– You said that you went all the way to Moldova Noua and that everyone is shying away, they don’t want to give any more information. I think they’re scared. What if the regime comes back? Because nobody believed that after so many years of dictatorship, communism would fall. Nobody. We die, generation after generation, communism doesn’t, it goes on. And look, that’s it. That’s what happened in ’89. The dictatorship fell. But what if it happens now? I don’t know what movements can come globally. You don’t know. And it comes and takes you out of your house at night. “Were you with the anti-communists? Did you? Come over here! Let’s skin you a bit!” That’s why I think a lot of people are afraid to talk. One. And two, you shouldn’t publish names.
– The only place we found two people willing to tell us was at Coronini’s. At Pescari.
– At Pescari, yes. They heard about that commune there. Where you could cross the border. From Timisoara, from Arad, many were of German origin.
I was deported to the Bărăgan. I was two years old then.My parents with me and my brothers. One was twelve and the other was fourteen. They helped their parents. In what way? Because there, when they took you to Bărăgan, they didn’t give you a tent or anything. We lived in the fields. In the fields! They stuck poles in the ground, they said from here to here is your plot of land, this family, that family, and then my mother and father had the strength to make a bordei (nt: a hut half buried in the ground). They made a hole in the ground like rats. Then the next spring they made bricks out of earth, out of cow dung, out of straw and built a house. With a stable. It seems to me they gave us permission to take a cow from here. I don’t remember exactly. Or they bought a calf. But otherwise they wouldn’t let you have anything. Everything that was left here has completely disappeared. Everything. Furniture, things. Not just us, the so-called “rich” people. They took away people who had a household, who had animals, land, who were hard-working.
A lot of them were of German origin. The Romanians didn’t have the right to receive a package. And no letters. Later, after two or three years we were entitled to receive visits and letters. So a lot of Germans and Turks were taken there. They were entitled to a package, they received from the Federal Germany. And we used to go begging. I used to go with a bag and a spoon and knock on their gate and the German would come and take a spoonful or two or three of rice, semolina, whatever. “Don’t come again! In two weeks when we get the package again.” That was it. That’s what helped us. The rest, you did the best you could. Sunflower seed, pumpkin seed, boiled corn.
– How long was your family in the Bărăgan?
– Five years.
– And after five years you came back here?
– Yes. The house, the stable stayed there.
– And when you came back here, what did you find?
– Nothing. No windows, no doors, no boards, no floors. Nothing. The real… as he used to call them… heroes of the people came, the communists who stayed here and took their time to carry everything they could. That’s what happened. Continually terrorized by security and communists. There was a professor of socialism, he died, great party activist, he told you to your face: “If I want to arrest you tonight, I’ll arrest you!”
– Was he related to you?
– Yes, he was a relative. You were followed by Securitate (secret police). And that’s where I got the idea. Because if all your life you’re persecuted and kept in poverty… I dreamed of going somewhere as a child. I had some friends who ran away earlier to America. Maybe I could have made it it before I made the contract with this lady (the wife), but there was no Serbian camp then. It opened around 1987-88. Very late. And they gave the possibility to the Romanians from here to cross over and sorted them there. Not everyone could pass. There were a lot of people who crossed the border and they were informers. They were studying to see what the situation was, where they were going and who was helping them. I met the lady, the kids came and I said I’d go. IBut before that I helped a few people cross over. There were some gentlemen. They gave me some money. Of course, who takes a chance without a payoff? Nobody risked anything.
– Were they local?
– No, they came from Timisoara, Arad, Cluj, Brasov. I had my connections. I helped them, they crossed over the border. Some came through Germany, others through Australia. They said they’d be gentlemen, they’d come here to see me afterwards. They forgot. Nobody came. It’s been thirty-something years. It’s only natural.
– How did they know where to look for help, how to get to you?
– Eh, we had our connections. We had someone from Germany who left here legally. He was from Brasov, his mother was there. He was in contact with those who wanted to run away. They would come here to see me, we would decide together the date, the time, the day they had to come, I would pick them up and take them. They had boats, they had life belts. I would tell them that I wouldn’t take them to the water unless they had some inflatable life vest/belt. Well, if the boat sinks, at least you know you’ve got the life belt and you can wave your hands and swim over there. You don’t go down. And I made some money. I saved some money. I hid it in a bucket. Nobody knew, neither did she. I said I’d get out of here one last time. And last time they caught us.
– How come?
– Well, we had a Security guard here, a Satan, Judas, the Evil One on Earth, following us. I figured it out. Our cousin. My brother’s father-in-law. Then there were informers all over the commune. If you stood to get bread by the ticket in the queue, as it used to be, there was someone behind you eavesdropping. I’ll tell you that from what I know. They caught me and I had 175,000 lei on me at the time. Almost two billion now. I had a thousand marks, currency that I threw away. In those days, if they caught you with foreign currency, you got 12-13 years in prison. If you had a gun and got caught you got 4-5 years. We were chased. By security. By militiamen. Informers. By the border guards.
– Where did they lock you up?
– In Severin. I was under investigation for three months. They asked me all sorts of questions.
– What did they ask you at the investigation?
– They said maybe you had secret plans, secret papers. They’d come to the house.
– Really, they came to the house?
Wife: – Yes, they did. They came in anytime. I don’t know what was on my mind, but I didn’t lock the gate. I had a dog that was big, but he didn’t do any work.
– They thought you were part of an anti-regime, espionage organization. I didn’t say I wanted to leave poverty and hunger and that I was fed up, I said that for money. And that’s how it hit me. They gave me three years of prison and then another year. I met the people who arrested me. They said, “Money!” Yes, I’ll give you the money. Let’s get a report. “Man, you got some balls? You want a report? Don’t we need money?” Yeah, but not my money. I took the risk. “Look at him, mister.” Let’s make a report.
Now I can’t find this report after 30 years. Someone said, “Why don’t you sue them? They arrested you in Herculane, not on the Danube, at the border. They arrested you there and took all your money. Sue them and you’ll get it back.” And I can’t find the report. The indictment they just gave me to read and then they took it back. It says they confiscated this amount. I’ll talk to a judge and see if I have a chance of winning.
– Did you ask for the file from CNSAS (nt: the archives of the secret police personal files)?
– We’re getting there. There was a very nice lady, an investigative journalist from Sibiu, who said she was interested to see the indictment, the report. She went to the CNSAS and found my file. Two hundred or so pages. They were such fools that they didn’t have a conspiratorial name for the informers and I saw some names in the file that I recognized as being those of people from the village.
They would come in and walk in on us. They stopped shouting, and we were left with trauma. All the institutions had enormous power and the communist party ran everything. They’d barge in. Some had gentler faces, others… I asked my wife which ones they were, to find out for myself. There were some high school classmates who were Secret Service. Thirty-three years went by.
– What year were you arrested?
– In ’88. October ’88. So if he was 50 then, he’s 80-something now. I wanted to know.
– What were you arrested for? What’s on the file?
– Attempting to cross the border. Antisocial action.
– Why I’m asking: you said you were sentenced to three years plus one year. In ’88 they arrested you. They didn’t release you in ’89?
– Yes, with the Revolution. Right then.
– And during those two years in prison they persecuted you?
– But of course. Oh, dear! Worse than a murderer or a rapist.
(Wife): I went to Severin and I met a friend on the street and I told him to help me because Alexandru was in prison. And he told me that it would be easier for him to help me if it was a murder.
– How were you persecuted? What happened?
– There were informers in prison too. In the room where there were fifty of us, there were two or three informers. They slept in bunk beds and even on the floor. They’d put you in the cellar, they’d put a bucket on you, and can you imagine… could you sleep? Then it changed, they moved us out of the cellar into rooms 14-15 meters long and 4-5 meters wide. You were cramped.
– How many people did you help to run away?
– Don’t ask me that, several people asked me and I refused to tell them. Some groups. Only those from Brasov were more. About ten. And some girls. Three or four. The rest were boys.
– How did they manage to get in here, I understand there were controls?
– At night we waited for them near Orșova. And from the top of the hill, from there we picked them up and came with them at night through the forest. Not during the day, they’d pick you up immediately. There was a picket commander from Orșova.
– Do you think he’s telling us something? Does he admit it?
– No, he’s afraid. He received death threats. He’s a churchman now. He’s from near Focsani.
I tried once before, before I got in touch with the people I helped. I had a very good friend here. And another friend of ours left and promised to send us some money. He actually sent us about four hundred dollars. My friend kept the money. We decided to leave, then he said to stay a little longer. In the meantime he got in touch with a driver from Orșova, who had another brother and sister in Germany. I told him there were three of us. The night we were going to cross they said they were coming by car to Serbia and were waiting for us on the other side. But my friend abandoned me, lied to me, cheated me and took the other man. “Since my sister and brother-in-law are coming, let’s both go with this one!”
– And did they leave sooner or how did it happen?
– Well, I didn’t even know when they left. Security came to my workplace and asked my boss if I was at work. He said yes, and they didn’t believe it. They called me in and didn’t even tell me why. Then I found out that my friend with the brothers had run away. When I heard…
I tried again one night, but my friend didn’t come and I didn’t leave without him. We said we had that money to get by, but I guess it was a deal between them to miss it.
That’s why I said that if the camp was set up in the 70s and 80s I would have been long gone. I don’t know, probably the West intervened. Otherwise I can’t figure it out. Yugoslavia was federal, they had very good relations with the Romanians. They used to send back some of the runaways. They were checked there.
– Where did the Serbs check this information?
– They had connections with each other, the Romanians with the Serbs. The intelligence system was very well set up.
– What I don’t understand is why, if they didn’t have a criminal record, they sent them back.
– I don’t know, because a lot of people from Eselnitsa who passed were sent back and they were good boys.
– I understand that there was an agreement between Romania and Serbia to give them back.
– It happened even before the camp was established. Who got caught, got caught. Those who didn’t, got through and managed to run away. I don’t know how they chose. Romanians could lie, but it was probably on paper.
– No one came back looking for you?
– There was a group of two women and two men, we kept them here until late at night and then took them to the Danube. They ended up in Germany. I know of one who was caught by the Serbs and brought to the prison, where I was. And from what we were talking about there, they told me that the Germans were talking about one from Eselnitsa who helped them run away, but they wouldn’t give names.
– Where did they cross most often? The easiest?
– Everywhere. All over the border. From Orșova to Moldova, to Svinița. Everywhere.
– Did you have a place where you used to take them?
– Where I could get there faster through the woods. I was looking for a place where the forest was close to water. So you could get out of the forest and into the water right away.
– And you weren’t afraid of the engine sounding at night?
– We didn’t have an engine, we had a row boat. I took some of them out one night… so lucky for them! It was the moon and the river was like the lake. Perfect. I figured even if there was a soldier a mile away, he could see them. Let’s give it a try. We found a place there, a little bay. And off they went. I’m standing on the shore looking at the water, the light. I didn’t hear anybody shouting anything.
– So you’d go out with them out of the woods to the water and they’d go out on their own in the boat, you wouldn’t go with them.
– Yeah, yeah. Well, it was taking me a long time. What if they caught me coming back? It was risky.
– Were they caught sometimes?
– Not here. There were some soldiers who told me to pass, to leave. I told them they were out of my mind and they wanted to catch me and arrest me. They were urging me to give them a bottle of brandy and get some more friends and leave. A boat of Russians came by, a passenger boat. I was at Mraconia at the time and a crazy military man, he probably had something against the Russians. The Danube was very narrow there and when the boat passed he took out his machine gun at them. And when those on the boat saw the machine gun pointed at them, they went trampling to get under the deck.
– How did most of them get through?
– I guess not everyone was a good swimmer.
– No, but you weren’t taking any chances. It was important to be able to swim, but you had to have a life belt. Or an air mattress. With slippers on your feet. But you had to be careful because the Danube is wide and there are currents. I was 21-22 years old. I had a high school classmate, she was a devil. A year younger than me. She was urging me to cross the Danube. I told her she was an informer for the Securitate. But she had some connections. And I didn’t ask her again, but I was thinking: “What are we going to do on the Serbian side, without money, without anything? They’ll send us back!” And the damn woman crossed the Danube. How she crossed, who she crossed with, I don’t know. She ended up in America. And I was scared she was an informer. But she had connections, she could afford a lot.
– And she crossed alone?
– I don’t know. I don’t know that. But many, many years before. Around ’70-’71. A lot of Romanians on the Clisura had relatives in Serbia and she probably had someone there too. She was resourceful. She was a devil. Her husband died. He stayed here. She passed on and took her boy then.
– Could you bring your child if you ran away?
– After a year the Romanian state was obliged to facilitate the departure. Children, parents, husband, wife. The state where you arrived through diplomatic channels intervened and the Romanian state was obliged to do so.
– Weren’t those left behind persecuted?
– They were not persecuted. How could they not be? Oh, dear!
For example, when my husband was arrested, I was visited by his friend’s wife from America. The girl came here to see her parents-in-law. She brought me two white necklaces, a pack of Kents and a coffee, I think. And the secret police came and opened the cupboard doors and asked me: “Let’s see what the lady from America brought you?” I showed them and they kept looking for something else.
Stânișoară was Minister of the Interior. His father had been with the Securitate in Severin a few years before. This one beat me. He beat me. You can imagine, he was 48-50 years old then. He’d be about 80 now.
– And in ’89, how did you find out?
– In prison they arrested this guy who was driving to the Serbs, this German guy from Brasov. I don’t know what connections he had in Germany. But when they took us for a walk in the yard we met and he signalled me to go to him. He asked me: How are you doing? Me: Well, you’re asking me in the fucking jail how I’m doing? It sucks! He says: Shut up and stay quiet, Ceaușescu’s regime will fall soon! I say: “You’re not normal, are you? Don’t talk here, you’ll never get out of here alive! Say: Special teams of diversionists have been formed and are waiting for the right moment. So he didn’t want to tell me any more, but all he said was that these teams had been formed, paid for by the Germans, the Americans, whoever, and very soon Ceausescu would be thrown out.
We had an informer in prison, he was trying to make you speak. We’d get some food, a pack of cigarettes and give it to him. He called me one night just before December 15th. He does: Let me tell you, but if you tell anyone, you’re in trouble. Don’t be so stressed, the dictatorship is falling! I say: “You’re either crazy or you want to get me in trouble. He told me that around December 12-13. How he knew, I can’t figure out. But on December 15 when we left for work in the morning, they locked the doors, turned off the lights, and put boards on the windows. Nobody knew what was going on. We thought they were going to shoot us all. A couple of convicts in their sixties said it wasn’t good, something was going on outside. It was December 15, 16, 17 and they didn’t let us out. You couldn’t stay inside, you couldn’t get any air. And that’s when we heard people shouting from outside, “Ole, ole Ceausescu is gone!”
– How long did it take from the fall of the regime until you were released?
– Immediately! They took us out into the courtyard and the sentinels came with machine guns. The prison commandant said the dictatorship had fallen. From now on we no longer address each other as “comrade” but as “sir”. “Those who are arrested for crossing the border illegally can leave immediately!” Then the scandal started in the yard.
The convicts shouted: “Why are we still here, we who stole a chicken, a bicycle?”. “You’re still here for now!” shouted the guards. They started cutting their hands, there was blood all over the place. They quickly sent them to the infirmary.
That was it, what happens to you in life you never know. You work your whole life and you get nothing. As the saying goes: The year does not bring what the hour brings. In one hour you make a fortune, in one year you make nothing.
– So it’s hard because the secret police former employees are still alive, they don’t have any problems and you have to live with them in the community.
– Yes. What could I do now if I knew that this guy over there, my neighbor, turned me in? Shoot him with a machine gun? Nothing. That was their mentality back then, I don’t know if they were paid, they said it was 600 lei a month they got. They had to give reports with explanatory notes who and what they did and whom they talked to. They received a kind of salary, an informer’s allowance, for the information they gave. It was in his interest to tell everything for the money.
– Here in Eselnita were buried those who were shot while trying to escape?
– Not here, in Serbia. They even showed it on TV. In Kladovo or Tekija.
– I went to Tekija in the cemetery and there’s nothing.
– Who took care of these things? There’s nothing left.
– I also went to Novisip, there I found something. Some mounds of earth.
– I worked in the valley of Eselnița, a chicken farm was to be built and I stayed a little in the shade in the forest. And a boy comes from up the road with a net in his hand. I stood and studied him. When he came to me I told him: Hey boy, you wanted to cross the Danube. Don’t go any further or they’ll catch you and beat you! “Sir, you guessed right. But how do you know?” How can you come here like that? “Wait till you see what happened: 12 of us came from Glimboca, near Timisoara, through the forest, at night, to cross to the Danube. And suddenly I heard from some bushes: wait, I’m shooting!!! Then we ran away. And I’ve been walking ever since. I can’t go on because I’m hungry, I can’t go on because I’m thirsty!”. I gave him food and water and he said he was going back to Timisoara to meet up with his gang. He suggested that I guide him to cross the Danube. I was afraid and asked for his papers, I checked him. I thought he worked for the Securitate. They asked me how much I’d charge to cross it. He wanted to go to Orșova train station and I told him he couldn’t do that because he risked being caught. He took out 1700 lei and gave it to me. I took him through the forest to Orșova. But I know he left and ended up in Canada. I was afraid to help him because I didn’t know who he was and I didn’t want to risk it.
– How did you know they were people of good faith?
– I’d guess, I’d study them a little more, because there’s a difference between a normal person following his purpose and one who’s looking to rat you out. I had a neighbor who asked me many times to help her. She had a nephew in Reșița who was in his thirties. She insisted so much that I helped her grandson and a friend to cross the Danube! But I didn’t because I didn’t know who they were and what they could hide. Then I found out the man had succeeded. He ended up in Germany. I told him: Miss Creti, I was afraid.
This journalist told me that it says in my file that I made a bit of noise at the bread que and whoever was behind me immediately went and turned me in. They were listening to Free Europe. You’ve got democracy now, you have all the rights, but it wasn’t like that then. Be careful not to cross the Danube because you have everything you need here! (laughs)
Photo credit: Diana Bilec