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.