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Chapter 9

What were some of the non-routine moments during my three years With the Funduyanus? Well, there were my friends: Dickie and Igor. Dickie was my confidante. I shared with her my thoughts, my hopes, my fears. She was the only one who knew my grand plan, namely that when the time arrived in May of 1945 for my mother to be freed from prison, my intention was not to wait for my mother to come back to Porotnikov or even to Bakchar, but to somehow make my way to Tomsk, a large city (about half a million inhabitants) with a railway station. A railway station would give me the best chance of further escape. Escape, I would, oh yes, I was certainly not giving up that hope.

Such an objective required careful planning: I would need a pass that gave me permission to travel some 250 km to the south, but I was ready to proceed without a pass if I would not able to obtain one. I would be fourteen by then, still considered quite young in the eyes of those whom I would meet on my way: hopefully they would accept my story. For there had to be a carefully crafted story, a story that would evoke some pity, some respect and, above all, it had to be believable. I would have to prepare and store enough non-perishable food to last me the trip, about two weeks. I would also need some money. That was the hardest part of all. I certainly could not earn any money, because nobody would have the money to pay me, at best, I would be paid with some food, or old clothes. These thoughts were going through my mind all the time and Dickie was the only person with whom I shared them.

The "story" I told her would be as follows: my father was fighting the Nazis, he was a very brave Soviet soldier (that would earn me some respect), I was separated from my mother when the war broke out because she sent me ahead with my aunt. My mother had to stay behind to take care of her parents. I didn't know what had happened to her. I was corresponding with my father throughout the war and knew he was coming to meet me in Tomsk, that was why I was on my way to Tomsk. In due course I would put my plan into action.

Igor was my main source of recreation. Even when I worked in the kolkhoz, he would convince the foreman to let me go for a day, at least once a month (they all knew whose son he was). These days were very special, because we spent them fishing, gathering berries and nuts, picnicking and sometimes even hunting. In the winter, Igor managed to get me an old pair of skis, which were fastened to the boots with a thick cord through a slot in the skis. They were heavy and awkward, but when the weather was not too cold it was wonderful fun to do something other than work.

Bakhchar was an important enough center of population to merit the installation of a public address system on the main street. The loudspeakers were pouring out an endless array of propaganda, but some of the time they broadcast Russian folk music, classical music and music from operettas by Kalman, Lehar, and Strauss. I would then walk on the wooden sidewalk, or in the winter on the snow path, to and fro, enjoying the music while it lasted. Such moments made my life more bearable. I would daydream about a different world, the world of Zastavna and Chernovitz, where such music was often heard in the house.

Being without parents at a young age had its advantages as well. The exiles, especially the Jewish exiles who lived in Bakhchar, felt obliged to invite me to their home, to offer me some food (that happened very seldom, through no fault of their own). The Goldman family was as miserable as the rest of them. Mr. Goldman was a sick man. His pallid yellow complexion framed his tormented facial expression. He had trouble digesting the meager food available to him. His first born, his beloved Natan, the apple of his eye, was imprisoned, a pretty common occurrence, but devastating for Mr. Goldman. Just the same, what was it that enabled this tortured man to prolong his miserable existence? There was his wife and a daughter, to be sure, but what really kept him alive was his faith, his absolute commitment to fulfill the commandments.

In the course of my three years of living without my mother, and even the one year prior to her arrest and two years following her liberation from prison, I was exposed to very little Jewish tradition. As time elapsed, I became less and less aware of the Jewish customs. I never knew when any of the holidays occurred and I did not even think about it. The Funduyanus were thoroughly assimilated Rumanian Jews, fairly typical of the middle and upper class Jews of Bucharest. There was not even a hint of Jewishness in their house. There was, however, a constant reminder of my being a Jew, unfortunately of a negative nature: anti-Semitism, always ugly and painful, sometimes subtle, mostly open and direct. Even though officially the regime did not encourage it, during the years of World War II the authorities needed all the help they could get to fight the war. There was even a specially formed Jewish organization, with an anti-fascist platform, officially sanctioned by the regime, which eventually was just as hastily dismantled with many of its members suffering imprisonment and death.

So, my countryman, Mr. Goldman, invited me to come for a visit. He named the date, sometimes in December, and the hour, in the late afternoon, which sounded very formal, almost conspiratorial. I was curious, of course, to find out what this was all about, so I dutifully presented myself at his dwelling at the appointed time. There were quite a few people packed into one room. In the center of the room there was a table upon which eight potatoes were lined up in a row and a ninth one was placed somewhat apart. Each potato had a small hole cut out in the center filled with oil and a small wick protruding from it. Mr. Goldman asked everyone to pay attention. He lit the candle-potato which was not part of the row and spoke in Yiddish about Chanuka, about the weak defeating the mighty, about courage and faith, then he recited the blessings and lit the other candles. Mrs. Goldman sewed the guests potato "latkes". This feast was possible only through a communal effort. Every person present in the room took a chance of being denounced. (The neighbours were told that we were celebrating the latest victory of the Red Army over the Nazis). This event stirred up a lot of memories. I could visualize the many Chanuka celebrations which I had as a child. The feelings were mixed and fluctuated between sadness for not being able to celebrate together with my family and joy for getting a taste of something which was very dear to me. Mr. Goldman's invitation was a gift of great value and very much appreciated.

Then there was Mr. Morice Taub. In Chemovitz, the Taub family consisted of three brothers, partners in a prosperous transport company. They owned a fleet of trucks, which was not very common in Bucovina. In those days, a chauffeur had to be a good mechanic as well. In case of a breakdown on the road, he had to make hasty repairs, often improvising with the limited amount of parts and tools available to him. My father did some business with the Taub Transport Co. and Morice knew my father and liked him very much. It was because of this old friendship that Morice developed a liking for me and often helped me in my need with food and clothing. He was relatively well off in Bakchar because of his constant traveling by truck, transporting valuable goods for the government. The authorities appreciated his mechanical skills and since all the drivers-mechanics were at the front fighting the Nazis, his services were irreplaceable and he was accorded some sort of immunity against sudden arrest and imprisonment. He was tall, well proportioned and quite handsome, which made him a ladies' man, always in demand and probably because of it, still a bachelor. I do not know why he was the only one of the three brothers to be exiled, but there he has, a friend and a benefactor. After every trip he always had some present for me, mostly some luxury food, like salami or cheese, or some canned food which I often shared with Dickie.

Finally, there was Nori Krause. His name was really Norbert, the same as mine, however my parents shortened the name by using the ending "Berti", while his parents used the beginning of the name: "Nori". To the best of my knowledge, Nori was the only exiled boy my age who lived in Bakchar. We became friends in the gymnasium in Chernovitz, during the week of waiting to be loaded into the trains. Then we lost track of each other until about a year later when I met him in Bakchar. It was a strained relationship for two reasons. First, it was not clear how his family managed to move to Bakchar. Permission to move was granted either because the expertise of a member of the family was needed, or because he was performing a valuable service for the authorities, that is, he was an informer. I never did find out the truth, but the mere suspicion of his father's services was enough to restrain my behaviour towards Nori. I did not think that Nori was involved in his father's dealings (if he was an informer). Second, because of my busy schedule, we did not meet very often, but whenever we did get together we talked mostly about our common past, about Chernovitz, about his family's elegant furniture store on the Herrn Gasse, the main shopping street in town. When we first met, he was so full of life, constantly inventing new games, telling stories and jokes, but now he talked sadly about the past and hopelessly about the future.

From time to time, the Funduyanus would order me to fetch some cheese from the food processing factory where they worked. I knew, of course, that the cheese was stolen and that if I was caught red-handed, I would be in serious trouble. I would enter the factory on the pretext of bringing them their lunches which they could not bring along themselves for some plausible reason. I would then wait for them to eat their food and secretly stash away some cheese into the empty dishes. It was not an elaborate disguise because many employees were involved in stealing for themselves and they depended on Funduyanu the bookkeeper to smooth out the accounts. On one occasion, while the Funduyanus were eating, a foreman invited me into the factory. He offered me a ladlefull of liquid processed cheese, scooped up directly from a large cauldron. I do not think I ever tasted anything so delicious before or after. It probably had to do with a prolonged state of poor nourishrnent, but the fresh liquid rich cheese was indeed tasty. Since this special treat, I grew more willing, and even welcomed the opportunity, to go to the food processing plant. However, the special treats were rare, most of the time I endangered my safety without a reward. On another occasion, I was almost caught with the hot "merchandise" in my possession. A party member, in charge of propaganda, was putting up some posters with the usual screaming slogans that everyone thoroughly disregarded. Fortunately, I realized the danger that he represented and managed to get out unnoticed by crouching between the working benches and waiting for the right opportunity to exit, hiding behind a bulky worker who opened the door to go out. After this near disaster, I gave up my craving for the liquid processed cheese and told the Funduyanus that my career as a delivery boy has come to an end.

In season, on days off from work, the locals would organize a large party of people to march into the forest, where there were large patches of raspberry bushes, for berry picking. It was about a three hour walk out of the village to the place where the raspberries were so abundant that within a couple of hours one could easily fill up a pail. There was safety in numbers, because of wild animals, especially bears, so it was important to operate in groups. On my very first trip, I became so engrossed in my berry picking and eating, that I somehow wandered away from the group and suddenly found myself totally alone in the forest. Initially I was not very concerned. I felt certain that the people must be nearby, although I had no idea of the actual time lapse from the moment of my separation. I walked slowly, listening very carefully to every sound in the forest. I continued to pick the berries and eat them, although now I ate them more out of nervous tension than pleasure. I began to notice certain landmarks. I slowly increased the speed of my movements and suddenly realized that I was walking in circles and that I was completely lost. I panicked and began to run. I only stopped to catch my breath and then continued to run. My mind was completely confused and I could not think clearly and could not stop running. I prayed and pleaded with Gad to help me out of my troubles. Then I ran out of the forest onto the main road. It was just a lucky coincidence. It would have been just as easy to be lost forever, since no one in the group missed me. I sat down and cried with relief, then started walking back to Bakhchar. I brought back just about one quarter of a pail of raspberries. Although Mr. Funduyanu ridiculed me, insulted me and did his utmost to make me miserable for the next few days, I really did not care. The mere thought of my panic stricken run, ending in my lucky exit onto the main road, was comforting enough to disregard all the scolding in the world.

There was something special about my relationship with Igor's mother. I managed to gain favour in her eyes and she developed a liking and even an admiration for me. All because of my European behaviour. I always spoke politely and used clean language quite unusual for a local person, for whom it was normal and acceptable to insert into regular speech a rich variety of profanity. I held the chair for her when she was about to sit down, I held her coat when she was getting dressed, I opened the door for her, I used a fork and a knife correctly, I excused myself when necessary and begged her pardon for an error. I complimented her on her looks and on her culinary skills. I thanked her for her hospitality. All of these things were unheard of in Siberian society and it made a big impression on her. She said that I came out directly from pre Revolutionary St. Petersburg society. Although I consciously put on an elaborate act, because I knew I would need her good will and her help in procuring a pass for me in the very near future, it was quite natural for me to behave that way (at least while I was still in Bucovina), since I was raised with proper etiquette. In Chernovitz it would be very natural, in Bakhchar it was odd and an attention-getter and quite pleasing to Igor's mother. Igor had a ball. After one of my rare visits to his home he would imitate my mannerism in a most hilarious way and laugh so hard that tears would roll down his cheeks. Just the same, the effect of this European behaviour towards the lady of the house was so strikingly beneficial that I repeated the act several times in the next few years, with some very worthwhile results.

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