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A Train Journey From Communism to Freedom, Almost Ended in Hungary

6 Sep


SEPT. 6, 2015

More than three decades ago, my mother, grandmother and I boarded a train in communist Romania, armed with the papers my mother had painstakingly gathered in an effort to give me a better life. I was 5 years old, and I had been told we were going on a holiday to Paris. I realized something was wrong when my surrogate grandfather Tata Geo (Father Geo) broke into sobs as we left the house.

It was March 7, 1979, and you needed special permission to leave the totalitarian country; passports were issued only to those who could prove they were returning. That meant that anyone who tried to leave for good was forced to break the law, and the consequences for getting caught made the decision to leave as final and harrowing then as it is today for the thousands of migrants arriving on Europe’s shores.

For weeks leading up to our departure, my mother talked loudly about the plans she had for expanding the balcony of our Bucharest apartment. She also cashed in her savings to buy a color TV, the first our family had owned, in the hopes that the Securitate agents assigned to track our family would be fooled into thinking we planned to return. My father agreed to stay back, sacrificing himself in an effort to make it appear as if the family were still rooted in Romania.

The night of our departure, I lined up my stuffed animals and “interviewed” them to find out which ones wanted to come with me to Paris. I decided they all wanted to come, and so I shoved them into a suitcase and struggled to zip it shut, only to be scolded by my mother, who said I could take two at most. I chose a doll and my stuffed rabbit, and then when she wasn’t looking, I slipped in a miniature elephant and several coloring pencils.

Our destination initially was Germany, which then — as now — was the first safe haven for political refugees.

The train left Bucharest, and hours later we crossed into Hungary. My grandmother opened her prayer book to the picture of the Virgin Mary. The page was stained the color of her lipstick from all the times she had kissed the image.

The train stopped, and I remember the conductor inspecting our papers, my mother sitting like stone.

He left, and just as the train was about to depart, a woman came running up to our compartment, banging violently on the window, screaming in Hungarian. I will never forget the look of terror in my mother’s face. The woman on the platform knew we weren’t supposed to be there, and she gestured and yelled and poked her finger accusingly in our direction, but the train was already moving. It was gaining speed, and the woman ran alongside us, until she fell back as we pulled out of the station.

Then, as now, Hungary was a place of treachery for migrants. It was a place where my family’s journey — like those of thousands of Syrians today, facing much greater risks after four years of civil war — almost came to an end. Had we been turned back, it would have meant certain imprisonment for my mother, and possibly for my elderly grandmother.

We reached Germany, where the authorities provided us temporary housing. A week later, we took the train to Switzerland, where we were awarded political refugee status.

Back in Bucharest, my father, considered one of Romania’s top pediatric surgeons, was told he was being relocated to a clinic in the remote countryside. And roughly a year after our departure, the man who would one day become my stepfather, after my parents’ divorce, was placed under house arrest for criticizing the catastrophic economic policies of Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.

It took years for me to understand that we were not on a holiday. As a child, I clung to the hope that we would return to Apartment No. 49, on Vasile Conta Street in Bucharest, to the two-bedroom home where I had left all my dolls and where Tata Geo now lived alone.

I am deeply grateful to the officials in Germany and Switzerland who gave us safe passage. I am even more grateful to the man at the immigration counter in the United States who years later looked over my high school transcript and nodded, then stamped the form awarding me American citizenship.

Yet that day 36 years ago also marked a fissure in my life: There was a “Before,” a time when I felt secure and deeply loved, and where I knew my place in the world; and there was an “After,” when nothing could ever be taken for granted again. Despite the fact that I speak fluent English, own a home in America and attended elementary school, high school and college here, the nice lady at Chase whom I called yesterday to ask about a charge on my account still begins the conversation with: “What an unusual name; where are you from, honey?”

The only objects I have from Romania are the stuffed rabbit and the stuffed elephant which I was allowed to take. Both are now missing their heads.

When my grandmother died, she left me her prayer book.

The picture of the Mother of God still bears the color of her lipstick. She kissed it that day in Hungary in thanks for the fact that the train kept going, and then for every miracle along our journey since.