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Chapter 7

In June of 1942, about one month after my mother’s arrest, Irena and I had a long talk, that is Irena did the talking and I the listening. She came staright to the point: "The Soviet Union issued a decree allowing all Polish citizens to return to their homeland." The Poles formed their own army under General Anders ready to fight the Nazis and the Soviets desperately needed all the help they could get. Irena declared herself a Polish citizen. It was fairly simple for her to do so. After all, her father was of Polish origin, she spoke Polish well, she could remember Polish towns where she had visited her relatives. She was quickly granted permission to return home and was issued the necessary documents. For now she could only move to the west and South, out of Siberia, as Poland was still under Nazi occupation, but it meant freedom from exile and freedom to eventually escape the clutches of the Soviet Union. She tried very hard to convince my mother, for a few weeks, to allow her to take me along as her brother. I am certain that she would have treated me as her brother indeed, but my mother firmly refused to grant her wish. She claimed, and probably justifiably so, that she would lose contact with me and she might never see me again. I am also certain that my presence in Siberia strengthened her motivation to fight for her survival in prison.

This second shock of Irena’s departure, coming so soon after my mother’s arrest, resulted in a state of apathy, loss of appetite, and bed wetting during the night. This last condition caused a great deal of inconvenience and extra work for Irena. Her main drive now was to find a place for me, since it was only a matter of days before she would have to leave, if she was to take advantage of her new found freedom. She was also driven by the hope that her parents would take the same course of action and that she would be reunited with her family. Every day she tried very diligently to feed me, she now had plenty of food. She often talked to me, encouraging me, telling me that at my age of eleven, I could and should be independent, able to look out for myself, and that I should stay in touch with my mother by writing to her regularly to show her that she has somebody very important to back to.

Irena knew, of course, about the existence of the so-called "children’s homes," the Soviet orphanages. They were nothing more than glorified labour camps. One of these homes was located in Bakhchar and we often saw the inmates march with shovels on their shoulders to work in the fields located outside the town. They were all dressed uniformly in gray outfits that looked exactly like a prison uniform, their heads shaven, backs bent to the ground, their faces pale and lifeless. Sometimes their supervisors would make them sing a heroic song prescribed by the Soviet propaganda machine, which sounded more like a funeral march. I was horrified at the possibility of ending up in such a place, and so was Irena.

She now spent all her time approaching the various exiled families, pleading with them to take me in, claiming that I was a strong boy who could take care of their needs: bringing water from the river, bringing wood from the forest, cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking, especially since I did not have to attend school. The families Irena solicited were burdened with troubles of their own and most of them did not even want to discuss it. On the very last day before her departure, when she practically gave up all hope of placing me with an exiled family, a beautiful looking woman came to visit us. She introduced herself as Mrs. Funduyanu, originally from Bucharest. She was in Chernovitz on a visit with her husband Nicu, and her daughter Dickiel when the Russians marched in. They were arrested as undesirable foreigners and exiled to Siberia. They were both working in the local food processing factory, her husband as an accountant and she as an office clerk (good jobs, unusual for exiles). Mrs. Funduyanu was aware of my plight and wanted to help. Nicu needed a little more convincing, but she was sure to manage that. Irena was elated with this unexpected stroke of luck, and of course agreed immediately.

As for myself, my senses were very dull, my awareness of my surroundings was minimal and I was ready to follow orders in a most submissive manner. Irena explained to Mrs. Funduyanu that she was leaving the next day and therefore wanted to transfer my things right away. I had two items of value: a very warm winter coat, still in good condition, that had a diamond engagement ring of my mother's sewn into its lining many months ago. My mother told me about it and said at the time: "We will sell this ring only as a last resort, if we have an emergency." The second item was a very warn down comforter, by now usable only by me, since it always smelled of urine. In addition to that, I had few more items of clothing, many of them patched up several times. I carried the comforter on my back, Irena carried a bundle of my clothing, and Mrs. Funduyanu led the way to my new home.

The Funduyanus lived as tenants in a semi-detached home consisting of one long room. Opposite the entrance door, there were two beds, each along the wall, one for the parents and the other for Dickie. The only window in the room was in between the beds. Along the same wall as the beds, but closer to the entrance door, stood the all important stove. Opposite the stove, along the same wall as Dickie's bed, there was a platform made of three plain boards with some wooden legs underneath. This was my bed. I was given permission to bring in some straw from the landlord's barn, which I spread on top of the boards. I covered the straw with a sheet, which my mother somehow managed not to sell, placed a small pillow at the head and on top my precious down comforter. It had no sheet covers and looked as though someone drew a world map on it (the result of my nightly bed-wetting). Strangely enough, I did not feel embarrassed because of my comforter, I did not feel worried when I embraced, kissed and said good-bye to Irena for the last time. I did not feel anxious about my new home or about the less-than-friendly welcome of Mr. Funduyanu. Actually, emotionally, I was quite empty of any feeling at all, but physically I felt run-down, quite hot and unable to stand on my feet. Mrs. Funduyanu told me to go to bed, it must be the excitement of the new place: "by tomorrow, you will get used to it."

The landlord of the house was the director of the nearby kolkhoz. Originally, he lived in this one room, which he now rented out to the Funduyanus. When he proved himself to be an excellent administrator, that is, he always managed to deliver to the state substantially more than his allotted quota, the secretary of the Communist Party of the entire district, of which the director was a member, showered him with many privileges. Naturally, the secretary, his assistants, the chief of the N.K.V.D. and other high bureaucrats needed the director's help for their material well being, just as much as the director needed them. The director built himself a nice house, attached to the old one, but much larger. It had two separate bedrooms, a separate kitchen and living room, a spacious unheated entrance well-stocked with wood, a convenient cellar underneath the kitchen floor with a trap door, so that there was no need to go outside in the winter to bring food supplies from the cellar. In the yard, he had a well-built barn with two cows, which were milked even in the winter because conditions were good and the feed was plentiful. There were 3 or 4 pigs (every summer there were many piglets); the yard was full of chickens so they always had eggs in the house. Nearby they had a large plot of land, well-cultivated with the usual potatoes and cabbage, and also other vegetables. The yard contained also the outhouse with two cabins (another sign of prosperity), and the banya (bath house).

The banya had an unheated entrance room, where people would get undressed before the bath and get dressed after, even at 40 degrees below zero. When the banya was operational, some of the heat from the second room would penetrate into the first so it was not unbearable; just the same, the removal of our clothing and their replacement was done very rapidly. The second room of the banya contained a large wooden barrel, filled with water. When the temperature in the room reached its height and the room was filled with steam, the water in the barrel became warm enough to rinse our hot bodies, after the steam bath. The stove was special too because it had a pile of stones on top of it which would become very hot. When the water in the barrel would be warm enough, and the stones would be so hot that water poured on top of them would immediately evaporate, then the banya would be filled with steam and ready to be used. There were also three benches in the room, stacked one on top of the other, like bunk beds and bunches of birch twigs with leaves still on. The temperature in the room was very high. On the third bench it was quite difficult to breathe. The room was filled with steam and from time to time the bathers would pour more water on the hot rocks turning it instantaneously into more steam. The thrashing of our bodies with the birch twigs made the blood flow faster. The extreme temperatures opened up the body pores and even though there was no soap used, simply because it was not available, I do not think that I ever had a cleaner bath than in that Siberian sauna.

The director's family consisted of his wife, three children and his parents. Both of them were about seventy-five years old, powerfully built people, and hard working. The parents looked after the private property. They were constantly busy in the family plot, in the barn, growing food, tending the animals, slaughtering them, preserving the meat in barrels with salt. At seventy-five, to put in a day's work in the field by digging the earth, hoeing potatoes, digging up potatoes, sawing and chopping wood, carrying two pails of water from the river hanging from a stick supported by their shoulders, about a kilometer away, day after day, I could not help but admire their physical stamina and their folk wisdom. These two grandparents (that is how I respectfully addressed them) became my best friends, especially grandfather, who was not only a good friend but also a good teacher. Yes, the director had a very prosperous household. He even had a stable with a beautiful race horse which he rode around the kolkhoz. The bureaucrats considered him so valuable that they exempted him from serving in the armed forces, an unheard of feat. I found out all of these things in the course of my stay in the house.

In the meantime I went to bed exhausted and fell asleep fairly soon. I woke up in the middle of the night quite wet with perspiration and felt very hot. I did not dare bother my new hosts to tell them of my high temperature, so I waited till morning. Mrs. Funduyanu was very concerned and decided to get the feldsher (nurse). One needed some pull, a good bribe, to convince a feldsher to come to the house. Mr. Funduyanu managed to do just that. The feldsher was not sure what my problem was, but she did give me some medication to bring the temperature down. Within a few days my temperature was down, but not gone, It would fluctuate up and down, day after day, for almost three weeks. Even though we were fortunate to be visited by a doctor who was making a tour of the district, my condition was not diagnosed and the doctor was at a loss as to how to treat me. I was apathetic, indifferent to my surroundings, unwilling to eat, as though I gave up the will to live. I because the cause of a great deal of friction between the Funduyanus. He was accusing her or bringing such a troublemaker into the house, she was defending me. "An orphan," she would say, "he is in shock. Don't you have any pity?" "No," he replied, "who has pity on me?"

Towards the end of the third week, Mrs. Funduyanu woke me up in the middle of the night to urinate (there was a pail in the room for that purpose). There was nothing unusual about this, she did it often and it helped to prevent my bed wetting. I was quite confused, disoriented, weak from my extended illness and had to be led, even supported, so as not to fall down. She decided earlier in the day to apply a drastic measure, it simply could not go on like this, it would either cure me or kill me. She brought a chunk of ice home from work (she worked in a food processing factory which had several ice huts). She placed the ice in a pail and dipped a sheet into the ice-cold water. She led me from the bed and placed me in front of the pail (I assumed that I was to urinate into it). She undressed me and very quickly wrapped the ice-cold sheet around me. My friend to be, the grandfather, told me later that I screamed with the same suddenness and intensity as the pigs did when he slaughtered them. I sure woke up the neighbourhood. She kept me going like this for a minute or two, and then she took the sheet off, wiped me dry, dressed me up and put me back into bed, covering me well with my warm comforter. I was lying in bed, crying softly for a long time. Dickie came over, sat down on my straw padding and tried to comfort me. It was the beginning of a very close friendship between us, she never let me down for the next few years, and God knows I needed her support very often.

The next morning the temperature was gone. It was the first time in three weeks that I had got out of bed, that I felt the pain of hunger, that I began to notice my surroundings: I enjoyed seeing Mrs. Funduyanu's beautiful face, I shuddered at the anger shooting out of Mr. Funduyanu's eyes, and I felt comforted at the kind touch of Dickie's hand. I was still very weak and tired, but I regained the will to live, to go on with my struggle. From this moment on I became completely obsessed by the drive to reunite my family and regain my freedom. Even though L was only eleven years old, this drive became the foundation of my existence, it provided me with hope, it gave meaning to my life and reason to endure the many hardships which I was still to face.

I requested that the prison authorities allow me a rendezvous with my mother. It was refused, but they accepted my letter. I described my new circumstances, I told her that I was strong and that I would wait for her until she would be freed. Her trial was to take place the next day. There were three judges sitting at an elevated table. The procurator presented the evidence (there was no defense lawyer). This woman stole state property. She was caught by her foreman with three kilograms of potatoes in her possession. Then he gave a long propaganda speech about the heroic sacrifices of the Soviet people in their struggle to destroy the enemies of the Soviet Union. We should not permit such parasitic behaviour, such anti-social and anti-Soviet behaviour. Such conduct must be severely punished. The three women judges looked at each other, whispered for a few seconds, nodded their heads in agreement and then the one in the middle pronounced the pre-arranged verdict: three years in labour camp.

Within a week my mother was sent on a forced march, with over a hundred other prisoners, to Tomsk. The labour camp was; located some twelve km. outside the city, as I found out much later. From now on we communicated by letter several times a year. My mother was limited by the prison in her right to correspond and I was limited by the lack of money for stamps as well as by the fact that some of my letters never reached their destination. Although I missed my parents very much, especially my mother, since she was the last one to be taken away from me, I began to realize that many families had the same predicament, the same tragic existence. I was soon to learn that Soviet society consisted of three kinds of people: those who served their prison terms, or perished there; those who were presently serving their prison terms; and those who would surely serve their term in the future. Still, within this society, populated by individuals oppressed by their own misery, there were some good souls, for whom life was meaningful only if they could be helpful to others, sometimes to total strangers. People like Irena, like Mrs. Funduyanu and her daughter Dickie, and like "grandfather" my friend and mentor, and some others who entered my life later, like a ray of light in the darkness. These were the righteous who enabled me to beat the odds and to come out a winner in the end.

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