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.