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Chapter 4

Winter arrived. We did have in Zastavna a fairly long and steep hill. Actually, it was a road descending into a valley and then climbing up the other way to the top of a hill. This road served us well as a toboggan run. Skating and skiing was not so popular, although not unknown. In the valley, at the bottom of the road, there was a small lake solidly frozen in the winter and used for skating. I had a pair of skates, but I much preferred tobogganing. School was exciting this year and not so heavily burdened with work. Since my Hebrew studies were cancelled as well as my private violin lessons, I had more time to myself. Although my mother was mostly away on her mission, I did not neglect my school work. The pioneer penalty system saw to it that most children complied with their duties. It was quite awful for a child to be ex-communicated from the ranks of the religiously adhered membership in the pioneers. The pioneers were encouraged to join various sports clubs. Since I was overweight and not very agile in sports, I preferred to join the chess club. We met twice a week, received some theoretical instructions, but mostly we spent our time playing. My game improved rapidly and within half a year I was moved up to older groups of chess players. I also joined a soccer club, a game I enjoyed, but the club was not active during the winter months.

Although I successfully completed my studies in grade three in my previous year in the Rumanian school, I was compelled to repeat grade three, because the law stipulated that any student who changed his language of instruction must repeat his grade. The curriculum was more advanced, different in content and therefore not really a repetition of last year's work.

My mother was satisfied with my scholastic achievements, but she abhorred the destructive influence of the new "religion". She tried hard, to explain to me the importance of being Jewish, of observing the holidays. She talked to me often about my father. How hard he worked since the age of thirteen and how he managed to build up a prosperous business. "And now, look what they did to us! Why did they do it? We did not cause any harm to anybody. Why were we punished so severely?" When I listened to my mother's lamentations I felt sorry for everybody, including myself, however the influence of the school and the pioneer group was so overwhelming that I remained firmly under their spell.

On a beautiful sunny winter afternoon, my mother, who was waiting for me to return from school, embraced me, kissed me and said to me in a happy tone of voice: "I have some good news. Please listen carefully, this is very important. I know that today Papa will have a chance to look out of the prison window facing the street. We are going to walk by on that street in exactly half an hour. I will tell you where to look. Papa misses us very much and that may be his only chance to see us for a moment, because we cannot stop, we must continue to walk slowly. It will seem that we are there by accident. Do you understand?" As we walked to the prison street, she repeated her explanation in detail, making sure that I appreciated the importance of the meeting to all three of us. I reacted with complete silence. My mother assumed that I was too overwhelmed with emotion to express myself verbally. The truth is that a terrible struggle was raging in my heart. I wanted to see my father, even though it was only for a fleeting moment, at a considerable distance, through the bars of a prison window, but how could I? It meant that I would betray my oath of allegiance as a pioneer, by giving comfort to an enemy of the people.

Oh, how I hated that regime later on in life, for poisoning my mind and my heart! Even though the poison was neutralized in less than one year, I could never forget and forgive the fact that on that fateful day, as I walked on the prison street with my mother holding my hand and prodding me: "Now look at the second row of windows, the third window from the corner, there he is, do you see him?" she whispered excitedly, never taking her eyes off the window. It was then that I did what I believed to be the honourable thing. I turned my face away from the window. At the time my mother did not notice anything. The truth emerged many years later, when we could reminisce joyfully about a horrible past.

At that time, my education included a good dose of atheism. Even though the teachers tried diligently to detoxify us of the opium of the masses, I remained firmly addicted to my Jewish customs. I still loved and respected the synagogue, the observance of Jewish holidays and the Yiddish language. My Jewish education in the last five years provided me with a sense of comfort in the many hours of despair still to come. It was quite common for me to recite a prayer, either memorized from the prayer book or composed for the need of the moment. So that when I came home after my visit to the prison street, I turned to God for comfort...

In early June of 1941 our uneasy routine was rudely interrupted by new events. By then my father was no longer in Zastavna, and we were completely ignorant of his whereabouts. My mother was no longer preoccupied with how to send another parcel to my father and she devoted more time to me. As a result, there was no need to sleep over in my relatives' homes. This brief period of relative relaxation came to an abrupt end. On an early afternoon as I was coming out of school, I noticed that the school yard was filled with militia men, who transformed the place into a military campground, complete with tents, field kitchens, army vehicles all lined up in neat rows. I rushed home to share the information with my mother, who, without any delay, told me to come with her to uncle Jacob. He suggested that we call Mitzi and Dora to join us. Everybody appreciated Dora's advice. She was highly respected for her wise and practical opinions.

It was well known by now that the Soviet regime was arresting the families of the men who were imprisoned following the annexation. We knew from some Jews who managed to escape the dragnet that this took place in Poland, so it was natural to assume that the N.K.V.D. intended to bestow the same fate upon us. We also knew that the arrested families were deported, however we did not know any other details as to what happened to them following the deportation. So it was decided during this meeting that we must hide until the militia completed their job. I was not present during the meeting and was not aware of all the details. I only found out later that my mother would leave immediately for Chernovitz to stay in the house of some poor cousin, the logic was that poor people would not be bothered and their homes would not be searched.

With the same reasoning in mind, I was placed in the home of the Shapiras, a poor farmhouse, probably the safest place in town. Our family council did not consider the large network of informers that the N.K.V.D. had. True, they were unable to find my mother, but they had no difficulty finding me. Two nights after the family meeting, at about 5 o'clock in the morning, there was a loud banging on the door, accompanied by orders to open up. Uncle Moshe Shapira ran to the door, in his long nightgown, and opened the door in a hurry. Four men, armed with rifles and bayonets affixed to them, entered the room. I was lying in the middle of the large bed, my usual sleeping position, between my uncle and aunt. I remember quite clearly that I felt very safe, because I was certain that they would not arrest a ten year old boy, therefore I was petrified when one of the men pointed his finger at me and ordered me to get dressed. My uncle objected strenuously, expressing his revulsion at such an inhuman act, but the same man, probably the officer, told him to shut up, embellishing his abusive language with a multitude of expletives of which the Russians are so fond and so expert in their use. He also threatened Uncle Moshe with arrest, so my uncle withdrew into a corner in fear and shame. Then the officer pulled me rudely out of bed and ordered me to get dressed. I obeyed him very quickly, even though I was shivering with fear. They led me out into the yard where a wagon hitched to a pair of horses and a driver on his bench were waiting patiently for the arrested citizen.

I must have made quite an impression on the other neighbours, a ten year old boy sitting in the middle of the wagon surrounded on either side by four well-armed militia men with their rifles and bayonets. It was a very cold morning and I was shivering more from the cold than from fear. Slowly my mind began to adjust to my new circumstances. For the first time since I became a pioneer, doubts crept in. Am I an enemy of the people too? What are they going to do to me? Am I still a pioneer? Do I want to be a pioneer?

I was brought to the Zastavna Police Station and unceremoniously locked-up in a cell. I felt lonely and frightened and I had a good cry. About an hour later I was brought into the office of the Police Chief, who questioned me about the whereabouts of my mother. I was truly unaware of her location, but he did not believe me. He told me that I would rot in the prison until I told the truth. "You are a liar," he shouted at me. "I am not a liar," I replied, "I am a pioneer and I give you my word as a pioneer that I am telling the truth." He burst out laughing: "You, a pioneer! You are the son of an enemy of the people." He sure cured my pioneer's loyalties in a hurry. His last statement made it very clear that I could never be a part of the socialist paradise. He then proceeded to interrogate me about my relatives in Chernovitz. I only remembered the address of my mother's sister, Clara Geller. She lived in a nice apartment with her husband Hayim, who was a bookkeeper, and their two children, Suzy and Hugo. When the Police Chief saw that he could not extract any additional information from me, he ordered me to return me to my cell. At around ten A.M., I was taken out of the cell and placed in the back of the command car. There were two soldiers and the Chief of Police in the car. "So", he said, "we shall soon see how much of a liar your are, we are going to pay a visit to your aunt in Chernovitz." When we reached the street in Chernovitz where my aunt lived, they asked me to direct them to the apartment of my aunt, since I did not remember the number of the house, only the location. The Chief went in with one soldier and left me in the car with the other one. They interrogated my aunt for at least a half hour, but came back empty handed. I found out later that my aunt, who was a very nervous person, was so frightened, that her answers were mostly incoherent. We then returned to Zastavna and I was pushed back into my cell.

The Chief of Police decided to try a more humane approach, by allowing a minor concession. Dora was at the station, pleading to be allowed to visit me. She was refused the visit, but she was allowed to give me a coat. By then it was about two P.M. and I was very hungry and very tired. I was not given any food at all. I was only allowed one visit to the bathroom. When I received the familiar coat, I searched all the pockets and found nothing. I then remembered that the coat had a "secret" pocket in the lining. If the coat would have been carefully checked, it would be easy to see the "secret" pocket. I pulled out a chocolate bar. Dora took a chance in smuggling in such an item. I was very grateful in my heart. I looked around to make sure that I am not being watched, removed the scrapping and gulped down the chocolate bar in no time. It then occurred to me that the wrapping came off too easily, as though someone was concerned that I should not have to put in any effort into the act of unwrapping. I inspected the wrapping closely and noticed some writing between the inner silver paper and the outer coarser paper. It said: "do not worry, mother coming to pick you up." As a precaution, it was not signed. I quickly placed the wrapping back into the "secret" pocket. Late in the afternoon, I was called into the Chief's office for a final session. He started to interrogate gently, by asking me if I felt comfortable in my coat. I hoped that he would offer me some food, but it seems that his strategy was to keep me hungry. Then he thanked me for helping him find aunt Clara's place. Finally, he came to the point, by demanding again to know where my mother was. Then he asked me to name all my relatives outside of Zastavna, their names and addresses. I did name some relatives but I could not give him any addresses.

The N.K.V.D. must have known about these relatives and probably checked them out already, for he was not pleased with my answers. Apparently, I did not provide him with any new information. Suddenly, he pulled out his revolver, placed it at my temple and said to me: "The games are over, tell me the truth now or I'll pull the trigger!" I was petrified, and could not utter a single coherent word. He was utterly disgusted with my reaction and ordered the guard to throw me back into the cell. Since I was still stunned, the guard had to drag me out of the office and almost carry me under my armpits back to the cell. It took a while for me to regain my senses. The first thing that came to my mind was the words of the smuggled note.

My mother's coming to my rescue. They still didn't know it. Why did not Dora simply tell them so, maybe they would have let me go? (I was afraid to tell them how I knew that my mother is coming). Dora left the decision of whether to come back, to my mother. She felt instinctively, that my mother should wait another day, but my mother would not even consider such a possibility. Around five P.M. my mother arrived at the Police Station and simply said that she came to claim her son. The Chief was happy to see her. He had now completed his quota. Every worker, no matter what his profession, had to fulfill his quota. If he did poorly he was penalized, materially or socially degraded. It was not unusual for such a person to be arrested and sent to a labour camp. If the worker did better that the quota, he was honoured materially, he would be socially elevated as an example of a real "Stahanovitz". (Stahanov was a worker who greatly exceeded his quota and served as an example of a hero of the working class for the entire country). The N. K.V.D. had their quotas as well. That is the reason why the Chief spent so much time, so much energy and so much money to fulfill his quota. Had he failed in locating my mother, he would have surely replaced her with someone else. He ordered my mother to go home and pack two valises only, one per person, and wait at home for the police to come and take us to a new place. We shall be resettled, so that we can at last become useful citizens by contributing our share to the great enterprise of building this wonderful socialist society. By now, not even I was fooled by these words. This was the last night that we spent in Zastavna, in our old home.

We were about to embark on a journey, the details of which were totally unknown. Nevertheless, during the first year under the Soviet regime we were substantially educated, so as to expect a worsening of our condition. With this in mind, my mother packed into the two valises lots of warm and sturdy clothes and footwear and as much non-perishable food as she could find. Our relatives were there to encourage us, to promise to help if possible, to wish us well, a safe trip and a speedy reunion. None of these things happened. Within a year, many of them perished in Transnistria. Only Dora and her husband Meshel, Mitzi, aunt Frieda and her son Loniu, came out alive. My grandparents on both sides, Jacob and Leib, my father's brothers, the Shapiras, uncles, aunts and cousins too numerous to mention all perished in the Holocaust.  May their memory be blessed forever.

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