The Bacauan* Man Who Penetrated
the Iron Curtain
Teodor Exilescu was born in Bacau, on the morning of March 6, 1945, just few hours before Petru Groza became the first head of government imposed by the tanks of the foreigners… This is why whenever this subject come about, the bacauan says both smiling and grimacing at the same time: «I lived under capitalism of Ion Antonescu, with the emanation of faded monarchy, with mixtures of heavy odors of gunpowder and trains crammed with refugees, and also unde the selfisolated socialism behind the Iron Curtain», with miasma of Ana Pauker, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu. If I was not born under capitalism, I would have perhaps not tried many times to penetrate the Iron Curtain. It was if someone was born in a house built on the ground and then forced to move in a basement and pay steep rent. He would always desire to return to his first address.»
His parents had a framework house built next to the railway, in the parish of Domnita Maria, which after August 23, 1944 became neighborhood of the city of Bacau.
From the building of the old town hall remained only the service of mating, where the bull still remembered the importance of the place. The bull was a vigorous animal, impressive, which, despite the fact that his horns were cut, always went out of his enclosure mad, as in a Spanish-style bullfighting, shedding his foam on the ground. His head was disproportionate to his massive body – advantage for heifers, during calving.
Children of all ages rushed in front of the fence when they saw someone take his cow to mate. They curiously observed what was going on the yard, wide-eyed. Nothing escaped them. The steward, who was indeed very patient, competent and with much experience in the field, put the cow in a special enclosure, made of wooden beams, moved aside the tail and thus preparing the cow for reproduction. Then he freed the bull that made the jump to ride the cow, but, in his impetuous desire, took the wrong direction and scattered his seed on the ground, to the great despair of the owner of the cow. So the steward, a profesional man, took the «member» of the bull and headed it to the right direction, to the cheers of spectators who were on the other side of the fence.
It happened that even senior aged people attended the show. Once, one among them made a remark that Teodor found strange: «On the other side of the Iron Curtain it is done by artificial insemination.» He heard for the first time the words «Iron Curtain», words that obsessed him all his life.
Teodor grew up near the paper mill Letea, which, since its establishment on May 21, 1885, was a leading industry of Bacau. The siren which was howling daily every eight hours – the ending time of a shift – had impressed Teodor. It could be heard throughout the entire city within a radius of ten kilometers. It was the sound symbol of Bacau.
At six in the morning, Teodor heard it in his sleep, but he did not wake up, he was accustomed to it. It even gave him a sense of security. The siren sounded only once outside of regular hours, on March 9, 1953. At one o’clock, for three minutes was a national moment of silence, during which Stalin, the «little father of the peoples» had been laid to rest, next to the mummy of Lenin in the Red Square mausoleum. It was an order given by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej himself: all Romanians were to observe a moment of silence and to pay respect for the vanished man. Romania as a whole it seemed died for three minutes. The whistling of the siren found Teodor on his doorstep.
In the street, all vehicles stopped. Pedestrians stopped too, rooted to the spot, as if they were covered by the ash from Vesuvius in Pompeii. No one dared to move. Stalin was scary even in death. Only a tormented citizen stood out. He staggered and cried his grief: «Stalin, my little father, I would like to cut your balls!» Further down the road, a few «good men» broke their silence, seized in great haste the drunk and took him into a black vehicle. After this event, Teodor realized that Stalin was not loved by all the people, as was said on the radio. He did not realized at that time, but it was the first time he penetrated, at least in thought, the Iron Curtain.
The center of the neighborhood was represented by the bazaar, a one flor red brick building, in which were a few shops. The ground floor housed a grocery, whose manager was also a vendor. He was a plump Jew who had all the front teeth gold plated, a sign of prosperity in the early ’50s, when even bread was rationated. He wore an apron that was once white, used to wipe his fingers every time they got sticky. They were sticky very often, because the manager had known how to offer diversified products in large quantities: hemp sacks with flour, butter, feta cheese, halva, marmalade in wood boxes covered with paper, sugar, oil in aluminum barrels, olives in stainless steel cans, smoked herring in bulk, different kinds of salami, lemons wrapped in transparent paper, cocoa, coffee and chicory substitute in package, colorful candies in transparent jars which attracted the eyes of children. Food was weighed in bulk on a balance, then always packed in a thick heavy cardboard with many remnant wood shavings, as it was produced in the Letea factory. People did not care that the cardboard was sold at the same price of salami, they were happy to finally find!
Teodor has waited impatiently for his parents to send him to the bazaar, because it was a crazy and intriguing world there; groups of representatives from across the country came to buy paper. But what he loved most was to watch the raft men who bringing fir logs for papermaking. They arrived by raft from afar, from the Valley of Bistrita, right from the mountains of Ceahlau or Sarul Dornei. They were workers burned by sun and wind. Their hands were covered with calluses. They wore in all seasons astrakhan fur hats, white linen shirts, grimy collars, wide belts with numerous pockets for putting money and poket knives, fleecy wool coats, richly decorated with braids, and high boots made of rubber. After pocketing their dues from the cash desk of the factory, they went directly to the grocery store to buy a half bottle of brandy of rye. Being thirsty, they swallowed it all in one gulp. Then everyone took a smoked herring, a handful of olives and another bottle of brandy. They paid royally, without waiting for small change. They opened the cardboard packing and put it on the wide windowsill. During the meal, the raft men were in a good mood and belched with pleasure. One day, a resounding speech of Gheorghe Gheorghiu- Dej was heard on the grocery store speaker.
– This is the comrade Gigi, said one of the raftman, he is one of ours.
– Shut up, do not be silly, your Gigi is full of cash, he lives like nobility.
– My brother, do you want to die at the channel?
– No, listen to me. I’ll run away on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Teodor did not listen any longer to the rest of the discussion, he hurriedly left the grocery. He was afraid that the «good men» might come and take away everyone, randomly, as usually happened in this situation.
A great memory from Teodor’s childhood was represented by the «sprait», name that the town people gave to the place where the riverbed of Bistrita was dug and widened in order that more rafts could moor. An iron wooden dam was holding the water. As for the riverbanks, they were supported by beams – «spreizen», according to a German project, hence the name of the place.
Downstream, the water flowed beneath the dam, undulating like a feline, sprang forth on a tilted bed of wooden planks, long enough for touching a high speed, and then descended with a noise of thunder, from a height of a man’s stature. It was there, in the foam of the vortices created by the waterfall, that thrill seekers loved to plunge. For a good thirty seconds, no one could come to the surface. The water has continually fallen on their head and the vortices had kept them in place. The technique you had to use in order to get out was to swim to the bottom about three meters, until touching the riverbed pebbles. Then it was necessary to swim downstream to leave the dangerous area. Afterwards, for a good swimmer, rising to the surface was a trifle.
Teodor too, was attracted by this dangerous and infantile activity. He had learned to swimm near his home, in the Letea Channel that was dug parallel with the main bed of Bistrita to draw water for papermaking. But it was the «sprait» which was the ultimate test!
One day, Teodor went there, as usual, without telling his parents, so as not to worry them. He knew the road well. He turned the path on the Cornice of Bistrita. When he arrived near the old Girls’ Normal School «Domnita Maria», he took another path, perpendicular to the first, which was right on the «sprait». From both sides there were ears of wheat, which came up to the shoulders and in which mingled thistles, poppies and other weeds.
Because of the powerful sun, the air was vibrating, blurring the outline of things. Susliks crossed his path, a true country lane, where they stopped for a few seconds standing on two legs, to perceive who had entered their territory. The passage of Teodor was marked by the precipitated beating of wings of sparrows and starlings taking their flight close to him, covering for a moment the constant chirping of crickets. Sometimes the buzzing of a few hornets disturbed him. Nobody entered the path. This country desert caused him a slight pinch of heart. Teodor remembered suddenly he heard that during winter, packs of wolves passing by and leaving skeletons of men. This thought gave birth to a fright in his soul. A cold sweat ran in torrents down his back, as he was scourged. Teodor began to walk faster, but with attention to every sound came from the fields. And he finally arrived at «sprait».
The young man stopped besides the dam. Then, after he got confortable with the surroundings, he descended on the lateral dam, downstream. Below, through the mist formed by the waterfall, he perceived somewhere, a little lower than he imagined, the turbulent liquid surface engendered by the incessant fall of tons of water. Suddenly, the courage left him and he retreated a step. A tiny old man passing on the other bank, asked him:
– Ha, ha, my little boy, the Bistrita scared you? But have you heard speaking about the Danube?
– Yes… yes…
– If you have courage to jump in Bistrita, one day you could jump into the Danube.
– Why? The Danube has a «sprait», too?
– Ha, ha, you know nothing! There are several. Remember well what I tell you now. Whoever can swim across the Danube River can make it to the other side of the Iron Curtain. I do not have the strength anymore, but you will grow up and be a strong young man. So jump in the Bistrita and train yourself!
At first, Teodor watched the old man in astonishment. But what is this Iron Curtain, which he heard so much talking about? How are the «spraits» on the Danube? All these things were mixed in his head. He did not understand the words of the old man, but he did not hesitate a second before plunging into the abyss. Pluff! Torrents of water fell down upon him, but he knew how to proceed. He regained the bank ten meters further downstream. He had just defeated the «sprait», the biggest challenge of his childhood. Teodor was still unaware that another chalenge has wated him on the Danube, the challenge of adulthood this time: to go to the other side of the Iron Curtain! But this was to happen much later.
In the early ’50s, the city of Bacau had only a few imposing buildings, one could count on the fingers of one hand. Although they were a few, they gave to Teodor the feeling of being a city dweller. Once, he went with his parents to the city center. He insisted that his parents give him plenty of information about the history of the city and its inhabitants. They arrived at the City Council, located in Calea Marasesti, the old street Bacau- Focsani: «The building was raised in 1930. Part of the roof is glass.»
They took a few more steps. «On the opposite sidewalk there is the Philharmonic building. It was the Municipal Palace, which, among other things, hosted the Athenaeum in 1925, on the initiative of the pedagogue Grigore Tabacaru and the poet George Bacovia.» Then, walking through the center, they arrived at the People Regional Council. «This is the old Administrative Palace, erected in 1889», his father told him, pointing to the building. His child’s eyes sought carefully memorize everything he could. All he learned was new to him; it was for him the first time into the city center.
They continued their walk to where Calea Marasesti crossed March 6th Street, the former Ionita Sturza Stret, which is bordered by the Regional Library. «It is one of the oldest building in Bacau, known before as Mortun House, which was purchased in 1865 and turned into the headquarters of the City Hall. Begining in 1893, one of its room housed the library», slipped to him the words of his father.
Beyond the crossroads, visitors arrived in the Nicolae Balcescu Street, the old Central Street. All three of them crossed the street and found themselves in front of a four-storey building, the largest in the city, which included the State Theatre and the Central Hotel: «Here is the former Marasti Palace, opened in 1929 in the presence of Queen Maria. In the begining the complex hosted a theater and a hotel», echoed the details from his parents, as if they had been told by real guides. The child was absorbing everything with a voracious appetite. He wanted to know more, but for the moment, it seemed satisfactory.
The young man kept only one souvenir concerning the Philharmonic, souvenir dated from 1957, when, in the auditorium, it showed the The World of Silence movie by oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Apart from the sub-aquatic scenes, Teodor could see scenes shot in Monaco, where there were tall buildings, as he had never seen before and gave him the sentiment of being a little less urban. Twelve years after the communist regime came into power, the State had no representative building erected in Bacau. Gradually, through books and movies, Teodor learned that in other countries, where there was no communism, urban development was more advanced. The French film had lifted part of the Iron Curtain created by Stalin and so, Teodor got his first glimps of the western world…
As student in Bucharest, Teodor felt the need to write poetry, writings he red in the frame of the literary group organized by the Cultural House of Students. The inspiration came before falling asleep or just after waking up, when he felt inspired, storing everything in a notebook he kept always at his fingertips, under the pillow. His habit was to write it all down on the spot, otherwise, the idea was lost. Teodor had filled two notebooks. The young man followed with a passion the cultural phenomenon at the time. He woke early in the morning to buy the weekly newspapers Contemporanul and Gazeta Literara at the University campus (named «Regie») kiosk. Small linguistic subtleties, with meanings, made figure of political dissidence, which enchanted him.
In the late ’60s, the Romanian cultural world was shocked by Eugen Barbu’s situation, who was accused of plagiarism. Substitute member of the Romanian Academy, Eugen Barbu was a respectable writer, but who adulated in his work more, than others the regimes of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceauşescu, while naming with servility Elena Ceausescu as «the first lady of the country». Part of the third volume of his novel Incognito resembled, to the stupor of all, like two peas in a pod with Old Times and Tormented Youth books, written half a century ago by Konstantin Paustkovsky. Since then Teodor had trusted less men of culture of great notoriety.
After finishing his studies with a degree in electronics, Teodor returned to work in a machine tools factory, to be opened in the early ’70s. But the socialist planning was one thing and reality was another. That year in the honor of the 23rd of August, the National Day of Romani, it was reported through the official channels of the Communist Pary and State that it had been produced a boring and milling machine. A lie! In fact the machine tool was purchased, but only on paper, by the neighboring factory. The lie did not stop here. The machine tool package, empty inside, was elevated on an allegorical truck, which was in the front of a parade of demonstrators from the factory, hidden, of course, behind the portraits of the «leaders»… The official stand applauded the procession, and the press, radio and television spoke of a new victory of socialism.
At the inauguration of the statue of George Bacovia, which took place in autumn 1971, Teodor also attended the ceremony celebrating the ninety years since the birth of the poet. The statue was placed between the Popular County Council and the County Library. It was a day with some downpours, cold autumnal rain, a real Bacovian landscape. The family of George Bacovia was present, his wife Agatha and her son Gabriel. The most absent person among participants was the sculptor, Constantin Popovici, who was in a particular state…he tried unsuccessfully to keep his balance with his umbrella used a support stick. At the end of the ceremony, Teodor approached the artist to request un autograph, just when an official party representative was addressing him in the typical communist jargon: «But, comrade Popovici, is this possible? We strive to build the new man, a communist, to be an example of our behavior and you, an intellectual, from whom we expect a lot, you arrived in this drunken state.» So the winner of Visual Artists Prize of 1957, author of Prometheus, sculpture located on the Vidraru dam, let his anger explode: «You either, do not know what are you talking about!» Then he walked quickly toward the restaurant of the Decebal hotel complex, located across the street to find happier «comrades», in a time of sad memories.
Teodor had enough. He could not stand this system based on lies and which equalizes the people making them poor. He had become allergic to eternal queues at the grocery stores, electrical power outages and the two hours a day TV program. Pompous propaganda like: «record production» and «high living standard» gave him nausea. The only way to let off steam was to use, as toilet paper, the front page of newspapers, which exhibited in obvious manner the photo of the «illustrious» leader of the nation.
The bacaun man began to think seriously about finding ways to leave the country. His profession would give him compensation at least ten times more in the West. He enrolled for a trip to Yugoslavia, but did not received his passport since the borders of the neighboring country were very «permissive» towards the Italy. Romanian fugitives passed mostly through Yougoslavia. This was a hard blow for him, after which it was difficult to recover. He even thought of suicide. But it is known that at dawn, when it is the coldest temperature, the sun rises: he won twenty thousand lei at Lotto.
Teodor then tried something else to escape: a trip in China. And he received his passport when he least expected. He had to fly for twelve hours over the Himalaya in a Tarom flight, which made only one stop, in Karachi. He thought to flee from Pakistan or from China. The departure was scheduled for August.
In the same time he bought a thousand dollars from the foreign tourists arrived on the Black Sea. At Otopeni Airport, travelers were rare, waiting rooms empty. Only the flight to Israel was more animated. At the customs he was frisked, but the dollars were hidden in his socks, so he passed through. When the plane took off, Teodor made the sign of cross with his tongue, not for the plane to not crush, but to thank God for having escaped… to have penetrated the Iron Curtain.
At midnight, the plane landed in Karachi. When the passengers disembarked from the aircraft, they were unpleasantly surprised by a hot and humid fog, a kind of natural sauna. A bus took them all in the transit lounge. At the entrance, a swarthy soldier, in military summer uniform – short-sleeved shirt and sandals – sat directly on the floor, on the refreshing tiled surface, welcomed the newcomers with a total indifference, being too attentive to his toes, too busy with the removal of his calluses. He abandoned his submachine gun, which leaned vertically against a glass wall.
Teodor mingled with the rest of passangers in the transit lounge, but a few moments later he went out just near the soldier, who was always busy extricate his calluses. Teodor ran through a the dense fog on the concrete surface to a container. He hid behind it with the intention of staying there until the plane took-off and then he would seek political asylum. Nevertheless, the group’s guide, a vigilant woman, immediately realized his absence and called the police from the airport. A dozen armed men went to search for him. They found him after a few minutes and Teodor justified his absence by saying he went out of the airport building to see the planes up close. The incident was quickly smoothed away and the Tarom flight continued it’s journey to Beijing with all passengers on board. During the trip in China, however, Teodor was continuously monitored by the Romanian guide, and also by Chinese guides.
Back home, Teodor was escorted out by the Otopeni Airport militia and an investigation was conducted during the whole the morning at the headquarters of the Securitate, located in the Rahova Street. Teodor was carefull to dump the dollars in a trash can in China. So it was nothing compromising about him. Outside was a heatwave, but in the cell the air was even more unbreathable; the humidity was high with a horrible smell of rats adding to it. Investigators, irritated, had taken off their jackets, showing a glimpse of the holsters with their pistols in it. Resilient to the psychological pressure and not changing his report, Teodor was released. However, he understood that he would never see his passport again.
In 1982, the young man was reading these verses in a book: «(…) We are vegetable people / Who has ever seen a revolting tree?» This was an excerpt from the poem «What are we?», written by Ana Blandiana. Dictatorship entered in its final phase. Delirium of grandeur reached new heights. Romania agreed to pay its external debt, while people lived in painfull conditions. Teodor was already thirty-seven years old and his dream to penetrate the Iron Curtain had not been realized yet. This idea obsessed him to the point that he did not even want to get married.
He had learned that the best way to leave the country was to pass through the Cazane area of the Danube River, where the railroad ran along the riverbanks. However, he had also heard, and it was a terrible thing, that every border guard received three days’ leave for each killed fugitive. Teodor was ready to put his life in danger, but he waited for the right moment to reduce the risk of being shot. Initially, he bought an air mattress for one person. Then he took the train to Turnu Severin several times, to familiarize himself with the surroundings. Finally, he waited for the weather report to announce that thick fog had formed in Cazane area.
Teodor immediately took the train to Bucharest and arrived around midnight at Turnu Severin. He planned to pull the alarm signal when the train would reach the city of Orsova, on the exact place where only a few meters separated the railway from the Danube. But he did not have to pull the train alarm himself. Someone else had done it before him.
The young man jumped from the train and ran down along the rocky bank of the Danube. He removed his clothes except short trousers. He had put his papers in a plastic bag he kept in a pocket. The bank was abrupt. He heard the lapping of water, indicating that the Danube flowed a few feet below. The approach of the Iron Curtain filled him with emotion. Teodor found an imposing rock and did not hesitate one second. For a brief moment, the time he plunged into the water, the memory of «sprait» of Bistrita River appeared in his mind.
The Danube flowed rapidly, the water was warm. Firstly he let himself be taken by the current of water, to have time to inflate the mattress. Then he climbed over and started rowing with his arms. It was dark and the fog so thick he could not even see his hands. Just five minutes later, the bacauan man hit someone. There was a young woman, who also wanted to pass onto the Serbian bank. She unfortunately fell during the abrupt descent and lost her air mattress of the latter. The young woman was exhausted. She would have drowned if she had not met Teodor. She clung desperately to the mattres of the latter. Teodor felt the hot breath of the unknown near his mouth. And, at that moment, he forgot the Iron Curtain, the soldiers, the bullets, absolutely everything; he grabbed her by the shoulders and embraced her. The young woman reciprocated, passing a hand around his neck and caressing his head with other hand.
Their kiss was a nervous discharge which could have been prolonged, if the two young people would not have heard the engine of a boat. The Romanian coast guard was going in search of fugitives. Teodor and the unknown woman remained motionless. A luminous disk blurred by the fog, approaching them. Everything seemed finished. Teodor got down from the mattress and seemed glued to his unexpected partner. He felt the legs of young woman hugging his pelvis like pincers, and enjoyed the contact with her tender thighs and the warmth of her belly. Instinctively, the bacauan man, who held the mattress with one hand, hugged the young woman with the other hand, until he felt her breasts against his chest. The boat came so close to them, they heard a border guard saying:
– What sons of bitches, these vagabonds! They jumped from the train like rabbits. Catch them if you can and put salt on their tail!
The danger had past. They took the opportunity to find their names:
– Teodor, from Bacau.
– Angela, from Cluj.
They did not want to say more. In two steps and three movements, his short trousers and her shorts were already on the mattress. Their embrace came naturally, as a liberation. Angela was the first to regain her composure after the ecstasy. Rushed, without putting her shorts, she rose on the mattress, belly down, and started to row with her arms whispering:
– Let’s make the crossing. Otherwise we risk finding ourselves on the Bulgarian bank!
Teodor obeyed in silence. He was holding his hands on Angela’s back and the head on the mattress, between the woman’s ankles, still navigating, olfactory, inside her body. He began to bend and straighten the knees in the water, like a frog, in a dynamic stereotype which enabled him to let his thoughts to circulate freely. He had not expected to penetrate the Iron Curtain between the legs of the fair sex.
On the other bank of the river, not too far away, exile awaited him. But, for the moment, a total obscurity had settled in his mind, like the night surrounding him. Yet, he knew that soon the frog will lift and he will perceive the light at the end of the tunnel, he will see the world up close, the world where he desired to live since childhood…