This post actually begins with the last. The daughter of my friend Jonka studied Japanese at the Jagiellonian University (she now lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband) but did post graduate study in Heidelberg. It was there that she met the lady who was to become the first and, so far last, person from Rumania to have lunch at our house.
Monika, who was working as a doctor at a local hospital, was probably not a typical Rumanian. She came from near Oradea in western Rumania , not far from the Hungarian border, a town known to many of its inhabitants as Nagyvarad (Hungarian) or Grosswardein (German). Monika was in fact a Banat German, a member of the lesser known of the two German speaking communities in Rumania, descendants of Germans who were settled in the area in the period following the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718 when the Banat, by now largely devastated and depopulated after years of warfare, was ceded to Austria by the Ottoman Empire. Bohemians too settled in the Banat and Czech was also spoken here for several generations. Add in the Magyars and the area was pretty multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. Indeed the same could be said of Rumania as whole and Peter Trudgill in his very readable book Sociolinguistics refers to a study from 1956 which found speakers of over 20 languages in Rumania.
The other Rumanian I got to know was our German language assistant in my Sixth Form year at school. His name was Kurt and he was a Transylvanian German from Sibiu or as he called it Hermannstadt (the town too has a Hungarian name, Nagyszeben) . He had been allowed to leave for West Germany after completing his military service in exchange for the appropriate sum in Deutschmarks from the Federal Government. Under the maniacal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu selling the country’s ethnic Germans to West Germany was as they say a nice little earner, something which Kurt described as ‘Menschenhandel’. To encourage them to leave Ceausescu made life hard for them, for example by flattening their ancient villages and relocating them to Communist mini-towns, a policy known as systemisation. Those Germans that remained after the unlamented demise of the Conducador left soon afterwards. As a result a German community that flourished for over 600 years has largely disappeared. There are, however, still two million Magyars and significant tensions remain.
Of course everyone suffered under Ceausescu and his infamous Securitate secret police. He subjected the people to a regime of austerity that would make even George Osborne blanche and succeeded in paying off the country’s foreign debt, which, paradoxically, may have made the transition to free market capitalism easier than it was, say, for debt ridden Poland. But his megalomania scarred the country. I remember Kurt, after a visit to his parents, bringing us a copy of the Rumanian party daily, which was nothing more than six pages of pictures of the leader and of his thoughts, such as they were. Bucharest, the capital, was once an elegant city known as the Paris of the East. It was devastated by an earthquake in 1977 but the destruction continued throughout the 1980s as numerous fine buildings were flattened to male space for Ceausescu’s ludicrous presidential palace.
Even by the standards of the Eastern Bloc Rumania was a run by a lunatic and his legacy was dire. The country’s achievement since has been correspondingly impressive. This might say something about Rumanians. It might also suggest that great numbers will not want to come here. But if they do, I will say ‘welcome’ or possibly ‘willkommen’.