Gentlemen, stand up
AUTORE: NELA MUNICH IONESCU
TITOLO: GENTLEMEN, STAND UP
COLLANA: NELA MUNICH IONESCU
ANNO: ©2023 DI CARLO EDIZIONI
Timisoara, Romania: the story of a young couple and their family takes place between the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. Anna and Gicu, she a midwife and he a soldier, are protagonists of an incredible series of denied rights. Their only fault is that they belong to different nationalities in a country that was progressively sliding towards communist dictatorship.
Dedicated to all victims of every regime and to poets and writers:
– Anatol E. Baconski
– Dan Desliu
– William Totoka
– Herta Müller
– Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa
– Ana Blandiana
– Doina Maria Cornea
– Paul Goma
– Mircea Dinescu
– Gabriel Andreescu
It was 1967 when Nicolae Ceaușescu became President of Romania and his government became increasingly authoritarian. In the 1970s, the ‘Little Cultural Revolution’ unleashed the first expressions of organised dissent, which later led to the 1989 protests, easily crushed by tanks. On December 21 st, that year, a Ceaușescu rally in Bucharest ended amid booing and the dictator took refuge in the Central Committee headquarters. On 25 December Ceaușescu and his wife, after a summary trial, were executed in the Targoviste bunker.
To better understand the book-dossier “Gentlemen, stand up!” by Nela Munich, which I have the pleasure of proposing to you, it is my duty to have recourse to the most significant historical facts, very often lost in the comfortable oblivion of those who wish to forget in a hurry, but which are essential and prodromal to better understand this new and very interesting narrative proposal, destined to be a direct testimony above all of facts and episodes of a personal experience, that of Nela, which determined the life of a people, of many families, of one in particular, then that of a young woman and, more simply: the life of others. After the Second World War, the communists gained a significant role in political life in Romania. Indeed, from August 1944, when, alongside the democratic groupings and King Michael, they brought down the pro-Nazi government of Marshal Ion Antonescu, just a week later, the Red Army crossed the border and the Soviet army remained in the country for fourteen long years.
In the elections of November 9 th, 1946, the communists obtained 80% of the vote. Between 1946 and 1947, hundreds of civil servants, military and civilian, were tried on charges of supporting General Antonescu’s regime, and many were sentenced to death for war crimes. In December 1947, King Michael went into exile after being forced to abdicate. On April 13 th , 1948, the Constitution of the Romanian People’s Republic was issued, which prohibited and punished any association of a fascist or anti-democratic nature and guaranteed freedom of the press, speech and assembly only to those authorised by the government. Here, in the early post-war years, the ‘Sov-Rom’ agreements gave rise to many Soviet-Romanian companies, allowing Romanian products to be exported to the USSR at a political price. In 1948, the collectivisation of land, banks and enterprises was introduced.
Within the party there was a clash between different souls: on the one hand, there were the ‘Muscovites’ (among them Ana Pauker and Vasile Luca, who had spent the war years in the Soviet capital), Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’s ‘Prisoner Communists’, who had been in Romanian jails during the war, and, on the other, the Stalinist ‘Secretariat Communists’, including Lucretiu Patrascanu, who had gone into hiding during the Antonescu years and had participated in the 1944 government. Soon after Stalin’s death, and probably also due to the anti-Semitic policies of late Stalinism (Pauker was Jewish), Gheorghiu-Dej and the ‘Communist Prisoners’ prevailed. Pauker was expelled from the party (along with 192,000 other members) and Patrascanu was tortured with the amputation of a leg, accused of revisionism and then executed.
Gheorghiu-Dej did not like the reforms introduced in the Soviet Union by Chrushev after Stalin’s death in 1953. He also disagreed with the Comecon (Council of Mutual Economic Assistance) goal of bringing Romania into the Eastern Bloc through a heavy industry development programme. He closed the major labour camps, abandoned the Danube-Black Sea Canal project, ended rationing and increased workers’ wages. All this, together with resentment due to the fact that Romania’s historical territories remained within the borders of the USSR, led Romania onto a relatively independent and nationalist path – even though the country joined the Warsaw Pact in 1955.
When the communist regime achieved stability, arrests increased, especially among the pre-war elite: intellectuals, churchmen, teachers, former politicians. A system of camps and prisons for forced labour on the Soviet Gulag model was born.
The infamous Pitesti prison became the epicentre of a particular communist ‘experiment’, with psychological and physical torture that led to the total breakdown of the individual and turned the victims into executioners. During the Budapest revolution, the Romanian government offered its support to the USSR and, in return, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from the country in 1958.
After the 1956 revolution, Gheorghiu-Dej worked closely with the new Hungarian leader, János Kádár, who in return renounced his claims to Transylvania.
After 1956, political purges began in Romania and terror spread: any opposition initiative was harshly sanctioned and the number of labour camps grew. Protests against nationalisation and collectivisation were snuffed out in blood: those who opposed them were persecuted, tortured, killed or deported. Also as a result of these repressions, some armed resistance groups gained strength.
Instead, it was Nicolae Ceaușescu who made national communism the guiding principle of the Romanian government. He became Head of the Communist Party in 1965, after the death in unclear circumstances of Dej in Moscow, and Head of State in 1967, and from the early years of his government he was able to exploit nationalism in the political game: by appealing to the anti-Soviet sentiments of the people, he won the sympathy of society.
National communism was accompanied by an apparent liberalisation of the economy. Political prisoners were released, to give the impression that the terror was a consequence of Soviet policy and that Romania was instead moving towards a liberal system. Ceaușescu used the liberalization process to eliminate all opponents, accusing them of being responsible for the terror of the 1950s.
The great popularity that Ceaușescu gained through this policy gradually became a cult of personality as his government became increasingly authoritarian and strict police controls nipped in the bud any criticism of the regime.
After the 1971 visit of North Korea, Ceaușescu developed a vision of a complete restructuring of the nation, the so-called ‘systematisation’ or ‘Little Cultural Revolution’. To make way for the gigantic House of the People complex and the attached Civic Centre, a large part of Bucharest was razed to the ground, wiping out an entire neighbourhood of some forty thousand buildings.
In the 1980s, in order to repay foreign loans and finish the construction of the People’s Palace, basic necessities were rationed ever more drastically. From 1985, this also extended to oil, electricity, gas and heating. The black market was born and cigarettes became the country’s ‘second currency’, used to buy anything. At the same time, control over society became tighter and tighter: telephone conversations were spied on, the Securitate enlisted many new agents, censorship became more ironclad. According to some reports, in 1989, one in three Romanians was an informer and nine out of ten Romanians were spied on.
The first significant expressions of a dissident movement appeared at the beginning of the 1970s, following the ‘Little Cultural Revolution’: in 1970, the poet Anatol E. Baconski published an article in an Austrian literary magazine protesting against censorship in Romania, the following year the poet Dan Desliu spoke out publicly against government policy.
In 1977, a protest broke out in the Lupeni mines, which spread throughout the Jiu plain. The strikes were suppressed with violence and the deportation of hundreds of workers.
In February 1979, Ionel Cana and Gheroghe Brasoveanu founded the Free Trade Union of Romanian Workers.
In 1972, the German minority, of which our author is a member, created the ‘Banat Operative Group’ in Timisoara, made up of French-speaking writers from Banat, which intended to propose independent cultural initiatives. The participants suffered harsh repression: founder William Totoka was imprisoned, while others, including Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller, went into exile. The fate of the Hungarian minority, victim of a total assimilation programme, was different.
On the ecclesiastical front, although the Romanian Orthodox Church collaborated with the state, many clergy took a stand against the restrictions on freedom of faith. One of them, Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa, was arrested in 1979 and only released in 1984, following international protests.
Some members of the Writers’ Association, although adherents of a party organisation, claimed the right to freedom of thought, thus becoming symbols of the rejection of ideology, even at the cost of their own careers. One of the most significant representatives of this group was the poet Ana Blandiana, whose verses were an open criticism of the regime.
The most important dissident figures of this period are Doina Maria Cornea, professor of Romanistics at the University of Cluj, who, despite the persecution she was relentlessly subjected to, always consistently expressed her opposition to the regime, and Paul Goma, the only Romanian dissident to write a public letter of solidarity ‘Charta 77’, who was arrested and tortured on charges of high treason for his criticism of the regime.
The 1980s were characterised by a serious economic crisis and the progressive deterioration of living conditions. Upon news of a new wage decrease, thousands of workers took to the streets in Brasov on November 15 th , 1987, protesting against Ceaușescu. The repression was immediate.
It was in March 1989 when the BBC broadcast the so-called ‘Letter of the Six’, in which six former communist leaders criticised Ceaușescu’s domestic policies: the collectivisation of the countryside, the insane plan to destroy Bucharest, the overpowering Securitate, censorship and telephone tapping.
The following March 17 th , the French newspaper Liberation published a pamphlet by Mircea Dinescu describing the situation in the country. In May, during the Paris meeting of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Gabriel Andreescu went on a two-week hunger strike in protest against the regime.
Two months later, Dumitri Mazilu’s report on human rights violations was submitted to the Commission for the Defence against Discrimination and the Defence of Minorities. With this striking gesture, Mazilu, a former diplomat and Securitate officer, began to fight against the regime.
In October 1989, Doina Maria Cornea, together with a large group of dissidents, sent an open letter to the West against Ceaușescu’s re-election as party secretary. Meanwhile, a violent wave of arrests was unleashed in the country.
On December 17 th , a group of Transylvanian Hungarians, joined by numerous Romanians, gathered in Timisoara, right in front of the house of the Protestant pastor Laszlo Tokes, who had been sentenced to exile. The government responded with tanks, killing 100 people. On December 20 th, the dictator condemned the events in Timisoara in a radio speech. The following day, a rally by Ceaușescu in front of the Central Committee headquarters in Bucharest ended in chaos: the leader was forced to take refuge inside the building.
The population laid siege to the palace where Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were imprisoned, who escaped by helicopter from the roof. At the same time, radio and television were occupied, which began to broadcast live coverage of the events. It was only in the evening that the first armed groups of rioters were formed, joined by the army, which invaded the Securitate headquarters.
On December 25 th , Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were sentenced to death at the end of a summary trial in the Targoviste bunker where they had taken refuge. That was a sentence that was carried out immediately.
Compared to the other countries of the Soviet bloc, dissent in Romania played no part in the fall of the regime. Rather, its lower degree of activity, in relation to that of other countries, contributed to the fact that, after 1989, second-line representatives of the Communist Party and not opponents of the party came to power in Bucharest. The changes that were to be expected after the fall of the regime were therefore much more delayed, hesitant, partial… almost insubstantial. After the dutiful chronological reconstruction of this slice of history, without anticipating anything, I am proud and, at the same time, happy to publish the ‘human story’ of a woman who never lost her dignity and courage and, although forced to leave her country as a stateless person because she was considered to be of impure blood (Zero negative), she came to Italy, did not forget her people (in fact, as we will discover especially in the second volume, her voluntary work aimed at assisting and caring for the many wounded who also arrived in our country from Romania is unquestionable) and her human sensitivity that will lead her to adopt a very young girl, also Romanian, abandoned by her government, by life and by her own mother. So, what else could I add to urge you to get to know this extraordinarily human story, if not simply saying: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, stand up and pay homage to Nela, a heroine who with this book of hers will not leave you as disenchanted and aseptic readers, but will be able to conquer your hearts and souls’.
Thank you, Nela, for your literary contribution.