Story-Writer: Alina Cojocaru

Story-Teller: Veta Pasvantu (Batin)

Organization: House of Education and Innovation Association

Title: Fleeing Southern Dobruja as a Refugee Child in the Second World War

Level: Advanced

Language: English

Abstract: During World War II, Bulgaria reclaimed Southern Dobruja (Cadrilaterul) in September 1940. As part of the Treaty of Craiova, all Romanian inhabitants were forced to leave the territory. Veta Pasvantu (Batin) was one of the Romanian refugee children who experienced life in Southern Dobruja and the cross-border population exchange between Bulgaria and Romania.
 Key-Words: Dobruja, World War Two, Heritage, Journey, Romania, Bulgaria.

Fleeing Southern Dobruja as a Refugee Child in the Second World War

“I keep them in an old box… photographs, small tokens from journeys, a badge, pressed flowers, a plain gold wedding ring, a lock of hair from the first haircut ceremony, a floral embroidery, a needle and thread…”. The old trembling hands gently touch each object, feeling the textures and the contours. And with each touch comes a smile, a sigh, a twinkling in the large, milky eyes that have long lost their sight yet pierce through you. “Time stops in its tracks whenever this small box is opened. Some might say that reminiscing is a pastime for old people. Nonsense, it is a portal in time, a door to adventure that is always open. You see, with each object I move my hand and mind across, I am of a different age, in a different place. And the stories keep going on and on…I just have to choose the thread I want to follow…and not get lost in the maze of memories.” With those words the wise pale eyes close. The small room we are in goes quiet except for the crackling of the fireplace and the purr of the cat. Then the ends of the soft fingers touch the contours of the floral embroidery and in a soft voice the tale unravels:


“I was born on October 1st 1930 in Southern Dobruja, otherwise known as Cadrilaterul by us, Romanians. I, Veta Pasvantu, was the second of seven children and my parents, Ion and Ileana Pasvantu, were among the Romanians who ventured to inhabit this cosmopolitan melting pot, both oriental in its charm and occidental in its aspirations. After the First World War, Southern Dobruja became an integral part of our nation and thousands of families worked together to develop this hinterland. Schools, roads, railways, houses were built from the ground by the hands of these pioneers who set aside their differences to create what was then a modern Babylon. When you grow up surrounded by people who look, speak, act and think differently than you, what may seem exotic to a newcomer is regarded as a matter-of-fact occurrence. You could walk down the street and see Turkish men in patterned chalvars serving steaming coffee, greet Romanians on horseback and Aromanians herding their sheep or transporting their crops while passing a group of Tatar women wearing their colourful traditional costumes. It was an exciting time and every nation was not only proud and eager to display and preserve its culture but was also open to an unprecedented intercultural exchange. 


We called our town Perifaci yet it was also known as Ravnets (Равнец). Truth be told, there were countless names to everything. It was rather difficult to wrap your mind around this idea as a child. It was even stranger to witness, or worse, be part of conversations from which you could not understand a word that was being said for the life of you. Luckily, there were some words we pronounced the same as our fellow Bulgarians that also happened to be some of my favourites: “pie”, “plăcintă” or Плачинка, as well as the archaic word for “dance”, which was “gioc” or Джок, and the word “embroidery”, “broderie” or бродерия. This must have been my first language lesson: form and meaning are constantly shifting. My second lesson would be a lesson of life: everything is prone to change. This indefinite place defined ten years of my childhood. And then, in the span of a week, everything was gone. 


That town is so vivid in my memory that I can see it in my mind’s eye. The field stretched endlessly in every direction and the majestic outline of the green hills, so rich with crops and blooming with flowers, sprawled so far in the heavens that I imagined we stood on the ledge of Heaven. To be admitted through its gates was hard work. I mean actual physical labour. My parents worked in the fields from sunrise till sunset and by the time me and my siblings were able to walk we accompanied them. Our existence was governed by time patterns regulated not by the ticking of clocks but by nature, weather and the span of the crop season. There were times when we would wake up at three o’clock in the morning and hop in our carriages to catch the precise time frame that mother nature was giving us at the crack of dawn to gather the best quality crops. When you are little it all seems like a game and I did enjoy the freedom, the sights and the fresh air. Still, I could not help noticing the sun-burnt faces of the labourers, their pained expressions after hours of harvesting in the sweltering heat of the sun. At noon everyone gathered in the shade to rest, eat and talk. Their tan faces were ornamented with smile wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. Work was not a burden. It was a duty and the fabric that held the nation together. They shared stories, sang tunes from home and discussed politics… “all that is Romanian never dies”, as the song says.


Beyond the fields that gave us crops were the hills and beyond the hills stood the forest where wolves would roam and beyond that was the unknown. When the Second World War began, father was recruited. For almost two years he was away, first preparing and then fighting in the war. The war was somewhere in the distance and its location was always changing. No one knew where the enemies would strike next. Everyone hoped for the best and expected the worst. Life went on. I remember father was allowed to pay us a couple of visits. Both times he came back home after the sun had set. The second time he arrived with his military tunic full of holes. Mother, my sister and I stood all night sewing the rips and patching the tunic. When we asked what had happened father told us that on his way home, he heard someone in the darkness of the road and the fields. So, he pulled out his knife and started erratically hitting the emptiness around him to the point that he made holes in his military tunic. My siblings and I were fascinated. Our jaws dropped at the thought of a supernatural encounter. In retrospect, I realize that he tried to disguise his despair into a ghost story. Our father was a strong, gentle soul.                


We were still at war when it happened. Apparently, father had been brought home for a reason. At noon he put on his best shirt, the military tunic that we had just patched for him and his side cap. In the pocket of this coat was a letter whose content remained unknown to me. I only knew that we were going on a trip. Mother dressed us all and arranged everything necessary for the two-hour ride. We each took our seats in the carriage drawn by our best horses and headed for the town known as Bazargic or Dobrici (Добрич). I was assigned the task to keep our food safe since the road was very bumpy as the carriage moved forward quickly. Sitting in the back of the horse-drawn carriage I remember looking at the contents of the package I was holding. Unfolding the white napkin with colourful flowers on the margins I peeked inside the clay pot prepared by mother. A familiar smell assaulted my nostrils. Fried chicken gizzards. I shrugged my shoulders and covered back the clay pot with the napkin. The road was stretching before us as we passed tens of towns and villages. We didn’t stop to rest because the plan was to be back home by sundown. There was an unbearable tension that I could sense in the air. 


I started playing with the ends of the wonderfully embroidered napkin to pass time. The more I focused on the clay pot to distract myself from the situation, the more appetising its smell became. By the time we reached the middle of our journey my stomach was rumbling. My willpower failed me and I decided to take just one bite. Nobody would notice if one piece was missing, right? Especially since I was far back in the carriage. I grabbed a savoury piece of chicken and quickly shoved it into my mouth. It tasted better than I remembered. Inadvertently my hand reached once more beneath the embroidered napkin and automatically brought another delicious savoury piece into my mouth and down my stomach. The journey went on, with me absent-mindedly repeating the same action. We finally arrived at our destination and mother asked for the pot, thinking it was too heavy for me to carry around. I closed my eyes, gave her the clay pot and heard the question I expected and dreaded at the same time: “Darling, where are the chicken gizzards?” I honestly don’t know how and when it happened but by the time we arrived in Bazargic my hand could feel the bottom of the clay pot. At this point I was too afraid to look at the result of my endeavours. My family stood silent for a while, their eyes as wide as saucers. In a matter of seconds, I came to terms with whatever punishment was in store for me. I was resigned and expecting the chastisements … when suddenly my father burst into a loud laughter to the point that he was in tears. The tension that was looming during the carriage ride miraculously dissipated. Everyone was shaking with laughter when father hugged us and went into an imposing white building to find out the reason for his summoning. The rest of us went for walk. Then mother bought us a pie and we all ate in the carriage. I guess my punishment was not to be able to enjoy the pie with a full stomach.


When father returned with the news my world shifted. The treaty signed at Craiova on 7 September 1940 stated that Southern Dobruja no longer belonged to Romania. It was Bulgarian territory and we were illegally occupying the land. The population exchange that was to be carried out consisted of an exodus of over a hundred thousand Romanians from Southern to Northern Dobruja. It broke my heart to know that regardless of our sacrifices in the battlefields and in our everyday lives many territories were lost. When had that happened? Everything seemed unchanged. Our Bulgarian neighbours were still very friendly to us. We worked together, celebrated together and drank from the same fountain. Nevertheless, that signed piece of paper labelled us as intruders. I was a refugee now and by the end of the week I was going to leave all that I knew behind. 


As soon as we arrived home, we started packing. We were only allowed to take with us the bare minimum. We had few possessions anyways. We all wore traditional folk costumes, the Romanian blouse, or “ie”, and traditional shoes made of leather, or “opinci”. Our pots, clothes, blankets, rugs and pillows were handmade by our town’s craftsmen. My most prized belonging was a floral embroidery that mother and I worked together on. Even now, decades after, I still keep it on the wall. That was the thing I took away with me. The night before our departure neighbours of different ethnicities, both those who were leaving and were staying, gathered in the courtyard of the local inn for a last “hora” as a community. This “gioc” had us spinning together in a huge circle, hand in hand, heartbeat to heartbeat… and then we were off… 


The morning found us in the train station. It was crowded, loud and filled to the brim with people, animals and luggage. The pastiche of cramped objects reminded me of a flea market and the commotion of shouts, neighs, oinks, moos and crows created a pandemonium that I tried to shield my ears from with my hands. I could only read the lips of my father and mother, guiding my siblings and I to the train. We barely managed to squeeze our way to the platform without losing sight of one another in the throng. What came into sight was nothing like the comfortable trains I knew about. These were stock cars designed to carry large animals. Our two horses, cow, four sheep and few belongings were deposited in one of these wagons. Most of our livestock had been gradually sold during the war and the remaining ones were very dear to us since we relied on them for food and warmth. I assumed we were ready to go occupy our seats but then I saw that one of the soldiers in charge of guiding us kept pointing towards the stock car. My ears were still covered so I looked at the faces of my parents to understand what was being said. The frown on their faces changed their look from melancholic to ferocious. By slow degrees the situation dawned on me that this was the only means of transport assigned. My family and I were shaking our heads in denial. It couldn’t be… it was a five-day journey…


I felt a hand gripping my arm, pushing me towards the entrance of the wagon. In the crescendo of the pandemonium, I crossed the inclined wooden plank following the footstep of my parents. Inside the cattle car it was quiet and dark except for the beams of light that made their way through the open door and little window with metal bars and no glass. Our animals were loosely tied on one side of this metal cage on rails. On the other side were our belongings. This left very little space for us nine. Mother and father got into an argument with the soldier but the only reply they received was the door of the cattle car being shut in their faces. Darkness engulfed the wagon.


To this day I am terrified of the dark and crowded spaces. I have tried and tried to erase from my mind what happened in the following five days. The art of forgetting is oftentimes more convoluted than the art of remembering. There are flashes of us sitting on blankets, on the floor, holding hands. The mornings and nights were very chilly, even with the blankets on, while the rest of the day, when the sun heated this metal container on wheels, the floor and walls were burning. You could barely breathe because of the heat and the smell coming from the animals. And sleep was impossible because the wagon was always jolting. When going over the portions where the railroad track was faulty or spliced the whole cattle car would dangle, propelling us in different directions. The worst moment when this could happen was when we were trying to sleep because we hit our heads against the hard metal. We could not eat either when the train was in motion because of motion sickness. Father gave us the watch he kept in his pocket, explaining the number of days and hours it would take for us to reach our destination. The watch travelled from hand to hand, each passing minute offering us comfort and hope. Mother told us stories about the place where we were going, how it had a lake called Sinoe where we could swim and fields just as green and wide as the ones we knew. Near this village were the remains of the ancient city of Histria, where deity temples and inscribed Greek and Roman artefacts had been discovered. It all sounded magical, a reward worth enduring these hellish days.


Much to our relief the train stopped daily in a random station for around two hours. In that time span we were allowed to get water, eat, clean the wagon, stretch our legs and brace ourselves for the journey that lied ahead. If there was no sign to indicate the name of the station, we would ask the locals. Their looks of pity confirmed that we looked as bad as we felt. By the fifth day we all had sunken cheeks, growling stomachs and arrhythmia. A few years after my resettling journey as a refugee child I found out about the concentration camps where Jewish people were sent with similar freight cars used to transport cattle. It must have been unbearable to stay trapped for days in a row, crammed into a windowless box with tens of strangers, robbed of freedom, family, even life. At least I had my family and the image of a new home. History is cold. It does not recount emotions, impressions, human pathos. The past is full of shadows, faceless and nameless figures that we read about in books only in terms of numbers. As if numbers would make treating people as pawns that you can use, move or dispose of more comprehensible.         


The end of the five-day train journey found us in the plot of land that was assigned to us. It was empty and we were exhausted but we had each other. Anything is bearable as long as you have a reason to persevere. In the following months we built our house from scratch. We remained here and after the fall of communism we started our own agricultural business. I married and from the frightened refugee child I turned into a career woman. Having overcome the war, the terrible experience of being a refugee child and the communist system afterwards was a proof of my strength. I am ninety-one years old now and I have lived a full life. Full to brimming over and not in years alone. Despite its troubles it is a simple, blessed human life. A strong thread of love sews all these pieces of memory together. Don’t let them be lost.” Frail hands tenderly take the thread and needle from the old box and ceremoniously place them in the young palms opening before them. “I have offered you a thread of my life. Now spin the tale.” 

Project 2020-2-RO01-KA205-080819 STORYLINE

Funded by the Romanian National Agency of the Erasmus+ Programme

Start date: 01-11-2020

End date: 31-10-2022

Copyright © 2020 – 2022 STORYLINE

This web-site reflects the views only of the authors, and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use, which may be made of the information contained therein.

Versiune - 0.1

Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Consent to display content from Youtube
Consent to display content from Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from Google