Special to the Mountain News
by Lu André
From his collection: Life Stories – For Mind and Soul
The Spy Who Never Was
It was a dark, almost medieval time for Bulgaria back in the 1950s and 1960s. For less than half a century, the communist craze managed to bring down a thriving agricultural country, which had provided top-notch produce all over Europe, to industrial disaster just to please their so-called “Big Brother”—the Soviet Union—in their military madness. In their efforts to secure the “ruling of the people,” the Communists transformed peace- loving people into humans afraid of their shadow. Many who rebelled against the oppression, and many who didn’t but were “on the wrong side of the fence,” lost their lives. The “lucky ones” ended up in concentration camps or in prison. Many others led a miserable life for years. Of course, I am not talking here about the communists themselves. They enjoyed the power they had, to do whatever they wanted and have a great life. How do I know all this? Because I lived there during those times.
My grandfather owned and operated a large “nut and bolt” factory. When the communists took over the country, they considered him a capitalist, confiscated the factory and threw him in jail. Luckily for him, the communist group working in his factory, whom he treated equally to the others, loved him and saved him from being killed. All of his possessions were also confiscated and he and his family were exiled to a small town in the mountains. I was only two-years old then. Shortly thereafter, my father, who had owned several bakeries, was sent to prison for being a so-called capitalist. A year later, my youngest uncle was sent to a concentration camp with a death sentence, accused of spying for the Americans, which he did not do. He endured the camp for almost five years, before a very rich friend of his from Turkey managed to buy his freedom.
I could tell many hair-raising stories, however that is not the object of this typing. It is about me. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the communist regime eased up. There were still long lines for common necessities and food, although we could breathe a bit easier. For example, bananas would be imported only once a year—just before New Year. The people stood in mile-long lines to buy them. My brother-in-law was responsible for banana import and distribution. He would give me three coupons and I’d go to three different stores to get a box from each one. Then I would divide up the bananas to friends and family members. This is a sample of the small breaks we would get from the regime. Through good friends and “connections” one could get by a little bit better. Such things were impossible in the earlier years.
One day my ex-wife and I met an old schoolmate of hers, Theodor, and his wife. He had become a captain in the militia. My, ex, Rossi, had lived next door to him and they had been good friends before they lost touch with each other. We all seemed to get along, and for the next few months we attended several events together. We even had dinner at their place. We had fun, so I invited them for dinner the following week at our place.
Saturday morning, Theodor called me and asked if I had done my shopping for the dinner. I hadn’t. He said ’he’d be there in an hour and we could go shopping together because he knew what his wife liked. It was fine with me, less stress having to figure out what to buy.
We went to the grocer’s first. Instead of going to the front door, he took me to the back door. The fellow there knew him. Theo picked out some really nice produce, which I had never seen for sale “out in front.” Then we went to the beer store, and the same thing—we went to the back door and got some imported beer, not available to the “regular people,” who were only allowed to buy local beer. The ritual repeated at the meat store, and we ended up with cuts of meat I had never seen before. I was not surprised much at the whole thing because I knew higher-ranked communists had special privileges. What surprised me though was the quantity of this “unseen stock.” Theo could have bought high quality food for a whole army. Anyway, our dinner was a success and everyone was happy. Two days later, Theo called and asked if he could come talk to me. “Of course,” I told him to come on over.
He showed up wearing his full captain’s uniform, along with another militia man with the rank of lieutenant. My ex-wife was not home at the time.
Theodor started by telling me about my “black record” file. He said that they knew all about me. Then he asked if I remembered how much fun we had shopping together and how easy it was to get everything. He said he would propose something that, if I agreed to do it, my file would be wiped clean. I would be allowed to travel abroad, allowed to get all the things I wanted, and so on and so on—the perfect life. All I needed to do to gain these privileges was to spy on my neighbors around me. Well, he actually didn’t say the word “spy.” He wanted me to just remember what they talked about, to pay attention to who was coming and going from their homes, and things like that. Then I was to report such things to the lieutenant. He said, “just think how your life will change. You will become a free man, an important man and, if you do the job well, the possibilities are endless.”
I was stunned—I felt like I was sinking while at the same time someone was choking me. I have always thought I had good control over my facial expressions so I was able to act cool. Even though thoughts of “what ifs” were swirling around in my head like a whirlpool, I managed to tell him that I understood everything and that I completely agreed with what he was saying. I needed to buy some time to think. The only thing I could think of, other than to directly refuse him, was to say that Rossi wasn’t here to hear everything. Since she would be indirectly involved and benefit from everything, I needed to discuss it with her. He felt she didn’t need to know all this, but I firmly insisted that I had to talk to her about it because I didn’t want her to start asking questions that I couldn’t answer honestly.
Not giving him a direct answer was in itself very risky because, basically, I had refused him. In situations like this, you just say “Yes, Sir!” to save your life. With just a snap of his fingers, he could have put me in jail or sent me to prison for a very long time. Since the lieutenant was there too, my refusal could have had some ill effect on Theo’s career too, if the lieutenant decided to tell on him. I believe that what made it okay for the moment was that Theodor knew how very close Rossi and I were since he was her friend too. Theodor told me to think it over and let him know the next day. I said I’d do that.
My head was spinning. I think this may have been the most dangerous day in my life. Refusing an offer like this could have resulted in my being thrown in prison for treason. The communists certainly would not want me to go around spreading the news that they were officially spying on people and that I got away with refusing to do that. Other people could start refusing too. Putting me in prison would take me out of the picture.
When Rossi came home I was still at a loss of what to do. I was racking my brain about what to say and how to refuse “officially.” To my surprise, she didn’t panic as much as I thought she would. She knew I wouldn’t accept his offer. Yes, I could have informed them on who from my building, my friends and colleagues were talking against the government, against the regime, and against certain communists. But that meant I would have to go against everything I believed in. I could not allow myself to spy on my friends and neighbors in exchange for anything. Rossi said, “you call him and tell him you cannot do it. Then we will wait and see what the repercussions will be.” As simple as that!
Do I have to tell you that I didn’t sleep much that night. The more I thought about it, the more I knew my decision was the right one. The consequences did not matter. I could not ditch who I was to serve the communists in order to obtain some better food, drinks and whatever else. Period!
I called Theo the next day, thanked him for the offer, and told him I understood all of the possibilities, all of the benefits, and that even though I could commit to it, I wasn’t that type of person. He listened without a word and then in a cold voice said, “Well, it is your decision!”
That was it! I did it! It took a big boulder off my shoulder with just one click of the phone. OK, not exactly. It took us months and months of waiting for something to happen. We didn’t see or hear anything from Theo or his wife and there weren’t any repercussions from the militia either.
About half a year later, I bumped into Theo on the street. He had the rank of Major then, but he didn’t look good. There was no way to avoid each other, so we talked for awhile. His wife had gotten cancer about five months earlier and had recently died. He had tried to bury himself in his work and it didn’t help. He told me to stick to my wife and enjoy each other while we can. After we parted, I reflected on the timing of his wife’s sickness and death. This, and the fact that he had been good friends with Rossi, may have saved me from being persecuted. He may actually have redeemed me!
In my mind, I thanked him and wished him well! He was a good man on the wrong path. At some point in his life he had made a choice. Like some, he chose one Universe with its laws over another. In his new Universe, he had to deal with taking advantage of, spying, disrespect, and torture, etc. I was a good man on the right path. I had chosen another Universe. In my Universe, people respected, honored and loved one another. Yes, I did encounter obstacles, rough times and hardships.
The road each one takes in life is like driving. We decide which road to take to the highway. With the right choices, we get green lights. Yes, we may occasionally get stopped by a red light. This is the time to ponder our choices and actions; it is time for comparing and evaluating the so-called “good vs. bad”— it is a time for growth.
We all choose which way to go—no exceptions and, therefore, no excuses or blaming others! I am very glad I did not sacrifice my integrity back then for mundane things.