From Siberia to Netanya: An odyssey

Moscow radio brought news of the establishment of the State of Israel, amazing, cataclysmic news.

en years ago, having just marked his 70 birthday, Izak Dashinsky found himself in Nahariya, a town he had hitherto never heard of. The journey began some five years earlier in the Siberian city of Irtusk, where Izak had made his home for the previous 30 years. Previously his life had been unsettled, uncertain and precarious, even before his birth, from the moment his newly-wed parents, Wolf and Irena, crossed the border from Eastern Russia into the small town of Hai Lar in China - needing at that time no special permit. The turmoil in Russia, just merging as the USSR, had brought violence and danger to the very streets. "White" elements had not given up hope of driving out the "Reds" who threatened to destroy their feudal way of life, take their privileges and leave them to the mercy of the peasants they had so long oppressed. Taking only what they could carry, the young couple slipped across the border to shelter in the first space their meager savings could afford them. They had heard that jobs were available for willing workers, and to their relief discovered that to be true. Wolf found work in a sausage factory and earned just enough to pay the rent and feed the two of them. As the factory expanded, his wages increased and in 1926, their baby, Izak, was born into a comfortable home. There they lived unobtrusively for eight years. In his eighth year, Izak's wanderings began. Shortly after his birthday, his mother died. He remembers that period as a cold cloud - he always seemed to be shivering. Wolf tried to hold on to his job and be both mother and father to the child, but was worn out with grief. He engaged a family to take in and care for his son. They were good people, Izak remembers, and his father visited from time to time. At a school run by French educators, Izak learned French and English as well as whatever was needed for his baccalaureate. The house he lived in boasted a radio and he discovered the BBC. Izak eagerly absorbed every word - information that was not available on Russian radio. His father was married again - to a pharmacist - and together they opened a modest herbal-medicine shop. Izak got on well with his stepmother and she always made him welcome in their new home. After leaving school without special skills or training, Izak did odd jobs as a laborer until his fluent English secured him work with Warner Brothers, who were just opening up in China. Izak acquired an old, but workable camera and began to take pictures, with the vague hope of staying with Warner and going into films. It was a good idea, but he was kindly advised to study the craft seriously and enroll in a respectable university with a good arts faculty. Izak's personal portfolio was good enough, they told him, to allow him to register. However, every university demanded admission fees and none within his geographical location had departments that included photography. He was crestfallen. "Well," said his father after a long discussion, "you have a Russian passport. Things have settled down now in the Soviet Union and education is free." Izak never saw his father again, although his stepmother lived a long life and they kept in touch. At the Russian border, the guards regarded him with suspicion, but his passport was valid and obviously his own. They took it away and gave him a flimsy three-month pass which was to be renewed at a police station. His pocket knife was confiscated, (it was claimed as a dangerous weapon,) as was a small Hebrew-Russian prayer book. Izak suspected that neither of them could read and protested, not only because this had been his father's gift, but because in the flyleaf was a list of names and addresses of relatives and old family friends who might have been able to help him. Most hurtfully, the police took away his portfolio of carefully selected photographs that were to be his entry into art school. He could get them back, he was told, by applying to the Ministry of Home Affairs in Moscow. Stripped of everything that might have helped, Izak picked up his violated bundle of clothes and set off for the railway station. The only address he could remember was that of his mother's sister. She lived in Irtusk, almost 1,000 miles away. Irtusk railway station was no friendlier or welcoming than the border crossing. He had an address, but no idea where it was. It was growing dark and very cold when he arrived, but the few pedestrians he approached for directions could not - or would not - help. He wandered up and down one street after another looking hopefully at the street names, until he found the house. Weary, cold and hungry, he stumbled to the front door and knocked. The door was opened by his barely-remembered aunt who immediately embraced him as tears of gratitude clouded his eyes. The dream of a career in photography had vanished with the confiscation of Izak's portfolio, so he settled for his second interest and soon enrolled at the local university to study chemical engineering. He clung to his small portable radio, permanently tuned to the BBC. News from outside the Soviet Union was severely censored - and compared with what he heard clandestinely, often inaccurate. But Moscow radio brought the finest news: The establishment of the State of Israel. For the scattered Jews of Irtusk it was amazing, cataclysmic news. There was at that time no sense of community among the small Jewish population. Religion was not an issue. Most of the Jews were young and away from families that might have celebrated festivals and rituals, however secretly. News was meager from official channels but the BBC - though often jammed by the authorities - helped him get a fair picture that he passed on to other Jews he knew it was safe to speak to. His diploma in chemical engineering got him a job, and slowly over the years he acquired a wife, two children, a home and - by using the unofficial but widespread barter system - a television. Izak's work in the manufacturing plant was heavy, dirty and dangerous - not because of the items produced, but because maintenance was slovenly, precautions ignored and safety standards flouted. Many of his fellow workers were injured, and Izak decided it was time to leave. He became a builder: long hours, heavy work, but less hazardous. Izak settled into a routine that fed his family, educated his children and promised a pension, but he felt vaguely unsatisfied. His years of taking in world news made him think of wider horizons. His son and daughter graduated, worked, married and became parents themselves. Izak reached retirement age. One evening, when talking to his son, Vladimir, he voiced his dissatisfaction with present circumstances. Vladimir was also restless and longed for a chance to bring up his children elsewhere. An odd idea came into Izak's mind: "Do you know that the Jewish Agency has opened an office here?" He son hadn't known. He'd heard snippets of information from whatever his father had been able to pick up. They went to the office. It all sounded good, but very strange. So far away, so risky. His daughter was already married with a baby and was not interested in their plans. Izak's estranged, though still-friendly, wife decided she was too set in her ways. After being subjected to long, sometimes incomprehensible bursts of information, it happened. Bag and baggage, the parents, three boys and grandpa were directed to a top floor apartment near the sea in Nahariya. Two of the boys were school age, one still in kindergarten. The parents attended classes and looked for work. Izak did the shopping, kept house, tried his hand at cooking, looked after the boys and felt very lost. There were plenty of Russian speakers around, but he did not feel he fit in with the older ones. He began to learn Hebrew, but first the boys and then his son and daughter-in-law outpaced him so rapidly that he was discouraged from trying. Izak's solace was the local library, offering a large selection of books in English and a daily newspaper: The Jerusalem Post, whose every word he valued. He also met some of the English-speaking community and rejoiced at being able to speak - at least to that group - with confidence. One of the magazines on the library rack was The Bulletin, a Russian language periodical directed at Chinese-born Russians. Izak seized the opportunity to inquire after old friends and colleagues. The paper was also published in English, and Izak was upset to find how many errors and misinterpretations crept into the texts. He volunteered to correct them. Izak was given an old Remington portable typewriter by a friend. Now he was on his way. His translations from Russian to English and vice-versa became a standard feature of the paper, and his name appeared in the credits. Eventually, Izak was presented with a fairly new Russian-language typewriter, and declined his son's offer to teach him how to use a word processor. His tiny room became so crowded with files and bundles of paper that he had to edge in. It was also damp and he was worried about his books, so he moved into a tiny one-room apartment in a freshly-built facility for new immigrants. Now he works more hours than ever for the paper. An entire wall in his apartment holds shelves where pride of place is taken by 24 enormous volumes of a world encyclopedia in Russian (that took up precious space in the family's baggage allowance, but could not be left behind). Books are his passion. Floor space is limited to two meters. Books cover the desk - they have to be cleared off the one chair if there is a visitor - and are stashed beneath the bed: history, biography, military strategy, political science, some gifts, some second-hand, some saved for. Izak's Russian pension goes to his daughter, who he still hopes will visit, but his material wants are few. He has a view of the sea, dictionaries, a thesaurus, antonyms and synonyms all at hand. He nods kindly to his 80th birthday and continues typing.