By Jacques Sandulescu

Chapter I

I was arrested in Brasov on my way to school. It was just beginning to get light, and the cold dark-gray streets were almost empty. At a corner near the schoolgrounds I saw several armed Russian soldiers and a Romanian civilian interpreter shoving somebody into a police truck. They saw me, and the interpreter shouted:

"Where are you going?"

"To school."

"Come, we have to take you somewhere, then afterwards you can go to school."

He grabbed me, and the soldiers helped him push me toward the truck. I shook free and jumped in by myself. It was pitch dark inside, but I could feel several people watching me.

We were taken to the Axa movie house. It was jammed with people milling about the aisles. Some were sitting down, and it looked very strange, since there was no movie. I looked around in vain for someone I knew. An intense feeling of uncertainty and fear was in the air. No one asked any questions about what was happening. The answers were lying in the pit of everyone's stomach, but we were all trying to ignore them for fear of making them come true. Everyone made himself as inconspicuous as possible, moving quietly, speaking softly, making no gestures. Fear suspended feeling, thought, movement.

I stood around waiting vaguely for a long time, but no one spoke to me. I took a seat, pulled my head down into my shoulders, and thought about the many times I had sat in the same theater enjoying an afternoon film. My thoughts went back, back, back. . . then I remember wondering idly what movie would be shown next.

A few hours later, an interpreter got up on the stage and said in a loud voice that we would be loaded into trucks and taken to barracks on the outskirts of town. There was one truck and one street bus, and they made about ten trips each. In the barracks people started crying and praying and generally making a lot of noise. Some were singing hymns. Toward evening we were taken in more trucks to the railroad station, where we were transferred to a train of thirty boxcars. We went into the cars from the back, because in front on the station platform there was an enormous crowd. We were counted as we went in. There were forty-six of us, men and women, in my car.

About fifteen yards from the train, masses of screaming and crying people were being held back by a cordon of Russian guards. After a lot of pushing, I had a turn at one of the two small windows. I saw my father right away -- tall, a whole head above the sea of people. I whistled sharply. He saw me immediately and made his way through the crowd until he was straight across from me. Our eyes met and held. I saw and felt him fighting tears back -- I had never seen him this way before. I tried to look confident so he would know I could take care of myself. After two minutes I was roughly shoved away by others who were also searching for a familiar face. As soon as I was away from the window, the tears came. My only consolation was knowing that my father couldn't see me crying. It would have been too hard for him. Through my tears I could see the people pushing at the window, waving frantically and trying to shout something to their friends and relatives outside, wringing their hands and weeping. Then with a heave the train started to move, and a high-pitched wailing arose from the boxcars and from the crowd outside.

I was sixteen, and I turned out to be the youngest prisoner in my boxcar, but I wasn't the smallest, for I stood six feet two and weighed a hundred and eighty pounds. In the car there were two engineers, a doctor, and the brother of one of the professors at my preparatory school. Most of the other prisoners I had either seen occasionally in the street or had heard about. It struck me as strange that neither the doctor nor the engineers did anything to establish any kind of order among these howling people. As men of standing, they should at least have tried to console them, especially the wailing women, who were making the most noise. Already I was beginning to lose my respect for people. I thought they were all terribly weak.

The image of my father kept coming before my eyes, but I forced myself to put it out of my mind and sat down in a corner so that I could think about my situation. There was no one that I knew well enough to talk to about it, and I felt terribly alone amid all this chaos.

Despite everything, there still seemed to be a spark of hope that the train's destination might not be a Soviet slave labor camp. But hope is hope, and reason is reason. I decided that no matter where they shipped us, other people lived and worked there. It would just be a matter of adjusting. Then I thought about escape. I had read books and heard stories about escapes from prison camps, and my head was full of ideas about tunnels and hundreds of different ways to fool guards and police. I would have to wait and see.

I was very curious about the Soviet Union. Lately we had been hearing a lot of good things about it. It was the beginning of 1945, and Russian troops had occupied Romania for the past four months. Romania had been an ally of Germany and had suddenly switched sides when the Russians started coming across the border with the German army retreating before them. The troops in Brasov were wild. In the evenings the soldiers would roam the streets, drinking and singing. They looted stores, and they would light fires in the middle of the street and cook stolen chickens. Some of the soldiers were women, and one of them went walking around one evening wearing silk pajamas that she had bought in an expensive lingerie shop. Everyone thought she was insane, and finally someone told her that they were only for sleeping. I gathered that they didn't have such luxuries in Russia. Still, it was supposed to be a workers' paradise.

My thoughts were interrupted by sharp hunger. Most of the prisoners had been arrested in their homes and had been able to bring some food, soap, towels, or clothing with them. All I had with me were three books -- a Romanian history, a geography, and a German history. A little later, the brother of the professor offered me some bread and sausage. I said no, thank you, but later on in the night he offered me some again, and I was very glad to get something to eat. The next day the Russians started giving us rations of bread and soup.

It was January and bitter cold. A small iron stove supplied with a small ration of coal was our only source of warmth, and the cold poured in through hundreds of cracks in the walls. We slept in shifts. On each side of the car two levels of wooden slabs accommodated about twenty people. When one person turned over, his five bedmates had to turn over also. It was the kind of sleep you catch sitting up on long bus or train rides. What it really amounted to was taking the weight off your feet for six hours. After that you got so fidgety that you couldn't stand it any longer and had to get up and walk around.

In three days we got to the Russian border and had to transfer to another train, because the gauge of the rails is different in Russia. The two trains were side by side about thirty feet away from each other, and the prisoners were transferred a car at a time. I thought of hiding under the bunks, but when our car was emptied we were counted as we went out, and I saw guards checking inside the cars before us. We were left in the Russian train overnight, and the next morning at sunrise we started off. The train crawled up a hill and around a bend, and through the window I could see the engine way up ahead of us. It was a very long train. At some station where we had stopped, they must have added another forty to fifty boxcars. I wondered where we were headed. The land was flat and desolate, mile after mile of it. Occasionally we would pass a small village with empty snow-covered fields around it.

During the second week, while we were snowed in on a siding, several of the men started to play cards. After trying several games, they decided to stick with "21." Something about the finality of the game must have appealed to them. It was fascinating to watch them. The atmosphere immediately changed from that of a prison transport to that of a gambling house. For a while everyone crowded around the players whispering about this or that hand, and for the first time in a week there was a place free by the stove. I opened its little door and watched the coal glowing and burning with blue flames. With some astonishment I realized that I had never seen coal burn before. Then I was again a small boy at home on the long winter evenings, with logs blazing in the huge fireplace, with my giant of a father and my mother and sister. A voice broke my thoughts...

"Close the oven door, kid, it'll burn better."

I closed the door and gave up my place to someone else.

For lack of any other diversion, I soon became interested in the card game. Their stakes were getting very high. It happened that I had 20,000 lei, or about 165 dollars (peacetime), in my pocket, which I had earned on the so-called black market. I had been one of the many young boys taking advantage of the crazy opportunities that inflation creates in wartime, particularly in occupied countries. Since the Russians had captured Brasov a few months before, I had overheard hundreds of conversations in school about trading with the Russian officers. One boy had been given 30,000 lei for his bicycle. It seemed like an enormous amount of money, although almost everything cost at least a hundred times its normal price. Normally a bicycle sold for 1,000 lei.

I heard that the officer who had bought the bicycle was looking for an accordion. This was a piece of luck, for I had a fine accordion that my father had given my for my fourteenth birthday. I figured that if I could sell it for a lot of money I would easily be able to replace it and still have a tidy sum left over. I approached the officer in question and made a deal right away for 100,000 lei. It was mostly in 100- and 500-lei silver coins, and it took me an hour to count them. I hid 80,000 at home and was still waiting to decide what to do when I was arrested with the rest in my pockets. But during the four- or five-day interval I'd been plagued by guilt feelings, because I hadn't consulted my parents beforehand. I thought that if I showed them a bigger accordion plus 80,000 lei they would congratulate me, but I couldn't be sure.

After thinking about this and fingering the money in my pocket for a while, I decided to try my luck. I won and lost and won again. At one point I drew 18 and put all my money on the table. Three rounds later I had 400,000 lei. I quickly lost most of it, and then I won back even more and ended up with 500,000 lei. Under ordinary circumstances I would have been very happy, but as I looked at the money I doubted that it would do me any good in Russia, for they would probably take our possessions away when we arrived. Every second or third day we would stop and the guards would let a few people out to get food and water. Each boxcar was allowed two pails of water, and each group of five persons shared a loaf of bread a day. In addition, some thin cabbage soup and kasha (buckwheat porridge) were distributed. I always volunteered for these details because they gave me a little relief from the constant weeping. I just had to get away, even though the snow was knee high and I was wearing a pair of low black shoes. By the time I got back to the car my feet would be soaked. After a week the shoes turned white and started to crack around the edges. I began to worry, imagining what it would be like being barefoot for the rest of the winter.

Details were especially worthwhile when we stopped at small villages or towns. As we marched to the food station I studied the people we saw, since according to Communist propaganda we had entered the Labor Paradise. But I saw nothing except ragged-looking people who spat on us at every opportunity. Some of the men were so accomplished at this sport that despite the fact that I was on the receiving end I was forced to admire their skill. But at first I was puzzled as to why we were hated so. Gradually I realized that to these people prisoners represented the enemy who had plundered and devastated their land. So in their helpless anger they literally spat out their hatred. Those who hated the most spat the worst -- for as usual, emotion fouled things up.

Every chance I got, I would go to the window of the car and look out on the vast flat country. It wasn't divided into squares by fences and roads the way most of Europe is. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but snow-covered plains.

The trip lasted three weeks. Darkness would take over around three-thirty or four in the afternoon. Sometimes we were left on a siding for as long as two or three days. The cold was terrible, and shivering drained our energy. My teeth would chatter all night long. In the morning, exhausted by this continual tenseness, I would try to get my blood circulating by moving around. But everybody else would be doing the same thing, and our bodies would constantly bump. I could hardly wait for work details, even though my feet took a beating every time I went out into the snow. The endless standing around, shifting your weight from one foot to the other, sitting occasionally, sleeping hardly at all -- hour after hour, day after day -- was too much to bear.

The thing that most jangled my nerves was the loud praying of these already beaten people. Oh, how they prayed. They prayed to the Lord, to Jesus Christ and Sweet Mary to help them, to take them back home. But no one seemed to hear, because slowly but surely we rolled on deeper and deeper into Russia until one day we crossed the huge Dnieper River. I had a five-minute look at Dniepropetrovsk; it was a large city separated east and west by the river. The city looked just like the people -- shaggy, ugly, broken, gray.