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Chapter 6

We spent several days in that Novosibirsk school yard, by the end of which we all looked different. Our gray-yellow skin was restored to a more living colour, our muscles were able to perform their normal tasks. We were all marched to a public steam bath, stripped of our clothes and while our bodies were subjected to clouds of steam and to the striking of little bunches of birch branches, our clothes were being disinfected. This was standard procedure for all prisoners in transit as a preventative measure against the spread of disease. We certainly felt refreshed and tired after the bath and most importantly, free of lice, at least for the time being. We were also allocated some food rationing: 500 gr. of bread, potatoes, and cabbage daily. We were able to buy some other food if we had the money. Most of us had none left, but we all had some clothing which we brought along. My mother was able to sell her embroidered nightgown as an evening dress. Watches were very much in demand and commanded good prices. All this was done in the school yard, under guard. We were not allowed to roam the streets of Novosibirsk, just as we were not allowed to see Cheliabinsk, right after crossing the Ural mountains, or the city of Omsk, another stop half-way between Cheliabinsk and Novosibirsk. Our school yard "vacation" came to an end within a few days.

We were ordered to march in twos, carrying our luggage and surrounded by the always present guards. The march lasted about two hours and most of us were quite exhausted by the time we reached our destination, the shores of the mighty river Ob. We were all loaded into a barge. All the adults had to spend the rest of a long day loading up the barge with provisions. There were two other such barges, moored at the dock, each of them containing a different train of exiles. The barges were huge in size with a completely open deck. There was no protection from the weather. The barges were interconnected by cables, pulling each other in a straight line, and they in turn were all pulled by a powerful tugboat. The barges had a very large steering oar, manned by two sailors, on a six hour shift basis. The steam engine on the tugboat was fueled by wood, about ten centimeter cubes of wood, and we were soon to learn that the supply of wood comes from the endless forests along the shores of the Ob, cut, chopped and stored on the vessel by the passengers, every few days. The people were ferried from the barges to the shore in row boats, and in addition to those needed for cutting wood, there were also some people sent over to gather food: berries and nuts, especially raspberries and pine nuts. These nuts, when roasted in a fire, were very tasty and quite nutritious.

The first stop was an absolute disaster. There were not many among us who were familiar with a two-handed saw, how to cut down a tree, which tree to cut down, how to handle an ax, where to look for pine cones or berries. Above all, how to protect oneself from the mosquitoes. As soon as one entered the forest, the mosquitoes came in clouds. They literally darkened the sky. The guards had brought along nets dipped in kerosene, which they wore over their hats. The rest of us had to cover our bodies as best we could, leaving just our eyes uncovered, if we wanted to come out alive from the forest. There were a lot of swollen faces and swollen hands this day. The mosquitoes did the job of the guard. No one wanted to run away into the forest. Everyone wanted to complete the job as quickly as possible and to return to the barges.

There were several such stops on the way and with each stop the people became more skilled in lowering, raising and rowing the boats, in handling the saws and the axes, and above all, in protecting themselves from the mosquitoes. As usual, we were not told in advance what was our final destination. "You will know when you get there" was the standard answer to our queries. Within a week we arrived to the city of Tomsk, some 250 km to the north of Novosibirsk. We were not allowed to disembark, but we did manage to buy some food from the local population. We continued to move northward. The weather was getting colder and when it rained the wind penetrated our wet clothing. The rocking of the barge, up and down on the waves, caused us to be seasick and quite miserable. Sometimes we could not see the shores of the river on either side, it felt more like sailing on an ocean. After departing the city of Tomsk, a new element was added to our routine. Every day a group of about fifty families were deposited on shore to be placed in a nearby village. "Special resettlers," was our official appellation. The same procedure took place on the other two barges. Several wood chopping and food gathering stops later, our turn came to be unloaded. It was the village of Porotnikov, some 250 km to the north of Tomsk or 500 km to the north of Novosibirsk, our point of departure in the barges.

We arrived in Porotnikov in the evening. It was very dark there was no electricity in the kolkhoz (a collective farm), only the feeble light of some kerosene lamps shining through the windows of the farmers' little homes. We were led to the centre of the village to a large building which, as I found out later, contained all the institutions needed by the kolkhoz. The village school, the Feldsher's clinic, (a semi-educated nurse who was the only authority looking after the health of the people), the office of the kolkhoz, a meeting hall used for propaganda purposes and for communal entertainment, and the always present militia station. We were brought into the meeting hall where the N.K.V.D. man gave us a short speech explaining to us our status and our duties.

"You are special resettlers for a period of twenty years," he began with a devastating statement, "you must register every evening after work at the militia station. You will be assigned to work brigades. The brigadier (the chief of the brigade) will come for you every morning at six. You will be given your daily rations of bread and potatoes. Tomorrow you must rent a place to live, in a farmer's house. The children will attend school. Tonight you will sleep here. You will work hard and become productive citizens of our glorious Soviet Union."

Every one of us was crushed by that awful sentence. We were exiled for twenty years. Irena tried to be optimistic. "Don't worry, frau Scharf, we are not going to stay here so long. I will find my parents, you will find your husband and we will all return home, as soon as this terrible war will be over." Next morning all the newcomers were out searching for a place to rent. All the farmhouses appeared to be the same size. They were all made of logs with dried moss stuffed between the logs, for insulation. The houses were surrounded by a solid wooden fence, about half a meter away from the log walls and as high as the window sills. The area between the wall and the fence was packed with earth, this was done also for insulation. There were only two windows in the house, because there were only two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom. The double pane windows were also well insulated with moss. The attic was filled with straw, between the ceiling and the wooden roof. There was a fairly large entrance hall, built the same way as the rest of the house, except that it was not heated. It served as a storage room for the long winter months, containing shelves with frozen food, some meat and dairy products, but mainly with barrels of sauerkraut and large piles of firewood, all neatly stacked along the walls. The entrance hall was also a good protector against the bitter winter cold, since the main entrance to the house was always opened only after the entrance hall door was tightly shut.

The main feature of the kitchen was the huge stove built in the middle of the kitchen, so as to exploit every bit of heat radiating from its brick walls. The stove had two sections joined together. The cooking section with its iron rings, on top of which the cooking pots were placed, and the much larger baking section, which had a flat top, about seventy five cm below the ceiling, big enough for two people to sleep on. One wall of the baking section was also the inside wall of the bedroom. It was usually against this warm wall that the children slept, while the parents slept on top of the stove.

Every member of the kolkhoz was given a small plot of land adjacent to his house, where he very diligently cultivated mainly potatoes and cabbage, but also some other vegetables. There were usually three other structures in the yard. The outhouse, the bath house and the barn. If the farmer was hard working and had a good relationship with the authorities that is, knew how to grease their palms and how to please them, then he probably had a cow in the barn, a pig or two and some chickens. The barns were very well insulated and although they were not heated, the animals usually survived the winter.

It was in such a farmer's house that we settled in for the fast approaching winter. We rented a corner of the kitchen which contained a bed, on which all three of us slept. Irena hung up a sheet from the ceiling all around the bed to give us some privacy. The next morning, at 6 A.M. the brigadier came calling for my mother and Irena to go to work. For the first two months all the exiles worked at uprooting tree stumps. Siberia was all covered with forests, and the Russians were trying very hard to increase the number of fields for agricultural use, especially the growing of cereals. It was a backbreaking job, especially for people who were not used to hard physical labour. The exiles had to dig up the ground underneath the huge roots of the tree stumps, place chains through the underground channels, tie the chains around the stumps, then a large group of people, depending on the force needed, would pull the chains in order to remove the roots from the ground.

When winter was in full force and the ground and the river were frozen solid, the exiles were ordered to cut trees. Although the scourge of the mosquitoes was gone, the temperature of minus forty degrees Celcius was quite common. If it was colder than that it was impossible to work outside. Since everything was measured in strict quotas the missed working days had to be made up on days off. In any case, cutting trees was not as backbreaking as the uprooting of the stumps. The last two months of the winter were devoted to the construction of ice huts. Blocks of ice, of identical size, were cut out with saws from the frozen surface of the river, transported to the kolkhoz food processing plant and there built into several ice huts. The blocks of ice were placed one on top of the other in a pyramidal form. Water was poured from time to time onto the blocks and the whole structure froze and held solidly together. Then they poured earth and water all around the pyramid, freezing everything into place. Finally, the procedure was repeated with straw and water. By now the ice pyramid was well insulated. It usually lasted through the short, but quite often hot, summer and served well as a refrigeration chamber. During the summer months, the kolkhoz had to produce cheese, butter and powdered eggs, for the war effort. These products were well preserved inside the ice huts.

While my mother was slaving all through the winter at jobs that were unimaginable to us prior to being exiled, I attended school, once more in grade three, because I changed the language of instruction from Ukrainian to Russian. This time school was a bore, the subjects taught were identical to last year, except on a lower scholastic level and in a different language. Although I learned to speak and write Russian very quickly, I felt very much an outsider among children who were very different in behaviour, in manners, in dress and in age, from me. It was the only hateful school year of all the five years of schooling until now. There were other reasons for my unhappiness as well. I hardly saw my mother. She went to work before I woke up and came home late in the evening, completely exhausted. We were constantly hungry. The meager rations of bread and potatoes were not sufficient to keep one from starving. We had to sell everything that was still possible to sell. By the end of the winter there was nothing left to sell. Irena, soon managed to escape the hardships of hard labour, simply by talking her way into an office job. She also managed to get some extra food which she faithfully shared with us. She became an expert at stealing food. She would get out of bed in the middle of the night, rummage through the landlady' s kitchen and invariably come back with some food. She would wake me up and although I was quite sleepy, I understood only too well what was required of me. All three of us swallowed our food very discreetly and almost soundlessly, sitting up in our bed, behind the "protective wall" of the hanging sheet.

Many exiles succumbed to the hardships that first winter, some because of disease, others because they lost the will to continue this struggle for survival. Quite a few exiles ended up in prison mainly because they were denounced by informers for some unacceptable statements, for not fulfilling their working quota, or for stealing some food. On one occasion, the father of my friend, Otto Krause, wrote a letter to some relatives in which he praised the glorious life in the Soviet Union, but he complained that his uncle Lehem does not visit him often enough. Within one week, his letter was returned to him with a note stating: work harder so your uncle will visit more often. (Lehem is the Hebrew word for bread). He was subsequently arrested and imprisoned for three years. I never saw him again.

By the time Spring arrived we were all in terrible shape. Even the local farmers had depleted their food supplies, which they kept in deeply dug underground cellars, where the frost did not penetrate at all. My mother could not bear the torture of seeing me hungry, undernourished day by day and she often cried, bitterly complaining and sharing her frustration with Irena. Her new job was to work in the kolkhoz fields, digging up the virgin ground with shovels and planting potatoes. My mother saw her chance of easing my suffering. By the end of the working day she managed to conceal three kilograms of potatoes in her clothing. Inexperienced as she was in such matters, it was quite easy for the foreman to detect her violation of the rules. She was immediately apprehended and taken to the militia station. The next day she was transferred to Bakhchar, the administrative centre for the district. Among other things it also had a prison, which Porotnikov lacked.

When Irena found out what happened she managed to arrange a meeting with my mother as she was on very good terms with the local militia man. She encouraged my mother to be brave and strong. "You must fight to survive, no matter what, because of your son, and do not worry about him at all, I will take good care of him, he is like my own brother." Irena was working on the local militia man, for the past several months, to get her a good job in Bakhchar, which was a small town, more like a large village, with better living conditions. She succeeded just at the time when my mother was transferred to the Bakhchar prison. We arrived to our new quarters, a distance of some 20 kilometers, as soon as we could hitch a ride with a local farmer. Our new place was luxurious by comparison, we had a room completely to ourselves, with a bed, a small table, some chairs and, of course, a stove. Although living conditions took a turn for the better, I was in a state of shock. I seemed to be functioning like a robot. I had no parents! If not for Irena, I probably would not have survived. The struggle for survival was just beginning.

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