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Chapter 13

Since reuniting with my mother, we kept up our correspondence with my father, as well as with Dora and her sister Mitzi and their husbands, Meshel and Beno Teitler. My father kept his promise and sent us the grand sum of nine hundred rubles. We also received, pretty steadily, some money from Dora. We had saved up by now over three thousand rubles. It was still quite puzzling how my father managed to send us money from prison. I eventually found out the answer to the puzzle.

My father arrived in Kalima, a vast network of labour camps in the frozen land of gold mines. This was the job of countless thousands of prisoners, who toiled in the most inhumane conditions, often guarded by sadistic N.K.V.D. men who functioned by the principle of: first we kill them, then we shall untangle the cause. Men who enjoyed ripping of the hat from a prisoner's head and throwing it away in the snow, thereby forcing him to run after it (or else freeze to death). Then they shot and killed the prisoner, reporting later that he tried to escape. In order to understand the type of hell that my father had to endure, it is essential to read Solzhenitsyn's book, The Gulag Archipelago.

My father was a survivor, a fighter, an entrepreneur, a very wise man, very courageous too. In the gold mines, where every brigade of labourers had to produce a certain fixed norm (a predetermined quantity of gold), my father found ways of producing more than the norm by working half as hard. He was soon promoted to brigadier (the leader of one of the working brigades). His group of men were completely dependent on him, because their lives depended on the amount of work performed and the amount of food received. A brigade producing the norm or more received extra portions of food. When they struck a rich vein, they managed to hide the gold, in order to use it later when the pickings were poor. They often flooded certain areas, after the gold was dug up clandestinely, so that the inspectors who established the norms would decrease them, making it easier to fulfill them. Of course this constant wheeling and dealing was very dangerous, but his guiding principle was very simple: I can die of starvation or live in fear and danger. He chose the latter, which by no means was much safer, but it offered a chance for survival. Just the same, he did not escape the unavoidable disease. Even for my father's inventive spirit it was not possible to be moved to the so-called hospital until it was almost too late.

He developed a terrible infection in his lower back. The wound was as big as a fist and the infection was rapidly spreading inward. His temperature was in the 40's when he was finally brought to the hospital in a semi-conscious state. The doctors in the hospital were all prisoners and many of them were Jews. My father's Jewish doctor told him that if he was to have a chance to survive, the doctor must administer his entire supply of injections -- twelve. Since he had several patients in need of the same medication he should, by law, administer an equal amount of injections to all of them. Then, they would all surely die. However, if he decided to give all the injections to my father, he had a chance to survive. The doctor decided to administer all the injections to my father and with extra care and food, my father recovered. The extra food came by not declaring the death of a patient prisoner, a neighbour, immediately, thereby appropriating the dead man's portion of food. This was done daily, since patients died daily and those who remained alive needed the food badly. During the long period of recovery, my father was sent to work in the kitchen, where his management talents were quickly recognized and exploited by the prison authorities.

At first he was in charge of bread distribution and in time he was assigned the responsibility to be in charge of all provisions of food and clothing. My father succeeded in satisfying the needs of many camp officers, including the commandant. His job was not only to distribute all provisions, but also to order them and pick them up from the central warehouses located in Magadan. That meant that he was given special passes to travel to Magadan, a very unusual procedure which required the approval of the Chief Prosecutor of the entire district.

In order to run his enterprise efficiently, with plenty of extra provisions for all the Brass, he needed cash, and that he could obtain only by selling gold to the free people who worked in the prison. Most of the free people who worked in the prison were ex-prisoners themselves, who continued to live in the area after completing their terms. This complicated manipulation of funds and goods was well known to the upper management of the prison compound and was extremely dangerous for all the people involved. However, living conditions were so poor, food and clothing were so short in supply, even for the people in charge, that my father's management of the camp's supplies became an absolutely essential part of their lives.

My father was warned many times, more for their own protection than for his benefit, to be careful because there would be no protection coming from anyone. Everyone would be protecting himself and surely pointing the finger at my father, if things went wrong. We must give my father full credit for his immense courage and brilliance of management skills, for his understanding of human nature and his ability to please all those with whom he was dealing. This business integrity was always the foundation of his activities. "Remember," he used to admonish me in later years, "your good name is more important than anything else in business. It takes a long time to acquire a good name but one can spoil it all with one dishonest move." Even if he lost money, he would never go back on his word. He was always very punctual, well-organized, prompt in putting into action his ideas, hard working and very efficient.

That is how he managed to send us money from prison. However, those nine hundred rubles were the only transaction which we received, because the rest was stolen. My father did have a special permit to travel to Magadan from where money could be sent by post, but it was much too dangerous for him to do so personally and so he needed an intermediary, someone he could absolutely trust. Moreover, it had to be someone who was about to leave the area, a free man returning home, as far away from Magadan as possible. Only one of the people to whom my father entrusted the money actually mailed it to us, somewhere from the Ukraine, all the others simply kept the money for themselves. Although he did not want to mail us any money directly from Magadan, he did mail us his letters quite regularly. In the summer of 1946, there were strong hints about some promises to be freed very soon. Since we were working hard in getting some new connections to "buy" the necessary permits to return back to Chernovitz, we were anxious to have all the information we could get in order to coordinate our fight for freedom, so as to be able to arrive in Chernovitz at approximately the same time. Even though my father was due for release at the end of seven years, he worked to gain his freedom by other means, which he considered more secure and much more superior, since it was not just to be released from prison, but to be allowed to go to Romania.

In 1946 a lot of pressure was exerted by the satellite countries of Eastern Europe on the Soviet Union, to repatriate their citizens whatever their status may be. Commissions were set up in the camps to investigate those who fell into this category. My father had a lot of friends among the prisoners, especially Jews of European extraction, whom he helped with a piece of bread, some clothing or a pair of shoes, so he was well-informed about the commission work, what kind of questions they were asking and what kind of answers they wanted to hear. Since he wanted to be out of Russia, this was an opportunity not to be missed. He declared himself a Romanian citizen from the city of Cluj, for two reasons. Firstly, because he did live in Romania prior to 1940 and still spoke the language well enough. Secondly, he picked the city of Cluj, because it was located in Romania proper and not in Bukovina which was now Russian territory, and because his best friend presently, a Jew named Moses Lang, happened to be an ex-resident of Cluj. Moses drilled my father with all the pertinent information about the city of Cluj, until he knew the streets of the city, his place of work, the people who worked with him, etc. My father passed the commission's interrogation without a hitch and was now on the list of Romanian prisoners intended for repatriation.

Moses was very alike in character and occupation to Mr. Taub. A professional mechanic-driver, whose skills were very much in demand, he had special working privileges. However, that did not mean that he had plenty to eat. Since even the Chief Prosecutor needed my father's services (true, more for luxuries like sugar and lard than for bread and potatoes), it was not surprising that cheerful Moses could do with some extra food. Moses was a bachelor and a womanizer (prior to his imprisonment) and somehow he managed to be in good humor, even under very trying circumstances.

The lists for repatriation were finalized in the last few months of l 946 and my father began to train a new warehouse manager to replace him. The new man was hand-picked by the commandant himself, because of the importance of his job.

My mother and I did not know all the details of what transpired in my father's prison. We did receive letters which stated that he would soon be transferred to Romania and he would let us know where his intermediate stops would be on the route to Romania. If we could co-ordinate our departures in such a way that we should stop by in the same place, we might be able to see each other. That was a very exciting prospect for all of us, so we intensified our efforts to acquire the necessary permits. By the beginning of 1947 our efforts finally bore fruit. We had the papers in our hands, but there were two things my mother wanted to do before we left: one was to allow me to complete my school year. I was now in grade six. I was promoted into this grade for three reasons: Firstly because I was a good member of the Komsomol (the Communist youth movement), that is, I actively participated in the meetings, in the study of the writings of Stalin and Lenin, in the propaganda work around May Day, Revolution Day, etc. Secondly, because I was a good student, who did a lot of work during the summer, after completing grade four, in preparation for grade six. My sincere appreciation to Nadejda Michailovna, my neighbour, my mentor and my teacher, whose invaluable work was the most important factor in successfully accomplishing this transition. Thirdly, because of my age. At 15, I was still two years older than the rest of the class in grade six.

The second factor, holding my mother back, was the timing of our trip to coincide with my father's journey through Russia en route to Romania. In early 1947 in one of my father's letters, he clearly stated that the Romanian repatriates would be stationed in the city of Actubinsk in the Republic of Kazachstan, in the month of April or May (or both). My father obtained the precise information through his connections and my mother and I relied on its accuracy and began to plan our trip accordingly.

There was another piece of good luck in the mail. Towards the end of 1946 we discovered, through Dora, that my mother's brother, Emanuel Surkis, was alive and well and residing in the city of Actubinsk, together with his daughter Clara. His wife passed away before the war. His eldest daughter, Paula, we found out later, got out of the war alive, married and moved to Australia. It was a G-d sent coincidence that my uncle Emanuel lived in Actubinsk. It would be so much easier for us, if we had to stay only for a couple of months, to find a willing landlord in uncle Emanuel. Emanuel and Clara were exiles in Kazakhstan, but only for five years, so their term was up and they were planning to return to Chernovitz in May of l 947. Perfect timing for us.

May, the month of my birthday, was turning out to be a very lucky month for me. We were planning to take two valises with us, packed with our clothing, mostly old stuff, mended many times. I insisted that we take the loudspeaker along (maybe because I associated it with enjoyment). One valise contained the loudspeaker and our old shoes, the other our well-worn clothes. Dora managed to send us money up to 1946, that is the year she moved from Chernovitz to Bucharest, with her sister Mitzi and their husbands. There were a great number of people who exploited this opportunity. By the time we arrived to Chernovitz, the doors were already closed.

By now we had about four thousand rubles saved up. Two and a half thousand we spent to purchase our documents, the other fifteen hundred were distributed in equal amounts in two places. One was in the form of a little bag tied to a string around my mother's neck and stuffed into her brassiere (that was to be used for buying food on our trip). The other half, to be held in reserve, would be kept inside my boots.

In the winter of 1945, Dora sent us a package by mail. It contained a brand new pair of beautiful leather boots for me, a warm dress for my mother, a bed sheet folded tightly, in the center of which there was a pear. A real pear; somewhat damaged and frozen, but a pear nonetheless. Something we haven't seen in over five years. We cleaned it up carefully, divided it into even parts and consumed it. I am not sure that it tasted as a pear should, but for us it was delicious, not only for our palates, but even more so for our spirits. There was one more item in that parcel, a brand new coat for me. It was a very happy day for both of us.

My mother insisted that I wear my new coat and boots to the children's' restaurant. By the time I finished my meal, I could not find my coat on the hanger in the hall where I had left it. I did not need to ask the manager what happened. I knew that the coat was stolen and I would not see it again. Luckily, it was not a very cold day, and I managed to run home dressed in my warm sweater that my mother knitted for me. About a block away from home, I was attacked by a gang of kids. Two of them pinned me down, another two pulled my beautiful boots off my feet, then slapped my face a few times for good measure and disappeared. I was stunned, lying there on the road for a few minutes completely paralyzed. Finally the cold restored my senses and I ran home the last block of my way. I was a pretty sorry sight, sobbing loudly and inconsolably, despite my mother's desperate efforts to calm me down. When I finally stopped crying and was able to talk reasonably, I decided that from then on, I would wear the most inconspicuous garments, so as never to attract the attention of thieves. We also decided to apply that rule to our behaviour and to our manner of speech. It was particularly important now, when we were getting ready for our trip. The valises were very old and torn, they had to be tied with a cord so as to prevent them from coming apart. Their contents (if we were checked by the militia) were very ordinary. Even if searched, the amount of money we had on us was not unusually large. The fact that the money was kept hidden was normal and acceptable.

We rehearsed the answers we would give when stopped by the militia. We were going to live with my mother's brother in Actubinsk. No mention should be made of Chernovitz or of my father. (If they asked about my father I would tell them that he gave his life fighting in the Great War). Although I did not smoke routinely, I decided to buy several packages of cigarettes, so as to be able to oil the wheels of the wagon (to bribe) when necessary. We also decided (I insisted on it), not to say good-bye to anybody. Nobody was to know about our plans. We were going to leave home before dawn, when it was still quite dark outside. It was the beginning of April, the weather was relatively warm; it was a good two hours' walk to the railway station. I made a dry run a few days prior to the day of departure. I checked the route to the station, but there was no fixed timetable of train departures.

Our first destination was Novosibirsk, only from there was it possible to go on to our final destination. I bought tickets to Novosibirsk, but they would not sell me tickets to Actubinsk. The clerk said that I could only buy the tickets in Novosibirsk. (I later found out the reason for it). We were now ready to undertake the third step in our journey to freedom. Every additional step seemed to be somewhat harder, longer and more dangerous. There were no doubts in my mind that it was the right thing to do. There was a feeling of joy, mixed with fear, there was excitement of finally meeting my father, and there was a deep concern about the legality of our newly purchased documents. There was hope and I felt as though I was flying in the air holding a valise in each hand. I looked at my mother and saw tears running down her cheeks and I knew what she felt.

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