Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Europe Diary - Communist Romania

The remaining evidence of a communist nation.  Apartments built by Ceaușescu during the 80's when he forced peasants out of their farms and into government created housing.  In the capitol city, he demolished historic housing units, making people sign over their homes to be leveled.  Apartment units were constructed in their place.   Every family had a government provided place to live back then.  If you had one child you were given an extra bedroom, two children of different sexes and you were given another, the bigger the family the bigger the apartment.  Birth control and abortion was outlawed, and families were encouraged to grow the nation as a duty.  However the food rationing and dire conditions of living discouraged many woman from going full term with their pregnancies and many had illegal underground abortions.  My great aunt had two children and eight abortions.  There is a 2007 Romanian film about this if you are interested called 4 Months, 3 weeks, and 2 days that won a Cannes Film Festival award.

Communism began turning sour in Romania in the 1980s, after the government took out huge IMF loan to payback debt.  Ceaușescu had attempted to make Romania an industrial powerhouse and built huge factories with capacity production higher than local and international demand.  After an oil deal with with Iran fell through following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Romania needed a loan to pay off its international debt.  Romanians are hard workers, with a great deal of pride, and the government set a plan to pay back the loan as quickly as possible.  Unlike some of the EU countries now-a-days that are deferring on their debt in the face of economic crisis, the Romanian government stuck austerity measures unimaginable by European standards today.   This led to an era of blanketed poverty.  Babies died in neonatal units during power outages, people spent the night in in grocery lines to receive their food rations, and the government rewrote the food pyramid to reduce caloric intake and make the populace vegetarian.  You needed written permission to slaughter a pig.  It was totally crazy, but Romania paid off the debt on track.

My family (mom, uncle, grandfather and grandmother) left in 1969, well before the crisis began, but I guess my grandfather, Tata, recognized the danger ahead.  He was born in 1915 in the USA when his parents had spent many years working at a tobacco factory rolling cigarettes.  They had 5 pregnancies during that time, but only 2 of the children survived, the other died of small pox very young (like under 6 years old).  Tata tried using his dual US/Romanian citizenship to get out of the county.  For six years he lobbied and was put in jail, tracked by the special police, and basically on a shit list at a time when communism was actually pretty popular.  

In 1968 Romania stuck out from other countries in the Eastern Bloc due to Ceaușescu's defiant reaction to the Soviet Warsaw Pack invasion of Czechoslovakia.   Ceaușescu put Romania under the radar as beacon of rationality peaking from behind the iron curtain.  His actions drew the attention of America, and in August of 1969, President Nixon made a trip to visit the country and initiate trade between the USA and Romania, identifying Romania as a Most Favored Nation (MFN).  

In a July1969 State Department memo from the Chairman of National Security to Nixon, advising on improving relations with Romania, there is mention of my family, "Another important US concern, although not of an economic nature, is to help dual national and other in Romania eligible for emigration to the United States to leave Romania.  Despite Romanian pledges, progress has been slow.  Only some 100 of approximately 2,500 individual cases have been favorably resolved.  You might wish to couple an offer of MFN with the recommendation that Romania act to release these individuals, indicating that such action would increase Congressional receptivity."

My mom said that Romania ended up releasing over a 1000 families following Nixon's visit.  They left with no documents, no money, no idea how to speak a word of English.  They were not allowed to tell anyone, even relatives, they were leaving.  So these families basically just disappeared one day.  They were given notice in August, and in October they got on the plane, knowing they would possibly and probably never see anyone from their life there ever again. Tata was 55 at the time.  Can you imagine starting a whole new life at that age?   He had no intention of becoming successful or even learning English, he just wanted his kids to have a chance at a better future than what he believed Romania could offer.  A year later his mom, my great grandmother who had worked in the US cigarette factory died in Romania,  she had desperately wanted to visit, but wasn't allowed to leave.

 On the plane my grandmother sat next to the wife of the then VP of BMW, she had traveled to Romania to try to (unsuccessfully) buy her family out of the country.  She gave my grandmother $50, and that's what they started with.  That and some clothes are all they had when they landed on US soil.

A woman from the Trenton Catholic Church met them at the airport in New Jersey.  She helped them rent an apartment and find a job working at a factory.  I'm pretty sure that Tata was one of those, "I used to walk a mile in the snow with holes in my shoes." kind of guys.  

My mom was 17 when they came to the US and school in the states was so different than in Communist Romania.  There kids were perfectly behaved, obedient, submissive, and expected to maintain an educational standard much higher than in the US.  Teachers beat on desks with sticks to scare students into giving answers, and parents bribed teachers with chickens, money, and favors.  Her mom was a teacher and so some of the other teachers in her school knew they were leaving to the US.

A resentful teacher told her, "You think dogs walk around with pretzels for tails and money grows on trees there?"  

"No, I don't know what its like, I'm just going because my parents are going."  She responded.

Her favorite math teacher gave his blessing, "I have family in Germany and I would leave too if I could.  You are going to do great things there."

Math was her favorite subject, and when she met with the principle at her new school in Trenton she begged to take a math class.  Although she didn't know English, a Romanian priest from the local church came with her and translated.  The principle said that girls take Home Ec.  

"What's Home Ec?" she was confused.  

"It's cooking."  He stated definitively.

"I am good at math, can I take a math class?" she insisted.

He agreed to let her try Algebra and on the first day she started the class was having a test.  The teacher told her that she didn't need to take it since she hadn't studied the material.  But she asked to take it.  In 7 minutes she was the first one to finish the 40 questions and handed it in 100% correct.  It was easy x + 1 = 5 kind of stuff and she could have done it with her eyes closed.  The teacher said, "You could teach this class."

"No, I don't need to take this class." she replied.  

He then persuaded the principle to move her into Trig, and eventually into Calculus.  There were 2 other girls and 4 boys in that calculus class, even though -according to the principle- "Girls don't take math, they take Home Ec."

The dictatorship of Ceaușescu's communist leadership ended on Christmas 1989.  The Berlin wall fell in November, and while leaders from other countries in the Eastern Bloc were bowing out of power in the face of public disapproval, Ceaușescu insisted on keeping rule over his "children."  

A pastor from the western city of Timișoara had been criticizing the government during themes in his sermons. On Dec 21st the government ordered a bishop from the church to remove and evict him on grounds of inciting ethnic hatred.  Parishioners and students from the local university gathered around his house to protect him from eviction.   This eventually escalated to riots in the city, people taking over the National Communist Party headquarters, throwing communist documents out the windows and trying to burn it down.  The city police and special police couldn't stop the rioting.  Eventually the military moved in and turned the city into a war zone.  Two days of dispute in Timișoara killing 80 - mostly students.  

The government controlled media censored the event.  Word of the riots traveled by mouth across the country side, and although only 80 people had been killed, the rumors told of thousands.  A couple cold days later Ceaușescu finally addressed the rumors by radio, stating they were "interference of foreign forces in Romania's internal affairs" and an "external aggression on Romania's sovereignty."

The banner of decent became the Romanian flag with the socialist emblem cut out of the center.  We still see the flag flying in front of the town hall in my mom's home city of Arad.  Arad is only a half hour away from Timișoara, and became another hot spot for fighting in the days of the revolution.  My cousin was in 4th grade at the time and says it was a really scary couple days where they hid in their house, hearing the police firing on the people in the streets.  

Some bullet holes remain on the beautiful edifice of the town hall building.

 Twenty-four years later fresh flowers still adorn the memorial for the protesters killed during the revolution.  The pictures of each man surrounding the obelisk.

A grave site at the city cemetery dedicated to those men killed during protests.  When we walked by, and I asked what the special grave was, my great aunt only said, "The Heroes."  

 In just four days following the riots at Timișoara, Ceaușescu and his wife were killed by firing squad.  The police eventually turned to the side of the people, and started waving the flag with the hole in the center.  Ceaușescu's cabinet staged a cue.  First they advised him to take a helicopter ride out of the capitol where the pilot tricked him into landing, bouncing the copter up and down and saying it was coming under anti-aircraft fire.  After landing, Ceaușescu and his wife hijacked a car.   The petrified driver mislead them into stopping to hide at the building where he worked.  There the driver contacted the police, who took Ceaușescu and his wife in armored vehicles to a spot where they had a quick two hour trial.  He was charged with genocide, subversion, destruction of public property, undermining the national economy, and trying to flee the country.  The judge was wearing a sweater and a pair of jeans, and even the lawyers appointed for Ceaușescu's defense argued for the death penalty without appeal.

The firing squad executed him and his flailing wife on the spot.  They say for every bullet Ceaușescu took, his wife took 10.  She was seen as the most vicious, as unsympathetic, and as personally responsible for advocating the policies that induced suffering of the people. 

Twenty four years later the country is aging.  Colorful, intricately decorated buildings crumble.  The evidence of a once - like a long time ago - booming city fades and withers.  The above buildings haven't been retouched in 80 years.

Historic, once luxurious apartments with stained glasses, wall paper and high ceilings; now the quiet community of mostly elderly owners.

We visited the old home of my mom's cousin.  She now lives in the US too and has for over 30 years.  My mom remembers them playing in this courtyard with the other neighborhood kids for hours each day.  Now dark, quiet, and falling apart.  

We saw a bunch of hopeful signs, like nice new restaurants, buildings just now starting to get renovated, and well dressed and happy young people.  The Christmas market smells of pastry and buttered corn, while kids ride around the square on scooters and tricycles.  Christmas was outlawed during communism.  

But what I unfortunately heard from people is that most want to leave, the new government is corrupt, you need connections to make any good money, and most of the country is still very poor.  And now without the controls around emigration and censorship, young people travel and easily know the amenities and first world opportunities elsewhere.  Many of them are leaving Romania.

But I found it so charming, I loved the simplicity of the towns in the countryside, the kindness and fun energy of the people, the delicious home cooked food, and so much more.  I really loved visiting Romania and told everyone.  

In high school a friend showed me a copy of the Communist Manifesto.  My mom was home and saw.  She immediately flipped out on him, "Get that book out of my house!  Out of my house!" And she chased him until he left it in his car.

At 17 my mom didn't know exactly why they were leaving Romania, and wouldn't have chosen to do so on her own.  Knowing what she knows now, she says with a steady gaze and almost a tear shimmering from her eyes, "I would kiss the ground Richard Nixon walks on."

She can give some examples of ways her life in Romania was superior to the US, especially gender equality at the time, woman held the same jobs as men all the way up the ladder.  But what bothers her most is that people weren't allowed to leave, weren't allowed to travel, visit family, or move somewhere else if they wanted.  Rules were decided by someone else, and seemed irrational, but if you broke them you could be jailed or killed.  

If you live in the US look back in your own history and I'm sure you'll find a story like this somewhere.  Anyone who lives in the country came from some kind of struggle.  If you have a lineage of immigrants, then they made a scary choice to leave what they knew behind with the hope of a better future for their children.

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