From Romania to Minnesota: A history

A typical Romanian family at the turn of the 20th century, in traditional dress. Immigrants made their mark in northern Dakota County, where cultural traditions and foods are still enjoyed. (submitted photo)

Vicki Albu's curiosity about her antecedents expanded into a collection of oral histories and a film on Romanian migration to the Twin Cities. John Sarafolean, 80, was among those interviewed and filmed. Albu is behind the camera. (submitted photo)

Local resident completes documentary, taps into heritage

A community-wide quest to learn more about Romanian immigrant culture started about 20 years ago, when Vicki Albu decided to learn more about her heritage.

But she knew she'd have to go further afield than her own family's scrapbooks and stories.

"My father came from Romania in 1911 and lived in South St. Paul, but he died before I was born, so I have always wondered about this mysterious character," she explains. "So, I thought if I could find out information about him, I could also look into other families in the area."

Thanks to a combined $17,000 from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, along with individual and group donations, it became possible for an oral history to be put together about the migration from Romania into the Twin Cities, mostly between 1900 and 1940.

The film, narrated by TV's Don Shelby, premiered at the Dakota County Historical Society Saturday, Sept. 27.

Drawn to area

There were hundreds of Romanian immigrants in the early 1900s who were drawn to the area, but many who made the trip have since died.

Even so, there were enough people with memories of the experience that filmmakers were able to record hours of interviews. Many were with the children of the immigrants, who've kept their parents' stories alive.

"Most of the original immigrants, with rare exceptions, have already passed away, but we tried to identify people with connections to those early families that we could talk to," Albu says. "Eventually, it turned into an idea that we do these interviews on camera to do a movie about it."

Even after the oral history idea took off, Albu didn't plan on this set of video interviews to turn into a piece of this magnitude, with a premiere and a local celebrity serving a role in the process. 

"With Don Shelby narrating the film, with hundreds of people at the film premiere, I never expected for it to get this big," she said. "It kind of started out with informal interviews with people and scanning photographs. Then it turned into a much bigger project."

Food, faith and music

One obstacle Albu faced along the way was convincing people not only to sit down for interviews, but to do so on camera.

One of her interview subjects, 80-year-old John Sarafolean of Inver Grove Heights, said he was happy to sit down and talk with Albu, though he didn't know what to expect as a finished product.

"I wasn't nervous," he says, adding "I don't think I made a fool out of myself!"

He was also surprised at the scope and presentation of the film.

"I thought it was just going to be an interview to be shown on community television, to show to a local audience. So, I was pleased that it turned into something of this elegance."

He also found it fulfilling to have the accounts of those he grew up with recorded for the future.

"I went with what my memories are," he says. "I told her about the people I knew growing up, and what they told me about coming here. I think it's going to be a very nice production, and people are really going to like it."

Like Sarafolean, other residents recalled specific stories about their families and friends, but Albu heard repeated themes throughout the filming process.

"Everyone lit up when we talked about food and tradition," she recalls.

On the other hand, she heard definite, but conflicting responses when she asked people if they'd want to go back to Romania. Some gave her a solid "Never!" while others had always longed for their homeland.

"But food, church and music was kind of the thing that everyone agreed on."

Helping hand from community

While the documentary was mainly put together through the work of volunteers, technology and materials still cost more than they expected. Despite the $7,000 grant from Minnesota's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to conduct the interviews, and the $10,000 grant from the same group to turn those interviews into a movie, Albu said that individuals, organizations and groups who came through with smaller donations were the reason the project could get made in full.

While she couldn't give an exact number as to the cost of the film, she said it was "a great deal more expensive" than the amount she received from the grants.

Copies of the film on DVD or Blu-Ray are available at the web page. The film will also be shown on Northern Dakota County community cable TV in October, on a schedule to be determined.

You can reach Tim Faklis at 651-748-7814, at, or on Twitter @tfaklisnews.


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