How I Escaped Communism for a Better Life

For my first post, I initially wanted to introduce myself by telling you about my programming background. However, I recently read “Escaping the Iron Curtain for Silicon Valley“on CNET about the CEO of Tidemark, Christian Gheorghe. Like Christian, I also escaped from communist Romania in 1989, and this article inspired me to share this important part of my background. Unlike Christian, I already had a wife and two children when I left Romania, so my priorities were different when I came to the U.S.

I grew up in a small town in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, and I understood from a young age that a good education was necessary to obtain a better life. I worked hard to get a scholarship to a boarding high school in a larger city. During high school, I became very interested in computers and realized that I needed to attend college. My only option was the Military Academy of Engineering in Bucharest because the government paid for all college education expenses if you joined the military. I received a Master’s degree in Information Systems Engineering, and I got a good software job with the military right out of college.

Unfortunately, a Master’s degree and a good job didn’t equate to a better life during communism. We all had to wait in long lines for any kind of commodity, and there were never enough supplies for everyone. My ambition and hard work had gotten me so far from where I’d started, but now, I felt like I had hit a roadblock and had no opportunities for further advancement.

I constantly dreamed of coming to America, but leaving Romania during communism was extremely difficult. My opportunity finally came in June 1989 when I was sent to Poland for work, and the train I took went through Hungary. Although Hungary was also communist, it wasn’t nearly as strict as Romania, and I had a better chance of crossing the border from Hungary to Austria. The train didn’t have a scheduled stop until the Czechoslovakian border, so I jumped off of the train at the first opportunity when it slowed at a crossing outside of Budapest.

I spent three months in Hungary planning my escape to Austria. I found a group of Romanians with the same intentions, and we tried to escape a few times but were forced to turn around after almost getting caught. When I finally did escape, I ended up doing it alone. I met a truck driver one evening, and over a few drinks, he offered to help me cross the border.

I still remember the last night like it was yesterday. I rode with the truck driver to the border, and I jumped out of the back of the truck before he reached the cargo control checkpoint. Then, I had to lay completely still, barely breathing, in a cold and muddy ditch for hours that night while I waited for the border patrol guards to change shifts. When I finally got my chance to move, I crawled on my elbows across the gravel road on the border.

On the other side, it took every bit of self-discipline that I had left to not break into a sprint across the field. Instead, I kept slowly crawling for a long time until it was safe to stand up. Then, I walked along the highway for over ten kilometers looking for the first gas station, where the truck driver had promised to wait for me. I finally reached it in the morning and was greeted by the truck driver and some friends he had made that night when he told them the story of the man he was waiting for.

From Austria, I continued on with the truck driver to Holland because the government there was very welcoming to political refugees. Now, my priority was to find a way for my wife and children to join me as soon as possible. My son had only been born in March 1989, and every month that went by was difficult because I was missing out on many firsts in his life. In Holland, I worked to save money and make plans for their escape, while in Romania, my wife was questioned by the secret police about my location. Fortunately, the Romanian revolution happened in December 1989, and it was much easier for my family to leave Romania after communism fell. After fourteen long months, I was reunited with them in August 1990.

When I finally made it to the U.S. with my family, it was very difficult to find a software job for the first year. No one would give me a chance to work in software because they didn’t trust my degree or work experience from Romania. I finally found a software job in Iowa, which eventually led to a very good job in Wisconsin, and I ended up staying with the company for seventeen years.

Some might think I’m crazy to start my first company in my fifties, but my highest priority in life has always been my family. After everything we had sacrificed for a good life and financial stability, I didn’t want to take any major risks until my children were grown, and I wouldn’t change my decision. Now that my children have finished college, it’s time for me to focus on myself and my career again. In many ways, this unpredictable but exciting time in my life reminds me of when I was young in Romania dreaming of a life in America, and I can’t wait to see what this next chapter of my life brings.

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3 thoughts on “How I Escaped Communism for a Better Life

  1. Steve Cook

    Just thought I’d say Hello to an old friend. One’s fifties seem like a good time to try something new. (I’m 56 now. :-) ) Good luck with the company and may God bless!

  2. Adriana

    Ati trecut prin foarte multe greutati dar a meritat! Acum am aflat si eu povestea plecarii din Romania…Mult succes in continuare! Va imbratisam cu mult drag si dor!

  3. AdrianBontas

    Domnule Tivis, de multi ani incerc sa aflu pe unde mai esti si ce mai faci. Vad ca te-ai ocupat serios de programare si ca esti bine impreuna cu familia.
    Eu sunt inca la SMFA.
    Mult succes si sanatate din partea mea si a Margaretei!


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