Budapest, September 2009
György Ugron: ‘You might say that communism destroyed three generations here: the generation of my grandparents, that of my parents and my own. My parents’ generation had a great childhood and could learn languages, but had a tough time after that. My generation had a pretty tough time too.’
On 19 March 1965 Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej died. Three days later his protégé, Nicolae Ceausescu, was chosen as First Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. Two and a half years after that, in December 1967, Ceausescu announced that the class struggle in Romania was over. He no longer needed to target the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie, since both had been virtually crushed. So he turned on minorities. He wanted to put an end to the multi-ethnic composition of Transylvania and he tried as far as possible to drive minorities out of the country. He sold the Jews and Saxons to Israel and Germany for hard currency and bragged that Romania’s three most successful export products were Germans, Jews and oil.
György Ugron left Transylvania in the summer of 1989 with his wife and his daughter Zsolna. ‘We arrived in Budapest by train. Twenty-nine relatives were waiting for us at the station. It was a tremendous feeling, as if we were the Hungarian ambassador and family. Life under Ceausescu in the 1980s was hard. To pay off the national debt, practically everything the country produced was exported. Shelves in the shops were empty. Wherever Ceausescu went on a visit, all the stores were filled with specially delivered products. He came to Kolozsvár a couple of times while we lived there. The whole city was closed off and a day before his arrival the sale of alcohol was banned. People lined the roads, clapping. In the fields along the route, potatoes were buried ahead of his arrival and they were harvested by children as he passed. Whenever he visited state farms, they would make heaps of vegetables and fruit out of painted polystyrene, with a few at the front that were real, just in case he picked one up. He lived in a fantasy world.’
György’s daughter Zsolna told me she always came home from school to a cold, dark house. In the 1980s electricity and gas were available for only a few hours a day. The first thing she did on getting home was to put a cushion over the telephone. You were obliged to use state-issued phones, which worked as eavesdropping devices twenty-four hours a day. Zsolna also said that a queue at the baker’s or the supermarket was a good sign; you always joined it immediately. There were no luxury articles at all, and almost all basic products were scarce. There was hardly any toilet paper. The only things you could nearly always get were beetroot and cheap Romanian champagne.
The ration card for Brasov in 1987, for example, shows the amounts of food each family had a right to buy, a semi-starvation level of nutrition that was presented to the Romanian people as a ‘scientific diet’. In Brasov a year’s ration amounted to 8.5 kilos of meat (23 grams a day), 2.5 kilos of flour (7 grams a day), 10 litres of cooking oil (27 millilitres per day), 10.5 kilos of salami (29 grams per day) and 10 eggs (1 egg per 36 days). Diesel for cars was cut back to a minimum. It was this grinding poverty, with no prospect of improvement, that drove the Romanian people to the verge of despair and eventually, even in the perfectly controlled police state that Romania then was, provoked them to rise in revolt in December 1989.
It looks as if it’s been filmed in black-and-white. The twenty people on the balcony are all dressed in black, with occasional shades of grey. They line the bottom of the image. The building rises powerfully behind them. The angle is low, a worm’s-eye view. A good deal of thought has gone into the camerawork. On the façade of the robust grey building are pillars many metres high, emphasizing man’s insignificance. The dictator is wearing a long dark coat and a high black hat, standing against the backdrop of a window with net curtains. Next to him is his wife, one of two women on the balcony.
It’s 21 December 1989. On the square, called the Piata Republica, are 80,000 workers drummed up from Bucharest and the surrounding districts, holding banners bearing jubilant slogans and portraits of Nicolae Ceausescu. They look up at the balcony of the building that houses the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. As ever, there are many Securitate officers among them. The gathering has been organized to reaffirm the authority of the great leader. As Ceausescu finishes his first few sentences, the bussed-in workers, keeping almost perfect time, set up a slow Stalinist applause that resounds with oppression and death.
Eight minutes in, workers from Turbomechanica outside Bucharest start chanting ‘Ti-mi-so-ara, Ti-mi-so-ara’, the name of the city where deaths have occurred in riots over the previous few days. The crowd takes up the cry. Ceausescu falters. As the protest swells, his mouth falls open.
It’s the ultimate image of a dictator losing his grip. Louis de Funès could not have portrayed it better. Nicolae Ceausescu actually resembled him in a way, especially when frivolously clad in his white summer suit with matching flat cap, off to inspect kolkhozes, his belly sticking out, vacant and self-satisfied, eyes fixed on machinery, on scale models and above all on the camera, or in boots and a tasteless hunting costume with a big breakdown lamp and no gun, standing next to a slain brown bear. He’s right in the middle of practically every photograph, unambiguously presented as the centre of the Romanian universe. Despite his absolute power as a man in a position to decide at random on the life or death of any of his twenty million subjects, his gestures, posture and physiognomy betray his cramped and primitive nature. However high the pedestal, however far he has climbed and no matter what suit or uniform he has put on, he always makes you think of a gherkin.
A man wearing a hat opens the door behind him and beckons to the dictator. Judas. But Ceausescu remains standing there behind the six microphones into which he is desperately shouting ‘hello’. You could almost feel sorry for him. He shouts it at least twenty times. The camera has turned away from the leader and the people massed below, and all this time it’s been focused on the sky and the upper floors of several important buildings. The microphones are still on. In the background you can hear the crowd. Elena whispers that he must promise a wage rise. Meanwhile the desperate ‘hello, hello’ echoes against the backdrop of that series of buildings and the grey sky.
Four days before this extraordinary scene, on Sunday 17 December 1989, Elena and Nicolae Ceausescu spoke to the interior minister, the head of the Securitate, the supreme com-mander of the army and the minister of defence about the unrest that had started in Timisoara. When the minister replied that the militia and the Securitate hadn’t opened fire on the crowd because they had no ammunition, Elena said it was alarming that the interior minister didn’t know the right thing to do.
Nicolae Ceausescu took up the theme: ‘A few troublemakers want to destroy socialism and you make it child’s play for them. Fidel Castro was right. You don’t silence an opponent by speaking to him like a priest but by destroying him.’ Ceausescu added that they, the leaders of the Securitate, the militia and the army, were cowards and he was taking over supreme command himself. ‘You know what? I’ll put you in front of a firing squad. You can’t keep order with rubber truncheons. From now on everyone will have weapons and ammunition.’
Eight days after that, he and Elena were executed, after a show trial in the best Soviet tradition in a small building at the military base in Targoviste. One of the paramilitaries, a member of the firing squad who helped to tie the hands of an uncooperative Elena Ceausescu behind her back, later testified that she didn’t smell good: she’d shat her pants. Of the actual execution all you can see is gunsmoke, and then Nicolae Ceausescu’s corpse, legs folded under him. His greatest fear had been realized. The man who built a career in the party primarily by means of brutal aggression, who personally opened fire on farmers protesting at losing their land, who was so paranoid that even after the British queen shook his hand he carefully cleaned his fingers with alcohol, was dead. Those images of the dictator as a rag doll were replayed endlessly on Romanian television.
Zsolna Ugron watched the balcony scene on television in Hungary, along with her father. Her parents couldn’t believe it. What if it’s not true? What if it’s all a fabrication? They’d escaped Ceausescu’s oppression only a few months before. When the first reports of fighting in Timisoara leaked out, Zsolna and her mother, a cellist, were in the Ferenc Liszt Academy in Budapest. Someone came into the auditorium during the performance and whispered in Zsolna’s mother’s ear. They immediately hurried home to watch the story unfold on television. In the days that followed there was a constant stream of phone calls and a buzz of rumours. Eleven-year-old Zsolna wrote a poem about the dictator’s death.
Béla Bánffy junior was in Kolozsvár. He was twenty-two and employed at a metal works, along with his brother. They regularly listened to the Hungarian radio station Kossuth and to Radio Free Europe, so they knew what was going on in Timisoara. At the end of the working day there were whispers at the factory that they were all going into town to demonstrate. Several hundred people gathered in front of the factory. The director tried to stop them. The route to the centre of town was blocked by tanks, as was the bridge over the Szamos. The demonstration swelled to several thousand people and they didn’t stop at the line of tanks. The soldiers let them pass. Then from the top floors of the houses came gunfire. Béla ran into a doorway. Everyone fled into courtyards and stairwells. The shooting continued. In Kolozsvár that day some twenty people were killed.
Gergely Roy Chowdhury, twelve years old, was in Graz, Austria, at school. He doesn’t remember much about the events, except that his mother Katalin Mikes, brought up in Transylvania, was extremely on edge. She travelled with the first convoy of aid supplies sent to Romania by the Austrian branch of the Order of Malta, a sovereign Catholic order of knights set up in the twelfth century to provide medical treatment during the crusades. A truck filled with Maltese in blue uniforms came to their house in the middle of the night to pick up his mother.
Tibor Kálnoky was twenty-three and living in Munich. In 1987, with his father, he’d come to Kõröspatak for the first time, the village where the Kálnoky castle stands. He watched as the villagers embraced his father, who had decided before coming that this would be his last visit to Transylvania but was so overwhelmed by his reception in the village that they returned in 1988 with Tibor’s younger brother, Boris, who was just starting out as a journalist. He became the first Western journalist to write about the uprising, in an article published in Die Welt in October 1989, two months before the revolution: ‘Romanians, awake!’ Three days after Ceausescu’s execution, Tibor Kálnoky arrived in Romania with his father and brother and forty tonnes of humanitarian aid.
The first two months after the revolution were euphoric. The Romanians openly thanked the Hungarian minority for saving them from the dictator (since the Romanian revolution started in Timosoara at the church and home of Hungarian pastor László Tõkés), but three months later Romanian nationalism raised its head and Tibor, his father and two Hungarian journalists barely escaped lynching during a meeting of the Greater Romania Party in Alba Iulia, which was attended by four thousand people. They were dragged to a lamp post by a mob shouting: ‘We drink Hungarian blood.’ Someone had fetched a rope. Just in time to avoid being hanged, Tibor was able to show them his American passport and his father produced a French identity card. Three weeks later, in March 1990, at a similar meeting in Marosvásárhely, eight Hungarians were lynched. The number would have been far greater were it not for the gypsies of Marosvásárhely, who came to their rescue shouting: ‘We will help our Hungarian neighbours!’
Gábor Teleki was twenty-one and staying in Brussels with his family for Christmas. The television was on all the time. His mother cried as she watched and kept asking herself why she wasn’t there.
Zsigmond Mikes was twelve years old and at boarding school in Germany. He saw the television pictures of the revolution without understanding quite what they meant. Suddenly, as a boy with his origins in Romania, he was the centre of attention among his fellow school pupils. Briefly, at any rate.
Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy
by Jaap Scholten
Corvina Kiadó, 2013
404 pages, HUF 3990
The book is available at Bestsellers (District V, Október 6 u. 11) and at Massolit (District VII, Nagy Diófa u. 30).