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…

Timeline:

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

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