“After all the pain I went through to cross that border, I couldn’t believe that it was finally possible,” Radu Codrescu said in 2006. “For a long time I had this feeling of unreal. My biggest dream had finally come true, but it felt like a dream, not like real life. I had traveled before, with my rowing team, and I had seen other countries, so it wasn’t the surprise of a new country that I couldn’t digest. It was the mere fact that I could be there.”
On May 8, 1990, 28-year old Radu Codrescu landed in East Berlin, Germany with a bag on his shoulder and 50 Deutschmarks in his pocket. He was alone, his wife and little daughter still in Bucharest. Radu spoke some German, but couldn’t comprehend much of the native speakers’ fast words. The airport was huge and busy and noisy and Radu stood for a long time in the middle of that bustle, not sure what to do next. The Berlin Wall still divided the city, but there was free passage to West Berlin, so Radu boarded a bus heading there.
In the spring of 1990, Western Europe was full of goodwill for the other half of the continent. There was a flood of donations going east, and a flood of people going west. People welcomed relatives and friends from whom they had been separated for decades. West Germany’s Basic Law (the constitution) offered asylum rights to people fleeing from political persecution in their native countries, and even though only a small percentage of the requests were granted, the authorities allowed the applicants to remain in the country until their case was decided, and even during their appeals. The German state provided financial aid all throughout the process, a process that Radu didn’t know much about. All he knew on that May afternoon, with the city of Berlin bright with blooming flowers all around him, was that he was there, and he was overwhelmed and excited.
At the border checkpoint, an officer got on the bus and asked for the passengers’ passports. Radu handed his: mint green covers embossed with golden letters that spelled “The Socialist Republic of Romania.” On the third page, Radu’s solemn picture was glued on top of the old communist coat of arms. The expiration date was five years in the future. That passport was thing of beauty! The officer gave it back. No questions asked.
At the Zoo Station in West Berlin, Radu got off the bus.
“There I wondered again: what should I do next? Sleep under a bridge, in the railway station, somewhere inside the zoo? I saw a policeman in the middle of the street. I went straight to him and I told him that I wanted political asylum.”
Radu didn’t quite understand what the policeman answered, but he recognized the words “more policemen” and “down the street.” He followed the officer’s hand directions, found the nearest station, and walked in.
“I want political asylum,” Radu said in his tentative German to an officer at a desk.
“Your passport,” the policeman said.
Radu handed his passport, the policeman checked it, and kept it. He told Radu to go straight ahead, down the street for about ten minutes, until he saw the refugee camp. It was one of the many floating camps set up all across West Germany as needed. Another policeman welcomed Radu there and processed him with efficiency. Radu received bed sheets, a pillow, a blanket, and was assigned a bed in a dormitory.
“Tomorrow, come back for your allowance,” the officer said.
“Allowance?” Radu said. “I don’t pay here?”
“No,” the officer said. “You’ll get your DM 132 monthly allowance tomorrow.”
Radu was now among people who looked more like him, fellow Romanians, lots and lots of them, but also Albanians, Hungarians, Yugoslavians, and even people from places as far as India and Africa. The food was good, the place was clean, but Radu wasn’t allowed to work during the first stages of his application for political asylum, so he canvassed the city in search of daily jobs. Soon, he knew all the work points in Berlin, and he took any job he could find: construction, car repairs, street washing, sweeping, driving. His language skills improved and apart from missing his family, he was getting a hang of that new, exciting life.
“I was there [during the reunification of October 3, 1990], when everybody was celebrating, while hammers splintered the cement blocks. I was there and I watched.”
During the full medical checkup needed for the asylum application, Radu’s tests revealed a spot on his left lung. Probably cancer, the doctors said, and they checked him into a hospital, where they kept him in isolation.
“I didn’t like that, so I fled the hospital as soon as I had the chance.”
Just before he ran away from the cancer ward, Radu shaved with a bad razorblade and got a small cut. Back in the refugee camp, the infection got out of control. Radu’s neck swelled like his friend Eugen’s did, back at Popa Şapcă in 1984. Radu was in pain and had trouble breathing. The ambulance that took him from the refugee camp dropped him at a different hospital, where he was given antibiotics and where the doctors ran all the tests again, including the lungs X-rays. Something was definitely wrong with Radu’s left lung, so they sent him to a lung hospital.
Radu told the doctor there that he had already been locked in a cancer ward and that he had run away from that place, but the doctor calmed him down; no cancer looked like that on X-ray.
“You’ll love the hospital I’m sending you to,” Radu remembered the doctor telling him, “so much so that you won’t want to leave.”
“Really?” Radu said. “But if I don’t like it, I’ll run away again.”
Radu did love the sanatorium where the lung doctor had sent him. It was a beautiful building on Radeland Strasse. Sunlight bathed Radu’s large, clean room. Through the tall French doors he looked out at the trees and watched the ducks swimming on the lake. Radu lived there for three months while he received IV chemotherapy, free of charge, to make sure that the enclosed tuberculosis he actually had wouldn’t come back. How he got the disease in the first place, he didn’t know, but his body had fought it and contained it on its own.
Radu was well taken care of, but he missed his family. He wanted to bring them over, but by then, the German authorities had blacklisted Romanians from visiting in an effort to stem the immigration flood that had started after the Romanian Revolution of December 1989. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world were seeking refuge in the newly-unified Germany, and the cost of it all had strained the resources of the federal government and the local administrations, not to mention the goodwill of the German people. If Romanians wanted to visit, they now needed to a written invitation from a German citizen.
Radu became friends with the doctor who oversaw his treatment at the sanatorium. She had time to chat and Radu loved to tell stories. She agreed to write the invitation that Radu needed so that his family in Romania could come visit him in Germany. That was how Laura, Radu’s wife, their three year-old daughter, Radu’s mother and Radu’s brother all stood one day in the lobby of the sanatorium, just as out-of-place there as Radu had been in the East Berlin airport.
After Radu left the sanatorium, the authorities separated him and his family: Laura and her daughter in one refugee camp, Radu’s mother and brother in another, while Radu was sent to a third one, even though he explained to the officers in charge that they were all family and wanted to stick together. So Radu came up with a solution, Romanian-style: he took his papers and penciled in the name of Laura’s camp, Karlsruhe, over the name of the camp he had been assigned to. He wrote the new name on top of the official stamp, to make it look, well, official. Then he took his wife and daughter and checked in at their refugee camp—and nobody ever thought to doubt Radu’s papers.
The three of them were reunited with Radu’s mother and brother in another refugee camp in Stuttgart, and from there they all moved again to Besigheim. While living there, they received their work permits. Radu’s first legal job in Germany was plumbing, installing pipes and tiling roofs. His Math and computer skills helped him land a job at Siemens, programming microchips for automated tools.
Things were now looking up and the Codrescu family was not looking back.
“I don’t have fond memories of Romania,” Radu said in 2006, “maybe only from when I was a boy and I used to go to my grandmother’s and play with other kids my age. (…) I had fun in the rowing team, but that is too little to go back for. I wouldn’t go back only for that, and those things are gone anyway.”
Radu and Laura worked hard, building a good life for themselves and for their child in their adoptive country. Freedom was a word that had real meaning for them and they knew how to appreciate what others took for granted.
But by 1992, the German people had had enough with the immigrants and the asylum seekers. The whole country was dealing with a schism between the eastern and western regions that was deeper and harder to bridge than anybody had thought before. Tensions were high, scapegoating easy. The media and the politicians were talking about amendments to the Basic Law to tighten restrictions on granting asylum: not allowing third-country applicants to live in the country while being processed, and increasing funds for the immigration bureaucracy so that asylum-seekers would spend less time in Germany.
In November 1992, a letter arrived at Radu and Laura’s apartment. It was from their immigration lawyer and it read like this:
Dear Mr. Radu Codrescu,
Attached is the court decision concerning your case. Unfortunately, the court believes that you didn’t suffer political persecutions in your country. The decision becomes final two weeks after you receive this letter, on 11/23/1992. In order not to be deported from The Federal Republic of Germany, you will have to voluntarily leave the country by 12/7/1992, in case you don’t receive an extension. I will let you know as soon as I get an answer from R.P. Stuttgart.
Signed and dated.
Radu was crushed. He and Laura had built a life in Germany. They had friends, their daughter had friends. Radu had a job, a bank account, an apartment, a car.
“[The German authorities] were mean to us too. They would show up at your door in the middle of the night and take you out of your bed, in your pajamas, and send you back to Romania.”
The extension arrived in time. The Codrescus were allowed to stay in Germany until April 15, 1993, but no later. Laura and her daughter were going to return to Romania for the time being, but not Radu. No. If he ever went back, it was going to be by his own choice.
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.