This is the first story, out of 21, from my coming book, This Life.
The village was bewitched. The curse began a decade ago with the Second World War.
Of course, the heaviest losses were among the youngsters. Those who returned were sick physically and mentally. The families whose dear ones never returned had to live with another penalty: their neighbors avoided them since they did not know what to say when the hard-hit families wanted to talk again about the missing ones. And for those who returned in a coffin, the coffins were heavier than in normal times, with too few hands to carry the weight.
And after the war it was even worse. The newly installed communist regime sent signals that the villagers did not understand. “They would take from the rich and give to the poor,” was one rumour. Others said that “all the lands would be expropriated, rich or poor.” Some said that even the animals would go to the government.
“I heard they will take our dogs too,” said one angry villager whispering to his neighbor and looking around to see if someone heard him.
Others wondered if God had forgotten about them. The weather was worse than before. Too much sun or too much rain. The clouds were lower and more menacing. Others claimed that God was angry and spoke to them through thunder and lightning. In that summer of 1949 the lightning set on fire Rosca’s haystacks. When the villagers saw the fire and rushed to Rosca to let him know, he gritted his teeth and said, “Let them burn.” He did not want to give his hay to the communists; God decided for him.
The mood was so bad that life began to give up; trees failed to blossom, the cows ceased to moo, and the dogs’ barks had less bite.
The family was around the dinner table discussing the future under the new regime that they still did not know the extent of or the power it held.
“We will lose our lands,” said grandma. My grandma, bunica, ruled the family with a soft touch. I remember her as small built and skinny, but her appearance was deceiving. She was the head of the household, constantly in motion, wise and understanding. Her unwavering belief in God gave her strength. And she was lucky with her kids. All six of them, four boys and two girls, were in good health and strong. My bunica died at 93.
My mother, nineteen at the time, lost her temper. “What will happen with my tuition?”
My mother was always calm. When angry, she would instead soften her voice and have tears in her eyes. But at that moment, her world was collapsing. She dreamt of town life, far from the hard labor in the field. In school, she studied with all her might to prove herself and encourage my grandma to spend the money for higher education.
Our family’s prosperity had started with my grandma’s father who was a handy man. For his skills he received some land from the landlord. And the generations that followed knew how to administer it and they bought more and more and became one of the wealthiest families in the village. In three generations only, they had plenty of land and money. And now, the Communists wanted to appropriate it.
“We need a lawyer,” grandma continued. “Maybe we can do something.”
Our family knew a young man, the most active lawyer in town fighting on the farmers’ side against the government who had implemented a new law regarding agricultural lands. But despite lawyers, it was useless. All farmers lost their lands.
So, my mother’s family lost their property, but my mother married the lawyer a year later. My father was eleven years her senior. They married in June 1950, the same month my mother was accepted to university. Their happiness lasted only a few months before my father landed in a political prison.
By the time my mother started university, the Party had made school accessible for everybody, with no need for money. But my mother had to face some significant problems.
The Communist regime decided to punish those who were considered rich before they took power. Those who were wealthy and those labeled as against the Party were barred from promotions and government positions. And that was for the lucky ones, since many were sent to prison for various reasons. And it did not stop there. Their children had to pay as well. The kids from rich or anti-communist families were purged from universities. Just like that.
Agents interrogated all students. And they were very skilled.
I do not know how the Party found the students they were looking for, what their methods were for tracking down their families’ economic histories. But of course, they knew. They always knew. And in those meeting rooms, they preyed upon the trembling voice, the perspiring brow, the clenching hands. I do not know all their techniques, but they were efficient. Most of the cases they built ended up as a successful purge. For each case, a file was created. Agents visited the “suspect’s” birthplace and asked questions. They had access to files about properties. And if the suspicions were proven true, the student was invited to leave university. For good.
No one complained.
My mother was in her second year at Cluj University when she was invited for the interview. It was 1952. She had two big problems: her family was probably on “the enemy of the people” list, but the biggest problem was her husband (my father) who was in prison for political reasons.
The lousy omen that fell over her village ate my mother from inside. She lived in constant fear that any moment something would happen and oblige her to return and bear her share of the spell. Returning home did not mean working on the family’s farm, which existed no more, but working hard for a miserable salary.
She prepared for the interview. She practiced the lies and her composure.
My mother stayed in my great-uncle’s home in Cluj, my grandma’s brother from my father’s end. That very morning when she was due for the interview, grandma landed in Cluj.
The three embraced warmly. The hard times brought all family members closer.
Without any introduction, my grandma turned to my mother and said, “Don’t go for the interview.”
My mother’s jaw dropped.
“How do you know about the interview?”
“Everybody knows what happens with families having someone in a political prison.”
My mother swallowed hard. There was no way someone could have told her in that remote village about her daughter-in-law’s interview.
“But who told you it is today?”
“Maria, please believe me. If you go, it will be your last day in school.”
I have to mention a few things about my father’s mother. She had eleven kids and had to navigate this world alone since my grandad died soon after her last child was born. And tragedies came one after the other. She lost three of them early on. But she managed to keep the family together with a strong will. She only gave advice on very few occasions and only in crucial moments. But I knew she had an extra sense. Her intense green eyes spoke more than her mouth.
So, my grandma had that look, and the smile followed.
My mother believed grandma. She was so scared that she would be kicked out of the university, and she had every reason to fear.
About one week later, a security guard was waiting for her when she got out of the class.
“Maria Moldovan?” he asked.
My mother’s heart jumped into her neck. “Yes.”
“The agent on duty wants to see you. At 11 AM, today.”
That’s it, thought my mother. I’m done.
She had one hour to prepare.
She rushed home and donned her best dress, combed her blond hair and braided it back. The 22-year-old girl was about to face the most challenging exam of her life.
The room she entered had two doors: one facing the street and the other facing the university. At the end of the interview, she would step through one of the two doors.
The interviewer was already at the desk.
“Good day,” said my mother.
The interviewer nodded but did not invite her to sit.
“What is your name?”
He smiled. But that smile made my mother freeze. The man looked at her intently, reading her mind. His face was rough, like an unfinished sculpture. Square face, strong jaw. His smile showed teeth good for breaking stones. His brown hair had a very short cut. And his eyes did not move in his head.
All my mother prepared vanished. That guy is the Devil, she thought. And she cursed grandma, cursed the day for this unnerving man seated before her. Perhaps if she had simply gone to the first interview as requested, she would not now be facing the Devil.
Without preliminaries, he asked: “Do you think you deserve the money the Party spends for you to attend university?”
My mother swallowed hard. “Yes, my family and I are so happy with the caring way the Party is handling this. Without this kind of help, I would not be able to study; we are poor.”
The man measured her from head to toe. She felt naked. And she cursed again because she dressed and carried her appearance so well. I know what he thinks. Only from good families does someone have such an appearance. I should have put some dirt on my dress and not washed my face! Dressing like this was stupid of me!
This time the Devil darkened.
“Are you married?”
“Yes.” Then she continued in a hurry, “My husband is a lawyer and on a business trip in Brasov.”
“What for?” But the tone of that Devil was clear. He did not believe a word from her.
“The factory he is working for has a dispute with a provider.”
My mother took a step back. The Devil’s eyes drilled through her. The question was a terrible blow. The agents could easily check whatever factory she named. There were few in Turda she could choose from and regardless, she had not anticipated the question.
“The cement factory,” she said, faltering.
But right after she spoke, she knew her fate was sealed. Her eyes grew wet.
Without taking his eyes from her, the interrogator opened a drawer. Then he looked quickly inside and pulled out a folder with some papers in it. He put that folder on the desk. Then slammed it, his huge hand resting on top. His spread fingers covered its yellow surface entirely.
My mother was trembling like a reed in the wind.
The Devil raised the folder, waving it ominously.
“It is all here. About your family and husband.”
When he stopped waving it, she saw her name on the dossier.
My mother started to cry.
“All right,” said the Devil. “Now move, I am done with you.”
And that man stretched his hand toward the door entering the university’s building! With all her bones shaking vigorously, my mother rushed through that door like the Devil chased her.
That particular law forbidding students to enter university based on their family’s social status before communism lasted a few years. Somehow, on that day, my mother bypassed it, thanks to that… Angel in disguise who interrogated her.
My mother wanted to deliver the good news to my father as soon as possible. But the only way was the permitted once-a-year visit. It was only twenty or so days ahead.
Her excitement was palpable. She was sure that my father would enjoy not only the news but the food she prepared. In the letter she received soon after my father’s arrest, it was stated that the maximum allowed food was 5 kilos per inmate. She changed the menu a few times. That letter, about a year prior, specified the week of October 20. She wondered why that date was chosen. It would make the trip difficult since it was during school. Was it planned to create additional hardships for the wives? It was brutal. There were many ladies with kids, and it was not easy to find a guardian or someone to accompany the kids to school and back. As for my mother, she had to miss one week from university. But it was worth it.
My mother went to my grandma’s village to let her mother-in-law know about her plan.
“I am happy that you’re going,” said grandma, “but I will not go.”
“Because if I go to see him, he will never come back home to see me.”
I did not know that my grandma was superstitious, but obviously, I did not know everything about her. Or, maybe she felt something she could not express in words.
“You see that apricot tree?” asked grandma.
Everybody in the family knew about that one. My father planted it. He planted it as a teen before leaving for high school in town. It was in the front of the room’s window where my grandma spent most of the day when she was inside the house. And I am sure that gave her strength.
“For two years, since Ioan is in prison,” grandma continued, “that tree did not bear fruits. But it did this year.”
My mother turned, speechless, to see the tree. The wind started to blow with an unusual force and the dry branches were in full view.
“Tell him,” Grandma said, “that I’ll wait for him this fall to cut the tree’s dry branches. It’s his tree and duty.” My grandma grabbed my mother’s hand. “The tree is sick.” But my mother was speechless, so my grandma pressed her hand harder. “For God’s sake, Maria, you know what I mean.”
I don’t know what my mother thought at that moment, but I understand what grandma wanted to say. Watching that tree, she saw my father. An illness ate it from inside. As a kid, I remember that more and more dry branches had to be cut each year; life was running out of it. Scared beetles scattered from under the tree’s bark with each falling branch. The fewer and fewer remaining fertile branches lost their colors and freshness as time passed. And the tree’s sickness started with my father’s imprisonment.
My mother arrived on October 20th at the prison’s gate at about noon.
Small groups of ladies were spread on the grass in the yard in front of the gates. They stopped talking and watched my mother approach.
The gate did not have a bell or anything to alert the guards. And it was closed.
She shouted: “I am here for the visit.”
A guard came from the building toward her, stepping slowly, like he had all the time in the world.
“Good day,” said my mother. “I came here for the yearly visit to see my husband.”
“That was a month ago,” said the guard. “You missed it.”
“How?” And my mother pulled out the letter she had.
“Not that one,” said the guard. “You should have another one sent this summer.”
My mother’s world collapsed.
“I did not get that letter.”
“I can do nothing about it,” said the man and he turned to leave.
“At least take the food I brought. For inmate Moldovan.”
The guard stopped for one second without turning. Then he continued his way inside.
My mother watched the empty yard hopelessly through the closed gate. She was empty inside too. What kind of a trick was this? She’d prepared for a month for this visit, and in one minute, an inhumane guard brought her life crashing down. Again. Like when they had taken her husband away.
Then she turned and saw the other ladies watching her carefully. She approached.
One, as young as she, said, “There was no letter this summer. None of us got it.”
Paying more attention, she saw about twenty ladies. I know there are hundreds of inmates, she thought. But maybe some wives and mothers had already left, and more would show up in the next few days. The letter she got a year ago said about one week of visits.
An older lady started to cry. “The proof that there was no letter this summer is right there,” she said between hiccups. “The yard is empty. They did not let the prisoners out to see us. They knew we were coming.”
“Maybe they are out for some work,” said my mother. She had heard about forced labor. The villagers around the prison saw them, and the word spread.
“No,” said the young one. “Some of us have been here since three o’clock last night. No inmate came out.”
“Why can we not see them?” asked my mother.
The other ladies waited for the older one to speak.
“They look like zombies, but the real reason is different.” She breathed deep and continued, “They do not want us to give them food.”
“Why?” asked my mother, more and more alarmed.
“Because they do experiments with them or want to get them sick. Some get only sweets, the others only fats.”
My mother pirouetted few times, looking for clues. She saw the barbed wire fence and fixed her eyes on it.
The young lady approached.
“I know what you think, but that fence is not for our loved ones. Behind it are true criminals, thieves and murderers.”
My mother was speechless.
“They do not mix with each other, but the criminals receive much better treatment.”
Then she put her hand on my mother’s shoulder.
“I know someone in the village that offered me a room. You may stay with me if you want and try again tomorrow.”
That night my mother found out why the lady’s brother was a political inmate.
Romania had an extreme right organization, The Iron Guard. Those men were at the far right of the political spectrum, as bad as the Communists, who were at the far left. Bitter enemies, to the death. And The Iron Guard planned to overturn the regime. Her brother participated in a secret meeting out of curiosity; he was not a member. Secret police showed out of nowhere and arrested them all. Most were sent to “The Canal,” which was practically a death sentence. Her brother ended up in that prison camp with my father.
The next day was the same, with no chance to talk to inmates or pass the food. The only difference was more ladies at the gate.
This time the guardian showed up at about noon, and a higher-ranking police officer accompanied him. A captain.
They opened the gates and stepped out. All the ladies approached and made a semi-circle around the two guards.
The captain spoke. “I know what you say. That you did not get the letter this summer about the visit date change. I was not in charge of that task, and I cannot give you more details. Some may have gotten it. I see you number fewer than the inmates.”
Some ladies started to shout.
“They will come in the following days!”
“Maybe not all inmates have a visitor!”
“Tell us the truth!”
“Why can’t we see them?”
“At least take the food!”
The captain waited calmly until it was silent again. “I am telling you what the commandment decided. There is no visit, and it is forbidden to pass anything to the inmates, food included.”
The ladies vocalized their displeasure again, but much less than before. Some of them started to cry.
“And there is one more order I have to let you know,” continued the captain. “You are not allowed to stay in front of the prison gates. In fifteen minutes, soldiers will come and drive away those of you who refuse to leave peacefully.”
Then the two men turned their backs and entered the prison’s yard without locking the gates.
A few minutes later, a squad of about thirty soldiers organized inside the prison yard. They had guns.
Some ladies departed right away. But others waited. The squad did not intervene after fifteen minutes as the captain promised, but waited.
Slowly, more and more ladies left. My mother was among the last, even if she knew right after the captain spoke that there was no hope of seeing my father.
During university my mother stayed in the house of my grandma’s brother, who had a house in Cluj. He did not have kids and treated my father as his own child.
I was born in 1955, same year that my mother finished university, three years after my father returned from prison, where he served for two years and one month. My brother followed a little bit more than a year later.
My mother was a biology teacher. But she delayed starting her career for four years to care for us.
Her first job was in a village about 15 kilometers from the town. She had to choose from several settlements waiting for such a teacher. She was lucky. In one of those villages, the priest had been an inmate with my father in that political prison. The priest opened his arms wide, welcoming my mother into his house. She stayed there during the week and came home on Sundays. She was a teacher in that village for two years.
Then, she found a position in town where she worked until retirement.
After returning from prison, my father was banned from practicing as a bar lawyer. Instead, he was offered a lawyer position for the bread factory in town.
The stories I heard about my father differed from the father I knew.
He was very good at telling my brother and me stories from which we could learn wise things.
But, obviously, the tragedies in his family, the hard times in the war, the regime change, his time in prison, and then the illness eating him from inside, changed him. His morals only crystalized, there was only right or wrong. Justice ruled mercy. We, his kids, either did things right or terribly wrong and faced his punishment. As I see today, most areas in our life are gray and need understanding. We had to pay the price because my father could no longer see those gray areas.
His anger and frustration erupted sometimes. My mother knew how to handle those moments. Calmly, she ordered us something to do away from our father. We understood from her tone that we had to listen without arguing. And she stayed to absorb the anger. He was never violent toward her, but his mere presence during those times scared me to death.
When he wanted to punish us physically, and mother was around, she stepped in between him and us. I am sure she heard harsh words in the evening for what she did.
There were few times when she did not intervene. She knew that she would not be successful. We might have received the punishment, but she suffered more than we did, I am sure.
I think my father faced his demons many times because I saw his face, tear stained.
My father died when I was twenty.
When I write this story, my mother is 92.
Sometimes I raised the problem of my father’s cruel ways, but my mother always defended him.
“He loved you,” she would say or, “He wanted you to grow right and wise, be someone of value.”
I feared my father. But my mother was a saint.