Gheorghe Cotorbai

* 1945  

  • R: What exactly happened that day? I: One day, I no longer know the date, it was in the summer of 1951, in June, around mid-June, one evening a soldier turned up at our gate with some other men with peaked caps, I don’t know what they were, officers or sub-officers, because I couldn’t tell at that age, and they were with two civilians, they made an inventory of everything in the house and gave instructions as to what we were each allowed to take. They told us to collect our things, to get ready, because the next day we were being moved. Obviously we didn’t know what was going on, my mother was very distressed, she was crying. We asked them why and they just said: “Orders!” and that was that. There was no arguing with them. And we were forbidden to leave our yard until the next morning. Before that there had been soldiers patrolling the streets, about a week before it all began, as far as I remember. They were armed, wearing helmets, carrying backpacks. I don’t know why. And we, being children, we asked, we had to ask, but they didn’t give us any explanation.

  • R: Was the hut below ground or on the surface? I: It was below ground. Only the roof was above ground. The roof was made of sticks about as long as this room, so that everything they had brought would fit: and it was about this big [points to the living room, which is approximately thirty metres square]. And the earth that was excavated was placed on top of the straw that served as a roof. And there was a plot of land downhill. Our hut was a little higher than my uncle’s, which was next door. And the floods came. I have a cousin who is now in Galați; she’s an economist and has a company. We had a chest in the hut, and my cousin slept on the chest. When the floods came they willed the hut with water – my parents were outside building a dyke – and they didn’t see that water was coming in down the stairs. And the hut filled with water and my cousin almost drowned, they pulled her out, they held her upside down, because she was already… She was smaller than me – how could a little child know how to swim? – and she slept there in the hut, on the chest. They found her, they got her out and they saved her. Those were the June rains, as I was saying, they caught us there in the hut.

  • So, we worked in the garden and cotton-picking. They took us out of school, they gave us a sack, it looked huge to me, because I was just little, and I dragged it along and it refused to fill up! And the cotton – I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen it – the cotton bud splits into four, the flower opens, a shell forms, a woody sheathe in which the cotton forms. And when it’s ripe, it opens and grows. But at each tip of the four pods there are hard spine and when you pick the cotton from them… Your hands were full of wounds, of holes. They took us out of school, lined us up, gave us each a sack and made us pick cotton. By the end of the day we had to have filled a sack with cotton: the plantation was near the Amara resort. It was nice for us little ones to be able to see the sea – my sister, for example – because they lined us up and they sang as they went to work [ironically]. They marched in a line to the plantation and sang the patriotic songs the teachers had taught them and which were obligatory back then. R: That was patriotic labour, at school? I: Yes, it was patriotic labour: cotton-picking mainly.

  • Mother was a housewife, she looked after the house, did the washing for us three children and my father. She also had to cook. On the subject of cooking, let’s return to the subject of food. In the first phase, after the supplies ran out, mother made us soup from lucerne tips. She broke off the tips of the lucerne, which were more tender, in the garden, and she made soup from the lucerne, and the second course was tomato broth mixed with water and oil. I can’t remember whether she fried it or boiled it, but it was very tasty with maize porridge. How we ate! And when there was no tomato broth, there was marmalade diluted with water served with maize porridge. And when I had hepatitis, my mother made saw wort, as they called it back then.

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    Bucureşti, 22.03.2005

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    duration: 01:56:18
    media recorded in project Iron Curtain Stories
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Here is the place you will live; this will be your home! Take your things and organize it!

Born on 29 April 1945, Tudor Vladimirescu commune, Brăila county. His parents had fled from Bessarabia to Romania in 1940. Gheorghe Cotorbai’s family first settled in Brăila county and then moved to Becicherecu Mic, near Timișoara. On the night of 17-18 June 1951, within a few hours, 44,000 people (from new-born infants to elderly people of eighty-five), from within a twenty-five-kilometre radius of the border with Yugoslavia, were taken from their homes, being allowed to take only as many possessions as would fit in a handcart, they were put on trains and taken to Bărăgan, an arid steppe in south-eastern Romania. They motive invoked by the authorities in Bucharest was the need to maintain security along the border with Yugoslavia (given tense relations with Tito). Those deported that night included the members of Gheorghe Cotorbai’s family. He was six at the time. The Cotorbai family (two parents and three children) were allowed to take only a few possessions with them and like the other families they were loaded onto a cattle truck. The journey to Bărăgan lasted a week, with the deportees suffering from a lack of drinking water and the fear that they were being taken to Siberia. At Fundata in Bărăgan, one of eighteen newly founded settlements for the deportees, they were allocated an empty plot of land on which lucerne had been grown. On the very first day they were forced to build themselves a shelter without tools or building materials. First of all they built a shack and then began to excavate a hut from the ground. It was not until the autumn of 1951 that building materials arrived. However, priority was given to the construction of a school and town hall, and the deportees were able to build for themselves only in the free time remaining. Finding enough to eat was a daily challenge for the Bărăgan deportees, and even the children were forced to work. Gheorghe Cotorbai’s saddest memories of his time in Bărăgan are connected with the compulsory labour on the state farms. When they were not at school, children of all ages were forced to take part in planting, harvesting, and tending crops of tomatoes, chives, onions, cotton and rice. The food they were given at work was scanty and inadequate, and their labour was remunerated only when they met the quota. After they had built themselves a house, his family remained in Bărăgan, as they had nowhere to go back to, all their goods having been confiscated. But Gheorghe Cotorbai went to Bucharest to continue his studies. However, his deportee file haunted him for many years, and he had difficulties entering lyceum and finding a job. He finally graduated from a lyceum, specialising in radiators, and worked in the heating sector. Gheorghe Cotorbai lives in Bucharest.