Klim's Great Escape from Communist Romania

Part-11: The Pitfall

On Thursday May 15, 1969, in a special arrangement with the Austrian and the Italian Immigration Officials, HIAS had sealed a railroad car of a train going to Rome, Italy from Vienna, Austria. All refugees and immigrants-to-be who were going to the United States were placed in that special car. At both ends of the car were people securing the car and making sure that no one could leave or enter the car. The great majority of people in that transport were refugees from Poland and with certainty I was the only one from Romania. It was a long ride some 20 hours. Our car was not checked by anyone at the border, as no one was allowed to enter the car. We thus reached Rome, Italy without any problems. Everything was extremely well organized. When we arrived in Rome, HIAS had reserved for us housing consisting of a room in a family home. Afterwards, we were provided with money for rent and food. Embassy Seal

Soon after our arrival in Rome, HIAS had made arrangements for each of us to have an interview at the American Embassy in Rome. For me that was a major event as it represented, in a way, my first contact with America. I saw a Vice Consul, a young, tall man who was extremely polite. After he invited me to sit down and as he was looking over my application, he abruptly raised his head and, looking at me, he stated: "I have only one question that I have to ask you" after which this dialog took place:

[Me]: "Please ..."

[Consul]: "As you perhaps may recognize, now that you are here in Italy, you can live anywhere in the world that you like as any country could take you right away. You could remain here in Italy and pursue your Astronomy career at one of the many Italian Observatories. Or you could choose any other country with many fine Astronomical Observatories. I am curious to know, from all the countries from which you now have the possibility to live, WHY did you choose America?"

[Me]: "Oh, for me this is very simple to answer, Mr. Consul. You see, I hate Communism from the bottom of my heart, and for me America symbolizes freedom in the world. That is why I chose America from all the countries in the world."

[Consul]: "That's good enough for me!"

[Me]: "Now, I have one question too that I would like to ask you."

[Consul]: "What's that?"

[Me]: "I would like to know what is the fastest way to become an American citizen, because that is what I would like to be."

[Consul]: "To appreciate my answer to your question, I have to give you a crash course in American history."

[Me]: "If you have to, please ..."

[Consul]: "Some centuries ago, a group of English Protestants called Puritans no longer believed in the teaching of the Church of England and as a result of that many were killed. Others, to avoid persecution, were able to flee England and came to the "New World" forming a new country called now The United States of America. In their wisdom, they agreed that in this new country all people should be allowed to believe in US Embassy Flagwhatever they desired to believe in without fear of repercussion or oppression. And ever since, this principle has been held as a cornerstone of our entire democracy being deeply embedded and rooted into our American Constitution. Now, the modern counterpart of all this is Communism. You cannot go back to Romania as your life could be placed in jeopardy because of your beliefs against Communism. So you will find a safe haven in America where your beliefs, whatever they may be, can never interfere with your pursuit of liberty and happiness.
      You could come to the United States as a scientist as we have a quota for that. That process is through a waiting list that can take some time. However, in your case, the fastest way to obtain American citizenship is to apply for Political Asylum. We give those applicants the very first priority."

[Me]: "Well, here is my Romanian Passport. I surrender! I ask for Political Asylum."

After completing a short form with the handing over of my passport the interview was over. I was relieved and happy that everything went so smoothly. I knew that this represented another milestone towards my long journey to America.

Aside from providing refugees with money for food and shelter, HIAS also made available to us a school, with American teachers, where daily classes were provided for learning English on three levels: beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Notwithstanding that daily schooling I picked up Italian much faster than English. And that was in part because of the tremendous similarities that exist between the Romanian language and the Italian language. [Not many people to this day recognize the affinity between these two languages. The name of the country Romania comes from the Roman Empire and the language itself is part of the so-called Romance languages (together with French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese). Notwithstanding its geography that Romania is part of the Balkan states, Romania is the only country from that group with Latin origins.] That similarity between the Italian and the Romanian language, however, put me in "hot water!" as I inadvertently created a situation of great embarrassment and a serious potential problem.

As long as the refugees could stay within the budget provided by HIAS, we were allowed to live anywhere that we wanted. After about two (2) months, I was looking around to see if I could find a better place to live. Responding to an ad placed in a local Italian newspaper, I found a very nice place to live in the heart of Rome for the same price. As I moved into my new residence, I saw that the landlady had a small adorable little daughter with her. In the Romanian language, "daughter" is called "fica" and since because of the great similarities between the two languages, I had assumed that in Italian that meant the same thing. [This assumption of mine proved to be disastrous as in fact "fica" in Italian is a vulgarity meaning female genitalia!] So, upon seeing the landlady with her little daughter, I said:

"Madam, what a beautiful 'fica' you have!"

The woman, upon hearing that, in a burst of tremendous outrage said:

"Get out of my house immediately! I am going to report you to the Police! You are truly disgraceful!"

Not recognizing what had just happened, and being enormously puzzled by all this and of the fact that only minutes before, the landlady without her daughter at her side was extremely nice with me, I reasoned that this had something to do with her daughter, so I said:

"Excuse me madam, but is something wrong with your 'fica'?"

For the landlady this was the very last straw. After ushering her little daughter into another room, she came back with a vengeance:

"Listen, if you do not leave my house this very minute, I will call the Police."

Without having a clue as to what had just happened and being afraid to escalate further (if that was possible!) the entire situation, I left quickly the premises, bewildered and in complete silence, saying at the very end:

"Send my regards to your 'fica'!"

To this, slamming the door as I exited the house, the landlady shouted:

"What a disgrace you are!"

Stunned by all this, here I was on the street with my suitcase and no place to go.