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Chapter 19

Everything about Israel was exhilarating for me. The simple bus trip from Haifa to Natanya made my spirit soar. For the first time in my life, I felt this was my country. Every house, every green field, every clump of trees, made me feel at home. It was marvelous to hear people talk in Hebrew, raising their voices when they were trying to push into the crowded bus; a young couple whispering to each other in the seat behind me, even though I could not understand most of what was said. During this one and a half hour trip, I fell in love with my Israel, with the joy of freedom, with the people I met and with whom I did not exchange a word, with the sea which was often visible from the window of the bus, with the hot air that I was breathing. I was instantly converted into an idealistic Zionist. This would be my permanent home.

In Natanya, we proceeded to Geva Street, No. 12, the address of the Halpem family. The family consisted of Uncle Josef, who owned and operated a small furniture store, his wife, Aunt Sarah, their son, Asher, who worked as an official at City Hall. Within a few years he became employed by a major bank in Israel and a decade later rose to the position of chief executive of the entire bank. There was also the daughter, Aliza, who worked as a head nurse in a clinic. Her husband, Bubi, owned and operated a small diamond polishing workshop. Aliza and Bubi had a cute four-year old daughter named Varda. There were three buildings on the lot owned by the Halpem family: Two bungalows, one for Uncle Josef Aunt Sarah and Asher, the other for Aliza, Bubi and Varda. In between there was a primitive looking, one-room structure, which.served as the diamond polishing workshop. The houses were surrounded by a nice garden containing many fruit trees, especially of the citrus variety, but also apples, pears, plums and mulberry. There were also beautiful flower beds and vegetable patches. The garden was the pride and joy of Aunt Sarah, as well as an important source of food. Uncle Josef was always short of funds, the furniture store was not very profitable. He used to say that it kept him busy. I was very impressed with all this abundance. We were welcomed warmly into the family, the last time we had seen each other in Zastavna, I was four years old at the time and I did not remember them at all.

Although there were at least three other families in Natanya with whom we were related, it was with the Halpem family that I found my second home. For the first year it was my only home since we lived in a transient immigrant camp. This was another British military camp inherited by the young Jewish state in 1948. It consisted of a number of barracks, a continuous piece of corrugated tin bent into a semi-circle and attached to the surface of a concrete platform. In the summer, the dwelling was filled with immigrants to capacity and became unbearably hot even though the windows and the doors were always open. The overcrowding, the lack of privacy, the people who were of different cultural backgrounds and often could not communicate with each other, the lack of jobs and the subsequent dependence on the state for our existence - all of these factors and more became the cause of many conflicts among the inhabitants of the camp.

Towards the end of the summer we decided to move into a tent, at least we now had some privacy, but soon the winter arrived with its rains, winds and cold temperatures. My father was constantly searching for some business that he could either start or join as a partner. Israel's socialist government was in control of many sectors of the economy. Although most small businesses were privately owned, there were so many restrictions and regulations that it was very difficult to run a private, profitable enterprise. My father's favourite saying at the time was: "One needs to invest a great deal of money in order to make a little money." Since my father had very litte money, he saw no other way but to join his old friends from Bucharest, who also immigrated to Israel, on Lilienbloom Street in Tel Aviv. This was the center of activity in the black market for the exchange of the Israeli lira into foreign funds, mainly the American dollar, and vice versa. However, he was not happy with his occupation, and was constantly searching to join some legitimate business.

His first venture consisted of a partnership with Beno Teitler in a transportation company. They purchased a used truck, and hired Nori, Beno's cousin, who was a tenant in our Bucharest apartment, as the driver. The company failed half a year later and the partnership was dissolved. Beno and his brother-in-law, Meshel, managed to get jobs in the Shekem. The Shekem, a government owned company was operating hundreds of canteens in many towns and in army camps, for the benefit of the soldiers. The goods were sold at very low prices, as soldiers' salaries were quite low. Eventually Shekem became a very large enterprise, selling garments, appliances, furniture, everything that a professional soldier and his family could need. Within a decade, Beno was gradually promoted until he reached the position of director of purchasing for the entire network of Shekem stores.

My father was very independent by nature and he was not even considering a job. In our second year in Israel he joined the diamond business, purchasing and supplying diamonds to hundreds of small diamond cutting and polishing workshops, similar to the one run by Bubi Tabak, Aliza's husband. Although the business did not fail, it also did not grow, and was not sufficient to provide enough to give up the exchange of money. By then we also managed to move out of the immigrant camp. Natanya had incorporated into its municipal territory a small Arab village called Um-Haled. The inhabitants of the village fled during the War of Liberation and their homes were now officially designated as "abandoned property." This government controlled property was now allocated for use by the new immigrants, who were in dire need of housing. It was certainly not an easy feat to acquire such a property and I am sure that my father had to pull a lot of strings to do so. It was a solidly built, two-room house with thick concrete walls (half a meter) and a slanted concrete floor. Even on the hottest days of summer the inside of the house was cool. A large wooden crate attached outside the house served my mother as a kitchen. My parents and I each had our own room, so things were definitely looking up. Water and sewer lines were installed by the municipality. We also had the use of a quarter acre of land, which I decided very enthusiastically to cultivate with a variety of vegetables, potatoes, peanuts and even some banana trees.

I am getting ahead of myself. I have to go back to the immigrant camp and tell you what I did. From the very first day of my arrival I had a clear picture of my plans. I wanted to complete high school, following which I would serve in the army as all young people in Israel were obligated to do. My first meeting with the principal of the local high school was quite discouraging. I wanted to enter grade seven of high school (which was equivalent to the eleventh year of schooling), but I faced several obstacles. My knowledge of Hebrew was not sufficient and I was almost completely ignorant of all Jewish subjects: History, Literature, Geography of Israel, and the Bible. In addition to this, all local students had seven years of studies in the English language. I had none. I remember that the high school program for English in the last two years included the study of one Shakespearean play, one modem play, essays by Huxley, Churchill and Hume; poetry by Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and much more. The principal agreed to test my Hebrew in the fall, before school was to start and then he would decide what could be done.

I decided to concentrate on the study of the Hebrew language. I felt that this was the key to enable me to participate in daily classroom activities. The camp provided the immigrants with daily courses in Hebrew on various levels of knowledge. I decided to take two daily courses: the intermediate and the advanced. Uncle Josef offered to teach me Torah with Rashi commentaries twice a week. A cousin of mine, Josef Menczer, who was also a newcomer trying to be accepted as a high school student, joined me in my studies. Although he was only fifteen years old (four years younger than me), aiming to be accepted into grade five, he was a very bright, diligent and mature young man. Josef and his parents were in Transnistria during the war and had their share of suffering. We spent every free minute of our time together. We found a quiet, shady, secluded spot outside the camp and went to work, promising each other to acquire enough Hebrew within the next three months to be accepted as high school students.

Our method of study was very simple. We got hold of a literature text book and a good dictionary. We read the text, translated every word we did not know and wrote it down into a notebook. In the evenings we studied alone, memorizing all the new words. For the first few weeks we spent more time testing each other whether we remembered correctly the meanings of the new words, than reading the new text. Gradually we began devoting more time to the ideas contained in the text and less time memorizing the meanings of new words. Uncle Josef instilled in me the love for the study of Jewish subjects. Actually I had such a hunger to acquire as much knowledge as possible in Jewish subjects, that eventually I devoted more time to the study of the Bible and Hebrew literature than to the study of Math and Physics which were always my favourite subjects. By the end of three months of a very intensive effort, the principal made his decision, following another interview. He accepted me as a temporary student for half a school year. If by then I exhibited an ability to participate fully in all subjects, including English, then I would become a regular high school student.

My parents provided me with a private tutor for English and I tackled the subject, now that school had started already, with the same intensity that I devoted to Hebrew. There was a substantial difference. I had some background in Hebrew, but none in English and the entire environment was conducive to the study of Hebrew, which was not the case with English. I had a wonderful group of teachers in my two years of high school, very understanding and considerate, very encouraging and devoted. The English teacher organized extra-curricular activities, free of charge, conducted entirely in English. By the end of my two years high school course, I passed my matriculation exams in English with a 60 percent mark. Considering that I went from zero to 60 percent within two years, while the others had nine years, I felt quite satisfied. My marks in the Hebrew subjects were in the 80s while in the sciences, they were in the 90s. During those two high school years there was very little social interaction with the Sabras, the locally born children. There was no encouragement on their part to integrate the newcomers socially. So we kept to ourselves, and I was sorry to see that I really did not have much time, especially during the first school year, for social activities. In addition to my intensive studies, I did quite a bit of work in my garden and I was very successful at it. My bananas were eaten up by my neighbour's goat who managed to penetrate into the garden through the fence.

During the summer of 1951, I managed to get a construction job that lasted about two weeks. My job was to carry liquid concrete in two pails up a ramp unto the second floor and pour it into the forms. After every day's work I arrived home so exhausted that my mother had to remove my boots from my feet because I could not move from the bed. My parents urged me to quit, but I decided to go through with it. This was also an election year and I managed to get a job for about a week. I worked for the Labour party, putting up posters, setting up halls for rallies, distributing leaflets and other such chores. With the money which I earned I bought my very first bicycle, as well as a complete set of the Bible with interpretations. My father added to my earnings and I purchased a Hebrew encyclopedia and many other Hebrew books that were of interest to me. All these books are presently stored in the library in my basement room.

These two years of high school studies were the happiest school years of my life. Right above the desk, where these lines are written, hangs a graduating class picture of the year 1952, the sixth graduating class since the founding of the school named after the great Hebrew poet, S. Tchernichovsky. Avital - an old gentleman, a walking encyclopedia, my Bible teacher, one of my favourite subjects. Marcus - the terror of the class, taught Math and Physics, nobody walked out of his class without learning the subject. Ravid, my class teacher, my counselor - he provided me with a lot of encouragement and guidance, he also taught me a lot of Hebrew literature. Wolmut, my history teacher, funny and fun to be with. Kaplan - Botany, Zoology and Anatomy. The poor man was tortured by his students. Chazan - our beloved English teacher, the best I ever had. She had the thankless task of teaching the language of the oppressors. It was only two-three years since the British gave up their mandate on Palestine and there was still a lot of animosity within the Israeli society towards the English and their language. She managed to beat the odds. By the way, she eventually married Mr. Kaplan. I truly hope that they had a happy life together. There was one more teacher, a young man with whom all the girls fell in love. His subjects were Sociology and Philosophy. I enjoyed his classes very much. Unfortunately he was not present when the picture was taken and I don't remember his name. There were some others whose presence was not so memorable.

During those two school years there was another state institution whose actions yielded some important results - The "Gadna" was a para-military organization, run by the Army, whose aim was to prepare youth, especially those in the last two grades of high school, for the upcoming military service. It was a compulsory activity which took place two-three times a year for a period of three days each, usually during some holiday break, to avoid disturbing our study time. It consisted of various military training, like obstacle courses, drills, map reading, etc. in special camps which maintained military discipline, or long hikes in remote areas with a full pack on our backs, carrying our food, water and sleeping bags. One such excursion took place along the shores of the Dead Sea, during the Passover break, in temperatures that soared up to 50 degrees Celsius. In the early 1950s, it was assumed that people could be trained to drink as little water as possible, and so our water supplies were rationed. In the course of each day some Bedouins, who lived in the Negev, were supposed to have brought us our supply of water, carried on the backs of camels. For some reason this did not happen on the second day, the toughest day of our hike. About half of our group either fainted or collapsed from exhaustion. The medics had their hands full protecting the youths from the merciless sun. The rest of us improvised shady placed by making lean-tos with our sleeping bags. When the sun began to set, we hastily proceeded to the nearest army camp which had the necessary provisions including unlimited amounts of water for drinking and washing. The army took their tasks very seriously and the result was that the training toughened our bodies and prepared our mind for what was coming next year.

There was an additional benefit: the army was a good equalizer. We were all in the same boat and we had to demonstrate our courage and toughness, whether we belonged to the elite Sabras, or to the "unfortunate" newcomers and both groups had successes and failures. In the evenings, when singing, dancing and story telling took place around a bonfire, the social integration was even more pronounced. It was no secret that the army's policy was to achieve such integration as fully and as speedily as possible. In general, Israeli society created miracles in this field, but there were also many failures and disappointments.

Towards the end of my school year, I renewed my acquaintance with Anna Goldberg, my next door neighbour from Bucharest. Her name was now Hana, and she lived in Givatayim, about thirty km from Natanya. From time to time, I would make the trip by bicycle, together with my Romanian friends who went to Tel-Aviv (the two cities were next to each other). Shafer, whose father had a dairy store and who emigrated to Brazil a couple of years later. Shayovitz, the sharpest mind in the class, who became a professor in physics and math and eventually taught in a US university. Berkovitz, a plump boy with a soft appearance, who surprised us all by successfully completing the toughest training courses in the Israeli army and had a very prominent career as an army officer. Friedman, the best runner in our school, we called him Zatopec, in honour of the famous Czech athlete. He became a teacher of math and physics at the Tchemichovsky high school in Natanya. And, of course, my young friend and cousin, Josef, who eventually became a famous gynecologist in charge of a department at the important Tel-Hashomer Hospital and a professor at the Tel-Aviv University. When I last visited Israel in 1978 he had just moved in with his family into a newly built house in the exclusive district of Savion.

After matriculation, I had only a few weeks of rest before being drafted into "Zahal" as the Israeli army was called. I visited my relatives who I had not seen for two years, even though we all lived in tiny Israel. First I traveled to Rehovot to see Beno and Mitzi Teitler, then to Bat Yam to spend a day with Dora and Meshel Teitler. From there to Yafo to see my aunt Freeda and cousin Arye. Aunt Freeda remarried in Cyprus in 1947, where she was interned by the British waiting for her chance to settle in Palestine. I took a fast trip to Ramle, to visit my cousin Isyu Rosenzweig, whom I remembered from Zastavna. In Binyamina I visited the Silber family, well established farmers, real old timers. I spent a couple of days on a kibbutz together with Josef Menczer, as guests of a distant relative, who was a member of the kibbutz.

Kibbutz life was not for me: too restrictive and regulated, not enough privacy. By then I had had enough. There were relatives in Haifa, in Jerusalem, in Afula, in Beer Sheva, but I preferred to spend the remaining time in Natanya. After all, we had right at home Regi and Moshe Menczer and their son Nahum who lived in a beautiful home, not far from the Halperns. Gina and Oscar Menczer and their son Josef. There were also my Romanian friends and the clean Mediterranean seashore. My vacation was rapidly coming to an end. In another two days I would become a soldier of the State of Israel.

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