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A very open Yugoslav regime, prior to 1989, turned this socialist country into a true magnet for defectors, who sought to use it as a spring board towards the West, and thus attempted to illegally cross the borders between Yugoslavia and its neighbors.
The media in Yugoslavia covered, over time, the topic of these border-crossings during communism, particularly those on the Romanian-Yugoslav border, since these resulted more often in the death of the defectors.
In its April 27, 2005, the Belgrade daily Danas carried an article on the topic, pointing out that the memory of the people killed at the border was about to be erased, at least in the cemetery of the Serbian village of Golubinje, located right across the Romanian Danube bank, where only a few stumps of wood were a reminder of the crosses once marking the many graves.
The wasting away of the wooden crosses was recorded more than ten years ago; the very paper of a printed copy of the Danas article that I had turned yellow, and the letters became almost unreadable.
So, the wasting away of any marks, and fading of the memories of the killings at the border may not do otherwise but go on, until it all would fall into oblivion.
The Danube River definitely has the accurate count of the people dead while trying to flee to the West; but it may not reveal it. The Romanian authorities definitely do not have the accurate count, but it is also not trying to find it out, and share it with the public.
No Romanian institution – starting with the Prosecutor’s Office – made any attempt at sifting through all the archives, both Romanian and Serbian, to give that final count of the dead.
A presidential commission was formed to study the outcome of the communist dictatorship in Romania, but even that body had to admit – in the Final Report of the Presidential Committee for Analyzing the Communist Dicratorship – its inability to access all archives in order to uncover the full truth about the defectors killed at Romania’s borders.
„Some of the people dead while trying to swim across the Danube River were never to come ashore; while those that were interred in cemeteries of the villages on the border are fading from memory, as the crosses marking their graves start to decay too,” according to Vladislav Ilic, one of the oldest people in the village of Golubinje.
He is one of the last to remember the facts and the people, as the last visible signs they have ever existed are vanishing too – the article in the Danas daily stated over a decade ago.
„The Danube brought to this shore hundreds of drowned people. No one knew where exactly they had died upstream. Some were identified; some had their bodies taken home by their families; in our cemeteries are left those no one ever inquired about,” explained Ilic.
The people whose bodies were washed ashore are also recalled by the retired forensic doctor Kosta Jakovlevic, from Negotin. He was quoted by the Danas daily stating that he had performed over 100 autopsies of such bodies.
„Many of them were unidentified and stayed so; but some of them we managed to identify. Some of them were police officers or soldiers, wearing their full uniform.
When it was feasible, we recorded their finger-prints and sent them to the International Commission for Cooperation, if we believed they might have been among those searched by this international body,” Jakolevic told Danas daily at the time.
He twice tried his luck at Romania’s borders
The article in the Danas daily, while speaking of the victims, featured the case of an East-Germany citizen, Günter Lange, who twice attempted to jump the Romanian-Yugoslav border. This became over decades one of the main routes East-Germans were to take, to reach West-Germany.
Lange was born in Stralsund, on February 22, 1944. He was a 29-year old geologist, and unmarried at the time he arrived in Romania, to defect to the West via Yugoslavia.
Lange arrived to Romania on October 10, 1973, as recorded in documents we found in the archives with the Federal Commission for the Records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic, or BStU, in Berlin.
Only a few documents are to be found in the BStU archives, on Lange.
There is memo no. 1802/73 (BstU 00090), of October 19, 1973, issued by the Sixth Division of STASI, which confirms that then was „the first time the DRG citizen was taken into custody by the Securitate body, of the Socialist Republic of Romania, for attempting to illegally cross the border between SRR and Yugoslavia.”
„On October 13, 1973, the East-German citizen Günter Lange, 29, born on February 22, 1944, in Stralsund, unmarried, and an employed geologist, was taken into custody by the Romanian authorities at the Turnu-Severin border-crossing, after the Yugoslav authorities returned him to Romania, for attempting to illegally cross the border.
Lange told Romanian authorities that he entered Romania at the Curtici border-crossing, on October 10, 1973, to illegally leave the GDR via another socialist state. At present, Lange is in the custody of the Romanian Securitate, in Bucharest,” the report says.
Lange was also present in the memory of forensic doctor Jakovlevic, who had not only his mind, but also his personal photo archive to remember him by.
He begged not to be sent back to Romania
„Lange swam over the Danube River, from Romania, and reached Yugoslavia somewhere near the village of Tekija, close to Kladovo; he was caught by the Serbian border-guards and handed-over to the Romanian authorities.
Not long afterwards, I was called and asked to go on the river bank because a new body came ashore. When I saw him, he wore only a swim tank, and his clothes and documents were in a plastic bag that he had tied around his neck and body.
But the plastic bag was punctured, and it took water in, so it dragged Lange to the bottom of the river, as he could not get rid of it.
However, Lange also had some blows to one side of his head. Both the judge and the prosecutor recalled that the first time Lange arrived in Serbia and was caught by the border-guards, he kept begging them not to send him back to Romania, as he wanted to get to West-Berlin, to his ailing mother, before the latter would have died.
His way to his mother’s bed-side was cut short and ended up in the cemetery in Tekija,” Jakovlevic said to Danas daily, at the time the article was carried.
We visited now Jakovlevic ourselves, and he showed us all the data he had on Günter Lange, whose case stays unsolved, 42 years since his demise.
Lange’s first attempt to defect had a short-lived glimmer of success He met a few people in Yugoslavia, and told them his story. Danas daily wrote that Lange was sheltered by a family on the Serbian bank of the Danube.
Another document issued by the Sixth Division of STASI states that on October 30, 1973, Lange had reached Yugoslavia, in a second attempt to defect.
„The Sixth Division was informed on October 17, 1973, that L. was apprehended by the Romanian border-guards while he attempted to cross the border to Yugoslavia. L. was taken into custody. After the successful handing over of L., and investigation of the Ministry for State Security would follow,” the document said.
The 20th Division of STASI is also informed by the Sixth Division, about the attempts at defecting to West-Germany, on October 17 and October 30, 1973. The 20th Division AIG BV Rostock notes that: „L. died in November 1973; his file was destroyed on January 8, 1975”.
The German researcher Georg Herbstritt, with the BStU, went through the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to find out what authorities knew about Lange’ death.
He concluded that Lange was a victim of the Romanian border-guards.
„The Romanian border-guards shot at Lange, and that resulted in his drowning into the Danube” wrote Herbstritt in Halbjahresschrift für südosteuropäische Geschichte, Literatur und Politik, 21. Jg. 2009, Heft 2, S. 5-14.
In 2010, Lange’s death was not recorded by the Demographic Office in Germany, though the authorities in the former GDR were properly informed of his demise.
In the Political Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the former GDR there is a memo no. PA/AA, MfAA /DDR, C 1630/76, of March 24, 1974, which states that the GDR Consul to Romania, Klaus Richter, and the director of the Consular Division in the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one comrade Ciupagea, addressed the Lange case.
In the memo in the German archives, Richter writes: ”Comrade Ciupagea informed me that a few personal items belonging to citizen Günter Lange are with the Prosecutor’s Office of the RSR, and ready to be handed-over.”
This is indirect proof that, by that time, Lange was not alive anymore.