, by beating them and even resorting to murder. These criminals, who were well organized under a tight internal leadership with rules scrupulously obeyed by the members, were not only tolerated by the guards, but they were always given special privileges (better working conditions, lighter prison regimen and, most importantly, their criminal activities vis-a-vis other prisoners were always accepted). These criminals were exploited by the guards to keep the rest of the prison population in a constantly terrorized state of obedience. It is not surprising that by the end of the first year of my mother's prison life, she was in such a poor state of health that she was written off as more dead than alive and sent to the prison hospital to die. But a miracle happened in that hospital.

A Jewish doctor, a very cultured lady who was an outsider (i.e. not a prisoner), became very friendly with my mother, gave her the best possible medical and psychological treatment and literally snatched her out of the jaws of death. Sima Israelovna knew that even if she restored her to full health, my mother would not last long if she went back to the factory. So she devised an "essential" job for her as an orderly in the hospital, claiming that my mother's knowledge and abilities were absolutely needed by the hospital. She remained working there until the end of her terrn, a fact which undoubtedly saved her life. Naturally the two women became very good friends. My mother was very skilled in knitting and could create beautiful suits for ladies and many different styles of sweaters. Sima Israelovna eventually acquired a full wardrobe of knitted garments (even dresses) which she valued very much because of their European styling and elegance and because these garments were so useful in the Siberian weather.

On my way back from my visit, I opened my mother's package. It contained two very essential items: about a kilo of sugar and a bar of soap. I have not seen either in years and both of them were very useful in the coming weeks.

Upon my return to town I concentrated on my search for a temporary apartment. Mrs. Gorelic, whose friendship grew in strength with every passing day, instructed me whom to see. Every house in town had a government appointed superintendent, who, in addition to administering the apartments and their numerous tenants (there was a very high density of occupancy), also served as the eyes and ears for the local N.K.V.D. The presence of "Big Brother" in the life of every citizen was all inclusive and inescapable (at home, at work, in places of entertainment, on the street). That was the main reason for the huge difficulties standing in one's way, if it was necessary or desirable to move, even within the same town, it was much more so between towns.

It would have been quite futile to search for a dwelling place, without a solid recommendation in the form of good old patronage. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. The entire Soviet society functioned on that principle. I spent several days seeing many superintendents until I finally found somebody willing to take in a tenant (consisting of my mother and myself into their own apartment, which was comprised of one large room, furnished with two large beds placed at the opposite ends of the room. There was also a simple homemade table with two benches and a large stove. The inhabitants of this dwelling were a mother and her ten-year old son. The father was in prison for the last ten years and, in fact, never saw his son, since his wife gave birth after he was arrested. I told my new landlady that my mother and I would move in, in another week or so, since we are now completing our lease in another apartment.

I decided to celebrate the success of my accomplishment by going to a movie and treating myself to an ice cream cone. This was the first time I had ice cream in the last five years and I was very surprised to see it on sale in the movie houses as a permanent feature. I was even more surprised to see an American movie with Milton Berle playing the main role. I remember that it was very funny and I returned to the inn in a very good mood.

World War II had just ended in May of 1945 and the relationship between Russia and the Allies was still quite warm: this explains the fact that American movies were screened in Russia. I subsequently saw some other movies, one with Sonia Heni the famous skater, and another with Beniamino Gigli the famous opera singer. The end of the war was also the reason for the sale of ice cream, although other food items remained rationed for many years to come, including the all essential bread.

I decided to hike up to the prison compound again and request another visit with my mother. To my great disappointment, my request was denied. I was told that the law permits only one visit per year and since I already had a visit in 1945, I was not entitled to another. Although I walked back to town in a state of frustration, I found comfort in the fact that I would see her in another week. As I was crossing the bridge over a small river leading into town in the late afternoon of that day, I was stopped by a good looking, well-dressed woman, at the exit of the bridge. She asked me if my name was Boris Sharf. My blood froze in my veins with fear and surprise and I could hardly answer in the affirmative. She noticed my state of confusion and tried to calm my concern by assuring me that she was a friend and she has news about my father. (By now I was totally speechless).

She told me to come and see her at 6 o'clock in the evening the following day, at her home. She asked me to memorize the address, which I did. She left me standing there by the bridge in a state of shock. Questions were flooding my mind: How did she know who I was? How did she know my father? (I did not talk about my father to anybody, even to my mother during our visit). Was this some kind of trap? Was she a member of the N. K. V. D.? Are all my clever plans for freedom coming to an end? What should I do now? I could not possibly discuss it with anybody else. I must first calm down, walk slowly to the inn, and think carefully. If she was a policewoman and she wanted to arrest me, why did she tell me to come to her house? She even mentioned something about living with her mother. I looked around me carefully, to see if I am followed. I did not notice anything suspicious. I was in a state of agitation the entire next day. How did she know my father? Who was this handsome looking woman? She did not have a menacing air about her.

I must keep the appointment, otherwise I would not find any peace. Even if I did not go to her house and she wanted to arrest me, she would find me anyway. I went looking for the address in early afternoon, simply to familiarize myself with the area and to check out the place for some clues to the mystery. It was a regular residential district inhabited by the privileged citizens of Tomsk. I spent over an hour watching the place and did not notice anything suspicious. There were the usual activities of children playing in the street, women coming home from the store with their food ration in knitted bags, women carrying water in pails hanging from shoulder yokes. There were no men in sight, but that was quite normal since the men were still at the front or in prison.

When the appointed hour finally arrived, I went to the door bearing the number I was given and knocked with some hesitation. A good-looking older lady opened the door and invited me in. There was a striking resemblance with the young woman who stopped me at the bridge, but there was also something very different in her features and in her conduct. She was a typical Jewish mother. I hardly entered the room and she immediately surrounded me with loving care. She introduced herself as the mother of Doctor Sima Israelovna, a friend of my mother, who was under her care in prison. (I did not know, at that point what Sima Israelovna did for my mother, I found out the entire story only after my mother was freed).

I looked around the room: there were two Shabbat candles burning in a pair of very impressive silver candle holders. It was Friday night. When was the last time I saw Shabbat candles? Maybe four years ago. There was also a white tablecloth and a nice set of dishes. On a shelf, about the bed, were some Jewish books with Hebrew letters on their covers. (I had not seen that either in a long time). The room was very nice, very clean. There were pictures on the walls, curtains on the window, and a rug on the floor. The furniture was well crafted, not the usual homemade affair. I felt in the atmosphere of this room the sensation of a Jewish holiday, the tranquillity of Shabbat. The tension which gripped my nerves for the last twenty four hours melted away like ice exposed to a warm touch. I felt good, I felt at home. She smiled at me and said in Yiddish: "Gut Shabes, sit down by the table, I have some nice borscht (a soup made from beets) with hot potatoes."

Without delay she filled my plate and urged me to eat. (It was not really necessary, since I was always hungry and ready to eat). The food was absolutely delicious. It seems to me that I can still taste it right now, some fifty years later. I finished that plate in no time and she offered me some more. I was almost finished with my second plate, when Sima Israelovna arrived home. "I just come from work, she said. I am going to have some supper and I would like you to join me." Even though I was quite full already, I could not possibly refuse, simply because this would negate everything that I have learned in the last four years. By the time I finished the third plate my stomach was tight like a drum and I had to refuse any additional offers of food. When she finished eating, I simply could not hold back my question: " please tell me about my father," I pleaded with her.

"Oh well," she said, "I really do not know anything more about him than what you know from his letter, I am sorry to have misled you, but I was afraid that you would not come to see me, unless I told you something interesting," she concluded with a sly smile. "You do not regret coming here?" "Oh no," I said, "I enjoyed the meal and the Shabbat very much." She then told me that my mother was fine (she did not tell me about the fact that she saved my mother's life, which eventually raised her esteem in nay eyes a great deal). She also promised to help us when my mother would be free, with some connections to get an apartments a residence permit and a job for my mother. "You see," she pointed at a pretty green wool knitted dress, "this is your mother's work. I know a place which can make good use of people with your mother's skill."

She was as good as her word. Within a week my mother was out of prison and, with Sima Israelovna's help, she was hired to produce knitted garments for a state enterpnse. She worked at home, often late at night, producing a lot more than the allotted norm so that the "right" people should be pleased with her, and so that I too should be warmly dressed.

Sima Israelovna and Mrs. Gorelic were our "connections" in Tomsk. Without such connections, it would be quite impossible to survive in Soviet society. In time, we managed to acquire some other connections, sometimes for a good deal of money, but mostly by reciprocating with something that the other party needed. It was by means of such connections that we eventually managed to take some further steps in the general direction of attaining our freedom.

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