For a son of immigrants who has realized the American dream and won appointment as a U.S. district judge, a trip to Romania this summer was the perfect capstone. Judge David Sam, whose family name Sirb was changed by his father to Sam for `Uncle Sam,' was invited by the U.S. State Department to accompany five other judges to Romania during the month of August.
In an effort to assist the Romanian government in their transition from communism to democracy, the American delegation met with Romanian judges, supreme court justices and attorneys to explain how strongly Americans feel about an independent judiciary, the rule of law, and the protection of human dignity and human rights.Sam was impressed with the sincerity of the Romanians and convinced that "they will not return to the old system even if they have to shed blood and resort to revolution. Romanian judges and lawyers have the same concerns that we do, that justice prevails and that evil and wrong do not take over the control of the system. When Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he outlined truths that are eternal for human beings everywhere - things that are not given to men by governments, but they are born with those rights."
In Sam's opinion, "the Romanian people believe deeply in those things." He was also moved by "the beauty of Romania and the pride they have in their history, and with their oppression from the Nazis and the communists. I was impressed with their joy of living and their humor."
After several days, Judge Sam and his wife, Betty, were allowed to leave the delegation to travel to the village of his parents' birth, a distance of 170 miles - from Sibiu to Beliu in Western Romania near the Hungarian border. It was a whirlwind trip. They arrived in Beliu at about 1 p.m. and had only three hours to accomplish their purpose.
With the help of a Romanian attorney who accompanied them, they talked to villagers and showed them some pictures of Sam's mother and father. In a matter of minutes, one gentleman said he recognized the pictures and took them to the peasant home of Teodor Sirb, Sam's cousin, where they found Sirb working in the field with his wife and children.
A neighbor came over with the intention of proving to Sam and his wife that they were indeed in the right house. "He pulled out a picture of my mother and my brother John standing by a cow. He said that his father and my father were boyhood friends and my father had mailed this picture to his father in the 1920s."
Sam's father had left the village in 1914 and immigrated to Gary, Ind., to work in the mills. He escaped with money stitched into his collar and hidden in his boots. When he made it to the United States, he sent for his pregnant wife. As a teenager, Sam asked his father how he could leave his 19-year-old sweetheart.
"I've never forgotten his response. He said that was one of their easier decisions. `Because we left Romania we could have 11 children and give you life and birth. But one thing we could never give you is what is more important than life - and that's freedom.' "
In 1947 his father discovered that his younger brother was still alive in Beliu and had a 1-year-old son. They tried to get them to emigrate, but before they could complete the arrangements the brother died of a heart attack.
That 1-year-old son is now 45-year-old Teodor Sirb, Sam's cousin and only living Sirb relative. When Sirb came into the house, they had an emotional meeting. "He grabbed me and kissed me on my cheeks and forehead and nose. He wept and I couldn't withhold my emotions. I asked him where my father was born. With tears in his eyes he pointed down and said, `right here - my home was built on the site of his old home.' I asked him where my mother was born, and he said, `across the street, face to face.'
"My parents were born on the same day, the same month, the same year, thesame village - and I used to tell the story that they grew up across the street from each other - but I thought I had better say down the street from each other. So now I can say without any reservation that Mom and Dad were born across the street, face to face, by the authority of Teodor Sirb."
Sirb's wife, "a beautiful Romanian lady" who reminded Sam of his mother, said that they had been praying for years that her husband's relatives in America would come and "today you've come!" They took off their shoes and ushered them into a tiny "special room" where they had a meal together. "They had sheep's cheese, a delicacy in Romania and pork rinds. They brought sliced tomatoes and a platter of bread. My cousin said with a smile on his face, `The bread is much better now that the communists are gone.' They brought out what I would call `sheepherder's stew' like the stew I remember in Duschesne. It was a characteristic peasant dish and it was delicious. We had such a special time I just can't tell you. It was just overwhelming - the love we felt."
When they talked about the possibility of Sirb and his family coming to America, Sirb said that at his age it would be difficult for him to leave his people. "He paused and turned to his tall, erect, handsome 16-year-old son and said with tears in his eyes, `Maybe my son. Maybe my son come to America.' And I thought if we could do something to bring him over it would be such a thrill."
After the meal, the Sams and their interpreter took emotional leave to rejoin the other judges in Bucharest. Sam had the feeling that many of the judges were "still somewhat suspicious of their new leaders who were former communists and wondered if the secret police patterned after the KGB might still be active."
But Judge Sam left Romania thinking that there is going to be wholesale change because most of the members of the judiciary favor it. When he said goodbye to the Romanian judges, they expressed affection not unlike that he had felt from his cousin.
"One of them put his hand on my face and put his face next to my face. They were so grateful that we were there. Their genuine love for America and for Americans was very touching. It was like a miracle experience."
In spite of the success of the trip, Sam, who was a judge in the 4th District for nine years before his appointment to the federal bench in 1985 by President Reagan, had apprehensions about going to do something so important with such distinguished colleagues.
"If my wife hadn't been with me when we got to Washington and were briefed by the State Department, I think I would have found some excuse to turn around and come back. I felt so inadequate. But I'm so grateful now for the experience. Every day was great - it was marvelous!"
After visiting Romania, Sam is even more sentimental about his heritage. When he talks about it there is a catch in his throat. "Romanians are a handsome, beautiful people with a great, humble, loving spirit. I'm just so grateful that my mother and father did what they did. I'll never, worlds without end, be able to repay that. I just wish that my father could have lived to know that a president of the United States called his son on the phone and invited him to be a judge. This has got to be the great United States of America for me!"