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Chapter 15

While my father was struggling to acquire the means to gain our freedom, I continued with my daily routine. The Yiddish Theatre became the center of my life, my highest enjoyment, my spiritual uplifting. Sholom Aleichem was my favourite playwright. "The Wondering Stars", "Tevie The Milkman". I will never forget the great actor Goldman, who played Tevie: standing in front of a tree, following the loss of his daughters, he conversed with the Almighty, as was his habit to do when he was upset. "Oh Ruler of the Universe", he said, "why do you cut down one branch at a time? You might as well take an ax and cut down the whole tree". I don't think there was a dry eye in the audience. Each of them with a personal load of troubles felt deeply and sympathized fully with Tevie's misfortune. "Mirele Efros", "The Witch", "Uncle Moses" and many other plays, each of them a gem, each of them a source of pleasure. I certainly caught the bug.

When the school decided to put on a play, I volunteered. We were to perform excerpts from Pushkin's Evgeny Onegin. I was given the role of Evgeny. What excitement. I practiced my lines every free moment. Lisochka (the diminutive for Lisa, because of her childlike appearance) promised to coach me in my acting and to provide me with the necessary costume for my role (she'll borrow something from the theatre). She kept her word and I was happy with the results. This was a combined effort of the day school and the night school. On the evening of the performance (which included excerpts from other literary works as well), the assembly hall was packed with students and parents from both schools. As soon as I walked on stage, my classmates who saw me dressed up in tails and top hat, began to snicker loud enough for me to hear them. I looked at the audience and froze, seized hopelessly by stage fright. My teacher, who was standing behind the curtain understood what happened and ordered me, in a calm voice, to look at her. As soon as I turned my head towards her, she began to prompt me with my lines. I then recited my part, made all the necessary moves without any further problems, however, I never overcame my fear and my performance had all the grace of a wound-up doll.

Although this episode cured me from ever again attempting to act on stage, I did not lose my enjoyment of attending a good performance. Moreover, when I eventually entered the teaching profession I staged numerous plays with my students quite successfully. I also worked as a drama counselor in a summer camp, mounting a show every week (for eight weeks) with different age groups.

At the beginning of l 948, David Peltzel, my roommate, became engaged to be married and within a month the wedding took place. My mother and I were invited to attend. It was the first Jewish wedding that I can remember (I did attend some weddings before the war, my uncle Jacob's, for example, but I have no clear recollection of them). The wedding canopy, the reciting of the blessings, the breaking of the glass, the people shouting "Mazel Tov", the singing of Jewish songs, the joyous dancing, all of these things had a powerful emotional effect on me, as though I was waiting for years to participate in a traditional Jewish ceremony. When it finally happened, I felt rewarded. The ceremony took place in the cafeteria of the textile factory where the Peltzels worked. I wondered what it would have been like, had the wedding taken place in a synagogue. I had not stepped into a synagogue for the last seven years.... There was also a lot of drinking taking place, and the Peltzels urged me to have some wine. It was sweet red wine and I enjoyed my first encounter with an alcoholic beverage at the age of sixteen. Without any consideration for the consequences, I consumed two glasses of wine in the course of the evening. When it was time to go home I felt unsteady on my feet, my head was in a fog, the act of walking felt more like flying. Fortunately Clara accompanied me home, otherwise I probably would not have arrived there at all. By the time I climbed the stairs up to my attic room, I almost passed out. I felt very sick and I vomited the wedding meal I had consumed with such pleasure just a few hours before. Clara helped clean me up and put me to bed. The effect of being drunk had a lasting beneficial result. I did not want to touch any alcohol for many years to come. When I finally relented to do so, it was mostly on ceremonial occasions and I never became drunk again.

At the beginning of 1948 I accidentally met Dickie Funduyanu just walking on one of the streets in Chernovitz. Actually, she recognized me and called me by my name. I did not recognize her. I had not seen her for three years, she was now almost seventeen and she looked like a very mature young woman. Her appearance had changed a lot since I saw her the last time. There was something robust, almost manly about her. She did not smile, did not exhibit any joy about our chance encounter, and I did not know whether to embrace her and kiss her or just shake hands. I finally opted for the latter. We sat down on a bench in a nearby park and talked about old times. Both parents were serving a ten year sentence somewhere in Siberia.

She had come to Chernovitz to investigate the whereabouts of her relatives. She could not find any trace of them. She had completed seven years of schooling (ten years are needed to graduate from high school). She had no profession, but she did work for a year in a food processing plant: "so as not to be hungry", she said. She wanted to stay only for a couple of weeks and then go to Moscow. "I think I can

make a better life for me there". "How about traveling papers", I asked her. "I'll manage, maybe I'll find me a husband in Moscow, that will solve all my legal problems", she smiled sadly. I asked her if she needed something, food or money. "No", she said, "I saved up a bit from my work in the plant, that will be enough until Moscow". I had a feeling of unease, I did not know whether I could still trust her. There was no openness in our conversation. Many important things happened to us in the last three years that we did not mention in our encounter. We were almost complete strangers. We shook hands again and wished each other good luck. I felt terribly depressed for a long time after this meeting. I never saw Dickie again and I do not know what happened to her. I hope wholeheartedly that she succeeded to live as normal a life as Soviet society would afford her.

A couple of weeks after that unexpected meeting with Dickie, Gregory Orloff, the respected and loved director of the Yiddish Theatre, suddenly passed away. The officially announced cause was heart failure, but as I found out later from Lisochlea, he was tormented by the authorities, who investigated the actors and the staff for anti-Soviet activities, an excuse for trumped up charges against some actors who were promptly arrested and were swallowed up by the vast network of the Gulag. It was obvious that the pressure was on to liquidate all Jewish institutions. There was a Jewish school in Chernovitz whose language of instruction was Yiddish. There was also a Yiddish newspaper. All the Jewish institutions were under strict state control, run by loyal members of the Communist party and serving the state as powerful tools of propaganda. However, Stalin was obsessed with fear and hatred of all Jewish institutions (of Jews in general) and he ordered to eradicate all remnants of Jewish cultural life, as well as the persecution of those individuals who were involved in it. The director's funeral did not just symbolize the passing of an important Jewish member of society, but it turned into a deeply felt mourning by thousands of Jews who accompanied the coffin, for the swift destruction of our cultural existence.

One day I could enjoy the sound of Yiddish in the theatre, the next day I could not even mention the devastating events which were taking place, for fear of being denounced. Whereas before hundreds of children were playing in the school yard, talking and laughing, quarreling and fighting in Yiddish, suddenly they were denied to function in a familiar environment and forced to integrate instantaneously into a Russian or Ukrainian school. Lisochka was terribly depressed and so were my mother and I. It was obvious that my mother would not be able to hold on to her job for much longer, even though Lisochka was fortunate to be offered a position with the Ukrainian theatre. She was lucky to have my mother for the next few weeks, because she was unable to look after herself. She needed time and support to recover from the double blow, which struck her so cruelly and so swiftly.

In April of 1948 my father finalized the arrangements for us to be smuggled across the border from the Soviet Union into Romania. Mr. Galanter, who was in touch with the local member of the smugglers, told us that the network wanted to cease operations, because the risks were too high. The border patrols were much more vigilant, and it was also much more difficult to move freely on either side of the border because of intensified surveillance inside the so called border zone, a strip of land some twenty kilometers wide, on both sides of the Russian-Romanian border. It was just as dangerous in the Romanian border zone, because if caught, there the Romanian police, as a loyal satellite state, would immediately turn us over to the Russians. Only the people who lived there were allowed to be present in the border zone and they were issued special identity cards. The border police was familiar with the population make up. It was fairly easy for the police to identify a stranger. As the risks grew, so did the smugglers' prices. By the time my father completed the deal he had to pay another three hundred dollars, which was a large sum of money in Romania in 1948. Mr. Galanter instructed us how and when we should proceed with our most difficult, most dangerous and most important step to freedom.

On the last day of April at eight PM, I was to stand at the corner of a street at the outskirts of Chernovitz alone, waiting for a woman who would approach me and say: "Are you lost?" My answer would be: "I am waiting for my friend". The woman would then instruct me what I should do next. My mother would be waiting on another street until I come to pick her up. This was a precaution, so that we should not be found together if the operation failed in its early stages. We were told to put on two pairs of everything in clothing and the only thing we should carry with us was a supply of food, sufficient for three days. These instructions were given to us exactly one week before the appointed hour of our escape.

During that last week it was very important to continue our normal activities, to avoid all possible suspicion of what we had in mind. For me this week happened to be the week of the final exams of grade seven. Every day I had to appear in school, well prepared and sure of myself as befits a top student of my caliber. The exams consisted of partially oral answers, before a committee of three teachers, and partially written answers. The questions were written out on slips of paper, neatly folded and placed on the teacher's desk. The student walked over to the table, picked up a slip of paper at random, then went back to his desk to prepare his answers. If there were problems to be solved in math, physics or chemistry, one was allowed to use a pencil and paper. Each student was given a limited amount of time to prepare his answers and then he had to appear before the teachers' committee in another room (there were no other students there) and give his answers to the question on the slip which he had picked, and solve the problems in writing on the blackboard. During the examination the teachers were permitted to interrupt the student and tell him to go on to the next question or they could ask the student additional questions to clarify his answers or to test his knowledge more profoundly. This system of examination required steady nerves under the best of circumstances, as well as the ability to express oneself clearly and to the point. I have never undergone this type of testing in any other school which I attended. It was vigorous, precise, there was no room for cheating and no doubt of the student's knowledge or lack of it.

The testing, for the entire class, went on for several hours, for some twenty five students from my class of the evening school, and we all sat in a free classroom, waiting patiently for the testing to end, so that we would be told our marks. So it went day after day with my mind completely concentrated on my work. I forced myself not to think of what I was about to do at the end of the week, and I did very well, except in chemistry. I put the blame on my chemistry teacher of the night school (I had no chemistry prior to this year). She was terribly boring, so I lost interest in the subject and it affected me in my future studies in high school and at the University. I simply could never overcome my aversion to chemistry, even though I thoroughly enjoyed all the other science subjects. (I still managed a passing mark in chemistry during that last week in Chernovitz).

It was a Sunday night, it was raining, not hard but steadily. My mother who continued to work for Lisochka till the very end, prepared the food, a three day supply in one of those colorfully woven peasant bags, that one can hang over the shoulder. Since I was to meet our contact, I asked my mother to carry the bag for the time being. When we approached the point of rendezvous, we parted company, each of us going to our pre-arranged waiting spots. I stood there on the street corner at the very end of the city, not a living soul in sight, leaning against a telephone post. It was quite dark and the constant rain made visibility even poorer. I felt lonely, forsaken and fearful. The longer I stood there waiting, the more pessimistic I grew about the success of our mission. I went over in my mind all the precautions we took.

The first thing I did when I arrived to Chernovitz was to destroy my membership card in the Konsomol. It was safer to be less involved, less visible. I never visited Zastavna, which was very easy to do, since it was only twenty five km. away. There would surely be some people who might recognize me, who might ask: "how did you get out of Siberia?" It was very tempting to see the places of my childhood, filled with pleasant memories, but I overcame this temptation. I made sure that we did not talk to anybody about our plans, except the Galanters, who were involved right from the beginning. I was tempted, so tempted to share my thoughts, my hopes and my fears with Clara. The situation now was very different from the time when I shared my secrets with Dickie before leaving Bakchar for Tomsk. It was much more serious, much more dangerous. I knew that even if we were successful in our attempt to escape, the police would come around to question all the people with whom we were in contact, especially Clara, a cousin. It was much safer for her, not just for me, to be unaware of my plans. We did not say good-bye to anybody, except the Galanters.

Suddenly I saw someone walking towards me, on the opposite side of the street. Yes, it was a woman, it must be my contact, it was high time, I was tired of waiting in the rain. I was very nervous. As the woman came closer and I could make out her features, I almost fainted. My God, it was Clara. What shall I do? I can't possibly greet her happily and invite her for a chat. I turned around with my back to her and hoped for the best; maybe she would not recognize me, maybe she would ignore me if she did recognize me, she would understand that something very important, very serious was happening to me and since I turned away from her, she must leave me alone. She just went on her way in absolute control of herself, completely disregarding my presence.

Some thirty years later we met again, for the first time since this last fateful meeting. Clara managed to get an exit visa together with her father and emigrated Israel, where she lives together with her Israeli husband and two lovely children. (She arrived in Israel a few years prior to our meeting. I came to Israel on a visit from Canada, which was then my home). We were happy to see each other as free citizens, who could talk openly on any subject. I found out that on that rainy night Clara was on her way to visit a good friend, a classmate from her music school, who happened to live right around the corner from where I was standing. She told me that she understood my signal to stay away from me, although she was stunned and even somewhat insulted. She understood what happened when my mother and I disappeared the next day. She was questioned soon enough by the N.K.V.D. and she was able to answer truthfully, that she did not know anything.

My contact appeared shortly thereafter, when I least expected her. She came from behind, very suddenly as though she rose from the ground. After exchanging our pass words, she instructed me as follows: In about half an hour there would be a military truck stopping by right across the street. It was an assembly point for some soldiers going back to their post from leave in Chernovitz. You would ask them to give you and your mother a lift to the village of Strojenetz, which was right at the edge of the border zone, that was where they are going. They will be in a good mood, at the end of a leave they are usually somewhat drunk, so they won't pay much attention to you. If they ask you who you are and where you are going, tell them that you are going for a visit to your aunt Oksana Petrova who lives on Voroshilov Street in Strojenetz. I am sure that will be all. It is the safest way for you to travel. When you arrive in the village, go directly to the Church. You can't miss it, it is in the centre of the village. Behind the Church there is a wooden shack. Walk in, there should be other people there, with the same purpose as yours, use the password: "Carpatian mountains", they will accept you. Wait there for the guide, he should be there after midnight. Do not leave the shack under any circumstances, and be very quiet inside. Now remember this well: you never saw me, you don't know me, is that clear? It was very clear. She disappeared into the darkness just as mysteriously as she had appeared.

I quickly proceeded to pick up my mother, who was already frantic with worry from her long waiting time, some two blocks away. We then walked to the military truck and on the way I instructed my mother about the visit to our "aunt" in Strojenetz. The truck arrived on time, the soldiers boarded it in the gayest of moods. They gave us permission to join them. They were telling jokes, singing very loudly and completely disregarded our presence. The entire trip lasted about forty minutes, about thirty km. out of town. I followed the woman's instructions and within ten minutes we were safely stationed inside the shack. It was now close to midnight and we were anxiously awaiting our guide to freedom.

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