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Chapter 17

Bucharest managed to retain some of its pre-war glitter, as long as King Mihai managed to hold on to his throne. The city was abuzz with rumours that our Soviet masters would force the King to abdicate any time now; it was inconceivable for the Communists to do otherwise. In the meantime, my father was able to procure documents for my mother and myself; the old bureaucracy was still cooperative when they saw a few dollars. Since the new documents did not carry the name Scharf, my father solved that discrepancy by having a civil marriage with my mother, so that the name Scharf became our common family name (for the second time).

We lived in an old, run down Jewish district, the only place my father could prepare in advance of our arrival. There was a small round courtyard with three separate entrances into three small apartments. Our apartment consisted of two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. A young woman with an eight year old daughter and an old mother occupied one bedroom, where the mother and the daughter slept, the old lady slept in the living room. The living room was also home to a young man by the name of Nori, who was a cousin of Mitzi's husband, Beno Teitler. The other bedroom, with a banana shaped wall (we called it the pregnant wall), had two beds and a commode, and it was our dwelling place. The kitchen was used by all three parties. The outdoor toilets were used by the three apartments of our courtyard.

One of our next door neighbours was a Jewish family from Bessarabia, Mr. & Mrs. Rotenberg and their two daughters. The older one, Anna, was my age and it was only natural that we became friends since we both spoke Russian better than Romanian and also because we both joined the same Zionist youth group, called Dror Habonim. The Zionist movement was still fairly active, many Jews went on Aliyah (emigrated to Israel). By now the State of Israel was already proclaimed and the War of Independence was in full rage. The Zionist leadership had established a special agricultural school, about one hour's drive from Bucharest, for the preparation of Jewish youth who wanted to go to Israel to work the land and defend it. Since my Romanian language was not fluent, and I did not have as yet any documents to establish my scholastic standing, and since my family and I wanted to emigrate to Israel, it was therefore the best course open to me. I applied and was accepted into the agricultural school and I was due to start my course, which normally lasts half a year, in about a month.

My father decided to use that time by taking me to a Rabbi and requesting that he instruct me in my religious duties as a Jew so that I should be able to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah. It was a short, intensive course, by the end of which I was ready to do my obligations as a Bar Mitzvah boy. It was a simple affair, on a Thursday morning, with my parents and the Teitlers present, as well as the usual members of the congregation. Even though I was seventeen, I was still happy to be able to say that I had become a full-fledged Jew.

By the time I joined the agricultural school, the authorities had managed to get rid of King Mihai (he was fortunate to move to the West alive), to nationalize the remnants of private enterprise and to exert a greater amount of influence on private schools. The intention was to shut down the school completely, however they did not want to do it abruptly, they wanted, at least formally, to have a good excuse for the school closing. They wanted to maintain good relations with the newly born state of Israel and with their own Jewish community, so they went about the closing in a gradual way. For the first couple of months, the students did not really feel the pressure, but management did because suddenly everything was in short supply. The Zionist organization helped out and we continued our work almost normally. It was a nice school, well organized, and the students came from all the Jewish communities in the country. The school was divided into many departments. (Dairy, sheep, chickens, orchards, etc.) Every student had a choice of department according to his interest. My choice was machinery.

We began the course by studying the theory of different agricultural machines, as well as by practical work. For example, we had to, dismantle the motor of a tractor and put it back together, making sure it became fully operational. There was also plenty of Zionist activity at school: the study of Hebrew, Israeli songs and dancing, lectures about life in Israel and even the training of Kapap, self-defense with a solid stick in your hands. During the third month of my stay in school, the authorities changed their tactics, by trucking in hundreds of young communists who would supposedly demonstrate against the existence of a bourgeois school, full of counter-revolutionary elements. These demonstrations were gradually becoming more physically violent, so that many students were beaten up. The authorities claimed that the school was disturbing the peace of the community and was a hazard to the well-being and safety of the citizens. Our leaders decided that since it was a no-win situation, it was not possible to continue the operation of the school. At the end of a four month stay, the school was finally closed and all the students dispersed to their communities.

There were many things that I enjoyed in the school: my studies, especially the practical aspects, the singing and dancing, the Hebrew language, the friendships, mainly with two Bucharest boys: Dutzu (David) and Dov. Dutzu came from a well-to-do family, he always had some spending money in his pockets, while Dov came from a working class family, where food was not always available. Dov's sister suffered from tuberculosis, a beautiful girl of about fourteen, she spent most of her time at home. The family could not afford to provide her with proper treatment. She died the following year. Dov, who loved his sister very much, blamed the lack of treatment and her consequent death on the previous Romanian regime, and joined the young communist party of Romania. I tried very hard to convince him of the evils of such a political system but I was unsuccessful, and we drifted apart as a result of his strong beliefs, even though we lived in the same neighbourhood. Dutzu who lived far away, in a posh area, became a close friend.

There were also certain aspects of the agricultural school, which I abhorred: the infringement on my freedom and the regimentation of my time within the framework of communal living. One had to conform to the group's behaviour, the indoctrination of the ideology of the Habonim movement. I certainly was not a candidate to become a member of a kibbutz, something a lot of my schoolmates aspired to. It is quite clear to me now that my unhappiness with the features of communal life was a direct result of my experiences in the Soviet Union. I felt my anger soar when there was the slightest denial of my individual freedom. My counselor would say to me: "you must attend the Habonim meeting." "Am I not free to choose not to attend?" I would ask. "Oh yes." he would respond, "but everybody is going, you don't want to be left out." "Yes, I do," I argued, "because I have something else to do." And so it happened time and again with different situations. What did I retain from those four months? I improved my knowledge of Romanian substantially. I acquired a useful knowledge of the mechanical works of vehicles with internal combustion; I regained my elementary knowledge of Hebrew and gained some understanding of the life of pioneers in Israel.

When I returned to Bucharest, my father was hard at work fabricating a document stating I had completed Junior high school: this would enable me to continue my education. And so it was that I enrolled into a trade school (a polytechnic, as it was called). Upon completion of the three year course, I would graduate as a certified draftsman.

The first few months in the school were very hard. I did not have the proper background, especially Romanian literature and history. I was also getting tired of switching languages and cultural environments so often, but I persevered, because the alternative was going to work in a plant. As students in this school, we had to work in a plant from time to time to gain practical experience, and I saw the kind of miserable existence such jobs offered to the young people in the new Romanian Socialist society.

Since the family had been reunited, I really did not have much time to spend with my father, but now that we were together again, I tried to help out whenever I had a chance. I would deliver the watches to customers, or the goods to the goldsmith, a tricky job for which my father had to train me carefully, so as not to arouse suspicion. My favourite outing with my father was our weekly visit to the Turkish bath, where we spent a long time in the pool in the steam room, in the shower room and sometimes in the massage room, where one had to pay extra. I used to walk out of there feeling lighter by several kilos, refreshed. invigorated and ready to tackle the coming week.

I spent my free time spent with Dutzu and his friends, going to the theatre or opera (which was relatively inexpensive), going for walks in the beautiful parks of Bucharest, or playing games. I also continued my friendship with Anna and sometimes we attended some Zionist meetings clandestinely. Our long range goal was of course, to make Aliyah which would insure our final escape from behind the Iron Curtain, the ultimate step to achieve our family's freedom.

We made an application for a visa to travel to Israel immediately following my parents' "marriage." We had to wait patiently for a reply which took about a year. Meanwhile I continued with my studies, while my father continued with his business. I really hated our way of life, mainly because of my father's illegal activities. I realized that it was the only way to make money to buy the necessary documents (for our stay in Bucharest and for my studies), to pay for our daily needs, to acquire a few possessions that we may take with us to Israel, even to protect ourselves in case of some disaster. Just the same I hated it. I had to watch my surroundings to check whether I was followed; I had to control every word I spoke; I had to live in fear of being caught with the merchandise, of being arrested and of losing my freedom forever; of being denounced by someone who disliked me or my family; of being exiled to Russia, of destroying everything we gained till now after a torturous eight years long struggle. So there was a lot of joy and celebration when we finally received our long awaited visas to go to Israel, in 1949.

There was a special ship, called the "Transilvania" assigned by the Romanian government to transport the Jews from the Romanian port of Constanza on the Black sea to the port of Haifa in Israel, about a three day trip. The first step was to take the train from Bucharest to Constanza with our luggage, which consisted of a wooden crate filled with bedding and several valises containing all our clothing and various household articles. We then transferred our belongings into the port waiting area, to be processed by the port authorities. We were sitting on top of our luggage waiting our turn. Hundreds of people in the area waiting patiently, just like us. Finally an official came into the waiting area and announced that he would read the names of the travelers from his list. Every person whose name was called must come forward and deposit his passport with the official. As soon as I heard our name I complied with the official's instructions. Now we were all sitting there nervously waiting for the official to come back with the documents, informing us they were in order and that we could proceed with our luggage to the loading ramp. About an hour later, the official reappeared and called out the names of most people, returning their passports.

Our passports were not returned. We were told to wait, we would soon receive our documents. When the official went back to his office, I looked at my parents and saw on their faces the concern and fear that gripped them. I knew that we were not free and safe until we were actually standing on Israeli soil. We heard stories about people who were removed from the ship or even about people who were returned from Haifa. They were never allowed to disembark.

Within a matter of seconds after the official left and without any discussion among my parents and myself, we got up and walked at a normal pace, directly to the gates. We looked like visitors who just said good-bye to their departing relatives. We went straight to the railway station and boarded the first available train to Bucharest. We decided not to go back to the old apartment, where the police may be waiting for us, but to proceed to my father's best friend Godel, who was a very resourceful man. Godel managed to rent a temporary room the same day, and the three of us moved in. We had a long discussion as to what plan of action would be best to take and we came to the following conclusion: I) I was to go back to the old apartment, late at night, carefully watching if I was followed (if I was followed, then lose my tail and come back). My job, which I fulfilled successfully, was to get in touch with the neighbours and to find out, if possible, what was going on. 2) We would spend the night in our newly rented room and continue to stay indoors for as long a time as possible, so that if the police were searching for us, they should not find us. Godel, with whom my father had deposited a substantial amount of cash, and who was supposed to have transferred the money to Israel, would now keep it safe for us, and would take care of our immediate needs. 3) After I completed my investigation, we were to meet again to discuss the next step.

The following night, around 11 P.M. I walked very carefully towards my old apartment. I really took all possible precautions to avoid being seen. When I arrived at my destination I spent quite a bit of time observing the house, the courtyard and the surroundings for anything suspicious. Satisfied that the area was safe, I still did not go into the courtyard or to the front door, instead I went straight for Anna's window and knocked on the pane. It took quite a while for Anna to peek out from behind the curtain which she lowered immediately, because she thought that she was imagining things (she knew about my departure for Israel some three days ago). I had to knock again and call her name. When she finally convinced herself that it was really me, she opened the window a bit and asked me what I was doing there. "Could you please come out for a little walk with me," I pleaded, "I must talk to you. I'll be waiting right across the street."

When she joined me, I told her that the authorities took away our passports, that was why we were still there, and that I wanted to know if the police were questioning the neighbours about us. From my conversation with Anna I found out some of the questions asked by the police, and it became quite obvious that they suspected us of being illegal citizens of Romania in possession of false documents. Some of the questions asked were: Where did we come from? What was our previous name? Did we speak Russian? Who were our relatives? Most of the answers they got were: "I do not know," which was just as well for us. Eventually we found out from Godel that one of their business associates was arrested and accused of possessing contraband. The police promised to go easy on him if he would point the finger at others, and he chose my father because he was sure that we were already safe in Israel.

The day after I brought home the information from Anna, we had another meeting, planning our next step. After weighing many options, we decided the following: It would be safer for the three of us to separate, so that each of us would not know where the other two were, except for my father. He would know where my mother and I would be located. Godel made arrangements to send my mother to a small town where an old aunt of his lived. I wanted to stay in Bucharest and I told my father that my best chance is for me to make arrangements with a friend of mine, who also spent a few years in Siberia and whom I therefore trusted.

Beni Gelb and his parents were not exiles in Siberia, they simply fled from Chemovitz when the war broke out in 1941. They happened to be Romanian citizens who had come to Chernovitz some years before the Soviet annexation of Bucovina. In 1947, based on the law of repatriation from the Soviet Union into satellite countries, they applied for permission to return to Romania. They settled in Bucharest in their own little house which, by some extraordinary miraculous events, they managed to reclaim upon their arrival. I met Beni in Tomsk in 1946 during some school activity and because of his name I suspected that he might be of European origin (it was obvious that he was Jewish), so I approached him and we learned in time more about each other. They were, at the time, actively involved with the request for repatriation, about which he talked openly. Soon thereafter they received their documents and were gone, so it was really a brief and not very close friendship.

I met Beni in Bucharest in one of the clandestine Zionist meetings (another reason for trusting him). Although we met on occasion and tallied about the past and the present, we were simply not close friends. In our last encounter, shortly before our departure for Constanza, Beni told me that his parents were being sent to some provincial town by the state company for which his father was working. Mr. Gelb, a civil engineer, was in charge of building a bridge, and poor Beni, who was the only child, had to stay in Bucharest alone, in this house, for several months in order not to interrupt his studies. So it seemed to me like the ideal opportunity for a hiding place. I had to slip out of our present hiding place, telling my father that if I was successful in acquiring a hiding place, I would not return. Fortunately, Beni was very willing and I promptly moved in. We decided that for at least three months my mother and I would stay indoors. For me that meant that I must have a contact, somebody who would supply me with food and news about what was happening. We chose Beno Teitler, Mitzi's husband. He accepted the job of coming to see me every second day at midnight with the necessary provisions. We would talk briefly and exchange goods through the basement window in complete darkness. I would give him items which needed laundering and he would bring them back clean, as well as food, books to read and news. I stayed in the basement in order not to arouse suspicion among the neighbours who knew that the house was empty during most of the day and contained only one person for the rest of the time.

My father, who remained in the rented room in Bucharest, stayed indoors for at least one month, so as to enable him to change his appearance by growing a beard and a mustache, and longer hair. He would also change his clothing and wear glasses. I too began to grow a mustache. Within a matter of three days our lives had completely changed from great hope to immeasurable distress. I could almost taste the sweetness of freedom and now I had to accept the harshest denial of liberty. There was, however, a great deal of determination not to give in to despair, and not to give up the struggle. In my father's words: someday the sun will also shine in our window….

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