– Tell me, are you really from Orșova?
– Well, after the hydroelectric plant was built, I moved to Orșova. I wasn’t really from Orșova, I was from a village where the new train station is.
– What was the name of the village?
– And then you moved to Orșova at school?
– We stayed because he gave us a place to live in the town and we made a home for ourselves. Anyway, I would have gone to school in Orșova from the village too, it was nearby.
– Tell us a bit about the time of the move, how was it?
– It was pretty bad for us. They gave us little money on the house, on the land we had. It was more complicated for us, because only my father was working and we had to take a loan from CEC (nt: the national savings bank). And they didn’t want to give him the loan, because only my father was the income earner in the house. Eventually they gave it to us and that problem passed.
– So you rebuilt a house in Orșova.
– Yes, they all did the same. They demolished the house in old Orșova and put it on the site of the new town – that’s what we called it then. Some rebuilt their house, others got apartments in blocks.
– Did they rebuild their house even with materials from the old house?
– Of course, they demolished the house, cleaned the bricks, took the woodwork, as far as it was possible, and bought some more, because it wasn’t enough and we rebuilt the house. Not like the old one, the place for the new house was not as big as the old house was.
– And you ended up in Orșova. Did you go to school there?
– Yes. I did my ninth and tenth grades when I was still living in the old house in Tufari.
– And then you went to university, where?
– In Timișoara.
– What did you study in Timisoara?
– I went to the mathematics faculty and followed the computer science section.
– And you came back to Orșova after you finished university?
– No. I was assigned to the company Centrala Romania, a company in Bucharest, in Buftea, at the Film Production Centre.
– Yes, it seemed so. I met people there, it was interesting. But I didn’t live in Buftea. Basically I was only going to get my salary from Buftea, because I was working in Bucharest. In Buftea, they didn’t have a computer at the centre and I worked at the university’s computer centre.
– And now let’s get closer to the moment of escape. Tell me why did you decide to leave?
– It’s harder for young people today to understand. The last period, when Ceaușescu wanted to pay off all the foreign debt, he switched to some very drastic economic measures. The food was sold on a ration card. That was a problem. And it was cold! When I would go to bed, I would put a blanket over my pyjamas, cover myself with a duvet and freeze. You probably know that from your parents. I stayed at Romania Film until 1984 and then I transferred to the Central Institute for Computer Science. Why did I mention that, because at one point one of my colleagues came to the office with a room thermometer and it was 8 degrees in the office! So you can tell we were working with our clothes on, our fingers were shaking on the keyboard.
– When did you guys decide to get out?
– That was around 1985-86. When I saw that it was getting colder, that there was no sign of it coming back, I said this is no life. We also had to cheer our “beloved leader”. I said: I can’t stand this circus, I’m leaving.
– Did you prepare for running away?
– Well, I’ve prepared myself in the sense that I’ve chosen the place where I’m going to leave Orșova. But otherwise, to be honest, I haven’t prepared myself particularly. Why? Because I knew I could swim long distances. I didn’t know what it was like to swim at night. Summer night… I’d swim in the river at night before, but it’s a whole different thing.
– I understand you’ve tried several times to cross, right?
– Once I crossed, I reached Belgrade and there I was imprisoned for illegal entry into Yugoslavia and then sent back to Romania. That was in 1987. I crossed at the end of August. No sorry, at the end of July. Because on August 23 I was sent back to Romania with flowers.
– Describe for me a little bit the moment of escape.
– I had arranged with a friend (who’s here) to come over and sleep at his place until morning. He went to work in Herculane, I stayed, I didn’t leave the house. Afterwards he came from work, we talked, he kept on inviting me to drink brandy. I told him, wait a minute, I’m going to cross the Danube. And at the time we had agreed, around 10 o’clock at night, that’s when I left his place and went to the island. If you’ve been around Orșova, you probably know where. We crossed the island, found a small bay there, at the southern end of the island. There I undressed, I had a waist pack, a small hiking bag, in which I had put a pair of thin summer trousers, a t-shirt and some summer shoes, so as not to take up too much space. And I also had an electrical tube, in which I had packed my diploma, my ID, my birth certificate. I took off my clothes, tied them to a boulder, put them in the water so they wouldn’t show. And then in my underwear and with this bag around my waist I started swimming. The problem was that at some point the boat passed from the river station to Cazane with the searchlight on the Romanian side. I went underwater, so as not to be seen. A very bizarre sensation, because underwater was full of light. It was quite a powerful searchlight. But they didn’t notice me, they went up, then I started to swim.
– How long did it last?
– About three hours. I didn’t swim quickly so I wouldn’t be seen. I tried to be about halfway between the two banks.
– Where did you end up on the Serbian side?
– On the Serbian shore I had people waiting for me. They were some university colleagues, German Swabians, who were already in Germany. There was a colleague from Giarmata, who came with her boyfriend, they waited for me first. I had set as a meeting point on the other bank a monument that was visible, further downstream from Tekija, the village opposite Orșova. Although there were no big currents, the water still carries you downstream of the monument. When I got out, I had to go in the opposite direction of the water flow to reach the monument.
– And did you meet up with friends?
– Yes. They were near the monument, in the parked car. I looked first to see if the car was from Germany, knocked on the window and then got in quickly. Then we drove to Belgrade.
– What happened in Belgrade?
– In Belgrade I told my colleague: I heard that the Serbs sent you back to Romania. But she said: don’t worry, my sister-in-law has passed. But her sister-in-law was of German origin and it was different. In Belgrade I stayed up all night. I crossed on Saturday night. On Sunday night I was hanging around Belgrade, I went to a movie about three times where I slept instead of watching the movie. After that in the evening I went to the train station, I saw there was a patrol. I got out of there, went to a park where some nice young Serbian guys were playing and fell asleep there on the bench. When I woke up, I was alone. Then I slept again on a bench in a park and finally the day passed. And on Monday morning I went to the American Embassy. They only asked me to leave my bag, because they didn’t know if I wasn’t a terrorist. I went in, explained in broken English what I wanted, that I was from Romania. The lady there looked at me with regret and told me: first you have to go to the UN Commission for Refugees. I went there, there they told me that first I have to surrender to the Yugoslav police. I arrived at the Yugoslav police and they put me in handcuffs. They interviewed me first, there was a Serbian security guard who kept asking me, thinking I was a Romanian spy. Then they sent me to a prison near Blegrade, where quite a lot of Romanians passed through, called Padinska Skela. There they kept me for two weeks, 15 days in fact. That was the sentence for illegal entry into Yugoslavia. There was a permanent group of 30-40 Romanians there. Some came, others left. There I was interviewed by the UN Refugee Commission and finally they decided that I should be sent to Romania.
– Do you have any idea why, for what reason?
– Well, I think they were playing both ends. They wanted to have relations with both sides. And the Romanians, according to the rumours that were going around, said that Ceaușescu was giving them salt in exchange for the refugees they were sending back to Romania. They asked me if I had relatives in Germany, because my colleague had arrived in Germany and kept on stirring the waters through Amnesty International to see what my situation was. But as I had decided to declare that I had crossed on my own, that I had not been helped by anyone, I did not say. Perhaps it would have been better to say. And so they sent me back.
– How did it happen?
– It’s kind of weird. I got about three of them back then. I was the youngest of them. They loaded us into a van, handcuffed us and took us to Stamora Moravitsa. At Stamora they passed us to the Romanian side and there they passed us through customs with handcuffs on our hands. We stayed there until almost dusk. That was a moment I remember. A captain of the border guards came in and said: “They haven’t taken you to the border guard unit? No. I’ll take you there. And then he looked at us: I see you are old men, I’ll take off your handcuffs, I hope you don’t run away. If you do, they’ll catch you. And on the way he kept giving us advice: don’t get into trouble with the soldiers, they will come and challenge you and then beat you up. And more than that, he said that he would talk to the officer on duty so that he wouldn’t treat us so harshly. Unfortunately, I didn’t even ask his name. Because there were good people among them.
– Where did you end up after that, where did they take you?
– I stayed for about three days in Stamora Moravita. In the meantime, a Secret police officer came and questioned me. Lucky for me he was drunk. Otherwise I probably would have taken a beating! When he picked me up, my knees were shaking, to be honest, I thought that now the “party” began. Afterwards they asked us where we had passed. Then they took us to the respective border guard units. They took me to Orșova by train. Of course, with handcuffs on my hands. And in Orșova, they allegedly phoned the military unit and unfortunately they didn’t have a car. So they carried me around the city with handcuffs on my hands, hands tied behind my back, to be an example of what happens to people who break the laws of this country.
– And how long were you in Orșova?
– In Orșova, I think I spent about three or four days. From Orșova they took me to Turnu Severin, to give me a mock trial. After that, in the first instance I was in the militia arrest in Turnu Severin, for about a week or two, after which I was taken to Turnu Severin prison. There I met many people, including our professor Petcu and the two Țărăscu brothers, who were in prison with me.
– Tell me a little about that period in prison.
– What can I say, it was quite unusual for me. The first impact was in the Serbian prison. There I was still full of hope that we would finish with the prison and after that we would go wherever we wanted or where we would be accepted. There was no more talk of that here. Here it was pretty terrible. First of all, the food… I think I don’t need to tell. Then one thing worth mentioning is the medical visit. At the medical visit they also took blood samples for analysis. It was like this: they took blood from one, then the needle from the syringe was put in the water jet from the tap, then the next. I won’t say what that means. I thought to myself, now how’s your luck.
– How many people were in your cell?
– The first time I was in the so-called quarantine, there were about six or seven of us, bunk beds, three on top of each other. Then, after this quarantine period, they took us to another bigger room, with three beds on top of each other, we were about 20-25 people.
– And you were with the common law prisoners?
– No. There were two or three common law prisoners at Turnu Severin. But I have the impression that they were put there as informers, to tell the guards what we were talking about. In Severin there were two rooms for this border crossing offense, some with attempted crossing and others with actual crossing, those who were sent back.
– What punishment did you receive? How long did you spend in prison?
– I didn’t stay long. Counting from 23 August, when I was sent back to the country, until the end of November. I was sentenced to a year and a half. Actually, I’m not sure if it was a year or a year and a half, I don’t know exactly. Luckily, Ceaușescu issued an amnesty decree and, having no previous record, I was released from prison.
– What did you do after you got out?
– I was sent to work as an unskilled labourer at the Danubiana tyre company. From the Institute of Informatics, from the laboratory where I worked, they had a contract with Danubiana. And even my former boss intervened with the director of the computer centre at Danubiana to take me to the centre, even though he was paying me as an unskilled worker. But it was not possible.
– And how long did you work there?
– From the end of November to the end of April.
– What happened then?
– After I ran away the militia called me and took my fingerprints. They made me report to the militia district every week. If I went to Bucharest, I had to go and tell them where I was going, how long I was staying. They changed my ID to a tracking number. So if the last of the militiamen checked my ID, they knew I was not in order.
– And you decided to leave again.
– Yes, of course. I sent a letter through the relatives of some Saxon friends in Germany to my friends, telling them I wanted to leave again, told them the date and said I’d call them. I called them from the North Station to let me know if they agreed, so I would know if they waited for me there or not. Coded, I asked them where they would go on holiday. If they say in Europe, then it means ”I’m not coming”. If they tell me they are going to South America, then they are definitely coming.
– And what answer did you get from them?
– That they’re doing their holidays in Mexico. I knew they would come.
– How did you organize your second departure from that moment?
– On my second departure, I thought that this time I would have to go with someone. Because if these cops see you with some girls, they won’t believe you’re going across the Danube. I took a sister-in-law and a friend’s girlfriend. I arranged with Rică to buy tickets back to Bucharest. I didn’t get off in Orșova, I got off in Herculane. In Herculane I changed my clothes, I carried on me only what I had to throw in the water. I came to Orșova. In Orșova I walked with them along the cliff. If you’re with two girls the guards will not suspect you. I got to the island and wanted to leave from exactly the same place. I went there, but in that bay there was now a boat and there was a party on the boat. I can’t leave there because there’s a boat here, it’s not possible. I thought I would be noticed. Then I went back to the park and left from the southern corner of the park. Of course the girls were keeping a lookout: hey, here come the border guards, they’re not coming. And just as I undressed and put my clothes under the boulder, the same procedure, the girls said: two guards are coming. Then I stood right at the concrete corner of the park. I stood in the water for a while, poked my head out, took another breath of air, went underwater again, until I decided, well, they’re not stupid enough to stay that long.
Then I started swimming. The trickiest part was that at first I was full of algae, which was stuck around my neck. I kept trying to get them out of the way, until I got out into cleaner water. This time there was no surprise. It was only at the beginning that the motor boat went upstream, but quite quickly. Then I swam until I couldn’t tell if I was close to the Serbian shore or not. But at one point I heard a noise: bang bang bang. What the hell? When I turned my head, it was the motorboat turning around. I said, I’m not turning my head now, they won’t see it. But they were actually looking towards the Romanian shore, they didn’t care. It wasn’t long before we came to the Serbian shore. I got out of there and went to the same meeting point. This time, there was waiting for me, besides my colleague and her boyfriend, another colleague, also German swabian, who had been my roommate. I headed in the direction of Austria.
– How did you get through?
– When we got there, they got organized, bought a hiking map. They said we’d go the first part of the route by cable car. We went there, me with my girlfriend and her boyfriend Uli and we looked for the administrator of the cable car. He said: I won’t start the cable car except for groups. To which the colleague said: there are three of us, we are a group. So we had to go by foot. We followed the marked trail until we were close to the border, where we took a break. We ate something, drank some water and then said let’s move on. Curiously, this friend Uli said: I find it strange that the marked trail leads south and we have to go north. Stay here and I’ll go and see where this path leads. And the path led directly to the Yugoslav guard post. He came back and said: no good! You stay here and I’ll go and find out where the Austrian border is. And he took off in a hurry. He was in formidable physical condition. We waited there and it was pretty bad. Up to there I was moving, but when I stopped, it was also windy up high, my strength started to fail. I felt like sleeping.
After a while, my colleague said: it’s not good to stay, let’s go and look, I don’t know what Uli is doing, he’s not coming. Let’s go up. There was rock debris, like in the Retezat Mountains. I was a mess! She was climbing, she kept looking back: come on, what are you doing?! I can’t go on. You want to cross the border and you can’t climb this slope? At one point, up comes Uli and says: I found it! He came and helped me up. After that I walked until I came across the Austrian Republic board. The other one, Hans, had driven to the other side and was waiting for us. We met. Now we were already in the free world. After that we slept there near the border, near Villach.
In the morning when we got up, they started to convince me that it would be better to take me to Germany. There you have us, we can help you, in the IT field it’s good, you can find a job. And so they convinced me, let’s go to Germany. We arrived at the border, near Zugspitze. We wanted to take the cable car up to the top and from there we walked. We got tickets and waited. At some point they told us that the cable car was not working anymore, because some climbers got lost and they were looking for them by cable car and helicopter. They wanted to pay us back. Then they immediately changed the plan. They bought a map with the marked trails. My friend and her colleague drove over to wait for us on the other side. Uli and I walked to the Eichsee. Now you’re wondering how I got along with Uli. Luckily Uli spoke French. We also agreed that if the border guards stopped us, I would say I was from Belgium and came around. So he wouldn’t get into trouble. After that, at Eichsee we met the two of them, got in the car and drove to Munich. From Munich I drove with this colleague to near Frankfurt, where he had a house. That was the route.
– What happened when you arrived in Germany?
– Before going, my colleague got in touch with someone from Free Europe. We, the old people, know his name, Neculai Constantin Munteanu. He called me on my colleague’s number and said: look, I’ll give you an address and a phone number, I know a Romanian lawyer who will help you get asylum in Germany. Before I went to surrender at the refugee centre near Frankfurt, in Schwalbach, I went to this lawyer. He promised me a lot of things, he made a document, a translation of my reasons for leaving. It was a bad translation, so my friend Hans said: I’d better do it for you. But for that I paid me 800 marks! At first I told him I couldn’t give it to him because I didn’t have any money. Yes, but you have colleagues here. I went back and told them, without telling them I wanted the 800 marks. But they said, “We’ll give it to him”. That lawyer didn’t help me much.
Then I turned myself in to Schwalbach camp. From there I was assigned near Frankfurt, to Bad Homburg, to an asylum (heim), a home for asylum seekers. And after a month I moved to the border with the former GDR, at that time, to Datterode. From Datterode I moved to Grebendorf, near Eschwege. My wife came there too. We moved to Eschwege because my wife got pregnant and our son was born there. In the end they didn’t give us asylum, the reason being that there is now a great democracy in Romania. The boy was born in 1992. I made up my mind and applied to emigrate to Canada. I left in 1994. After almost 5 years I left for Canada, I was no longer an asylum seeker, but an emigrant. So that’s the story.
– Just tell me again how you decided to return to the country.
– When I saw that Romania was joining the European Union, I thought that now it would be milk and honey. I didn’t actually decide to come to Romania. I had an interview in Germany, at the fashion magazine Burda, in a city close to France and Switzerland. In March they invited me for an interview, but they said they couldn’t pay for the airplane tickets. I said I couldn’t come because I had been to Europe twice the year before. By May they wrote to me that they had hired someone, but if I still pass through Germany, I should make a trip there. When we decided to go back, I wrote to them: Look, I’m going back to Europe, I’ll drop by. Yes, of course, they said. They set up my interview in December. It was December 2008. There was a crisis then. And they told me at the interview: if you had come in March, the job would have been yours. Now let me talk to the director if we can still hire you. You go home and we’ll e-mail you. They said they couldn’t. It wasn’t meant to be. And that’s how I ended up in Romania. In Romania I looked for work again. First I worked in Brasov for about 3 years, then I came back to Bucharest, where I am still working.
P (Petre, a friend, present at the conversation): And how did your wife get to Germany?
– After 1990, Hans sent an official invitation. She came in 1991. That’s about it. The question is: was it any good?
P: Listen, but you didn’t mention the episode that stressed me the most, with the reenactment in Orsova.
– When I arrived in Orșova, the captain was Nelu Elchescu, whom I accompanied on the accordion when I was a student. When he saw me, he said, “You’re in trouble. Then, when we were alone, he told me: as long as you’re here in Orșova, be sure you’re OK. I’ll send word to your folks. After that, when they took me to Severin, he told my folks. My father went with me on the train and went with me to the court. Florin Tufă, a lawyer, came to defend me. Defend what?! Nea’ Nicu, who helped me leave Danubiana, who also put in a word for the trial in Bucharest, spoke to the judge. And the judge told him: if I give him less than a year, they’ll tie me up. But he was very hard on me at the trial. Afterwards I found out that my father had spoken with him to be kinder to me.
P: But he couldn’t come out in public, in court.
– And that border guard officer from Stamora Moravitsa said: “You swam there, sir, but if I put you in the pool now, you’ll drown. Say, which side is the train station in Orșova? And I say: it depends on which side you come from. ”So now you’re joking”.
P: You were always joking, Vasile.
– (laughs) Yes, it wasn’t logical.
– But how was the trial? How did a trial like that go?
– First of all, they’d take you away in a prisoner’s uniform and tie your hands, to set an example. And at the trial, they’d say I’d betrayed the country. I didn’t even listen too closely, because it made me angry when I heard the now-classic formulas. When they questioned me, I answered them, but otherwise… The lawyer demanded that I be sentenced to work. Afterwards told me how hard she tried to obtain the sentence at the workplace. It was not possible, there were clear directives in that sense. I remember they brought me to Bucharest for the trial, I stayed in Rahova. And when they took us from Turnu Severin (it wasn’t only me, there were others), it was night. They put us in some prisoner wagons attached to a freight train. Of course, with handcuffs on our hands, hands behind our backs and chains on our legs. It was a sinister noise to hear those chains rattling on the cobblestones of the Turnu Severin railway station. It’s a cobblestone road. And at Rahova they put some of us in the dangerous room, where there were criminals. We were very dangerous.
– Thank you, Mr. Blidariu.
– I don’t know how much my story helps you. I’m thinking now about this trial thing with humor. While I was in Bucharest, they broke into my studio in my absence. They must have set hidden microphones, who knows what they did. Curiously, I asked for my file at CNSAS (the archives of the secret police files) and they told me I had no file. I have no file, even though I had an ID with a tracking number. I was curious to see how they got into my house. Well, I guess they were arranging with the superintendent, the block president, that I wouldn’t be home. I suspected I’d find that episode in the file. Curiously, the colleague who waited for me also asked for her, her mother’s and her aunt’s file. They had left in ’75. Funny, they found their files, but not mine.
Photo credit: Diana Bilec