After the quiet interlude of Budapest, we anticipated the railway crossing into Romania with excitement. We would take a train that still passed by the name of Orient Express, but there were
no signs of turn of the century luxury. After a routine border crossing, we found
ourselves passing through towns in Transsylvania, an exotic place for anybody who had heard tales of Dracula, and even more
exotic for us because of our course work. Transylvania was another
one of those places with an historic mixture of national groups, the Romanians, of course, but also the Hungarians who had
ruled this area for centuries. Then there were the blue dots on our linguistic
map of Eastern European, German speakers clustered in certain towns. We
guessed that these blue dots also coincided with Jewish settlements, but they were nowhere to be found on our language maps.
This was the first of many times in my life when I thanked my lucky stars that
my own branch of German ancestors had turned westward to America in the 1850s,
and not eastward toward Russia or southeastward down the Danube, as so many
Germans had done. How much stronger must the feelings have been on the part of
my traveling companions, whose own families had succeeded in joining the Jewish emigration to America.
As we crossed the Carpathian Mountains, people got on at each stop on their
way to Bucharest. We were curious about them all, intrigued by the sounds of their beautiful
language, which derived from Latin. A single woman joined us in our
compartment somewhere along the way, and we were especially curious about her. She
kept to herself, and we kept up our usual chatter about the historical trivia of the region and what we expected to find in
Shortly before we arrived in Bucharest, she shocked
us by addressing us in English. She had understood everything. Her name was Paunitza, which means peacock, and she was the head of an all-woman rock group spending its
summer in one of the little Transylvanian villages we had passed through. Would
we like to join her there and meet her friends? We immediately agreed. After a short stay in Bucharest, we would take a local train back up to Bustend. There would be no trouble finding her there.
Now here was adventure! We said good-bye at the train station, and went
through the motions of a stay in Bucharest, but we were dying to get on the train to Bustend.
Bucharest? Another fiction of détente was shattered. Romania at that
time was supposed to be somewhat independent from the Soviets. Wishful thinking
cast Ceaucescu as another Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia who had
thumbed his nose at the Soviets and fostered his own relations with both the West and developing nations. We found Bucharest to be squalid and depressing. This Paris of the East, as it portrayed itself, already
was the victim of Ceaucescu's policy of clearing historic areas and replacing them with Stalinist architecture on a vast scale. We found one old-fashioned restaurant, with high ceilings and brass fixtures. It was adequate, but depressing in its isolation.
The churches were museums. There was nothing to do except
wander through streets devoid of vehicles.
We found some student quarters to stay in where we were greeted at the check-in
desk by a man wearing a Star of David on a chain around his neck. "My name
is Adolph," he said. Our jaws dropped.
He shrugged. "Adolph used to be a good name. Now its not. Do you have any Bic pens?" We handed Adolph a pen. "How about chewing gum?" We didn't have any, even though we had been advised to take chewing gum to Eastern Europe. Adolph was our link to Jewish life in Romania, and we
asked him about what it had been like during the war. "It was bad, but it could
have been worse. It wasn't nearly as bad as Poland." What about the Jewish community now? "What Jewish community! We're all trying to go to Israel. Many have succeeded." It wasn't much, but in four countries,
Adolph was the first living, breathing representative of Jewish life that we had found.
He gave us his best room, and we planned our trip to the Transylvania village of Bustend.
Telling the story of our stay in Bustend is very difficult because we came
face-to-face with our unwitting power to bring contagion to other people's lives. The
emotional highs and the emotional lows were intense.
Bustend was a little village tucked in the mountains, with old wooden buildings arrayed along the rail line. We very quickly found Paunitza, and she introduced us to a friend, Wasily, nick-named "Villy." Villy was about our age with thick dark hair and sad brown eyes.
The language we spoke was French. He immediately attached himself to us
as our guide, our host and our friend. He found us a place to stay on the floor
of woman's second-floor apartment. We slept in the same room as her children. It was typical of the quaint wooden buildings that we had seen from the train throughout
Transylvania. We reached it from an open-air corridor. There were no plumbing facilities. The
"outhouse" was actually part of the building's first floor, and was shared by all the apartments. The money must have come in handy for her, but she begged us not to talk about our stay. This, of course, was impossible in a village that followed our every move.
We talked with Villy about every subject under the sun. He had intense curiosity about the countries where we had lived and the countries where we had visited, especially
France. We were
curious about his life, too, but his own questions were more insistent. He was
a university student and lived in Costanza. Each in our own way, we were
starving for this kind of friendship with our counterpart from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Paunitza introduced us to the members of her band. An all-female rock band, in Transylvania, no less, and with us, the only Western guys around. What a fantasy! They were all very warm
to us, particularly one dark-haired girl, Julia. We hung around their rehearsals
and were able to help them with some of the lyrics for their songs, lyrics imperfectly understood from US records. We attended one of their concerts, and to our eyes and ears at that magical moment, there was no band in
the world better than this, no better lead singer than Paunitza, with her throaty delivery.
Julia suggested an outing, and we packed off for a picnic to Peles Castle in
Sinaia, the palace of Carol I, former King of Romania, where
he had cavorted with his mistress, Magda Lupescu. We could have gone to Dracula's
castle instead, which also was near-by, but our friends seemed to want an excuse to connect with Romania's immediate
past. Julia brought a flower for us, which we each stuck in our hair. She worked hard to create a care-free event, one that must have been unheardof
in their gray lives. Villy and the whole rock band came along, as well as
some other university students, including a quiet, blond guy named Henry.
Our third day in Bustend, we woke up to find Villy heading toward the train
station with a big suitcase under his arm. He had been reported and told to leave. The program that had brought him to Bustend had dismissed him, and he now feared
that his university education also would be terminated. His crime? Talking to us. It turned out that while we were theoretically
free to go where we wished, it was forbidden for the Romanians to associate with us.
This was a very serious offense.
Who on earth had reported him? Villy
was sure it was Henry. He had been suspicious of Henry's motives all along. Hadn't we noticed? Sometimes Henry
read a newspaper. According to Villy, there was no reason to read a newspaper
because they were all full of lies. The only people who bothered were those who
had ambitions in the Communist Party. Yes, it must have been Henry.
Villy cried. We cried. We exchanged addresses, but he warned us about the dangers of writing him a letter.
There was a pall over our remaining hours in Bustend. We wanted to leave our friends as soon as we could without causing any further damage. We realized that for us, it was all a lark, but for them, it was deadly serious. Every act of kindness to us had put our friends at risk, from the very moment that Paunitza had invited
us to visit her. In retrospect, the very visible picnic to the palace had been
an act of courage, an act of defiance. Our landlady had put herself at risk by
allowing us to sleep on her floor. Yes, we wanted to leave before any more damage
The ride back to Bucharest was melancholy.
The empty streets of the capital seemed downright sinister, the concrete buildings monstrous. The hell with Ceaucescu and the idea of thawing relations with Romania. If this was the way he treated the beautiful, warm people we had met, the hell with it all. We scrupulously avoided contact with anyone in Bucharest for fear of our bringing more contagion.
Next chapter: Black Sea Riviera