I’ve been fortunate enough to sometimes have guests on the Tour of Communism who experienced the horrors of Communism first-hand. They, of course, have not been so fortunate, but having the opportunity to learn from real people rather than from books is always great for a tour guide (as well as other guests on the tours).
I’ll share two personal stories from real guests on my tours. Coincidence or not, both families were Romanian Jews. I will not disclose their real names, but use nicknames instead.
In the first story, Isaac, a Romanian-Jew in his late 70s, told me how he left the country when he was a child. His father and family have survived the anti-Semitic persecutions of World War II, only to have their business (a printing house) confiscated by the Communist regime. Soon after, they were constrained to “donate” their house to the Romanian Communist authorities, in exchange for being permitted to flee the country. In fact, many Jewish families (but other minorities, as well, particularly Germans) were “encouraged” by local authorities to emigrate to their so-called “country of origin” (a complete nonsense, since many were born in Romania, and they had Romanian citizenship). The Communist authorities feared that a “too cosmopolitan” society might mean trouble for the regime, since different ethnic groups may still maintain an allegiance to foreign countries, so they may spread dangerous opinions, which contradicted the universal truth imposed by the totalitarian regime.
This was Isaac’s first trip back to Romania, after fleeing the country as a child with his father. He came back to visit his birthplace, and also to see their family’s house, now in a derelict state and inhabited by people they don’t know. I told him he could get the house back, but he replied with a content and nostalgic smile that he has no interest to do so. He was impressed with the progress Bucharest has been making in all these years, but his rupture with Romania was too abrupt and violent to justify looking back at his life here or considering moving back.
The second guest, a woman in her 60s by the name of Liz, had a strikingly similar story. Her father, a Jewish clock-maker and jeweler, and her mother, a house-wife, barely survived the Holocaust and escaped from labor camps set up in Transnistria. Unfortunately, the Communist regime just brought about more persecutions. Her father was imprisoned after his neighbors told the secret police he is hiding gold in the basement of his house. Owning gold (except for wedding rings) or foreign currency was considered a crime under Communism, and would get people arrested on the spot and labeled as “exploiters of the working class” or “black market dealers”. Even worse, the crime was not real, as he didn’t really have any gold hidden in his basement, but this made very little difference for the Communist authorities. He was released from prison after a friend policeman insisted, and he was told it would be better for him to leave the country. Of course, before leaving, he had to “donate” his house and all his belongings to the Romanian state. Meanwhile, his daughter, Liz, a child in primary school, was being disgraced in front of the entire school by having her title of “pioneer” and her red scarf removed, and being called a “traitor”. (Pioneers were a Communist Youth Organization that every school-aged child in Romania had to join. Their mandatory uniform was a white shirt, blue skirt/pants and red scarf). With nothing left, Liz’s family left the country for Israel with just 2 suitcases.
Later on, Romanian authorities started treating non-Romanian ethnics as goods by exporting them to their “countries of origin” in exchange for cash. If you want to hear the full story, join our Tour of Communism or the more recent Jewish Trail (a 3-hour walking tour about the history of the Jewish community in Bucharest).