Banat | Village Coordinator: Nick Tullius


My Escape From Romania
by Herwig Stefan
Translated from Ref. [2] by Diana Lambing

     The thought of leaving Romania already occurred to me when I was about 14 years old. I had finished studying auto electrics at technical college in Klausenburg, where I was also able to take my driving test in the spring of 1976 when I was 17. However, my driving license was only given to me after my 18th birthday. Now my goal was slowly drawing closer. From July 1976 I worked in the commercial vehicle workshop in Temeschburg where I soon got to know other like-minded people. These were also people of Hungarian, as well as Romanian, ethnic origins.
     One day in the autumn of 1976 my uncle, Johann Schuch, was waiting for me at Temeschburg railway station and he told me that he and his family had received their exit permits. After this news, and knowing the trouble my own parents had gone to in trying to get an exit permit, I had only one thought: Escape! But how? Before the Schuch family left the country, I took over their car. With this, I was a lot nearer my goal. Now I could move around freely and I tried to establish contact with people who lived in the villages along the Yugoslavian border.
     In April 1977 I got to know a 17-year-old Hungarian boy from Cruceni who had the same intention as I had. I visited his home often and we hatched plans for the escape. By now, I was known to the police sentry at the edge of the village and so I could move around freely in the area. On one recce (surveillance trip), we were caught by a border guard and taken to the police station, but were soon rescued by my friend’s father through him knowing the right people.
     At the beginning of July 1977 I was invited to a celebration in Kleinjetscha where I got to know Walter Isler. Within a short time we got onto this subject again and we were both frantically looking for ways to escape. To my astonishment, Walter came up with an almost feasible plan which involved another two Romanians from Kleinbetschkerek. What was missing from the escape plan to make it work was me with my car, and escape aides in Yugoslavia, as at that time the Yugoslavs deported illegal border crossers back to Romania. The most important person in the plan was one of the Romanians who had done his military service as a border guard and had only just finished a month ago. He assured us that he knew the border at Neratal like the back of his own hand. In order not to lose this opportunity, Walter and I decided on that same Saturday evening to start already on the following Thursday. So we only had five days left and still had to find someone who could help us further in Yugoslavia. I had my doubts about it, and with good reason, for when the calendar came around to Wednesday, and nothing had yet been fixed, our chances seemed hopeless. On that Wednesday afternoon, all four of us met in the Restaurant Cina in Temeschburg and went through everything again. We decided on a new deadline for early on Sunday morning. I went to work by train, as usual, on the last day.
     On Saturday morning Walter suddenly appeared on the train. He seemed quite nervous and thought it was our last chance of finding an escape aide. I excused myself from work through Walter Helberg and went off with the other Walter. For a while we wandered aimlessly around the town until we came to the Hotel Continental bar. Suddenly, a colored guy came up to us and held out his hand to Walter. He was an African student whom Walter knew and he was our last hope. After a short conversation he agreed as he apparently needed the money and had a car. We settled on a price of 5,000 Lei per head, but as the two Romanians had no money, Walter an I both had to cough up 10,000 Lei each. Half the money was to be handed over before, and the other half after the successful escape. Now I had another problem, for I couldn’t let my parents know of my intention, but within eight hours we had to hand over the first 10,000 Lei. Determined, Walter and I drove to my grandfather’s in Temeschburg, presented him with our plan and asked him for 5,000 Lei. He stood up without a word, searched in a cupboard and counted out the requested sum on the table. He had tears in his eyes as we left. Then we drove on to Kleinjetscha to Walter’s home. As his mother had been told everything, Walter received 5,000 Lei, too. We said goodbye and rode back to Temeschburg on the public service bus. There, we met up again with the two Romanians, showed them the money and decided on departure times for Sunday. Walter gave the student the agreed sum on the same evening. I went home by train as usual and tried not to draw attention to myself. When I got home I said I had to work on Sunday morning in the repair shop and was then going to Jahrmarkt for the Kirchweih celebrations and wouldn’t be coming home until Tuesday.
     Kitted out with a second pair of trousers and a shirt, I set off on Sunday 11th July 1977 at around 7 a.m. My father opened the gate of the yard for me, I gave a quick wave, put my foot on the gas and was away. The two Romanians were waiting for me on the main road in Kleinbetschkerek and from there we went to Walter’s apartment in Temeschburg. Walter had his belongings in a carrier bag. Amongst them was an old telescope from the Second World War, a compass and a map. Around 10 a.m. we left Temeschburg and headed towards Reschitza. It was about 2 p.m. when we saw the first check point on a main road beyond Reschitza in the Sasca-Montana direction. Was it luck or coincidence? We weren’t stopped there. After that, we left the main road and drove through fields and woods. When we arrived in Neratal, we looked for a suitable hiding place to hide the car. From then on, we went by foot. Our first aim was to reach the river and to follow it along as far as the border. We set off and after only a short time we reached the Nera. Dusk began to fall as we stood helplessly on the river bank, having realized that we’d left the compass back in the car. It soon became obvious that we wouldn’t make the border that night. So as not to be discovered by anyone, we crossed the water shortly before nightfall and hid in the woods. At dawn next day we carried on along the other side of the river. When it grew really light and we could no longer walk along the river bank, we moved away from the water. Suddenly, the sky began to darken and it began to rain. Soaked to the skin, we realised just before midday that we had been walking in the wrong direction for the past three or four hours. Our border guard stood there, helpless, and tried to find some clue. Now we had to go back the way we had come. It was a rotten feeling. We changed our wet clothes for dry ones, ate our last piece of chocolate and then hurried back.
     We didn’t find the same route back and came instead to a main road. Once we had crossed over and gone on a few hundred yards, our border guard discovered the first clue. We could see the river again, too. Our mood brightened. By now it was four o’clock on Monday afternoon. We’d had our last proper meal on Sunday lunchtime. After walking for another two or three hours, we could see the observation towers. Now we had to wait for dusk as after a certain time, which our border guard knew, the guards left the tower. With dusk approaching, we steered a course between the two towers, nearing the border at the same time. There were no dogs at that part of the border.
     When darkness fell, two border guards patrolled a stretch of about 500 yards. As the area was slightly hilly, and wasn’t a straight line either, the soldiers couldn’t keep a constant eye on the whole stretch. We slowly crept on and grew closer to the stretch of gravel road patrolled by the guards. By 11 p.m. we were only about 20 yards away from the patrol men. We could hear their footsteps quite clearly and checked our watches to see how long they could be heard for, in order to ascertain at what point they changed direction. It was a moonlit night and so not very favorable for us. We communicated with each other by sign language only and put our trust in our border guard. Motionless, we lay in the fairly high grass as it began to grow dark and then to rain. Suddenly, our border guard stood up and waved to us and we followed in an almost upright position. First across the gravel road, then a strip of meadow where two or three rows of trip wires were set up and which triggered off flares if anyone got caught on them, and then we followed a strip of ploughed land about 20 or 30 yards wide. Now we could see the barbed wire fence which we could slip through quite effortlessly. Beyond the fence there was only a narrow strip of meadow and then bushes which we could quickly crawl under. By now we were most probably on Yugoslavian soil.
     We could already hear the sound of the River Nera which we had to cross in order not to end up back in Romania. As we reached the river’s edge it stopped raining, but we were already soaked to the skin. I had packed our personal papers well in a small bag tied to my body and so we crossed the Nera fully clothed. On reaching the other side of the river we were faced with a new orientation problem. The Yugoslavs had switched off the street lighting after midnight, so we couldn’t see the road where we had arranged to meet our escape helpers in the dark. It was awful. Our first feeling of elation had quickly evaporated.
     In the meantime it was now about one o’clock and time was pressing as our escape helpers could only wait for us between 2 and 4 a.m. on the pre-arranged three kilometer stretch of road. We hurried on through a cornfield until we suddenly found ourselves in the yard of a house. Two dogs discovered us and gave chase. In spite of this, we could only pray that the road bordered onto a village and that we’d now reached this. We ran away from the dogs as fast as we could in tractor tracks full of water until the dogs gave up. We were now already quite a distance from the houses when we saw a vehicle on a road just a few hundred yards away from us.
     It was about 2.30 a.m. when we reached the road. When the headlamps lit up again we first jumped into the ditch for it could have been someone else other than our escape vehicle. On passing, we couldn’t exactly tell if it was our escape helpers but we had a good feeling about it. When the vehicle headlamps flashed again a few minutes later from the direction the vehicle had previously been traveling in, we made ourselves visible. It was our escape aides. We were elated, for now we were going to Belgrade.
     During the journey our helpers told us that we couldn’t drive in the town at night as the police carried out vehicle checks on all the roads leading into town. So we stopped about 40 kilometers (25 miles) before Belgrade and waited in the vehicle until daybreak. Our clothes slowly began to dry out.
     On July 12th 1977, at around 6.50 a.m. (according to our watches), we drove to the German embassy. Unshaven, tired and fairly dirty, we wanted to get into the embassy around 7 a.m. As the Yugoslav sentry held out his watch, which read 6 a.m., we realized that in all the hectic rush no-one had thought to change their watch. Now we had another hour of waiting impatiently in our helpers’ car in front of the embassy. During this time, I wrote three lines on a serviette and handed over a memento (my wallet) for my parents to our escape helpers so that they, too, would get the remaining promised 5,000 Lei in Alexanderhausen.
     We’d got this far. We said goodbye to our honest escape helpers, whose names we did not know, and went into the embassy. We briefly explained where we had come from and were then quickly led to a room where we were questioned further. To our regret, the two Romanians had to leave the embassy as quickly as possible. This action by the embassy came as a heavy blow to us. Walter and I gave the officials our entry numbers which we had learned by heart and which could be checked in our presence by a phone call to Cologne. Then our position was clarified and we were told we would receive a passport and money to enable us to travel on to Germany.
     The two Romanians were still standing in front of the building, shattered. We went with them to the American, Canadian and Italian embassies but no-one was prepared to take them. And so we parted in Belgrade.
     Around 9 p.m. Walter and I left Belgrade for Munich with replacement passports for German citizens in which the place of birth and names were changed. We had to leave our other identity papers at the embassy. With mixed feelings we reached Munich central station at around 11 a.m. on July 13th, where we sent a telegram, ‘Arrived safely in Munich’.
     We first went to the Hehn family in Munich (relatives from Billed) where we could recuperate for two days and were given clean clothing and some money. On July 15th we headed for Nuremberg and the reception centre for immigrants.
     On my first contact with Alexanderhausen I learned that the two Romanians had been captured in Yugoslavia and sent back to Romania. Before our telegram had reached Alexanderhausen, our two escape aides called on our parents, took the money and disappeared.
     In the summer of 1978 the embassy got in touch with me to say that the two Romanians had escaped from Romania again in the same area. As Yugoslavia had in the meantime changed its attitude towards Romania and no longer sent escapees back, the two reached Chicago in the USA, unharmed, where I assume they still live today.

The Banat | Danube Swabian History | Nick Tullius Files | Join the DVHH Mail List

© 2005 Nick Tullius, unless otherwise noted - Report broken links

Last updated: 26 Aug 2020