– Let’s start with your friend’s story and then continue with Orșova Veche.
– I’m going to take out my notes!
– Well done!
– I hope I can manage without glasses. Yes, it works. It’s been forty-one years since he crossed illegally into the former Yugoslavia. He didn’t swim across as I thought, but with a local border traffic passport, as they had back then. I don’t remember how many trips Romanians were allowed to make with this passport. It wasn’t really a passport. “Pass” he called it. Naturally, at the Hydrocentral, through customs it passed to the Serbian side. He knew a Serb who came to Severin in the market and sold various things he brought from Yugoslavia. He asked him to help him pass into Austria from Yugoslavia. He paid him. He knew the Serbian area and took him to a forest near the Austrian border. There he left him alone and told him “This is the direction, cross illegally, your business. I have to go back”. Wandering through the forest he got a bit lost. He got the cardinal points mixed up and ended up back in Yugoslavia where he was caught by the authorities and arrested.
He spent a month in prison, and after a month he was taken to court. He was speaking some Serbian. In court he spoke nicely, begged for clemency, that he wanted to emigrate, that he was a political refugee and other such things. He gave me examples of other runaways who spoke badly with the judges. Those were sent back to Romania. He was not. He was sent to a camp where he spent a year. After a year he was asked where he wanted to go. He said to America. In fact, an American organization was dealing with political runaways and was financing their movement to the US. So he told me.
He told me he had this bag with clothes that contained: two underpants, four socks and two blouses. That’s what he got off the plane with. And that’s where he got the job. At first as a mechanic, for a short time. Then as a fisherman on a fisherman’s boat. For seven years he was employed in a company where he started from the bottom. He said he earned $3.25 an hour. And after every month they added 5-10 cents. He went into the technical quality assurance field and ended up making $30 an hour, from which he retired.
He ended up in the United States during Ronald Reagan’s time. He told me that Reagan helped political refugees a lot. He also told me that he was interviewed at the American Embassy where he did not denigrate the Romanian State, but he blamed Ceaușescu as a person. I don’t know if that was a strategy or this is how he felt. My guess is that he felt that way. And at the end he told me that he fled because he felt he could not have a future in Romania. So that’s Mircea Tiu’s unedited story. F
– Is he homesick? Has he been here afterwards?
– He’s never been here before. Their house in the old town doesn’t exist anymore. His sister lived in Severin, but after the divorce her husband stayed in the house there and she moved to Timisoara to her daughter, Mircea’s niece, and died there. I never heard him complain that he missed Romania. He probably got used to it, you can imagine, forty-one years!
I miss the old town. I have a lot of pictures of the old town exactly as I left it in ’71, when it was covered by water.
– Is that where you grew up?
– What did Old Orșova look like?
– It was laid out along the Danube and had three parallel streets. So about the same length as the present town. Although they had names, the locals called them Upper Street and Lower Street. The one by the Danube they didn’t call it anything. The Upper Street was divided in two: Traian and Decebal. From Eșelnița to the Centre, Traian and from the Centre to Jupalnic, Decebal. The Middle Street was also divided into two: the Republic from Eșelnita to the Centre and from the Centre to Jupalnic, 23 August. That ended with a gas station and there it forked. On one side you took it to Jupalnic and on the other side you crossed the Cerna over an iron bridge and reached the railway station.
– What were the houses like?
– The houses had an Austro-Hungarian tinge. Because Orșova was under Austro-Hungarian rule. Beautiful, healthy. In general, the two-bedroom houses with kitchen, pantry or pantry and outbuildings prevailed. There was no running water. There were wells in almost every courtyard. When I first realized what electricity was, it was 110-volt wiring. At that time it was the Orșova electric plant – I was in middle school – and they converted it to 220 V. There was a period when the power went out. A few weeks. I was very happy when the power came on and the installation was finished. I turned on all the light bulbs in the house: “Yeaah, the light’s on!” Until then I stayed by the oil lamp, that’s where I did my lessons.
– And I guess every household had a garden, right?
– Yes. Almost every house had gardens. And we had a big garden with fruit trees and vegetables.
– What shops were there?
– There was a general store. Clothing, shoes, cosmetics and a grocery store were predominant. There were also smaller neighbourhood grocery stores.
– Were there cinemas?
– Three. In a town of under ten thousand people.
– Unbelievable. Why so many?
– One was called Danube. The most prominent. This one was newly built and one was owned by a company, ONA – The Orșova Naval Association. And another one was actually built later in a house of culture during the time of the transfer of the town to the new position.
– How did you experience the moment when they announced they were flooding the town?
– I was younger then, I didn’t really realise what could happen. But I lived it and worked side by side with my parents to move. We lived in the old town in a nationalised house. Ah, a funny thing… in the old town house we had some living room furniture that my parents bought from some wealthy people. The table had carved legs, the chairs were upholstered in leather with gold buttons. When it came time to move to the new town, my folks said we were moving to a block of flats and we wanted to sell the furniture. Who do you think bought it? The family who owned it in the first place, who moved to Bucharest.
– The Pătrașcu family. My father was friends with them. He used to go there. I remember talking to my mother. My mother was of Czech nationality, and my maternal grandmother was Hungarian, Margareta was on paper, but she called her Morghit. “Hey Morghit, I ate some plum dumplings at the Pătrașcu family’s, you know how the plum was cut in four, you put the dumpling in your mouth once.” “Eh, from now on, you’re going to eat at the Pătrașcu’s!!”. My mother used to put the whole plum. And in the end they decided to make our house.
– You said you lived in a nationalized house. Do you know who owned it?
– A family called Cerna. My father was from Eșelnița and my mother from Eibenthal. When they were employed at the former Iandera weaving mill, later the Cazanele, they lived in a rented flat. That’s where I was born, with the Dan family. And around the age of four I think they moved into this nationalized house. We didn’t have a well in the yard, we crossed the street where there was a well. When I was little, my father, my grandmother, my mother used to get water. When I got a bit older, I took the bucket and went alone, but they scolded me. They were afraid that the weight of the bucket would pull me over and I would fall in. That was also the refrigerator. Lard, meat, food were put in pans and lowered by rope to above the water level because it was cold.
– Tell me about moving to Orșova Nouă.
– In order to have materials for the house where my brother lives now (I live in the block), my parents bought a house that they gave 5,000 lei to demolish and take the materials from there. Plus the nationalized house. We even removed the boulders from the foundation. We took everything from there. Starting with the tiles. That’s where we started with the tile, my brother lost a phalanx. First phalanx on the index finger of his right hand. Because my dad was on the roof, he would drop the roof tiles down a wooden gutter and they would stop in a sandbox. My brother would stand in front of the sandbox and my mother and I would take the tiles and put them in the stack. He asked me for a glass of water. It was summer. As he reached for the glass of water with one hand, he reached into the crate with his right hand to pick up the fallen tile. My father at that time let go of another one. It was Sunday. A guy came by with a motorcycle. I stopped him. He picked my brother and me up and took us to the hospital. There was a doctor on duty there. He disinfected him, bandaged him up and said to come on Monday morning. Monday morning, gangrene. It was summer, hot. They had to cut his finger.
I also remember with the house we lived in and tore it down, that we moved among the last ones. Dad had a neighbor who lived across the street, sanitary. And he used to say to him, “Uncle Tudor, don’t worry, I have friends at the hydroelectric plant and they’ll let me know when the water will rise”. The water was rising, and Mr. Tănase kept saying: “Mr. Tudor, don’t worry”. We were surprised that there were bricks in the water. He rented a metal boat for 100 lei a day. My father and my brother and I used to dive two metres underwater every summer day from morning to evening, take two bricks each, put them in the boat, push the boat ashore and build them. The next day they were back in the water. And we kept moving them, we carried them out, but there were enough bricks left in the water.
– But how were you notified? How did it come?
– I wasn’t home. I was a student. I don’t know. They must have been told they had to move out by a certain date, because the water would rise. The last people to move out were that neighbor and us. We were the last ones. It’s been a lot of work. A lot of people died from the effort, from bad hearts. It’s not easy. My grandmother died in ’67, my maternal grandmother who lived with us. The cemetery was already in the new town, we were still in the old town. I know it was muddy because they hadn’t had the streets paved. We went to the cemetery with boots, it was a lot of clay. It was raining, I think it was November. A lot of physical work. Instead, people were helping people, co-workers. I know there were ten or fifteen people at our house. They were putting out lime, moving wood, whatever was needed. And my father would go. It was like a common work group. Everybody took turns helping out.
– So the community didn’t die.
– No, it didn’t. Because in the old town the community was small, people knew each other. There if I did a little mischief as a kid, my dad would find out right away. “Hey, where were you yesterday at this time?” “Well, I came straight home.” “No, you went to the Danube!”
– Did the state offer people anything?
– Yes, they offered them a small compensation. I don’t remember, about 50 bani or one leu per square meter. Not much. I don’t want to be wrong, but it was almost nothing.
– You subsequently built your house in Orșova Nouă. The land you had to buy, right?
– No, no. The land was divided into lots and offered to the locals to choose. You went to the town hall and they said: the lot number x, belongs to Brancoveanu family.
– And the people who came from Orșova Veche in what area did they get these lots?
– They are mixed. Because the rich people have taken lots on the waterfront, where villas have been built. There were some typical projects. For villas, for houses. Simple. And you’d pick one of them. It’s not like I want to do a seven-bedroom, one-story. No, you couldn’t. There were a few projects and you’d pick one, get permission and that was it.
– So there were big tragedies.
– Yeah. Some people couldn’t resist this move. There were, I was a high school student at the time, there were several projects for the Hydro site but I think they actually chose the easiest construction. I would have preferred the other one I had heard of, to have been done in Cazane. It was a complicated thing, with repumping the water back because there was a big difference in level. Probably the floodgates would have been much harder to build too. This option was chosen, where I think the states agreed to do the hydropower plant here where it is now. If it was built in Cazane, the old town would have to be drowned. A total of eleven towns were moved.
– Which ones?
– I don’t know if I can list them all. Orșova, Jupalnic, Tufari, Coramnic, Eșelnița, Dubova, Plavișevița, Svinita, Ogradena. And two more.
– How many people?
– The villages had between two thousand and three thousand people. About 40,000 people in all. One more memory comes to mind. Everyone who built houses got vouchers, with which they got trucks, stone. Somehow the state tried to help, but a little.
– Can you tell me anything about Ada Kaleh?
– Very little. There was an attempt to relocate the remains to the island of Simian, downstream from Severin. Construction of those walls was started, but the idea was abandoned because the Turks on Ada Kaleh were allowed to go wherever they wanted. Many went to Turkey, many to Constanta, where there was a larger community, or to Bucharest. And I know a Turk who lives in Orșova, Enghiur Ahmed. He was a barman.
– And he’s here? Would he talk to me?
– He lives in Coramnic, the neighborhood on the Topleț side. That’s where he lives, he’s made his home. I know him because I used to go to bars when I was young. Hahaha!!! I remembered Ada Kaleh again. There was a carpet there, can’t remember the dimensions, it was big. Hand woven in I many many years in Turkey and given to Muslims at the mosque. It is in Constanta now at a mosque. It’s not fully unfolded because there’s not enough space.
– Which means the mosque here was quite big.
– If you still stay in Orșova I recommend you visit the museum. Because there is a very nice story about Ada Kaleh there. It’s organized in three sections. And the last one is about Ada Kaleh. You can record everything there in detail. Do you know where she is?
– Towards Clisura, at the first intersection you see the Catholic Church, turn left and two hundred metres on the left you see: the Iron Gates Museum.
In Ada Kaleh there was a sweets factory producing Turkish delight. Very good, with nuts. A cigarette factory that made Mărășești cigarettes. My father was a smoker and when I was little he used to send me to the tobacco shop to buy cigarettes from him. The owner’s name was Popovici. And my father asked me to tell him he would pay when he gets the salary. And he’d ask, “How does he keep records, he’s illiterate?” He had a card on which he drew lines when I bought cigarettes. How did he know how much money he was supposed to get from my father and others? Like this. And there was a garment factory that made leather shirts. So the industry in Ada Kaleh was developed. They also had a football field. Sometimes when one kicked the ball hard, it ended up in the Danube. But they would volunteer and swim for the ball. There were no spare balls like now.
– How interesting. How did your parents experience the move?
– It aged them prematurely. They worked a lot and it showed physically on them. My mother passed away at 62 and my father at 82. Working from night to night. I used to help them on holidays, vacations, when I could. My brother worked very hard. He stayed at home.
– The family built the house?
– Yes, he did. We had two workers from Dolj county. Employed by my parents. One of them was an Adventist. At that time, Adventists were not yet organized in Orșova and he used to go to Gura Văii on Saturdays. The other was Orthodox. He didn’t work on Saturdays and they both worked on Sundays.
– And during this period when the house was moved, where did you live?
– They built a room in the new town. That was the first one. They hadn’t demolished all the rooms in the old town either. When they caught them there at night, they’d come here. It was a come and go. About four miles. Mostly on foot. Or maybe you could hitchhike and a truck would pick you up. Only someone who hasn’t been through that can’t imagine what it’s like. When I left Galati, they wouldn’t let me go. There were no specialists, and in the end I resigned. The Director General at the time had been promoted from Iasi to the Directorate. And he says: “Man, you don’t realise how stressful a move is!”. And he was right. It was terrible to move from one place to another, to start life all over again, in another community, with other customs. Stressful. Extraordinarily stressful. I didn’t recover for a long time. So did my parents. I put myself in their shoes. You move from a house where you had all the comfort, where you knew everything in place, to another place.
– And forced.
– Especially! I don’t know if it’s right or not. Not everyone got a lot to build a house, but the ones who were owners of their houses in the old town. My parents were not homeowners, they lived in a nationalized house. An old lady, an acquaintance of theirs who owned a house in the old town, moved to Timisoara as she was old, alone, and said that she would not build a house in the new town. A semi-legal arrangement perhaps. They took her into care, supposedly and remained the owners of that house and so got the lot. That was the law then.
– I guess there were a lot of nationalized houses in the old town.
– Yes, that was the policy of the time.
– That was the policy. That means not all people got land plots.
– I also know from my father-in-law who tells me, it was paradise.
– Yes, it was. It was clean. They sprayed all the streets every day, but not with those rotary brush machines. It was just water, running down the asphalt. We used to play football on the upper street, the former Traian, because on the opposite side of our houses there was grass. And quite wide. There was no sidewalk. And when the sprinkler went by, we’d yell, “Turn it up!” When it would squirt, it would spray us from head to toe and we were glad it was summer, it was hot. Like at the old town swimming pool, where the sand was like flour, so fine. When a boat came by, they all came in and the beach was empty. We’d go as far as the buoy, which was about 100 feet from the shore. And I’d yell to the pilot to speed the boat and make waves like at sea. We were getting along.
– Can you tell me of any specific cases of families who didn’t survive this move?
– No, as I told you, I was away from home. I had no direct contact. But if I tell you how hard the work was. At that time they paid 100 lei a day. Our Czech godparents lived next door to us in the old town and now they live across the street. Being on a student holiday, my mother said “Go and earn some money. Go to your godmother to give you 100 lei a day to help them!” Well, I carried mortar for a whole day. You’d get food and drink, but I refused, I went home to eat. And in the evening, because of the buckets that had metal handles instead of wooden ones, I couldn’t straighten my fingers from all the carrying. One day I was there and it was enough!
– You went to high school here?
– In the old town.
– And that’s where you finished?
– And then you went to school?
– And then you went to Galati?
– And when you returned to Orșova?
– In ’86. I caught the Revolution in Orșova.
– What was the time of the Revolution like in Orșova? How did you live it?
– I don’t know, because I was commuting, working in Severin. I had worked for a year at the agricultural enterprise. I left because things were not working out in agriculture. I didn’t get the money on time. I didn’t like it anymore. I had an apartment here that was empty for three years and I decided to leave. And I went to UJECOP, head of the procurement office. A job related to my job. I bought agricultural food products, semi-industrialised them and sent them for export. I made a big turn. I was supervising twelve people. At the time we were exporting oxidised cherries to Poland. I was loading the barrels into the wagon and a technician comes along, says: “Mr. Engineer, Ceaușescu has fled.” “Come on, we’ve got wagons to load! I’m not paying for Ceaușescu! Come here, do the paperwork!” I got home, talked to my wife and that wagon never crossed the border. It came back because they said no more food exports. And it ended up in Suceava at a production section, also in the system.
– How would you feel?
– Obviously I was happy. There was no freedom. It was all locked up. You could buy gas only by ration. Closed borders. You couldn’t speak a word. You had to look left and right. I don’t know how to characterize exactly the period up to ’89, working in Galati. All sorts of political leaders came and gave orders and they didn’t know anything. Then there was an liberation. I thought things would change for the better. I remained a believer until I was this age. I still believe!
Photo credit: Diana Bilec