Alter was carried to the border and sold to some White Russians. They, in turn, sold him to a gentile in a small village that bordered the steppes. He stayed there for a year, working the fields, milking cows, sleeping locked up in the barn at night.
When his owner found out that Alter was a cobbler, he sold him for four times his purchase price to a man in Kiev who ran a shoe shop. Years passed, and Alter could not get a letter out to Sarai to tell her of his fate. He didn’t even know how to mail a letter in this land. He hardly spoke a word of the language. He was kept under close watch.
He worked everyday but Sunday, and at night was locked in a room without a window. During his long years of captivity he ate only bread, fruit and vegetables – so as not to eat anything unclean.
After several years as a slave a man with a long beard, ritual fringes dangling from his trousers, and a skull cap on his head entered the shop. He was a traveling merchant whose boot needed repair. He spoke to Alter’s owner for a moment in the language of the land, and when the man went in the back room for leather and nails, the merchant spoke to Alter.
“You are a Jew?” the man asked in Yiddish.
“Yes,” Alter answered, and told the man where he was from.
“You are a captive? A slave?” the man asked, his eyes nervously darting about the premises. “A slave here?”
“Yes,” Alter answered, and stated how many years he had been captive. On hearing this the man ripped his collar, as if he had just heard of the death of a loved one.
“And he will redeem you from the House of Slavery, from the hand of Pharoah,” the merchant quoted from the Torah and swayed. He took out a piece of paper and carefully wrote out Alter’s name. Then he took out another piece of paper and wrote his own and gave it to Alter.
“I will approach the elders of our people here in Kiev,” he told Alter in a whisper. “They will, with the Almighty’s help, redeem you.”
Alter did not see the man again. He kept the paper with his name in his shirt pocket. He had not seen Hebrew letters in many years. He had opened and closed the little scrap so many times its creases were as deep as an old man’s wrinkles.
A year later, three well dressed Jews entered the shop and spoke to Alter’s owner. Alter could not understand what was being said, but he could tell they were haggling about his price. Eventually, money changed hands, and Alter’s master indicated that he should leave with the men.
Alter left without saying a word. He climbed into a posh carriage with the three men. None of them spoke Yiddish, but one addressed Alter in Hebrew and told him that with the Almighty’s help, Blessed be He, he was a free man. The eldest man gave Alter a prayer shawl, phylacteries, and a ritual undergarment. Alter kissed them all with trembling hands.
Altered wanted to travel back to Poland but he did not have money. It had taken the poor Jewish community of Kiev a year to raise the funds to redeem Alter. He did not dare ask for more charity. He tried to send at letter to Sarai, but it was returned to him after nearly six months. There was a war to the north, he was told, and no letters were getting through.
Alter stayed in Kiev and worked as a cobbler. He learned more of the language, enough to carry out business with both gentiles and Jews. But this life did not last long. The war to the north came south, and in a few days, everyone was fleeing Kiev. Alter rushed to the docks with only his cobbler’s tools in a satchel. He saw a boat loading Jews and asked a man where it was headed. He was told the Holy Land, so without giving it much thought, Alter climbed on board.