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What It Feels Like to Be Deported

One night in 1951, soldiers woke up my grandmother and put her on a train to a barren plain on the other side of her country.

by Vlad Marko Tollea
28 September 2016, 12:00am

A family deported to the Bărăgan Plains, Romania. Photo courtesy of memorialuldeportarii.ro

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania

After World War II, the former fascist pro-Nazi government in Romania was replaced with a Soviet regime, which had a very strained relationship with neighbouring Yugoslavia. Afraid that ethnic minorities living in the west of Romania near the borders with Yugoslavia would revolt, Romania chose to forcibly relocate these minorities – among them Serbs, Bulgarians and Ukrainians – to the other side of the country. There was one mass deportation on the 18, June 1951, when Romanian authorities deported nearly 44,000 people from the counties of Timiș, Caraș-Severin, and Mehedinți to the Bărăgan Plain – a steppe plain in the south east of Romania.

My grandmother Iuliana-Zlatinca – now 75 – was ten years old when she, her parents, her grandmother and other members of the Serbian community were taken from their village Becicherecu Mic near the Serbian border, and were brought to the Bărăgan Plain. I asked her about what it was like to see your family removed from your childhood home, and to have to sleep under the stars for months.


Iuliana-Zlatinca, several months before being deported. Photo from the author's family archives

VICE: What did your life look like in your village, right after World War II?
Iuliana-Zlatinca: There were three ethnic groups in our village: Romanians, Germans and Serbs – each with their own school and church. We were all respectful of each other and we got along – while each group had its own language, we all spoke all three. And each group had their own specialties. The Germans were very good craftsmen, for example. They were carpenters or tinsmiths. It was a close-knit community.

What were your first thoughts, when they came to take you away?
Officers came by our house on the night of the 17th to the 18th, of June 1951, and we had no idea what it was about. They had deported the Germans a short while before that, and we didn't know what had happened to them. We were scared that they would take us to Russia.

What did they say?
They woke us up in the middle of the night and told us we had two or three hours to pack our stuff. We could bring only the essentials and some food, and had to leave our homes at dawn. They sealed the doors to our houses and we could only use one cart to carry our belongings.

Did you ask where you were going?
Yes, but they said they weren't at liberty to tell us. I remember an office telling my father to "stop asking so many questions." They were just soldiers – they didn't know much either. They took us to a train station, where we spent a couple of days, waiting for them to prepare the train. We slept on the grass in the heat.

I was 10 years old at the time and two years earlier, my parents had bought me a baby carriage and a beautiful doll. I always played with it and so did all the children in my street. I wanted to take it with me, but the soldiers didn't let me – one of them just flung it over a fence behind the station. The night after that happened, I climbed over the fence without telling my parents and got the carriage and the doll back. I was scared but the doll was so beautiful. I had it for years after, even your mother ended up playing with it. I remember what it looked like to this day.

The documentary "Tales of Bărăgan" narrates the era of the mass deportations from southern Romania

What did your family bring?
Two beds, a wardrobe, clothes, bed linens, pots, a stove, a table, two chairs and a canvas tarp – plus two horses, a cow and a pig, I think. We had to fit all of that, plus ourselves, on a freight train carriage.

Did no one run away or protest?
No, everyone kept quiet and accepted it. You know – before, they would just take you quietly in the night. The Communist regime once took your grandfather's father and beat him up because he didn't want to join the collectivisation.

How long were you on that train for?
The trip took a full week and the conditions were inhumane. There weren't any rations, we could only eat what we had brought. They gave us some water, that was it. We were locked in a carriage with our animals, and we had to relieve ourselves there, too. And then, after a week, the train just stopped and they said: "Now you get off".

Did you know where you were?
No, we had no idea. Other soldiers were waiting for us at that station, who told us to unload and took us out to the fields where sticks demarcated different pieces of land. They assigned a piece of land to us and told us to build a home there out of adobe bricks – a building material made of earth. We didn't even know what that was.

What did the locals think of you?
We ended up in Dâlga, Călărași County in the Southeast of Romania, and the people there figured we were brought there because we were bad people. But later, once they saw what we were like and the kind of homes we built for ourselves, that mentality changed.

How did you live before your new house was finished?
We slept in the open field, and had to pull ourselves together and figure out what we needed to do to get by. At night, the youngest among us would go to a farm nearby to steal food for our animals. We would look for dry wood at the edge of the forest to build fires. After a while, our relatives from other villages in southeastern Romania who hadn't been deported were allowed to send us care-packages. Those came with letters but our packages were checked before we received them, and the letters our relatives wrote were seized.

How long did it take to build the house?
It took about three months. That didn't come too soon, because it was already way too cold to sleep outside by October. Our house had one bedroom, a kitchen and a small veranda. The toilet was a hole we had dug, and we built a stable for the horses and the cow behind the house. We spent five years there. After a while everyone came together to build a school, and when the school year started, children who had gone to high school became our teachers. They taught Romanian and Russian, and a German woman was a teacher there, too.

So if you were forced to live there, was it guarded?
No, it wasn't but we were too afraid to run away. And how could we have run? My ID showed I lived in mandatory residence – I couldn't just run off. And if they'd caught me, I'd have been sent to prison.

A football team made up of deported men. Photo courtesy of memorialuldeportarii.ro

How did people earn their living?
There was a state-owned farm in the area, with cotton fields as far as the eye could see. Everyone worked there, including the children. We'd each get an apron and we had to collect the cotton – they paid us according to how many kilos of cotton we had collected. They gave us soup for lunch. There was a horse farm in the area where a cousin of mine worked as an accountant and at about two miles from our town, there was a turkey farm. I worked there for about a year, when I was 14.

At some point my father sold a horse. But right after that, the national currency changed. They switched to other bills and we couldn't change ours. We lost everything: the money we had brought with us and the new money we had made. It was a huge blow for my parents. I don't know how they managed to survive.

After about five years you were allowed to go home, right?
Yes, the Serbs were the first ones who were allowed to go back because the Yugoslav leader Tito and the Romanian leader Gheorghiu-Dej had made up. About a month after us, the Germans came back, too.

An improvised farm in Bărăgan Plains. Photo courtesy of memorialuldeportarii.ro

Was your house still there when you returned? In what state did you find it?
It was. Our house had been used as the officers' mess hall. They had turned half of one room into nothing but a stove, and they had kept pigs in a smaller room at the front of the house.

They had made a latrine of the basin in the front of the house, where we used to collect the rainwater. My parents got me to clean it up, because I was small and skinny and the basin was cramped. They tied a rope around my waist, lowered me into the basin and gave me a bucket. I filled the bucked and emptied it – it was awful. We couldn't move into the house right away because all the windows were gone and replaced with plastic sheets. We slept at our neighbours' for a while. It took us about two years to fix the damage the soldiers had done to our house.

How did your old neighbours treat you?
They were very nice to us. But I remember that when I went to their houses, I recognised a lot of our stuff in their homes. They had either stolen it from us or bought it from someone, who had taken it from our house. I remember visiting one neighbour, seeing a lamp they had and saying, "That's ours."

Did you gain anything positive from your years in the Bărăgan Plains?
It gave me so much respect for my parents. The bond we created was quite something.

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