Born in 1928 in Cernovitsi, Bercu was the eldest of Israel’s two sons.
A manufacturer and merchant of building materials – ceramic tiles to be specific – Israel took pride in educating his boys to the best of his ability. They learned to read, write, and converse in several languages including Romanian, Russian, German, Greek, Latin, French, and Hebrew, while Bercu, the more intellectual of the two, even learned Rashi‘s script so that the great commentaries on the Talmud could be read in their original. Bercu and his younger brother Simonica lived with their parents in a beautiful home that their father had built for their family in central Cernovitsi. Located in Bucovina, the city was then part of the Romanian province of Moldavia, although it had recently been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empirei and those influences were everywhere manifest from the Schwedentorte on up.
Then came war, again, just twenty-one years after “the war to end all wars,” and although it forced the family to flee their idyllic environs with barely a fraction of their accumulated net worth, they managed to survive this latest civilian barrage thanks in no small part to the Reds, if more on account of indifference than compassion. Had Israel’s ancestors not had the foresight to leave Lithuania when they did, their descendants wouldn’t have been so fortunate.ii
The war came and went, but having fled to Bucharest in the interim the family still had to contest with the said same Reds after the war was over. While the Soviets were the safer proposition during the war, afterwards was less clear. Sure enough, it was only a matter of time before the communists tightened the screws, particularly with regards to the ownership of private property.iii In practical terms, this meant that the family’s new residence, though nowhere near as resplendent as their home in Cernovitsi, was even still soon appropriated for more “just” uses with the addition of two more bodies into their relatively modest dwelling. Was it still better than the wartime ghetto ? To be sure, but their freedom was undeniably on the decline, and abject poverty – both spiritual and material – was within sight.
In this post-war, post-capitalist era, protecting the family’s all to humble savings became an evermore pressing concern for the paterfamilias. Out of desperation, as so many have in times past and continue to this very day, Israel turned to foreign currency. While being illegal under the new communist regime, dollars were also the most flexible and portable solution to the problem of wealth preservation. This mission to give his family the best possible life was tragically interrupted when Israel passed away from liver failure when Bercu and Simonica were still only in their early twenties. Leaving them enough assets and connections to ensure a measure of comfort, Bercu, the primogenitant,iv would still have to navigate the increasingly hostile socioeconomic landscape alone, all while taking care of his mother and younger brother.v
Making his life that much more difficult were the Wasserspieiers ((Whereas “whisperers” grumble amongst themselves but live in fear of the authorities or anyone with power, “Wasserspieiers“, the term for the water-spitting gargoyles that acted as decorous rain spouts around medieval Cathedrals, grumble amongst themselves but only live in fear of non-statal power, imagining themselves as Silent Heroes Of The People while in point of fact being nothing more than deferential gutter whores for the worst kind of pimp. It’s therefore a term of art. But how did the Wasserspieiers find out about the cash stash ? Well, what three know… )) amongst the increasingly communistically-minded locals. Word of the family’s “alternative” holdings had leaked and collective discontent ensued. Indeed, the family still held a measure of foreign currency and the ever-present informants were getting nosier and nosier.vi Bercu, feeling the heat as it were, packaged up $1000vii and shipped it to family overseas using his father’s connections to ensure that the package made it across the border undetected, which it did. But the eyes and ears in the walls didn’t give up quite so easily and someone finally filed a report with the Securitate. Bercu was taken in for questioning without his lawyerviii and was subjected to a variety of mildly cruel if not particularly unusual forms of torture with the intent of obtaining a confession from the young man. After standing on one leg for 24 hours and being beaten until blood entered his urinary tract, whether a confession was actually obtained or merely assumed, a prison sentence of 17 years was meted out. Although Bercu was then a practising engineer in his late twenties, had a wife, a daughter, a son on the way, and no foreign currency was ever discovered or confiscated, off to the prison camp he went.
Imprisoned and distanced from his young family, Bercu had little choice but to soldier on. Helping him maintain some semblance of sanity and positivity was a new friend encountered while crafting furniture in the prison factory. The new friend – a rabbi named Frankel – was a decade Bercu’s senior and the two became close companions for their shared experiences and common educations. Over the early months and years of his sentence, Bercu would come to learn that the rabbi had a good friend in New York – a friend who just so happened to be the Lubavitcher Rebbe – who in turn had a grain trader friend in London who dealt with the Romanian communists. This international network of connections was accessible only through infrequent and highly censored handwritten letters but just three years into Bercu’s sentence Frankel was able to earn his freedom, and soon thereafter, that of his new friend as well. Scarcely more than one-sixth of the way into his prison term, Bercu, who’d never met his own son, was freed.
Once on the outside, his perspective of his host country suitably corrected, he immediately began discussing emigration with his wife, Bianca. Frankel would again facilitate the paperwork but the choice of destination was up to Bercu and his lady, herself a practising physician who had supported the family and two young children while her husband was behind bars. The choices then before them were Eretz Israel or Canada : these two for the simple reason that that’s where their family connections and support networks lay.ix Biance was leaning towards Canada but Bercu thought the family would be happier and more successful in Israel. It would take them almost five years to save up enough money for the exit visas, during which time Bianca would eventually persuade her husband of the merits of the American continent.
Permitted to emigrate with just one small crate of personal possessions, the family of four bundled their belongings together and ventured west, stopping first in Rome for three months while their next round of paperwork was completed and then in Vienna for another three months while the final papers were stampled and approved. Boarding the boat bound for the Port of Montreal, they spent two seasick weeks en route to their new host country : Canada, which was soon to celebrate its 100th Anniversary of Confederation.
They never planned to return to Romania – they’d committed to a new life in what would turn out to be the true land of milk and honey – but at the behest of their persistent daughter they agreed to return in 2006, accompanied by their two children and three grandchildren. The trip was perfectly timed, for Bianca would soon begin a losing battle with cancer, from which she would pass away in 2009 at age 81. Bercu is still alive today at age 89, still maintaining two residences – one in the city and one in the Eastern Townships – between which he still drives his own car. His pastimes include answering Jeopardy before the contestants, NYT crosswords, pottery, swimming, and international travel tours with “seniors” two-thirds his age.
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- Moldavia was part of the Habsburg and then Austro-Hungarian Empires from 1775 to 1918. After briefly being part of the Romanian “nation” in the interwar period, it was absorbed as a subject province of the USSR from 1940 to 1991. The area is currently part of Western Ukraine. [↩]
- The Lithuanians were considerably more ruthless in the ethnic cleansing of their Jewish populations than the Russians were in their newly occupied territories ; about 1% of the Jewish population survived WWII in the former while closer to 50% survived in the latter. [↩]
- You’ll recognise this exact same phenomenon as “KYC/AML” or “registered investments” or “daily withdrawal limits” today. Because God forbid anyone use their own money for their own ends! [↩]
- What else do you call the beneficiary of primogeniture ? Don’t bother looking it up, your dictionary doesn’t have the answer. [↩]
- A mother who, it so happens, would live to see her 102nd birthday. [↩]
- “Wire transfers over $10k ? that’s a paddling!” [↩]
- This was hardly a wild amount of money, even at the time, but it was still “too much” and “unnecessary” in the eyes of the law. This is the same fatlogic as “Who even needs a car that has 600hp ? Where can you even use it ??” [↩]
- You might be too young to recall that this would’ve been unusual in the great US and A, but pre-2001 “Patriot Act” having a lawyer with you during questioning was pretty standard. Now, not so much. This is what I mean when I say that the Soviets didn’t die with the end of the Cold War, they just moved West like Fievel. [↩]
- This was, recall, in an era where the soi-disant “civilised” states had much less well developed star topologies. Blood WoT was everything. [↩]