Bucharest, March 2010

On 2 March 1949 a law was adopted under which all estates of fifty hectares or more and all model farms were nationalised. The deportation of the nobility and wealthy farmers in the early morning of 3 March 1949 was no small operation for the Romanian Communist Party. The militia and the Securitate had been set up only a few weeks previously. In those days the Party, helped into the saddle by the Soviets, needed above all a loyal assault division to get its regime of terror, torture and intimidation up and running. The deportation of large landowners was only the second major operation by the militia and the Securitate. It was important for it to go well.

The collectivisation of agricultural land was announced at the congress ofthe Central Committee of the Romanian Workers Party in Bucharest of 3–5 March 1949, which adopted a resolution concerning “efforts to strengthen the alliance between the peasants and the working class and the socialist metamorphosis of agriculture”. The subject under discussion was how to bring twelve million peasants together into the GAC (Gospodării Agricole Colective, or collective farms, the Romanian equivalent of the Soviet kolkhozy) and the GAS (Gospodării Agricole de Stat, or state farms, the equivalent of the Soviet sovkhozy). Ana Pauker, chair of the Agrarian Commission, favoured the Santa Claus approach: the good get treats, the naughty the rod. In practice the emphasis was on the rod. The Communist Party intended to push through collectivisation by force. The former large landowners were a rewarding and obvious first target for persecution.

My friends in Bucharest have explained to me how to recognise a Securitate agent: he barely looks at you, and you can read little from his face. He wears an ill-fitting dark suit. He has no opinions and often keeps silent to give you a chance to talk. He mainly asks questions, and if he tells you anything then it’s information that’s generally available, which he will do his best to present to you as if he’s divulging something important. He’ll never share anything new with you. In short, they’re sponges that cling on and suck as much information out of you as possible. They’re friendly and they continually scan their surroundings. Based on such descriptions, I imagine a slightly neurotic type of man in a cheap suit, peering around like a junkie wondering whether his dealer is in the building yet.

I’m sitting at a small table in the Rembrandt Hotel on the Strada Smârdan in the old part of Bucharest, opposite the Romanian Central Bank. It’s freezing cold outside. This space is used as the breakfast room, but you can sit here all day drinking coffee and cognac. I’m alone, waiting for a man to arrive. I estimate the likelihood of his being a current or former Securitate agent at ninety per cent. It’s my first appointment with a man from the security service. His name is Virgiliu. A professor in London put me in touch with him, writing that he was deputy director of the Securitate archives. From many sides I’ve been assured that the Securitate still has full control of the files. To be deputy director you would have to be an agent.

There he comes, up the stairs. He’s stout. I stand up and shake his hand firmly. If you’re going to associate with the Securitate, it’s no good starting out with a feeble handshake. He looks me straight in the eye, not glancing around even for a second. He asks hardly any questions. He talks practically nonstop and tells me all kinds of things I’ve never heard or read anywhere before. This is an old stager, I think for a moment. Dyed in the wool. But then I begin to have doubts. He’s cordial, but that’s really the only thing that fits with the profile sketched by my friend. I ask him about the deportations of 3 March 1949. He’s carried out extensive research into that episode in the Securitate archives.

“The crucial question for the Romanian Communist Party was how to create a working class”, says Virgiliu, looking at me. He leaves a long silence. I say nothing.

Good question, indeed. If you want to create a workers’ paradise then, naturally, somehow or other you need to have workers. Romania was an agrarian country with hardly any industry. In 1949 seventy-five per cent of the sixteen million Romanians lived in the countryside and worked the land. The majority of peasants had no desire at all to be collectivised. In 1952, according to official Romanian sources (which are incomplete and therefore give a very conservative figure),

80,000 peasants were in jail for actively resisting collectivisation. Class war was an essential ingredient for the creation of “the new man”. Collectivisation was not driven by economic motives, it was carried out for ideological and political reasons. The main priority was to follow Soviet guidelines. The Romanian communists were under direct day-to-day supervision from Moscow.

“A working class could be created only by collectivising agriculture. The social fabric of the villages would have to be ripped apart, the younger generation taken out of the villages and put to work in the brand new heavy industries. Their parents would work on collective farms. That way every Romanian would become a worker. Except that no one was in favour. The man responsible for collective farms was the deputy minister of agriculture, Nicolae Ceauşescu.”

According to Transforming Peasants, Property and Power, Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, leader of the Romanian Communist Party, decided collectivisation should be directly linked to a frontal attack on the chiaburi (the Romanian term for rich farmers). The concept of a “rich farmer”, like “class enemy”, was relative and flexible. Gheorghiu-Dej said openly of those who resisted: “Don’t these people deserve to have their necks and backbones broken for perpetrating counter-revolutionary actions? These people deserve to be beaten up really hard. Have no pity on them, for they show no pity for our regime.” Nicolae Ceauşescu had been paying attention and he used violence on a large scale. He personally opened fire on protesters and had Securitate troops and the militia do the same. Officials would snap at local communists who didn’t achieve collectivisation quickly enough: “Just you wait till Ceauşescu comes here to sort things out!”

Virgiliu: “The Communist Party had mountains of work to do in those days. Before it could press ahead with the process of Stalinisation, it would have to undermine the existing society. Traditions needed to be ripped out root and branch, the elite needed to be destroyed and no sign of its values could be allowed to remain, whether physical or symbolic. The link between the peasant and his land had to be severed. All enemies, real, imagined and newly created, had to be removed.”

Virgiliu is right. Depriving people of their financial capital – estates, houses, money, jewellery, paintings; everything they possessed – was not enough. Social and cultural capital needed to be destroyed too. So the nobles were deported as a way of unravelling the social fabric, exiled to workplaces where they knew no one. To destroy their cultural capital, as many libraries and family archives as possible were burned, as happened to those of the Mikes, Kemény and Bánffy families, and at Erzsébet T.’s castle. The most tangible things were destroyed. A definitive and permanent wall had to be built between past, present and future. Then the old world could live on only in people’s heads, or in stories.

All symbols had to be destroyed. Family coats of arms were chiselled off façades and gravestones shattered and used to make roads. The looters and graverobbers were by turns Russian soldiers, Romanian communists and local petty thieves. Crucially, those in power made clear that everything associated with the old establishment was outlawed, and that therefore the looting and destruction would go unpunished.

In Zabola the Mikes’ family chapel was demolished and all the ancestral graves were removed. In Dornafalva Erzsébet T. pointed out to me the houses, built in the 1970s, that now cover her family’s graves. Kati Ugron could only cry when she first visited the family crypt in the woods at the Laposnyak estate. All the graves had been broken open. The graverobbers had gone to work like jackals, searching for jewellery.

Zsolna Ugron told me that the family crypt in Pusztakamarás had been spared, but that the gravestones of members of the Ugron family were broken in two and their names chiselled off. Years ago an attractive Hungarian great aunt of Ilona’s, in her youth the spitting image of Ingrid Bergman, showed us her family’s mausoleum, a white temple on an island in a large lake in the park behind the house. It was virtually a ruin. Russian soldiers had looted it in 1945, pulling the coffins out of their niches and leaving them in the water. Where once swans glided between the fountains, the coffins holding the remains of her ancestors bobbed on the surface.

Virgiliu: “The large landowners had to be destroyed ideologically, symbolically, economically and physically, to overturn the old stratified society once and for all. Their removal was crucial and relatively simple. It was a matter of a little over two thousand families in the whole country – everyone who owned more than fifty hectares or a model farm. After the removal of the large landowners, their agricultural labourers would be left, along with the land, the tractors, the agricultural equipment, the buildings. It would make an ideal starting point for the first collective farms. Everything was there: labour, land, machinery. So it was important to take the owners away – not to prisons but to provincial capitals – and to make sure they couldn’t come back.

“It was a carefully conducted operation by the Securitate”, Virgiliu says of 3 March 1949. “Preparations began in early February. A list was compiled of all the major landowners in the country. That was a simple administrative task. The many laws and taxes introduced since 1945 meant that most large landowners could barely survive, which reduced the likelihood of resistance. It was all meticulously prepared. As class enemies they represented a major threat, so the operation must not be allowed to fail. Village by village a timetable was put together, detailing which families must be picked up and in what order.

“It was led by the Securitate and the militia, but a large proportion of the manpower consisted of armed workers, party members. On 1 March the activists were taken by truck to the places where the operation was to be launched. In Oradea, for example, the muster station was the national theatre. Two hundred armed men slept there.”

I’d often driven through Oradea. Later, after hearing Virgiliu’s account, I stopped there one time on my way back to Budapest. The centre of the city was full of the most beautiful Art Nouveau houses with ornamental turrets, arches and balconies, and façades decorated with coloured rosettes and sunflowers. Close to the bridge over the Sebes-Körös stood the national theatre, as announced in two languages on the tympanum: TEATRUL DE STAT – ÁLLAMI SZÍNHÁZ. There the men slept in the seats and in corridors. With its neo-Classical exterior and neo-Rococo interior, the buildingwasaprimeexampleofbourgeoisarchitecture.Ontheroofwasasilverpainted statue of two cupids holding a man-high laughing mask in their four hands.

“They had enough food with them for twenty-four hours, so that no one needed to leave the theatre and nothing about the operation would leak out. Those two hundred men were responsible for picking up eighty to ninety people. They made sure they always arrived at a house in force”, says Virgiliu. In some cases, however, information did leak.

State farms were set up with names like Red Star, Red October, Lenin’s Flag and Freedom. After the large landowners were deported, years of systematic dispossession of smaller famers began. The nationalisation of their land was accompanied by mass deportations and terror. A standard method was to shoot dead the men who put up most resistance and leave them lying on the ground so that their families had to bury them.

If everything went smoothly there was no violence. A district would be singled out and its party committee would call together each village’s People’s Council, the village police and the teachers at local schools to discuss how collectivisation could be achieved. Party activists were sent to the villages to compile inventories. A former party activist explained in Transforming Peasants, Property and Power how it went from there: “We would rarely do our persuasion work inside the peasants’ homes, because peasants would talk disrespectfully to us if they saw us on their property. We would therefore summon them to buildings of the People’s Councils or to the school, because there we were in control. We made them sit in the classroom and listen to long boring lectures and discuss propaganda brochures. Party chairmen of factories and of cadres were all at our disposal. We used as many of them as we needed. We organised them into agitprop teams. They did their job; they knew by heart what their duties were.”

This gives an insight into the psychology of the oppressor, which generated a cocktail of unfamiliar territory, mindnumbing lectures and brute force.

Gheorghiu-Dej had earlier set out the overall party philosophy concerning expropriation: “People must be told they won’t escape the collective farm just as they won’t escape death.” In April 1962, thirteen years after the start of the collectivisation campaign, he announced in a speech to the people that the socialist transformation of agriculture was complete.

At the end of our talk in the Rembrandt Hotel, Virgiliu gives me his card, shakes my hand heartily once again and walks away down the stairs. When he’s out of sight I look at the card. He’s a researcher for the CNSAS. Its full title is there, in English: “National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives”. This isn’t the man in charge of the Securitate files! He’s the deputy director of an independent organisation that is researching the Securitate archives, or at least the documents the Securitate is willing to release. In short, the professor who sat across from me and spoke nineteen to the dozen is almost certainly not a Securitate agent at all. He was simply introduced to me inaccurately. The next day I check with Coen Stork who the people at the CNSAS are. He too believes they’re legitimate. But of course in paranoid Bucharest you can never be sure.


Bucharest, February 2010

Toni Tartar. That’s what my driver and interpreter is called. He has two bottles of mineral water from Borsec ready in his car. We’re driving from Bucharest to Cernavodă, 175 kilometres to the east. As well as being the site of the fine Saligni Bridge over the Danube, Cernavodă is at the westerly end of the Danube–Black Sea Canal, a project approved by the Politburo on 25 May 1949. The canal is sixty-four kilometres long and runs from Cernavodă to Constanţa. The Danube winds for 400 kilometres before flowing hesitantly, triple-branched, into the Black Sea. It was Stalin who insisted a canal should be built. He could use it to move troops, thereby reaching recalcitrant Yugoslavia relatively quickly. Stalin was also an advocate of putting enemies of the people to some use before killing them. The Danube–Black Sea Canal soon came to be known as “the grave of the Romanian bourgeoisie”.

It’s a bleak day. The landscape to the east of Bucharest is flat. There is hardly a tree, only cabbages, their floppy leaves drooping, as if even a cabbage gets depressed in these parts. Not a house or a village in sight. Ninety-five per cent of the deportation camps in communist Romania were in these dispiriting lowlands to the east and northeast of Bucharest. The coastal strip has always been sparsely populated, and not without reason. It’s said that the cold wind from Siberia blows straight across here. Dobrogea and the plain of Baragan were the Romanian Siberia.

Tulcea lies in the Danube delta, a thoroughly wet and forsaken region. The prisoners lived in barracks, in barns, fifty to a room, and worked in rice paddies ankle- to knee-deep in water, without stout shoes, without proper clothing. Katalin’s mother fell ill and was fortunate enough to be removed from the camp. In the same camp were Baron László Apor with his wife and daughter, Baron Péter Apor with his wife and child, Béla Teleki’s wife with three children, the wife of Károly Orbán (the childhood friend of Emma P. who was later executed) with one child, and dozens of other former landowners from the Szeklerland, a total of seventy-six Hungarian class enemies – kulaks and both titled and untitled nobles – who were accused of inciting rebellion among the peasantry.

The Danube–Black Sea Canal marks the southern boundary of a windy plain that was dotted with deportation camps. There were fourteen labour camps alongside the canal. By the spring of 1952, 19,000 political prisoners were working on the canal along with 20,000 volunteers – people who had been designated “volunteers” by factories all over the country – and 18,000 soldiers. Practically all the aristocratic families I spoke to had at least one member who’d been in a prison or labour camp. Mihály, grandfather of Gábor Teleki, was in a camp next to the canal. Béla Haller’s father was in a camp in the mountains, near Bicaz, as was Árpád Mikó, stepfather to Emma P. The man with the wooden leg, István Bánffy, was sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour in 1958 and sent to a labour camp in the Danube delta. Of all the aristocrats in the camps, hardly any are alive today. Their children have said little about it.

In Marosvásárhely a friend took me to see Dezső Bustya, a Hungarian church minister. As a political prisoner he was sent to the Danube–Black Sea Canal in 1952. They were welcomed by the guards with the words: “We’ll send you lot home in an envelope.” The clergyman had a kindly disposition and he stressed that even in the camp the good in a person might come to the surface unexpectedly. Privileged prisoners were sometimes rewarded for good behaviour with permission to send a postcard of a maximum of five lines. Dezső Bustya did not belong in that category. One day he saw a soldier he knew from school. He wrote a note and hid it in a shoe-polish tin along with the address. He kneaded the tin into a lump of mud and when he got the chance he pushed the lump towards the soldier with his foot. The soldier later picked it up. Because of the willingness of that soldier to risk his life, Dezső’s parents learnt that their son was still alive.

A report by the Romanian ministry of foreign affairs dated 27 February 1954 says of the labour camps: “Many prisoners have been hit with iron bars, spades, shovels and whips for no reason. Many died as a result of the blows they received, while others were disabled for life. A number of prisoners have been shot dead; others have been refused medical treatment when sick and forced to carry on working against medical advice, some of them dying as a result. Prisoners are put into isolation cells in winter naked or scantily clad. Some have been forced to stand in icy water until dinner time as a punishment, while others have been put outside naked in summer with their hands tied, to be bitten by mosquitoes.”

Translation by Liz Waters

From Comrade Baron. Corvina Press, Budapest, 2013. By courtesy of the author.

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