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Chapter 14

When we arrived at the Tomsk railway station it was still dark outside and the railway waiting room was very crowded. As traveling could not be planned in advance, passengers had to spend many hours and not infrequently, many days, waiting to catch a train. The floors of the waiting hall served as a place to sleep and to have one's meals. There were always some enterprising souls selling food and clothes. There were gamblers and, of course, thieves. The valises had to be tied to our hands constantly, and placed under our head at night when we slept. Every station had a tap from which one could draw boiling hot water, an essential item in a cold climate. Since most travelers carried with them dry bread (which does not spoil for very long periods) it was beneficial to be able to dip the bread into a cup of hot water, making it instantly easily edible. We were told that there would be a train going that day to Novosibirsk, but we were not told when that would happen or what kind of train it would be: a regular passenger train or a "Vesjoley" (the joyous one). The "Vesjoley" was a freight train, with empty wagons, going your way, not necessarily all the way. It carried such a happy connotation because the passengers who were finally able to hitch a ride were always glad to be on their way, even in a drafty uncomfortable train with an uncertain destination. In the meantime, we managed, not without difficulty, to find a place on the floor. We sat on our valises holding cups of hot water in our hands and dipping the dry bread which we had brought along, into it.

Fortunately for us, in the early afternoon, a real passenger train going to Novosibirsk pulled into the station. We grabbed our luggage and the mad rush onto the platform by throngs of people was so overwhelming that I was afraid to be separated from my mother. I told her to hold on tightly to me, not to let go, no matter what. There were a couple of militia men standing by the entrance door to every carriage, which made the final stage of embarking somewhat more orderly. As I mounted the steps of the car with my mother holding onto me, one of the militia men grabbed my hand and pulled me off the steps. He ordered us to follow him. We were led into the militia station. I looked back at my mother, her face was white as a sheet, and I was certain she was going to faint any moment. When we entered the station room, I told the policeman that my mother has a heart condition and needed some rest and a drink of water. He complied (which was encouraging) checked my documents (I placed my Komsomol card on top of the travel permit). He returned the documents (another encouraging sign) and began questioning me. Then he ordered me to open up the valises. It didn't take him long to conclude that the contents were very innocent and he ordered us back to the train. l understood that he was looking for contraband, merchandise that was easily obtainable in one republic, but unavailable in another, or stolen goods, especially state property, quite common in the Soviet Union, "where factories can produce everything, even oranges".

By now my mother had gained her composure and we left the station unhurriedly in order not to subject her to renewed stress. I had my doubts about being able to board the train, considering the multitudes crushing forward just fifteen minutes ago, so I prepared a couple of cigarette packages in my pocket and as we were mounting the steps, I slipped the cigarettes into the conductor's hand. He stepped aside and we were in. The valises became the supporters of our tired bodies. I told my mother not to worry any more, something good actually happened to us. Our documents were checked by the N.K.V.D. and they were accepted, their legality now confirmed, a big load off my mind.

We arrived in Novosibirsk late in the evening and, as "experienced travelers", found a place on the floor of the huge waiting hall, right besides the bathroom. There was a non-stop traffic in and out of the bathroom and the smell of urine and fecal matter was overpowering. We did not sleep much that night, we were certainly not experienced travelers yet. We had to spend two full weeks in this railway station, before we managed to board a train to Actubinsk, which took several days of traveling and much maneuvering, with many stopovers, in order to reach Kazakhstan.

During our stay in Novosibirsk we changed our floor space several times, to find a quieter, safer place to sleep. My mother had to dig into our cash purse hanging around her neck and stuffed inside the bra, several times in order to purchase food. Even though it was done in the toilet booth, away from prying eyes, a thief must have been observing her moves very carefully, because sometimes in the middle of our second week in Novosibirsk my mother woke up in the morning, and as was her habit every day, put her hand into her bra and froze, the money was gone. It took me a while to calm her down. We still have the other half, I said, and I would be very careful to handle it only in the dark, by touch. Besides, we were going to stay with uncle Emanuel, which would be a big help.

I was somewhat concerned with the delays in our trip, which lasted eighteen days. My father's letter stated that he would be in Actubinsk in April or in May, or both months. We just passed the middle of April and with the uncertainties of civilians traveling in this country, the transfer of prisoners was even more erratic. I was therefore pessimistic about our chances of meeting my father. It was now only a matter of hours before we would find out. We were now walking from the railway station to the address of uncle Emanuel.

Actubinsk was a very depressing sight, a city in name only. It had some brick buildings in the center, but the majority of dwellings consisted of mud brick huts, buried half-way in the ground. It did not look much cheerier on the inside, when we finally arrived at our relatives, but the welcome was warm and there was a lot to talk about. My first question was about my father. Uncle Emanuel saw him and talked to him twice, but the entire group of prisoners left two days ago. I was devastated, terribly depressed. I ran outside and cried. My cousin Clara came looking for me. She was about half a year older than me (I was almost 16) a good looking girl with a kind, motherly disposition. Her comforting words had a calming effect and they inspired instant confidence in me. We became very good friends, practically from my first day of arrival. I must say that to be friends, meant to trust somebody with secrets that if divulged, even inadvertently, could cost one's freedom or life. It was a brief friendship, because we were separated exactly one year later, but it was just as important to me as my friendship with Dickie, even though I now had my mother with me, while then I was completely alone.

I later learned from my father, that he was transferred to Actubirisk sooner than his informer advised him, and that they stayed there only from mid-March to mid-April. The camp in Actubinsk was a major center for prisoners of war, mainly Germans, but also other nationalities. Although the repatriates were still treated as prisoners, their lives were incomparably better than those of the war prisoners. They were treated not much better than the Nazis treated their inmates in concentration camps. Even though there was no planned action to exterminate the Germans, many of them were dying daily.

The camp Commandant, a Major, had some three Volkswagen cars stationed there, war booty, but not one of them was in working condition. Moses saw his chance right away. He promised the Major to repair one car within a week and then to work on the other two. However, he needed the help of another mechanic, my father. The Major granted his request, in happy anticipation of soon having his own car. The Major also granted Moses (after the first car was repaired) the privilege of driving

him around town. That privilege enabled Moses to smuggle out some money, to buy extra food, and to talk to Emanuel a couple of times about my father. (Emanuel himself, eventually told us that he did not speak to my father directly, but only to Moses, however, he did not want to upset us more than necessary on the first day of our arrival, so he told us then that he spoke to my father).

My uncle and cousin had to wait at least until the end of the school year before going back to Chernovitz. (Originally they thought they would leave in May, but changed their minds.) So for the next two months I was accepted into grade six of the state school, whose curriculum was very similar to the one I just left some three weeks ago. Scholastically I had no trouble adjusting to my new environment; socially, I was completely isolated. Had it not been for Clara, who was the only person of my age with whom I could easily relate, I would have been a very lonely boy. There was hardly any cultural life. There was no permanent theatre in this big village of a town (I could not afford it anyway). There was a library of sorts, which helped me somewhat. Thank God, we only had to stay there for a couple of months.

When the time came to leave, we did not have to mask our departure, we did not have to sleep in the station, but we did have to spend a few days waiting for the train to arrive (going back to the hut to sleep every night). We finally managed to hitch a ride on a Vesjoly. The weather was nice and warm there was plenty of straw on the floor of the car and it was not too crowded. (Actubinsk was not Novosibirsk, with one and a half million inhabitants). Our destination was Moscow, the only way that one could get the connection to Chemovitz. Since we had very limited funds, we could not do much touring in Moscow. Clara and I did take the Metro, while our parents spent their time in the waiting hall. We were very impressed with the beautiful Metro stations, and with the efficiently running trains. We did not venture too far from the Metro stations on the streets of Moscow, because of fear (on my part) of running into the N.K.V.D. who might start questioning us. Although our documents were in order (so I thought because of the incident in the Tomsk railway station,) I had developed a constant feeling of being an illegal citizen, always looking around to see if I was being followed. If a policeman or a soldier, or any other official looking individual was walking on the sidewalk, I would be walking on the other side.

This constant sense of scrutinizing my actions, my words, my movements, my associations with other people became so strongly ingrained in me, that it never completely left me, even when I finally gained my freedom. I followed the Talmudic admonition of "respect him, but suspect him" for the rest of my life. I also found it extremely difficult to develop a close trusting friendship with other people, making me pretty much of a loner in later years of my life.

We spent three days in Moscow until we managed to board a train to Kiev. The entire trip from Actubinsk to Chernovitz lasted about two weeks and on the whole was quite uneventful, which in my condition was a blessing indeed. Our arrival in Chernovitz six years, almost to the day, after our forced departure, aroused within me some mixed feelings. I was happy to see familiar sites, but they appeared to be drab and uninviting. Above all, I felt uneasy, insecure, looking over my shoulder, worried about informers. I felt as though I was living a clandestine, conspiratorial life, which was not far from reality.

My relatives were all gone. Both Teitler families, Dora and Mitzi were now in Romania. The Geller family, my mother's sister, was in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Paula, uncle Emanuel's daughter was in Sidney, Australia. Aunt Freeda, uncle David's wife, my mother's brother, and her son Lonyu, were on their way to Palestine (soon to be Israel) but were detained in Cyprus for almost a year. My mother's sister Yetti, her husband, two sons and a daughter, lived in Radautzi in Bukovina, but on the Romanian side. Even though it was not more that a few hours' drive, because of the border, it might as well have been on Mars.

Clara had an aunt in Chernovitz, who survived the war and returned to her old apartment, so Clara moved in with her father into her aunt's apartment, which was very good for them, because of the severe shortages of accommodations. Fortunately for us we found the right connection, an old acquaintance, very trustworthy, which was a crucial prerequisite in our situation, a Mr. and Mrs. Galanter. They became our legal advisers and our moral supporters. They helped us find a place to live, a job for my mother and for myself and, most importantly of all, they had invaluable connections with people who could help us in our struggle to attain our next step to freedom.

The apartment which was offered to us was already occupied by the Peltzel family, a father and son, both working in a textile factory. It consisted of an attic divided into two rooms, one of which was occupied by the son. An extra bed was placed there for my benefit and so I shared the room with David Peltzel. My mother did not really need the apartment at all, since her job required her constant presence on the premises. My mother was hired as the housekeeper by Lisa and Gregory Orloff. Gregory was the director of the local Yiddish Theatre and his wife, Lisa, was an actress, specializing in children's roles. The Orloffs led a privileged life and could afford a live-in housekeeper, not quite kosher according to Soviet rules, but overlooked by the authorities. Not only did my mother have room and board, but she provided me as well with at least one meal a day. (Lisa was aware of my mother's arrangements and did not object).

I managed to get a job in the hospital as a medication distributor. My job was to go to patient's homes and insist that they take their medication in my presence. The medication was quinine, an anti-malaria treatment, which was very bitter and many people did not want to take it, but the authorities were anxious to eradicate malaria which for reasons unknown to me, happened to be a serious problem at that time in our area. I did not want to give up my schooling while I worked and so I registered as a grade seven student in a night school. I attended school six times per week, between six and ten o'clock in the evening. Our curriculum was quite intensive. We studied physics, algebra, chemistry, literature, history, and geography. Most students took their studies very seriously, and so did I. I performed my duties starting very early in the morning, so that by early afternoon I went to the Orloff house for my main meal, from there I went to my apartment to do my homework for about two, three hours, and then I walked to school. Although Chernovitz had a fairly good system of public transportation, of trolleys and trams, I used it very rarely, only during working hours, if the distances were too great.

My favourite time of day was after school, when I was allowed to attend the performances of the Yiddish Theatre. I always loved theatre performances, even in Tomsk my mother and I managed to see quite a few plays (tickets were very affordable, since it was government controlled). Now, in Chernovitz there were two differences: firstly, because of my connection with the Orloffs, I had free access any time I wanted to attend. Secondly, and that was more important to me, the Yiddish language, the Jewish cultural atmosphere, despite it being contaminated with a good dose of propaganda, truly warmed my heart, strengthening my Jewish awareness. On Sundays, and sometimes during matinees, I was able to see the entire play, on week days I could watch only the last act since I always arrived late. Eventually, through Lisa's connections with some staff members of the Ukrainian Theatre, I managed to see some plays in the Ukrainian language as well. I rarely had any time left for other social activities.

Clara was really my only friend and I did not her see more than a couple of times per week, for short periods. Clara was musically talented and she continued her studies in the local music school. I often listened to her play the piano (my favourite at the time was the Schubert "Serenade"). Uncle Emanuel managed to get a job as a kiosk operator (salesman) near a cinema theatre. The kiosk offered ice cream, candy, soft drinks, cigarettes and the like. From time to time, Clara an I would receive free treats from her father. Even though his working hours were very long he was satisfied with his job.

We continued to correspond with my father, who now lived in Bucharest. His letters were full of encouraging hints about a speedy reunion. It was all very mysterious and unclear, and were it not for Mr. Galanter I would probably not be able to decipher them. According to Mr. Galanter there was an active smuggling network for people who wanted to escape from the Soviet Union to Romania. The smugglers were all Hutzuls, shepherds and farmers, who lived in the Carpathian mountains on both sides of the border (the entire area belonged to Romania just a few years ago). They knew the mountain passes like the palms of their hands, and they had safe houses on either side of the border. Their operation, as I was to find out very soon, was well organized, coordinated with their permanent collaborators who resided on both sides of the border. They were also well armed and would hot hesitate to use their weapons, if need be. It was a very lucrative business: they collected fifteen hundred dollars per person. (For most people in Romania an enormous sum of money, very difficult to acquire, unless assisted by a foreign source: for a Soviet citizen it was completely out of the question). They smuggled groups of up to fifteen people. If the operation went smoothly, a smuggling run lasted about three days. The money was collected in Romania, 50 per cent before the operation and the other half, following the successful conclusion of the trip. It was therefore essential to have someone on the Romanian side with the right connections and at least three thousand US dollars in order to take the next step towards freedom.

My father, of course, was just the right person. With his brilliant entrepreneurial skills, he managed in the course of less than one year to start a new business in partnership with some other people who were not much better off. The business consisted of converting regular watches (mostly "Doxas" but also "Omegas", "Longines", "Schafllausen" and others) into gold watches. One of the partners who was a goldsmith made the gold casings from various pieces of jewelry which were bought from people who needed the money. The watches were smuggled into Romania mostly through diplomatic channels, from Switzerland, and sold to my father and his partners for US dollars only. The people who bought the watches with the gold casings were leaving Romania, mostly for Israel, and since they were forbidden to take any money with them, they each wore a watch, which was permitted. The casings were made to order (in eighteen or twenty four carat gold) and the weight of gold per casing depended on the amount of money that the traveler was willing to pay.

Although Romania was still a Kingdom (up to May of 1948) and these events were taking place in the second half of 1947, it was by no means a free country. It had a communist regime headed by Anna Pauker (a Jewess) under the absolute control of the Soviet Union. The country was not yet completely converted to a Soviet lifestyle; that would happen in the second half of l 948. It still tolerated a small amount of private enterprise, the theatre and the press could still speak with a weak, dissenting voice (for which many participants would soon end up in prison). The Zionist organizations were still legally operational (that too would end in the latter half of l 948). The Romanian government had an open door policy for the Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel (Palestine in 1947). This policy remained in force for many years to come and was the crucial factor in our struggle to achieve complete freedom.

My father's occupation was certainly not acceptable to the present regime. It was in fact very dangerous to be involved in these transactions, but it was the only route open to my father to earn enough money to buy our freedom. It was very much in accordance with the principles which he adapted in the Gulag: In order to survive and to have a good fighting chance to be free, one must be ready to take chances, to live dangerously.

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