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
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.
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:
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 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."
good enough for me!"
have one question too that I would like to ask
like to know what is the fastest way to become an
American citizen, because that is what I would like
appreciate my answer to your question, I have to
give you a crash course in American
have to, please ..."
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 whatever
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
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
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
[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
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.
assumption of mine proved to be disastrous as in fact
"fica" in Italian is a vulgarity meaning female
upon seeing the landlady with her little daughter, I
what a beautiful 'fica' you have!"
The woman, upon
hearing that, in a burst of tremendous outrage
out of my house immediately! I am going to report
you to the Police! You are truly
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:
me madam, but is something wrong with your
For the landlady
this was the very last straw. After ushering her little
daughter into another room, she came back with a
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:
my regards to your 'fica'!"
To this, slamming
the door as I exited the house, the landlady
a disgrace you are!"
Stunned by all
this, here I was on the street with my suitcase and no
place to go.