– We had the feeling that many people are still afraid to speak. But is there still a need for fear now?
– Not anymore, but you see, it’s also about the level of culture, the level of assumption, of education. In the summer of ’90 the phone broke down. I phoned the switchboard, which was still working, and I said: “Madam, my phone doesn’t work, the system is down. She says: “That’s great, that the system is finally gone”. It’s also about courage in the face of existence.
– That’s right, we haven’t found any material on the subject.
– Before I came here I called the priest in Dubova, he’s younger, and he said he’d look into it and let me know. Many people from Dubova have moved to Timisoara, they live there. Many who helped the defectors also made money, others also made misfortunes, so you see, the subject has many ramifications. You can’t know what the pure truth is. I attended the trial of one man from Dubova they caught, he was young, 35 years old, Țerescu was his name. His trial was at the House of Culture in ’85. I don’t know how many years they gave him. They caught him taking money to help people cross the border. A lot of people leftfrom the area.
And over there (in Serbia) there is no cemetery. Most of the dead people couldn’t be repatriated by the Serbs because they didn’t have documents. The boy I buried was from Bucharest, he had his documents with him, wrapped in foil. I cannot make any hypothesis, God forbid, either that he drowned (which is very possible) or that he was shot. His father couldn’t say much, because the Serbs didn’t tell him either. When they sent him to Romania, they received him in the middle, at customs.
– On Sunday, when we returned from Coronini with my other colleague, we also stopped at the cemetery in Orșova because the day before we had spoken to Mr Doru, who I understand is the current administrator of the cemetery, at the funeral home. This gentleman was very closed, we didn’t learn much from him.
– He doesn’t know much either, he was a teenager when all this happened. It was around 1980, so that’s 40 years ago. And he’s about 50 now, so he was 10 at the time. You have to take that age gap into account.
At the military units they took the documentation, destroyed it, there is nothing left, there are only traces. They had a room there next to the unit, in the back, not in the main building, but a kind of annex, with two rooms. One of the rooms was a cage, everything was forged, even the ceiling. They would put them in there and beat them.
– So that’s how closed this subject is.
– Some of them went off to Timisoara, went away. They covered their tracks.
– Unfortunately, the traces are covered by everyone’s silence.
But the stories of the people where you served at the funeral, can you tell us?
– No. There are many things you have to take into account. There was local border traffic in the area with Serbia, they had a special passport for that, and people bought coffee, sweets and other things from the Serbs. They came and went, they had no problems. The ones who left, they went to America, to Australia. They were more concerned about the economic problem than the political problem, the freedom problem. And the kid we buried had learned about freedom and had a different vision, it was clear. But in general, they’re in categories, they’re not all the same. That’s about all I can tell you, I can’t tell you more.
I know a writer who was transferred to Orșova. It’s interesting how he did it, but you must have family members who help you. They mounted a gas cylinder on a kind of sled and laid it on the water. He sailed to the shore on the other side. There were different ways to get across. But the motivation wasn’t always political, for freedom, that should be clear.
Oh, Petric, the father-in-law, didn’t he tell you about Vasile? He went to high school with Vasile Blidaru (runaway). Less prepared the first time, he went over to the Serbs, they caught him and sent him back. The second time he got annoyed and thought very well about leaving and trained in Snagov, where canoeists train. Petrică used to tell me that the security guard came and told him: you see Vasile is training again, he wants to run away again. What can I do, can I take care of him? That’s your concern, not mine. And he said to his son: don’t come around the house, do whatever you want, but don’t come around here, because there are people here who could turn you in.
Petrică and I are directly involved. Vasile came straight from the station and told me: I’m leaving tonight. I have my clothes, I’ll leave them with you, don’t tell my father. He went to the island, he had a rubber tire with him, he was trained and he passed. We were both terrified, because we were involved. We were watching for a missile, because when they caught a runaway, they would shoot a missile and you could see it from miles away. If they caught him, they could beat him up so he could tell who else knew about it. And at twenty past one at night, we calmed down. That’s it, he’s gone! We got drunk. Before that we couldn’t drink anything, but after that, in a quarter of an hour we were smashed.
He had everything planned very well. A German girl was waiting for him with a car across the river. But what courage he had! It takes guts to go into the water in that darkness. He passed, went perfectly to the spot where she was waiting for him, got into the car and bye bye! In Canada he went. He came back from Canada after ’89, we met. How nice! Yes, what a horror it was then. It was only after the revolution that I talked about this.
– How did he manage to settle down over there?
– I don’t know. Maybe Petrică knows more. I didn’t really have any role, except to advise Petrică. And that was a tremendous stress.
– Is he still in Canada?
– I don’t know.
– And Petre would have his contact?
– Yes, I think so.
– I think if we contacted him, he’d tell us.
– No question. If not, he could easily track him down, they were colleagues, they were friends.
I’ve been through a lot of emotions. If they’d only found out five percent, they’d have us both emprisoned, Petrică and me. Seriously, they were vindictive. So for a while I was scared. I didn’t know the car was waiting for him on the other side. Petrică didn’t know either.
– So he just said he was leaving and needed help.
– Yes. And then all the steps were perfectly calculated. The secret service was waiting. He was trained, but he had a bike tire, just in case, if he got a muscle cramp or something. He also had a needle, if he got a cramp, he’d poke himself.
Otherwise pretty few left abroad for the idea of freedom. More for adventure. Well, that implies the idea of freedom. I’m talking about the locals. Others left because of the dream of getting rich, but not because of some deep-seated ideological conflict. From other areas they came with other principles, other political implications, with the mayor, with the secretary. They came from other parts of the country and slowly made connections. Not in Orșova, here nothing could be done. Here it was a conglomerate, they came from all parts of the country, there was no unity. You couldn’t say that the locals were defending you, that there was a code of honour. Instead, in the villages it was a community, you couldn’t afford to make a fool of yourself or be a traitor. In the villages they knew each other, it was a small community, they knew everything that moved. It worked there, but not here. Plus the Danube had to be narrow, the distance had to be as short as possible to cross quickly.
As for me, I wasn’t tempted by that. Of course I was eager for freedom, but I knew the dangers, I knew the implications. After all, I also had a fear of the unknown.
– But by the nature of the profession, you were bringing good to the community and the church, did you ever entertain the idea that you could somehow help people in that sense, to run away?
– No. I didn’t get involved. I wasn’t tempted to, and I wouldn’t urge anyone to do it. I was very much followed and I wasn’t taking any chances. I didn’t leave the country, before ’89 I didn’t go beyond that corner. That’s because they were always following me and checking my ID. They were doing that until ’89. They used to make fun of me, to make me lose my temper. But I kept my cool for years. So I kept quiet. There was pressure.
– A gentleman I spoke to the other day, in Serbia, told us that the bodies of those fished out of the Danube were buried, but without service. Is that because of religion?
– The Serbs are a very closed people spiritually. It’s hard to describe. I don’t blame them, they’re like that.
– Do you think that’s why they didn’t do the funeral services?
– And probably the priest there said: none of my business. He must have also had restrictions: it’s none of your business, stay out of it, you don’t know his faith. And for the sake of convenience, I’m staying out of it. What do I care?! Apparently they didn’t even have a cross. It’s different here. I went, I did the job. I knew the names of some people, but some come without names. But I did the job, God knows his name.
– From what we are told, it is contradictory, some say they had crosses, others say there were no crosses at all. We found some traces of crosses, pieces of wood, but nothing is distinguishable. Nothing can be seen on them, they are rotten wood.
– Someone should have taken care of this area. Lack of organization, lack of brains, or even more terrible, a revenge even on the dead. It’s painful, but true.
– And there was no intention on our part either?
– No, it was out of the question.
We had one Tavi Vâjaică (he died, poor thing). He was a lawyer, he studied law, he had great battles. He married a Romanian woman of German origin, with relatives in Germany and they asked to go to the FRG. What problems he had! Three or four years they couldn’t make a step. Eventually they insisted and went over there. But they fought legally for it. Some were patient and knew how to fight and documented, institutionally and were able to cross over.
– But that was for ethnic Germans.
– But even so, still with the adventures.
– We went to the cemetery at Novi Sip, after the floodgates, 10 minutes down the road.
– Yes, I know, I’ve been there many times.
– And they’re buried on the left side of the cemetery. The Serbs told us that they knew there were Romanians there. It’s just a bunch of earth mounds from place to place, no crosses.
– That’s also an aspect of bad Romanian-Serbian communication. It’s shameful. For example, the Jews have their old community, they have their cemetery. Nobody touches that cemetery, as it is, there are indisputable works of art, marble of the highest quality, sculptures. They have respect for the community, for the dead, for memory, for being human. And that says so much about us, about the difference between us. And then it’s a problem at the institutional level. It’s a big question mark, what’s with those earth mounds. Didn’t they have a soul? Didn’t they have their own people?
– I understand that there have been approaches from the other side. Mr Ranco Ianucovici, who somehow tried to contact the institutions here, to at least erect a monument to them.
– And I think he ran into our “goodwill”. Eventually this problem was solved, but it’s a pity.
– But time passes and stories are forgotten, people die. Hope it’s not too late. Like the revolution, for that matter. The story’s almost the same. But where’s the truth?
– We weren’t always like this, as a society. By analogy, after the First World War, where a Romanian soldier died or where a German soldier died, it was a cemetery. The enemy was laid there, respected, had his cross and his monument. It was war, but beyond that, there are fundamental principles of life, of humanity. But after the Second World War, the barbarians came upon us. That’s the enemy, he’s a bastard. But they were human, too. There’s another thing, most runaways are men. Women didn’t have the courage to cross. The men had more courage, more madness.
– I also found a few articles about women who crossed, whole families.
– But they crossed not on the Danube, but on land. They crossed the Danube by boat.
– How did the revolution feel here?
– For me, it was the greatest liberation, it was crazy. But about 80% had no problems with freedom, they had a good time during communism.
– What was it like when you found out about the revolution?
– I knew very well what was going on, I had been following Free Europe radio for years. I knew about Honecker, Krenz, I knew what happened to the Czechs. On November 7, it was the fall of Zhivkov in Bulgaria. They didn’t execute him, they kept him there in seclusion. Better elephant here in the zoo than dead. I knew about the fall of the Wall. I knew the regimes were falling. But the problem was not making a spectacle of yourself. The animal who’s dying is very dangerous.
There was no greater joy for me. Me having such a family situation, I could have been in jail, searched, seized, mocked. As a child, from the age of four I was already aware. That’s how I got into theology. They even tried to kick me out of there, but it was harder. I was on the edge. Well, I wasn’t a saint, I was rebellious. So for me the fall of communism was a godsend.
– I remember my mother telling me that she had three great moments of happiness in her life: when her two children, my brother and I, were born, and the revolution.
– It was an extraordinary pressure, unacceptable. And a lot of lies. No wonder we behave the way we do now. It was a falsification of being from within, not from outside. The outside had become only the motivation. It’s depressing to look at that.
At that time I had subscriptions to almost every literary magazine in the country: România literară, Tribuna from Cluj, Orizont from Timișoara, Convorbiri from Iași, Argeșul from Târgul Mureș, Vatra, Luceafărul. And my wife would cut out from every magazine the photos of our two “beloved leaders” and she would write in large letters with a carioca: Down with them! Crazy! The madness begins on December 16 and she says: Let’s put them on! Put what on? She pulls out all those cutouts. Where shall we put them? On the waterfront. We needed some clay to glue them on. We’re doing something stupid, I told her. In a half an hour they come and pick us up from the military unit. I’m the only subscriber to the literary magazine, they can tell right away who did this. Can’t you tell? I agree, let’s do it, maybe somewhere else, but not here. They will take us away in hald an hour and it will be useless, no one will know. God forgive her, she was very unhappy. Won’t you help me? No, I’ll help you. I’ll go alone without you. But I don’t know if I’ll be back.
– And you didn’t put them on after all?
– I didn’t have to. December 21 was already here, with the rally in Bucharest. I had the secret police at the gate, I couldn’t move without a man or a car behind me. Not because I was dangerous, but because I was stupid. They didn’t know what to expect from me. When the shit hit the fan, I was on TV. I opened the windows and said to the colonel: Go quickly and see what happened. The regime is falling! It fell! He ran away, poor thing. He was standing at my gate. He didn’t do much harm to me, but he warned me: I warn you, if you leave your home… That was it.
Let me tell you another story, what happened in 1993. There was a crowd in the north station and in our compartment, nobody. Two six foot tall guys showed up together with Colonel Zotica from Severin. He probably knew better than me what I eat and what I don’t eat. I was reading and they left me alone, all the way to Filiași, I think, before Strehaia. I had a feeling, I didn’t say anything. Him in the middle, the two of them on the edge, to protect him. Then he got on my case and slowly I understood what it was all about. What do you have against the Soviet Union? I have nothing, only that it destroyed my country. I have nothing against the Russians, I love them, as artists, from one end to the other, their history, it’s a dramatic history, I have nothing against the Russians, but I can’t love a conglomerate that destroyed our country. We’ve been fighting about it. And they said: you got lucky! Because we’d throw you off the train before Craiova. They were ready. And we argued on several subjects, on agriculture, for example. I spoke to the point, I didn’t ramble.
There was another case, but that one is not talked about either and you don’t know how much to talk about it. A guy here was a ship captain here, in the harbour. Some spies from Vienna contacted him, paid him and he sold Romania’s Danube cipher. He had no kids, a beautiful wife, they must have liked the money. Boy, were they mad they couldn’t find him! They were doing various searches, on Free Europe radio, too. They tracked him down, I think it was ’88. They called him to Poiana Brasov and executed him. That’s it! So there have been cases like that. That was treason. The homeland is one thing and the regime that rules it is something else, don’t confuse values.
– Where do you send us, who do we talk to, where do we go?
– I don’t know, my children. Everyone’s pretty much gone.
– Can you give us some more clues, what would be valuable to photograph for our story?
– Well, you can shoot the island as well, as a place where many people left. From there they could have gone directly to the other side, because here, near the church there was a military unit.
– Does this military unit still exist?
– No. Now it’s a military unit, but on different principles. There’s another building, the Eșelnița picket. But I don’t know what they did in it now. As soon as you left Eselnita, you could see it on the hill. The lookouts have disappeared, there were lookouts from place to place, with the cabin high up, where they watched from. You’ve been along the shores of Danube, right? Before, there was nothing, no building, nothing, nothing. Just villages, from place to place. Otherwise, there was nothing for 20 kilometers. And after the revolution there was an explosion of construction.
– Do you have time to go to the cemetery and show us?
– You can see the cemetery is a mess. When they buried someone, they made it quietly, so no one knows. So it’s impossible. It’s a mess, a mess.
– So they weren’t buried in one area of the cemetery?
– No. I’ll accompany you, but I can’t tell you anything precisely.
– So there was no rule here, although it was known where they were buried. Compared to the Serbian side, at least there they didn’t touch the graves.
– Not here, this is Babylon.
– I find this story so painful, because these dead belong to nobody.
– I would have helped you more, but that’s all I can do, that’s all I know.
– So the cemetery’s practically communal?
Photo credit: Diana Bilec