Our Great Escape

We fled Romania in December 1980. I call it our great escape.

Before I begin, I have to shed some light on the living conditions in Communist Romania toward the end of 1970s. The economic conditions were deteriorating. There was shortage of everything.

Nicolae Ceausescu, the self-proclaimed president for life of Romania, decided to pay off Romania’s debt to the world banks on the expense of the people. While he and his wife continued to live their lavish lifestyles and were building their enormous palace, the population was suffering.

Everything was exported and sold out of the country. Electricity, oil, gas, and food products were taken out of the country and sold. There was no gasoline for cars. There was a system that allowed cars with odd numbered license plates to circulate one weekend and even numbered license plates the next weekend. It was dark on the streets at night because only a few street lights were lit. Store fronts were dark and no neon signs were shining.

There was no supply of food in the groceries. No meat, no eggs, no milk, no vegetables.

On the shelves the only things on display were cans of fish, canned beans and bottles of alcohol.

People were lining up for hours, sometimes over night, when there was a rumor of meat, butter, or any food item being sold in the morning at certain grocery stores.

On the political front, people were kept under very strict supervision. The Party had informants everywhere. People who dared to object to the living conditions or talked against the regime were beaten, imprisoned, or disappeared without a trace.

Only a select few were allowed to travel abroad, probably to spy or gather useful information for the Party.

To get a passport to travel to another communist country people had to apply to the leaders of the place they worked to receive a reference letter that allowed them to apply for a passport.

They had to wait for months to receive an answer. Usually even if they got a positive answer it wasn’t for the whole family. Sometimes the father was rejected, sometimes the mother, sometimes the child was not allowed to receive a passport. If approved, passports were handed out before travel and had to be returned after. No person could hold on to the passport.

People were fed up with the situation and many tried to defect by going across the border illegally or swimming across the Danube River to Yugoslavia and from there make their way to Italy, the first non-communist country bordering Yugoslavia. They risked being caught, beaten, imprisoned, even shot dead.

Arpad, my husband, found out about a route through Bulgaria to Turkey. We applied for passports to go to Bulgaria and prayed that we will receive them.

By a miracle our family: Arpad, 32 years old father, Ibi, 28 years old mother and 3 1/2 years old daughter, Krisztina, was found worthy of receiving passports to travel together to Bulgaria. And this is how it all started.

We were planning in secret our escape. We had some savings, we also sold our possessions worth selling. We sold our car, the expensive stereo equipment Arpad owned and we terminated the contract for an apartment where we accumulated 15000 Lei over a three year period. All the money we had was converted into US dollars and German marks. We knew we needed US dollars and German marks once we are out of Romania. Arpad knew people who put him in contact with foreigners who while visiting Romania wanted to exchange their currency into Romanian Leis. Little by little he managed to exchange our Leis and we had a small fortune in foreign currency. We kept it hidden because it was against the law for a Romanian citizen to own foreign currency.

Our Great Escape from our hometown Timisoara in Romania, began on December 8, 1980.

It was a cold Monday morning. We woke up early to catch the 7AM train to Bucharest.

We were carrying only one suitcase packed with a few clothes not to raise any suspicion about our plans. Krisztina brought her favorite doll, a soft, pink, plush doll that she named Csavo Baba.

We told my parents, whom we lived with, that we were going on a few days winter vacation to a Romanian winter resort, Sinaia. The taxi we called to take us to the train station could not come in the street because of the 50 cm snow that had fallen the night before. My mom walked us to the corner where the taxi was waiting not knowing that it was the last time she saw us for a very long time.

After a ten hour train ride, we arrived to Bucharest where we visited our friends: Cristian, Monica and their son Horia who was born the same year, same day as Krisztina.

We spent the night at their place and prepared for our trip to Bulgaria. They didn’t know about our plans either. The next day while we were getting ready to go to the railroad station to continue our trip, we heard about the assassination of John Lennon that happened the night before in New York City. Sad and unbelievable news. It felt like we lost a good friend. The Beatles were very popular in Europe, even Eastern Europe. Their music penetrated the Iron Curtain over the waves of Radio Free Europe. We loved their music as teenagers and in our 20s. His tragic and untimely death is now connected to our leaving Romania. Every year on December 8 the remembrance of the death of John Lennon reminds us of our escape from Romania.

We boarded the train to Sofia, Bulgaria. Because it was a long overnight trip we decided to buy tickets to a sleeping car to make traveling with a three and a half year old easier.

We arrived to Sofia the next day, December 10thafter going through a strict border control and customs search at the Romanian-Bulgarian border, where the train was stopped for hours.

We had our Romanian passports in order and we were lucky the armed Romanian border patrol didn’t find the American dollars and German marks hidden in our shoes and our toothpaste. We risked imprisonment because as I said it was against the law to have Us dollars.  We booked a room at Hotel Europa in Sofia where we spent the night. The next day we went to the Turkish Embassy to ask for visas to enter Turkey.

There we found out we didn’t need visas because Romanians can travel visa-free all over Europe.

That was big surprise to us and was hard to believe. Having passports in our hands, we could travel anywhere in Europe! We never had passports before.

We went to Balkan Tourist, a travel agency in Sofia and bought our tickets for a bus trip to Istanbul, paying with some of our hidden American dollars. The price was 50 US dollars for one ticket. Children under 5 could ride free of charge. Then went back to the hotel where we spent another night and the next day, December 12th, after we visited the city, we boarded the bus that took us on a long overnight trip to Istanbul.

After midnight we reached the Bulgarian-Turkish border. After another scary border control the bus rolled into Turkey, the land of freedom for us.

December 13th 1980, we finally escaped the Romanian Communist Regime. Our Great Escape!

It was not over yet, just the beginning of our journey to Canada.

After spending two days in Istanbul, we bought plane tickets using our hidden German Marks, and boarded a plane to Vienna.

On December 15th we arrived to Vienna in hopes of going to Canada as soon as possible.

Little did we know that it will take eight months to be able to go to Canada on August 11, 1981.

But that is another story…


Monday, December 8,    1980    –   Train to Bucharest
Tuesday, December 9,    1980    –   Train to Sofia
Friday,     December 12,  1980    –   Bus to Istanbul
Monday  December 15,  1980    –   Airplane to Vienna
Tuesday  August       11,   1981   –    Airplane to  Toronto

On the Bus to Istanbul

The bus ride from Sofia, Bulgaria to Istanbul, Turkey.

I don’t remember everything well. We boarded the bus on December 12, 1980.

It was a Friday and it was late afternoon. All the seats filled up by other tourists and Turkish people. We found empty seats toward the end of the bus. I sat on the left side of the aisle with Krisztina beside me. Arpad sat on the right side of the aisle beside a stranger. I don’t remember too much of it. We crossed Bulgaria from Sofia on the Western side to the South-East border crossing to Turkey. It was in December and the days were short. It was dark when we boarded the bus. After two or three hours the bus stopped for a toilet break, at Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. After the rest stop the bus continued the trip into the night. We slept until we reached the Bulgarian-Turkish border where the military guard took our passports for inspection. When he had all the passports he descended the bus and we all had to wait there for his return. Fifteen to thirty minutes later he returned and beginning at the front seats he handed back the passports to their owners. One by one he opened each passport and looked inside and then looked at the person the passport belonged to, before he returned it.

He did this at every row, with each person sitting on the seats on each side.

When he reached the row we were sitting in, he opened my passport looked at the photo inside, looked at me and instead of giving it back to me he started turning the pages one by one and looking at each page very carefully. Seeing this, my mind started racing and for a couple of seconds that seemed like an eternity I was sure he is going to take us off the bus and return us to Romania. We were told at the Turkish Embassy, we didn’t need visas to enter Turkey but at that moment, I was sure that was not true. He was looking for the stamp on my passport that allowed us to enter Turkey and I didn’t have it, I thought. Finally he looked at me and than he pointed at Krisztina, who was sleeping on the seat beside me. That is when I understood what he was looking for. He was looking for Krisztina’s name and photo in my passport. She didn’t have her own passport because of her young age and her photo and name were applied to Arpad’s passport. Relieved, I pointed to Arpad and the officer understood to look for her information in Arpad’s passport. After he did that he handed back our passports. The joy we felt was equal to the big scare we felt before. He handed back all the passports, except for one. The person sitting next to Arpad had to follow the officer off the bus, we don’t know why. He didn’t return to continue his trip. For us the rest of the bus ride was a happy ride. We rolled into Turkey and at Edirne we had to leave the bus and stand beside it with our luggage until we were cleared by customs. Edirne, the first Turkish city we encountered, will always be in our remembrance. It is the city where we reached freedom. We left the communist countries behind and were outside the iron curtain. In the morning we reached Istanbul the city that emperors fought to conquer. Once belonged to the Greek Empire then to the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Now we felt like we were conquerors too.

Two Days in Vienna

We arrived to Vienna on December 15th, after a 3 hour flight from Istanbul. They served dinner on the plane but we refused it thinking that we have to pay for it and we were saving our money to go farther to Canada. How things have changed over the years, now we really have to pay for food on certain flights.

On our arrival we were afraid of being arrested and sent back to Romania. We thought that every body can spot us and know that we are on the run. With little Krisztina by the hand and our luggage claimed we approached the passport control booth with our hearts racing. The officer who checked our passports was a bit confused when we handed our passports to him. He didn’t see many of those I presume. He was looking at every page very attentively while we were trying to hide our anxiety. Finally he asked the other officer something in German. His colleague who was more knowledgeable with Romanian passports, looked at our passports and said something in German. We understood the word “grun” which means green in English. Our passports were the colour dark green. We guessed he said that green Romanian passports were ok and we didn’t need visas.

Then he gave us back the passports and waved us through. We were overjoyed.

We walked through the airport and stepped out the sliding doors and we felt like we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel, both figuratively and literally. We were in Vienna, free to go anywhere and Christmas lights were shining everywhere. Very different from what we left behind in Romania.

It was Monday night already and we needed a place to spend the night. Not knowing anything about Vienna, we stepped to one of the taxis that were waiting for travelers and asked the driver to take us to the city center to an inexpensive hotel. He took us to a bed and breakfast in a private home. We got a cozy room on the third floor and were happy to have a place to stay for the night. The cost in Austrian Shillings, was the equivalent of 50 US dollars per night. Our happiness didn’t last long. Krisztina started looking for her doll that she carried in her hands along the way. We looked everywhere in the room and didn’t find it. The sad realization hit us: Csavo Baba was lost! We think it was left in the taxi. We felt very bad about losing the doll, the only doll, the only toy our little girl had, to keep her company along our journey. She was heartbroken and we could not comfort her. After a while her soother helped her calm down and stopped crying. We decided to go out to find a store and buy a new doll for her. We also needed to find a place to eat. Our hostess at the bed and breakfast place was a very nice lady and gave us directions to the store.

We went out in Vienna at night and were amazed by all the Christmas displays. Trees decorated with flickering lights, shining in every colour. The store fronts were brightly lit and Christmas music was playing everywhere. We entered a big department store, I don’t recall the name of it, looking for a doll to buy. We saw many decorated Christmas trees and electric train sets. We also saw many expensive, oversized dolls, almost as tall as Krisztina. They were nicely dressed and packaged in see through boxes but they were not the doll that was loved by her. These dolls were beautiful but strangers. We left disappointed and without a doll. Went to the grocery store where we bought bread, milk and some salami to eat it in our BnB room. We were overwhelmed by all that happened that day: the flight from Istanbul to Vienna, the landing in a strange city, the loss of the doll. We felt like we were in a dream afraid to wake up and find ourselves in Romania again.

We woke up the next morning, had a lovely breakfast prepared by our hostess and went to town looking for a travel agency. While walking on the streets we admired the old buildings built during the Austrian Empire and visited the famous St. Stephen Cathedral where we said a prayer of gratitude to God. We felt that it was his guidance that led us along the way.

We found a travel agency where we asked for plane tickets to Toronto, Canada. We left Romania with the intention of going to Canada because Arpad had some family friends living in Toronto who we hoped could help us settle in the new country.

We were told we needed visas to travel to Canada. Romanians could travel visa free in Europe but not to North America. First disappointment.

Luckily the Canadian Embassy was within walking distance from the Travel Agency.

We walked in and with the passports in our hands we asked for visas. Tourist visas? We were asked. We said yes. Do you have a letter of invitation? No! You need one in order to get a tourist visa. Second disappointment. We had no way of getting a letter of invitation from Canada on such a short notice.

We can’t go if we don’t have a letter of invitation? We asked. Tourists need a letter of invitation, we were told again. If we want to emigrate? we asked. Well, then you have to go to the next level and fill out an application. Ok!

We went to the next level and told the clerk that we wanted to emigrate to Canada.

The clerk told us we needed to fill out lots of forms and we should go to an organization where they can help us with our case. Next door to the Embassy was the World Council of Churches and they had people who spoke our language and who could help us.

World Council of Churches or WCC, was one of the worldwide religious organizations that set up office in Vienna to help refugees from Eastern Europe seek asylum in various countries.

We entered the office hoping to fill out the applications fast with their help and return to the Embassy to start the emigration procedure and get our visas for our trip.

After telling the lady at the WCC our desire to go to Canada, she informed us about the way things worked. She told us we needed to fill out applications, they will help us. We need to send them to the Canadian Embassy, they will do that for us. We will need to have a medical exam and have an interview with a worker from the embassy. They can set up appointments for us. Then we have to wait until our case is reviewed. If we are found fit for Canada we will receive the visas and then we can make arrangements to go to Canada. All this could take up to one year, she told us. Third disappointment.

We didn’t have enough money to live in Vienna for a year while waiting for the visas.

What to do? You can go to Traiskirchen and live there until you get your papers ready, the lady from WCC told us. Traiskirchen was a town, 20 Km away from Vienna and it was home to the biggest refugee camp in Europe. It still is.

The refugee camp was located in the centre of Traiskirchen in the building of the former Imperial Artillery Cadet School which was built in 1900.

We were told to take the Localbahn, a railway system that ran from Vienna to Traiskirchen, and when we get there, we should walk to the guard at the gate of the camp and ask for political asylum. They will tell us how to proceed next.

We were upset at this unexpected turn of events. We were sure once we got out of Romania we will be free to go anywhere. We did not imagine spending time in a refugee camp. We didn’t have to go there but we didn’t have the means of living in Vienna until we will be allowed to go to Canada.

Nobody forced you to come here, said the lady seeing our disappointment. Even though we didn’t like her statement it was the truth and it shook us up. We were fugitives, we had our little daughter with us and needed a place to stay and food to eat. We might be in need of medical attention in the future. At the refugee camp we would be provided all that. We filled out the applications for emigration to Canada and returned for one more night to the BnB.

The next morning our small family, with all our belongings, boarded the Localbahn to Traiskirchen.

Once there we walked to the armed guard at the gate and, feeling very insecure and uneasy, asked for political asylum.

And so the next chapter in our life started. Eight months of waiting and hoping to get a chance of starting a new and better life in Canada.

One Scary Night in Traiskirchen

It was late afternoon on December 17, 1980 when we entered the refugee camp. After asking for political asylum, the armed guard opened the gate and let us in the courtyard. We were led to a big multi story building where a man in uniform took our names and we were each given a blanket and a pillow. We were also given each a tin plate and a tin cup and cutlery. After that we climbed the stairs to the third floor where we were led into a large dormitory with dozens of metal frame beds. It was well lit and some of the beds were already occupied by other asylum seekers. We looked around, found two beds side by side and put our belongings on one of them and sat Krisztina down on the other. I looked around in despair. My head was spinning and horrible thoughts flooded my mind. What had we done?! We left our home in Romania. We had a place to live there in my parents house. We had good jobs compared to other people. I already forgot the reasons why we left it all behind. We will have to spend a year or so in this big room.

There were people in every corner of the room trying to find some privacy.

Most of them were from Poland and we could not communicate much not knowing the language. Like us they were political asylum seekers.

Because it was after dinner one of the workers in the building told Arpad to go down to the kitchen where he could get sandwiches and tea or milk for us. I stayed with Krisztina while he went for the food. He came back a lot happier than he left because he met some Hungarian people who told him in short about the situation in the camp.

We didn’t have to spend a year in this dormitory. This was a quarantine for newly arrived asylum seekers. We had to stay there until they interview us.

After the interview we will be assigned private or semiprivate rooms depending on the family size. We will get an ID card and we will be able to move freely in and out of the camp. This was good news. We ate our sandwiches in a more hopeful mood.

We didn’t sleep a lot that night. Hungarian and Romanian people who were already living in the camp came up and visited us. We all told each other our escape stories.

Listening to the hardships and dangers they had to endure in order to cross the Romanian border illegally, we felt lucky we didn’t have to face what they faced.

We also found out that the building in Traiskirchen was filled to its capacity.

The Solidarity movement started in September 1980, in Poland and thousands of people taking advantage of the open borders were fleeing the country. Most of them ended up seeking asylum in Traiskirchen. To solve the overcrowding problem, the camp organizers enlisted the help of small hotels called gasthouses in villages across Austria to take in families of asylum seekers. We had a good chance of being housed in one of those.

The next morning after an early, army style, wake up call, we were given a breakfast of coffee, tea and buns with butter and jam. It was all brought to us in the dormitory, in large metal jugs and crates and distributed by two camp workers. We were also given milk for Krisztina after our request. They also gave out chocolates for later.

Not long after we finished eating, our names were called and we were taken to a different building for an interview. In an office two very serious policemen took our finger prints and asked us about our country of origin and our reason for defecting. They opened files on us and took our photographs for our refugee cards. One of the questions was: were you members of the Communist Party?

We said: no. Arpad was not a member. He was fortunate enough to escape it. I was a member but I denied it because, the people we talked to the night before told us that admitting it would interfere with our asylum granting.

The truth is that my being a member was more a formality than a conviction.

Because I was regarded as a trustworthy worker, I was “chosen” and “allowed” to become a member of the party and I was afraid to refuse.

After the interview we were told to go to a different building to register with a charitable organization like, Caritas or World Council of Churches. These organizations can facilitate our emigration visas, help with interviews with the embassy and also pay for our plane tickets to Canada, if accepted. We did that in Vienna even before entering the camp. We registered with WCC. Ok, then you can go back to the dormitory, we were told.

Not long after our return to the dormitory, a tall bearded guy came in and called out for the romanishe-ungarishe leute (the Romanian-Hungarian people ). We looked around. Kun Family, he called again and we realized he was calling us.

Get your things and be ready because shortly the taxi will take you to the hotel.

We were ready in less then a minute happy to leave that place.

Looking back I have to admit that it wasn’t as horrible as it sounds. It was a place that offered refuge for thousands of people like us who were defecting communism and on their way to new start in a new country. It was clean and safe and offered shelter and food, medical care for free for people in need. It was the launching pad for people like us in their quest for a free new life.

We were taken to a hotel 130 Kms away from Vienna, to Purgstall am der Erlauf, a small town with a population of 5000. Gasthof Zum Kutcherhoff was to become our home for the next 8 months.

Taxi to Purgstall

The driver of the taxi that came to take us to the hotel, was a sleepy guy who didn’t speak much. We would not have understood him anyway. We didn’t speak German, just a little English at the time. Arpad sat in the front passenger seat, Krisztina and I sat in the back.

We rolled out of the camp and drove through town and then out of town. We were not told where the hotel was but since we were driven by taxi, we thought it was nearby.

30 minutes passed and we were riding very fast on the autobahn (highway) like there was no speed limit. I was very frightened by the high speed. A wooded, mountainous area surrounded us and I was imagining the worst. Scary thoughts of being taken in the woods and shot came to my mind. We heard about people being taken by the Securitate, the Romanian secret police who were disappeared. Even in Austria, I was afraid of them because they were everywhere. While all these thoughts were racing through my mind, the taxi was moving at high speed and the driver was falling asleep. Now I was afraid of getting into an accident. Arpad was trying to keep the driver awake by offering him a cigarette. That worked until he smoked it. A few minutes later Arpad dosed off being tired after a sleepless night and Krisztina was sleeping with her head on my lap. In the rearview mirror, from the back, I could see the drivers eyes slowly closing. I started starring at him in the mirror to keep him awake. I was convinced that the second I take my eyes off him he’ll fall asleep. I think it worked because he didn’t fall asleep and after a long hour of driving we arrived to our destination. Finally I could relax, we were at the hotel and we were still alive.

Purgstall am der Erlauf

The hotel was called Gasthof zum Kutcherhof and was not quite a hotel, more like a rooming house. There was a restaurant and bar at ground level that had a street entrance. The rooms were on the first floor and were accessible from the back court yard. There were 10 rooms in the building. The bathroom and the toilet were shared. The dining room was in a separate building adjacent to the main building.

We were housed in a large room that had two beds and a bunk bed, an armoire, a table with four chairs. There was also sink in the room.

The owners were Hubert, a man in his thirties and his wife Renate, who looked younger.

They had two elementary school aged children. It was a family business and they all worked long hours from early morning until late at night. Hubert’s father and mother also worked there. She was the cook and he was the butcher. They also had a rooming house that housed about 10-15 families on the property next door. We all ate together in the dining room. They had three employees, two were cleaning the rooms and one worked in the kitchen. Hubert was the boss, he also worked in the restaurant/bar at night.

As soon we settled in our room, it was time for lunch. We went down to the dinning room and met the other guests/refugees. Most of the families were from Poland, two families from Czechoslovakia, one family from Bulgaria, one Romanian family and one couple from Hungary.

The Hungarian couple Vali and Laci, invited us to their table and we ate together from then on until their departure in the summer. Because we spoke the same language and were the same age group, we spent a lot of time together telling each other our life stories, our dreams for the future and we went on hikes together in the forests surrounding the town.

The town people were very kind and did not show any hate nor discrimination against us.

In Traiskirchen we noticed a different attitude toward auslanders (foreigners ) as they called us.

One week after our arrival to Purgstall it was Christmas Eve and the town people invited us all to Church to midnight mass. It was a beautiful night that left a lasting impression on us especially because the birth of Christ was not celebrated and Christmas was not an official holiday in communist counties. The church was brightly illuminated and filled with people. Some of us had to stand in the doorway. Locals and auslanders we all felt the spirit of Christmas and worshipped together. Before we headed back to the gasthous every family was given a little package as a Christmas gift. It contained Christmas cookies, sweets and chocolates so we can enjoy them in our rooms giving us a real festive feeling.

The days passed at a slow pace. Breakfast in the morning, then waiting for the mailman to deliver letters from the embassy or letters from home. At noon we ate lunch, then afternoon walks and dinner at night. The time spent there was like an extended all inclusive vacation , free of charge, at an alpine resort. Except we did not feel like we were on a vacation. We were anxious to move on. Our old life ended when we left Romania and our future was uncertain. The daily discussions were about who was granted a visa from the embassy and who was rejected. Most of the Polish families chose Australia because the waiting period was only two or three months and the chances of being given immigrant visas were better. The Romanian family and Hungarian couple applied for visas to the USA. People wanting to immigrate to the USA needed a sponsor who had to sign an affidavit of support that showed that the immigrant will have financial support once in the US and will not become a burden on the state by using benefits. The Romanian family was sponsored by a religious organization from Detroit. The Hungarian couple was sponsored by Laci’s brother who was living in NY York state. In Canada once accepted we would receive state sponsorship. We were all waiting for the good news while days, weeks and months passed.

Spring came. then summer. We had to buy summer clothes because we had only winter cloths.

When we got there we bought a hot plate to make tejbegriz (cream of wheat) for Krisztina. From home we brought with us a red and white polka dot, 1 litre pan, a small bowl and a spoon. We used those all the way to Canada to make tejbegriz and I made it almost every day for her because she didn’t like the food we were served there. We bought a stove top espresso maker and coffee to brew our own coffee in the afternoon. We bought every once in a while a bottle of whiskey and bottles of beer that we shared with Vali and Laci. Arpad was a smoker, so we bought cigarettes.

We started spending the money we had to supplement what we received from the camp. Every months we received from Traiskirchen toiletries ,personal hygiene items and the equivalent of 20 US dollars per family.

To make up for the money we spent, Arpad found work that paid him daily.

It was very hard work, digging ditches for telephone cables. He worked from morning until night every day, sometimes even Saturdays. He worked there four months when he developed a lump in his palm at the base of his thumb. He went to see the doctor in town who sent him to the hospital in Sheibbs, a neighbouring, town, to have it removed. After the surgery he could not work there anymore. He didn’t have to, because soon after, in August, we received the good news: we have been accepted by Canada and on August 11th we boarded the plane in Vienna that took us to Toronto. The final destination of our great escape.

Life as Refugees

After all these years it is difficult to remember every little detail of our life in Austria. The waiting and the uncertainty were the two major elements that left a lasting impression in my memory.

There are other things that I remember: the smell of coffee and fresh buns in the mornings when we went into the dining room. I loved the smell of breakfast.

I remember getting up early in the mornings around 5:00 o’clock, when we had appointments in Vienna. Renate was up already making us coffee and sandwiches to take with us. At the beginning we liked going to Vienna, but after the 5th or so trip we dreaded it. We needed to go many times to the Traiskirchen camp to fill out papers. To the doctor’s office in Vienna for medical exams, to the lab for medical tests, to the Canadian Embassy for interviews. The taxi would come for as at 6:00am and drive us to Traiskirchen, or to Vienna, and it would pick us up at a certain hour from there when we finished and drive us back. Usually it was just our family but sometimes there were other families too, who needed to go to Traiskirchen. Then, a stretched Mercedes that looked like a limo would pick us up. We got used to sleepy drivers driving us at high speed.

I remember going on a trip with a borrowed car to Bad Kreutzen, to visit our friends Miorita and Pogo, who defected from Romania also and were housed there. We spent the night at their hotel and the next day we went together on a trip along the Danube River to Linz and from there to Salzburg where Mozart was born. It was in the summer and it was a beautiful trip.

I remember waiting for our turn to use the bathroom, on bath days. Hubert our host over estimated his ability to host so many people for so long and under estimated the costs of housing so many people.

I don’t know the amount of money he received from the camp for each person, probably not enough because, slowly from a friendly host he became our fearful boss. At the beginning we could watch TV at night in the TV room downstairs. One day he locked the room and we could not watch TV anymore. He took away the hot plates from our rooms so we didn’t use extra electricity. He put a stove in the hallway that we could use. Taking turns, of course. The shared bath was open all day at first, then he decided that we use it too often so he locked it. Every Friday morning he would give the key to one family for use. That family passed it to the next after their bath and so on. When a Polish family had the key at the start, they surely passed it to another Polish family until they all finished bathing. We didn’t get the key until late afternoon. When the Hungarians or Romanians got the key first, we were lucky because they passed it to us after their use.

As families left for their country of destination, Hubert, didn’t accept new families and started renovating the empty rooms. By the end of the summer he had a few families that he transferred to another gasthaus on the street. At one time we were the last family living there. There was a construction crew working in the attic, other then that we had the whole place to ourselves. The dining room was still functional and everybody ate there. At the end we too moved to the other gasthaus just for a couple of weeks until our departure.

I remember going to a restaurant near the gasthaus to order crépes, palatschinken in German. At Hubert they didn’t make them. They were Krisztina’s favourite so once a week we went there to buy them. After a while when the owner of the restaurant saw us coming he would call out: palatschinken madchen! ( little crepes or pancake girl).

I remember what a quiet and patient little girl Krisztina was. We took her with us, away from home and away from people she knew, on a long journey. By the time she turned four years old, she had traveled by trains, buses, automobiles and airplanes. She experienced different cultures and heard different languages by traveling through four countries. Sometimes we had to wake her up at early hours on cold winter mornings. Sometimes we had to walk with her long distances. When she got tired, Arpad sat her on his shoulders and carried her. She had to eat strange food and sleep in unfamiliar beds. Still, she did not complain. She had her soother that she turned to when she was tired or sleepy or sad. When we lost her doll, she cried but her soother calmed her down.

When she turned four years old we thought it was time to wean her off the soother so it won’t affect her teeth. Laci pretended to throw it out the window and we never found it.

It was another loss that she encountered. Even bigger than losing the doll. Recently she told me that she doesn’t remember losing the doll but, she remembers Laci, throwing away her soother.

Looking back, I realize what a blessing it was to have such an agreeable and accepting child that she was on our difficult journey.

I remember Krisztina’s friend Damian. He was a little boy about Krisztina’s age, from Poland who lived in one of the rooms with his parents, waiting to go to the US. We took him on our hikes, many times, and invited him to play with Krisztina, so she could spend time with children. Since we left home she was surrounded by adults all day long.

The reason I am expressing myself in plural in these stories, is because from the time we left Romania, until we arrived to Canada, we did everything together. We spent all the time together, except for the time Arpad worked. Then it was Krisztina and I.

Final Destination: Toronto, Canada

Finally, August 11, 1981, the day we have been anxiously waiting for, has arrived. We were ready for the big overseas flight. The day before, the taxi came and took us to the Traiskirchen camp, where we collected our Fremdenpasses (Austrian aliens passports) stamped with the Canadian entry visas and our plane tickets to Toronto. We spent the night at a Traiskirchen hotel and early in the morning the taxi came and took us to the Vienna International Airport. It was all arranged by WCC, the passports, the plane tickets, the hotel, the transportation to the airport.

We boarded the plane that flew us to Zurich, Switzerland. After a few hours layover we boarded the big Boeing that took us to Toronto. It was a long flight. Longer than the usual 8 hours. We were told that because of the US air controllers strike, the plane was rerouted and instead of the usual trans-Atlantic flight we flew above Greenland and entered Canadian airspace from the north. That was unusual but we didn’t know. Nor did we know that six days before our flight, President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who ignored his order to return to work. Not having TV nor radio, we were oblivious to what was happening in the world.

We didn’t know about the US air traffic controllers strike that started on August 3.

Ronald Reagan declared the strike a “peril to national safety” and ordered them back to work. Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work. Subsequently he proceeded in firing those who did not return to work. That impacted air traffic for weeks.

What a time to travel by plane! But we did not know all that, found out only later.

Our flight was 10 hours long and we also had an one hour stop in Montreal. We stayed on while some travellers descended the plane to catch connecting flights.

I don’t remember much about the flight. It was long, too long. Couple of hours into the flight, I felt light headed and dizzy and my ears were all plugged. Krisztina had airsickness too. She started crying and vomiting. Poor little girl! She felt really sick and threw up. She felt a little better afterward but her clothes were all messy and smelly. I packed all our clothes in the suitcase that I checked in. I had to improvise. We went to the lavatory and I undressed her and placed her soiled clothing in a plastic bag. I took off the sleeveless t-shirt I wore under my shirt (luckily) and put it on her. It looked like a long oversized dress on her but it was dry. And this is how we arrived to Toronto.

We were tired and weary but happy when we landed. We arrived to our final destination. Canada accepted us and gave us landed immigrant status. We were nervous but we weren’t scared anymore. At the airport we had to pass through the entry process. We were directed to the immigration office, where we had to show all our documents and answer questions about our personal information. The immigration officer typed up three separate forms, one for each of us. We were told to keep those papers safe because those were our Landed Immigrant documents. After the processing we were told to present ourselves the next day to the Manpower Office for further assistance and were given the address of the hotel where we were temporarily housed. A taxi was called that took us downtown Toronto, to the hotel that was located on Charles Street, near the corner of Young and Bloor. We lived there while we looked for an apartment to rent and moved out when we rented one starting September 1.

Settling in Canada

The hotel on Charles street was an older building and I don’t remember the name of it. I think it doesn’t exist anymore. We were housed in an apartment. It was a big one bedroom apartment. We had one big room that had a sofa and coffee table and two chairs, a double bed and night tables, a table with 4 chairs, a colour TV. A bedroom with two twin beds and a dresser. A kitchen with all the necessary utensils for cooking. A four piece bathroom. The furniture was old and the TV was not working but we had everything we needed. We moved one of the twin beds into the living room, close to the double bed, for Krisztina to sleep on. She never slept alone in a room, we all slept in one room all her life and she was afraid of sleeping alone. The apartment was on the second floor and the elevator that took us there had music playing all the time. That was something new to us. As were the big cars we saw on our way to the hotel. In Europe the cars were smaller, we didn’t have the big Oldsmobile, and Cadillacs and Chryslers.

It was night when we arrived to the hotel and we had a very long and exhausting day. While Krisztina and I were getting ready for bed, Arpad went out to see whether he can find a store open to buy milk and bread. He came back amazed at what he had seen. On Young Street, people were strolling by the hundreds and many little stores were open, where they sold everything we needed. That was something new to us too. Toronto at night was amazing.

The next day we took the subway to Wellesley St. where the Manpower Office, (Service Canada, now) was located. A councillor was assigned to us who instructed us about what we needed to do. We received a cheque, I don’t remember the amount, but it was for groceries, transportation fares and other miscellaneous expenses. We were told to look for an apartment to rent, from September 1st and we will receive money for the first and last month’s rent and for furniture and a monthly allowance that will cover the cost of living. We will be eligible for English classes, ESL, for six months and subsidized all day, daycare for Krisztina while we were at school. We were told to go to the Welcome House where we can have our Romanian birth certificates and other documents we brought with us (hidden in our suitcase), translated and notarized for free.

It was all good news and we were happy. Arpad and I wanted to celebrate our arriving to Canada, with a glass of champagne. We went to a grocery store looking for the spirits section but we could not find it. We went around the aisles a couple of times with no avail. Finally, Arpad asked one sales clerk: “alcohol, whiskey, wine?” Not here, at the liquor store, he said.

Liquor store? What is that? He told us the address of the liquor store that wasn’t very far.

We never heard of alcohol not being sold in the grocery stores. We found the liquor store and bought our champagne.

In the three weeks we stayed at the hotel we experienced what living in a metropolis like Toronto was like. We liked the busy streets and the big squares where people could meet and talk and listen to music. We liked the parks with shady trees and benches and squirrels running everywhere. We liked the diversity and we felt welcomed and at home there. The term “People City” was often used to describe it and it was very fitting. We loved it and we liked everything except the mice in the apartment, but we solved that problem too. We set up a mouse trap on the coffee table we moved close to the bed. Using a deep baking pan from the kitchen that we leaned against a little match box car Krisztina had received from friends, who visited us at the hotel. We put a chocolate square under the baking pan and tied a string on the little toy car. At night when I heard noise on the coffee table, I pulled the string and the toy car rolled out from under the baking pan, trapping the mouse under it. Arpad picked up the coffee table, pan and mouse under it and took it downstairs and went out the back door and let the mouse go outside. There was a big fat cat living at the hotel, but was not interested in catching mice. We did this a couple of times during our stay there.

We contacted Arpad’s family’s friends, Ocsi (Joe), Cuci (Elisabet) and their 14 year old son, Attila. They visited us at the hotel and took us to their house and showed us around. On weekends we went on trips with them. One weekend to Algonquin Park, quite far, more then 250kms from Toronto. One weekend to Niagara Falls. During the week, Cuci drove us around to look for apartments for rent. After looking at quite a few, we decided on an one bedroom apartment in Downsview, at Keele and Sheppard. It was a nice apartment in a four-story building that had an outdoor pool and underground garage (all new to us). It was near a ravine with large green space and walking trails. We decided on one bedroom to save money and Krisztina was used to sleeping in our bedroom. The rent was $285 per month. Cuci drove us to furniture stores on Queen St. where we bought the minimum necessary items to furnish the apartment. She took us to Honest Ed’s, where we bought linen and kitchenware. We also bought a used colour TV from one of the Queen St. stores. On September 1st we moved into our new home. We were happy and grateful for all the help we received to accomplish that.

Arpad and I enrolled into the ESL program at Humber College. While we were at school, Krisztina attended daycare. It was an all-day daycare where she ate lunch and napped in the afternoon. It was hard for her at the beginning because of the language barrier. Also the food was different and she didn’t like it. She cried and was unhappy. It was all new for her and she was not used to being separated from us. The teachers were very understanding and tried to help her. One of the ladies who worked in the kitchen was European. She was asked to talk to Krisztina and try to find out what she needed. Although she did not speak Hungarian, she could communicate with Krisztina and gave her extra attention and that made her fell better.

The next six months we were very busy getting accustomed with our new country, learning the language and learning about the day-to-day living. We were eager to learn as much as we could to be able to start looking for employment and establish the life we were dreaming of for so long.

Living in Toronto and Loving it

We lived at 41 Brookwell Dr. in Toronto from September 1, 1981 until March 1, 1983.

Those were the days, as a Mary Hopkin song from 1968, would say. We experienced living in Canada, away from the strict rules of communism and we felt free and empowered.

We embraced every new challenge with confidence and excitement. We enjoyed going to school and learning not just the language but the Canadian way of living. We were amazed how quickly our telephone was hooked up. In Romania people needed special permits and waited years until the phone line was introduced into their homes. We were happy to find out about thrift stores and goodwill stores where we could buy things we needed at low prices. In Romania we didn’t have that. Only state-owned stores and fixed prices. Thrift stores provided us our wardrobe inexpensively and we were glad nobody around us cared about fashion. Running shoes, sweat pants and t-shirts were worn everywhere. We left the European fashion sense behind us and blended in happily. We bought a used Plymouth Furry at a government auction Arpad found out about. It was cheap but reliable. In a couple of days, after doing the necessary tests and paper work he was able to drive it. Amazing! We needed to take drivers test to obtain Canadian drivers licenses but for the time being the Romanian one was good. Just a few months in Canada and we had everything we needed: a nice apartment, furnished and comfortable, a colour TV (in Romania they had only black and white TVs at the time) a car to drive around, enough money to buy clothes from thrift stores and food from food terminals. We loved looking for bargains and buying cheap. We became bargain hunters and proud of it.

After we finished school we found work too. At first Arpad cleaned offices at night and I cleaned private houses during the day. I started with two per week but after a while through word of mouth other people from the Hungarian/Jewish community called me to clean their houses.

On May 31, on Krisztina’s 5th birthday, I started working at Baycrest Geriatric Hospital and Centre for Geriatric Care, as cleaning staff. It was an on-call job but sometimes I worked full-time for weeks. Arpad was hired as assembly line worker at the Ford Automobile Plant in Oakville. The hourly wages at Ford were more than twice the minimum wage in Ontario at the time.

When we finished school in April 1982, the daycare subsidy for Krisztina’s daycare stopped and she did not go to daycare anymore. I think she was happy about that. Over the summer she was at home and when I worked during the day, Arpad was looking after her and at night while he worked I was with her. When he started working at Ford he worked in three shifts, one week, mornings, one week afternoons and one week nights. Most of the times it worked out quite well and one of us was at home when the other worked. A couple of times I happened to work until 4:00 in the afternoon and Arpad had to start at 2:00 his afternoon shift. We had no babysitter and Krisztina stayed home alone from the time he left for work in Oakville until the time I came home from Baycrest. In Romania that would have been perfectly normal but in Canada was not OK. Our friend Cuci helped us by talking with her on the phone until I arrived home. They carried out long conversations about various subjects I was told.

On days when we did not work and on weekends we took day trips to nearby lakes and conservation areas. We enjoyed driving to parks on nice summer days and barbequeing and eating our dinners outdoors.

In the fall we registered Krisztina to start Senior Kindergarten at Sheppard Public School where she attended half day classes five days a week. During the summer she befriended a little girl her age, Lisa, who lived in the same building with us. They walked to school together and her grandma walked with them on the days I worked. After school they walked home together to Lisa’s apartment and Lisa’s grandma babysat them. Krisztina stayed with them until I got home from work. We paid a babysitting fee by the hour. Back home we had her grandma and grandpa (my parents) even the neighbour who we could rely on all the time to watch her. We loved our new life but by being so far away from family we lacked the support they could have given us and Krisztina missed out on love and hugs they could have given her.

By the fall we had grown accustomed with the Canadian way of living and we liked it.

I was very happy that my little family and I had our own apartment and comfortable living conditions. The jobs we had generated sufficient income for our needs.

I was content where we were and I imagined ourselves living there for a long time.

A letter from Arpad’s brother, Öcsi (Stefan), changed everything. In that letter he informed us that he and his family decided to emigrate from Romania and apply for immigrant visa to Canada. Life was becoming unbearable in Romania and because we were in Canada he had a chance to be accepted. The only catch was that we had to sign sponsorship papers and take responsibility for them for 10 years. That meant that we had to support them financially when they arrived and be able to meet their needs of food, shelter, clothing and make sure that they won’t need social assistance. Along with Arpad’s brother and his family: his wife Nusi (Anna), his ten year old daughter, Eva and his eight year old son Csaba, Arpad’s and Öcsi’s mother, Sara (Sári Mama) also applied for an immigrant visa. We had to sign sponsorship papers for her also but for 20 years.

We started looking for homes that would accommodate the three of us plus three more adults and two children. After viewing bigger apartments and houses for lease we realized that we can buy an older house with money borrowed from a bank. Arpad saw the real estate section of a Hamilton newspaper at work. There were houses for sale in Hamilton at much lower prices than Toronto.

Hamilton was 60km west of Toronto and the Ford Plant in Oakville, where Arpad worked, was half way between Toronto and Hamilton. We found an older two story house on MacNab St North for $26,000. Because we were first time buyers we received a $3,000 grant from the government. We bought 251 MacNab St North for 23,000 dollars. We paid $3000 deposit and took a mortgage for the rest from the Bank of Montreal. Back then interest rates were 12% so our monthly payments were roughly $300. Almost the same as we paid for the one bedroom apartment in Toronto. We moved to Hamilton on the first day of March in 1983.

I was very sad we had to leave our cozy apartment and our life in Toronto. I had to quit my job at Baycrest, we had to take Krisztina out of Sheppard school. Arpad’s commute to work, to Ford in Oakville, from Hamilton, was the same distance as it was from Toronto, so that was OK.

I didn’t like Hamilton at all, it didn’t have the vibrancy and diversity of Toronto, plus we had to start all over again in a strange town. We filled out the sponsorship papers and started immigration proceedings for the family at Canada Immigration Centre. We had a couple of interviews were we had to show proof that we will be able to support them financially until they can live on their own. It was a lengthily process and by the time their application was accepted and they were able to leave Romania, it was December 1984. In the meantime we got used to living in Hamilton, although I still missed Toronto-living, Krisztina attended grade one at Centennial School, Arpad was working long hours, overtime at Ford Assembly Plant in Oakville and our family of three, grew into a family of four. On September 2, 1984, we welcomed our second little girl, Julia.