– Are you from here?
– Yes. I grew up here, at the age of two I was brought here by my parents, when there were only three blocks in this town.
– What year was that?
– I came in 1966.
– And what was the work here? Only jobs that served the Danube?
– No, mining had opened up. Copper mining, the mining fleet, and it was a time when a lot of workers were brought in from the country, especially from Transylvania and Moldova.
– And where did you come from?
– From Ardeal.
– From which area?
– From Brad, near Deva. That’s where my parents were from.
– And what was your childhood like here in the area? Since there were three blocks.
– Well, the town kept growing, they built a lot. Anyway, childhood was better then than now, for sure.
– And your teenage years? Where did you go to school?
– Here, in Moldova Noua.
– Was there a high school here?
– Yes. In those years they’d take you out of school if you played sports. And I used to choose all kinds of sports to get out of school. I’d taken up handball and was lucky enough to catch the local senior team. They were playing in Division B at the time. So I was taken out of school and I was really excited.
– Did you stay here after high school?
– I stayed here. I was also in the army. It was also because of sports that I decided to join the army here in town, close to home, because I was playing for the handball team. And immediately after the army I ran away from the country.
– You ran away on the Danube?
– Yes, I swam across the river at Șușca.
– Why Șușca?
– I had just got married and my wife was from Șușca. Together with a handball teammate, who was from Craiova, we decided to run away. He had a brother in Germany who had left legally seven or eight years before, having married a German woman, a doctor. And we decided to run away, counting on him to help us.
– How did you prepare for your escape?
– We prepared in a week. I’d been planning to go for a long time, but I didn’t know when because it was dangerous. You were afraid to talk to your friends about running away. People were often caught trying to run away. They were usually brought into the locality with the border guards, who would stop and beat them every hundred metres. We always saw them covered in blood, they could hardly stand up. That’s how they created this fear of not fleeing the country. In addition, I had two friends who tried to flee the country, and one was caught and killed by the sailors on those turbojets or whatever they were called. He was killed with a hook and was found at the iron gates with about sixteen punctures.
– Do you know where he was buried, what happened to him?
– I don’t remember.
– And yet you decided to flee.
– Yes, we decided to flee, yes.
– Tell me how you did it, though. Was there training? How did you choose to run? What did you use? Did you go swimming? You had a guide? Although being from here…
– No, I didn’t have a guide. Apart from being sportsmen, we went to the Danube all summer anyway. There was a beach where we always swam and we had no problems with swimming. I was a good swimmer. We decided to go to Șușca. I knew a place where they went fishing. I talked to my friend that the easiest and safest way would be to go fishing, rods and all, and stay in the reeds. We went fishing around lunchtime, I think it was 12-13 and stayed in the reeds until 12 at night. Already in the evening we couldn’t move because of fear. The reeds were always moving, we had the feeling that they would hear us. We stood as still as we could, and we both got muscle cramps, including our bellies. We had moments when we thought about whether to go home or continue.
– This being how far from the shore?
– We were already in the water about 40 metres. We were right at the edge of the reeds.
– So it was still on the Romanian side?
– Yes, on the Romanian side. And around 12 o’clock at night we decided to swim. We’d stuck to ourselves with duct tape, shorts, T-shirts, some papers, some money, all stuffed into a bag that we had ironed so the water wouldn’t get in. And we started swimming. It was after 12:00 at night. Above Șușca there’s a bend, a curve where you don’t have much visibility. And just as we started swimming, a boat was coming down. We picked the wrong time to leave. We were swimming, we’re like, “What are we doing, what are we doing, what are we doing?” We were very scared. We couldn’t even turn back, because the guards would catch us. I saw in my mind all those scenes of people being beaten and I said to my colleague: “Let’s go, go ahead!” Then, out of fear, each of us went their own way. He decided to turn back a bit and I decided to go straight to Serbia. We had no problems with the boat, it passed quite far from us, but there was that fear. You could hear the engines in the water, loud. Nobody saw us. We got to the Serbian shore and found each other after about six hours.
– How? Where?
– We came out pretty far apart. The Danube took us a long way down. We searched the shore and couldn’t find each other. We found each other in the morning. We knew what time the bus left for Beograd and met at the bus station.
– What year was this?
– So there wasn’t the Serbian camp yet.
– There was the camp.
– So you ended up in the camp.
– No. We talked about it at home, because it happened a lot in those years. I had many friends who passed through, were caught by the Serbs and sent back to Romania. If you had a Serbian name you had a good chance of being kept in the camp. Or if you had a family member who was outside in other countries. If you didn’t have anyone, like I did, for example, it was risky. You were almost certainly sent back.
– How was the sorting done in the camp? Do you know?
– I know of other friends who were sent back. I had a friend who was sent back twice.
– And he doesn’t know why.
– He doesn’t know why. He’s been with a partner before, who had someone in Sweden. He was stopped, and his partner ended up in Sweden. The conclusion or explanation would be just this: you had a big advantage if you had someone outside, whose name, address, exact contact you had to know.
– So it was a kind of investigation, some information was checked.
– Yes, yes, probably. We chose not to stop at the Serbs at all. From the time we started swimming until we got to Italy, in Trieste we did 24-25 hours. We went very-very well. We took the bus from Veliko Gradski to Beograd. In Beograd in the bus station, when we stopped to get off, there happened to be a militia check. We didn’t have papers, passports to show. We only had our identity cards with us. We kept waiting for them to leave the bus, because there were more buses there. But they were still standing next to our bus asking for IDs. Not all of them, but many people. We got off the bus last and they asked us for documents. We said that if they stopped us, we would run! And we ran in different directions, thinking that at least one of us would escape. So we both ran away. I think I ran more than a mile, I didn’t even look back. We passed through blocks, parks, until I got a little tired. I stopped at a block and kept quiet for more than half an hour. I could see I wasn’t being followed. But now I didn’t know where the station was. I didn’t know how to speak Serbian. Growing up here, most people spoke Serbian, but I wasn’t interested, to my shame. And now I had to look for the station. I knew what time the train to Trieste was and I didn’t know how to ask. I was also afraid because I had heard that even civilians got a reward if they handed you in, if they gave you up. I usually stopped where there were very few people, at the kiosks where there was one person and I didn’t know how to ask about the station. I’d make signs, wave my hands, and they’d answer me the same way, point one way or the other. And that’s how I got to the station.
– And you took the train…
– And I met my friend! I saw at the station when the train was leaving. I’d taken a bunch of flowers and a newspaper as a cover, and I kept wandering around the station. From there I walked down the boulevard because there were quite a few militia in the station and I thought I’d get away from them. I had about three hours or so before the train left. I went that way and saw a cinema. I thought to myself that the best choice would be to get into the cinema. It’s dark, no one’s watching you. I went there, bought the ticket. I was always giving big money to get change. I got in there and when the movie was over, who was outside? My friend! He had the same thought as me. Fantastic! We got out of the movie, hung out there in the parking lot for another hour or so, and then headed to the train station. We got on the train, got different tickets. I personally pretended to be deaf and mute. Not speaking any foreign language, I pretended to be asleep, tired, with my train ticket always in my hand. So I went, with the newspaper, with the bouquet of flowers, with the ticket always in my hand, to Trieste. There at the border I got off the train because customs checks were starting. We crossed the border parallel to the car border, where we took a side road a few hundred metres through a wood and arrived in Trieste.
– What happened in Trieste?
– In Trieste on our way down to the city, we were stopped by the Carabinieri. They asked us who we were, our documents, we didn’t really understand what they were saying. We gave them our identity cards and said: Romania, Ceaușescu. They took us to the police station, they took us into custody, we were in custody for about 12-14 hours. They brought us some sandwiches to eat and then took us to a hostel where we could stay. They gave us a document from the police that they had taken us into custody. They showed us where there was a canteen near the hostel. It was a soup kitchen where they served lunch and so we had lunch for free.
– And at the hostel you paid?
– No, we didn’t pay anything. It was paid by the Italian state.
– Do you know why? I know that the UN had some money allocated.
– I’ve heard about that too, that it had money for Serbs and Austrians, for all the countries that took in refugees. But I don’t know how much.
– What did you do afterwards?
– After that I was sent from Trieste to Rome. That’s where they sent me. To the camp at Latina. There was a camp there. They didn’t keep me in the camp, they sent me to a hotel on Via Aurelia and I stayed there for about 7-8 months. I filed my papers to emigrate to America. In fact I applied everywhere, in Canada, in Australia. But I really wanted to go to America, even though I didn’t have anyone there. I was fixated on America, I don’t know why. And I was accepted by Canada, by Australia, but not by America. After that I decided to go to another country and try for America anyway. America and New York was what I wanted. That’s how I left Italy for Spain. I found out that from there you emigrate very quickly.
– How did you find all this out?
– Although there were few Romanians, there were many rumours, true and untrue. When we arrived in Spain, there were two or three Romanians. One of them, Sorin I think his name was, had emigrated from Spain to Canada. I also filed papers for America and Canada. Again I was accepted by Canada and rejected by America. They probably had a database and saw that the same person was trying from different countries to reach them. I stayed in Spain for about seven or eight months I think, and then I went back to Italy, because at that time they earned a little in Spain, up to 300 marks. The wages were very low, whereas in Italy you could earn up to 1200 marks. I’m talking about construction work. I stayed in Italy for another two or three months and then I decided to go to Austria. I had spoken to the man who was in Austria and had come to Italy to pick up a friend. He explained to me what it’s like in Austria and what advantages you have over Italy. It was much better than in Italy, it offered you much more state. Including the right to work legally, which Italy didn’t offer.
– Back to Latina for a moment. Do you have any idea how many people were there, how many Romanians?
– At that time there were about twenty or so Romanians. Some of them arrived, others went to other countries. There were very few of us.
– And finally you settled in Austria?
– Yes, I settled in Austria. I lived in Graz for most of the time and then in Weiz, a smaller town near Graz, which had about 18,000 inhabitants.
– Where did you live when you arrived? What did you do, what did you work on?
– At first in construction, as a laborer, for about a year. Then I joined a furniture factory, Ada. A big factory with 2,000 or so employees. I worked there for eight or nine years.
– And where did you live in the beginning?
– At the beginning I lived in Vienna for a few weeks and then in Graz. I stayed for about a year and then moved to Weiz, where the furniture factory was.
– And you had an apartment?
– No, you had to pay rent. I found an apartment, lived alone. About a year after I got the job, I found out that some friends of mine had run away from town. I went to Vienna to get them to come with me. I helped them with the rent, I helped them with the job at the furniture factory and I made a small community of Romanians there.
– Why did you run away when you were very young? What was your motivation?
– For me personally, there were a lot of people coming back to the country after years and they were all with foreign cars, with more special clothes than we had back then, with cigarettes. And I would sit and talk to some or other of them, they would tell us stories and I was captivated by everything I heard. Curiosity first of all.
– When did you return to the country?
– In ’98. I’d go away, I’d come and go again. Until the 2000s. Since 2000, I’ve stayed in Romania permanently. About fifteen years. For about twelve years I also came on holidays.
– Why did you come back?
– I came back around ’93-’94. Together with a friend who had also run away, had been to Italy and America and came back, we decided to open cable TV in our town. We hooked up together and opened the local TV network.
– What was it called?
– IMPEX SRL. That’s how it was back then with names. We had the TV for about seven or eight months, then we sold it. After that we made the restaurant and that’s how we stayed. It was like a magnet. I couldn’t leave.
– Were you married in Romania?
– And your wife stayed behind when you ran away?
– Yes, my wife stayed in the country. She came after the Revolution. I brought her to Austria.
– And between ’86 and ’89 how did you communicate?
– Just letters and phone calls. When I was talking about stuff, they (Secret police) would always interrupt the call – me being young and talking all sorts, describing to her how things were abroad. (laughs)
– And after you ran away your wife didn’t have any problems?
– My wife lived with my parents, she was also called to the militia once. But my father was called 20-30 times to them and to the Securitate. She used to tell me that my father was a coward. Nobody was mean to him, but they would ask him whom I left with, what he knew, who else was leaving. One day someone came and told him to come to the police tomorrow. And there was always that stress on him.
– What did he tell them?
– He told them he didn’t know anything. And the truth is he didn’t know. Only my wife knew, neither he nor my mother knew that I wanted to run away. He was always asked if anyone else on the handball team wanted to run away, because my father was in contact with my former teammates and they wanted to know something. They didn’t beat him up, he didn’t have any other problems, he was just mentally terrorised.
– Do you regret coming back?
– No, I don’t regret it. Now it is really ok here.
– Why only now?
– It’s been fine for a long time. For me personally it’s good now.
– And the friend you ran away with?
– He’s in Germany. I didn’t tell you, when we arrived in Italy we exchanged the money we had left, seven or eight dollars, for phone calls. He called his brother in Germany when we arrived. He had talked to him from home that when we arrived I would be helped and so on. When he called him, his sister-in-law answered . We were both sitting in the booth, and I was holding the phone so I could hear what they were talking about, and his sister-in-law told him: “Hey, Liviu, please come alone, don’t come with that friend of yours because it’s hard for us and we have no way of supporting him”. Then he called again, spoke to his brother, and told him the same thing. And then I decided to stay in Italy to get on with my life. And he went to Germany.
– How did you say goodbye?
– He was not to blame. He needed money to pay for his train. I worked at a quarry for a week or so and all the money I made I gave it to him, for the train ticket.
– Did you see each other again?
– Yes, I did. This is the boy I told you about who read the book and quit smoking. He was from Craiova.
– Is it painful for you to think about the moment you left the country?
– I’ve had these conversations with friends before. Now if I had to leave, I wouldn’t. Then it was that courage, the madness of youth. I lived not in this block, but in the next block, and I saw everything that was going on: how the guards were coming, how the shifts were changing, how they were going. I knew from my childhood how frequent the signaling fires were, all sorts of other things, dogs barking at you. The biggest fear was not getting caught. The fear wasn’t of jail, it was the way they beat you, seeing it happen.
– Do you have any acquaintances who have been caught?
– Yes. I even had a neighbour who was caught. Right near the water while he was inflating a lifeseving vest. I understand he was beaten and was jailed for a year and eight months at Popa Șapcă for attempting to run away.
– And those who were locked up for attempt were with the common law prisoners?
– Yes, they were together. In those years, when you were released, you had a bald haircut and people would recognize where you came from. He was given a job elsewhere than where he had been employed before.
– Where had he worked before?
– In the fleet. And then at a job where he kept complaining that it was very hard. Something at the ponds, with dyking, you had to do hard physical work all the time. I have another friend, a former schoolmate of mine, who jumped from a ship. It was a boat from Orșova to Moldova, he probably didn’t jump far enough and got caught by the propeller.
– Did they ever find him?
– I understand he was buried, don’t know where now.
– Here in the area do you know where the ones that were caught were buried?
– I don’t know, I only know that there was a cemetery on the Serbian side. Those who were found were buried in a locality around here, in Serbia.
– And on our shore?
– I know of two cases, in the cemetery here, buried by families.
– You are among the few who returned to the country.
– Yes, I think so. At least my generation, who were there, they’re all with children, grandchildren in Austria. They all have their homes.
– What do you think the people are afraid of?
– Do you think they’re afraid?
– I don’t know, nothing happens to you, you can say what you want. It’s probably a hidden fear. If you had arrived yesterday, just today a boy left who was about ten years older than me, who was also a handball player. He ran away too. He had a Serbian name, he wasn’t sent back. He also had an uncle in Australia. He crossed the Danube by going fishing in a boat. When it got dark, he slowly rowed the boat to the Serbian shore, jumped in, swam out and surrendered. He spent a year in the camp and then ended up in Australia. What I know is that at that time there were several dozen Romanians waiting to leave.
– Nobody wanted to stay in Yugoslavia.
– No, well, those were the years when even Serbs were going to Germany, to Austria. Trieste was full of Serbs. With their help we found work. Tito let them go everywhere. He had a different vision. We still know a lot of Serbs who worked abroad and would return to Serbia to retire. It was a good policy by Tito. We heard about the Germans paying to leave. Those were the years of hardship, standing in line, standing in queues. I know I was 14-15 years old, I wanted to hang out with my friends and all of a sudden I heard: “Come quickly, you have to go to the shop, there’s food!” Everyone was nervous.
Photo credit: Diana Bilec