No underwear, no shoes
The morning of my scheduled first interview with Cornel, I awoke with a pounding migraine headache. I thought about rescheduling, but my tight schedule reminded me if I didn’t start now I might put it off and never make time for it. I had demanding contracts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies that required a lot of time and travel.
I kept the interview appointment and welcomed Cornel into my home, my head still pounding. We made ourselves comfortable at the kitchen table. I pushed the record button on the tape recorder, placed my hands on the keys of my laptop, and asked him to describe the home and area where he grew up. He talked about the cold dirt floors of his house, no electricity or running water, and the wooden outhouse that held decades of aromas. His clothes consisted of two long shirts, a pair of socks, and a wool coat—no underwear, no shoes. My headache miraculously disappeared as I put my seemingly stressful life into perspective.
In the next interview, I asked why he wanted to escape and soon realized the why would become the soul of the book, not the escape. It took several weeks of interviews to understand the basics of how the Soviets moved into Romania after WWII and took away rights, freedoms and possessions a little at a time until the people had nothing. It took interviews over several months to get details of how those actions affected the lives of Cornel and his family.
Nightmares and secrets
Throughout the years, Cornel enjoyed telling portions of his story to friends and family. When I asked questions during our interviews he reverted to one of his regular stories. “We’ve already covered that,” I told him and I rephrased my questions. I believe it was psychologically difficult for him to dig into his brain and talk about aspects of his life that were buried deep, but the memories were there and the details remarkable. Cornel’s wife told me that every time we worked on the book Cornel would have nightmares that evening. Memories that triggered nightmares included secret police breaking into their home and beating and taking away his father; Cornel put into jail in Romania, chased and shot at by Romanian militia, jailed in Yugoslavia, and chased and beaten by guards in Yugoslavia. When the book came out, his family realized they only knew about one-third of his life in Romania.
Cornel could not always give me specific dates, so I researched extensively and amazingly matched most of his stories to widely reported historical events. Researching what actually took place in Romania was not easy. When the Soviets took over and imposed communism they destroyed many records of Romanian history and controlled much of what was written while they were in power. The records, many of them firsthand accounts, would have been the primary means to find out what truly happened.
I asked Cornel why no one had turned his accounts into a book. He said he arrived in the U.S. in the sixties and couldn’t put his story into writing until after the nineties when communism fell in Romania. If he had told his story sooner, his family and others mentioned would have been persecuted or killed.
Next week: Now comes the hard part
Sharon Rushton is an award-winning writer, documentary filmmaker, and conservationist. No Paved Road to Freedom was selected as the Book of the Month for February 2012 by the Military Writers Society of America (MWSA). In its annual awards, MWSA presented the book a Bronze Medal. In November 2012, Stars and Flags Book Awards gave the book a Gold Medal.
Sharon may be reached at www.nopavedroadtofreedom.com.
Images courtesy Sharon Rushton.