Memoirs Of A Witness

I was born and I spent my childhood in the capital of the country that is called Romania, a state that at that time had prided itself for about a decade with the name of Greater Romania, which was a creation of the preceding generation, but also the outcome of a long series of efforts that had begun even before the 1848 Revolution – though it was only during the revolution that this idea crystallized, became part of a programme, and was pursued tenaciously and skillfully, and mostly with political acumen. The 1930s were the climax of a continuously successful policy, in spite of several moments of stagnation or difficulty. From a "land" that was represented as a Turkish province on the map of Europe, or in the minds of European diplomats, we had become a powerful kingdom, recognized by both allies and enemies alike. An intelligent and opportunistic oligarchy had run the country all this period and had managed to obtain the recognition of, first, the autonomy of the country, then its full independence (a result of a first union between the Romanian principalities) and then, after World War I, the union of all the territories inhabited by Romanians. The latter union had been sanctioned by the treaty of peace and, having been internationally recognized, had the perspective of remaining permanent, as it had the legitimacy of the recognition of natural rights and was not based on military force. The leadership of the country had not been democratic, but liberal in a loose sense, concessive and opportunistic, and had taken advantage of the trend towards democracy in Europe after 1830, the continental "programme" having become ours too; it presupposed, of course, quite a few concessions in order to obtain profitable alliances, and sometimes even unmentionable acts of complicity. The results were brilliant for the new state, though not entirely satisfactory for its citizens, but since discontent could be freely and openly manifested, things seemed to be set on a good course. In fact, in "my" time, Romania had considerably expanded its territory, but had included large masses of ethnic "minorities", which had changed the country into a multinational state. This reality was not, however, translated into our then Constitution, a Jacobinic one, that sanctioned the nation-state. This was different from what we had had before, when some "aliens" had existed on the territory of the Romanian principalities, but they had come there willingly and pursuing their various interests, and had not been integrated into a foreign state as a result of a victorious war. A multi-faceted problem had been created, and it had to be solved. I was fully aware of this in my childhood, which I spent in the city of Bucharest. As any big urban development (the city had had 300,000 inhabitants around the beginning of World War I, and had reached 1,000,000 before the start of World War II), Bucharest had always had a cosmopolitan air, which was closely linked to its surprisingly open character. It had never been a citadel, a bastion, but rather a place at the crossroads of commercial thoroughfares that linked various parts of the world – Central Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East. Bucharest had been an inland "port", as Athens and Rome had been in Antiquity, attracting therefore foreigners, merchants, businessmen, adventurers, people that had been met with tolerance by the local population, and had been even granted privileges by the authorities. The situation was quite different now: it was about granting full citizenship rights to large groups of people of different ethnic origins who had completely different claims. We are talking of about one million Hungarians and several hundred thousand Germans (Saxons, Swabians, Austrians, etc.), as well as of many Ukrainians and Russians, of fewer Bulgarians and Turks, and finally of an increased number of Gypsies, if compared to the number of those already existing in the former Romanian state. But we are mainly talking about the Jews existing in Romania a little before the disaster of the Second World War. They were about 800,000 souls, of which just a part had been included after 1918, many others being naturalized as citizens of the former Romanian state, while others were just heading for the Promised Land or for countries that accepted them as immigrants; most of them were however willing to quickly integrate in the Romanian society, in their new capacity of Romanian nationals and were actively involved in all types of activities, choosing rather to be part of the Romanian society than to remain isolated as other minorities did. I was living in the house of my parents in those years, in one of Bucharest's main arteries, Calea Moşilor, in a place (Zece Mese – Ten Tables) that was somehow a border region between two communities, the Jewish one and the Armenian one. The neighbourhood where the former community lived began roughly around Calea Văcăreşti, while the Armenian neighbourhood began roughly around the Armenian Church and extended to the east, to Obor market. The Armenians living in my neighbourhood had recently arrived in Romania as refugees, following the massacres of Abdul Hamid that had dislocated all the survivors of this genocide perpetrated in the Ottoman Empire. The attitude of their families seemed to me more exclusive: they spoke only Armenian, the horrors that the generation of their grandparents had gone through had made them more taciturn, more reserved, giving them an air of mystery. (I have to say, however, that the only sports association I was ever a member of was, in my childhood, APE, the Armenian Physical Education, which only had, I believe, three sections for indoor sports: volleyball, basketball and table tennis.) The Jews were completely different, much more open, more involved, more willing to be integrated, a proof of this being that many of them changed their names into Romanian ones and adopted the Romanian language. They were in almost all trades that were allowed to them, as there were certain professions, controlled by the State, from which they were barred, such as: civil servants, magistrates, officers in the army. Excluded from the administration, the Jews were therefore in much more lucrative businesses, such as: commerce, banking, medicine, pharmacy, law firms, journalism, or they worked as highly-skilled craftsmen: opticians, jewellers, photographers. You could hardly find a Jew that was a greengrocer, the latter being mostly Oltenians (inhabitants of the south-western part of the country, called Oltenia), nor did they work as confectioners (as did mostly the Greeks or the Aromanians – Romanians coming from south of the river Danube), or as coffee-sellers – as did the Armenians, or as smiths. However, many of them were tinsmiths, tailors or cobblers. The Germans were represented by compact urban or rural communities, mostly in Transylvania, but even they, as all people coming from Central Europe, were in various businesses and represented a model for the rest of society, being admired rather than loved. There were also a number of Italians that had been settled for a longer time, who worked mostly in the field of construction, generally speaking, or as sculptors, most of them being masons, painters, tilers, plumbers and, of course, musicians. In the 1930s their number was dramatically declining, because Mussolini opposed emigration and encouraged the return of the Italian nationals to their native country, for which he had great plans. Many of these immigrants had married in Romania, founding mixed families. (In my wealthy bourgeois environment there was no restriction preventing a man from marrying a Jewish woman, though for reasons that are unclear to me the reverse case was rather uncommon.) The Greeks were in a special position. In spite of the seminal role they had played in shaping the urban civilisation of the country, or as members of the aristocratic families of the principalities or, mostly, in the field of religious life, they had been in conflict with the new Romanian state for some time. The conflict had begun in the second half of the 19th century with the nationalization of the possessions of the Church, many of them belonging to the Greek monasteries of Mount Athos, then the conflict deepened when the Romanian Patriarchy, independent of Constantinople, was proclaimed after the creation of the Romanian unified state at the end of World War I, and got even deeper during World War II as Nazi Germany, Romania's powerful ally, treated them as enemies. A small number of French people also lived in Romania; they belonged exclusively to the upper classes and had settled in the country as a result of mixed marriages. They were extremely popular within their own circles and represented centres of attraction for the Romanian high society. I have no intention of creating or imposing an Edenic image: numberless frictions and conflicts existed; in spite of the changes of government, the political regime continued to be both democratic and nationalistic, a label rejected by Marxists, though it has survived under various forms to this very day, in different parts of the world. Romanian nationalism, sometimes manifesting itself as xenophobia, mostly anti-Semitism, was of a defensive type. We were committed to the policies of the League of Nations and were pursuing a policy of peace and international cooperation, the only one that could guarantee our borders. We were not pursuing a policy of territorial expansion, and did not seek to denationalize the minorities living on the territories that had become ours after the war (unlike the powers that had formerly possessed these territories and had constantly and tenaciously led a violent policy of denationalization against the Romanian population there). In interwar Romania, national minorities had their own schools, newspapers, cultural institutions, and their participation in the political life of the country was granted in proportion to their number. This entire picture was shattered to pieces at the end of the decade when I was born. The great powers that had lost the war, primarily Nazi Germany, later its ally, Soviet Russia, changed the map of Europe in a couple of years, to the detriment of several smaller nations. The war followed, having disastrous consequences for all of us: the Russian occupation and the domination of communism.. The latter political regime, though entertaining an atmosphere of conflict, both within the borders of the country and abroad, claimed it had solved the "national problem". In reality any type of open opposition was brutally suppressed. All foreign nationals residing in Romania were expelled from the country, and no foreigner was permitted to settle in the country or even to seek refuge here. After the Geneva agreement, the Jews were allowed to flee the country or were "sold" to (actually ransomed by) the state of Israel. Then, after Romania established diplomatic relation with Western Germany, the Saxons of Romania were allowed to emigrate, the disastrous effects of this genuine haemorrhage being still felt nowadays. Even today, when the political regime has radically changed, the number of foreigners who came to Romania does not compensate for the terrible, irreversible loss we suffered because so many people left the country, both before 1990 (in spite of the severe restrictions regarding the right to leave the territory of the country) and after that year, when the state borders were suddenly opened. Before Greater Romania was dismantled by the two great totalitarian powers, the country had not been a success model of the democratic system of government. However, it obviously contrasted with Bulgaria, Turkey, Albania, Yugoslavia, and even Hungary and Poland (not to mention Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union), being a white spot on the map of this part of Europe. Everything ended in the hysteria of Ceauşescu's time, which, even if it mesmerized the naïve and/or stupid people, could not be in any way attractive to national minorities. The previous state of affairs, as it was before the war, was wiped out and forgotten, and was to be remembered only by the older generations that had witnessed it… What we are left with, however, are the documents, and they must be deciphered. I will therefore limit myself to a simple testimony. In the 1970s I accompanied a Polish academic who was visiting our country, as she was interested in Romanian literature. The place where we met was close to the church of Saint George, in the very centre of the old city. I told her that the church of the Hungarian Catholics, called Bărăţia, was nearby. A few steps away we came across the Russian Church, in which the service for the members of this community had been held until recently in Old Slavonic. As we passed the great crossroads at the very centre of the capital we could see the shape of the Greek Church in the distance, resembling an ancient temple, a church where alongside the members of the Greek community a number of religiously conservative Romanians would come to worship. Further on, in a small square near the Faculty of Architecture, the Church Dintr-o zi (One-day Church) once reserved to the small community of Orthodox Albanians. On Magheru Avenue we passed the Italian Church, naturally a Catholic one, and from the second corner on the right we could see the Anglican Church, which was strictly guarded as access was allowed only to the members of the diplomatic corps of several embassies. When we turned left, I showed her one of the many synagogues that had functioned before the years of communist rule. And all this in the very centre of the capital of a country whose official church was the Orthodox one. The princely palace, later the royal one, had been flanked by various churches of this denomination (of which only Creţulescu Church has survived), but also by the Lutheran Church and also by the Calvinist temple, later "moved" during the communist years. I will conclude by quoting the exclamation of my Polish friend, which says everything: "Something like this would be unimaginable in our Cracow!" Alexandru George (b. 1930) is a literary critic (Signs and References, 1971; The End of Reading, I, 1973; II, 1978; III, 1980), literary historian (About E. Lovinescu, 1975; Mateiu I. Caragiale, 1981), essayist (The Great Alpha, 1970; Simple Occurrences in Thought and Spaces, 1982; Pro Freedom, 1999) prose writer (Simple Occurrences with the Meaning at the End, 1970; The Clepsydra with Venom, 1971; Early in the Morning, 1984; Late in the Evening, 1987; One Autumn Morning, 1989; People and Shadows, Voices, Silences, 1996), translator, and editor.

by Alexandru George (b. 1930)