TRAVELLING IN TRANSYLVANIA 1987–88

INTRODUCTION
 

I came to Hungary in the autumn of 1987 as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies at Kossuth Lajos University that has since become part of the University of Debrecen. Hungary at that time was a police state under dictatorial communism with an active Secret Police, especially in Eger where my wife’s phone was tapped and her mail read. During that academic year 1987–1988 I made two trips with her to Transylvania (Erdély), Romania. The area known as Transylvania had been an integral part of Hungary for over 1000 years until the treaty ending World War I which gave away two thirds of Hungary’s territory to various neighbouring countries with the largest chunk, Transylvania going to Romania. In that instant three million Hungarians found themselves suddenly outside the political borders of their country, becoming the largest ethnic minority in Europe – a minority then subjected to a series of decrees and restrictions by their new government that might accurately be described as “cultural genocide”.(1)

Visiting Transylvania was difficult and, as I was to experience, often dangerous. After my second trip, I wrote a serious but satirically titled essay, “My Rumanian Holiday” that I shared with close friends and colleagues many of whom suggested I publish it on an Op Ed page in one of several United States newspapers. I refused to consider their well-meaning suggestions having had some small experience of the Hungarian and Romanian police states. In fact, I did not even dare to send it through the mail as earlier my personal mail had been opened, read, and then discarded by the Hungarian police. I also had come to realise just how dangerous my trips had been for those Hungarians living in Transylvania I met, talked to or, far worse, visited. Each of them had been subsequently called in for questioning by the police about those conversations and visits. My fears for those people and for others were well-founded. Three years later, in May 1991 Professor Ioan Culianu would be murdered in the men’s room of the University of Chicago Divinity School – a murder still officially listed as unsolved but which was then and is now widely believed to be the work of the Romanian Secret Police, the infamous Securitate, a murder done with impunity not in Romania but in the United States!(2) How much more vulnerable were people in Hungary and Romania. So rather than trust the mail, I sent my essay to friends through a diplomatic pouch which today sounds melodramatic or, worse, self-dramatising but which at that time appeared wholly warranted and prudent.

Rather than attempt to “update” the essay, I will share it as written but add some needed background and information in a few notes.

MY RUMANIAN HOLIDAY(3)

I will send this through the diplomatic pouch for obvious reasons: much of my Erdély adventure is not the kind of thing that the authorities here want others to know about. So you may not get this for awhile even though I am writing a little over a day after returning. You are free to share this letter with anyone, but only on the following conditions: if you tell people something of this trip do not under any circumstances mention any names of persons or places except Transylvania (Erdély) and Rumania; if you show the letter to anyone else first take a magic marker and obliterate all person and place names except Rumania, Transylvania and Ceauşescu. I know this sounds melodramatic, but after reading what follows, you may not think so. The arm of the Rumanian secret police is long and should any of this become public, they will search heaven and earth to find and punish any named Hungarian living in Rumania.

Our Rumanian adventure was indeed an adventure complete with Secret Police surveillance, customs inspector harassment, incredible transportation difficulties, and everywhere the stench of Ceauşescu. The country literally smells – stinks of the offal in the alleys, decay in the buildings, vomit in the bus stations, and the dead and the dying in waiting rooms. Everywhere the stench of the totalitarian dictatorship, the police state par excellence – a strange mixture of sophisticated electronic eavesdropping worthy of the FBI or James Bond coupled with a curious ineptness straight out of Laurel and Hardy, all laced with a near starving population weakened through poor diet and long bread lines and kept continually nervous by erratic gas, water and electricity services. A truly hateful if very successful modern dictatorship dedicated to the self-aggrandisement of one man.

Transylvania in Rumania today remains a shell of a region of the once glorious Kingdom of the Hungarians, and a once viable nation state, because all its energy now goes to perpetuating lies and untruths; such as, the Rumanians are the direct descendents of the Romans. There is a hilarious statue in Kolozsvár (Cluj) of Romulus and Remus suckling at the wolf! I mean, really, how can anyone take such things seriously, yet there it is and it must be taken seriously upon pain of torture, disappearance, or worse. Museums are obligated to include in their exhibits a Roman ruin, so they obligingly hoak one up. The enemy of this state is, of course, truth or the search for truth, hence all books which do not reflect the Big Lie of the “100 years of Progress” under Ceauşescu, or the unity of all Rumanians [sic], or the antiquity of this “most ancient” of countries are banned, burned or confiscated.(4) This bit of background is necessary in order for you to understand our first “incident”.

We took the night train into Rumania leaving Budapest at 6 p.m. and arriving at Kolozsvár at 4 a.m. (We were scheduled to arrive at 3 a.m. but were delayed – actually, we were the occasion of the delay as you will see.) This particular train has the best reputation for getting smuggled goods into the country, and, as with all visitors to Rumania, we were smuggling in food, medicine and other things. I had been warned last year that if I were caught trying to smuggle books into Rumania then the American Embassy would be unable to help me so I had no books, just food, medicine and a gas camp stove. Csilla (my wife) and her brother had between them 65–75 books secreted in their backpacks and blanket rolls. We took food for those we would visit as well as for ourselves since there is no food in the country unless you eat at expensive hotel restaurants which the authorities really force visitors to do. Restaurants have meat in limited forms: a fatty salami, some hot doggy things, a weak bratwurst and – for our first breakfast – mystery meat which must have walked all the way to the slaughterer and which we finally decided by vote of three to zero must have been dog.(5) No meat is for sale in shops and every butcher shop I saw was empty and padlocked. Cheese and most dairy products are unknown. Also without ration coupons we would be unable to buy bread. So we took food. And, for those whom we would visit, we had delicacies including coffee, chocolate, cocoa, cheese, spices, pepper (extremely rare), soap, candles, razors and so forth.

We stowed our backpacks in the overhead racks and settled down to wait for the border crossing and the inevitable customs inspections. The previous October we were very successful in getting everything through because the customs inspector spoke some English and was almost entirely taken up with me and why I wanted to visit Rumania – “To hike in the mountains”, I told him. “But there are no mountains around Brasov”, he said. “Oh, but there are if you live in a flat place like I do, such as Detroit or Debrecen”, I replied. Silence. We got through. Not this time. This time we drew the short straw and got the notorious Pig Woman who spoke no English and little Hungarian, and who was, I presume, fundamentally illiterate.(6) In She Came. “Show me everything”, says she in Rumanian. No small talk, no greetings. She went through my pack first and I thought we were going to escape, since she spent a lot of time with my gas camp stove, but at last she decided it was OK. Her method was effective; if crude. She would plunge her fat hand into a pocket of the pack and rummage around until she felt something suspicious. My heart sank, since I knew what she was searching for and was she going to find it! I even had to open my collapsed small case which folds into itself so she could see if I was hiding anything, such as a letter for someone.(7) Rumanian mails are regularly intercepted, read, and then thrown away, filed away with the Secret Police or, occasionally, delivered, but not necessarily by a mailman. Someone we know received a postcard from Vienna which he was ordered to pick up at the Secret Police Headquarters. The message on the card read, “Vienna is beautiful!” which struck me as appropriate for a picture postcard sent from that city. “Why is Vienna beautiful?” asked the secret policeman obviously keen on reading secret codes. “Look at the picture on the card”, replied our friend. Of such incidents are legends or bad jokes made. On our train this customs woman triumphantly showed a colleague of hers two letters she had confiscated along with some unfortunate person’s passport.

On she searched. In plunged her hand into our smallest handbag where everything was carefully layered up over a few small books, and out she came grunting the Rumanian equivalent of “Ah Ha! Gotcha!!” In plunged her hand again, and out came another book. Now these books were terrible things in her piglet eyes encased in fat and the blinkers of the police state, for they were about Hungarian folk customs, beliefs and motifs – all outlawed in that country where everyone by law and official history is a Rumanian and must have only Rumanian customs, beliefs and motifs. But all this was a mere prelude to the Big Event, which was to delay the train for over an hour and consisted of the despoiling of Csilla’s and her brother’s packs. Oh, here she found treasure for sure. Of course, there was no dignity or consideration, things were ripped open and flung about, and many were damaged.

And there was a bit of dialogue in broken Hungarian as well: “Where are you going?” “Where are you visiting?” “Oh, we’re going to visit several places.” “Ha! That’s what you think. You’re not going anywhere” – and other such subtle thinly veiled threats that she would take them both off the train immediately. (The prospect of being in the hands of any officials of that country was frightening.) More threats, more despoilment, more elation at the treasure she was finding. Our passports were confiscated backing up her threats. Then Csilla said, “My American husband” – magic words which occasioned a hurried conference, then an argument with her colleagues, the other customs inspectors who quickly concluded that this time she had over-reached herself. The argument went on and on for an hour. Eventually we were not taken off the train, but instead to our shock we received a receipt for the confiscated books and told they could be picked up on our return to Hungary – hardly standard operating procedure. Usually books were simply seized and never returned. Meanwhile I had managed to secrete a couple of copies of Csilla’s newly published book on W. B. Yeats in my backpack and, later, two additional copies were returned to us so she could at least give a few people her own book, but we could bring none of the others to anyone. Alas. So support the American Civil Liberties Union and fight against anyone who tries to ban books, burn books, or say which books you or anyone may or may not read. What a precious freedom we Americans have.

We arrived at 4 a.m. in Kolozsvár and found the lobby of an open hotel where we could doze until 6 a.m. when we were told to move on, for legally we could not stay there. In the whole city there was only one hotel where we could legally stay. No other hotel had “room” for us. Moreover, Rumania has a cute scheme for getting hard currency. They force foreigners to change money and they set the exchange rate! I got one-fifth the value for my dollars that I would have gotten in Hungary! Robbers, pure and simple, but I don’t argue, I pay. Now, it is a crime for any foreigner to stay anywhere or with anyone except in such hotels specially designated for foreigners and each of those hotels is first class with high prices. To check in you must present your passport and a paper which says you have changed enough money to pay the bill, and then when the bill is paid, the paper is cancelled and you need to produce another one at the next hotel, and so forth. Also, in this way foreigners can be watched and kept track of. The first thing I did in coming into a hotel room, after the experience of the first two hotels was to disconnect the phone since that is the primary listening device. Before checking out I would reconnect it. I also checked for one way mirrors on inside walls – all spy stuff, but in that country it is justified.

We came under surveillance by the Secret Police because we visited a writer. Writers are as dangerous as books or as dangerous as teachers so both Hungarian writers and teachers of Hungarian are constantly watched. One teacher we visited was being observed from the flat across the street. Another lamented the lack of decent lighting in and outside the building where they lived. He said that it was not always like this: “When our son was here and involved in protests, the Secret Police had lights installed in the hallways and the outside entrance so they could observe his coming and going more easily, but now that he has been exiled in the West, they have disconnected the lights.”

The Secret Police look harmless enough and, really, their behaviour sometimes resembled that of the Keystone Kops, but they have ultimate power, and are professional torturers. What was almost a game for us in daylight would have been terrifying at night. Also there were four of us, including our host who laughed at their surveillance – he is constantly watched and laughter is one of his best defences. So there was our very own Secret Policeman eating ice-cream about forty yards down from our hotel entrance leaning against a lamppost on the opposite side of the street. At the railway station there they were again: three of them. We heard from a friend that there was a fourth but none of us ever saw him. They wore no uniforms, nothing to distinguish them, but they were always there following us at a short distance until after we left the railway station. Clearly, they wanted us to know we were being observed and followed.

We had gone to the station to say goodbye to Csilla’s brother who was heading back to Hungary, but although he had a ticket for a specific train and that train appeared on schedule and that train did stop in the station, he was not allowed to get on. I know this might be confusing in the United States of America, but somehow trains that come and go on schedule, but take on no passengers struck me as normal for Rumania. It goes along with telephones which are useless for communicating, but work very well for eavesdropping; TVs and radios in hotel rooms which are proudly advertised as a hotel service and for which you pay, but which, of course, do not work; ice cream that never saw cream and that which is labelled as strawberry never came within a yard of any berry (all ice cream is flavoured with the ubiquitous perfume which Rumania puts not only in ice cream but also in cognac and liqueurs); and gas, electricity and water that are sometimes on but more often and for most of the time are off.

We left the railway station with our three or four shadows in tow until we got on a bus to return to the hotel, when they all suddenly disappeared perhaps because it was 5 p.m. and obviously this shift does not work after five. (Another example of the Keystone Kops.) Yet these professional, anonymous torturers regularly beat up anyone or everyone, including foreigners, so they are not to be fooled with. Still, they looked harmless enough.

When we talked with people they always had a radio blaring to create a confused background noise for those eavesdropping or recording our conversation. Once, when the electricity went off, our host’s son played the piano loudly for ninety minutes so we could talk. Why all this surveillance? The plausible answer again is: because we were visiting writers and teachers who are the enemy of this or any totalitarian regime.

In all the country of Rumania there are privations, but in the Hungarian areas conditions are worse and in areas with an almost totally Hungarian population, conditions are the worst of all. Thus in some cities we saw some food available in stores. But in Hungarian towns people are strictly rationed to one-half kilo (one pound) of flour and a half kilo of sugar, five eggs, and a tiny amount of salami per month! In the Hungarian villages the limit goes down to only one quarter of a kilo (a half pound) of flour and sugar per month. Some people used to receive food parcels from abroad, but no more: “What do you need that for?” asked the Secret Police. “We are sending it back where it came from and you will receive no more.” Last year vegetables were for sale in the markets, but this year the authorities forbade the sellers from selling them in Hungarian towns.

I came back convinced that I must do what I can – in this case translating and writing literary criticism – to help get these writers a hearing.(8) The play Csilla and I finished translating in January, The Heretic is not only a fine piece of dramatic literature, but also an accurate picture of life under the Secret Police.(9) I plan to write an article on “The Police as the Ultimate Terrorist”.(10) These may be small contributions but at least they will be my contributions to a saner world. And the world of Rumania is as insane as its leader: official policy is to rub out all traces of the Hungarians who have lived in Transylvania since the fifth or sixth century (whereas the first traces of the Rumanians occur later in the 12th or 13th centuries and those are very scarce). Hungarians in Rumania cannot travel, cannot have foreigners in their home over night, cannot write the Hungarian name of the places where they were born or live, and cannot give their children Hungarian names. There is, instead, a list of 80 officially approved names for children. Pick one from it. It is good enough for you! All Hungarian universities have been eliminated. The only remaining university programme in Hungarian literature for the whole country accepts only six – that is 6! – students per year out of the 2.5–3 million Hungarians in Rumania. Most of the Hungarian secondary schools are also closed. Each year one class is eliminated and we hear now that the primary schools will all close next year, leaving a few classes in Hungarian as a foreign language, but no instruction in other subjects through Hungarian. Thus will end 1400–1500 years of Hungarian education and culture.

And now slowly but inexorably the basis of all Hungarian life and culture, the cohesive tiny village is being eradicated by small and larger pressures. The current scheme is to bulldoze the villages including homes, churches and cemeteries turning them into fields, then to erect on them new concrete housing blocks accommodating twelve families each with one communal kitchen and one communal toilet and no running water. This is far more severe than The Grapes of Wrath though I keep seeing the scene from the film where Henry Fonda confronts the bulldozer only to discover his neighbour is driving it: a job is a job. Here the confrontation will be with the Rumanian army and they will shoot to kill as they already do at the frontier. The English Ambassador to Hungary told me the week before I left on this trip to Erdély that the bulldozer scheme was already being carried out in villages. England at least protests! But what has the USA done?

As someone remarked, with the elimination of Hungarian books, magazines, journals, education, museums, place names, people’s names and now the bulldozing programme, “All we lack is a yellow star”. True. Hitler is alive and well and living in Ceauşescu. What the blacks experience in South Africa, the Hungarians suffer in Rumania. So the world watches South Africa, but no one watches Rumania and how could they? No Western journalist is allowed into the country or if they are, they are carefully guided to showcases of Rumanian prosperity (including such grotesque instances as, for instance, painted apples on trees or chunks of meat carried from town to town to fill the shop windows to glorify Ceauşescu’s greatness as he wandered through his empire and of course not a word is spoken about minorities). The Secret Police spies amount to one in every two or three people in the population and those spies are everywhere. People- watching is not a harmless pastime here, but a hideous profession.

Why go there? It is an incredibly beautiful place with some of the best scenery I’ve ever seen with a rich storehouse of the oldest surviving forms of Hungarian folk culture and of still extant remnants of medieval and Renaissance architecture and culture. (This area escaped the 150 year-long Turkish occupation and destruction of the rest of the country in the 16th–17th centuries.) Life is intense there and even a visitor may share in that intensity – I suffered some horrible nightmares upon returning, but can barely imagine what nightmares daily life must produce for the Hungarians living there. And these people are very brave, determined and alone. So somehow it is important for those of us who have so much to bear witness for those who are losing what little they have; and somehow it is equally important to bring what small relief we can by our very presence – so much more than the small gifts of food and medicine we are able to carry in; and, finally, how important it is for a citizen of the richest nation on earth and one of the freest to never take such things for granted or to assume that they are more than “on loan” for a time. So I will contribute to the ACLU, exercise my precious vote as intelligently and compassionately as I can, and use whatever talents I have within and without my chosen profession to speak for those who have no voice. Already my trips have influenced the book on Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction I am writing. How much more I value his speaking out against genocide, racism, totalitarianism and in defence of first amendment rights.(11) I hope you, too, will speak whenever and wherever necessary in defence of such freedoms. There are many other details, but Enough!

Eger, 19 June 1988

1 The term “cultural genocide” is a widely applied term used by historians and political commentators to describe, among others, the plight of Hungarians in Romania. See, for example, George Schöpflin, Witnesses to Cultural Genocide: First-Hand Reports on Romania’s Minority Policies Today (New York, 1979) and the Helsinki Watch Committee’s report on attempts to “purify” Romania.

2 For a detailed analysis of this assassination see Ted Anton, Eros, Magic and the Death of Professor Culiano, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

3 In the United States in 1988 Rumania was commonly spelled as I spelled it with a u. Fifteen years later most countries have acceded to Romania’s wishes for the country’s name to be spelled now with an o.

4 Today’s Rumania appeared after World War I when the Treaty of Trianon, 4 June 1920 added the whole of Hungarian Transylvania (along with the provinces of Bukovina and Bessarabia) to the Rumanian principalities outside the Carpathians. The post-World War II treaties confirmed the addition of this Hungarian territory to Rumania.

5 Although restaurants have only limited quantities and kinds of meat, that does not prevent them from offering guests a full menu; that is, a full printed menu. When I naively tried to order what looked like a marvellous dish replete with chicken, the waiter carefully wrote down my order, then later delivered a plate of what was available: some fatty sausage and weak bratwurst.

6 A literal translation of the nickname given her, disznónő is “pigwoman”.

7 Next year we did succeed in smuggling the then confiscated books into the country, so persistence pays off.

8 See “The Ditches of Hell: Csaba Lászlóffy’s The Heretic or a Plague of Slugs”. Theatre Journal 43.4 (May 1991): 209–18 and “An Affinity for Philosophy: The Absurdoid Theatre of Géza Páskándi”. Modern Drama 53.1 (Spring 2010): 3–21.

9 The Heretic or a Plague of Slugs had its world premiere in Csilla Bertha’s and my translation at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts in 1993 in Fort Lauderdale directed by David Nixon and has had productions at SUNY-Brockport College and SUNY-Alfred College. It has never been produced in the original Hungarian because it was too dangerous to do so under Ceauşescu. For the full text of the play see Silenced Voices: Hungarian Plays from Transylvania, selected and translated by Csilla Bertha and Donald E. Morse (Dublin: 2008), 99–157.

10 The essay remains unfinished.

11 The Novels of Kurt Vonnegut: Imagining Being an American. New York: Praeger, 2003.

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