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You know, as I am talking to you now, I get the goosebumps: any memory gives me the shivers”, tells John Pîrva, and I see his eyes glowing behind the tears. He braces himself, as if trying to reassure himself that all is gone and well into the past.
Pîrva experienced so many things that could find their full and proper explanation only in the book he wrote about his attempts at illegally crossing the border of communist Romania.
Pîrva was born in Deva and, as many other defectors, dreamed about leaving communist Romania and traveling to the free world since his teenage years. Immature, shallow and showing off – whatever the take one would have now on Pîrva’s reasons back then, the fact is that few people want to recall how life really was during communism, while many had no experience of it at all.
„I believe my first thoughts about borders and what was beyond them I had in my second or third year in high-school, that was in 1977 or 1978. Among my classmates were ethnic Germans, who had relatives in the West; some were short-listed to leave Romania, others already left and we heard from them. So, I said to myself: there was something beyond, something different I wanted to find out about.
A good friend of mine left for West Germany and in the letters he wrote to his girlfriend he was describing the life he lived there, all the things he bought for himself. For us, as youngsters, this was something to look forward to. We were young and thinking we could have fled Romania and enjoyed a different kind of life. This is how the idea popped up into our heads – I mean my head and the one of Liviu Todea, my best friend. We just thought we could get to West Germany, where our friend Erwin already lived.
I also had an uncle who left for the United States, along his wife. And I had their address on me, during my first attempt at jumping the border, in December ’79”, recalls Pîrva.
Pîrva said that following many failed attempts at defecting, when he finally succeeded in reaching the United States, out of respect for his adoptive country he changed his name to sound American, and kept it this way, in spite of coming back home, to Deva, Romania.
Photo caption: John “The American”; credit: Bogdan Constantinoiu
One Book Full of Memories
Pîrva told the story of his many attempts at crossing the border in a book he wrote to free himself from the many memories still haunting him – it is titled „A Defector’s Memoirs”, and it depicts his longing for a life lived in freedom, both beyond the national borders, and beyond the feelings of fear.
An Artist In the Making
Pîrva was born on May 21, 1962, in Balşa, Hunedoara County. He studied at the Arts High-school in Deva, when he was faced with the first dire consequence of his first failed attempt at crossing the border: he was expelled in his final year. It was 1980.
Pîrva jumped on the occasion presented to him when a classmate invited him to his home in Bogodinţ – it was about 250 km away from Deva, the last 50 km of which were deemed border area, hence a zone one could not have traveled to unless one had a clear reason.
„Liviu and I set up an escape route for the winter of 1979. We made no plans about what would we do once successfully jumping the border. Our plan lacked any detail beyond that point. We were two 18-year old boys planning to take on an army of soldiers trained to stop us from doing exactly what we were intent on doing.
Still, the winter, the snow and the unexpected events cut short their first attempt, and the two youngsters ended up in the Naidăş border-guard post, where they were introduced to a program of severe beating.
A short while after his first failed attempt at defecting, Pîrva tried another route: via Jimbolia, where he had another friend, Helmuth. Once he arrived there, his friend told him crossing the border would be very difficult, since gun-shots were heard almost every day, and deep trenches and three rows of two-meter high barbed wire fences had been drawn on the border land.
Helmuth would have liked to leave Romania too and, in spite of the fact that his family had filed the formal request to emigrate to West Germany, decided to join John and Liviu in their planning of the escape route.
„The second attempt failed too, but with no serious consequences. The three of them managed to reach Oraviţa, but when they left the bus-station on foot, and headed West, towards the border, they noticed their footsteps on the solid frozen snow made a very loud sound in the silent winter night. So, they all agreed to go back home, for they faced certain arrest or being shot at”, tells Pîrva.
Pîrva made another attempt to flee Romania in a truck, but this failed too, and resulted in another session of beatings he was subjected to, this time from the authorities in Deva, and then in his being expelled from school.
„I was taken afterwards to the principal’s office, where I was handed a document stating I was expelled, but which also allowed me to go back to school the next year. I was thus going to repeat the final year in high-school. What I really was sorry for was that I was part of the last generation of children to graduate the Arts High-school in Deva, which was to be closed down. I really wanted to be an Arts School graduate”, Pîrva says.
„– You’re Pîrva, aren’t you? He did not wait for my answer and landed his right hand on my left ear with such a force that for the next few minutes I heard nothing but a continuous high-note hum. Later on I was to find out that because of that blow, the little “drums” in my internal ear were displaced, which resulted in a permanent 80% hearing loss in my left ear.
That guy was Col. Jakab Ludovic, of the Hunedoara County Securitate Office, who had made an urgent trip from Deva to the border town, to take care of the cases of defectors from our county”, the rebel from Deva recalls now.
Creţan or Jakab – these are names that put their stamp on Pîrva’s life, with the endless interrogation sessions, where questions were seasoned with severe beatings. The savage treatment given to him, and to defectors like him, was best and most detailed described in Pîrva’s book.
Pop singer Elena Cârstea became one of his new schoolmates
„We skipped school together and went for a coffee at the bar in the Romans’ Emperor Hotel. There was the place we could feel free to talk. I asked her what she thought of my dream to jump the border. As I expected, given her free spirit obvious even back then, she encouraged me”.
„I myself will flee the country some day, she said, suddenly very serious in her mood. I will wait for a music tour abroad to come up, along some music band, and I will refuse to come back – you will see! Here I cannot be my own self”, the pop singer told him.
Pîrva researched the Anina Mountains area, and stories about what happened to other people attempting to jump the border in the area close to the Naidăş check-point.
„It is difficult to imagine what that meant, but if one reads Pîrva’s book one gets how high the price of freedom was; how difficult it was to survive between the blows of the policemen and the harsh words of the teachers”, wrote researcher Marius Oprea in the Foreword to „A Defector’s Memoirs”.
Going on foot over the border cannot be fully understood unless one follows with one’s imagination the story of the fleeing man stopping short at the tightly stretched wire which, if touched, carried a signal calling the alarm in an instant.
„The walls carried all sorts of sentences in Romanian. I put myself in one of the bunk-beds. The white paint on the iron bars was scratched with all sorts of messages that gave me the creeps. <<If they kill me, know I was here>>; <<If they return me to Romania, know I was here>>. Some simply scribbled their names and the date they climbed that bed. We scribbled on an a side of the door frame, still free of other writing: <<Vio, Uţă and John – 6 August 1981 – The New Free People of Deva>>”, recalls Pîrva.
After they spent five days in the Padinska Skela camp they were taken to the Austrian border and were left to fend for themselves. The Yugoslav authorities told them that in case Austrian authorities would ask them how did they manage to get there, to claim they passed the Yugoslav territory undetected.
So they did, and they got in the first Border Police office in Austria and asked for political asylum. The six days in the Klagenfurt prison they completed for illegally crossing the border with Austria felt already like the real taste of freedom to the boys.
They were then taken to „The Hilton” at the Traiskirchen Camp, the famous prison camp funded by the UN, where political refugees were camped. Thousands of Romanians were processed in the buildings at 24 Ottoglockel Strasse.
Pîrva was processed too: a file was made, his medical check-up took place, an ID was issued – „Lagerkart” was called; and all was left to do was wait.
From the Traiskirchen Camp he sent the first post-card home, where no one had any news from him yet. In the camp there were around 200 Romanians, at one time, each of them with his or her own story about defecting Romania.
„I could see under the plane, stretching in front of it, the land of the country I wanted to live in – a dream I almost got killed for. I thought then at the people killed while swimming over in the Danube, or shot dead at the Romanian-Yugoslav land border. They probably wanted to see what I saw then: the US coast line, the land of free. I felt blessed, I felt privileged this time around.”
Pârva enrolled at the Portland State University and studied Arts for four years. Then he worked as an independent film producer with the Portland Cable Access TV station in Portland, focusing on educational and arts programs.
Pârva returned to Romania after living for 20 years in the US, and opened a small business in his home-town, Deva: „John’s Café Bar”, which is located in the building formerly housing the court which in 1982 ruled in absentia that he was convicted to spend a two-year prison term for illegal border-crossing.
Another twist of fate, maybe not so fun, this time, is that Pîrva crosses his path time and again with his former assailants, the former officers with the Securitate, Police and Border Guard military units who beat him up after each of his failed attempts at fleeing Romania.
Pârva set up his Facebook page as John Pîrva – „A Defector’s Memoirs”, and the photos of Creţan and Jakab feature prominently in top positions.
„The Led Man … One day I saw him sitting at my bar. He looked as if he was waiting for me. I shiver went through my heart. But I said out loud: „Ahaaa, Mr. Cretan, let me take a photo of you right here, sitting on the terrace of my bar”. He said: „I keep looking at those clouds, how they keep drifting away”. I said: „Well, that’s where we all end up sooner or later”.
He asked: „Are you out for a walk?”. I was along my wife, Anca, and our youngest daughter: „Yes, we are out for a walk”. He walked away and turned back not only his head, but all his body, as if to give me one more opportunity to have a full sight of him, The Led Man. The look in his eyes showed he did not recall who I was„. (John Pîrva – on his Facebook page)