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Communist Ghosts

by Anonymous

I was born in Romania.

     For so many people, the word "Romania" brings to mind DRACULA, the dark mysterious vampire of Transylvania, or maybe the great gymnasts…  Others may think of the enforced uniformity of a country under communism prior to the democratic reforms following the ’89 revolution.  The horrific image of our leaders, executed by a firing squad may have, for some outsiders, been the first images of the anguish of the Romanian people, the injustices they suffered, to the point where assassinating their leaders appeared to be the only way they could begin to work toward freedom.

     Many have also heard of the gypsies, the legendary nomads, tinkers and traders…  And Americans have witnessed the images of Romania's orphans, broadcast on television documentaries. Half naked, these children were shown crowded into cold orphanages, hosed off by their caretakers, fighting each other for food, their round dark eyes prompting a wave of foreign adoptions. 

     Still, these images are so few when forming a picture of the true Romania.  The ethnic groups within Romania are as diverse as those in the United States.  Among these groups are German immigrants located in Banat. 

     My people arrived in the 18th century from Germany bringing with them agricultural skill and deep Catholic roots.  They came to cultivate the farmlands and built towns each with an impressive Catholic church rising up in its center. The Germans enjoyed their freedom to celebrate and maintain their cultural identity & religion freely until the end of World War II, when the ethnic Germans of Romania were declared collectively guilty of sympathizing with, and collaborating with Nazi Germany.

     By the time I was born (1957), the ethnic German population had lost their land, their homes, their businesses to nationalization as well as their freedom of religion and began, along with the other minorities, their struggle to survive against a new force: the Communist power.  

     Communism meant collective farming and industry.  Private household gardens still flourished, and quiet religious worship was tolerated.  Everyone would be officially equal; no particular group would be privileged.  The new regime spoke of the West, with evil Capitalism as its defining characteristic, as a land of decadence, obscenity, and disorder. 

     This is the world to which my father belonged: the world of the Communist Party.  It was a way to belong, a way to gain approval, a way to succeed, a way to leave the peasant life and its struggles behind.  Knowing it was the only way; he buried his culture and religious beliefs and flung himself into the party. 

     And the party wanted him, gobbled him up, and used him for all he was worth.  They knew that in order to gain the approval of the ethnic minorities, it was necessary to place a few of them in positions of power and he was a perfect candidate.  At home, we were subject to his emotional and physical abuse (outbursts and demands), and were always somewhat surprised when others would speak highly of him.  "Your father is such a good leader," they would tell me.  "You are very lucky to have such a smart man to guide you."  I would always agree.  My mother would agree.  My grandmother would agree. 

     It didn't take him long to move up and his loyalty and gratitude toward the party grew. 

     My father looked around and observed the lives of the men in the higher party positions.  At state dinners and ceremonies, their pretty, obedient young wives, quiet creatures, trained in proper behavior, most often flanked these men.  Always respectable women, from hardworking families, they added a degree of stability to their husbands' careers.  He must have reasoned that he needed the same element, if he was to continue on his way up. 

    In his search for the appropriate wife, he chose my mother. Shy, quiet she was overwhelmed when he proposed to her and she accepted.

     Their wedding was less than spectacular. It was performed at the village hall, with just the two of them present. There was no wedding dress, no cake, no photograph, and no reception.  After the ceremony, however, mother was able to persuade her husband to go to a church in the nearby city to have a priest bless their union… A few months later mother became pregnant while he continued his bachelor lifestyle… Well, you get the picture and I will not go into any details which people in the West are tired off from tabloids and talk shows in poor taste.   

Religious sacraments were taboo and so was my baptism.

     I was baptized after dark so nobody could see mother and her cousin rushing me to the church and I was baptized after St. Ottilia, the German Saint, but my parents chose a non-religious name. School taught atheism; it was the churches that offered religious education in their tiny sacristies. I was not enrolled instead mother secretly approached a local nun to teach me one of Transylvania’s important second languages: Hungarian. Religious services were held in both languages. Under the pretext of teaching me Hungarian - which we also did - she taught me Catechism and prepared me for my First Communion. While other girls wore white dresses on their important day, I went with Sister to church on an ordinary Sunday and her and I kneeled next to each other while I had my First Communion. My parents never witnessed this sacrament not did they see my Confirmation when again all girls were dressed in white lined up waiting for the Bishop to perform the sacrament. The Sister and I stood in the background and when my turn came I stepped forward and was confirmed – then the Sister took me by the hand and we rushed away… There is no recollection of religious rituals celebrated with my family. Religious Holidays were not celebrated. We had a winter tree and a Santa look-alike winter man who brought small gifts (toys and sweets) during the holiday season for the children to the parents’ work places. We had a winter-tree at home and I got gifts at Christmas. I remember being allowed to attend Christmas Eve Mass at midnight in our village while my parents stayed home and went to bed…No real traditions, hardly any memories…but what I felt was that God was calling me to his house and I started going to church before and after school, on Sundays and every occasions I looked for HIS guidance… 

Mother was alone in the hospital after giving birth to me struggling with the rejection of her husband, who didn’t come to see her or their new daughter. As I grew, mother became aware that My father had little interest in his daughter as he had hoped for a son.  Physical abuse began at a young age, despite the efforts of mother and grandmother to protect me. Due to the role of women in society they did not to even consider escape from their tormentors, despite domestic abuse and/or their knowledge of extra-marital affairs.  Words to describe the injustice and inequality were not even part of the vocabulary yet.

***

At age five I was being groomed and coached before attending a Christmas party given by my father’s company. After that night my father began to realize his daughter could become an asset for him in his political and social career. Welcoming the attention I found a way to gain my father’s approval: performing for those he was trying to impress. 

Meanwhile mother fell deeper into depression, compounded by her husband’s rejection.  At the same time, she willingly participated in the shaping of me as a social companion for her husband, a couple of foreign languages being of great importance as well as dancing lessons. My father continued to ascend the political and career ladder, but as he did, he became even more abusive at home – in today’s terms: we were victims of physical and emotional abuse and I witnessed the continued destruction of my mother. There was nobody to turn to – no person and/or institution who would give psychological, financial or religious support –all three women in our household knew we had to endure if we wanted to eat and have a roof over our head. He was our boss and there was nothing we could do without him and or his permission.             

When I was seven, My father moved the family from the village to the city, where we started to witness the effects of the hard-hitting economic crisis.  Store shelves stood empty, and a thriving black market developed… Mother and I secretly listened to Radio Free Europe and the liberating music from England and the United States, and I slowly began to question the Party policy… 

Growing into a teenager my mother interceded for the first time on my behalf and convinced My father that the beatings must stop, if anything, for the sake of his reputation and career. Grateful for my mother’s influence, I felt guilty for betraying her by aligning myself with my father.        

For his dedication and devotion to the party, My father was awarded the “Hero of Socialist Work” medal, and a substantial cash award.  With the money, he purchased a western car, and the family made its only trip ever together to Bucharest to pick up the car. While on the trip we made a stop at a tourist attraction, one of Romania’s famous monasteries steeped in legend and mystery based on the story of a mason who encases his wife in stone after experiencing a vision. I imagined My father as the villainous mason and my mother as the sacrifice, buried alive by her husband’s ambition and cruelty and I vowed to save mother from him. 

* It was winter of 1980 in Romania and I found myself growing more dissatisfied with the state of affairs and the suffering of the Romanian people.  To make things worse, mother discovered love letters from My father’ mistress in the discarded papers left in a spare bedroom.  Angered and hurt, My mother insisted that My father give up the apartment he kept for the mistress, and hand it over to me, who was then working as a schoolteacher. 

* Now out of favor with my father, I made plans to travel to Sofia/Bulgaria and gain passage to Turkey and political asylum at the West German Embassy.  Optimistic after hearing rumors that Romanian tourists can travel to Turkey without a passport if the ticket is purchased in Bulgarian currency, I made it to Sofia for a New Year’s celebration, but I was turned away at the counter fortunate that the clerk did not call the police. I went back to Romania, defeated and humiliated.  

* The following summer, I began a more careful plan for my eventual escape.  Using strategies I learned from my father, I obtained a passport by making promises on my father’s behalf, promises I knew I couldn’t keep, as I was no longer on speaking terms with My father.  Hoping I could be out of the country before My father learned of these promises, I accepted the intervention from the man responsible for issuing visas and passports, and the plan was set into motion. 

*August 1983 – I packed my bag, rolled up $30 dollars in the hem of my skirt and boarded a plane for Frankfurt, West Germany, finally to escape the tyranny of my father, and to seek repatriation as a German citizen.  To escape suspicion from the armed guards, I assumed the attitude and appearance of a tourist. My mother knew of my plans, but we both kept the secret from my father still a well-placed member of the Communist Party.  Once in Frankfurt, I received help from a German-Romanian couple who I contacted and they harbored and assisted me on the first leg of my journey.  They took me to Nuremberg for the repatriation process only to find out that shortly after that my father sent the Secret Service after me, so I was passed from family to family for both my security as well as their sanity. 

* After becoming repatriated as a German citizen, I began to work and save money to send care packages to Romania and eventually bring my mother and grandmother to freedom. 

* I entered Romania nine times between 1985 and 1989 to meet with my mother in secret; the meetings took place at elegant resorts after I renounced my citizenship at the Romanian Embassy in West Germany, citing marriage to a foreign citizen as my reason. I asked Ceausescu to spare my parents any repercussions; he granted the renouncement two years after my request. While in Romania we were always noticeably observed by someone from the Secret Service.  

After visiting the Dracula Castle mother and I had dinner at nearby restaurant. A band started playing and drunken man (or one who pretended to be drunk) invited me to dance. Afraid of a scene and sensing it might be a trap I accepted and the experience was very unpleasant, but when I boarded the train to leave the country a few days later, a man behind me whispered in my ear: “you behaved nicely, Miss – it was very smart of you to not to reject one of your fellow Romanians on the dance floor…” I felt sick. The train reached the Yugoslavian border and stopped for passport control; they took mine away after a prolonged look at my passport picture and me. I was terrified. The minutes I waited to get my passport back seemed like ages. I stood at the train window which I opened since I felt I was suffocating. The armed border guards lining the train, only a few feet away from each other and armed with Russian kalashnikows contrasted with the peaceful cornfield in the background… I closed my eyes and thought to myself: If they do not let me go I will get out of the train and start running so the border guards have to shoot since my alternative to freedom was death! 

The rising dissatisfaction of Romania’s citizens culminated in a revolution, ending with the assassination of the Ceausescu’s in 1989.  My father was deeply saddened by the death of his leader, and watched, powerless, as the system he’s pinned all his hopes on disintegrated.  His political and social standing deteriorated. 

* The time came to bring mother to safety in West Germany:

I met her half way in Prague. We dressed her in Western clothes and discarded her old ones and her suitcase and drove towards the German border in my German car and both of us trying to look like Western Europeans on a shopping spree.  At the border I showed my passport through the window and waved which was usual procedure for Western tourists… and guess what? They waved us through. I felt how I aged quite a few years during that moment.  

But it was only three months later, I had to risk capture and imprisonment to bring my grandmother across the border, rolled up in a tapestry.

My father held her hostage in the house so I had to drive all the way to Romania with a car full of Western goodies for bribes. I went to the neighbors and after giving them my gifts I asked them to make hole in the fence separating their garden from grandmother’s. They did and went in the house for me and brought Oma – what a moment of joy to see her in her hundreds of layers of clothes, her babushka waving at me with her cane… I put her in the car and drove to a downtown hotel where I kept her in the room while I went to work to “buy” a passport. It took a very long week and quite a few connections until we finally got her document. While waiting I visited a Romanian artist who in need of money sold me her beautiful handmade tapestries. Finally we were on our way through Budapest/Hungary and towards the Czech border. There a second hurdle had to be taken. The officer decided he would not let grandmother pass since she did not have a Czech visa although I told him we were only passing through – well he knew my intentions. He spoke Czech and Hungarian. I haven’t been speaking Hungarian in ages but it sure came back at that moment and I was able to say “Officer, I will kneel down before you for all these Western cars to watch and beg you to let me and this 82 year old pass… and down on my knees I went holding on to his jacket. He shook me off and in a harsh voice he told me he would have to check with Prague. Minutes later we were on our way to Prague and the German border. Looking at grandmother in the rear mirror I realized I could not fool the guards with her and I stopped and asked her to lie down on the back seat. I threw the tapestries casually over her. We reached the border and I felt I was aging again, my heart stopped realizing that this could mean capture and imprisonment for people smuggling and I was rehearsing my explanation in case we got caught. I stopped, showed my passport and the guard glanced at it and the car and wished me (actually the two of us) a safe trip!    

You might think: how heroic! No, just desperate. Any of you would have done the same thing if you were in my shoes. 

  • Grandmother died a free woman in West Germany. 
     

  • My father remains powerless, losing everything he’s worked to gain.
     

  • I was invited to the Romanian Embassy in Washington DC, in August 1997, where the Romanian cultural attaché criticized, ridiculed and accused me of being a coward for defecting.  When he insisted the real victim is my father, I became aware that little has changed in Romania since the revolution. The same day I was invited to give an interview on “Voice of America/ Radio Free Europe” about my Experiences.

And last but not least: my 71 years young mother joined us six years ago.

“The Lord my God carried me, as a man carries his child, all along my journey.”

Author wishes to remain Anonymous.

 


[Published at DVHH.org by Jody McKim Pharr]

 

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