I have always wondered why so many of those who happen to be born within the Carpathian arch, in Transylvania, have a sense of coming from a unique, privileged area, why they keep an enduring and unquestioned commitment to it whatever may happen in their lives, whether they stay there forever or only rarely come back. I have written these pages in an attempt to understand some of this through my own experience.
I was born in Râşnov (in the German language Rosenau) with its 13th-century peasant fortress, built by the Sachsen (Transylvanian Saxons), towering up above my Brueckengasse (the Lane of Bridges). The village of my birth was in the southernmost area which the Transylvanian Saxons colonized, in the 12th century. Until World War I, it used to be on the frontier with the kingdom of Romania (Wallachia before the kingdom was founded). Fragments of the old frontier wall can still be seen in the grass.
Identity is about invariables. What happened to the stable heritage of invariables during the communist takeover and the historical drifting of the 1950s thereafter, at the time of my childhood? The landscape of Rosenau is typical of much of Transylvania, with its fortress as the distinguishing mark. When seen from a distance, the steeples of the German (Lutheran) church, erected in the 14th century, and the two Eastern Orthodox churches in the Romanian part of the village, are like the masts of ships sailing over in the waves of wheat and corn across a vast stretch of the BarsaLand. There are the rich, lush pastures next to the village, surrounded by Romania’s tallest mountain range, with oak and fir forests at their base and the barren mountain peaks above. Remember the stunning landscapes in the film Cold Mountain? It was in this area that the film was shot.
That is the type of landscape that induces a sense of boundlessness, but always within a sense of balance and of limits. ”Here, we are protected against everything, even against the harsh crivats wind blowing in from the Russian steppes,” was what we heard people say, and repeated among ourselves as children, hanging around our Lane of Bridges while dangling our legs down from one of the many bridges, or climbing in the trees of some orchard, or lying hidden in stacks of hay. A Saxon child of 5 or 6 could already speak some three languages: his or her native medieval German dialect, which has survived only in these parts and sounding not unlike the way they speak in Holland and Luxemburg, as well as standard German and Romanian. ”We have the best potatoes in the world!” we bragged. Potatoes may seem insignificant, but a little Transylvanian cannot imagine a world without potatoes... Furthermore, nowhere else are our varieties of mountain flowers, Enzian and Alpenrosen. Our Edelweiß is more beautiful than in Switzerland.
Thus we wove the tale of our exceptionalism, while sharing big slices of dark bread with marmalade, even in those times of shortage. Rita, my best friend, and Hans, my ”milk nurse brother,” will always have a special place as heroes in my heart; for they had saved their mothers from the deportations to Siberia during WW II. The war was not yet over, when more than 300 Saxon men and women between 18 and 45 from our village alone were deported. Only mothers of infants younger than one year of age were exempted. Some five years later, less than 200 of those deportees returned. It was seen as the beginning of the end for the community.
I used to read the fairytales of Andersen and the Grimm brothers and about the pranks of Max and Moritz from books with gilt pages and Gothic letters like tendrils, books people passed on from home to home over several generations of children. There were also the Saxon fairytales, which, as I discovered later, closely related to the stories of the furry medieval fox, Maistre Renard, from the other end of the Continent. The massive building where our school was had been built in the 19th century. But the first recorded (German) school of Râşnov dated back to 1510.
The 1940s deportations had so dramatically diminished the number of Saxon children that, even with those few Romanian children (like myself) who joined the German school, we had only one teacher for two of these small classes. After reading from the Lesebuch, in which the longest text was about “Genosse Jossif Wissarionowitsch Stalin”, the teacher left his desk and sat among us, or took us to the forest, taught us the merry old songs and told us the story of the Nibelungs. We were sure that the treacherous leaf had fallen on Siegfried’s shoulder right there in our own forests; and it must have been not far from the brick kiln that he, all thirsty from hunting, stopped to drink from the well. We kept finding traces of tar on the fortress walls, memorial scars from the invasions of the Turks and Tartars. We picked up sea shells at the foot of the walls; for, as we knew, once upon a time this land had been the bottom of the SarmatianSea. When we looked down from the mountains at the BarsaLand, we could just make out the place where the ruins of the ancient Roman fortress lay buried under the ploughed fields. While stern mountain winds blew all around us, we clung to walls and battlements up there. Some of the fortress walls were hidden under profuse ivy, like in Dornroesschen, the German Sleeping Beauty. ”How could we stop things from sinking into the dust?” we wondered; “Maybe through really keeping our eyes open.”
That was our many-layered home. The need and the reality of it. The fortress had been built there in the Middle Ages, in defense against invasions from the East, and it stood like a stone echo of the protective arch of the mountains. The pattern was further echoed by the walls around every household down in the village, designed as it was in a strong, definitive way. The facades and walls clung to one another from house to house in orderly rows down the streets, the habitat of communities holding together in close solidarity where everyone had his or her precise position and space. Patterns that seem immutable, under the circular time of eternal return, paradoxically coexisted with the linear, constructive timeline of history. A structure that had been strong and vital for centuries had now split when it came into collision with a time of enormous waste and destruction. “Im Mauerkranz der Burgen starb die Zeit” (Time Died in the Ring of the Fortress Walls), thus Hans Bergel, the Bavarian writer, began his lament in 1995; he too was born in the Lane of Bridges in Râşnov.
The Saxon community lived in the area for some eight hundred years; the Râşnov Romanians, noted in ancient documents, had also been there for centuries, many of them quite prosperous. Romanians, with their sheep flocks, had made their way through the Carpathian passes from times immemorial, in their transhumance migrations. Old documents also record of the Gypsies in Râşnov, with their traditional crafts – blacksmiths, barbers, shoemakers and cobblers. Everyone gathered at the blacksmith’s, by the river, bringing their oxen and horses to be shod – fewer now, but still some. The dark red embers and red-hot iron seemed to have been glowing there from the beginning of time. And Trica nearby, with his many children, was the only shoemaker in the area.
The vertical walls frequently direct one’s gaze upward. Johannes Honterus, the 16th-century Renaissance uomo universale, drew a map of the stars that he could see so clearly from his native Braşov a few miles to the north; his cosmography came to be used in many European schools. And people there dreamed even of space flights, for in the 1550s Konrad Haas experimented with multi-stage rockets, not far to the west, in Sibiu. My ”Onkel Fritz” as a child joined a large crowd of people to see one of the pioneering pilots, Aurel Vlaicu, make the earliest flights in the Bârsa land at the beginning of the 20th century, generating the unforgettable emotions of a myth come true. Among these Saxon families who were ordered out of their homes and brought to Râşnov after the war, some still smilingly remembered what a Munchhausen fantasy they once thought Hermann Oberth’s ideas on spaced flights to be; but Oberth from Sighişoara proved to be a true visionary; and his exceptionally creative post-war career accomplishments were carried out at NASA. One of our favorite games as children was to run down our stony lanes and imagine ourselves to be both pilot and aircraft.
In those years, slips of paper like wings sometimes mysteriously fluttered down into our courtyards, reading: RESIST. The wish and illusion of being protected and free! Groups of anti-communist partisans were hiding in those mountains; Romanian shepherds and Saxon mountaineers left food, clothes, and messages, in their special, hidden places. The old Transylvanian Minnesang: Et sasse kli waeld Vijeltchen / Ich bin ein klein wild Vögelein, und niemand kann mich zwingen [I am a little wild bird, and nobody will force me] was still being hummed, even after the whole country had become a prison.
And there was that vision once of a ploughman with plough and horse in the field gilded with the sunset, immutable in its magic; when coming nearer, my parents chatted with the ploughman, who was our friend Herr Martin Marzell. Not long before, they had brought him back on a stretcher, from Siberia. ”Thank God he has recovered… Serious diabetes, without treatment for years… So many never came back...” Thus the grown-ups kept whispering, muted. But there was an apparent plan to really destroy the salt of the earth. So the same Martin and his family were soon to be deported again, somewhere in Romania this time, and some unhappy Macedonians were brought to live in Martin’s home; the Macedonians had also been deported from their original homes at Easter time. It was only old-old Marzell who was left at home. Pathetic, he would open his gates every evening, “for the cattle to come from grazing,” he said; but the communist authorities had taken his cattle away years before. “This hope of his may be some good omen,” the Romanian physician said, who had himself just been liberated from forced labor at the DanubeCanal. As the jingle of the time had it: “Vinovat-nevinovat / stuful trebuie adunat” (Guilty or not / Cutting reeds is your lot).
Life had never been easy in this crossroads area. The Transylvanian Saxons early learned that hardships will be overcome only by the observance of laws, hard work, order and solidarity. The new ideology made that tradition almost useless and even counter-productive. The Saxons (punished collectively after the war, as ethnic Germans) were the first, soon followed by all the other citizens, to be dispossessed of their land and cattle, smaller or bigger factories, money, radios, typewriters. Keeping one’s gold, or even a rusty old pistol often brought people years of prison and possibly death. Equality at the lowest denominator really meant mere survival. Herr Krafft, one of those farmers who had been rich through the hard work of generations, was left with just one cow; but he still shared his milk with some who were even poorer. Frau Elsen had been left to raise all the family’s children, while the younger Elsens were deported to Siberia, never to be seen again. Efficient work, discipline and a sense of duty were not values that pleased the new totalitarian authorities. People had to be arbitrarily pressured and intimidated into forgetting about their rights and their value, and thus to become wertlos, wehrlos – without value and defenseless. Early in the 1950s, as in the older times, there was still a drummer who called people to the end of the street, to be given orders; but there were as well the secret, silent orders coming with ghost-like individuals in dark leather coats. After their visits, more people would disappear from their homes in the night, taken to prisons and camps. Sometimes years passed before their families had any news from them.
It was difficult to grasp all the willful, systematic pursuit of impoverishment, to establish a general tabula rasa, on which the new ideology could be imposed. People did not have the antibodies necessary to oppose such a sinister absurdity, which they could not even grasp. They could not imagine it would last; “Normal times will be back,” my father kept saying. Such times breed paradoxical patterns for survival. In spite of everything, we still kept the illusion of completeness. There was that inertial forma mentis giving us our sense of being unique and privileged; we felt that the key for overcoming times would be the same as always – hard work, unity and fairness. The past would protect the future, even if the present moment was a void. To hope is almost to live. We had so many things (or maybe just thought we still did, after collective ownership and systematic waste had become the rule): grains and fruit, the only spare parts manufacturing in Romania. We had the mill and the butcher’s (people still called it “Schneider’s”, even after nationalization), the same Herr Muehsam now worked as an employee in what used to be his own pharmacy, there was Hajdu the carpenter, and a wooden toy factory which produced knitwear before they nationalized it. And the swimming pool in the FortressValley, the many ovens for Baumstritzel, the delicious Saxon pastry, the many smoking homes all around the village and the ball room for weddings and Fasching.
It was around that borderless border of ours that one of Europe’s major axles had turned. Romanian shepherds passed over the mountains down to the sea, some even as far as the Caucasus, for many centuries on end. The multinational, multilingual city of Braşov had traded not only with the rest of Europe but also with Asia. Thus it is that the BlackChurch in Brasov (Lutheran) is decorated with one of the finest collections of Oriental rugs in Europe.
This is also the central point from which the modern, standard Romanian language spread. Soon after the Honterus cosmography of 1530 had started making its way to European academies, Deacon Coresi’s printing house started producing Bibles and prayer books for the Romanian-speaking world. I personally believe that the refinement of Romanian may well be due not only to Gutenberg’s technology, but to the fact that other languages were also spoken in this center of Romanian culture. So the conscious construction of modern Romanian as a language of the Book may have been also solidified through comparison and differentiation, by studying examples and defining contrasts.
The more relaxed years of totalitarianism after the 1940s and 50s did not succeed in ending the decline of the Saxon communities in Romania. There was the process of “repatriation” to Germany (after 800 years!); a critical mass of their sheer numbers was reached in the later Ceausescu years, followed by a massive immigration to Germany at the beginning of the 1990s, after the Revolution. The forced industrialization under communism (a heavily polluting chemical factory was built in Râşnov at the time) did not only mean a proletarianization of those dispossessed of their means of subsistence, but also an extensive in-country migration of people, with the clear intention of obliterating any remnant of the local, individualized characteristics. Newcomers took over the homes of the Saxons who had left; the smaller, older ones were pulled down and replaced with new buildings that had little relationship with the local style. A few apartment buildings were raised on the outskirts of what they had decided to call a town-city; they are all quite squalid now. The center is nearly the same, altogether recognizable; but most of the beautifully written names of those who built them have been effaced from the facades. There are no more bridges on my Lane of Bridges. Now it is only on the virtual screen of my memory that I can see the huge hay carts rolling home. Or see Herr Krafft, leaving his Bible and glasses on the windowsill, set deep in the thick, strong wall (the new owners have put in a big, plastic-framed window). He switches off a Deutsche Welle broadcast on the Sierra radio, which he succeeded to hide during the years of high terror. He then crosses the dining room which smells of vanilla from Minni Tante’s cookies passing the embroidered runner with field flowers around the motto, Siebenbuergen, suesse Heimat (Transylvania, Sweet Home). He puts on his work clothes and goes out to clean the drain. And that pervasive Gemuetlichkeit; if it were still there, would we have to mention it?
A place once so rich has been seriously impoverished. And it is ironically the poverty, rather than the awareness of a peculiar and precious style, that accounts for it having been well preserved as it is. There have been some attempts to develop tourism. Some Saxon families still coming back and spend their summer vacations here. One can still see brass bands in the BârsaLand marching in the streets on festive occasions, using the instruments and scores left behind by those who left. Fasching, once only a German holiday, now tends to be celebrated as a tradition by Romanians too. Such relatively recent shifts would have been unimaginable in older times. Ethnic differences do get rubbed away.
The Internet appears to be giving unexpected support in keeping these old worlds alive; its timely arrival allows us to store and access all these echoes of time and space. It may even in time be a means for new initiatives.
That finite space, inhabited by the infinite, is a space, first molded by nature itself to be life-nurturing, and it has induced in its people an awareness that they are the salt of the earth. Nothing more, but nothing less, whatever the accidents of history may have been.
The durable patterns of tradition, relying on individual perseverance and collective ingenuity may well be experienced by some as constraining and stifling, its repetitions and what we might call its mediocrity, imposed on the community as a postulate. The modus vivendi that outsiders may find charming can be frustrating for the individual, giving rise to self-defensive irony, anger and revolt. But when the basic texture of life is endangered, and the salt of the earth gets irresponsibly and cynically washed away, I am willing to risk sentimentality, respect and affection, without the comfort of irony or denial.
Our continent, where frontiers are being daily obliterated, still contains many of these latent constellations of identity. Mankind seems to be constantly losing its awareness of differences and nuances. History is in a headlong rush today, but let us not forget to try and maintain our capacity to perceive the richness of our many differences, differences which are what in fact unites us.
Translated into English by the author with Ernest H. LATHAM Jr.