It was a beautiful afternoon at the end of the summer in Transylvania, but Radu Codrescu, 24, and his friend, Iulian, didn’t have eyes for the tawny hues along the train tracks. They sat in an empty freight car chugging on its way from Arad to Oradea, and waited for the right spot to jump off, where the train tracks and the Romanian-Hungarian border were only two hundred meters apart.
Many things had changed since the two friends had got out of jail, in the fall of 1984. Radu and Florina had divorced, Radu had moved back into his mother’s apartment in Bucharest and had taken a job as a plumber and painter at ICRAL. He went to the State Security and filled in the five standard forms requesting the authorities to allow him to emigrate.
“I was taken seriously by the authorities even after being in jail,” Radu Codrescu said. “They would let people leave the country after they had been steady about it for four, five, six years. (…) I had to say where I was headed and I think I wanted to go to Austria at that time. (…) The reasons I listed were complex. I mentioned that I was beaten up when I wanted to go visit another country. ‘Visit’ was an exaggeration, but the beating was real, so that stood for a reason. Another was that I got fired based on my past and that I was discriminated against in the workplace, that there were repercussions from authorities, and that the bottom line was that I had a right to decide where to live my life on this planet. Aside from suffering in their country, I had a right to hold a personal preference about the place I called home. And that was all I had to say. They told me to leave the forms with them and to wait because they would let me know in a few years what was to happen to me.”
In 1985, Radu applied to the Department of Mathematics at the University of Bucharest. During the exams, he met Laura (name changed for privacy reasons), a beautiful high school graduate. Neither of them got in that year, but they began dating right away, even though Radu had a criminal record and Laura was the daughter of a well-connected colonel in the State Security. When Radu told Laura about his plans to leave, she never tried to stop him, but made it clear that she wasn’t going to join him because she didn’t want to ruin her father’s career.
The freight car rolled at about 10 km/h. Radu and Iulian were hopeful that this time they were going to make it over the border because this spot wasn’t like the others they had tried. They had learned about it from Iulian’s stepfather, who had been a frontier officer, but who only began talking after a few glasses of wine, one evening that summer. The old man had told Iulian about a spot along the border, between Sânmartin and Grăniceri, where people didn’t know to go and soldiers didn’t expect fugitives. He told Iulian what time the soldiers made their rounds and how far they patrolled, and anything else his son needed to know to make it to the other side. Iulian called Radu and they decided to try it out as soon as possible.
“I trusted [Iulian] because we had been through many adventures together. We had been together at sea, we had gone to the Danube together, and we had gone to prison together. I could’ve gone with him anywhere, we were like brothers, and we trusted each other.”
If they succeeded, they were going to head to Austria. The Hungarians didn’t guard their frontier with Austria the same way they did with their Romanian side. They focused on checkpoints, and they didn’t shoot at people, the way the Romanians did.
Radu and Iulian stood on the edge of the freight car platform, holding onto the frame of the opened doors. On the right side of the tracks there was a cornfield; on the left side there was open land, toward the frontier, with full visibility for the guards. It was around four in the afternoon. The train slowed down to a crawl, and Radu jumped off the right side of the train, and slinked away, toward the cornfield. Then Iulian tumbled behind him, his face twisted and pained.
“When he jumped, he most likely landed on a stone, and one of his foot bones broke out through his skin, pushed up from his sole. His fractured foot swelled up immediately; it became almost as big as his thigh in a matter of minutes. In broad daylight, [Iulian] had to keep his mouth shut despite all the pain that shot up his foot and leg.”
Radu wanted to go back, but even that wasn’t easy. There wasn’t going to be another train for hours. They couldn’t just step out of the cornfield and start walking in the soldiers’ arms. They had to sneak up to a road nearby, but Iulian didn’t want to risk hitchhiking. He wanted to go on with their plan. He could manage his pain, he told Radu.
They waited in the cornfield until nightfall, until they figured out how the soldiers moved under the moonlight. There were no other lights—Iulian’s stepfather had been right about that. Radu couldn’t bear to see his friend in the terrible pain he was, so, when the night patrol finished its first round, he hauled Iulian on his back and carried him across the field, into Hungary.
In less than half an hour they were outside Romania, but they didn’t have time to celebrate. Around six in the morning, a truck driver stopped for them and took them to Békéscsaba, a town westward, where Iulian had some distant relatives. The truck driver was Austrian and he offered to take the two Romania fugitives to Austria, but Iulian needed a doctor to take care of his swollen and bruised foot, after more than half a day since the accident.
Iulian’s cousin was not happy to see him, but she and her husband took him to the communal polyclinic where the doctor put Iulian’s foot in a cast and gave him pain medication. Then they all returned to the cousin’s house where she fed them and offered to take her uninvited guests back to the Romanian-Hungarian border.
“Iulian kept telling me that I should go on to Austria, but I couldn’t let him out there, with those people. I had to take care of him.”
They had crossed once, they were going to cross again, as soon as Iulian’s foot healed, even if they had to wait until the next spring, when the snow melted. Crossing the border was no longer an impossible task.
Radu went shopping in the better-supplied stores of downtown Békéscsaba and spent all his money on presents for Laura. When the night fell, Iulian’s cousin dropped them off less than a kilometer away from the spot where they had crossed over earlier that same morning.
“We went back the way we came. We waited for the patrol to pass, and then we crossed the border behind the soldiers. We were back in the cornfield. I carried Iulian that time too, he used me as a walking cane and at times I hauled him on my back. We were both very tired and Iulian couldn’t walk anymore and I couldn’t carry him anymore. So I left him between cornplants, I walked to the road, and I hitchhiked a ride to Timişoara.”
In Timişoara, Radu went to the house of Iulian’s stepfather and told the retired officer where to go to find his son. The old man was foaming. “I’m going to lose my retirement rights if anybody finds out about this,” he kept saying. But he got in a car and went up there, to the cornfield, and picked up Iulian.
Radu was excited to see Laura again and to show her the nice things he had bought for her. West-European corduroy pants and a leather purse—she loved them. And she loved seeing him again. Since it was that time of the year, Radu reapplied to the University and was admitted that time. He left his plumbing job for a better one at a state cybernetics center, while waiting for the day when he and Iulian could go back to the cornfield on the Hungarian border.
It was still fall when Laura and Radu found out that she was pregnant, so they got married in February 1987.
“We had our daughter and I had to help [Laura] with the baby. So I put my plans about fleeing the country on hold for a few years.”
Radu and Iulian talked on the phone less and less, each of them busy with his life in his own city, and, after a while they lost touch altogether and have never seen each other since.
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.