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Chapter 3

My uncle organized a petition to free my father from prison. He addressed a letter to the authorities stating numerous examples of how my father extended help to the needy, provided work and a living for many people, even during the recession of the thirties; how fairly and honestly he treated his customers who were simple farmers and who depended on him for their livelihood. Then he went around the neighboring villages and collected hundreds of signatures from people who knew and liked my father. Whenever uncle Jacob approached someone for a signature the reaction was invariably the same: "What, they arrested Shiku Sharf! They are crazy! Sure I'll sign."

The chief of the N.K.V.D. (a combination of police and internal security - the most feared institution in the Soviet Union at the time) who, following many requests for an appointment in the course of several months, finally consented to see uncle Jacob. He exploded in a barrage of abuse and threats, which could be summarized as follows: How dare you give comfort to an enemy of the people. By trying to help him you become our enemy as well. I should arrest you for fabricating such a false document (?) and for forging all those signatures (?). The fact that my uncle was allowed to walk out of the police station a free man was a miracle in itself. We still had a lot to learn about Soviet justice.

My mother spent almost every day standing in line outside the prison gates with a package of food and some clothing, waiting for the opportunity to hand it over to a prison guard, who would, she hoped, hand it over to my father. Although the Soviets had rules for everything, one never knew when the package would be accepted, whether it would reach its destination or be appropriated by the guards. Many years later we found out that he did not receive more than ten packages in the course of almost a year's imprisonment in Zastavna. Some of the contents were stolen by the guards, some by hardened criminals, and some my father shared willingly with other cell-mates who were just as badly off, throughout his stay in the Zastavna prison. The N.K.V.D. were building up a case against him by day and night interrogations, by drumming up false statements from "witnesses", and by collecting incriminating "documents". The accusations centered around the following statements: counter-revolutionary, people's enemy, exploitation of the proletariat, rnember of an illegal organization (Zionist). My father, being a brave and strong person, did not give in to tortures, degradations, hunger and constant suffering, to which he was subjected together with all the other "enemies" who were incarcerated in the Zastavna prison. To understand somewhat (and I stress the word "somewhat", because it is impossible to fully comprehend the barbarous treatment to which millions of innocent people were subjected in the Soviet Gulag), one must read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago.

After almost a year of "investigations", he was sentenced to five years of imprisonment in a labour camp and, together with thousands of other miserable victims, was transported to Magadan in Kolima district, one of the most notorious camps, where they had to slave in gold mines under the most inhumane conditions. The land was covered with permafrost, minus 40, 50 or even 60 degrees Celsius was not unusual. Winter was as long as the Jewish Diaspora and summer was nothing but an illusion. I am still puzzled by the amount of human resources, energy and substantial expenses the state invested to give each case a legal fa┴ade, which in the end was meaningless, because many prison terms were extended, up to twenty five years, and a large number of those who were enslaved did not survive those terrible hardships. My mother and I were not aware of what transpired behind the prison gates until many years later. We knew only that he was no longer in Zastavna. While my mother was spending most of her time outside the prison gates, my relatives took care of me.

The Shapiras, whom I addressed as uncle and aunt, became my second home. They lived in the old section of Zastavna, which was originally a farming village, and which retained its character almost intact. The house was made from mud bricks, whitewashed on the inside and the outside. It had a hard clay floor and a straw thatched roof. Adjacent to the house was the cowshed with two very healthy looking animals, who were the main source of the Shapiras' income. Their pride and joy was the milk processing house, which my father financed some years ago. It was the only solid brick building in the yard and it contained various machines and utensils for separating the cream from the milk and for producing cheese and butter and other dairy products. The Shapiras also cultivated the land adjacent to these structures. They had a variety of vegetables, mainly for their own use. In the yard there was a cellar, dug deep into the ground, for storing vegetables and fruit, and many preserved foods which would have to last through the winter. I always enjoyed visiting them, even prior to my forced stays. I liked to drink a glass of milk coming directly from the cow's udder. I liked to eat the poppy seed cookies my aunt baked, which were covered with the skin removed from a pot of boiling milk. I also enjoyed many other fresh, delicious dairy products. The garden too, offered many delicacies, like poppy seeds, fresh peas, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds, after drying them in the oven. I did miss my parents, especially my father whom I hadn't seen for many months. My relatives did their best to distract me from such thoughts. I was particularly upset that we couldn't spend this summer, as we did the previous summers, visiting my grandparents, Sima and Peretz Surkis, in Viznitsa. From there we often travelled to Vizenca, a short distance away. It was located in the Karpathian mountains, surrounded by woods, mountain streams and glorious mountain vistas. People believed in the healing properties of the pure and sweet air and water. There were many sanitariums and rest homes in the area.

I saw my first movie on such a visit to Viznitsa. I must have been four or five years old at the time. The reason this movie is so memorable is because it was a very frightful experience. There was a train on the screen, coming straight at me and I would not allow anyone in the hall to convince me that I will not be crushed by this monstrous machine. I made such a racket, that my mother took me outside and for a long time had to comfort me. Zastavna had no theatres of any kind. For entertainment we had to go to Chernovitz. The city had two permanent repertory theatres: one in Yiddish, called "La Scala", (I do not know what was the connection between the famous Milan opera house and the Yiddish theatre, maybe an imitation of its architecture), and the other, a more imposing structure, an imitation of a Viennese building, was a German theatre. It was converted into a Ukrainian theatre after the Russian annexation.

We also visited, less frequently, my father's parents in Kisilev. My father's mother died at the age of 28 and her death had a very deep affect on my father, who loved her dearly and was very attached to her. Soon after, my grandfather, Eliezer Sharf, remarried. My father did not see eye to eye with his stepmother, and so, at the age of 13, struck out on his own and never looked back. My grandparents were the owners and the operators of a country tavern. The place was frequented by farmers who often drank a lot and became rowdy. In the yard and nearby a special pit was dug up, which served as a depository for broken bottles and glasses. When my father was about nine years old, he was playing with his friends in the yard and accidentally fell into the pit full of glass. A large scar under his chin remained a most visible witness to this unforgettable event.

Kisilev had nothing to offer me. I was always glad to return to Zastavna where I could play with my friends, ride the tricycle around the long veranda and later, the bicycle, on the large area of the market place, when it was free of commercial activity. From time to time we went to the beach, on the river Prut. On one occasion I was so severely sunburned that I could not wear any clothes for two days.

Following my father's arrest I also spent some time with my aunt Frieda. She lived in the modern section of Zastavna. These were mostly villas built in the thirties, on the outskirts of the town. They had running water, electricity and indoor toilets. Aunt Frieda, a young widow, lived alone with her son, Loniu. She was still running the leather goods and shoe store founded by her late husband but only as an employee of the state and she could hardly make ends meet. I liked to play with Loniu, who was some three years younger than me, mainly because of his car. Two children could sit in it and pedal with our feet propelling the car forward. It had a steering wheel and one of us would steer the car (we took turns at the wheel). This was a unique toy for Zastavna (I don't remember seeing it anywhere else) and we would spend our time traveling to "far away" places.

Uncle Jacob's home, a very modest, rented apartment, served me only occasionally as an extra home. Although I loved my uncle Jacob and his recently married beautiful wife, they were short of space, so it was always easier to place me with the other relatives.

The saddest summer of my young life was over. (Little did I know that I was going to face many summers from now on that would be infinitely sadder than the previous one). The school reopened, but it was a very different school. The atmosphere in the school was friendlier: corporal punishment, so common till now, was abolished. The language of instruction was Ukrainian. School hours lasted from morning till early afternoon. Hebrew schools were illegal, but the "Cheder" was very active about three evenings a week. We were told time and again not to mention a word about our studies at the Cheder. Since there were numerous small "home made" Cheder schools, it was unavoidable for some of them to fall prey to the authorities who were rapidly consolidating their police state by removing any vestiges of any form of freedom, by transforming, what seemed to have been hitherto decent people, into spies and informers by blackmail and threats.

Propaganda in its ugliest and most invading manner was so constant that it was totally inescapable. It was strictly compulsory to attend the propaganda meetings in the work place. The streets were "decorated" with banners, slogans, posters and the pictures of the fathers of Communism: Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. The loudspeakers in various public places and at work did not cease to extol the blessings of Communism. The radio programs, the movies (yes, we had a movie theatre now), the press, they all managed to invent a thousand ways of saying the same thing.

The regime was especially successful in doing its job in the schools with young, sensitive and susceptible minds. It was easy to brainwash them in the shortest period of time. All children automatically belonged to one of three Communist youth groups, depending on age. Up to grade one they were members of the "October group" (so named in honor of the October Revolution of 1917). Then the child was promoted to become a pioneer. Our school indoctrinated us about the duties and obligations, as well as the honour, of being a pioneer. When the teachers considered us to be ideologically ready (not more than a month's time), they issued to each pupil a red kerchief which was worn around the neck and it was held in place by a leather ring underneath the chin. There was a lot of excitement and joy (real joy!) when we were told that we had the honour to become pioneers. We were to assemble in the school yard all dressed in white shirts or blouses with the red kerchiefs around our necks, lined up according to classroom, standing at attention, like a well-disciplined army, swearing allegiance to the Party and to its leader. It was indeed a memorable day. I was beaming with pride when I arrived home from school, anxious to share the wonderful news with my mother, who unfortunately was not home.

I felt a certain annoyance with her daily trips to the prison, I was even ashamed, after all, I was the son of an enemy of the people. I took my school work and all the extra-curricular activities very seriously. At the age of fourteen I might be accepted into the "Konsomol" and from there one could reach the pinnacle of achievement, the highest honour for a citizen of the Soviet Union, membership in the Communist Party. Well, I was disappointed that the apartment was empty and I had no one to share my news with. Soon it would be dark and tonight I had my Cheder lessons. I would tell the Rabbi, surely he would be proud to have such an illustrious student.

I could hardly wait for the appointed hour. I was the first to arrive at the Rabbi's home. Pointing to my red kerchief I exploded: "Look Rabbi, from now on, you are talking to a pioneer." Very deliberately, the Rabbi slapped me across my face hard enough, so that I recoiled to the wall, which was a short distance behind me. The educational message in the Rabbi's reaction did not really register, the pain and the humiliation did. That night I came home crying and I declared firmly that I would never go back to the Rabbi's house. My mother was too tired, too preoccupied with worries, to put up a fight and the subject did not come up again for a very long time. Soon, within a matter of months, all Cheder schools were eliminated by the N.K.V.D. Jewish education and particularly Jewish religious education survived mainly in the home, from father to son, and to a lesser extent, in the synagogue. Some synagogues were appropriated by the state for secular use.

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