The revolution started here?

hungarian-church-timisoara

Part of my quest in Timisoara is to understand why a Revolution that would topple the Ceaucescu dictatorship would start in a Hungarian-speaking church.

And since the building is not open during the week,  the only way to get inside is to be there on Sunday morning.  Where else would I be at that time of the week?

The special challenge, of course, is that the service is totally in Hungarian.  Now, I have travelled a distance into the Romanian language, but that would not get me far here.  Far from it, in fact.  And you may know that Hungarian is for many a uniquely impenetrable language, part of neither the Germanic nor Romance families.

But I could recognize what was happening during this reformed or Calvinist service.  An Advent candle was lit.  People repeated the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer.  One of the hymns was written by “Luther Marton.” They stood for the Gospel, after singing a verse of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” to the tune Nicaea just as I had every Sunday morning of my youth.

During the sermon, the lengthy sermon, I had some time to observe the congregation.  The demographic represented most heavily were seventy-year old women, but there were others.  Proud couples wearing their best dark long coats.  Families with all the children.  A building that seated 200 was a good three-quarters full, some up in the balcony.

The Minister preached from that pulpit high above.  He had no notes, speaking freely and firmly.  The Bible was open in his left hand, and he read a few verses during the sermon as well.  A fellow maybe in his thirties.

About the same age as Laszlo Tokes would have been about 27 years ago when he refused to be reassigned from this, the downtown church in one of Romania’s biggest cities to a small parish in a tiny village.  Tokes would not be silenced by his Bishop, a collaborator with the Ceaucescu regime.

And his parishioners were not happy either.  As Tokes was being evicted from his Manse, a couple of hundred joined on the street to protest.  Some started shouting “Down with Ceaucescu,”  and soon they were joined by some of their Romanian neighbours.

By the next day, the crowd included far more than just the congregation from the Reformed Church.  Thousands massed in the main square of Timisoara, even as the regime sent machine guns to shoot at the crowds.  Signs read:  “Jos Communism” (Down with Communism), “We’re not leaving”, and — possibly the most subversive thing to say to a Communist regime — “Dumnizeu exista”  (God lives).

Sure, there would have been no revolution without the support of thousands of Romanian citizens who risked their lives, and many who sacrificed it.  And, even if Laszlo Tokes had not been the one to spark the Revolution, as all the other Communist regimes had fallen, it would likely have taken place later, another way, eventually.

But I looked into the determined faces of the folk sitting there. They hold to a minority faith within a minority community, a group that cannot be pushed around.  And I am not surprised that a revolution might be started by people like these.

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Cosmopolitan, really?

Timisoara is Romania’s ‘most western’ city.  In two senses of the word.

Close to the Hungarian border, and the most pluralistic.  Timisoara, part of the region known as the Banat, has been a waystation of German, Hungarian, Serb, Italian, as well as of course its Romanian residents.

The picture, on the right, is one of the buildings of the Universitatea de Vest din Timisoara.  Western University in Timisoara, if you will.  With a good and growing reputation.

But is there much in the modern Romanian state that deserves to be called cosmopolitan?  Much of the German population fled just before the end of World War II.  In the 1950s, many  Serb-speaking residents of the Banat were sent to Serbia.  And the relationship with the Hungarian population has long been thorny:  some of the Magyar population fled westward, especially in the 1980s, when Ceaucescu’s Stalinist policies made Romania an increasingly difficult place to live.  Timisoara is not as cosmopolitan as it once was.

Despite some official policies to recognize its Hungarian minority, the Romanian state has very much been run to preserve and protect the Romanian culture.

There’s nothing like Canada’s welcoming of immigrants from various nationalities, which we might see also in the United States in a good year, and even to a degree in countries such as the UK and Germany.  Romania, like several other Eastern Europe states, carries no pretense about cultural pluralism.

This even in the face of a severe demographic problem.  Romania’s population has fallen over 12 per cent from 1992 levels, the problem intensifying after it joined the European Union in 2007.  Millions of Romanians are working in EU countries such as Italy, Spain and the UK earning pay levels well above the average income at home.

Yet in the current election campaign, I have been watching the immigration policies of the leading political parties.  And there seems to be a consensus that the only type of immigrant that all the parties wants to encourage, is the return of Romanians currently working in other parts of Europe.  This is something that will happen only when Romanian income levels start to approach the west.

So Timisoara is the most Western, the most cosmopolitan, of Romanian cities.  But Romania needs to find a way to welcome and attract skilled workers with other nationalities.  Perhaps Timisoara’s history can provide a model for co-operation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still bringing down that wall

The Romanian Revolution in 1989 started in Timisoara, which I will admit was part of the attraction.  Let’s find out a little bit more about what makes this place tick.

So I went this morning to the “Memorialui Revolutei din Decembrie 1989.”  For those who   haven’t taken Romanian lessons, you’ve discovered the encouraging overlap in some vocabulary.

A permanent display is located in an old military building on the edge of town, still pockmarked with bullet-holes from action in 1989.  It was not a polished display, almost a scrapbook of memories from the brutal but exciting time that local townsfolk from Timisoara stood in front of machine guns of the Ceacescu regime, until they couldn’t bear to keep shooting.  Some of the art, and the AV display, I found pretty moving.

There didn’t seem to be much if any funding from the Romanian state.  The display is sponsored by an association dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the several hundred Timisoara victims of the revolution in 1989.

In fact there is a little struggle for ‘ownership’ of that Revolution. In Bucharest, you hear mostly about the day that Ceaucescu called for a rally of support in front of the Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest…which turned into a riot against his regime.

But there are some suggestions that the pendulum in Bucharest was actually swung by a rival faction within the Communist establishment, reckoning that their best hope for survival was to shed Ceaucescu and put a reformist face in front of the people.  By this line of thinking, Romania’s largest political party even today, the PSD (Partidul Social Democratic) — the subject of many criticisms of corruption in its exercise of power — is the direct inheritor of the Communist machine.  Meaning the revolution is still incomplete.

A nice part of the Memorial was putting it in the context of what was happening in neighbouring countries in 1989.  Hence the little chunk of the Berlin Wall, together with some wreaths to memorialize the Timisoarean victims in the same struggle.

It was no coincidence, to my mind, that the sparks that started the end of the Ceaucescu regime were generated in Timisoara.  For those experts of World War I history, Timisoara is part of what is called “the Banat,” a fertile but featureless land which for many years was between Romania, Hungary and Serbia and tended to be trampled on by invading armies.  It is a relatively cosmopolitan place.  So in 1989, Serbs and Hungarians could pick up on their radios or TVs the news of the Berlin Wall falling, and of Hungary and Yugoslavia reforming.  Compared to the worldview of Romanians further east, held back by their state-controlled media, Timisoara could smell freedom.

And, walking through the displays this morning, I could sense they weren’t giving up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello Timisoara…

timisoara-market-image

Touchdown was today, in Timisoara, the birthplace of the 1989 Revolution.

It was anything but a typical December day.  It turns out December 1 is the National Day of Romania, their celebration of the Romanian state that corresponds to our July 1st celebrations.

In Romania, they take the national day rather more seriously.  There was a military parade before I arrived, and throughout the day I was hearing radios playing patriotic songs.

Including of course the national anthem with the catchy lyrics, translated here:

Wake up, Romanians, from the sleep of death, Into which you have been sunk by the barbaric tyrants

Now or never, make a new fate for yourself, to which even your cruel enemies will bow.

Now or never let us give proof to the world That in these veins a Roman blood still flows,

That in our chests we hold a name with pride, Victorious in battle….

Mixed in with these ancient Balkan struggles, is the preparation for Christmas, which Romanians also take quite seriously.  There is a Christmas market, in the same style and scale as  you might be familiar with in Munich.   At the end of the night there are fireworks, and a good time is had by all.

This year there is an English mist over the proceedings, keeping the numbers down.  The picture is actually from these festivities in Timisoara in a previous year.  It feels to me a bit like the Canada Day festivities in Ottawa with a temporary stage in front of the National Theatre building.  And even the lousy weather isn’t preventing things from proceeding quite vigorously (as I can tell as the main square is just around the corner from the hotel).

More on Timisoara in the next two or three days when the weather improves.

 

 

 

The saga starts this week

Most people have an urge to dig a little into their roots.

The British Isles and parts of Europe are often packed in the summer with Americans carrying guidebooks and asking for help in discovering their home town and how to order the local beer. The Canadians are much the same, but more polite.

And tapping the roots on my father’s side wasn’t too difficult.  My father in fact wrote a little history, taking the family tree back two hundred years.  To see the places they lived, visiting Northern Ireland and Scotland is not too challenging.  And the local beer is just fine.

But my mother’s side, that’s another story.

Her family left Transylvania, in a town called Medias, around 1924.  Medias was one of the fortified towns founded by Saxon Germans.  While there were Hungarians who lived in the area, the majority of the population was Romanian-speaking. My grandfather had his lungs damaged by a gas attack, fighting for Romania against the Central Powers in World War I.

But that’s one of the few stories I know, for despite the mythology of Canada as a mosaic of many cultures, it was not easy to preserve much about Romania when my mother was growing up in southwestern Ontario.

They were the only Romanians in the little town of Strathroy, not far from London, Ontario. My grandfather ran a shoe repair shop, learned English, sent his kids to the Presbyterian Church. By the time I was born in the 1950s, there was no Romanian spoken in the house, and my mother claimed to know not a word. She could make some Romanian recipes: cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers, and placinta crepes for dessert. That was about it.

After my grandfather died, my grandmother would save up to visit her brother and his family back home. She went two or three times. I can remember she used to bring back sweet wine and very stinky cheese. She didn’t have good things to say about Mr Ceaucescu.

I would try on periodic visits to ask my grandmother about what things were like back in Transylvania before she came over. She was in her eighties, and her answers were getting vague. She was not very interested in social commentary. Other than that the Communists had done significant damage to her homeland.

She was in a nursing home by the time I visited her during the Christmas holidays in 1989. Her TV was carrying coverage of the capture and execution of the Ceaucescus, and it was an optimistic time for Romanians. But I couldn’t get her to focus on the news. She was tired. That was the last time I saw her before her death a few months afterward.

Fast forward 25 years, I’ve largely wound down my career in the advertising business. My resolution for New Years 2016 was to learn the Romanian language, from a zero base. (Well, other than from knowing some French and even three years of high-school Latin which can teach you something about the genitive/dative case of neuter nouns.) During the year I’ve made a fair bit of progress, and I’ve reconnected with my relatives, now living in Bucharest.

My continuing interest in things political has encouraged me to follow the course of Romanian public affairs. I’ve been reading their history and their newspapers. There has been much progress since the short and bloody Revolution of 1989, but their democracy is still fragile in some respects. Legislative elections are taking place on Sunday December 11.

And starting next week, armed with my laptop and a largely untested Romanian vocabulary, I’ll be there taking the pulse of the motherland. First in Timisoara, where the 1989 Revolution was sparked, and then in Bucharest where I will meet the relatives. Doesn’t everyone visit a cold climate in December?

If it’s okay with you, I might share a few things I discover.