Travel testimony from Sofie and Debora – Romania 1987 – August 30th to September 12th

TraTram in Iasi - PIata Unirii
Tram in Iasi, Piata Unirii, 1987 [same trams are still in use in the city to this day!]

NOTE: A few days ago I recived a message from Debora Eckert, a person who visited our family in Romania in 1987, together with her friend Sophie. With her permission, I share here their report of this trip, which offers a perspective on the grip reality of my country two years before the fall of communism. The pictures I use here are the ones they have taken during that trip.

* * *

Debora with Lia Dora  Sofie at breakfast
Debora with a child              Sophie at breakfast, at the back of their van

For this trip we did not use the VW van, but we got a VW Golf compact car which had a trailer tent attached to it. This trailer allowed you to open the cover plate to 280 degrees and it turned into the entrance. At the same time, a big tent stretched over both parts. On the bottom of the trailer was a big mattress. This was going to be our bedroom for the next two weeks. Under this mattress was a secret compartment. It was covered with a big wooden plane. This empty space was 2 meters long (6.56 feet), 1.80 meters in width (5.91 feet) and about 15 centimetres deep (0.49 feet). In this secret void we hid about 120 Bibles in the Romanian language, 120 new testaments and 40 big bibles for children (bible for little eyes) and about 200 copies of “Das Leben Jesu” (“The life of Jesus”). It was impossible to find the opening for this secret void and it was only possible to open it with a secret tool. This trailer was made by specialists for this exact use.

We started our journey on Sunday, August 30th, 1987, at 7 am in the morning in Munich (Bavaria, Germany). Since we were not able to drive fast with this trailer we split the drive into 2 days. We spent the night in Hungary in the middle of nowhere. On August 31st around 2pm in the afternoon we arrived at the border of Romania at the junction by Oradea.

During the last few miles before the border we took the opportunity to realize what it would mean for us if the Bibles would get found and what consequences we would have to face. We talked through how we would react in this situation in detail. We were aware of the risk that we were taking, but we still wanted to take the risk anyways: Because we felt called by God to support and encourage persecuted Christians; and because we wanted to bring the Word of God into the country. Especially because we knew that so many people in Romania were asking for it. Just before the border area we stopped on the side of the road and took time to pray. Once again, we put everything into God’s hands. After we felt ready, we continued to drive to the border.

The release plus waiting time took only 2 hours this time, which was shorter than usual. But the search by the border officers was very thorough and in detail. They literally opened every single bag and suitcase that was in our car. In the car we had our personal items, but also carried other supplies such as clothes and groceries, which we declared as personal items. We did that because of the reason that we would not have to give out the church address where we would drop all supplies. We had memorized all addresses from our Christian friends before we got to the border and destroyed the papers where it was written on.

First our car was searched thoroughly, even the under the hood. The border officers used mirrors to view the bottom of the car and even tapped all four panels of the car doors. They even searched the seats and the roof! We definitely would have not been able to smuggle anything. Next was the trailer. We had to open it for the officers so they were able to search it from every possible side and from the inside as well as from the outside. The floor of our trailer was very suspicious and thick. One of the officers started to search the floor more in detail. He walked inside the tent and tapped and knocked on the floor. He came back outside and tapped on the side of the trailer and also from the bottom. He scratched his head and asked us why the floor was so thick. I answered “This is the insulation”.

At this point I was pretty sure that we were done. It was just a matter of time until he would find all these Bibles and books. I thought he would go get a drill anytime and just drill through the wood plate. The papers would have come up, but apparently, they didn’t dare to do it. Sofie and I just pretended like we didn’t care. We sat in the sun, drank some juice and talked and laughed and pretended like this wasn’t making us nervous at all. We were freaking out on the inside. I already had my purse and all my documents with me because I expected them to call us in the office any time.

When the tension had reached its top, the border office who had been searching the floor of the trailer suddenly walked away from the trailer and yelled “Open your suitcase!”. Once again, he searched through our suitcases and bags and the car one more time, including the hood etc. He was obviously upset that he couldn’t figure out how the trailer worked, and he needed to relieve some anger. I still expected that he would call other officers and clear the situation, but then he just walked away and yelled “wrap up and go!”

Sofie and I looked at each other and almost didn’t believe it: We were allowed to keep driving! For us it was a miracle. God kept us and the Bibles safe. It is true: when we are weak God is strong through us!

on the road to Iasi3
They did not need gas for these modern means of transportation

After the city of Oradea, we drove directly towards Cluj Napoca. On the way there we tried to get gas multiple times, but all the gas stations were signed with “No gas”. Even though we bought extra ‘gift cards’ for gas. So, we arrived Cluj on a very empty tank. One of our addresses was in Cluj of a Christian brother named Gheorghe, to whom we wanted to give the literature.

It was already dark when we finally arrived. The street on which Gheorghe was living was easy to find, because it was the big street coming from Oradea. He lived in one of those tower blocks that were known for Eastern Europe. We parked our car in the shade of a big transportation truck in a dark corner where the streetlights were broken. It was a good bit away from his house, so he was in decreased risk. From there we walked by foot and tried to find his house/apartment unsuspiciously. When we arrived at his apartment, we realized that he did not speak any English. But he called a brother of the church, David, who arrived about 15 minutes later and was able to translate for us. We knew David from our last trip and with him we had agreed to bring the literature to Cluj.

They both were really happy to hear that we brought bibles and literature and they suggested to transfer everything that same night outside of the city. We agreed on a meeting location: Beyond the next village, Floresti, turn right into the next gravel road. We were supposed to follow that road for a while until we were far enough from the street.

We stayed to eat a snack and then prayed together. Afterwards we wanted to leave the apartment separately and in different directions. But then David saw some militia officers walking up and down in front of the house. Apparently, they had found our German car and have gotten suspicious. Gheorghe advised us to leave the building through the back door and to walk a good detour back to our car. He also described the way to the next Peco (gas station) because we really needed some gas before we met!

It was around midnight, but we could not find the gas station anywhere. We finally stopped and asked a militia officer for the way to the Peco. He was very friendly and helpful and described the way through sign language because he did not speak English either. Suddenly, our car turned off and we could not turn it back on. The gas tank was completely empty! We were not able to drive one more mile. This was a really crazy situation: We were standing in front of a militia officer who was trying to help us, with our car full of illegal literature and were waiting for the transfer. He asked a pedestrian if he was able to translate for us. Suddenly, there was a guy who had a five liter can of gas in his hand. He was willing to lend us his gas, if we would drive him to the gas station and fill it again. This was how Romanians are! There is always someone, who knows someone, who can help. And everyone helps out everyone. Well, that’s how it used to be. However, we filled the gas in our tank and drove to the gas station with the Romanian guy, who now was also our GPS. When we arrived, we filled his gas can back up and filled our tank as well. We drove the helpful man back to the street where we met him. This took a lot of extra time. More than planned.

Finally, we started driving to our meeting location behind Floresti. Luckily our brothers were still there. Praise the Lord! I was afraid, they had given up and went back home. We were finally able to hand over the literature. In the middle of the night, hidden by the dark, we opened the trailer and took the books out of the cavity. They were so amazed when they saw how many bibles we brought, and they had trouble to hide everything in their Dacia/car. But they were very happy and thankful! They told us that they had received only 60 books in this year from the West, and that they really needed the literature. When it was time to say goodbye they told us: “Come back! Please come back again!”. Then we had to move quick and to decrease the risk of being discovered we drove separate directions. In this night we did not drive very far and very soon found a spot for sleep.

on the road to Iasi1
Building hay stacks in  the mountains

The next morning, after a relaxed breakfast, we went towards Iasi. We felt a lot more relief, since we were without any illegal cargo and it almost felt like vacation to us! The university city of Iasi lays in the furthest Northeast of the country, which is called Moldova. The way there led us through the Carpati mountains, and the roads were in a very bad condition, but the landscape and the nature was untouched and stunning!

on the road to Iasi2
Women washing loundry in the river

We took two days for the journey and spent one night in the wilderness of the Romanian mountains. On Wednesday night we arrived the city of Iasi.

At first, we tried to get a spot at a campground so we could spend the night there. That campground belonged to a motel and we had to check-in at the reception. I remembered that from the year before. It was already 22:00 when we told the lady at the reception that we wanted a spot at the campground. She replied with a simple “No” and when I asked “Why?” she answered, “No space.” Everything is reserved!”

We had looked at the campground earlier and we knew that only one car was parked there. I told her: “That’s not possible. It’s empty!” But she barely spoke English and obviously she did not want to understand me either. And since there were multiple people behind me in line she started to ignore me and took care of the next customer. We were standing there tired and confused and thought about our options. Since there was no other option for us, we simply parked our car and trailer on the field next to the campground behind some trees. This experience was very typical for Romanian culture as well and I had stopped trying to understand everything a long time ago.

On the next morning after breakfast we went to the reception one more time in the hope that the lady’s shift had ended, and we could talk to someone else. When we got there, there was another person indeed. An older and very friendly man who welcomed us nicely. I told him “Good morning! We would like a spot on your campground.” He replied “Of course. Please give me your passports.” He gave us the keys and we were able to drive our car plus trailer on the campground. This way we were able to leave the trailer on the campground and just take the car into the city, which was a lot less complicated of course.

A bread store in the city

On this day we were searching for the address of Corina S., who I knew from last year. Unfortunately, we did not see her, because she was on a trip with young teens in the mountains. Her grandmother was at home by herself, the mother of Constantin and Teodor S., who both live in the USA now. Since she did not speak any English, she called a brother from her church who was able to come by and translated for us. His name was Danut M., but he preferred not to talk inside the house, because he was scared of being monitored (listened to). At this time, it was strictly limited to have any contact with foreigners. And if they did, Romanians were forced to inform the government. So, we took a walk with him in the botanical garden. We told him that we brought food and clothes. He also wanted to do the transfer for that at night when it was dark, and he also preferred doing it outside of the city. But as he was not able to get a car, we brought the items to his house. For this action we also had to wait until it was dark. At that time Dan lived also in a block with many apartments. He asked us not to talk inside the staircase and to bring the bags through the back door and then quickly disappear in his apartment. I realized that the Christians were a lot more careful in this region of Moldova than they were in Siebenbürgen (Transylvania). This is probably because Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) has a lot more tourism and family members from other countries who come to visit, which makes foreigners a little less noticeable.

Danut and his family invited us for dinner. Inside the apartment there were everywhere boxes and cardboards, like they were moving. Mihaela, Dan’s wife, explained that they were redoing the kitchen at the moment. When she showed us the kitchen I understood why. From the bottom to the top the walls were filled with mould. Literally all the wall was black! She explained that the heating system often just stops working during winter, because the communist government is not able to provide all buildings with natural gas. Last winter it was so cold that the water vapor from cooking condensed on the ice-cold concrete walls and would run down the wall to the floor. During very cold times the water would freeze on the inside of the walls and would form an ice layer. I think, we cannot imagine what it means to live in a Romanian concrete block of flats – especially not in the winter!

Further they told us that most groceries were only available through ration cards, such as flour, oil, butter, eggs and fish. All of these groceries are rationed per person and per month. Most of the time they are out of stock in the stores. You are able to get bread daily as well as oil. Flour is rarer, and cooking oil is available on the ration card, but not really available in the store. If you want meat, you need to get it from someone out in the country (a farmer). Those circumstances are devastating! The winter will be awful, if nothing happens soon!

Dan also told us that it had some consequences that we visited Iasi the last year. In the year before I went with a sister from Berlin to Iasi and we met Constantin and Teodor S. there. The house of the family was watched and monitored day and night afterwards and no one was able to secretly visit them. And there was another thing with Constantin: He got caught with bibles and so got blamed that he tried to murder a police officer! In Romania nobody will be sued officially for having bibles, because the law allows freedom of religion. So, they make up other reasons to lock you up. The judge convicted him for seven years in prison! Constantin’s sister who has been living in the United States of America for a while stood up for him. Apparently, she went to Reagan. Anyway, she made sure that his case was made public in the western media. After that the Romanian Securitate was quiet for a while, apparently, they realized that they went a little too far. Both of the brothers received an exit permit and they live now in the United States.

Dan asked as for an urgent favor to the bretheren in the west: He said, if we are ready invest so much money and time to come to Romania and if we even risk our own freedom and the freedom of other Christians in the country, we should bring books and literature that is worth it! Bibles are always welcome, he said and good books for youth groups and children are necessary as well as books for adults. Bring only good books. In his opinion there has been brought a lot of “garbage” in the country, and he thinks it is sad that we risk so much for bad books. He wasn’t speaking about the literature that we had brought!

After we visited the church service in the Baptist church of Iasi on Friday night at 18:00, which was very good, we left and started driving towards Sighisoara (Transylvania). It was not possible to drive this distance in one day, so we spent one night in the mountains again.

When we arrived on the camp ground on Sunday night we experienced another unhappy surprise: This time they let us in, but the whole camp ground was full of lost dogs, which were running around our tent and barked all night, which made it impossible for us to sleep. The water from the tap was so brown and dirty that I was disgusted by it for washing and drinking! After two nights we changed to another campground: Villa Franka, but there were people partying with really loud music all night, which made it impossible for us to sleep as well.

 

The day after our arrival we drove into the city to visit the family Gheorghita. It was easy and fast for us to find the house from our memory, even though we did not write down the address. As usual, we parked our car a few streets away. After we just had started walking a yellow Dacia drove by and suddenly came to a complete stop. When we looked around, we realized that it was Gheorghita, who jumped out of the car and welcomed us happily. Dieter, who was a brother from the German church in Sighisoara, was sitting behind the wheel. They both became friends after they had been hospitalised together.

This was perfect timing, because just after a few minutes they had to leave to spend the afternoon somewhere else. (Cell phones had not been invented yet!) So, they changed their plans and we went to the family of Victor. His dad immediately went to the market and bought us a watermelon as a welcome. While we were eating a bunch of other family members, friends and brothers and sisters of the church stopped by to see us. Everyone was so happy that we were here, and it felt really good to us to be welcome like this.

On the same night we drove to the city Medias together with Victor to visit brother Voda. This actually hasn’t really been our plan, but during our journey we had the feeling we were supposed to drive to Medias. When we arrived in the Baptist church the choir was practicing. Brother Voda was so happy to see us! He invited us to his house and gave us all the foods, after we told him that we had already eaten.

We asked about Blaga Mihai, who ran away to Yugoslavia and got captured and sent back to Romania. No, he has been in custody for a very long time in Romania. Brother Voda knew that he would have a court hearing on September 10th, which was held in Medias, pretty much as an example to all citizens and to scare them not to do the same. (We heard about the judgement of one year and 8 months of imprisonment after we arrived back home.)

Ioan Voda is not working as truck driver anymore but works as a mechanic at the Romanian train tracks for the past four years. He is responsible for maintaining the trains in a good condition. He told us that his boss just started believing the gospel and he got baptized at church. A brother took pictures during the baptism, which were seized by the militia afterwards. They were considered proof that his boss became a Christian and that it was Voda’s fault.

Since then he experiences a lot of rejection at work and his colleagues were making a lot of problems for him. If there is a task that is particularly hard and difficult, they always give it to Voda. If there is something urgent at night time or at the weekend, he is always the one who gets sent.

Even his oldest daughter feels the discrimination of Christians. After she graduated from high school, she tried to find work. It was necessary that someone else in the household contributed and made money, because they had a lot of children. She applied at a big company in the same city, but even all other girls from her school got accepted, she was the only one who got denied. When she asked why she didn’t get accepted they first told her: We don’t have any open spots! When she asked why all other girls from her class got a spot they said: It’s because of your faith, we don’t want any religious people!

Officially there is no unemployment in Romania, but everybody gives Christians a very hard time. For example, Victor is not allowed to study at a university because he is a believer. Examples like this are very common. Brother Voda has been thinking about applying for an emigration permit. He also asked us, if we, as a Christian church in Munich, would be to help him with that, but at the moment this is still far away. He hasn’t even applied for it yet and who knows if he ever will be able to do that.

Addition: Brother I. Voda lives with his family in the USA today. Victor G. and his parents live in the USA as well. Dieter B. went to Germany. Danut M. lives in Scotland today, also his two grown up children with their families.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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