Children of the Eastern Bloc

If I am going to make coin writing for this most generous establishment, Devtome, I might as well lay out a mind-field of thoughts and personal experiences of my life as a child, when we all seem to be at our most easily influenced stage and when most of us have our nurture part of who we are shaped and formed. The goal of this paper is to introduce myself but more importantly so when an individual reads anything I write he or she may gain some insight as to where I’m coming from. For it is a lot of this nurture, as well as a good mix of nature and tons of free will, which makes us who we are and when it comes to writing - can function as the looking glass through which we can gaze at the world around us and then attempt to express what we see, feel and experience.

America is full of foreigners, Europeans, such as I, but most have unfortunately forgotten their roots. It’s an easy thing to do in America – life is ever so busy and the fast lane has raced past its moral legal limit long ago and stress dominates the day through a visceral thread of pain stringing us all together into one common line of thinking: “I need to make more money”. Go to any party or get-together in this country and the first question anyone will ask you after, “what’s your name?” is “so, what do you do?” Nobody really cares who you are anymore, what you are, nobody sees nor recognizes the heart anymore. If you’re wearing a $14,000 Oxford suit and drive a bright shiny Italian import then you’re somebody, you must be smart and you must be a great wonderful person when in reality you may be the biggest crook in the room, the most immoral soul in the city, the next Bernie Madoff, but not a single person in that room will feel a thing nor see anything beyond the perfectly tailored super 200s fiber you’re using to cover your foul, unethical stench and inequities and boy, does it work like a charm. I have yet to meet a rich man in America which wasn’t loved and admired by everyone.

That is neither rational nor effective when it comes to seeking that which we all want: happiness. But we ignore our conscience and we push further with often selfish ambitions and a lower moral code than our fathers before us and so, with each passing generation, we descend deeper and deeper into a dark abyss created by non-other than ourselves, until one day we have a moment of clarity, a lucid minute in which to think and re-analyze our life’s course and it is at that juncture that some decide to take the less popular, the less travelled road which may not be endowed with golden apple trees and rivers of milk and honey, but it does offer the finer things in life such as more time at home with your spouse and children and the funny thing about spending time with your small children is that until you finally do sit down and gaze upon their pattering feet and constant laughter you never do realize what you’ve been missing all along.

I was forced to spend this time with my kids when I was laid off my last job and wasn’t able to quickly find another job. What I first thought was a curse turned out to be the biggest blessing of my life. Now when I imagine working I can no longer look forward to 12 hour shifts and 6 to 7 days per week. I look back and I see an immoral man not a hard worker. I remember thinking I was a good dad and a good husband for working such long hours when in reality I was doing nothing but neglecting those closest to me for the sake of another dollar which, regardless of how many extra hours I worked, was never enough.

All of this takes me back to when I lived in a different world, so different from America that even now it sometimes feels like a different planet where even the laws of physics had to bend and bow to the hardline communist powers that be. The reason those days come to mind so often is that although, at times, we had not even our daily bread, I clearly remember we were always happy, we were always laughing and we were always together, one big happy family of 8, depending on each other to survive and feeling content even though there were no streets of milk and honey and forget about the fast lane cause there was no such thing as a car let alone a fast lane - as only those considered rich could own a car and how can you get rich when it was against the law to open up even a coffee stand.

It’s a natural phenomenon to look back at your life and say, “those were the good old days’. It’s not wise to say such things and I think the reason we all feel like this is because the mind naturally buries and tries to forget the bad times so after a decade or two all that is left in your mind are most of the good memories and that’s why when we thing back far enough for some odd reason we all seem to think we were so much happier then when in most cases it’s not true, we have simply forgotten the things that were sad and painful at the time. But for me it’s different, I cannot ever forget most of the things which happened because they were so much out of the ordinary. Some would call it trauma – I don’t like that word as it implies irreparable or damage and I consider these painful, scary and unforgettable events as simply unfortunate times in my life which hurt me badly but now they’re gone and what remains is the benefits of those things which once hurt –an immovable experience which few are lucky enough to experience without a major or permanent loss such as a loss of life and it’s these most unusual and unexpected events which help shape who we are but it’s not the event itself but rather the heart and the way in which the heart reacts to and perceives painful events – for you can throw many metals into the fiery heat of a furnace but only those which have gold at their heart will come out pure and changed forever – therefore, it is the way in which the viewer perceives the event that makes all the difference in the world. I see it as a bad thing which was inevitable but in the long run even these bad things had good profound influences on me. Another person with a different heart may view these very same things as bad with no positives, not then – not ever, and would thus still be hurt extremely by them, even today after many years have passed, and in a case like that I would agree, to that viewer, such events would be called traumatizing.

Put a different way, I have had countless nightmares about school (some lasting nearly 20 years since high school ended, which is when they started, right after I graduated high school) repeating nightmares where I'm at school and always unprepared for a major test and these dreams terrified me while I have never had a single nightmare about being kidnapped or my parents being taken into custody for interrogation and possible extermination, as was common in the Eastern Bloc. So it’s ironic, I was traumatized by the American school system, while the communists with their strict school code, daily beatings if you were not in top shape and ruthless teaching style had no apparent short term or long term negative effect on me. I should clarify however, it wasn’t so much the American school system as much as my poor study habits, I would regularly go to school for a major exam unprepared where in Romania there was no such thing because you went to class prepared on a daily basis out of fear of being humiliated in front of the entire class and getting beat with a meter long ruler while being called stupid in-front of the entire class. Or perhaps it is the fact that once my parents moved from one state to another, the school they put me in was actually built to be a prison and this school had little to no sunlight which had a very harsh impact on my mind where I was no longer the same student. I hate to say it, but for kids who don’t like to study, at least in schools which were built as prisons, kids such as myself, fear or at least a real threat of fear works miracles. That fear instilled good learning habits in me but only while it was present and imminent, it didn’t take more than a single month once we immigrated for me to realize American schools served up no pain or repercussions for poor learning and the bell curve ensured that I only had to be slightly better than the majority in the class to appear excellent. I will get to more details regarding these unfortunate events but first let me start with an earlier backdrop of my life, as a small child, since the Eastern Bloc had its sunny days as well, at least for unknowing, sheltered small children.

I was born in Romania in the early 70’s (attempting to retain some anonymity here) – and with each passing year, the communist regime dug its claws deeper and deeper into the flesh of the country and drowned it deeper and deeper into despair as the dictator, Ceausescu, like all dictators, became both, paranoid and drunk with power and control and did extreme things to ensure he’ll stay in power forever. Well, forever in earthly terms – it reality it’s more like a petty flash in the pan and then judgment day hits all of these ruthless dictators as hard as they once judged those they walked on, tortured and murdered without a single thought or moral wince.

For being born in such a harsh world, the Eastern Bloc was the harshest and most dangerous of all hardline communists and Romania in particular had one of the most treacherous and ruthless regimes of all the Eastern Bloc countries, I entered the world with already wounded and at a disadvantage. I was born very prematurely in a country which did not believe in capitalism and therefore technology was at a near standstill in Romania and since they hated capitalism they would of course not import anything from the capitalists, things such as lifesaving medicine or new incubators for premature babies whose lungs were not yet fully developed.

Being born at 6.5 moths, nearly 3 months early, I weighed in at 1.8 kilos which is roughly 4.4 pounds and lived inside an archaic plastic box for quite a while. My mother used to tell me stories when I was a child how when she brought me home she would often think I had died- for instance, she said I would fit in one of her palms and as she would pour warm water over my tiny body with her other hand I would sometimes pass out and in the process terrify her cause she thought she had killed me. It’s something I laugh at now, but for a young 20 year old mother with 3 kids to raise it must have been a painful time. But I didn’t die and although my lungs are still very underdeveloped, everybody forgot to tell me so for all of my child and young adult life while playing sports in school it never held me back, I was almost always first at any foot races, short distance or long distance, although I do remember feeling bad chest pains during the long runs, and I remember thinking, “this must be normal when you run this hard, if I run even harder it will go away,” and it always did, the harder I ran the less it hurt so for me, a handicap was a reason to run faster not slower.

I suppose it’s good to never tell your kids their flaws, at least flaws they can’t do anything about – a child’s strength comes from his/her beliefs which come from their powerful imagination so if a child truly believes they can do something then no handicap like tiny lungs can hold them back. Had someone told me I had such small lungs, so small that they wouldn’t even register on a routine lung exam for a blue collar job I once had to be tested for, I probably would have cried for myself and came in last all of my life instead of first nearly always coming in first place. Another important lesson in life which once again comes from the way one’s heart perceives a difficult event. Some children in my place might be upset they were never told and harbor feelings of betrayal and hate while on the contrary, I’m thrilled I didn’t know and have nothing but good feelings about the entire situation. Once again, the key lies in the perception of the heart and the heart and mind change and mold for better or for worse based on how the heart itself reacts to any given situation, especially difficult situations.

Struggling to get out of the incubator probably taught me many lessons I don’t remember and I’m sure those experiences buried deep inside my mind have always had a profound effect on my mind and heart so then I’m glad in a way that I had to be born premature and spent a lot of time all alone in a what was probably a very obsolete incubator. Soon after I was born, in fact not even 1 year, my next brother came and he created a lot of problems for me. Besides being argumentative to this day, I wasn’t able to breast feed more than a couple months because (I’m told) my mother’s milk changed in taste and texture once she became pregnant so on top of already being a tiny little runt now I couldn’t even drink what my body needed most to recover, my mother’s milk. And there was no formula back then, well, there was but the Americans and Germans had it all and they were capitalist pigs so there was no way hardline communist were going to import their capitalist propaganda products so I was stuck drinking boiled cow milk which came from the state and it had to be boiled because the state (which loved its people so much) would put detergents in the milk to kill any bacteria and of course when you give a small premature baby boiled milk you’re killing all the vitamins so then I also became very anemic and sick. In fact, I was anemic until a ripe age of around 17. And 7 of those years were in the land of milk and honey, America, so if it took me that long to recover in America I imagine I would be dead by now had my parents not fought and risked their lives to get themselves and their 6 kids out. This never crossed my mind but I owe my life, in large part, to America. Thank you America! Thank you President Ronald Reagan! For taking in the broken, the weary and the weak, for accepting political activists who were not allowed to at the very least practice Christianity, ironically, in a self-proclaimed Orthodox Christian country.

I don’t want to, in any way, to diminish the beauty, symbolism or meaning of Heaven in any way but escaping from a hardcore communist regime is truly like leaving the planet and going to Heaven. There is no place Americans dream of that compares except Heaven itself. In the Eastern Bloc and I’m sure most oppressed countries in places like the Middle East are exactly the same. You hear talk about it (America) your entire life, since the day you’re born, but nobody you know has ever been there nor has anyone ever met anyone who has ever gone there, and those who somehow managed to escape and not be killed while trying (my parents had numerous friends who were killed trying to get across the border into Yugoslavia, usually by swimming across the treacherous Danube River) never came back so America to all prisoners of the Eastern Bloc was like a place that was so good yet so far away that it couldn’t possibly exist. As a small child I remember people talking about it like it was Heaven, people would literally say it was the land where milk and honey flowed through the streets. Naturally, when we first got here I was looking everywhere for milk and honey in the streets but didn’t see any. It took me a couple years to figure out it was just a figure of speech. I was born naïve which is not a bad thing but if you are naturally a naïve person (not to be confused with a stupid person) you definitely have to work hard to add some shrewdness to your mental arsenal, lest you be taken advantage of by every clever person your entire life.

Back to the home country, hard knocks were only followed by more hard knocks. By the time I was 5 we were still living in a tiny 2 room cement square block called an apartment. Like all blocks, “blocuri” these were government built [cement blocks 3 to 10 stories high nearly identical inside and out across the entire country so that nobody would be jealous of their neighbor, which didn't work cause humans always find something to hate about each other] and issued to each family and it often took a few years to get upgraded to a bigger place as your family grew and in our case, it grew like rabbits. Our 2 room (total rooms) and a tiny kitchen so small that only 1 person could go in and out at the same time and 1 very small bathroom with an iron tub was about 30 square meters which is around 320 square feet. That’s where a family of 6 were living and another brother, the 5th child was on his way. To make things worse we hadn’t had a working fridge for 6 months so we could not keep any fresh food in the apartment even if we had the money to buy anything. My dad had put in the papers for a new fridge but since communists don’t import capitalist pig fridges you have to wait for the state ran fridge factory to churn them out and that took a long time since job security was all but guaranteed so there was no incentive to work hard, fast or competently. After 6 months my dad went down and made a big deal and told them his children were eating rotten meat and we finally got our fridge which of course broke down right away so my dad had to fix it with household items and some spare car parts he found in an abandoned car (Dacia).

What did little kids do back then for fun? It was all normal to us, since that’s all we knew, but our activities were nothing like those children in the US enjoyed. The only sport children played was soccer but the communist party didn’t plant grass fields so we would always play on a flat field of gravel. I remember being more worried about destroying my cheap canvas shoes than tearing my knees which happened quite often. When children don’t have much to do as far as activities then they become very creative. This is a game nobody plays anymore in Romania but at an age of just 5 years old my friends and I would break into newly built Communist bloc buildings and tear out the lead pipes from the tubs and faucets. We would then flatten them out into fairly large but manageable disk-like objects. Then we would use these to play a game where we would gamble for “timbre”, really cool looking stamps. The game would be played with 2 or more players. One person would first throw out his round lead disk (about the size of a softball only flat like a pancake) and then the second person would throw his disk trying to get within 2 fingers of the opponents disk. Each person would get just one turn until one would either land within 2 fingers or on top of the disk itself. I supposed this was a good exercise for eye-hand coordination but I remember my hands were covered in lead dust every single day but that wasn’t a worry at that time.

If robbing communist buildings of their lead pipes and gambling for stamps was not a good childhood activity, well, that’s nothing. Romania, for some reason, had and still has the largest population of gypsies in Europe. These are a lost or banned tribe from the country of India and throughout the many centuries the large majority has refused to assimilate. As children we would see them coming through, parking their tents by the river behind our “bloc” building. I would stare at them in amazement like they were from a different planet – their kids would run around naked, as old as 10, maybe even 12 years old, they appeared like wild animals to me. They would sit on the far side of the river bank and yell at us in their language which we didn’t understand. For some reason I can’t explain, all of us 5-8 year old Romanian children, would automatically and without being taught by anybody, pick up stones (not dirt clogs, but real stones which were laying around everywhere) and would throw them at the naked gypsie kids, with full intent to hurt them, because we felt they were cursing at us and we wanted them to leave. They would return fire of course so we would build bunkers made from stones and wood and have rock ward with them. It was common, if you weren’t quick enough to dodge an incoming stone, to go home with your head busted and bleeding badly.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, there was quite often a similar rivalry between blocs. I remember the kids in my bloc would naturally and intuitively be at war with the kids in the blocs next to ours, it was like an unspoken turf war but for no reason, never did anyone do anything to start these wars, it was just a natural occurrence and if you were in that age group you were absorbed into it, not by peer pressure but by your sheer desire to win and stay alive. Running home to tell mommy was simply never an option as I instinctively knew my parents could never be there for me 24/7 so I had no choice but to fight back. So we would sometimes get into rock wars with those kids and I vividly remember choosing the flat round rocks because I was able to throw them farther and with better accuracy and I still have vivid images and videos in my head as I would surprise an enemy neighbor and from perhaps 15 feet away launch a rock using a side-arm throw, with all my strength, and when that rock would hit the other kid in the head I remember the most wonderful feeling of elation, after-which point I would run cause his friends were never far behind. We would also build weapons like homemade rock slingshots (prastie) or smaller slingshots which shot small bent pieces of copper wire. I don’t remember any grownups ever teaching us these things nor did my parents ever know what we were doing – although twice I came home with my head busted by rocks and my mother simply said: “that’s what you deserve, when you jump too many fences one is bound to land right in your butt.” I laugh now but back then it ticked me off that she would always say that same thing every time I came home with a busted head or a broken bone. Looking back now it all feels like complete madness to me, I simply cannot imagine my children starting at an age of 5 years old engaging in life threatening activities and to do it all on their own as there were no video games at the time (to teach us violence) nor did we get to watch much TV as the state controlled all the programing. We got 1 hour of Dallas (John Wayne and Dallas is the reason every Eastern European dreams of becoming a cowboy one day) per week, one John Wayne movie per month, if we were lucky, and 20 minutes of cartoons every Saturday, and it was never the good stuff, we only got to watch either 20 minutes of woody wood pecker, Popeye or Lauer and Hardy. On a side note, although I thought I died and went to heaven when I first saw there were cartoons (and in color) in America every single day, but especially real cartoons like superman, spider man and his amazing friends, cartoons I had never heard of, cartoons which to me were like seeing angels, but the sad thing is that within a couple of years I was bored and I looked less forward to these amazing cartoons than I used to for my 20 minutes of woody wood pecker. In Romania I would count the hours and minutes for my next cartoon show while in America, there was now so much choice that I was bored and sometimes couldn’t decide what to watch. What a terrible human condition – to go from so little to so much and to still not be able to fully appreciate it for very long.

The channel with “the good stuff” was channel 2, these cartoons and films were handpicked by the state propaganda machine and they would give us just enough foreign films to keep us from going crazy and in total there was maybe 2 total hours of programming on this wonderful channel and it would be at random times so you had to keep manually checking channel two to see if maybe they didn’t start playing something – although there were a few shows at a regular scheduled time, like Dallas and the Saturday 20 minutes of cartoons. The rest of the day channel 2 was all static and on the only other channel available, channel 1, on our nice 15 inch black and white TV, which I thought was the biggest symbol of our wealth, the only thing that ever played was communist propaganda 24/7. Some of it was ok but boring, like folklore music, most likely intended to enforce your patriotic feelings and help solidify your identity for your country, but the rest was ridiculous stuff nobody watched, like a kiss—ass poet (Adrian Paunescu - the biggest, self serving, fraudulent poet in recent Romanian history) reciting his own “famous” poetry he wrote praising the dictator as if he were God himself. I don’t know anyone who watched the propaganda channel but I suppose some did out of sheer boredom while I had plenty of activities to do outside – friends to make, bonds to build and territory and foes to conquer. When I visited Romania for the first time, after 23 years - when our lifetime blacklist ban was lifted, I went back to the old neighborhood and I asked the young kids there if they ever did things like that and they looked at me like I was crazy so I was glad to see video games and lots of western television programming kept kids busy enough to not kill themselves and their poor, naked gypsie neighbors.

Back to the family level, things were looking pretty good for us as my dad had put in to get our apartment upgraded to something bigger and “luxurious” but it took a few years and by then my other brother came along and now we were a family of 7 living like rats. Speaking of rats, government agencies aren’t too concerned with your living conditions since members of the communist party live in separate specially built spacious apartments in the center of town or in nice large homes they confiscated from ex tenants, err, enemies of the state who in turn were given new living arrangements in one of the many cold wet prisons called “lagar” or gulags which is where most died after being endlessly tortured. If one should fancy visual details of the types and style of torture the Eastern Bloc communists preferred I recommend a small, easy to read book written by a man who spent 14 years in these gulags, 4 of those years were in solitary confinement, while the other 10 were being tortured. The book is called, “Tortured for Christ” and he details much of what happened to him which has been verified and it is factual information. True and real horror torture techniques that make waterboarding look like a day at Disneyland. Torture like hammering you shut inside a wooden crate a child could barely fit in, or pulling your teeth out, one by one, with a crow bar just to make you curse your God so they would have the pleasure to then kill you instantly so that your final words were that of cursing your own God, a many more gruesome and unbelievable types of torture techniques. I have to mention one more because this would be any man's worst torture nightmare, regardless if you may now think spiders or snakes is your worse nightmare. The communists would like to mock Christian prisoners and given some of these men were in these dungeons for many years and had not seen their wives in so long they would put their “Christianity” to the test. They would bring in a female stripper, the best the could find, and they would force these Christian prisoners watch her, one at a time and the test was to see if these Christian men had the willpower to not get excited, to not get an erection. What's the big deal you say? Well, this is yet one more example of how twisted and sick these communists were, and this was 40 years ago when mankind in general was more kind, compassionate and loving toward one another, I'd hate to see the techniques they have developed since then.

At any rate, the stripper show was not the real test, the real test was to see which man would have enough self control to not get an erection and this was because, in front of the undressed man they placed a fan, but not a regular fan, but one modified with razor sharp steel blades. So they all gazed upon this tortured soul who had not seen a woman in who knows how many years and if this prisoner were to get an erection then obviously he would fail the test and his penis would be instantly chopped to pieces by the spinning razor blades of the fan. When I hear Americans cry about things like waterboarding where a prisoner is caused no serious or permanent harm I always wonder to myself, where are the cries for freedom for prisoners such as these because this kind of torture still goes on today in many countries of the world, but nobody cares and most of the people screaming to close GITMO are nothing more than confused individuals with misplaced compassion. Sad, but America is filled with people who just thing they're compassionate when in reality they don't even know what that word really means.

As for these “luxurious” cold, damp, cement apartments, the scariest things I remember seeing as a small child were giant cockroaches hiding behind the paintings on our walls and rats in the basements of the cement ghetto buildings where all the trash for the entire building would get dumped down a chute – the stairwells stunk of trash, not the best, sterile design given these leaders were all for the people or so they claimed. Mosquitos during the summer were like a biblical plague – it would get so bad that there were times when they would announce on loud speakers for us to be inside from 9pm to midnight and during those times you could hear choppers overhead spraying the entire city for those resilient pests. It would work, for a short while then they’d have to do it again. Now I wonder what they were spraying us with in the process of killing those mosquitos?

Just as things were looking up and we finally got the letter to move to a new apartment with 3 total rooms and a whopping 60 square meters which is just under 700 square feet which I remember thinking it felt huge and unbelievable, although we had to walk up and down to the 7th floor every day since the elevator was never working nor safe to ever ride in. Amazing, having to go up 2 flights of stairs here in America and you’re ready to sue or have a heart attack. Back home I’d be up and down those 7 floors of stairs 10 times per day and sometimes had to carry the groceries too and not once do I remember thinking it was a big deal. Once again, somebody forgot to tell me it was something difficult so I didn’t know I was supposed to complain.

But then my dad, who was an Orthodox Christian, had to go convert to a Baptist. He was about 24 years old and he said certain things happened in his life which had no rational or humanly possible explanations so he felt there really was a God and if that was the case then maybe being a Christian meant to actually follow the bible, something Orthodox Christians don’t do, generally speaking. The only difference really is that Orthodox Christians openly smoke, drink, cheat, steal and basically do everything else any atheist would feel no moral obligation to restrain from - only in many cases, from my personal life experience, atheists and agnostics quite often prove to be better, more moral and ethical individuals, and to any Christian who sees this and at least admits it in his/her own heart, well, it’s downright shameful. I often wonder where this supposed godless people find the strength and will to do what is right when they don’t believe there’s any judgment day to fear nor any heaven as a reward – these are the kinds of people that I feel belong in heaven, not the ones acting out a good “Christian” life for the reward they may get when it’s all over.

At any rate, this rebellious act against the state by my father didn’t sit well with the communist party as my dad was an officer in the army and they simply didn’t want a reformed Christian being in the army. So they put a document in front of my dad which basically just said: I’m not a practicing Baptist and I have no intention to ever join or go to a Baptist church. All he had to do was sign that paper and he would have had a great promotion and everything would have been great. But no, his convictions wouldn’t allow him to lie about his very religious beliefs. So they stripped him of his rank, took his benefits away, our entire family’s food coupons which is what any family used to survive, his pension and his dignity, but they didn’t take his heart and mind and with those he kept fighting them – and he fought fiercely. He often wrote secret letters which were read in the US on a famous news program called, “Europa Libera”, Free Europe or something like that and by tapping our wires and assigning 4 secret agents to follow my dad everywhere, they eventually found out he was writing those letters. They took him in for interrogations where they kept him for a few days. They threatened to put him in a work camp or to kill him (“your wife will be a widow with 6 orphans”, they told him), but he refused to give up.

As a result they tried to starve us to death. Anywhere my dad went to find work they would hire him and shortly after, his bosses, who always worked for a state ran company since every single company in the country was state owned and operated, would get orders from the securitate (the secret police) and he would immediately get fired. This went on for years and without the food coupons we would have literally died of starvation. But my grandmother, who was illiterate because in her youth where she grew up as a peasant, girls could not go to school cause they had to stay home to cook, clean and tend to the animals which would then allow the boys the time to go to school. Most kids today get in trouble for sneaking out of school. My grandma would tell me stories of her dad beating her because she would leave the goats in the field and sneak into classes so she could learn to read. Sadly, she passed away 2 years ago, at 86 years old, never having learned to read or write. But for 6 years, while the communists were trying to kill us through starvation my grandma would work severe hard labor and give us 80% of her paychecks. She would keep just enough for herself to eat.

Finally my dad had enough and he decided to do something drastic, knowing full well the communist party murdered men for doing much less. He decided to apply for a visa, for the entire family, for the United States of America. This was unheard of. Few had the guts to apply for a visa to leave but nobody ever got a visa, it was just like the law of gravity – nobody ever got out unless it was in a box and 6 feet under. After nearly a year of fighting with the communist party and actively writing more and more letters out of which many made it to America and were read on the radio my dad was getting worried because the securitate was now raising the stakes and were following and harassing us, the kids, at school and where we played soccer. My dad was very worried they would kidnap and kill one of us in order to get him to stop his political activism against them. So my dad made his boldest move yet - he took us all down to the town hall and had us picketing in front of the building. It was common knowledge that freedom of speech was against the law and any kind of speech which openly criticized the dictator or any of his policies was punishable by lifelong imprisonment or death. Every person in the country at the very least knew of someone who had been kidnapped and was never seen again or brought back some-time later just to die from his injuries shortly after. Hardline communists controlled the masses by sheer horrifying fear and it was common knowledge one could get killed or imprisoned for just speaking a few unfavorable words. Yet here was my dad, taking his entire family to demonstrate, to picket while he would take pictures to have them published in America, knowing full well the securitate would come after us and do something very ugly, and his hope was that with that kind of evidence in pictures he would be able to use it to force the Romanian government to let us all go, but the cost could have easily been his and our lives.

We were all walking up and down in front of City Hall while my mother was holding the 6th child in her arms who was only 9 months old at the time and the rest of us kids were just standing around picketing. I had no idea what was going on as I was only 9 years old but I remember feeling scared, I remember feeling imminent danger. In about 5 minutes 3 big black cars pulled up at high speed and slammed their brakes on and out of each car stepped out 3 large men. They grabbed my mom as she was holding my youngest brother but she resisted and so one of the men grabbed her by the back of the head and smashed her face on the car hood and I watched in shock as blood gushed from her left brow and at this point she became dizzy and was falling down so the man kidnapping her grabbed her and put her and the baby in the first car. At the same time they were grabbing us all, the rest of the 5 remaining kids and putting us in the other 2 cars. I then noticed my dad across the street taking pictures of the entire event. At this point and angry securist ran in the middle of the street and said, “give me the camera” at which point I remember my dad responding, “come and get it”, and he ran with the secret police guy in hot pursuit on foot. The kidnapping communist secret police then continued jamming us into the car in broad daylight. I remember people were everywhere and not a single person did a thing to help, not a single scream not a single word by anyone. Once in the car I remember being held very tightly by a very large strong man and I remember thinking, “if I’m really still maybe he won’t kill me’, so I held very still and quiet. My younger brother who was about 8 years old was much more stubborn by nature, I vividly remember him to my right as he was screaming and kicking the back window. I wanted to shout at him to hold still and maybe we would be ok but I was too scared to say anything. Just moments later the large man that was holding on to him literally punched him in the face which made his whole body to go limp – my little brother had just been knocked out. This did traumatize me – for at least 10 years after that I would have recurring black and white dreams of the same brother being in dangerous situations and I was always in a place or situation where I couldn’t help, like far away behind a very tall chain linked fence. I only recently realized that’s where these nightmares probably came from.

Much to our surprise, the communists dropped us, the children off at our spacious apartment. We were all crying and looking around for our mom and dad but they were gone. We had heard so many stories of people being kidnapped and killed for just saying the wrong things and here we were picketing and demonstrating that the regime was trying to kill us via starvation. I remember thinking that we would never see our parents ever again. We all went inside and cried and prayed for God to save our parents. That night they brought our mom back and she seemed to be ok. But my dad was nowhere to be found. The next day came and then night and nothing, no dad. By this point we all thought he was gone, we would never see him again.

The next phase I remember like it was yesterday because it was just like winning the lottery. My dad came in, unharmed, very quiet, stared at us for a minute which seemed forever and said: “We’re going to America, they gave us all our visas!” I remember just freezing because I didn’t understand – nobody got out. Nobody went to heaven, nobody lived to tell about it, but after a minute or two I remember jumping up and down like we had just won $100 Million. That’s what freedom feels like. It feels like you just won the biggest jackpot ever.

The deal my dad made with the communist party was for us to leave (we didn't exactly leave, we were essentially kicked out, banned and black listed for life) and to never come back. We could never go back to visit our relatives, grandparents, cousins, nobody, ever. For 23 years I never saw any of my relatives, I don’t know what it feels like to have cousins or aunts. It was a steep price to pay but often people pay for freedom with their very lives, so in actuality I was incredibly fortunate, for it was my father who risked his life to get us out. And it wasn’t long after that – that we were on PanAm and landed in New York and then San Francisco and I turned 10 years old the day we arrived in America – the best birthday gift I ever got.

And then America – America the great where milk and honey flows through the streets. Well, what a rude awakening we got. Although America was more beautiful than we ever thought and the biggest shock for us was to walk into a Safeway or Albertsons and to see so much food, so much food you could actually go to work and buy and eat anything you want, that was a bigger shock than seeing large roads filled with cars or big beautiful houses, because in Romania even if you had money the food stores were the size of a small 7/11 and they were government owned so the shelves were empty as the dictator was exporting all the food to pay for the national debt. Only members of the communist party, they had their own stores where there was plenty of food and at cheap reduced prices. If you weren’t one of them, if you weren’t selling out your family and friends then you starved to death and worried you’d be kidnapped in broad daylight and may never see your wife and kids ever again. My parents were lucky ones, men like Richard Wumbrand (a man who gave up a very high ranking communist political position of power and wealth, a man who spoke 5 languages and was amongst the most elite in Eastern Europe but once he found God he simply couldn't go on with the lie communism became) and like him, many others spent decades in horrible torture filled prisons accused but never tried of “crimes against the people”, crimes such as distributing bibles or telling people there is a God, and unfortunately, most of these men died in these prisons which were more like cold, soul-less death camps, and now nobody even remembers their names. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there every deed these decent righteous men ever did will be remembered forever, even as this very world one day disappears without a trace to never be remembered by a single soul.

The saddest part is that when immigrants like us come to America, it doesn’t take long to lose yourself. To get caught up in the rat race to never have enough to put work and money before your family and your God and before you know it you’ve lost everything (of real value) because you’ve lost your moral compass and it’s possible to get lost so much that you’ll never find your way back and once that happens not only are you lost and gone forever but your spouse and children as well. There are countries in this world which oppress our very lives and freedoms but somehow family, love, compassion and religion flourish even more in these dark, dangerous places. It’s so odd and sad that in countries like America, where a person has everything and can do anything, the things which are most important to our lives, soul and happiness are often lost and not because somebody is trying to take them away by force – no, here in the land of the free people freely and openly give up their family, their love and compassion for each other and their religion and they give them all up for some imaginary happiness which never materializes, here in America we give it all up for a lie and we all do it willingly with our eyes wide shut. And I know it is not wise to ask such things, but why did the old days seem so much better? Perhaps our worst and most dangerous enemies are not mad dictators but rather ourselves and our universal, inherent human nature, a genetic flaw which is to gradually but easily forget what is truly important in life when we no longer have to fear for our safety or our children starving to death. If that is the truth, then who is our true enemy?

- Maximilian Wilhelm

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