Klim's Great Escape from Communist Romania

Part-14: Going My Way

After a good night's sleep, next morning, on October 29, 1969 --my first morning in America!, I flew to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From the airport in Pittsburgh, as planned, I took a taxi to the Jewish Organization of Pittsburgh --my official sponsor in the United States. [That Pittsburgh was chosen for me was purely arbitrary, as it could have been any other city within the United States with a Jewish Organization.] Looking through my taxicab's window, I could not believe that the rural scene that I was seeing was part of America! (From Romania, we envisioned the whole of America as being Manhattan-like!) After a few minutes, I remember asking the taxi driver in total disbelief:
"Where are we? This cannot be America!"

"It is America all right, what are you talking about?" --the driver responded. To this, I replied:

"You can tell me the truth where are we? I KNOW that this is not America!"


"This is Pittsburgh and we going downtown, as you asked me. I was born here and I know where we are!" --the driver responded. Perhaps, thinking that I was a little bit nuts, we had no further conversation. As we approached the center of the city, I was considerably more at ease as the surroundings began to look more like my Manhattan visualization!

I reached the HIAS offices of Pittsburgh where I had been expected. The arrangement was that they would provide me money for food and shelter and I in return would have to look for a job and report to them weekly on my progress. If I were sick and in need of hospitalization, I was told that they would pay for the entire cost. I was entitled to all this support from HIAS for the first two years after which, I was told, that I would be completely on my own. They already reserved a room for me in a Jewish family and they paid $50 per month for the rent. In addition, I was to receive every week until I found a job, $20 for food and other necessities.

After a week, at my regular weekly scheduled visit, I informed my contact officer from HIAS, that I did not like anything about Pittsburgh and that, I could not conceive starting my life here, much less to stay here for the two year period. To this the counselor from HIAS advised me that if I were to leave Pittsburgh, I would lose immediately all my benefits and support from HIAS. He then continued by saying that every newcomer needed a time for adjustment and thus, that my initial reaction was not uncommon at all.

Another two weeks had passed, and we were now in November, and I had no winter clothes of any sort. More troubling for me however was the fact that I did not like at all my living arrangements which were in a home of ultra-orthodox Jews. You could not turn on the lights, radio or TV on Saturdays, you could not mix dairy products with meat products, you had to place the silverware in specially designated locations, etc. In short, these restrictions for me made my life miserable and, I knew that I was in the wrong place and that I had to get out of what I considered to be an absurdly ridiculous and irrational confinement.

On my next scheduled visit to HIAS, I raised the question of my living accommodations asking my counselor whether HIAS would object if I found a different place for living of my own liking. I was told that there was no objection as long as my rent did not exceed the allocated sum of $50 per month. "How can you find available rooms for rent in Pittsburgh?" --I asked the HIAS counselor. "You look in the paper" --the counselor responded as he handed me the Pittsburgh Jewish newspaper that was sitting on his desk.

Asking for permission after my visit was over, I took the paper into another room, and randomly I picked one listing from the many that were posted. Upon calling to get some information about the room listed for rent, an extremely refined lady answered the telephone. After I explained why I was calling, the lady began to ask numerous questions related to my background. Apparently satisfied with my answers, the lady gave me her street address indicating that it was in Squirrel Hill and invited me to come and see if I liked the place. I asked her whether $50 per month was satisfactory for rent as that was how much I could pay through HIAS. She indicated that that sum was fine, and we set 3 o'clock next afternoon for the time that I would come to see the place.

Next day, I took a taxi for my appointment and when the taxi stopped and the taxi driver indicated that that was the address, I could not believe my eyes at what I was seeing: I was sitting in front of a palace! I have never in my life seen such a magnificent and imposing house. I was positive that I was in the wrong place, as I could not imagine that the occupants of that stupendous house would need my $50 per month help! With hesitation nevertheless I rang the bell on the front door. An extremely elegant lady in her early sixties answered the door. Before I had a chance to say anything, I noticed a small monkey on the lady's back held by a gold chain. The lady immediately invited me in saying that she was pleased that I came on time. As I was walking into the house mesmerized by the entire scene, I noticed on my left side a white piano with gold trim and some music sheets with music of Mozart on it. As I advanced further into the house, I noticed two tall dogs which seemed to be quite unfriendly.

The lady said that we were going on the second floor to see the room that was available for rent. It was a large room stunningly beautiful and clean with exquisite baroque type furniture. The lady then said that across the room was my bathroom, that the linen were changed every second day, that the towels were changed every day, and that for my laundry I was to go to the corner of the street where there was a Laundromat. After all that presentation, the lady indicated that if I liked the room, I could move immediately. Stunned by all this, I wanted to make sure that the lady understood that I was able to pay only $50 per entire month and that the payment for rent would come through a check issued by HIAS of which I had no control. To this she said that that was just fine and that I should not worry about things that are out of my control as everything would work itself out just fine. In that case, I responded that I could move in on the next day.

On the following day I called HIAS letting them know of my new address. They informed me that they would mail the check for the rent to the new address in the afternoon of the same day that I moved in. As I moved in, the lady of the house, most graciously, invited me for dinner indicating that formal attire (suit with tie) would be required. I accepted that invitation with delight. At dinner time, the lady of the house introduced me to her daughter --a young woman in her twenties, my age at that time. The daughter was extremely reserved hardly saying anything. Most of the conversation was done by me in response to the numerous questions that the lady of the house had with respect to my background. Her interest in me astounded and intrigued me. The meal was extraordinarily opulent served with exquisite red wine brought from the house's cellar. As I was about to retreat to my room, I was invited next morning to have breakfast with them which, I was told, would be at 8 o'clock in the breakfast room. I graciously accepted the invitation.

Once back in my room, I began wondering what was going on. The house had three (3) floors, and I estimated that it had some thirty (30) rooms. In the whole house, I saw only two people: the lady of the house and her daughter. The dinner that I had just consumed could easily have exceeded fifty dollars ($50). Any lamp of the numerous lamps in the house could clearly have exceeded $50. Why then they were renting the room for only $50 per month when they clearly did not need the money? --was the question which I could not understand. The whole thing appeared as a great mystery to me.

Next morning I had breakfast with the lady of the house alone. I could not bring myself to asking THE QUESTION as to what was going on and why she was renting the room when she clearly did not need the money. Instead, I mentioned to her my desire to go, after breakfast, to the University of Pittsburgh to see if my Diploma from the Faculty of Mathematics and Mechanics of the University of Bucharest would be good here. To this she said to let her call the Dean of the University of Pittsburgh first. In dismay I asked "Do you know the Dean?" to which she said with an elegant and witty smile: "We know everyone of importance in Pittsburgh!" Thanking her for the breakfast and for the help offered, I timidly indicated to her that it would be my preference if she would not contact anyone. She with a little bit of hesitation stated: "All right, if that is what you want." As I was about to leave the breakfast room, the lady indicated that on that evening her three (3) sons would be there for dinner and that she would like me to be there too so that I could be introduced to them. Expressing my delight in meeting the rest of her family, I agreed to be back by dinner time.

On that evening at diner aside from the lady of the house and her daughter, the lady's three sons and their wives were also present. The sons were in their thirties and one of them appeared to like me very much. I was at the center of attention and everybody appeared to be very friendly towards me with one exception: the young daughter of the lady of the house. The daughter was unusually reserved the whole time and any time that I attempted to strike up a conversation with her she either ignored me or would give me a snappy answer in the form of either Yes or No.

Days began to pass one by one and I was frequently invited for breakfast and dinner. The more I began analyzing the entire situation the more incomprehensible and bizarre it appeared to be. In fact, day by day I began being consumed more and more with my inability to understand what was going on. On the other hand, at HIAS I had difficulties as they were unhappy that I was not working. They in fact threatened to cut my rent money and the food allowance if I did not show progress with my job searches.

One morning, over breakfast, I mentioned to the lady of the house the difficulties that I was having with HIAS mentioning the possibility that HIAS might cut my rent money. In a burst of outrage, the lady, in my presence called the President of the Jewish Community of Pittsburgh complaining of the way HIAS was treating me. The lady advised the President that if she should ever hear again that I was mistreated by HIAS, that she would withdraw immediately her one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) annual donation to HIAS. After she hung up the telephone, and still fuming, she stated to me with visible indignation:

"In Pittsburgh, we are one of the most prominent Jewish families donating every year to HIAS one hundred thousand dollars to help immigrants just like yourself settle in America. It is outrageous that they would have the nerve to behave like that with new immigrants. Don't worry about the rent money, I am sure that I will receive the check from HIAS for your rent on time."

Stunned by all this, I apologized several times for the trouble that I had caused and promised that I would never bring to her attention again any of my personal problems. To this, now completely calmed and relaxed, she responded:

"But, I want to know about all your problems, as we are in a position to help. I insist that you come tonight for dinner as we have much more to say."

Nodding my head, I acknowledged her request with a simple "Thank you."

In a day or two, I received by mail a note from HIAS asking me to come before my scheduled weekly visit. I was introduced at that time to the Director from HIAS who was extremely concerned and apologetic about my unhappiness with HIAS. I was told that any problem that I might have in the future I was to report directly to him, and that I was to let the lady of the house know that he was personally taking care of me. He went on by saying that it was extremely important for him to transmit to her his personal assurances that he would be taking care of all my future needs. Under no circumstances, I was told, was I to bother her with my problems.

I was tremendously impressed with my landlady's clout and relieved that HIAS would continue with its uninterrupted assistance. I informed her of the positive outcome with HIAS. She was visibly pleased and I was invited again for dinner. In the evening, at the diner table, she was with her daughter and nobody else. At some point in the conversation, which was always between the lady of the house and myself as her daughter usually sat quietly and barely acknowledged my presence, the lady asked me as to whether I had any particular hobbies. Being in the middle of winter with a lot of snow, I mentioned that I enjoyed skiing. To this the lady immediately stated:

"Good. We have a ski reservation in Colorado next to that of the Kennedys. Why don't you and my daughter go there for a few weeks."

Her daughter, upon hearing this, in visible anger, immediately rose from the chair, threw from her hands both the knife and the fork onto the table and said "Excuse Me" as she left the room. I did not know what to make of all this as I was embarrassed and sorry for what had happened. After a brief pause, I stated to her:

"For several weeks now it has been clear to me that you have tried to get me and your daughter together but she, on the other hand, has tried to avoid this as much as she could. I do not understand then, why you are doing this when she clearly does not want it?"

To this, the landlady stated: "Don't worry about it. In due course, I will explain everything." Not satisfied with her answer, I continued pressing her for a less evasive answer:

"Aside from pushing me to be with your daughter, there are other things that I do not understand. Why did you put that ad in the paper that I responded to for a room for rent when you clearly do not need the money? How come that in this huge house only you and your daughter live? Your attention and kindness towards me are truly out of the ordinary and I could not help wondering as to why you are doing this? I have had these questions from the very first day that I came here and I have spent considerable time in trying to find an answer and to make some sense of the entire situation."

To this, the landlady remained unmoved from her initial position by stating: "Don't worry about this. All your problems can be resolved." To this, pressing my point, I continued:

"But, I need to have an answer right now as all this is too much of a distraction for me. If I cannot have a straight answer, I am afraid that I cannot continue living here."

"All right, we will talk about this tomorrow morning at breakfast. I am retiring now." --the lady said. Saying good night to each other, we left. In my room, these questions had begun to consume me much too much leaving me little time for anything else.

Next morning, I was determined to get to the bottom of all this. At the breakfast table, I insisted on having the answers. To my insistence and persistence, the lady of the house asked me to follow her to the third floor of the house. We entered into a huge study room, rather dusty, where I was invited to sit down. The landlady went behind a large desk where she sat down and was now facing me directly. She then in a somber voice stated:

"In our family we have experienced a great tragedy. Some three years ago my husband died of cancer. But this is not the tragedy that I am talking about, as we were prepared for that. The real tragedy happened with my daughter. My late husband and I decided that our daughter be educated in a special private boarding school for ladies here in Pittsburgh. That school required a 4-year commitment in which a girl sent there would stay there without coming home for the entire 4-year duration of the program. At the end of the 4-year program, the school assured us that our daughter would turn out to be a truely fine lady with impeccable manners as well as having received a first-class education. So, we sent our daughter to that particular boarding school.
     When our daughter returned after the 4-year stay at the school, we were horrified at what we saw. My daughter came home wearing a big cross and profoundly hating Jews. We did not know at the time that that school (which now, after being discredited, is no longer in existence) had a strong anti-Semitic education. We, as you have seen, are liberal Jews in the sense that we do not observe with stringency the kosher cuisine nor are we fanatic about observing certain Jewish religious activities. But we nevertheless are extremely proud of our Jewish heritage as our family is very active within our Jewish community.
    Our family owns three (3) factories of towels here in Pittsburgh and my late husband until his untimely death was in charge of them. Now, the control of these factories have been passed to my three (3) sons that you have met here several times. Legal WillHere is the will of my late husband and, as you can see it is rather voluminous. It contains detailed clauses for perhaps all imaginable situations in reference to myself, my daughter, and my three (3) sons. The will, has three (3) most pertinent parts:
     -With respect to my daughter, the will provides that if my daughter marries a non-Jewish man, that she will receive five dollars ($5) and nothing more for her inheritance. If on the other hand, she marries a Jewish man, then she will get a ten thousand dollars ($10,000) wedding gift plus a percentage for life as an inheritance from the profits of the three (3) factories.
     -With respect to my three (3) sons, the will provides that they would take control of the three (3) factories provided that the profits should not fall below a certain limit calculated through a rather complex formula. If, however, those profits shall fall below the established low limit, then my three (3) sons would loose control of the factories and that control would move to a Board outside of the family. And finally,
     -With respect to myself, the will provides that if I remarry, I would lose everything as inheritance including this house that I am living in. If I do not remarry, however, then I have ample financial resources at my disposal provided that I never move out of this house.

Now, because of your Eastern European background, you had little Jewish observance and Jewish life in Romania and thus, you could be accepted much easier by my daughter than that of an active practitioner of the Jewish faith. This is why I am interested that you show some patience as I am sure that my daughter would come around once she recognizes your background.

With respect to my three (3) sons, they, at the moment, appear to be in serious trouble. Each of them is working 10 to 12 hours a day and still they cannot not figure out why, under their control, the profits from the factories are going down. They are baffled how their father who, because of his illness, and working only half a day was able, on the other hand, to sustain a continuous profit growth. If this trend continues, my sons, according to the will, are going to loose control of the factories. They now have hired two economists to look into this.

As for myself, I do not intend to remarry. I am content with the way things are with the exception of my daughter whom I do not want to see disinherited."

After this extraordinary revelation, I began expressing my sorrow with respect to the illness and the untimely death of her late husband. I saw in the room a number of pictures of her late husband. After a moment or two of a pause, I indicated to her that I could not possibly have anything to do with her daughter by saying:

"You see, some sixty (60) people from my father's side were killed in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. How, in God's name do you think I could live with a person such as your daughter who so deeply hates Jews? I think that the best thing for everybody would be that I move out of this house as soon as possible. In fact, I do not like Pittsburgh at all. [Ironically, some 22 years later, Pittsburgh was voted the most "livable" city in America!] I want to live in a big city!"

To this the lady replied:

"Everything can be resolved in time. Let's leave it like that. I will see you at dinner."

Frustrated with her answer, I stated:

"You do not seem to understand me. I am leaving Pittsburgh for good and, I do not care that I will be losing all my benefits with HIAS. I have to live in a big city. Which are the largest cities in the United States?"

Taken by surprise, the lady indicated that aside from New York "we have Chicago and Los Angeles." OK, I responded:

"Since Los Angeles is too far from here, I will take a bus to Chicago. That is where I am going!"

Noticing my determination to go, she said:

"We have a number of contacts in Chicago. We can discuss all this at dinner time. We will see you then."

At dinner, I was convinced somehow to stay for the remainder of the month. It was March 1970. The lady was visibly relieved that I was not planning to leave right away. She was extremely nice towards me. In the following days, I ignored completely the lady's daughter and she took notice of that. Somehow our roles had been reversed. I was now the one that ignored her presence and when forced replied with a Yes or a No answer.

Bus to Chicago

This sudden change in my attitude apparently intrigued her and that was just fine both with me and with her mother who was delighted! Notwithstanding all this, with each passing day, my determination to go to Chicago grew. In the last days of March, I informed everybody that on Fool's Day! --April 1, I was to go, by bus, to Chicago. I already had my bus tickets. One of the lady's sons upon hearing the news came immediately to see me offering me a large sum of money. Appreciating his gesture, I declined the offer but he would not take no for an answer. We reached a compromise that was acceptable to both of us: I took from him a check of five thousands dollars ($5000) that I would use only if I should need it. Since I had no intention of ever using that check I had no problem with the arrangement.

The lady was extremely unhappy and furious that I was leaving saying "How could you do this after all that I have done for you?" But this was my call. Here I was on a bus to Chicago leaving Pittsburgh for good on April's Fool Day 1970!.




S p e c i a l   L i n k :

My Official Sponsor to the United States