“A year later I went back to the country and stole my wife. Nobody knew I was coming.”
Albani had no idea what happened to the unassembled submarine he had abandoned when he escaped to France and never returned. He had sent drawings to each factory to manufacture the parts. The authorities had no idea what he was going to make with all these separate sections; some of them were conical, like a piece of pipe, with flanges and bolts; they looked like something designed by an idiot who did not know how to do a flange because his flanges were inside instead of outside.
Once he escaped, Albani hatched a plan to bring his wife to Paris. “I made a trick car because I wanted to steal more people, not just my wife. But my best friend escaped too and my plan now focused solely on her. I modified the car in such a way as to fit her in.”
How did he get away with stealing her without papers and hiding her in a car across so many borders? Albani answered with pride and aplomb: “I’m an engineer.”
There is a modified Volkswagen in the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., in which people have been hidden and taken across Checkpoint Charlie between East and West Berlin. The two sides were separated by the heavily guarded Berlin Wall of Shame built by East German communists who wanted to keep their oppressed subjects inside the “socially just and egalitarian communist paradise” they built for their citizens. It was such a miserable “paradise” that people were willing to chance being shot and possibly die in order to escape it.
From August 13, 1961 until November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall was a stark reminder of the division between the free west and the communist-enslaved east. Before the Berlin Wall was erected, 3.5 million East Germans managed to cross the border between East and West Berlin. After 1961, there were few successful attempts to cross by low flying aircraft, running through the barbed wire, hidden in cars, and other unconventional means. But many were shot and died trying to escape. The Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam gives the official figure of those who died trying to flee to freedom at 138, from an infant to an 80-year old woman, but researchers at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum estimate the death toll to be significantly higher.
Albani hid his wife inside the modified rear bench. He created a slight space; the floor went down two inches in the Citroen DS by cutting the springs much shorter, taking the cover and reversing it. The space was far from comfortable; it was a fetal position inside the bench. He sized the space by using his friend who knew what he was going to do.
To throw off the sniffing dogs at the border, he used a spray repellant for animals. “Maybe it was Tiger Balm,” he joked.
While in Paris, Albani toyed with the idea of a phony passport for himself and his wife but it was very difficult to alter a French passport. The pictures had small rivets on which Republique française was written in very small font, and you needed a microscope to see them. Counterfeiting such a passport was impossible. A very good friend, a Moroccan Jew with a lot of dark and curly hair like him offered his passport. “But I don’t look like you. But I don’t look like myself either.” He showed Albani his passport. This man was 22 years old and Albani was 28. The saving grace was that the passport had been issued when he was 14 and he did not look like himself either.
“You don’t have to change the picture! Look at all the countries I went through with this passport.” Indeed, there were 45 visas, from Iran, to Nepal, to France, Sweden, to Germany. “Nobody stopped me; I went all over the world.” And he did, he had lots of entry stamps. The French passport was good for 16 years, until the age of 30. Albani took his passport.
After posting an ad on a college campus that he was going to Romania with his best friend, a really good driver, and had two seats available in the car, three guys called and asked how Romania was, they wanted to go. It was fashionable to hitchhike. “I chose my married friend who had a week old baby. He risked his life to come with me to get my wife. The other three guys had no idea what we were going to do.”
To make the trip even more dangerous, Albani foolishly bought a BB gun, a high speed, high precision target practice gun as a gift for his sister and put it in his luggage.
It was still dark when they left at 4 a.m. in a completely modified Citroen DS. Their intended route was through Germany, Austria, Hungary, and then Romania. They were driving through Paris, in a roundabout, had just entered it, when two gendarmes, very tough guys, on motorcycles with machine guns on their backs, cut them off, almost hitting a wall. The other cop drove and stopped by the driver’s side and put a gun to his head, literally touching it. They spread eagle the rest of us on the car and on the nearby wall. More gendarmes arrived for backup. They checked the luggage and I.D.
Apologizing for inconveniencing them, the gendarmes explained that four hippie looking guys had broken into a bank 20 minutes earlier and killed the guard. They were looking for those culprits who were armed with machine guns.
“They let us go, very apologetic, you can make a complaint, but someone was killed, and they were driving the same red Citroen DS like you. When they stopped us, I almost peed in my pants. The whole time, I was thinking about my sister’s BB gun, my modified car, and I just knew we would wind up in jail. My French friend did not know I had the BB gun, I told him later, he said I was crazy. It looked like a real gun.”
Getting closer to the German border, with his friend driving like a maniac, 100 mph, rotating lights appeared in the rear view mirror and they had to stop. But the poor cop on the motorcycle did not see the blocked isle for a bus stop and he hit the concrete side and spun wildly all over the road but recovered. Visibly shaken, he asked for IDs.
The passengers were scared that he was going to arrest them for driving so fast. But he told them to slow down and let them go very graciously without a ticket.
The German border guards pored over Albani’s French passport but let him go. The stop at the Austrian border was short. But then they got to Hungary, a strict communist country. There was barbed wire everywhere, control towers, guns, lights; it was frightening, dozens and dozens of cops armed to their teeth.
In no time their luggage was spread in the grass, and everything was taken out of the car; they were looking for contraband, cassette recorders, western goods, Kent cigarettes, cosmetics, foreign currency. But they found nothing.
“We got to the Romanian border, guards were lazy, moving around very slowly, but checked the papers very carefully. We spoke only French. I was in the car, inching our way in line. A cop, military guy, with a gun from 1916, probably our age or younger, was looking at our smart car, never saw a Citroen before. He checked the car out; I opened the hood, the trunk, etc. He tested the seats, but the springs in the rear benches were much shorter which made the bench quite stiff. Why is the back bench so hard, he asked?”
He pulled the bench; they were in such a rush to leave, Albani forgot to bolt the bench back in place. He pulled the bench and saw the cover, some dirt, glue, straw, a penny; all set up to look like a bench would look. He could have pulled the cover easily and revealed the hidden space, but, once again, they got lucky, he never did.
On the way to Cluj, they stopped in a village to eat Romanian meat balls called “mititei.” It was Sunday, everyone was out drinking, the smell of grilling meat was overpowering; a guy came by and, in his drunken stupor, called them bastard capitalists and threw a rock through the rear door window and shattered it.
The local policeman was horrified and forced him to pay for the window. The cop was very apologetic to the foreign visitors. The poor drunk looked like he could hardly afford to pay for his booze much less replace the broken window. They declined and left in a hurry.
They replaced the window with a piece of plastic which took a really long time to find in the miserable “socialist paradise,” where it was hard to even find a piece of plastic on the black market at ten times the price.
The trio found two girls infatuated with “foreigners” and they offered them free overnight accommodations in their homes; if caught, this generous offer would have landed them all in jail. They visited the old city and churches in Cluj and then went to Feleac. They had to cross a ditch, Albani asked the driver to raise the hydraulic suspension of the Citroen in order to avoid being stuck but he declined. He was sure the Citroen could handle it. Once in the ditch, the cap of the low-hanging gas tank sheared off and the gas drained everywhere.
The girls helped push the car onto the highway, but the gas tank was now empty. “We could not fix it, what do you do, go to a garage and say, hey, I have a modified compartment with a gas tank hanging too low, would you fix our sheared gas cap? You have a gas tank under the driver’s seat? Boom.”
They went into the city, knowing that copper pipe was impossible to find. At that time, nothing could be found in Romania unless it was bought on the black market. But Albani bought two plastic tanks in a warehouse by bribing one worker willing to sell it to him.
“I had to become Romanian again because you could not wheel and deal in a warehouse as a foreigner.” To appear Romanian, he had to cut his hippie hair into a “fashionable” crew cut and ditch the western clothes because they were too easily identifiable, the quality was “too good.”
It was illegal in Romania at the time to have long hair. If the police caught you, they shaved your head. An actor was trapped once in a daily occurring raid in Bucharest; he was playing a hippie role in a movie and needed long hair for the duration of filming. Cops shaved his head and he had to finish the movie with a wig.
Accidentally pulling out foreign money out of his pocket instead of Romanian lei, Albani explained to the barber that he had just returned from Germany and that’s why he had French francs. For owning foreign currency, Albani could have gotten a year in jail, it was the minimum punishment. Again, luck was on his side. Barbers and hairdressers were information collectors for the secret police, they were compensated informants and everyone knew that. He paid quickly and disappeared.
“I had a capped canister of 10 gallons of fuel in the car and that is how we drove all the way to Paris. I found a small tank of two quarts to put it in the engine compartment when crossing the border. It was red, so I had to find black paint. Black paint was not available but I did find some tar for roofs and made the small tank black. We left, it was raining heavily and we had a broken window in the back. Nearing Bucharest, a green secret police jeep followed us, passed us, looked inside, we had French plates, we were driving by the book, we found them two miles later stopped on the right. It happened three times. Later we realized they were picking up hitchhikers from various villages and dropping them off to make extra money and to get a bag of potatoes, onions, or a live chicken.” It was still cheaper to travel this way instead of taking the rickety state bus.
They made it to Bucharest too early in the day and could not find his wife. They drove twice around Bucharest to kill some time and then stopped in a coffee shop. Seated next to them was a former colleague from IPROMET with a good memory of faces. “Albani, I thought you defected to France a year ago.” He pretended to be the Frenchmen he impersonated while his heart was beating hard and beads of sweat were forming on his brow.
Finally, it was dark enough and drove to Marin’s apartment who was to bring his wife to him. Instead of Marin opening the door, an older acquaintance, a full bird colonel in the Secret Police invited them in. Albani froze.
“Come in, have a drink, what are you doing here, why did you come back? He knew everything. I went to college; I came back because I did not like France. I gave him a snow job. I thought momentarily, when survival instinct kicked in, about hitting him on the head with a heavy seltzer bottle nearby.”
When Marin returned, Albani found out that this colonel had been kicked out of his apartment by his estranged wife. He was a very good rugby player from a team that was sponsored by the Secret Police. The biggest rivalry at the time was between the railroad workers union, the secret police, and the military. Each sponsored a team and conferred high ranks on the best players. “As it turned out, he was not a squealer, he was one of us. He never talked. One year later he died in a car accident. It was pretty sad.”
Marin left to pick up Albani’s wife. She was living in a building that was adjacent to the Secret Police headquarters that was guarding the president. You cannot make this stuff up. The villa had all the communication equipment and, in summer time when the windows were open, you could hear all the radio police chatter.
Fate intervened again – his wife was not home. She knew Albani was coming but was in Brasov with her sick mother. He had sent her a note on thin paper placed inside a pen with General De Gaulle’s picture on it. He had called and emphasized the word “general” several times. She eventually understood and read the note inside the pen. Henri, his French driver friend, and Marin went to Brasov and told her to take a few things, and, when the car stopped at the curb, to jump in. They drove back to Bucharest and left for Paris.
Choosing the Yugoslavia, Italy, and France route, they stopped at the border with Yugoslavia and had to cross a ditch filled with a chemical to prevent mad cow disease. Luckily, the ditch was only 2-3 inches deep and did not plug up the breathing hole of the compartment where his wife was hiding. But the chemical fumes were terrible. Maybe Albani’s animal spray deterrent worked or the dogs smelled the chemical in the ditch, they did not react when sniffing the Citroen’s back bench.
At border crossings, there were only two passengers in the car, Henri and Albani. The third Frenchman stayed in Romania for more sightseeing. Driving through each country, Albani’s wife would come out of her hiding.
“I went inside to have the passports stamped and some guy told me in Romanian, even though I had French documents and was dressed in western clothes, driving a Citroen DS, didn’t you pass by one year ago, which was true. I did not react. He said again, looking sideways, you passed by here a year ago. Again, I did not react. He stamped the passport and we left.”
Between Romania and Yugoslavia, there was no sign telling them how far they were from the border and at some point, the border suddenly appeared, two blocks away. And his wife was sitting in the car, no passport, no nothing. So they pulled into a field of corn, put her in and crossed the border.
The road eventually ended into a Yugoslavian checkpoint in the mountains, they could not even turn around. They stopped in the small parking lot to put his wife in again. They opened both back doors and acted like he was cleaning the car of trash. Henri went in to buy some candy. There was no time to be scared. As they inched toward the border, the car started sputtering and died.
It was the crossing point down to Trieste. The guards were nice, pulled back the car and promised to fix it. “Don’t worry, you don’t have parts here. The road is going down. It’s a spark plug. They pushed the car onto the Italian side, into the parking lot in Italy, and checked our papers. I took my wife out of the hiding spot later. Apparently, I had forgotten to reconnect the two tanks, the fake and the real one.”
She almost died in the Mont Blanc tunnel; they did not know how long it was and that they had to drive through it for 40 minutes.
“It was night time, the ventilation was not good, the border was right before the tunnel and I could not stop and take her out, so she stayed in for the entire Mont Blanc tunnel. When she came out, she was coughing and choking.”
In France they were all in the car, Henri was driving like a maniac, the car was not insured, as if it mattered at this point. They had insured the car by phone for two days only and were not sure if it was still valid. Stopped for speeding, they had to explain why his wife had a Romanian I.D. card.
Sent to the Paris prefecture to declare her, the police took them to the Secret Police and they just knew that they would be arrested and fined. Instead, the policemen laughed heartily. “We just knew our border guards were stupid, anybody can come through, and they have no idea what they are doing. They can’t catch anybody even if they import a tank.” Asked if she was persecuted in Romania, and after answering yes, the secret police issued her papers to stay in France.
So she made it to Paris and to the free world with a lot of luck and God’s providence. But, they did not live happily ever after – they were married “ten years minus three hours,” as Albani likes to say. They immigrated across the ocean to the land of the free where they both still reside today.
Copyright: ILEANA JOHNSON 2016