I recently interviewed my father, a former Cold War refugee from Romania, and learned about the power of forgetting and remembering stories. Such stories linger in people’s minds but rarely surface in conversation.
His flee to the United States
This past April, I visited my parents’ native Romania. My parents, sister and I stayed at, what used to be, our grandparents home in the center of the capital city, Bucharest. I brought with me a story kit from StoryCorps to initially record a conversation with my mother and her best friend. My father became excited by the idea and asked if I would interview him and his two life-long friends, Dan and Marian.
I had to limit the conversation between these three friends to 45 minutes. Along with the “ice-breaking” background questions – how did you meet, describe me a favorite childhood memory, etc. – I also saw this as a golden opportunity to tap into a specific part of my father’s life – his flee to the United States.
After 30 minutes of listening to their walk down memory lane, they finally ambled to the year of my father’s daring escape from Romania – 1980. I then asked the following: “When you learned Tomi (my father) was going to make a perilous journey to America during the Romania’s communist occupation, what thoughts came to your minds?” So, the story began.
“My leave in 1980 was a dangerous matter…those who know will do well to forget”
I watched my father lean back into his chair with his arms folded across his chest as he enumerated.
“My leave from Romania in 1980 was a dangerous matter and one that was kept confidential. My wish for all my friends and family was this: those who know will do well to forget.”
And forget they did. As far as all his friends knew, my father was going on a month-long trip to Israel to visit an aunt. Marian elaborates.
“Tomi and I attended a sports club every Sunday to play tennis in pairs. Since we were both enthusiasts we always showed up on time.
“A month had passed since he left for Israel and I knew he was supposed to be back; so I waited for him at the club one Sunday after his return but he never came. I was incredibly amazed but I assumed he hadn’t come home from Israel yet. His prolonged absence eventually worried me.
“Sometime later, I stopped by his parents’ house to see if they had heard from Tomi. They invited me inside to listen to a homemade tape recording of a telephone conversation between them and Tomi. Making that tape was courageous because in those days, government authorities tapped most phones.
“I listened to the conversation. Tomi had gone to Italy to get an exit visa for the United States. On the tape, Tomi told his father about his arduous time abroad. He was exonerated by the application process and didn’t feel confident about continuing his journey. In the conversation, his father encouraged him to push forward. Mr. Trutescu said to Tomi, “You left here for this reason, and you’ve traveled too far to turn back now. Keep going.”” My father eventually finished his journey safely.
“You could only imagine what my friends thought when they learned I wasn’t coming back”
“I started my journey on Jun 10, 1980 in Israel,” said my Dad. “In September, I boarded a charter plane from Italy and landed in America.” He then remarked, “You could only imagine what my friends thought when they learned I wasn’t coming back.” Dan then told his story.
“It was 1982, two years after Tomi left when I learned he wasn’t returning home.
“It all happened at my parents’ house on Christmas of that year. Marian and his fiancée, Veronica stopped by, and I saw they brought Tomi’s father along with them.
“I found it unusual how Marian and Mr. Trutescu stopped by without bringing Tomi. At this point, I started thinking he already fled the country; a thought I kept to myself because I was so afraid of possibly exposing Tomi.” Dan didn’t know about the cassette recording Marian had heard and thus, wasn’t sure if my father had already made it to the States or discontinued the trip.
These memories and stories were seldom shared, even though communism was long gone
For a few seconds, I noticed a remarkable silence. My father still had his arms crossed; this time seated all the way back into his chair. Dan adopted a similar posture. Meanwhile, a gloomy expression came over Marian’s face as he turned his head downward toward his seat. It was clear to me that these memories and stories of my father’s escape were seldom shared, even though communism was long gone.
Further into the conversation, my father talked about his return to Romania for the first time in 10 years – right after communism collapsed in 1989. During those 10 years he was in the States, the only contact he made with his friends was through a Christmas card. Marian pulled that Christmas card out of a manila envelope and showed it to me. He kept it in mint condition for over 3o years.
A holiday greeting card can mean many things, but for my father’s friends, it was a sign of hope that their friend, Tomi was alive and well and somewhere safe.
Remembering and preserving some of life’s most important stories
Romanians today no longer adhere to secrecy and forgetfulness. However; those who lived in a time where certain speeches, knowledge and verbal speculations opened a door to danger, still remember this protocol: forgetting is the best way to protect yourself and those around you. Today, remembering and preserving some of life’s most important stories is essential; especially among friends, family, and generations to come.
I am happy to preserve and share my father’s story. It is a story about freedom, danger, perseverance and friendships that have passed the tests of time.