My uncle Boruch had long peyos which he would tie in a knot above his head beneath his yarmulke. I found this to be quite strange, as it wasn’t the accepted Chabad custom. Many years later I was told that he once fell ill with pneumonia and his life was in severe danger. It was then that he then vowed to go beyond the letter of the law by never cutting his peyos.

My uncle and aunt were not blessed with children of their own

My uncle and aunt were not blessed with children of their own and since I, their nephew, was the youngest child in my family, I had a special place in their hearts. Their love was so deep and ardent that it almost came as a shock. In my childish mind, I presumed that being that they didn’t have their own children, they would be jealous of our family. Instead, they showered us, and me in particular, with an abundance of care and affection. They would repeatedly mention, “We don’t have children of our own and you will be our Kaddish.”

During my childhood, my father’s meager income was insufficient to properly support our family. Being that our food supply was limited, I was quite scrawny and thin and was regarded as a weak child. My uncle Boruch was a shochet for the community, and there was a steady supply of meat and other such staples in their home. My aunt and he would try cajoling me to come over to their house so they could put some nutritious food into my frail body. Yet, whenever I stepped through their door, I felt like I was making an admission that I was coming over to their home for some food since I was starving in my own home. This sense of embarrassment kept me from visiting them in their house.

In the hope of persuading and coaxing me into coming to his house, my uncle would deploy all sorts of tactics. When I was a little boy of about seven years and he asked me, “Why don’t you come visit us?” I answered, “Why would I visit without an invitation? Otherwise, if I need something, then I’ll come.” My uncle made a sour face as though stung by my response and exclaimed, “What? You will come only when you need something? Why won’t you drop in and visit us just to see how we're doing?”

I felt remorseful and recognized it was impudent on my part to respond in that way.

My aunt was very kind and sensitive to me. Intuitively, she understood the humiliation I felt in going to their home to eat, and therefore whenever I would go there, she was careful to serve me food in an unassuming manner. She didn’t want me to feel like she was cooking a special, delectable meal in my honor. For instance, when she prepared an omelet for me, she had a habit of using two eggs, which was a luxurious quantity at the time. She knew that were I to be aware of the number of eggs she prepared, I would protest and claim that it was too much food for me to consume, so she would chase me out of the kitchen and not allow me to watch. If I expressed surprise over the size of the omelet, she would dismiss it by saying, Nu, sometimes the eggs are large.”

My father was arrested when I was merely seven years old. Throughout that daunting period of time, my aunt and uncle took me into their home. My uncle’s tremendous display of devotion and concern on my behalf is something that, despite the passage of time, will never fade from my mind. At the time he was very weak, having just recovered from a difficult illness. Nevertheless, when I would awake in the middle of the night and cry that I was hungry or needed something else, he would get up at once, wash my hands and serve me the Bucharian pita with raisins that I particularly liked, or take care of whatever else it was that I had requested.

My father was arrested when I was merely seven years old

Eventually my father was released from jail and I returned to my home. If our family’s financial situation had been difficult before, it now became perilous. Since my uncle, as one of the ritual slaughterers for the community, had meat delivered to him by butchers, my aunt would bring some over to our house every week. My mother would protest, and refuse to accept it, saying that she was unable to pay for it and did not want it as a gift. However, my aunt, who could be particularly sharp-tongued, used her incisiveness for the benefit of others and bellowed, “You can deprive yourselves, but not the children! I am not asking you to pay me. If you insist on paying me, then when you obtain the money you can pay."

Sometimes it was my uncle who would bring the meat. We lived on the second floor and the climb up the stairs was quite an exertion for him, yet he repeatedly insisted to my parents that he was offering the meat with the entirety of his heart and that they should accept. Each time my mother would write down how much meat she received, and after due time, with the help of the One Above, our financial situation did indeed improve and she paid for it all.

Many years later my mother illustrated to me just how grim life was in those days. During the war, when my father fell ill and our livelihood was sparse, my mother managed to obtain a few fresh eggs in the market. I, a hungry child of five, asked forMy mother managed to obtain a few fresh eggs one. She sadly explained that these eggs were for my father, and that when he recovered and returned to work, we would be able to buy lots of eggs.

Soon after that, I became sick and my mother got a hold of some eggs for me. However, I felt so ill that I lacked the strength or appetite to eat. When my aunt overheard my mother pleading with me to have something to eat, she scolded her, saying, “When he begged for an egg, you didn’t give him one; now you are begging him to eat the egg . . ."

Thank G‑d, most readers of this book cannot relate to that degree of deprivation and destitution.