On June 28, 1940, the Soviet Army occupied Bessarabia and northern Bucovina, home to nearly 4 million Romanians. Over the next year, 90,000 Romanians were arrested or deported to Siberian work camps.
When Alexandra Dubău looks back at her life, the cold and hunger she withstood in Siberia seem to pursue her. She escaped from Siberia, but Siberia never escaped her.
She softly folds her hands in her lap and with a sense of resignation, says: “That’s what the world was like then. This is what the world is like now. We’re only human after all.”
I ask her what “only human” means. Are we that helpless? Are we supt vremi (a victim of our history)? However, she’s not in the mood to be philosophical — she has to feed her pigs and hens.
She wakes up at five o’clock and begins the hard work of maintaining her home and farm. She takes out the garbage daily and sweeps out the pigsty, not succumbing to her severe back pain. From time to time, she bends down to pluck a small sliver of dry grass from the ground or a miniscule piece of garbage that the broom doesn’t manage to sweep up.
She doesn’t rest for a moment. Only in the evening does she finally take a seat in her wooden kitchen, which had been her refuge for years. Her daughter, granddaughters and her great-grandchild all live in Germany. They only visit for Easter and Christmas.
Last summer, Alexandra hosted me in her home because I had some work to do in the north of the country. I visit her once in a while to inquire about her health.
“I’m fine”, she often replies.
“What should I bring you?” I ask.
“A kind word, that’s enough.” she says.
Alexandra is not an exceptionally talkative person. She says a lot through the raising of a brow or the length of a sigh. When Siberia is mentioned, she quiets, peers directly into your eyes with a gaze that is as clear as water, you can see the depth of her suffering.
“Only human”, she says in the afternoon, responding to this morning’s question, “means how God made you and also how you want to be. As a human, we cannot rise up above this world, which is how it is. You have to know your place and endure.
It means not to rejoice in someone else’s misfortune and to be willing to take food from your own mouth in order to feed someone who is worthy.”
She stands up and begins to throw firewood on the iron stove. I watch her chopping potato skins – half of them for her and the other half for her pigs. She can’t peel them because of swollen joints from the Siberian cold. She can’t even make herself a pot of polenta.
I look at her crooked fingers and how she’s grasping a slice of bread in them. It’s as if she’s afraid someone will grab it out of her hands.
A cold and sticky darkness descends upon Mihăileni, a village from Botoșani that is adjacent to Ukrainian border. You can hear the dogs from over there and see the village lights across the border in Tereblecea, Alexandra’s home village. This is where her suffering began.
Tereblecea — June 1941
“I was hiding with my mom behind the door, may God have mercy on her. We were waiting. We knew they’d get us and make us go. The broke into our home and took us with only what we had on and a little sack that we had managed to pack up. And a loaf of bread because my mom had baked bread that day…
We got into the wagon, all piled up on top of other people, and they brought us to the train station.”
In the early morning of June 13, 1941, 279 citizens of Tereblecea were snatched from their homes. More than half of these people died of cold and hunger within the first six months. Only 60 returned home after many years in exile.
“They brought us to the train station, stuffed us into the wagons they used to transport cattle, the one made out of wooden boards. There was straw on the floor. And a little window with bars that allowed a whisper of fresh air to breathe. There was a hole in the corner where we could relieve ourselves. I was crying and my mom, poor thing, folded me into her arms and tried to soothe me by murmuring in my ear.
I remember the cries of the people in the train station, they were yelling after their loved ones who had boarded the train. There were soldiers with guns who formed a barrier, keeping them away from us.
You could hear: Moooooooom…..Daaaaaaaad…..oh man!….my God!
I also started screaming when they took mom from me. They brought her to Chernivtsi for an investigation. I know they beat her to find out where dad was. But she didn’t know anything.”
The Russians put Alexandra’s mother back on the train in the Chernivtsi station. Her face had been beaten to a pulp. The train travelled for two weeks. When it finally stopped and the people of Tereblecea disembarked, taking their dead with them.
Alexandrea remembers her first image of Siberia. As far as the eyes could see, there was only rock. The darkness swallowed them up. Alexandra was taken to the Voroșilov Kolkhoz in Kazakhstan — a large farming collective.
“When we got there, we divided up into pits, instead of houses. It was a huge pit, covered with garbage, and that’s where we lived with a number of families. There was a large stove in the middle of the pit. They made us work the very next day. It was summer and we were still able to survive the weather with the clothes on our backs.
But when winter came, the bitter cold chilled us down to our bones. The only shelter was to dig deeper into the pit and cover yourself with a makeshift roof.
Mom made me some clothes out of burlap sacks. That’s how I dressed myself for six years. They brought mom to work in a different place every day. She would scatter absinth seeds on the ground so I could find her. I would follow the trail of seeds and get there when they were feeding the workers from the big cauldron. Some boiled grains. Mom would share her little handful of food with me so that I wouldn’t die of hunger. There was nothing else to eat.
In the summer, we would go sneak out in the night and catch little field mice for us to eat. I would pour water into their holes to force them out and then hit them over the head.
The starvation caused my hair to fall out. It was a kind of hunger that went beyond my stomach. It got into my head and I’m afraid it never left. There is no better way of making a mockery of someone than by starving her. Because she’s no longer human, she becomes an animal.”
Alexandra and her Mom spent six years in Voroșilov, Kazakhstan. To this day, she still doesn’t know why.
“If you could meet Stalin now, what would you do to him?”
“What could I do to him? I’ll let God deal with him. It’s not up to me to bring justice on earth”
The Journey Home
The prisoners in the Kazakh desert had no idea the war ended. After six years of slavery, a rumor started that there were no longer guards to stop them from leaving.
At the time, Domnica and Alexandra Șlemcu were loading wagons in the train station. They managed to steal enough grain to pay a former criminal from Bucovina to guide them home.
“I think he took pity on us, seeing that we were two women, alone among strangers. Thanks to him we made it home.
On the day we were supposed to leave on a freight train, the Russians separated mom and I. I went to look for her but I couldn’t find her. After that, I got on a wheat train headed to Ukraine.
On the last three days of the trip, right before getting to Chernivtsi, the former criminal hid me in a pipe on a military train. Funny that a former criminal would be my guardian angel. That’s where I hid without food or water for 3 days.
I endured anything to get home.”
From Chernivtsi, Alexandra took off towards Tereblecea. When she arrived at the home of her uncle, he washed her like a child. He took off her burlap sack dress, placed it on a barrel in the yard and beat it with a hammer to kill all the lice.
In exchange, he gave her a clean nightgown and sent her to bed. When she awoke, the white linen nightgown she was wearing was black, crawling with lice. They had made their way out of her flesh where they had incubated and were now bustling about.
New Life in Romania
Alexandra found her mom back in their old home. She had arrived two weeks before Alexandra. They tried to stay hidden, fearful they would be brought back to Siberia. Although Alexandra did manage to meet Ion Dubău, her future husband, at a hora (circle dance) in the village.
Filip Șlemcu, her father, was on the other side of the border in Romania. He had gathered money to pay a guide to sneak his family out of Ukraine.
“On the 1st of May, 1947, together with Mother and Ion, I had escaped from Tereblecea to seek refuge in Romania. On the border, there were trees that had been chopped down. We crawled on our stomachs under the tree trunks, dragging ourselves like snakes. The border officials walked right by us but didn’t notice us there. God even kept the dogs from picking up our scent.”
Alexandra’s father was still frightened by the Russian presence, so the family journeyed to a village in Banat.
“In Transylvania we worked as servants for Romanians. We did all sorts of work. Our only pay was food. They would give us something to eat so that we wouldn’t faint. We lived like this, with no official documents, no house, but we were grateful that the Russians weren’t coming to arrest us and bring us back.
It was only after I had turned 27 that Dad went to Dorohoi and got my official Romanian papers. That’s when I was able to marry Ion Dubău, with legitimate papers.”
From Banat, Alexandra’s family slowly began making their way back home towards Tereblecea. Mihăileni is as close as they could get, just a few kilometers away. So that is where she made her home.
“You know what I missed more than anything else while I was in Siberia? Our apple orchard. It was as if nothing else on this earth existed and I wanted to get home just for the orchard.”
Her nostalgia led her to plant a beautiful orchard in Mihăileni. It is a labor of love for her to clean, spray and harvest.
She even guards it. One night, at about two o’clock, she heard noise coming from the orchard. She stepped out with a baton.
“Six thieves were in the trees. They were stealing cherries. But when I started waving my baton at them, they took off running.”
“Alexandra, you put yourself up against six thieves?”
“And so what? I have had to deal with much worse.”