On The Romanian Melting Pot

When King Béla of Hungary decided to invite the Saxons to settle in Transylvania, the land had been severely depopulated by the Mongol invasion. The Germans came from the dry lands of Northern Europe and found here what must have seemed to them sort of a Promised Land. Their presence at the extremity of what was then called 'Europe' was extremely bewildering for everyone. This is why a legend - mentioned by Prosper Mérimée in Chronique du régne de Charles IX - states that Transylvania was precisely the place where the young kids lured by the piping man of Hameln into the cave had eventually got out of it. The Magyars themselves had settled down here a few hundred years back and felt quite at home in spite of some problems with the 'natives'. These, in their turn, were descendants from Roman colonists, who had buried the axe and mixed freely and friendly with the vanquished Dacians. Meanwhile, many a tribe had been seen riding in haste to the center of the crumbling empire and leaving quite a few of their members behind. The tradition related to the founding of the Romanian states speaks of 'getting off horseback' as a symbolic procedure. Consequently, watching the stranger approaching and coming to terms with him did not seem such a big deal. Later on, the comparatively rich and presumably happy three principalities welcomed many other people in distress. Ashkenazim Jews from Russia and Galitzia, Armenians, Ukrainians, Russians found here shelter, a fresh start and a new hope. The minorities down here are by no means purely ethnic. Religious communities persecuted elsewhere, such as Unitarians, Calvinists, Lutherans, found here, as religiones receptæ, a civilized and tolerant environment, which provided freedom and security, a most unusual combination, one might add. This story recalls the saga of the American colonization. One is easily tempted to build up analogies, especially with such a prestigious example. However, in this case, the differences throw more light than the similarities. The great immigration in America was governed by the principle of the 'melting pot', that is the new-comers had to leave their memories behind, as well as their roots, even their names, and to assume a new common identity, the American one, an identity on the make, to be sure. The Americans were soon to realize that the 'melting pot' metaphor implied a trend to uniformity guided by the WASP ideal (the culture of the White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant early-comers). This uniformity excluded from the start some cultures such as the Black American one and, moreover, stifled the creativity that usually stems from cultural diversity. Consequently, the 'melting pot' ideal was gradually abandoned and the new concept of multiculturalism was promoted instead. This involved the preservation of various identities not out of idiosyncratic tendencies, but in order to support a stimulating dialogue between different approaches and viewpoints. A new metaphorical expression was readily coined to illustrate this new trend: the 'mixed vegetables' replaced the 'melting pot'. In our part of the world, the 'melting pot' principle functioned only during the Roman colonization. Later on, the cultural identities were carefully nurtured, which could well have acted as a fuel for an intensive symbolic production. Unfortunately, this has hardly been the case, because the inter-cultural dialogue was almost absent. The German community especially kept very much to itself, while maintaining courteous and distant relationships with either Magyars or Romanians and this is clearly reflected by its self-contained and self-focused literature. Romanians and Magyars fought each other, but also loved each other, as proved by the great number of inter-marriages. However, the competition did not stop at the family door and the fight for cultural supremacy ended only with the unconditional surrender of one part, leaving the other in full command, so that he, or more often she, would pass his/her own cultural tradition on to the next generation. Of course, one can easily find in the Magyar literature from Romania hints at the Romanian background, but the synergetic interaction between these two cultures is still to come. The Armenians, as shown by the two excellent examples provided in this volume, integrated themselves seamlessly in the Romanian literature to which they added a touch of refinement and a taste for the rich and strange. However, this is a less than proficient example of cultural intercourse. As far as intercultural interaction is concerned, the Jews are its jewels. They did not hesitate to transpose their expertise from the commerce of goods to the commerce of ideas. Their involvement in the Romanian culture has always been profound and intimate, without ever losing the international perspective. Moreover, they used to circulate freely and gracefully between the German, Romanian and Hungarian circles, acting as ambassadors and mediators. The Jews were about to weave in the Romanian multicultural space the subtle web of synthesis.

by Adrian Mihalache