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Chapter 12

The apartment which I secured prior to my mother's release became our first common dwelling after three long years of separation. My mother was busy with her new job and so I was the one who had to take care of our immediate necessities. We needed many things: pails for water, dishes for cooking and eating, bedding, clothing, a laundry tub (also used for bathing) My mother insisted that I bathe every few days so as to prevent another skin infection. She was also very concerned with my schooling (or rather, the lack of it). I had turned fourteen on May 18, and all my schooling consisted of three grades in five years of attendance. It was still questionable whether I would be accepted into grade four, since I had not attended school for the last three years. Sima Israelovna was of great help in this matter. She managed to secure a conditional acceptance. In September, I would be tested by the principal, if I passed the test I would be registered as a grade four pupil.

We had to find someone to help me with my preparations and that was not easy. Sima Israelovna advised me to go to the public library everyday and do a lot of reading. When the librarian noticed my daily visits, she became curious about my aims and questioned me about my intentions. I told her that I was behind in my studies and wanted to be ready to attend grade four. The librarian became another "connection". She was simply a kind lady who saw me struggle to study by myself, serious and diligent, and she decided to guide me in my studies, as well as to explain the material which I could not comprehend by myself.

Our first apartment turned out to be more temporary than we first imagined. My mother learned sometime ago how to be a fortune teller by arranging a deck of playing cards in a certain order and interpreting their combination. This superstition was very popular in Siberia and good fortune tellers could supplement their income significantly. Well, my mother saw in the cards that our landlady's husband would soon come home a free man. The landlady said that if this happened we would be rewarded with a full pail of potatoes. To my great surprise, it did happen. When the man came home we were told to move out as soon as possible. On the first day of his homecoming, the husband demanded that his wife fry for him one dozen eggs for lunch. It was some kind of dream that he kept alive in prison and he was intent on realizing it on the very first day of his freedom. It was not an easy assignment. She must have sold some precious item at the local bazaar to enable her to purchase a dozen eggs. The meal was finally served and both families were there watching the great spectacle and breathing in the aroma of fried eggs, which made my saliva run and my stomach gurgle. The son who never met his father until now, regarded him as an intruder and a competitor for his mother's attention and love. The boy who had shared his mother's large bed till now was told to sleep on the two table benches, with a straw mattress (a temporary arrangement, since we would have to move out soon and he would then receive our bed). However, the poor fellow did not like the new order, even though it was temporary. I remember waking up in the middle of the night because of a piercing scream coming from his parents' bed. The boy was standing by the bed with a large kitchen knife in his hand, threatening his father and yelling at the top of his voice: "get out of my bed." It took some time to disarm him and calm him down.

The next day my mother and I decided to move to the alternate temporary apartment which I lined up prior to her release. This was a large basement room. It had a low ceiling, many columns supporting the building above, a wooden floor, half rotten and very musty, since there was about half a meter of water underneath the floor. Although there was a large oven in the room it was really impossible to heat the place properly. It was cold, damp and it smelled of rotten organic materials. The place was inhabited by two brothers and a sister.

The brothers were shoemakers and their workshop was in the same room. They always kept some pieces of leather soaking in the water underneath the floor. The shoemaker would simply lift the floorboards and pull up a string to which the leather was tied. This operation certainly did not enhance the quality of the air we were breathing. It was not peaceful at night either. The sister came home every night with another "customer". They were often drunk and boisterous and completely disregarded the feelings and needs of the other people in the room.

My mother spent a lot of time everyday at the police station waiting to be granted a permit for permanent residency in the city of Tomsk. Every evening we would go over the questions that she was asked by the police investigator and I would drill her about the answers that she must give. I encouraged her to be firm and stick to her story, that she was a refugee from the war zone in Bucovina, that her husband was drafted into the Red Army and that her documents were stolen (a fairly common occurrence in Russia). My mother stuck to her story stoically. I could see though that she would not be able to last much longer: her nerves were on edge, the interrogation had gone on for three weeks already. I encouraged her every day; praised her steadfastness and told her that the alternative to residency in Tomsk was unthinkable (it could even be imprisonment for a false statement). Thank God, that the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. Her story was finally accepted and the coveted papers were issued. I am still amazed that although she spent three years in prison some 12 km out of Tomsk, the interrogator was not aware of it. That precious piece of paper enabled us to get a permanent apartment and we were now hard at work, drawing upon the help of our connections, to speed up the matter so as to get out of that horrible basement room.

In July we found our own little treasure. There were several houses located around a central yard. Each house contained many rooms on three floors. Our new apartment used to be an entrance room. We walked up wooden stairs (all houses were built of wood) onto a small balcony which was now completely enclosed and served as a storage room for firewood and some food that could be kept frozen for most of the year. The room itself was about four by three meters. It had a narrow iron bed in one comer, a small homemade table with two taborets and a large cooking stove, which was also the only source of heat. There were two more important features in this room. A wooden platform of two square meters, hanging from the ceiling in the corner of the room above the stove, about one meter below the ceiling. This was our bed for most of the year. The only place warm enough to sleep, since in the course of every night the water in the pails standing on the floor would form a thick crust of ice. The other feature was a deep cellar underneath the floor. We were told that that is the place to keep our reserves or potatoes for the long winter. We did not have enough money to buy potatoes and sauerkraut for the whole winter, but we did buy enough for about three months, placed it in the cellar covered with straw and they froze.

That was a severe blow for us and we could not afford another such disaster. So I built a wooden box, covering about half the floor space of our hanging bed and filled it up with potatoes. From now on the "three" of us slept together, but another problem was created. The additional substantial weight of the potatoes became too much of a burden for the platform and I had to install a wooden post supporting the comer of the platform that was not attached to the walls. We spent almost every long evening sitting on the platform with a twenty-five watt electrical bulb right above us. My mother worked at her knitting and I would read the Russian classics aloud, so she could also enjoy it. Eventually, Mrs. Gorelic's son, Sioma, who became my friend and who was a wizard with electrical appliances, concocted an electrical hot plate.

It was illegal to use such a device. There was no plug in the room, but the wires were running on the ceiling above the sleeping platform. Sioma showed me how to scrape off the insulation from each wire, at a distance of several centimeters from each other, to prevent a short circuit, bend the exposed ends of the hot plate wire into hooks and hook them onto the uninsulated wire on the ceiling. The element of the hot plate, which was placed on the platform between us, would become red hot and give us enough heat to make our evening sessions more comfortable. I realize now that it was a very dangerous deed, because we could have been caught. It was not very difficult for a persistent inspector to figure out that the electrical consumption was much higher than from one 25 watt bulb. It was also very unsafe. The wires on the ceiling were very old and the insulation was cracked and missing in many places. I had to hook on the plate very gently, because any extra disturbance of the wires caused them to short circuit. Since it happened from time to time, I had to learn the location of the fuse and to repair it with a thin copper piece of wire. (We had no real fuses). Thanks to Sioma I became quite expert in doing that. The fuse box was located on the other side of the wall, that meant that I had to choose my time to repair it very carefully, to avoid being seen by the superintendent or other people who might be walking through the corridor where the fuse box was installed. I always carried a book under my arm as a pretext, ready to visit my neighbour, the old teacher.

It was also Sioma who got me a small loudspeaker which he installed in our room, by drawing a double wire through the window into the yard and attaching the wires by climbing a pole which run the radio transmission wires. The loudspeaker had a switch (also Sioma's work) which enabled us to listen only to those programs which were interesting to us and shutting off all the propaganda. It is quite clear that despite all the hardships that we suffered, there was a need to satisfy the hunger for spiritual things. Tomsk had a fairly good repertory theatre, there were also guest performances from other cities. We did our utmost to scrape together enough funds so as to attend some of these performances. How did I develop such an interest in cultural matters? I am certain that I have to thank my eighty year old neighbour, Nadejda Michailevna for encouraging me to appreciate the finer things in life. Nadejda Michailevna was a retired teacher from the old school. She was born and educated in pre-revolutionary Russia. Her bearing was noble and dignified. (Some neighbours whispered that she belonged to an aristocratic family; I would not be surprised). When I informed her about my preparations to enter grade four, she immediately offered me her help.

I think she recognized in my manners the European touch, the fact that I could speak German and Romanian (she spoke several foreign languages, her favourite was French.) She was a highly educated person, very knowledgeable in literature, music and the arts in general. Her influence on me was very great. There were a few other teachers in my life who made a lasting impression on me, but they all came into my life some five years later. Nadejda Michailevna came into my life when I was fourteen, very impressionable and very receptive. She developed my taste for the French classics: Victor Hugo, Balzac, Maupassant, Dumas, Zola (for French art, and for music in general). She had quite a library in her small two-room apartment (which was very beautiful in my eyes). The books were written in the old Russian script which I quickly learned and enjoyed reading all the books she was lending me. Although she spent some time teaching me the basics of arithmetic and geography etc. we spent most of the time discussing the books that I read. She taught me to read critically and intelligently, between the lines (inter legare = intelligent). 

There was a piano in her apartment and even though she was in her eighties she could still play the piano very nicely, building up the foundation for my love ofmusic. All this in the course of about one year. I became a voracious reader of the Russian classics: Turgenev, Gogol, Tolstoy, Checkov, Gorky (Gorky's trilogy about his life had a tremendous effect on me, because I could so easily identify with his descriptions of his childhood) and many others. Even today, I have in my library War and Peace in the original, the complete poetry by Pushkin, some Checkov, Gorky, Boris Pasternak and some others. My wife bought me the complete writing of Sholom Aleichem in Russian. She meant well, she thought it would give me a lot of pleasure, however, I prefer to read Sholom Aleichem in Yiddish, it has a better taste.

I was accepted into grade four without any difficulties and our lives in Tomsk entered a certain routine. I spent six days in school, about five hours every day. As the son of a Red Army soldier (so I claimed) I was entitled to one meal a day in a special restaurant for privileged children. I did my chores every day, which consisted of bringing two pails of water on the shoulder yoke, cutting and chopping fire wood. I also spent time doing homework together with Genady Gordeev, my new friend. He was a Russian boy and, as I found out later, after several visits to his home, he had a very privileged life indeed. His father was Major Gordeev, a very important official in the N.K.V.D. They possessed a very luxurious apartment, by Siberian standards; he had his own room where we spent many hours preparing homework and playing games. He had a seventeen-year old sister who played the accordion quite well, but who was otherwise not interested in her brother's fourteen year old friend.

His mother, on the other hand, was very interested. Genady was a poor student. I don't really know why he was not doing well. He was not very bright but he was a willing hard worker. He needed extra time to be explained, to be shown how to learn. When he eventually grasped his lesson, he held on to it. His mother, therefore, saw in me a very positive influence and she was also impressed with my European manners. She knew, of course, that I come from a poor home and she made sure that my every visit should be rewarded with some good food. That in itself was enough to attract me to the Gordeev family, however, I had something else in mind: a traveling pass that would enable us to return to Chernovitz. If I could work it out the way I had with Igor and his parents, this would be the next most important step in our fight for freedom.

I told Mrs. Gordeev about my mother's beautiful knitting work and suggested that she knit a garment for her. She was very excited about the idea and invited my mother to come for a visit, which I promptly accepted. My mother did come, discussed all the details with Mrs. Gordeev and after receiving from her the necessary amount of wool, produced a beautiful dress within a month. I really needed more time before I approached her with my request for a pass. I wanted to meet Mr. Gordeev more often. So far I had met him only twice. Although he treated me well and was quite pleasant, I never forgot that he was a major in the N.K.V.D. and what he did at home was not necessarily a good measure of the kind of person he really was. It took me a full year of my acquaintance with the Gordeevs and a couple more sweaters knitted by my mother before I worked up my courage to speak to Mrs. Gordeev about the traveling pass. She promised to discuss it with her husband, and within a few weeks Gordeev himself gave me the answer. He told me that he was promoted in rank and position just then, and that he was being sent out to a new location in the far East, near Vladivostok. He wanted me to join his family and he promised to treat me like his own son. He was even willing to take mother along and to guarantee that she would also be well taken care of. I imagine that this offer was to be regarded as a great honour and as very rewarding. I had to be very careful and diplomatic in my refusal to accept it. I tied in my explanation with my father.

I told him that my father wrote that he would be discharged from the Red Army in 1946 which was very soon (since this conversation took place in 1946) and that was why we wanted to get back to Chernovitz, so as to reunite the family. When I came to say good-bye to the Gordeevs on the day of their departure from Tomsk, he took me aside and told me to see a certain official in the N.K.V.D. and submit my request formally. As long as I had the proper proof concerning my father I would get my pass, he assured me. I thanked him very much for his fatherly concern for me, wished him a safe trip and expressed my hope that we would hear from each other. It was very disappointing for both of us. Gordeev thought that he offered me a great deal more than I asked for, while I felt that I failed in my mission. How could I prove that my father was being discharged from the Army?

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