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Chapter 16

The shack was filled with people. It seems that my mother and I were the last arrivals. There were fifteen people all together, a relatively large number. We were told that previous groups numbered an average of ten, but since the smuggling operations were coming to an end, they decided to increase the number. It was a mixed group of people. I was surprised to see an eight year old girl with her ten year old brother and their parents, and a couple who were at least sixty years old. I was concerned that these six people might run into difficulties during a three day hike through the Carpathian mountains. Besides the two children, at seventeen I was the youngest member of the group. The other members were all in their twenties and thirties. We had to learn right from the start to observe the discipline of silence, to obey orders strictly. So we all sat on the floor, on the straw which was plentiful and waited patiently, in silence, for the guide to appear. He came about two hours later, around two A.M. The door opened up and there he was, we did not hear him approach the shack.

He introduced himself as Ion. "We cannot start tonight," he said, "get as much rest as possible, you will need it. You must obey strictly all the instructions. Keep silent, even here in the shack, but especially on our trip. Keep up with the pace of walking, I cannot help anybody during our march, you must help each other. When I move my hand downward, you must all lie down immediately, wherever you are, in the mud, in the water, on stones, no matter where. I have a partner who will not be walking with us most of the time. He is our scout, he walks ahead to check out the area and he lets me know whether to proceed or wait. In case of trouble we cannot protect you. My partner and I will do our best to protect ourselves. You will be on your own. The most important part of our trip will take place tomorrow night. We must cover the twenty kilometers till the border and cross the Soviet border line in the early morning hours. You have some drinking water here in the corner and a bucket for your needs. I'll see you around 11 P.M. Good night."

We did spend the time sleeping and resting, although I don't think that many of us were tired. I saw right from the beginning that the children were well behaved and obeyed their parents to the letter. The guide was obviously knowledgeable about his business and experienced with many trips behind him. He came the following night in time and told us that the rain had not stopped for the second day. "We must walk through some plowed fields, which will be difficult, but it has some advantages too. The patrols are not very eager to stay out in the rain for very long, it is also more difficult for the tracking dogs. Let's go."

For the next three hours we walked at a very quick pace through plowed fields, our feet sinking in the mud. It took a lot of effort to take the next step forward. It did not take long for the muddy water to penetrate into our shoes. The rain eventually penetrated our clothing which became soaking wet. From time to time the guide would signal to lie down and despite the mud in the fields, we were all glad to interrupt the difficult walk and take a short rest. We stuck together in the dark, otherwise it would be easy to get lost. The only sound one could hear was the heavy breathing of the members of the group. Some three hours later, we mercifully stepped onto firm ground. Our pace picked up, the walking was easier, we were walking at the foothills of the mountains. We still had to cover some two, three hours before we reached the border line. We entered a forested area and we would hear the running water of some mountain creeks. The path we followed was now moving up and down some hills, so the walking became more difficult again.

Suddenly we heard dogs barking, immediately followed by shots. The guide signaled to start running. We entered the freezing water of a creek and ran as fast as possible. The bottom of the creek was covered with pebbles and one had to be careful to avoid accidents. In a situation like this only your feet can save your life. The shots were sporadic and they were not directed towards us. Soon the barking stopped and the shooting as well. We continued to walk in the water for about half an hour. Our feet were numb from the cold. As soon as we got out of the water, we continued to walk on firm ground. The rain never stopped, but now we were walking in a forest. We felt warmer and the rain was not so bothersome. I looked around and saw that no one was missing. We were now climbing a steep hill. It was about 5 A.M. The rain had stopped, but there was a thick fog enveloping the mountain. The guide signaled to stop. He motioned for us to stand around him. He pointed to the top of the mountain, which was invisible, then indicated with his hands a shooting rifle. We understood that up there, at the very top, there was a border post, manned by soldiers who would not hesitate to shoot us if they could see us. We were fortunate to be assisted by the fog. The guide indicated with his foot not to step on fallen branches or on loose stones. Then he clamped his lips together, the order of absolute silence. Finally he motioned to follow him.

We walked slowly and carefully, observing closely the guide's instructions. The path was taking us around the mountain. Some two hours later we arrived into a narrow valley, bordered on both sides by tall mountains. The two guides were now walking together, relaxed, talking to each other, as though they were out for a stroll. The sun was rising, the fog slowly retreated, the birds were singing and there was another stream of water flowing into the valley. The water was so clear that I could see the pebbles on the bottom. We reached a small clearing near the stream, covered with a carpet of colourful flowers. The air was clean and sweet, and very invigorating, even though we were quite exhausted and wet from top to bottom. The guides stopped. Ion came over to the middle of the group and said in a clear voice: "We shall rest here, this is no man's land, no one ever comes here. Go and take care of your toilet needs, but do not go far. We shall build a fire so that you can dry your clothes and warm up a bit. It looks like a nice sunny day. Have some food and a good rest, because tonight we shall continue to walk and before dawn we shall cross the Romanian boarder. Relax, the worst is over."

Since we all wore two pairs of clothing, we removed one pair at a time and spread them out to dry in the sun and by the fire. Our feet were very sore, with blisters. We washed them in the water and tended to our wounds as best we could. I was lucky, I had no open wounds; my mother took the ordeal in stride, she had to go on forced marches that were many times harder. By evening the entire group was ready to march again.

The weather had changed very swiftly. Clouds moved in and it began to rain again, much harder than before, a real downpour. By the time we started walking again, we were drenched by the rain. There was no time to think about one's misery, we had to keep up with the pace and it was a torturous one. Most of the time we had to climb up a steep mountain, there was no beaten path and our hands were scraped and bleeding from holding on to sharp rocks or to prickly branches. Some people fell, scraped their knees and elbows, but nobody gave up. The parents looked after the children and the young people helped the older couple. I looked after my mother. I held her by the hand and would not let go when she slipped on the wet rocks. It was slow going and it took many hours to reach the top of the mountain. The guide wanted to cross the Romanian border between four and five A.M. He claimed that at that hour the guards are usually asleep. In general, this stretch of the trip was not as dangerous as the one controlled by the Russians. However, if we were caught on the border or inside the border zone, we would be turned over to the Russians, with dire consequences.

We reached our destination at about three A.M. and the guide told us to rest where we stopped. We were to look after our toilet needs as well. Since we were all wet and it was constantly raining, it was not much of a rest. By about four A.M. the rain subsided and Ion sent his partner to reconnoiter the area. He was back within twenty minutes informing us that the border guards were sleeping. Ion signaled to move on. It was much easier to walk now, the path was mostly level and within an hour we were on the Romanian side of the border, inside the border zone. It was now already light and raining lightly, but constantly. From our vantage point we could see in the distance a mighty river roaring and rushing down into the valley. The noise of that stormy flow of water was so strong that we could hear it even though we were a few kilometers away. Ion sent his partner down into the valley to make preparations for the crossing of the river. It was prearranged with the Romanian guards on the bridge that we should be transported in a closed truck all the way into the small town of Radautz. The guards would be well rewarded for their services. However, because of the constant rains in the last few days, as well as the unusually warm weather at the end of March and the beginning of April, causing the snow on the mountains to melt very quickly, the river below, which was usually tame and quiet, turned into a giant roaring monster, flowing over the bridge and threatening the safety of travelers. When Ion's partner returned to us we were informed of this development. He also said that in a few days the bridge would be usable again.

Of course, there was no guarantee that nature would cooperate, on the other hand we had no choice but to wait. We camped on the mountain, among the trees, seeking their protection, but were miserably wet and uncomfortable. There was also the concern of getting sick. We had to stay low and quiet, because right below us there were mountain pastures and the Romanian shepherds were busy tending their sheep, so we had to remain invisible.

For reasons of safety, Ion told us that he and his partner were going down into the village where they had good friends who would provide us with some food and every night at midnight they would come to visit us and bring along food. They came the first night and every night thereafter, five times in all, and they brought with them a large amount of mamaliga, a cooked corn cereal; when cooled off it remained solid and could be easily broken or sliced. They also brought us some brinza a salty cheese made of sheep's milk, a bottle of Zuika, a strong alcoholic drink to keep the chill out, as they said. And it did. They were concerned with their investment and wanted to be sure that they can deliver the goods and collect the other half of the money, so they also brought, the first night, some blankets, thick and warm. Even though they became wet fairly soon, they still offered a good measure of protection. Since we were now stationary with a very limited amount of movement, it was essential to have some protection from the cold, especially during the night. We were very fortunate that during these five days that we spent on the mountain the sun was often shining, drying our clothes, at least partially. As the rain did not stop altogether, especially at night, we were usually more miserable during the night than during the day. Most of the sleeping took place during the day, when it was dry and warm.

There were several close calls during the day, when the shepherds walked up the mountain chasing some stray sheep very close to our location. We would all lie flat on the ground, hiding behind the trees, motionless until the danger passed. Every night, besides our food, Ion would also bring us the latest information about the bridge. "The waters are receding, maybe tomorrow we will go," that was his standard answer to our queries.

It finally happened on the eighth day after we left Chernovitz. Ion came back to us before dawn and told us to follow him. We descended the mountain very quickly and within less than an hour we were standing on the road leading to the bridge. The truck was waiting there with Ion's partner behind the wheel. We climbed up into the back of the truck and they quickly covered us up with a heavy tarpaulin. I could not see anything during this trip, I only felt the truck stop by the bridge for a few minutes, some words were exchanged between the two parties and the truck continued on its way. We all let out a sigh of relief.

In less than an hour the truck stopped again, the tarpaulin was removed and Ion ordered us out of the truck very quickly. We ran up the stairs to a house and entered it. The owner, a member of the smuggling network ordered us to climb a ladder leading to an attic. Soon the ladder was removed and the trapdoor shut from below. I looked through a small window and saw nothing. The house seems to be located just outside of the town and the place was completely deserted. As I found out later, the smugglers decided to do a little more bargaining. They claimed that the extra days that we had to wait for the waters to recede, cost them extra money in food and in equipment (the truck had to be rented twice, blankets had to be provided, even though we returned the blankets to them). They held all the cards.

My father had to get hold of some extra money (this time Romanian) and since it all happened in Radautz where my aunt Yetti (my mother's sister) lived with her farnily, he managed to do so very fast. The smugglers would release us only one family at time, only when it became completely dark. We, the fifteen people spent the day in the attic without being told anything with a bit of leftover food from our midnight delivery, very nervous, anxiously speculating as to what happened. When it became completely dark outside we finally heard the ladder go up and the trapdoor open. The landlord beckoned to my mother and I to come down, he told the rest of the people not to worry, they would be released gradually in the course of the night. I climbed down the ladder with trembling hands and feet, my heart beating very fast. I had a lot of time during that last day of captivity to imagine my first meeting with my father since I last saw him. In 1940, when he was arrested, I was only nine years old. Now, eight years later, I was seventeen.

I was certainly not the same person. Would we recognize each other? What would I do first? How would I address him, with the familiar "thou" or the polite "you"? I was very confused, by the time I stepped outside and saw a man in the dark, throwing his arms around us and giving us a hasty kiss. "Come quickly," he said in Yiddish, "we must hurry." We followed my father through the dark streets of Radautz, without talking to each other, only our emotions were overwhelming. I certainly did not picture my first meeting with my father to be completely silent. I was so confused that I hardly noticed my surroundings or how long it took us to reach our destination.

When we entered aunt Yetti's house, which was lit up with electrical lights, I finally saw my father's face for the first time since we arrived in Radautz. He looked different, but I could still tell that it was my father. He looked me over with a surprised expression on his face, as though he was astonished to see a seventeen- year old young man. He embraced us again and held on for a very long time. We all had tears in our eyes. "You are finally here," he said, "I lived and hoped for this moment for many years. I never gave up hope that someday we would be reunited. Now, first you have to undress, so we can clean and dry your clothes, then you can wash-up and have a good meal that aunt Yetti prepared. In about two hours we will take the train for Bucharest, it is too dangerous to stay here. It is a small town and everybody knows everybody else, there will be too many questions."

Meanwhile, we embraced our relatives, whom I hardly knew, since I visited them at least ten years ago. My mother and aunt Yetti had a good cry together. My father was hurrying us up to get our clothes in order so that we should not look suspicious on the train. Aunt Yetti fixed up my mother with something of her own and offered me some of her sons’ clothes. We finally sat down at the table for our first family meal in eight years and our first decent meal in eight days. Although it was the beginning of the week, it was a real Shabbat meal. My father, anxious that we not miss the train, insisted that we leave right away. We said our good-byes to our relatives. It was a very hurried visit under unusual conditions. I did not have the opportunity to see them again until twenty five years later, on my visit to Israel.

The train trip to Bucharest was uneventful. Almost all the passengers tried to sleep through the night and so did we. It was difficult to sleep, because the cars were crowded and the train had many stops and starts, with many passengers moving in and out. When we arrived in Bucharest in the morning, we took the tram to my father's apartment and I went straight to bed. I woke up late the next morning, realizing later that I slept some 25 hours non-stop. This was the most important step, so far, in our struggle for a free, united family, but the battle was by no means over, not until we would be able to escape from behind the Iron Curtain completely.

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