The Bialystok Syndrome
(pages 38 - 50)
The war had not yet reached Moscow. When I got off the train and stepped outside the station, I thought I had entered another world. The streets teemed with Muscovites and traffic moved in every direction. There were towers and spires and golden domes and gardens and plazas and blotches of red on tunics and flags. There were soldiers everywhere, too, the same kinds of soldiers I had seen goose-stepping along the streets of Bialystok.
There were rich layers of history all around me but I didn't realize it. I knew nothing of Nicholas II, or Alexandra, or Tolstoy, or Tchaikovsky, or the Red guards,. or the Bolsheviks, or John Reed, the leftist writer and the only American ever to be buried in the Kremlin. Of course, my parents did their best to explain everything, but there was so much to take in. I didn't even know of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, until I saw him in his tomb as we silently marched past his embalmed body lying life-like and fully uniformed in the Mausoleum built in his honor. The soldier-guards, stiff, stern-faced, and zipper-mouthed, reminded me of the lead ones I had once played with. My father took pains to explain about the October Revolution of 1917, and who Lenin was, adding for good measure that he opposed Lenin's views. But he respected him because Lenin had an ideal. He had been a man with a cause - a mission - that was living long after he stopped breathing.
The words hardly sunk in. I was too busy craning in every direction. My father explained that throughout its history Moscow had survived riots, plagues, revolts, sieges, and foreign occupations. He told me of the Mongolian Tartars as well as the armies of Napoleon in 1812. But I was more interested in what I saw before me. The city's sights and sounds had captured my eyes and heart, rendering me like a kid plunked down in Disney World for the first time. Moscow was massive: great wooden doors, chunks of stone, tall pillars and lofty ceilings, a giant bell, and a cannon into whose bore I could have squeezed my body. And those awesome and frightening red walls of the Kremlin. They left an indelible impression on this eight-year-old refugee. I often dreamt about those red walls in the nights that followed. Who would have ever have imagined that almost to the day 50 years later I would return to Moscow - this time as a conquering hero of free markets to be hosted within those very Kremlin walls by the successors of Joseph Stalin.
During our mandatory three-day Moscow stay in late December of 1940 as we awaited the east-bound Siberian train for Vladivostok and perhaps freedom, we had the run of the city, more or less. However, our movements were monitored by Russian Intourist agents who had made all the arrangements and who my father believed were GPU. We stayed at the Novaya Moskowskaya. And while I have since learned that this was no more than a third-rate hotel (and a fifth-rate hotel today) to me at that time it was a palace, with its mirrors and chandeliers, and carpeted lobby with overstuffed chairs. What most impressed me was the floor show in the hotel's pretentious ballroom to which my father treated us one evening in celebration of our impending freedom. It featured scantily dressed female gypsies, who sang as they cavorted about the stage offering their rendition of belly dancing. But, of course, we weren't tourists out to buy knickknacks as a reminder of our trip. We were refugees, moving about cautiously. My mother's anxiety was unceasing, and my father expected to be apprehended by the secret police at every corner. For me, Moscow was a diversion; for my parents, it was a potential sinkhole. I was traveling light, toting a child's curiosity while my father lugged a fugitive's suspicion. As we pretended to stroll leisurely along the streets like other tourists, we never lost sight of the fact that the hangman was no more than a few feet behind us.
Finally, it was time to leave. We packed and cautiously made our way to the railway station. The closer we got, the more soldiers appeared. While Russia was not yet at war with Germany, it had already fought - and defeated - its small northern neighbor Finland. Stalin had taken a page out of Hitler's book by bombing the Finnish capital Helsinki in a blitzkrieg-style campaign waged in temperatures of 60 degrees below zero. Still, there were no traces of war like I had witnessed in Bialystok. Muscovites were going about their business as usual, and buildings stood tall and untouched.
We departed Moscow on a bitterly cold December morning. I remember the conductor shouting what I assume was "All aboard," the brakeman waving a lantern, and the train at first hissing, then picking up speed, and roaring. Snow covered the countryside, and within minutes the windows were glazed with moisture. It was a powerful locomotive, pulling a rickety chain of wooden cars that rumbled over narrow tracks. We had a small compartment to ourselves that could be converted into sleeping quarters. There was also a dining car that offered two sittings for each meal. We could afford tickets only for dinners. At various stops my father would get off the train and buy bread or milk or other foodstuffs for breakfast and lunch.
The trip from Moscow to Vladivostok was scheduled to take 10 days. It actually took two weeks. With every passing mile it began to sink in that we might never again see the world we were leaving. Still, we could not possibly know the absolute horror that was to unfold behind us. My mother often told me she never forgave herself for not taking my Babba along. But at the time who could know what our fate would be, and who could ever imagine theirs. There were rumors, of course; stories of Nazi atrocities circulated as fast as the Siberian chill. But Europe had not yet turned into the Jewish slaughterhouse it would later become. In late 1943, Heinrich Himmler, chief of the Nazi SS, sent a letter to Heinrich Mueller, chief of the Gestapo, in which he emphasized the importance of burning and destroying all human remains so that there would be no evidence of the genocide.
We were the fortunate ones, fleeing on a transit visa, frenzied hope, and a glimmer of dignity. At first it was a milk run, stopping at every village depot. But the deeper we went into Siberia - "sleeping land" its natives called it - the stops were fewer and fewer. Siberians knew what Muscovites apparently didn't care to know - there was joy in staggering space, providing you didn't mind battling the permafrost, the elements, and the emptiness.
Siberia - where the Mensheviks made their last stand before retreating into northern China in the 1920s - could freeze a traveler physically and mentally. Its vast stretches and solitude, coupled with the short winter days, made one lose track of time - like man's ancestors who lived in a kind of "timeless present" with a diminished sense of the past or future. In essence, our train was a sort of time machine transporting us backward in man's timeline. Clearly, Siberia was forcing us to live in the moment, despite the fact we - the retreating Diaspora - were speeding through eight time zones from the Urals to the Pacific. From Vladivostok, we were to sail across the Sea of Japan to Japan and, from there, to the far-flung corners of the world. My family's heart was set on America. Others sought to reach Canada, or South America, or Australia, or whatever country would let them enter.
Much of my time on the train was consumed staring at a landscape whitewashed with winter, my face pressed against the window like a picture locked in a frame. The birch trees that glowed orange in the autumn were now invisible, and I could have sworn the clouds were lavender as we moved through the lofty Urals heading toward Sverdlovsk, Omsk, Irkutsk, Khabarovsk; cities I could not then pronounce. While passing a frozen wasteland just after Omsk, the Melamdoviches, together with the other kindred refugees on our Siberian express, quietly welcomed the New Year and silently toasted a better tomorrow.
With every stop throughout the nights, I was awakened by the jerking and screeching halt of the train. I would gaze upon the depot from my bunk and look at the people wrapped like mummies to ward off the cold. Siberians, or Sibiryaki as they called themselves, were a hardy bunch. They grew their own vegetables, picked berries in the forests, and ice-fished. Patriotic Russian writers had lauded the Siberian way of life for its close ties to nature.
When I wasn't surveying the landscape, I focused on my father's chess games with fellow passengers, careful not to interrupt him with questions until a game was over. By the time we would reach Japan, to my father's astonishment, I could play the game. At other times, he would tutor me, mostly in mathematics. Being the mathematician-teacher he was, he thought I could learn quicker with practical application. He taught me, for instance, how to convert degrees Fahrenheit to centigrade by subtracting 32 degrees, then multiplying by five and dividing by nine. He would draw scales and graphs and lines to make a point. Both Fahrenheit and centigrade, we figured out together, converge at 40 degrees below zero.
With this exercise my father was preparing me for our visit to Birobidzhan. Practically in the middle of Siberia, about 300 miles north of Manchuria, Birobidzhan's temperature, it was rumored, was so cold that a person's breath could instantly become an icicle upon exhaling. There was constant danger of frostbite, and at that temperature a stiff wind could freeze eyelids shut.
This ice city, where the Biro and Bidzhan Rivers met, had been a gift of the Russian government to its Jewish denizens. Here, they were told, they could create their own subzero paradise. Indeed, there was a community of Jewish poets, authors, journalists, and professors who had been exiled to Birobidzhan. Many among this disaffected group, however, believed it was a far better option than ending up in the frozen grips of a gulag, or labor camp, for which Siberia had become synonymous. (Stalin had sent 17 to 25 million people to these camps from 1928 until his death in 1953. But the system's horrors didn't reach the West until the 1970s with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.)
By the time our train pulled up to the Birobidzhan station, my parents had wrapped me like the mummies I had seen at depots along the way. Besides a heavy coat, a hat, and boots, my face and nose were covered by scarves with a small opening left for my mouth. A contingent of Jewish people we didn't know waited to greet us. They had gotten word a train-load of Jewish immigrants were passing through and they wanted to know about relatives and what was happening in the war. The temperature that night was minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and centigrade-and dropping. (I'm sure the howling wind made it colder, but who knew from chill factors back then.) The scales notwithstanding, it was frigid. As we stepped out onto the platform, I was stunned by the blast of air that seeped through every fiber on my body. The rumor was true. I could see it with my own eyes; my breath had turned to tiny droplets of ice.
We milled inside the station for about an hour. It was a bittersweet reunion. We intermingled with Landsleit - fellow countrymen, fellow Jews - whom we had met for the first time. But there was instant rapport and a festive mood. People were laughing, smoking cigarettes, and drinking hot tea. The Birobidzhaner were hungry for news, any news about the real world, the world from which they were exiled. I lost count of the number of friendly pats I received on my head from the adults. As we were leaving, a certain sadness struck me over the thought that they would be left behind like our family and friends in Bialystok and Wilno. But in Birobidzhan, they struggled against a different enemy-the cold. This was hardly a land for dreamers. Or maybe it was. How else could one get through long winters without untying the melancholy knots of the mind? Back aboard the train, it felt like the tropics. I suppose to the average Birobidzahian, minus 20 degrees was a balmy day. I have never forgotten the chill of that evening, and whenever I've been cold since, Birobidzahn comes to mind.
We arrived in Vladivostok on a cold, windy morning. Founded in the nineteenth century by Russian sailors, Vladivostok was built on a series of hills overlooking a bay. Life in Vladivostok centered around its port, which was the largest in eastern Russia. The great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov had worked in a museum there. And the streets had the same kind of hustle that I had seen in Moscow. I find it no small irony that today Vladivostok boasts of an international stock exchange containing the most modern trading floor in all of Russia, located in the cavernous hall intended to house the regional archives of the Soviet Communist Party.
Carrying all our belongings in three suitcases and a number of little cases and packages, a freezing wind ripping at our clothes, the three of us walked the length of the train to the Vladivostoker vagsall the station house. My family along with the other refugees stood in endless lines to be processed in the large and smell-ridden depot at the end of a dock. The place was bedlam. But refugees get used to being crowded and squeezed into small spaces. It was an endless wait, and people sat on their baggage, on the floor. Immigration officers searched each bag as if they were looking for gold. They would search for valuables and confiscate them in the name of security - their own. Once the immigrants got wind of the shakedown taking place, they became inventive.
Yosef and Lola Brumberg, close family friends and Bundistn, came up to my parents with a request. Their son, Amik, who had just turned 13, owned a gold watch. The Brumbergs were certain he would be searched and that the watch would be found and confiscated. They were hopeful, however, that little children might not be searched. Would my parents agree to let me wear the watch? My father acquiesced. The worst thing that could happen is that the watch would be taken away. Amik quickly placed his watch on my wrist, gave me a pat, and went back to sit on his bags with his parents. I proudly wore the watch for several hours as the Brumberg's meager belongings were dissected. It was a big moment for me because I had been part of the Brumberg conspiracy - a huge victory for an eight-year-old child. The Brumbergs remained friends of the Melamdoviches all of their lives. Amik became an official of the U.S. State Department, an expert, appropriately enough, in Russian affairs.
We were still on Soviet soil, and losing a watch to a corrupt official was the least of my parents' worries. Up to this point, we were on a roll, but the wheels could come off at any moment. My father had depended on the confusion and chaos of the times to evade the authorities. Fear and propaganda had overtaken Vladivostok because of its strategic position in relation to the Japanese mainland. Japan already had bullied its way into China and Manchuria. Moreover, Soviet-Japanese relations had been simmering since 1905 when the Japanese soundly defeated the Russians in a war. It wasn't surprising that Soviet secret police were everywhere. Control was rigid. Just a few feet ahead of us, one of my father's political friends from Bialystok, who was also on a fugitive list, was caught and literally dragged away by the police. A frightened look overcame my mother's face. Disaster is about to strike us too, she thought. It was a nightmare to have come this far only to be captured by the Russian police.
But we got through the questioning and probing. For whatever reason, my father's name did not appear on any list. And nothing materially had been taken from us, which meant we possessed nothing worth taking. It was past one o'clock in the morning when we were permitted to walk up the gangplank to board the boat that would take us to Japan. The sky was black, the sea was black, and the waves smashed against the side of the boat rocking it violently. The icy wind was fierce, and my mother clutched my hand with one of hers while the other was wrapped around a suitcase and a package. I too carried something, although I never remembered what it was. My father, behind us lugging the other suitcases and packages, never uttered a sound. Inside the boat there was a peculiar smell; it was, after all, a Japanese junk. It was a small vessel but because of the darkness I didn't realize how small. I also never knew when we left; all I wanted to do was sleep. We all laid down on straw mats in the hold of the Japanese boat, together with a dozen or so other passengers. It was to be our community bedroom.
It was a wooden tub, my father said. A wooden tub that was never meant to haul human cargo. For the next three days it groaned and creaked and the horizon never stood still. We were at the mercy of the sea as we had been at the mercy of the cold. The relentless waves leaped high above the bow, drenching every inch of the deck. I awoke to the sight of scores of passengers vomiting into buckets, and the stench was gagging. My mother took me up on the narrow deck for air, and there were more heads hanging over the railing. I don't know why, but I never got sick.
We reached Tsuruga, a tiny port just north of Kyoto, a bit groggy. But the agony of the rough crossing was replaced by sheer joy. Suddenly we were free. We had escaped the Germans and the Russians. We had survived Siberia and the sea. The fear that I sensed from my father and mother in Wilno, in Moscow, on the train, and in Vladivostok had dissipated in the salt air. Now instead there was an odd sense of wonderment. There were snow-covered mountains like in Europe. But that's where the similarity ended. I was somewhat disoriented, truly a stranger in a strange land - like a left-hander in a right-handed universe. People in straw hats walked around pushing snow with funny brooms. They seemed so short. The language was fiercely strange to my European-Yiddish ear. The buildings were strange, too, so unlike those of Eastern Europe that were fancy and tall, built of stone with columns and porticos. Most Japanese structures - more delicate in decoration if less monumental in scale - were made of wood, with paper walls and wooden walkways and delicate gardens. In contrast to Russia, where everything seemed enormous, this California-size archipelago felt constricted and fragile. Yet there appeared to be more order and a sense of more calm than I had felt in a long while. The imperial army notwithstanding, there was a kindness on the part of the Japanese people toward strangers from the West. It was truly remarkable. They were so considerate and friendly to us. As we departed down the gangplank, I heard some strange language pointed at me from some onlookers. "Japanese boy, Japanese boy," they snickered in a language I did not know. Someone later explained to my mother that I was mistaken for a Japanese boy.
It takes time to get into the rhythm of a system, whether it's a trading strategy, an organization, or a foreign culture. But by January 1941 - less than a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor - time had caught up with us, and there was not a lot of it left to soft-pedal and massage. Of course, we didn't realize Japan was to become the enemy as it geared up to attack the United States. We saw Japan as a haven, not a prison; the Japanese as liberators, not captors. After all, it was by the grace of Sugihara that we escaped doom. Oddly, the Japanese saw the Jews in a different light from the fascists and communists: as potential allies with financial clout. Some historians believe there was a plan to create a haven for Jews in Japanese-controlled Manchuria in exchange for financial aid in helping to develop the region. A question remains, however, whether such a plan ever existed since it was never executed. Nevertheless, when other nations were closing their doors to Jewish refugees, Japan continued to allow them to settle in Shanghai.
It was difficult, however, for my father to reconcile the nation's natural Jingoism with its Zen Buddhist emphasis on passionless calm to gain satori the insight into philosophical truths. We were among a people who coveted inner peace and austere beauty, for whom the stark simplicity of a rock and sand garden held a mystical relationship, where tea masters conducted ancient tea ceremonies, where poets recited the traditional poetic forms baiku and waka, and where altar less shrines were built with space in which to feel. But for centuries, the Land of the Rising Sun had also been the land of the samurai and authoritarian shoguns, and now imperial order under Emperor Hirohito who bowed to the generals. By the twentieth century, Japan's culture had created a nation with a strong sense of community and collective mentality: it was better to play on a winning team than to shine as an individual star. That same sensibility would help turn a defeated Japan into an economic titan - "Japan, Inc." - in the decades after the war.
So far, my father had been remarkably right in his every move. If he had been a commodity trader, he would have been well ahead of the game. He had an uncanny instinct, a sixth sense, for making the right decision under pressure and in critical situations. He did it when he left Bialystok before the Germans captured us, when he refused to return with the Russian army, when he smuggled my mother and me on the last train out of Bialystok, and when he managed to get a visa from Ambassador Sugihara. He showed it again when we reached Japan and were confronted with yet another critical fork in the road to freedom. A decision had to be made about where to apply for a visa to the United States. The options were Tokyo, Yokohama, or Kobe Each city had a U.S. consulate but the trick was that you had to live in the city where the application was made. Why did it matter? It mattered a lot. Our new friends who had arrived in Japan before us had a variety of opinions about which U.S. consulate, which foreign officer, would be more likely to issue a visa. First, there was always the question of who was more anti-Semitic, the eternal question for Jews on the run. There were also rumors about which foreign consulate favored single people over families. Then there was the most critical question of all: once in America, to work or not to work? One theory was that if you said you would seek employment, it was good because then you wouldn't be a burden on the state. On the other hand, there were those who claimed that if you sought work, it was bad because you would be displacing the job of an American citizen. And, of course, the theory you embraced determined the U.S. consulate to which you should apply.
My father ultimately decided to say he and my mother would seek employment. As Jewish schoolteachers, he reasoned, they couldn't possibly be displacing many jobs. Of course, given the influx of Jewish refugees to the United States, he had no idea if there was a need for any more teachers of his type; or for that matter, if there was a viable Jewish school system in America. Regardless, their application marked them as educated people who could become useful to society almost as soon as they reached the shore. They were teachers, and my father decided to capitalize on that fact. We had also heard there were quotas in various countries and that the United States was about to close its doors to Jewish refugees. Stories circulated about how the United States had refused to accept a shipload of Jewish refugees who were then forced to return to Europe. The odds were definitely against us. But they had been before and my father wasn't going to be deferred by that prospect.
The obvious choice was to settle in Kobe since that was the cheapest place for refugees to live. Tokyo was expensive even then, and the Jewish Labor Committee, the agency in Japan that helped the incoming refugees, could only afford to provide a limited amount of funds. But my father concluded our chances were better working through the consulate in Tokyo. Since we couldn't afford to live there, it was decided my mother and I would live in Kobe, and my father would become a commuter. He would move to Tokyo, a seven-hour train ride from Kobe, to share a room with two other friends, in order to establish residence and apply for a visa there. He would return to Kobe on weekends aboard what he called the Refugee Express. He wasn't alone. There were many others using the same strategy. And as in Kovno, there were thousands of refugees who faced a weeding-out process that seemed arbitrary. It wasn't a first-come, first-served basis. Nor did political asylum carry any weight.
We moved into a small one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a wooden frame structure. We had no idea how long our stay would be, maybe permanent. A million people lived in Kobe, which was a principal port that shipped nearly 40 percent of Japan's exports. Its big rubber plants and steel mills belched smoke 24 hours a day leaving thick gray clouds to boil over the city. But there were rural parts of Kobe, such as the Tarumi district in the southwest where farmers cultivated terraced fields on mountain slopes and bred cattle they massaged with straw to produce leaner meat. Within minutes from the city's center were beaches and mountain ranges that were part of the Japan Alps, as they were called. The Japanese revered their mountains and made pilgrimages to them, but during the 1930s, few climbed them for sport.
By now I was used to change - quick change. In a matter of 18 months, my travels had taken me from Poland to Lithuania to Russia and finally Japan. During that period, I had attended two different schools, adding Lithuanian and a smattering of Russian to my vagabond's lexicon. Now I was to enter the International School where instruction was in Japanese. Another school, a fifth language to cope with. My parents had to cope, too.
As it turned out, our first linguistic struggle was with English rather than Japanese. My parents accompanied me to enroll me in school. The teacher was not Japanese. She was an American missionary, a Quaker I believe, who spoke fluent Japanese and, of course, English, as well as a smattering of other languages. Within minutes of meeting, my parents and the teacher had created their own Tower of Babel. Despite all the languages at their command, they could not find a common one to bridge the communications gap. Small wonder my parents were confused when the teacher told them to pick me up when the class ended at "noon."
At first my mother thought the teacher had said "moon," an English word she knew to mean earth's celestial satellite. But, clearly, it was impossible for class to let out when the moon came out. When it became clear that the teacher had said "noon," my father felt he had the answer. Noon is a letter in the Yiddish alphabet. But at first my parents couldn't figure out its cryptic use by the teacher. Then my father started counting. "Noon" was the fifteenth letter in the alphabet. That's what she must have meant, he reasoned. "We will pick him up at 3:00 P.M."
To her credit, the teacher actually waited with me the three hours after my first day's class until my parents finally showed up. Then the comical conversation between my parents and the teacher began again as they tried to straighten out the mistake. I could sense the frustration in their voices. It was right out of a story by Sholem Aleichem. After the shouting subsided, the teacher pointed to her watch and the confusion was cleared up. Sign language and symbols had saved the day.
Figuring out the length of the school day was the least of my worries. It was the length of my hair that really caused me grief. To conform to the Japanese school code, my locks were shorn to within a quarter inch of my scalp. But by now my parents welcomed a school for me even if it would have meant becoming totally bald. As my parents viewed it, a head of hair was a small sacrifice for a chance to interact with children my own age. They were right. It had been nearly three months since I attended a school of peers, since I heard the shouting and giggling of children. Having been with adults for such an intense period at first made it awkward to deal with my new classmates. I easily could have withdrawn, but I adjusted quickly despite the language barrier. This wasn't your ordinary group of neighborhood kids. It was a class of foreigners who shared a common rootlessness. And our ages belied a certain sophistication acquired as world citizens. Their fathers were either part of the diplomatic corps, or business community, or refugees like us, and they came from Europe, India, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. In many cases, their families had settled in Japan for a lengthy stay. For my family, Japan was to be a way station on the road to somewhere else. But for how long, no one could say. It depended, my father said, on the right answers and paperwork.
Meanwhile, life became fairly routine. In an instant, Japan had transformed our frightened and freezing existence into a warm land of blue skies. No one was following us, no one was after us; instead, there were friendly people, colorful kimonos, wooden shoes, and so much to see. There were the Japanese performing arts, originating from ancient religious customs and Buddhist rituals to become the captivating Kabuki and Bunraku puppet shows. There was the wondrous trip up the Fujiyama, its volcanic fumes mysteriously rising from the top. The mountaintop included my first encounter of a genuine Buddha sitting benevolently in its holy shrine. There was the Ginza with its multitude of shops, its breathtaking bustle and foot-traffic, laden with kimonos of every color in the rainbow; beautiful women with their wide obi, or the short baori coat, or the yukata with its stencil-dyed patterns in shades of indigo. It was difficult not to be impressed and awed.
Once, in an unusual burst of enthusiasm for the unique new culture around us, my father insisted that we partake in some Japanese cuisine. Opinionated, set in his ways, and not much of an experimenter when it came to foreign foods, it was out of character for him to walk into a strange restaurant and order from a strange menu. Nevertheless, he did it, pointing to several items shown in pictures on the Japanese menu for a smiling waiter who spoke only Japanese. My mother sat there shoeless on a straw mat, tight-lipped, holding back a laugh. The pickled cucumbers and cabbage were familiar tastes. And some of the raw fish reminded my father of herring. We even got through the rice wrapped in sheets of seaweed. It was the rubbery little creature my father began chewing that turned his dark complexion to white and brought a quick end to our gastronomical adventure. Suddenly he looked like those people who had buried their heads in buckets on the rocky ship that brought us to Japan. It was the first time - and last - he ever dined on octopus. My mother had not touched a crumb. From then on, it was home cooking. There was plenty of salmon and tuna. And since Japan lived on rice and fish, so did we - as long as the fish had scales. Even in Japan my mother was able to maintain her abolition of non-kosher foods. For instance, only those animals that chewed their cud and had cloven hoofs were kosher, as were fish with both scales and fins. Shell fish were a definite no-no along with things that crawled. Eating kosher was the kind of ritual my father abhorred. But to his dismay, my mother did it, as did her mother, and her mother's mother, and so on.
Although my father vowed never to venture into another restaurant until he could read the menu, he still had a hearty appetite for exploring Japanese culture. This time we literally immersed ourselves in it. Again, my father took my hand, waved goodbye to mother, and the two of us went to a public bathhouse. The Japanese bathing customs had grown out of Shinto purification rites. But to the average Japanese, the baths no longer had ritual meaning. After a hard day in the office or in the field, they would use the baths for both cleanliness and relaxation. I didn't quite understand why we were there, because we had a bathtub in our apartment - but not as big or as deep or as crowded. I remember steam rising from the water's surface and the water at first feeling hot, unlike the chilling ocean that had sprayed us on deck during our crossing from Vladivostok. The water, we were told, came from thermal springs. With only a veneer of lather to hide our modesty, we plunged into the miniature pool, welcomed by an entire family: the father, mother, children, and assorted cousins. Yet another family jumped in after us. We washed and soaked in the same water exchanging glances and smiles for the better part of an hour. Communal bathing wasn't for everyone, my father conceded, but as he later explained to my mother, indeed it was a fascinating means of bridging the language barrier.
The Japanese, I decided, were the most courteous people on earth. One early morning when we were going to visit a friend, we got lost. My father used sign language on a passerby, showing the Japanese gentleman the envelope on which an address was scribbled, and asked for directions. Seeing that we could not understand the language, the man disregarded the fact that he was on his way to work, and stayed with us for the next hour or so until he found where we were supposed to be.
But there were unpleasant moments as well. One evening, as I sat by the window watching the people below, suddenly the earth began to rumble beneath me and the walls moved. It wasn't much of an earthquake and it did little damage. But it startled my mother who grabbed me and ran from the house. By the time we were out the door, the ground had settled. Furniture moved and what few dishes and pots we had rattled off the cupboard whose door had flung open. Beyond that, there was no damage. Just a quick scare, another threat to worry about. We had been told about the devastation of Tokyo that was ravaged by fire in the 1923 earthquake, and that we would grow accustomed to the tremors. Of course, our encounter in Kobe was routine and a full five decades before that city would suffer the catastrophic 7.2 Richter-scale earthquake of 1995. In any event, as refugees, we were used to being on shaky ground anyway. And besides, coping with Mother Nature could be a lot easier than coping with a bureaucrat who held your fate in his hands.
One Friday afternoon in late March, my father had returned to Kobe in a depressed mood. He told mother that the outlook was bleak for reaching America. Numerous applicants were being rejected, and Jewish agency officials told him to consider other alternatives. Perhaps, he suggested, we should settle for Shanghai where a Jewish community seemed to be thriving under the Japanese. We knew we had to move on, but didn't feel the desperate sense of urgency we had in Lithuania. While we still had no inkling that the Pearl Harbor attack was but nine months away, my father and his friends would often discuss the political tensions mounting between the United States and Japan. Such discussions always left my father with the same uneasy feeling: that people like us, swept up in currents beyond our control, were the flotsam and jetsam of war and what we did mattered little.
On Sunday morning, the currents unexpectedly shifted. We got word that we were to appear at the Tokyo embassy the very next day at 2:00 PM. It was the prelude to receiving a visa to America. The long shot had come in. But here we were in Kobe. If we missed the appointed time, who knew what consequences would follow. The American authorities might even discover that we were not residents of Tokyo. My father panicked as we rushed to the train station. We took the night train for Tokyo and didn't mind traveling third class, packed like sardines all the way. We ate some fruit my mother had brought, and we watched the other passengers regale in rice, raw fish slices, and an assortment of vegetables in little boxes bought from hawkers at the various depot stops. We reached Tokyo well after 2:00 PM., and I could feel my heart pumping as if I had been running up hill. I can only imagine my parents' hearts and the adrenaline flow. Weaving our way through the heavy traffic in a taxi, we arrived at the embassy, across from where the Hotel Okura now stands, a good hour late. I remember because my mother kept looking at her watch and giving time reports at five-minute intervals.
We got the visa. Try as they did, my parents could not hold back their elation, even though my mother thought of a thousand horrors that could yet befall us. To this day, I live with my mother's apprehension, which I carried with me from Poland to the shores of America and subsequently into my professional and private life. I call it the Bialystok Syndrome: take care - disaster lurks around the next corner! But on that day in Tokyo, we had beaten the odds once again.
Leo Melamed, Bialystok 2000
Last Updated October 30th, 2003