Παρασκευή, 4 Σεπτεμβρίου 2015

Poetry: Remembering life in Romania under communist rule

ON A RECENT Thursday night, a handful of Romanian poets gathered inside a Soviet-era themed bar in New York’s East Village to commemorate the Romanian revolution. The irony was not lost on the writers, many of whom shared painful memories of life under Romania’s communist regime, a 42-year slog marked by poverty, food shortages, and profound misery that culminated in swift and bloody revolution in the winter of 1989. Romania’s dictator of 24 years, Nicolae Ceaușescu, was publicly executed by firing squad after an hour-long trial televised across the nation.

All four poets were New York locals; most had migrated to the US shortly after the revolution. One by one, they stood up and read their work, both fiction and non-fiction. Most had a personal connection to the revolution; others spoke of family and school, of growing up or growing old. One poet, Claudia Serea, painted a particularly heartbreaking scene. When she was growing up, Ms Serea’s bedroom window overlooked a butcher’s shop in the town of Târgoviște, northwest of Bucharest. From here, the twelve-year-old had an unobstructed view of the ration line below, which would sometimes stretch around the block and out of sight.

The line in front of the store was so long it had a Line Committee and a Line Master who kept the Line List / Don’t get in front of me, motherfucker. I waited in line four hours, the little girl cried.

Ms Serea was at university at the time of the revolution, studying chemical engineering. She wanted to be a writer, filling notebooks with poems and stories about kids who went to space and ate mamaliga cu brinza, a popular Romanian dish consisting of polenta and cheese. Both her father and grandfather had similar dreams, but had suffered for them at the hands of the Securitate, Romania’s secret police, which encouraged citizens to inform on friends and neighbours whom they suspected of harbouring anti-government sentiment. Writers and journalists had it particularly bad; sometimes, they’d simply disappear, never to be heard of again. Others tried to flee across the border to Hungary. If they were caught, they were executed. Political prisoners were sent to a town in northern Romania called Sighet. According to the museum that now stands on the site of the old jail, most sent there were over 60 years old. “The greatest victory of communism”, reads a plaque at the entrance to the museum, “was to create people without a memory—a brainwashed new man unable to remember what he was, what he had, or what he did before communism.”

By 1975, impressed by Ceaușescu’s political distance from the Soviet Union and his protest against the invasion of Czechosolovakia in 1968, and believing he was the key to upsetting the Warsaw Pact, America granted Ceaușescu the right to borrow money at low interest rates. He quickly used the credit to finance his vision for a cosmopolitan capital: wide avenues modeled on Haussmann’s Paris and an extravagant, lavishly decorated palace that would serve as both his home and his headquarters. As Romania’s debt grew to $11bn, Ceaușescu began ordering the mass export of Romania’s industrial and agricultural products to help fund the repayments. Soon, Romanians had nothing to live on. Gas, electricity and water were rationed, and soon there was no longer any central heating; in winter the average temperature inside a Bucharest apartment dropped to eight degrees. Ms Serea remembers wearing a coat to bed and waking up to see a patch of ice on the wall made by the condensation from her breath during the night. “We only had hot water for a couple of hours every weekend—no one would go out on Saturday night, because that was bath night.”

Food became scarcer too; at first it was just meat, but later it became harder to find basics like bread, milk, sugar and oil. People lined up for 12 hours to buy food, and many still remember living on bones and frozen fish. Romanians forgot what life was like when they had enough to eat, or were free to say what they wanted. People were threatened for simply whispering their unhappiness. When Serea’s father was 18, Securitate agents came to his house and discovered notebooks full of poems that criticised the country’s communist government. He was sentenced to 8 years in jail, but was released under a general amnesty in 1962 after only five. He remained under surveillance, though: Ms Serea says the house she grew up in was bugged. Unlike other Romanians, who could travel to other eastern-bloc countries, her family was not allowed to leave the country. To this day, Ms Serea doesn’t know what happened to her father in prison. She has asked him many times, but he isn’t ready to talk. This is why he tried to discourage her from becoming a writer, she says: he believed it was too dangerous.

In July, Alexandru Visinescu, who ran Ceaușescu’s infamous labor camps during the the 1950s and 1960s, was formally charged with crimes against humanity and sentenced to 20 years in prison, in a trial dubbed the “Romanian Nuremberg”. Yet, while many are still waiting for former members of Ceaușescu’s secret police to be brought to justice, the public response to Mr Visinescu’s trial has been surprisingly subdued.

Perhaps it seems too little, too late. Many of those who stand accused, including Mr Visinescu, are now in their 80s. But another reason is that in the 25 years since the fall of communism in Romania, the quality of life in Romania has improved little. Despite the country's acceptance into the European Union in 2007, increased economic security, better incomes, and new freedoms of travel and expression, memories of the past are continually reinterpreted in the face of contemporary frustrations, namely constant political turmoil and widespread corruption. Most of the people who still remember the days of communism are retirees now, living on small pensions, and drifting deeper into poverty. “There’s lack of hope,” Ms Serea says. “Romanians were caught in a prolonged transition that took a toll on them. They’ve forgotten that there was no food and no heat." The old days suddenly seem better: they were younger and had better wages. (Even this correspondent’s grandparents, who were the first to tell her of the ration lines, the cold winters and the Securitate, are starting to sound wistful about the old days. “No one tried to take more than they should," they said recently. "There was nothing to take.”)

Ms Serea migrated to America in 1995 with her husband and settled in New York, where she became a graphic designer. She began writing poetry again in 2001, first in Romanian, then in English. Since then, her poems and translations have appeared in New Letters, Meridian, Word Riot and Apple Valley Review, and she has published three books: "Angels and Beasts" (2012); "The System" (2012); and "A Dirt Road Hangs from the Sky" (2013). While her earlier work focused on her childhood, she soon began writing about other things: history, immigration, dreams and nightmares. Her father remains a recurring subject. In one poem from 2013, titled “And He Never Did”, she writes:

My father stood in front of me, naked / in the hospital’s basement
He spoke to me / his voice muffled by cotton
Listen to me Claudia / listen to me
And all I could think of was to say / Cover yourself, Daddy / You’ll tell me all another time.

The Economist

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