“I was born in a labour camp in Donbas in 1949, 19 June,” begins Mr Ștefan Binder. “As far as I know and as far as I’ve learned from my mother – from what I could gather from her, as my father died very early – my parents were forcibly deported to the Soviet Union and that’s where I was born.” He didn’t learn the story until after 1989, when his mother started talking about it.
Ștefan Binder’s parents were both part of the ethnic German population deported to the Soviet Union in 1945. “The deportation order included all men between the ages of 17 and 45 and all women between the ages of 18 and 30,” says Mr Binder. Ștefan’s father, 17-year-old Francis Binder from Banloc, Timiș county, was “picked up” off the street and taken to the train station in Deta, state the documents in the archives. The mother, Magdalena Franzen, 18 years old, from Măureni, Caraș-Severin county, was taken to Gătaia railway station. From there they were put onto freight trains “and off they went”. “What fault did Francis Binder from Banloc have that idiot Hitler made a war?” says Mr Binder.
His parents met in the labour camp. He was a butcher by trade, she had been assigned to the kitchen. “She met my father because he used to hunt and catch wild animals and she used to cook them.” Otherwise, in the camp they only ate potatoes and cabbage, cabbage and potatoes. “The people there [in Donbas] didn’t hate them, they lived as badly as those in the labour camp,” recalls Ștefan stories he heard from his mother. “There were only two people in the camp [that mattered], the nacealnic, the commandant, and the perevocic, the translator, because none of the detainees knew Russian. My mother, after five years, she spoke Russian.”
A year after his birth, Ștefan and his mother returned to the country with the first shipment of mothers and children. His father stayed for another six months. Once he was back too, they met their in-laws, then got married. The new family settled in Banloc.
The grandfather on the father’s side had come to Banloc “from somewhere near Mediaș,” he was probably Saxon. “He came with a only a suitcase and left behind three houses,” says Mr. Binder. He, too, was a butcher. When the communists came to power, he owned a slaughterhouse, a meat processing factory and a shop to sell the products. “The shop was turned into a radio repair shop, the factory and the slaughterhouse cumbled, other people were brought to live in the house.” For a while, Mr Binder tells us, the family lived “in the houses of other people who had been deported to Bărăgan,” during a different wave of deportations.
On her return from the USSR, Ștefan’s mother took a job in the gardens of the old royal estate at Banloc, which has been transformed into Gostat, a state-owned farm. Later she became a cook in the canteen there.
“My father had an ugly fate,” says Mr Binder. After he came back to Banloc, he had to go for compulsory military service for three years and six months. “He wasn’t allowed to carry a gun, as he was German, so he was sent to Petroșani, to Aninoasa, to work in the coal mine.” When he returned home, he got a job as manager at the fuel depot. “It was a square-shaped tank, I still remember it: 5 by 5 metres, buried in the ground and there was only 25 cm of petrol in it. My dad came home for lunch, ate and went back to work because he had to finish some paperwork. He was told that a driver, I knew the man, had dropped a funnel [in the tank]. (…) My dad went in, because there was a manhole, and there were two iron rods, he hung on to them, he tried [to catch the funnel] with a wire and when he bent down to pick it up, the gas choked him and he fell in.” Stefan was 5 years old at the time.
Three years later, his mother remarried. “My father had a friend who worked in the bakery and had joined the troupes in the war [World War II] when he was only 11. He was from Baia Mare, from Tăuți-Măgherăuș. He was doing his military service when my father died. When he came back, I was there at the gate [of the Gostat] (…), because my mother was a cook there. He came and said that he had to raise his friend’s son. And he brought me up,” says Mr. Binder and struggles to fight back the tears. “The man had only been to school for four years (…), but he didn’t treat me any differently from my sister who was born six years later.”
On his mother’s side, Ștefan’s grandparents were Germans who had come and settled in Banat. Mr Binder tells us he is the sixth generation born in Romania. The rest of his mother’s siblings returned to Germany at the beginning of the Second World War. One of the brothers fought in the SS troops. “When he left, he left behind a daughter and said <if anything happens, don’t be sorry for me, I left out of conviction>.” He disappeared in the war. The other brother fought in the Wermacht, the German infantry. He was a prisoner of war with the British. He never married. When he returned to Romania for the first time after 25 years and was reunited with his sister who had been deported, “he fell to his knees and cried,” says Mr Binder.
Little Stefan grew up in the Gostat in Banloc. “When I was little, I was a convinced communist, I was Stalin’s grandson,” laughs Mr Binder. “Everyone had blue tracksuits, I had red tracksuits,” he jokes, referring to the Communist Party’s manifesto colour. “The Communists, such as they were, I didn’t get mad at them, because I, as a German (…), I can’t say that I had any setbacks in my career.” But that came later.
When he was a kid in elementary school, “there were movies about how stupid the Germans were and how smart the Russians. Everybody knew how to make swastikas. [One day] the principal and the party activist came and said that they had found three swastikas scratched on a desk. They asked one of the boys to go to the blackboard and draw a swastika. He made a fork. So they said, “See, it’s not him, the German did it,” recalls Mr Binder. As punishment, they issued his graduation certificate late, so he couldn’t enrol in a theoretical high school. He enrolled instead at a technical college in Ciacova, under the management of the Supreme Council of Agriculture, as the Ministry of Agriculture was then called.
He became a veterinarian. He didn’t go to college because “things were going too well for me,” he laughs. In 1967 he took a job at the laboratory in Reșița of the milk factory in Timișoara. “I never went back to Banloc. Reșița welcomed me with open arms, I quickly made friends, my workmates were very ok.” He did his military service in Reșița, at the Fire Brigade. Then he transferred from the laboratory to the Caras-Severin Veterinary Health Department (DSV), where he worked for 24 years. He married a Romanian woman from Mehedinți, a master jeweller. They had a daughter. In ’74-’75 he worked on the Black Sea coast, “in charge” of Neptun resort, back when “he [Ceaușescu] did not yet have his headquarters there”.
The post-revolution period was even more prosperous, recalls Mr Binder. He was making good money, but he was also working a lot. He would start his workday at 6 a.m.; from 6 to 8 a.m. he would take samples; from 8 a.m. to noon he would inspect the market; from noon to 2 p.m. he would do the test reports; at 2 p.m. he would go home. He ate lunch, then from 4 to 8 p.m. he did interventions and consultations (people had started keeping pets); from 8 to 10 p.m. he sat with his wife, they had dinner, watched TV; at 10 p.m. a representative from C+C (a large local meat processing company) would show up with 30 meat samples to be tested for trichinellosis, and he would be doing tests until midnight.
He left for Germany in 1994, on 2 February. Most of his family was already there, including his younger sister, who was only half German (on the mother’s side). “I wanted to get out, to get to know the world,” says Mr Binder. In Germany he still lived in communities of Romanians. “In Germany there are two villages inhabited by people from Măureni, (…) near Stuttgart.” He worked as a driver until 2014, when he retired.
His daughter stayed in the country. She married a footballer who played for the national team. They lived in Switzerland for three years, but they didn’t like it and returned to Romania.
In 2017, the wife was diagnosed with cancer. There was nothing to be done. Mr. Binder buried her in Romania, to be close to her family. In 2019, his daughter too passed away. She was only 44 years old. “That’s why I’m so shaken,” says Mr. Binder, referring to the moment during the interview when tears came to his eyes.
Mr Binder has a grandson and a granddaughter. They both live and work in Timisoara. He has a degree in Electronics and Telecommunications, she is a fresh graduate in Automation and Computers. “They don’t speak German, they speak English,” says Mr Binder.
When we met and interviewed him in the restaurant of the Hotel Turist in the resort Secu, near Reșița, Mr Binder was helping out the manager of the accommodation, making up for the lack of staff. He doesn’t do it for the money, he tells us, he has a satisfactory pension, but he and the lady go back a long time and have been friends since before he left for Germany. They even made a trip to Banloc together.
Mr Binder has dual nationality. He tells us that throughout his stay in Germany, he has kept his flat in Reșița. “I haven’t come back to Romania yet,” he says. “When I was in Germany, the TV was always running on Romanian channels. Now, on Facebook, the news is in German [about Germany]. I always feel the need to stay updated with what’s happening in the other country.”
Photo credit: Diana Bilec