The way you defected from a Communist country was by finding your way to a free nation somehow and, once there, by asking for political asylum. Easy, right? You must be wondering why only a small percentage of the millions of citizens confined behind the Iron Curtain ever did it.

The problem was that the Soviet Block countries in the 60s were in fact large prison camps disguised as “People’s Republics”. Like in any prison, inmates of the Block couldn’t leave at will.

There were only a few ways of crossing the border that didn’t involve risk of capture, injury, or even death. Not unlike any prison break in this country, I suppose.

If you were well connected to the Communist Party, or represented your country abroad in a sports or cultural event, you could leave with no danger hanging over your head. True that if you failed to return home the long arm of the Party, the Securitate, could reach you anywhere in the world, and punish you. I’ve known people who got snatched in broad daylight outside my camp by the Securitate agents, and returned forcefully to Romania, never to be heard of again.

My roommate in the Trieste Refugee Camp, Romica, was one of those people who put his life on the line in exchange for freedom. He floated across the Danube River one night, hanging on to life rings, barely missing the border gunboats

But the way I left Romania wasn’t glamorous enough to describe here. The only risk I incurred was having a few dollar bills concealed inside the hollowed-out heels of my shoes. That transgression wouldn’t have been sufficient to get me shot if discovered by the border guards, but would’ve been enough to land me in a forced labor camp for a few years.

When I surrendered to the Italian police in Milano and asked for political asylum, the first words I heard were that I’d be taken to a “triage” camp in Trieste. That city being practically on the border with Yugoslavia, a Communist country at the time, the promise was alarming to me. So was the fact that on the train ride to Trieste I was escorted by two armed, plainclothes policemen, supposedly provided for my safety.


The Bedroom I shared in the Padriciano Camp with 15 other refugees

Trieste is an attractive port city at the north end of the Adriatic Sea. The hills that cradle Trieste give it a French Riviera-like atmosphere. The camp that was to be my home for the next two months was situated in the village of Padriciano, nestled at the top of one of those hills. I was taken up there from the train station in a windowless police van that sped up the hillside through the hairpin curves with the abandon only men of the law can afford.

Padriciano Refugee Camp (1965 – 1980)

Padriciano Refugee Camp in 1969

It was dark when we arrived at the gate of the United Nations Campo Profughi Stranieri, the Camp for Foreign Refugees. Carabinieri, armed with Beretta Model 12 submachineguns surrounded the van with the obvious intention of looking menacing. The effect was muted however by their stylish black uniforms. Pant legs trimmed with red ribbons, silver braid on scarlet-edged collars, and white patent leather bandoliers gave the carabinieri the air of extras in a romantic operetta.

Thinking back to the thuggish Romanian policemen in their ill-fitting uniforms, I reflected that if I were going to be abused I’d rather suffer the indignity at the hands of someone in a Valentino-designed uniform.

My fears that I’d be dumped over the Yugoslavian border to a fate darker than the one I’d fled from proved unfounded. Instead, I was locked up in a detention cell with barred windows and holes in the cement floor for toilets. I found there a few dozen men from all over the Soviet block, unwashed and unshaved, but grinning silly with the joy of freedom.

The two weeks it took the Interpol to establish I wasn’t a wanted criminal, passed in a flash. Round the clock discussions with fellow refugees, never interrupted by showers or grooming, took the place of entertainment. Then I was free to enter the general camp population with the promise that in 30 days I’d be given a photo ID and be allowed to leave the camp during normal working hours. But I was warned not to seek work of any kind, since that was prohibited by my political refugee status.

Next morning at daybreak, following the example of other inmates, I jumped the 10-foot wall surrounding the camp and lined up along the road in front of the gate, waiting to be picked up by one of the area residents for a day of manual labor. The carabinieri, in their impeccable attire, watched us, benign lawbreakers, with noble indifference.

Twelve hours later, tired and covered in construction dust, I jumped the wall in the opposite direction and returned to my bunk. The slim role of banknotes in my pocket was the first money I earned in the free world. Over the next forty years I was fortunate to receive many a paycheck, some obscenely large, but none felt as rewarding as that fistful of liras.

Depending on the nature of the diaspora a refugee camp caters to, life there can be a happy experiment in relativity. What to outsiders looks like the plight of desperate human wrecks, to those on the inside it might be paradise regained. Every day is full of discoveries and hope for the inmates; every moment that passes brings them a step closer to freedom. Neither the dismal sanitary conditions nor the institutional food can dampen their spirits.

Of course, if the camp is their final destination, as it is for millions of unfortunate people around the world, the relativity theory collapses like a soufflé hit by a blast of cold air.

Two months passed like this, with me breaking the Italian labor laws Monday through Saturday for about $1.00 per hour. Then it was time to move on. My next way station was Campo Profughi Stranieri of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, practically in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.

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