In the Spring of 2009, during one of my field trips to Transylvania, my old homeland, I interviewed people that came my way about their lives. One of them was Mr. Teodor Bodea. I found him during a short stay in the village of Sînmihaiul Almaşului, by word of mouth. He was known for his willingness to talk about his war experiences. We had several meetings, both that year and in the Summer of 2010, and yes, dear Mr. Bodea could talk anyone under the table. His exquisite recounting, vivid memory of what happened and his own emotions, shook me and stayed in my heart. I share his words because he is an inspiration to me, and hope he will be for others. In this age of pervasive corruption, cynicism and disloyalty, I found his integrity, dedication to hard work, and responsibility to his family, nurturing and bolstering.
Part One: Youth: Before and during World War II
Mr. Bodea: First came Transylvania’s occupation. Hitler, or I don’t know who took it.
E.V: How old were you then?
Mr. B.: I was 17 years old, a mere child.
Hardship fell upon us, in those times. Our life was the life of poor people. I was left without a father when I was 12 years old, I was the oldest. I had two brothers behind me. Such a weight fell on me and my mother.
E.V: What happened when the Hungarians came?
Mr. B.: When the Hungarians came, wonders happened, big hardships happened. Their army invaded up to the Crucile Domnului/Lord’s Crosses. They marched through here and went towards Apahida, through those hills and valleys and woods. They scorched the land, they ravaged it, they destroyed and killed people. Hungarians occupied Transylvania, they came over here, they tortured people. In Trăsnea, poor people, a disaster, they tied them up to the cannons, dragged them along the Dragu Valley, and there on the Dragu Valley made their life bitter and sorrowful, tortured them, and then shot them.
During that time what else happened?
Things that pained and hurt us, you know.
A poor student came, may God forgive him, I see him even now. The poor man was carrying a knapsack. Inside he had his books, and sugar, a kilogram of sugar. He was from a village nearby. The poor youth was walking by to go home, but the Hungarian army stopped him and checked him and turned him back to the edge of the village, on a road that went to the mill. There was a mill down there. They took the poor student, and there by some willow trees they shot him, killed him. They were inhuman. You couldn’t see eye to eye with them. They were Hungarians. We were frightened by them. Then...
Well, they shot him; they left him there by the mill and threw sugar on him. They searched his knapsack.
When we saw this, we got scared and ran away, we went home. There was a well and a small barn in our yard, and we hid in the barn.
The Hungarians kept on coming. The army, they’d come and pass through our village. So me and my neighbors, all were my age, only one neighbor was older, we hid in the barn. The Hungarians were riding bicycles and they settled camp in my garden, in the back of the garden, there was a willow fence. They had bicycles, it was covered with bicycles, full of bicycles.
E.V: Bicycles?! They went to war on bicycles?!
Mr. B.: Yes. Japanese too conquered Asia on bicycles. Germans used bicycles during the war.
Then the Hungarians came closer. We got scared.
They came, they got hold of me, and took me to the well in our yard, and they pulled out water with the bucket and gave me to drink. They made sure the well was not poisoned.
Mr. B.: I drank, of course. I had to drink. Then they let us go, they didn’t need us for anything else, they were just passing through our village. We were afraid of them, we hid away, but they went ahead and we, like children, went to the main street to watch them march. They kept on walking, day, night, they kept on walking, today, tomorrow, today, tomorrow, kept on walking through.
One day, we saw a wagon full of Hungarians coming, from there—what’s the name of the Hungarian village, Tetiş, Huedin, no, Cuzăplac, Almaş? No. No, Babdiu. Babdiu, yes. And a wagon came with about six local Hungarians all dressed up. They wanted to form a coalition with the Hungarian army. They heard that the Hungarian army was coming here, and they waited for them with love, you know, and they came here to meet them, their dear brothers, you know, like any man would do. Oh, they came here with bottles of plum brandy and wine, oh, dear. When they showed up, we hid when they showed up. They were coming and we heard them shouting, Ide, ide, Magyarország! Ide, ide Magyarország!/Hoho, hoho Hungary! Ide, ide Magyarország! Ide, ide Magyar!
Then the soldiers turned around and charged towards the wagon. When the soldiers came closer, one of the locals yelled more, Ide, ide, Magyarország! Ide, ide Magyar!/Hoho, hoho Hungary! That’s how he shouted. And their leader started speaking in Hungarian to the commander. But what did the army commander do? He took out his revolver and shot him. The Hungarian fell down.
E.V: They were suspicious.
Mr. B.: These Hungarian soldiers were fearful. The wagon went to the commander who was riding a horse. They were local Hungarians and they spoke Hungarian to them. And the commander shot their leader and killed him and he dropped down. Then the army, the soldiers cocked their guns, because they heard gunshots. The army was scared too! Who shot?! Their commander shot and they saw the dead man in the dust.
The army went by, and the other guys turned the wagon around and ran away.
Ide, ide Magyarország, ide!/Hoho, hoho Hungary! The one that shouted, they shot him and he was left there, because they were afraid. The rest of the army came by and they didn’t know who shot him.
Then our villagers took the dead man, pulled him off from the middle of the road where he was shot. It was all blood. They dragged him to a garden. The army marched further on. They minded their own business.
E.V: Would they be stealing food from the villagers?
Mr. B.: They didn’t take anything from the people, no, no, only the Russians when they came, the Russians took. We’ll get to that story too.
So then, this all came to pass.
They wanted to bring a new mayor from Hungary, but in the end, they left our own mayor. He could speak Hungarian and he really took care of the villagers. We were lucky with him. He was a man that was on the poor people’s side; he didn’t lean towards the rich, this Kendea. When they came to the village hall, “Ez az biró!/I’m the mayor!” he said. So they let him continue being our mayor.
There was a militia, a gendarmerie station here.
Where was I?
E.V: The army came…
Mr. B.: Oh, yes, the army went by and we stayed here, well, we lived... We had wood from the forest, you know? In that time, we felled trees. We stole wood from the forest. Some needed to make a chicken coop, or a pigsty. But when the Hungarians came here, what did they do? They gathered all the lumber from the people. I had a pile of wood here in the yard; I gathered them up like everybody else in the village. You know how we got by in the past, that’s the way we got by, that’s the way it went... But when the Hungarians arrived, they stole the lumber. They confiscated mine and gathered all the lumber in one place. Well, people hid some of it, some was left for us too, poor people, since we had Kendea, our kind mayor.
They took the lumber to Hungary, to Budapest. We had huge forests, huge forests. They made lumberyards here, but they’d ship it all away.
The Hungarians did much damage. A disaster. They cut out the forests, since now they owned the forests, they weren’t ours anymore.
This was the situation.
They cut that wood into railroad ties and shipped it to Hungary.
We stayed here.
But in the end our village people went away too.
They ran to Romania.
E.V: Why? Why did they run to Romania? Out of patriotism?
Mr. B.: Out of pride, out of poverty. Yes, out of poverty. We were three brothers and my mother. We had a gentleman, a professor, who was friends with my father during election time, you know. He campaigned for Iuliu Maniu and my father was on Iuliu Maniu’s side. They’d come here with propaganda. It was Maniu’s party, yes, the National Peasant Party.
And this professor was friends with this gentleman from Bucharest, Popov, may God forgive his soul, he was a good friend of my father. My father made a large gate here on the road, where the pay phone is, and he waited for Maniu and his followers to come, and they went around villages campaigning.
But this all came to pass and my poor father got sick and died of lung fever, pneumonia, he died, in ‘35 he died. I was left with my mother and my small brothers. I was 12 years old when he died, the oldest. When my father was alive, we had a good life, because he was a good craftsman. He had his own blacksmith shop.
We lived well, everything was good, but after my father died, the good life left us. We didn’t have anything. We could barely make ends meet.
Then the Hungarians invaded Transylvania, so our village was in Hungary now. Then mother left with the two kids. She went to Bucharest, to Romania, away from here. There was a law then saying anyone who wanted to move south to Romania was free to go. And mother talked to my father’s friend, that professor. So the professor spoke with that Popov who encouraged her to go to Romania, because Transylvania was occupied by Hungarians. And my mother let me stay in the village. I had only a small cottage. I stayed here by myself. And mother and her two kids went to that gentleman’s house, for he said she should come and he’d take care of them. She went to that mister Popov in Bucharest. He was a member of parliament, he was well-off and powerful. He placed her with his daughter, as a maidservant. He took care of her. He hired my brother, Gligor, to Malaxa, sent him to study at the electrician school, there at Malaxa.
E.V: Malaxa? Isn’t that a liqueur?
Mr. B.: Oh, no, dear. That’s Metaxa. Malaxa was a factory. A large, large factory in the ‘30s at the height of capitalism. Then in ‘47 it was nationalized.
This gentleman, Popov, was some kind of a boss. He was with the administration, with propaganda, [A rooster crows.] with politics, he was at Malaxa. He had a fine thing going on. I stayed here in the village, in ’41, yes, and what I did was, we got together with Aurel, son of Martin, and with Victor who was a mechanic. And we all bought a threshing machine. Aurel was a mechanic; he took care of all the machines. We got a little threshing machine. The kind they had then with a sieve, well, rather primitive. We started threshing during the time of the Hungarians, the first crop under the Hungarians.
But I didn’t write down the amount of wheat according to the law. There were some bookkeeping, papers, records. I was young, you know, nobody trained me, instructed me. Then an inspection came from Budapest, to check how we manage the threshing, how we gather the crops. There was an ordinance that said that those who had more than a ton of wheat, 1,000 kilograms, were to handover the surplus. They were left with only a small quantity, just enough to scrape by.
Well, I wrote down only half of whatever they had. If they had 1,000 kilograms, a ton of wheat, I wrote down that he had just 500, half a ton. So the inspection came and they went to John the Adventist. And they checked on him. They found a lot of wheat at John the Adventist. “Where did you get all this wheat from? How much did you thresh? What did you do?” He told them everything. He was the first one they inspected.
The inspectors from Budapest took me away.
They went to this villager, they went to the other villager, they went to yet another villager… "Is everything in good order?" Nothing was in good order. I didn’t write down the whole amount of wheat. I left the wheat to the people.
But John the Adventist snitched on me. Well, he didn’t lie, since he was an Adventist.
E.V: He was afraid he wouldn’t get into Heaven.
Mr. B.: Yes, dear. So those Hungarian gendarms came, fearsome with their large peacock feathers on their hats, the Almighty Hungarian Justice archangels!
They were dangerous, dangerous, and they were greedy. So they found out I hadn’t done the bookkeeping properly... Then they showed up at the mill, where our thrasher was. That’s how far we got away with the thrashing machine, when we tried to hide it. They confiscated it, and they caught me, dear brother, and took me away.
I was shaking. Oh, those Hungarian gendarmes. I was scared, What should I do now, man? I couldn’t go anywhere, I was under arrest. And they took me to the house where the notary was. But I was lucky, because though the notary was Hungarian, he was a kind man, he had a kind heart.
I was a young child of 17.
They took down my testimony. Everything, everything. I signed it. What can I do? The Hungarians were now full of spite, hated my guts, were going to persecute me because I was guilty according to their harsh Hungarian laws. I was in luck with the mayor, with that Kendea, who took my side, because he used to be friends with my father in the old days, you know. I was lucky that he rescued me. They didn’t beat me; didn’t torture me; didn’t put me in jail. They let me go free.
After that first arrest, I remained in the village. I was afraid. The Hungarians knew now who I was and they were watching me.
But one day I suddenly got a summons from Budapest. I was ordered to show up in front of the Supreme Court, or whatever they called it, the highest court in Budapest, I should come to trial. When I got that, when I heard that I had to show up in Budapest, I was afraid. Immediately, what did I think? I’ll run away to Romania. I won’t stay here any longer. So I prepared myself, with two cousins. I told them, “Man, I have to go to Romania. I received an order to go to Budapest. These guys will arrest me, or who knows what they’ll do to me.” “Then I’ll come with you too!” Aron, my cousin from Măgheruş, said, may God forgive him!
This cousin went to Mircea, another cousin of mine from Miluan. And together they came quickly to my place. And, dear brother, we left one evening. We went on the road towards Cluj.
So we were walking towards Cluj, to cross the border there. But where? I don’t know. Just how I heard about it. So, we walk, and we walk, on foot, and when we were near the Sâncrai Valley, as you turn towards Topa, through the Topa Hills, a big car comes. It was midnight. We wave, we make signs to the driver. He stops the car. He puts us in the back. “Where’re you going?” “To Cluj.” “Do you have money?” “We do.” We had some coins in our pockets. Pengoes, Hungarian money. And he took us to Cluj.
There were about four, five persons from our village going to Cluj. It’s no need to say their names now. And when we arrive in Cluj, we get off... We gave each a pengo, that’s all we gave that driver.
Now, we asked which way to go to Gilău. There was in Gilău a water mill that turned wool clothing into felt. We were thinking how to get there and if someone catches us what’s going to be our story. We planned to say that we were going to the felt mill to pick up our clothing.
Then somebody showed us which way to go towards Gilău. We were three children and anybody could tell that we were up to something, that we were trying to run away.
We get out of Cluj, and as we leave it behind, we take the road to Gilău. We walk, walk, walk.
E.V: Why did you go towards Gilău?
Mr. B.: To cross the border. That’s where it was possible to cross. And then, a highlander comes with a wagon pulled by two horses. We were looking scared at him. But he, may God forgive him, for he was a kind and good hearted man, stops his wagon. “Hey, where are you going?” he says to us. “We’re going to Gilău.” “Why are you going there?” “Well, we go there to the felt mill, where they make clothing,” I say. “To get some clothing from there.” Because now, dear Lord, it was the end of November. But he says to us, “Why are you lying?” [E.V. laughs] “We aren’t lying!” “Come, on, get in the wagon!” What if he just takes us in his wagon and dump us to the militia, the gendarmerie station and they’ll arrest us. We didn’t know what kind of man he was. Still we climb into the wagon. We were both frightened and cheerful. [E.V. laughs. The rooster crows.] He says to us, “Tell the truth! Where are you going?” Now, we had no choice but to tell him. “Alright,” he says, “if you go there, I’ll look for a man to cross you over.”
To hear that from him!
We go on, we arrive in Gilău, and we go to his place. He had a small homestead, this poor man. He pushes us into a shed where he kept his sheep and he locks us up in there.
You couldn’t get out of there, it was locked. The sheep were out grazing, he kept them in that little shed only at night. Well, he kept us hidden there. He didn’t come to see us. “What should we do?” But after awhile, towards evening, he shows up. “Well,” he says, “do you have money?” “We have!” “I’ll take you to a shepherd, by the edge of the village. From there the border is very close. This man has crossed people over before. I’ll take you to this man to take you across the border. But we have to wait a bit more.” He just came to let us know.
Then we got out of the shed, because his sheep had to come in. We got out and we sat there out of his way for a sliver of time. Later he comes and he takes us over a hill to a house by the edge of the village. It’s a small house, with only one room, the shepherd’s house. Dear Lord, this guy had only one pigsty, with only one piglet in it, he was that poor. He had two, three kids in just one room.
Our man goes and knocks on the window. The wife says, “Who’s that?” “Hey,” he says, “it’s me! Where’s Pătru?” “In the village,” she says. “Look here,” he says, “I brought him three kids.” This is what he says to her, I’ll never forget that. We were children. I was the oldest, the other two were younger. “So,” he says, “I brought him three children. Tell him, to get them over the border.”
The wife says, “Why do you bring trouble and disgrace on him? The border guards came here several times. They come by when they see our gas lamp on during darkness, they look inside through the window,” she says. “You’ll get him in a big pot of trouble. Jail will chew him up.”
But it was too late, we were already there.
“Woman,” he says, “say nothing.”
And what did she do? She got us in her house. There were three kids there. So now, the woman didn’t have space to turn around, she had only one room. She got us up in the attic of the house; she had a ladder behind the door. “Get up there so when my man comes, and looks through the window, he won’t see you in the house.”
We climb up to the attic. Well, in the attic, darkness... What could we do? We stay there, frightened!
God, we stay, stay, stay. Well, it was hard to stay in there, down, flat on your back. We were dressed in our best clothes.
Her husband comes. He was a little bit tipsy. “Man,” the wife says, “look, so-and-so came. He brought three children to take them over the border.” “Oh, fuck him,” this and that, he says. “Does he want to get me in prison?!” “Look here,” she says, “I hid them in the attic,” she says. “You go and get them over the border.”
So what could he do now? Alright. And he sat and sat. When all of a sudden, he turns off the light bulb, I mean blew out the gas lamp, so that we could get out of the attic without being seen through the window by the border patrol. After we get out, he says, “You’re biting my head off! You’ll be the death of me!” he says frightened. Really, was it like that? I don’t know. But he says, “Look, do you have money?” “We have money!” “Well, if you want me to get you across, you give me this sum of money. If not, get out of here and get on your way, may God help you.”
Well, we were miserable, heavy-hearted. Phooey... tormented, miserable, what should we do? “We have money!” I had the most money. The other ones, well, had very little. We get out our money, but we didn’t have as much as he asked for.
I had a leather coat and a pullover made by a knitting machine. I told him, “Sir, well,” I say, “we don’t have more. But I,” I tell him, I was the oldest, I say, “I’ll give you this for the remainder of the cost. I’ll give you my pullover made of lamb’s wool.” It was brand new, I got it for Christmas. I said, “I’ll give you this, only help us, to get across the border.”
He was ready to take it.
But his wife, may God bless her, “You wouldn’t dare take their clothes off their backs, man! Get out of my sight! You greedy rascal! Isn’t it enough that they give you all the money they have? Can’t you see they’re poor? They gave you all they had. If they don’t have more, what else do you want? To take off clothing from these children?”
He didn’t say anything.
Well, after midnight, when the border guards didn’t patrol, he takes us, “Now, follow me!” I go after him. Aron after me. Mircea, the smallest, poor kid, kept on falling behind.
We follow him. Go. Go. Go. We arrive at a small clump of trees, and we hide in it. He says, “Look, do you see that light? That’s the border checkpoint, that’s Romania. May God help you.” Well, listen, my dear, he says, “That light belongs to the check point, where the fugitives...” that is, those like us...
Mr. B.: “That’s you,” he says, “Look over there, you see that large stream.” It’s a deep stream. “Down there,” he says, “there is a mill. That mill is enclosed on one side. Go to your left, along the stream and the fence and you’ll get to Romania. But look,” he says, “the stream is deep here. Go upstream and cross the water there. After you cross the stream, you are in Romania. There are no Hungarians anymore. The Hungarians are on this side of the stream, and on the other side the Romanians. May God help you.”
I thank the volunteers that made this labor of love of mine happen: to Radu D. Iepure for organizing the trip and painstakingly transcribing the Romanian version, to Ioan Dumitru Andrei, the liason in the village, to Larry Levine, Eliott Crown, The Harlem Writers’ Circle and Len Vretholm for their help with all the detailed work the translating of this text entailed.
The text was first performed live in English by Len Vretholm at the Ana Cristea Gallery, SoHo, New York, on April 15th, 2011.
You can hear its recording archived at: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/ellaveresshow/2011/04/07/transylvanian-wwii-veteran
and today, Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 3 p.m. its continuation at this link:
Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, preservation of oral history being one of them, I’d be grateful.