Klim's Great Escape from Communist Romania

Part-9: First Days in the Free World

After some four (4) more hours that had passed quickly and uneventfully, I reached around 12 noon my final destination: Graz, Austria. It was Saturday, April 19, 1969. Exactly one week ago at the same time I had still been working at the Romanian Observatory in Bucharest! What a truly extraordinary week had just passed. Snapping out of these thoughts, here I was leaving the train that brought me to freedom.

GrazOnce in the Graz Station, the first thing that I looked for was a place where I could exchange my currency. I saw not far away a Currency Exchange window. I had with me 5000 of the Romanian currency which in spite of their name "The Lions" (in Romanian "Lei") were worthless. I also had with me the 20 Yugoslavian dinars --my change "leftover" from the ticket. The Yugoslavian money, however, to my relief, was good and could be converted into the Austrian schillings. And if I am not mistaken, I got an even exchange: for my 20 Yugoslavian dinars, I received 20 Austrian schillings. Then, I took my camera from my suitcase (I had a beautiful Russian-made Zorki camera, picture below, in a nice leather case) and went to check my luggage. (In the Station there was a Room where passengers, for a small fee, could leave their luggage for 24 hours.) Freed from my luggage and with only a camera hanging over my shoulder, I went straight to the Station's Information Center. There was a small adorable chubby person who greeted me in German. "Do you speak English?" --I asked. "No", he responded in German. I said to myself "Thank God!" and then, in English, I asked:

Zorki Camera

Zorki Caamera
"Listen, I am from America, and I am here to take pictures of your Synagogue. Can you tell me how to get there?"

To this, in disbelief, the man came out from his booth saying: "America, America. No one from America came here to take pictures of our Synagogue." He then gave me a map with the City of Graz pointing out where the Synagogue was located. "Only three stops with the streetcar and you will be there" he continued. Happy with the great help just received, I left the Information booth thanking the man very much for his assistance. As I was about to leave the Station, I saw a place where you could buy postcards and stamps and immediately went there as I was eager to write to my dear mother. [In Romania, we agreed that I would write in coded messages. If my escape from Romania were succesful, we agreed that my letter must contain this coded sentence "The birds are flying" and be signed as "Clara".] My actual lines in my first postcard in the Free World were these:

"Spring is a beautiful time of the year with birds that are flying and flowers that are blooming" and signed as Clara. [My mother, I believe, still has this very first postcard received from me!]

After mailing my postcard, I left the Station for the streetcar. And with no problem, within minutes, I was in front of the Synagogue --a massive structure surrounded by a tall wall with heavy metal gates at its front. To my dismay the gates were closed and I could not understand why this was happening on a Saturday afternoon around 1 o'clock! [My Jewish education at that time was non-existent notwithstanding the fact that my both parents were non-practitioning Jews. From my father's side, almost everyone (some 60 people) were killed in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. From my mother's side, all her eight (8) sisters and brothers were living in Israel and, the father of my mother had been the President of the Jewish Community of a small Romanian town in Romania, Carei of Satul Mare district, where my mother was born. Because my parents did not know how Communists would react towards Jews, they in 1945 changed their names to typical Romanian names [to Bratu as family name] and until I was 17 I was not aware of my Jewish heritage much less of Jewish traditions.]

As I was moving from one end to the other end of the Synagogue to find a way of entering inside, I saw a little boy no older than 6 playing nearby. I attempted to speak with the boy but he knew only German which I did not know. After explaining to the boy, through some gesticulations, of my desire to go into the Synagogue and see a rabbi, the boy with a smile took my hand and through a hidden passage he was able to put me in front of a rabbi. He was a man perhaps in his late sixties with a long beard and the black attire of a rabbi. I was extremely happy and enormously excited to see him and upon mentioning to him all of the languages that I could speak aside from Romanian, he was glad to learn that Hungarian was one of them as he was born in Hungary. As he immediately invited me into his home, I began telling him, with tremendous excitement, that I just escaped from Romania.

After only five minutes into my story, he stopped me with the question: "Are you hungry?" Stunned by his off-guard question, I timidly responded in the affirmative. Then, the rabbi continued: "You have plenty of time to tell me your story, but now let's go to the restaurant across the street where you will eat first." In apologetic fashion I warned the rabbi that I do not eat Kosher food but only "normal" food. To put me at ease the rabbi assured me that I could eat whatever I wanted. As we went across the street to a very nice and elegant restaurant, the rabbi asked me what was my favorite food. I said "I like snitzel very much but I do not how to translate or explain this to you." With a warm smile, he called the waitress over and ordered for me snitzel with potatoes! The meal was an absolute feast with a chocolate torte at the end. As we left the restaurant and walked towards the rabbi's home, the rabbi stated "Now, you can tell me your entire story!"

After some two (2) hours of telling my story, the rabbi got quite excited calling my escape "extraordinary." He told me that he must contact the President of the Jewish Community immediately. Apparently the President was on a weekend retreat where he could not be reached by telephone but only by telegram. The rabbi's telegram to the Jewish President contained this message: "Please return immediately. Something extraordinary has happened." After sending the telegram, the rabbi showed me a room in his home where he said that I could stay for as long as I wanted. I also met his son, briefly, a student at the Graz Polytechnic University. Overwhelmed by the rabbi's goodness, I began wondering if my own father could have behaved more warmly.

Some five (5) hours later, around 9 o'clock on that Saturday evening of April 19, 1969, the President of the Jewish Community for the city of Graz arrived. Since he spoke only German, the rabbi was our translator. We talked for about three (3) hours, telling him of my escape and of my absolute determination to go to the Unites States and nowhere else. As I was telling my escape story to the Jewish President, I asked him if he could explain what had happened at the border in Yugoslavia and why my passport was not stamped by either of the two Yugoslavian officials that examined my passport. To this the Jewish President replied:

"My boy, you do not know how lucky you were. If you should ever meet those two people again, you should kiss their feet for what they have done for you. The first young Officer clearly recognized that you did not have a valid passport for crossing into Austria and thus he could not have placed a stamp on a non-valid passport. He went and informed his supervisor about this. The supervisor when he arrived and saw you decided ultimately to let you go. To protect themselves in case you were caught in Austria, they did not stamp your passport. In this way, they could have said that they had never seen you. You could have been under the train or above when you exited Yugoslavia. And the proof that they did not see you was in the fact that no Exit Yugoslavian Stamp was to be found in your passport!"

I was very impressed upon hearing all this. Clearly, there was no chance in heaven that I would ever met again those Yugoslavian Immigration Officials to thank them for setting me free. Because of my determination to go to the United States and no other place on earth, the Jewish President informed me that he would need to contact the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) which would be able to help me towards reaching my goal.


On the next day, Sunday April 20, 1969, around noon time, the Jewish President came to see me. I was informed at that time that he had made all the necessary arrangements for me to go on the next day to Vienna and see the officials from HIAS. I was happy and grateful for his help and advise. The rabbi was very excited by the news. "Yes, but what about if something goes wrong? You have to think about that and you have to have money with you," --the rabbi insisted. I assured the rabbi that nothing would go wrong and that I could not accept the money. He then insisted that I had to take with me the seven (7) letters of credit that he prepared for me. These letters, the rabbi indicated, were seven distinct sources in Vienna from where I could take money, as needed. Stunned by his genuine concern about my welfare, I took those letters of credit with tremendous emotion and gratitude.

Knowing that this was my last day in Graz, I went strolling and explored this historic city which had so much significance for me. That was my first stroll in a city as a free man. What a tremendous and indescribable joy I was experiencing. I was the happiest man on earth!




 S p e c i a l   L i n k :
My First City in the Free World


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