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Chapter 18

The plan of action which we decided to follow was to erase every trace of the identity of the Scharf family. We must now assume a new identity with a new name. We chose the name Halpem because it was the family name of my grandmother, my father's mother, whom my father loved dearly. Unfortunately, she died at the untimely age of twenty-eight, in childbirth, and my father was deeply affected by this tragic loss. My grandfather remarried fairly soon, as was the accepted custom in those days. My father's wounds were deepened because he had difficulties getting along with his step-mother. This became an important factor in his decision to strike out on his own at a relatively young age of thirteen. The Bar Mitzvah boy took his obligations as a full-fledged member of society literally.

New documents had to be purchased. My mother's maiden name was changed to Linder (instead of Surkis). My parents ages were increased by ten years. Their birthdays were changed to 1897, so they were officially fifty two years old, which meant that they are less useful to the state and better candidates to be allowed to leave. I was made two years younger, sixteen instead of eighteen years old, so that I did not require a separate passport. As a minor I could travel on my parents' passport. All this was accomplished by my father in the second month of our hiding, following which he made a new application for a passport and an exit visa to Israel. My poor mother lived almost in complete isolation in the remote little town and the only communication with my father was by an occasional letter which simply stated that we were alive and well. Only on one occasion did Godel undertake to visit my mother, when it was necessary to obtain her photograph for the new documents. I still have that picture where my mother's hairdo and facial expression really makes her look ten years older. On the other hand, she had the advantage of living in a safe place. Of course, it was my father who was exposed to danger more than anybody else.

My existence in the cellar felt very much like a prison. I had to be very careful not to show any outward signs of life so as not to endanger the Gelb family (the parents were not even aware of our arrangement). Beni hardly ever came to visit me, he lived upstairs, ignoring my presence completely as per our prior agreement. Beno Teitler was my lifeline. At the end of my second month of hiding I developed some gum disease that caused a swelling in my mouth and the loosening of my teeth. It became apparent that unless I received some treatment I would lose all my teeth, or worse. Beno decided that I must see a doctor. He made the necessary arrangements and I was forced to leave my place of confinement to get treatment. It was Beno who went with me, it was he who made sure that the treatment was effective, by checking my teeth during every visit. The worst part of my confinement was the terrible loneliness, so that the midnight visits of Beno Teitler were the most important event taking place every forty-eight hours. Sometimes, especially in the third month, Beni would come down into the cellar to talk, to play chess or cards. These visits were like holidays, for me.

At the end of three months Beni received word from his parents that his father finished his job and they were coming home next week. I was now forced to look for another place and I felt that my best chance was to get in touch with my friend Dutzu. Dutzu's solution to my problem was very simple. He suggested that I move in with his grandfather, who lived alone in a one room apartment, which was a combination living room, bedroom, kitchen. The explanation given to his grandfather was that I was a student in need of a temporary two month accommodation. He was told that I would be coming home to sleep and would be out of the room for most of the day. So, in the fourth month of my underground life, I moved in with Dutzu's grandfather. He was an old man, in his mid-eighties. An observant Jew, but not very orthodox. He was very hard of hearing and it was necessary to shout in order to be heard. He had a pair of earphones attached to a radio, which he enjoyed listening to all the time, even when he recited his morning prayers with the phylacteries on his forehead and arm. I used to wonder where his thoughts were directed: to the essence of the prayer or to the morning radio program... The room contained one bed and a fairly comfortable sofa, which became my bed for the next two months.

My life changed drastically. I now spent more time outdoors than indoors. I grew a nice mustache and I wore a pair of very lightly tinted glasses. I was now much more in touch with my father, especially in the evenings, and he brought me up to date on the progress of our application to emigrate to Israel. We were now in the month of November, in another month or so, we would be on the threshold of a new year, 1950, and we had no sign, no indication of our chances. The only answer we got was: "It is under consideration." My father decided to employ the traditional method, so common in Romania. He would say in Yiddish: "If you grease - you travel." The saying referred to the greasing of the axles of the wagon. So he set out in search of a good connection, willing to be bribed, in order to expedite matters.

My father's associates pointed out a certain Mr. Heller, a lawyer with the right connections. The lawyer accepted a substantial amount of money, promising to act promptly on behalf of the Halpem family. For several months my father was in touch with Mr. Heller, pleading and urging him. We even went so far as to tell him that we were in real danger living in Romania and any delay in our departure could cost us the permanent loss of our freedom. Till this day I am not certain of the truth. Did Mr. Heller simply pocket the money, which my father earned with such great difficulty, exploiting our predicament and betraying our trust, or did he really try to intercede on our behalf and failed? I tend to believe that it was a combination of the two. He tried to act but failed and so he kept some of the money for himself, probably the larger portion of it.

Mr. Heller eventually emigrated to Israel. My father did some business with him there as well. When we came to Canada Mr. Helter was already there (he left Israel before us). I had to collect some money from him, which my father transferred from Israel to Canada with Mr. Heller (for a considerable fee, of course). I had to make many trips to his apartment in the course of half a year until I finally collected what was truly mine. Eventually Mr. Heller became an insurance agent, and my father used his services in that capacity for many years. In 1973, when I joined my father in business to administer the operation of a large enterprise called Matador, I finally put my foot down and insisted on another agent. I simply could not face the man any more, even though I was not one hundred percent sure of his betrayal. My father's philosophy in this matter was typical of his attitude to life: "I would rather have a friend than an enemy." A last footnote to Mr. Heller. When my children began attending the Talmud Torah Hebrew Day School, which was located in the building of the Shaare Zedek Synagogue, my wife and I decided that it would be appropriate and convenient for us to become members of this congregation. The first thing I noticed, when I began attending synagogue services on various holidays, was the presence of Mr. Helter, sitting in the second front row.

Dutzu was in touch with me almost on a daily basis. He tried very hard to entertain me, by visiting me at his grandfather's place and playing cards and chess, by going out with me for long walks and by inviting me to various performances. Our first outing was to the circus. It was a beautiful evening and it felt great to walk freely in the main streets of Bucharest. Dutzu would make fun of my appearance, of my mustache and of my glasses, sometimes too loudly for my comfort. After I attended the circus perforrnance, I became more daring and began to attend other performances as well: the theatre, the opera, always in the company of Dutzu. During the day I spent a great deal of time in the public library. I also began to help my father more often, although he was not eager to employ my services. Five months after our escape from Constanza, I moved into my father's apartment, one month later we were joined by my mother. We were all very happy to be reunited, especially my mother, who did not see us for half a year.

It was now the beginning of 1950 and I managed to join a group of young people who engaged in the study of Hebrew. We had a good teacher and a motivated group of students, so that we progressed very nicely in our studies. It was a blessing to be doing something useful and something that I liked.

We continued to live in semi-seclusion, so as not to attract unnecessary attention. By the end of April 1950, we received a summons from the Ministry of the Interior to appear at an appointed time and place for an interview. This was the usual procedure for those whose exit visas were approved. One never knew for certain, whether this would be the real reason, or G-d forbid, it was a trap. My father had no choice, he had to take the chance and keep the appointment. My mother and I were sitting in our one-room apartment for many hours waiting for my father's return. The tension of this long wait was absolutely unbearable. When we finally saw my father return home, it was clear from his smiling face that all was well. We received the approval for our visas. I could hardly believe it. I knew that it was too early to rejoice. We would only be sure when we were actually standing on Israeli soil.

In the course of the next week we completed all the formalities, received the passport with the exit visas, packed our belongings (there was not very much to pack, so we bought some bedding, clothes and utensils, (so as to have as normal an appearance as possible). We followed the same routine as we did about a year ago: we took the train to Constanza, went to the port, and handed in our passport for inspection. Our passport was returned to us and we were told to take our baggage for inspection before embarking the ship. During this procedure there was much tension and many sighs of relief. When we were allocated our beds on the "Transilvania" I felt that the worst part of the trip was over, even though the ship was still firmly moored to the pier. Some hours later, when the ship finally sailed on its way to the promised land, I was standing on the deck, as most of the other passengers were and looking towards the receding harbour, when I noticed a small, fast, motorboat approaching the "Transilvania" at top speed, in a straight line. The motorboat aligned itself parallel to the "Transilvania"; and a basket attached to a rope was lowered into the boat. The basked was filled with some material and raised back onto the ship. Not until the boat departed and the ship finally glided out of the harbour, did I dare to feel safe again.

It was a very pleasant trip. The weather was nice and the sea was cairn. It did not take long to traverse the Black Sea from Constanza to the Bosphorus. We could see both shores, we could see the city of Istanbul, and the traffic within the city. Then we passed through the Dardanelles and into the Aegean Sea, where we could see land almost all the time, since there were many islands around. Only when we finally arrived into the Mediterranean Sea were we surrounded by open water all the time.

At the end of a four day trip, the ship finally docked in Haifa harbour. Half an hour later, the passengers began to disembark. It is impossible for me to describe in detail the mounting tension that we felt as we approached the land of Israel. The tension was a mixture of fear that we might be turned back at the last moment (as it happened to some passengers) and the excitement of being so close to our goal, to achieve freedom, within a united family in the Jewish State of Israel, after a ten year struggle.

When the Russians annexed northern Bucovina to the Soviet Union in 1940 no one in his wildest dreams could have imagined the torturous road that my parents and would be forced to travel in order to reach the shores of Israel in 1950. We were free at last, but strangely enough, there was no instantaneous-release of tension, neither was there an immediate awareness of our new and wonderful situation. We lived under oppressive conditions for such a long time that it was impossible to completely shake off the old feelings of fear, of being unable to communicate openly, of avoiding any person in uniform, of mistrusting what we were told, and more. It would take a long time to assume the attitude of a free person in a free country. It was a gradual process that lasted several years and a certain residue of our behaviour was never lost. The effect of those ten years on the rest of our lives was profound and often painful physically and spiritually. The older I became, the more apparent the negative effect on my health and on my well-being in general.

After our arrival in Israel we were all taken to Atlit, a special camp, located in an old British military camp. There we were under quarantine. We were all sprayed with DDT and kept under medical observation for several weeks. At the same time some processing took place. The people were issued Israeli identity cards, they were instructed in some of the rules and regulations that we must comply with, and we were eventually told where we were going to live in Israel. We requested to be sent to Natanya, since we had some relatives there who were living in Israel since 1935. My father felt that the old timers might have some useful connections. Because of the quarantine, the camp of Atlit was surrounded with barbed wire and the access and exit were controlled by guards. This reasonable arrangement which was for the benefit of all the citizens of the country was very upsetting for me. I just could not accept the fact that I must wait my turn before I would be free to roam the country. I invited my father to come along with me to find an opening in the fence so that we could "escape" and go to Natanya to visit our relatives. It was easy to find a place where the wire was cut. Among the many tens of thousand of people who were processed in this camp there were many who felt like us. Between the seashore and the camp there was a railway station and we headed straight for the next train. (My father managed to exchange some money into lirot in camp.) There were no trains running at that time and it was very easy for the policeman, who happened to be there, to spot two newcomers who are lost. He took us back to camp. He was very gentle and considerate (he was well trained to handle such a situation). As soon as we returned through the main gate, my father recognized among the officials running the camp an old acquaintance from Zastavna, a Mr. Freedman. They had a nice chat about old times and then my father told him about our wish to go to Natanya. Mr. Freedman made the necessary arrangements, and in no time, we boarded the bus to Natanya. Israel is indeed a land of many connections.

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