My husband was born in Romania and passed his early years in Bucharest, a city known before the war as the “Paris of the East.” He remembered going to the park with his Nanny and playing soccer with friends while the Germans were occupying his world. Miraculously, he was left unharmed; he was even able to attend a private French Lycée for several years despite fascist laws. His classmates experienced the same superficial safety, for they were considered General Antonescu’s safe-deposit-wealth. Romania’s war leader was waiting to sell them to the highest bidder.
Antonescu was negotiating a deal without either Hitler or Eichmann ever knowing – to sell the Bucharest Jews and send them to Palestine. But the British, who controlled Palestine at that time, didn’t want to upset the Arabs. Even though Ben-Gurion, the leader of Israel, wanted the Bucharest Jews to build up the new country, the British told Antonescu,“No.” They called it a slave trade, unethical to sell people, despite the fact that thousands of Romanian refugees were willing to be bought to go to another country.
My husband’s years as a young boy consisted of many fears. The fascists in Romania set the groundwork for the communists after the war and their politics didn’t allow any private school to exist. My husband’s beloved Lycée was closed and he and his friends were dispersed to other schools where they had to learn Russian.
Years later came escape to Paris and my husband was able to speak his beloved French. But not for long. English became another tool for survival and New York had to become home.
After having lived twenty-six years in the new world, my husband’s dream of seeing the iron curtain knocked down, came true. That’s when I asked him if we could visit Romania? I was so eager for him to show me the playground where he played soccer as a boy. It meant a lot to me to see the school where he learned to love Molière and Feydeau.
In March 1990, ten weeks after Ceausescu was executed, my husband returned to Romania and shared with me a part of his life that he had kept secret even to his own self.
Luck was not with us when we arrived in Bucharest; my husband had a virus and high fever. He went to bed and translated for me how to say tea and honey in Romanian to the hotel’s telephone operator. As I was talking on the phone, I heard explosions and gun shots. I went to our window overlooking Calea Victorei, Bucharest’s Fifth Avenue, and saw hundreds of men marching six-abreast through the avenue. Their faces were smeared black with soot; they wore miners’ helmets and carried long sticks and heavy chains. They marched in synchronized lines, taking over the avenue, smashing store windows, knocking down anyone who came in their way. They even took pleasure urinating on buildings.
“Let’s go outside and see this,” I yelled, excited.
“I’m sick,” my husband responded. “And this is not a game.”
“What an opportunity. I’ve never experienced a revolution.” I felt one day it would take its place in my memory chest and I would write about it.
“Yes. Please, I need to see history in the making!”
We went outside into the night. It was pandemonium. The miners were yelling and screaming, swinging their chains at anyone who dared come too near. There was something about their primordial behavior that made me think of cavemen. I wanted to see more but smoke bombs cut our gait.
We noticed there was a cement barrier on the other side of the street and several people were using it as a shield, sliding down and hiding to the safe side when smoke bombs came too near. An interesting strategy I thought.
Sharing our protective shield were two Romanian students who were delighted to practice their English with us. My husband didn’t dare tell them he spoke Romanian.
He thought it best to avoid complicated explanations. The students were happy to interpret the revolutionary scene unfolding before us, and theorized that President Iliescu had staged the miners so he could stop them as easily as he had started them, and bring a calm to the city. He wanted to prove his governing skills. The Romanians have a flare for the theater. And the newly elected President was using the street for his stage. Iliescu had never envisioned that years later, he’d be tried in Romania’s criminal court for his theatrics and Crimes against Humanity.
But the chains, gun shots and smoke bombs were not props from any stage. The sounds of Lenin’s statue being smashed down and the hundreds of voices shouting in joy as they made it happen, was not make-believe. And not all the spectators were privy to the information our students were narrating to us like a Greek chorus. Yet, we were not sure if we could trust their analysis. In Romania, the truth is not always accurate and a lie is not necessarily an un-truth.
Whatever the staging was, the violence around us was real. Danger was everywhere – gun shots, smoke bombs, fire flares, windows smashed, blood on the streets. After a couple of hours of being in the middle of an uprising, we realized we had seen enough. It was time to leave. But to cross the avenue was high risk. We took the chance. We were hungry.
It was after midnight and there were no restaurants opened. We returned to our hotel, hoping to find something to eat. As we entered the barely lit dining room, Gypsy music resonated from the walls; emotions could be sensed in a loud roar. People were peeking out the window, standing and drinking, talking in languages from dozens of countries. Cameras and tape recorders were placed on tables next to bottles of scotch and wine. Cigarette smoke turned the room into a fog of war. I heard foreign languages and thought they must be journalists covering the storm.
My husband asked for a table and before he could be refused, folded several dollar bills into the palm of the Maitre’d. He remembered his Romanian culture and we were rewarded in a second with a nod of the head, a whistle to a waiter, and a table placed directly on the stage, next to several Gypsy violinists.
As the crowd drank, the music became louder and louder. The violins seemed to synchronize with the gunshots and explosions until everyone inside our dining room didn’t know anymore what the morning would bring. Everyone was drunk so as not to think. And the Gypsy musicians played louder so no one would hear the screams from the street. Everyone felt this could be their last supper. So we joined in, and ate and drank as the musicians played louder and louder.
The good news is that by the end of the evening, my husband’s fever disappeared and I was able to put into my memory’s treasure chest a scene of violence when the miners staged an uprising and created havoc. I shared this scene with Mica as she escaped, alone.
She watched a man run into the street, trying to cross the road. Dozens of miners surrounded him, flicking their chains and taunting him. He darted into a building, but a second later, he ran out, a fiery torch in his hand. He threw the torch into the middle of the miners and laughed as the flames filled the air. The miners retaliated by knocking him down and shattering the building’s windows. Chaos exploded on the road. Gunfire. Sirens. She saw a woman run out of a bus carrying a baby. The infant’s clothes were on fire! Mica tried to crouch down and hide behind her bike. She had never experienced violence before, and now she found herself in the middle of it.
Frightened, she squatted low behind a row of bushes. A voice from a loudspeaker mounted on a streetlight and warned the people to obey. “Go home! Don’t fight back!” The distorted voice urged people over and over to stay inside and not resist the miners storming into town. Then Mica saw a squad of secret police marching toward Central Square. They seized the few people left on the street and beat them with wooden clubs.
Mica stared, afraid to move from her hiding place. She knew the uprising had been intended to terrify the people and create hysteria. Then the communists could appear onstage and create a semblance of order. It was a classic strategy, her father had told her so: treating citizens like cattle, rounding them up, bringing them to the range, and then locking them in cages. The iron curtain padlocked tightly.