Not so long ago, a wall separated us

Article published on Nov. 20, 2009
community published
Article published on Nov. 20, 2009
A map of reconciliation Maria-Cristina Necula Writer My father made Europe’s acquaintance while trying to escape its Eastern grasp. As a top microprocessor specialist and associate professor at the Bucharest Polytechnic University, he was allowed an outing beyond the Iron Curtain at a workshop in London in January 1985.
Fueled by thoughts of escape from a life in Romania that abused his talents and crushed him to conform to Communist party rules, he stepped on British soil and defected. Unable to apply for the US visa from the UK, he went to Vienna. Wisely avoiding the Romanian refugees camp – where even priests had the “habit” of serving as informants for the Securitate (Romanian secret police), my father tried to blend into Viennese life, working part-time at the Technical University, while waiting for the US visa. For him, Vienna became an unfriendly waiting room filled with loneliness, fear, the occasional kindness of acquaintances and the absurd treatment of some European embassies that rejected his attempts at seeking refuge in those particular countries by asking him to obtain approval from the Romanian embassy first. On the Eastern side of the Curtain, my mother’s waiting room stretched as wide as two and a half years and as tormenting as some winter nights, when Bucharest residents had no electricity or heat, especially those who were labeled as wives of traitors to the regime. The sound of the telephone became the sound of terror, like an experiment in conditioning rats through electrical shocks. Every week, the dreaded phone call would summon my mother to the headquarters of the Securitate where she would enter an interrogation room to face psychological games of various degrees. From: “Your husband abandoned you and your child because that’s not really his child; you’re a whore!” to “He may have a car accident” to “We know he’s a good guy; we’ll forgive him if he returns” to “You really think he’s ok? He’s begging under bridges” to “He found another woman” – these were variations on the weekly themes my mother heard for a year while giving written statements to answer the same two questions: “How did he escape?”, “How much did you know about his plans?” Soothing her fear as best she could, my mother never let me perceive any hint of terror, trying to make life around me fun, and taking me to the opera. We sat in the Bucharest Opera on May 15, 1985, and Mr. Mozart pacified our souls. That performance of Le Nozze di Figaro was the first step into a magical world that became a welcome alternate reality, while we waited to join my father, who, after nine months in Vienna, finally arrived in New York. More than 50 interrogations and over 100 opera performances later, the letter came. It was a letter signed by 44 members of the US Congress asking for our release and addressed to Ceausescu personally – my father’s effective final effort to dislodge the regime’s grip on us. The letter got my mother and me out of Romania and into the United States, where we began a life away from Europe, but very much steeped in our Eastern European roots. For my mother and father, it meant starting over at 45 and 47 respectively, leaving behind them a life of restriction, and a vision of a Europe divided where the East longed for the West’s standard of living and availability of choices. My parents’ road to personal and professional fulfillment was a road that drifted off the map of Europe to forge new paths across the geography of an unfamiliar culture and landscape. Now their steps resound all over the European map on their many travels – travels that are as much voyages of discovering Europe as they are journeys of reconciliation with the past.

From fairy tale to hope

Maria-Cristina Necula


My childhood vision of Europe was of a Europe divided between reality and magic. I lived behind the Iron Curtain. The European countries beyond that curtain seemed fairy-tale lands filled with the intoxicating fragrance and sweetness of Nina Ricci perfumes and Toblerone chocolate – the few Western goodies that would occasionally make their way to Romania. I lived with the idea of Europe as a myth – steeped in my childhood fascination with Greek mythology – the image of Europa as a beautiful woman kidnapped and loved by Zeus endowed the awareness of living in Europe with a sense of wonder. But the idea of Europe as a continent, and a whole, only presented itself to me thousands of miles away when I arrived in the United States with my parents. At 12, I finally learned about the Iron Curtain, and at 14, I watched, glued to CNN, as that curtain crumbled in a domino-like effect throughout Eastern Europe. After college, I lived for a year again in Romania – a curtain-free, wide-eyed and confused Romania. Then through repeated returns, I saw Romania timidly and somewhat clumsily approaching integration into the European Union. My subsequent travels throughout Europe took me to those magical lands I had only dreamt of as a child – that beautiful Europa loved by Zeus. In the 20 years since the revolution in Romania, I observed this mythical personage – Europa – reaching out her arms across the pulsating gap left by the Iron Curtain and gradually embracing her altered manifestations throughout Eastern Europe. When Romania was at last welcomed into that embrace, I realized what Europe had symbolized most for me all these years: hope.

Cheering for Europe

Ulf Gartzke

Director of the Hanns-Seidel-Foundation’s Washington Office

Growing up in West Germany during the 1980s, I distinctly recall asking my parents whether I should be cheering the many gold medals won by East German athletes at various Olympic games. While neither my father nor my mother held out much hope for German reunification, their unequivocal answer was “Yes, we are one people”. As a kid, the question about who to cheer for during major international sports events was probably the first time that I thought about the notion of national identity. In essence, it was rather simple, “Who is part of my team and who isn’t?” Of course, matters were made much more complicated by the fact that Germany had been divided into two antagonistic and hostile states for more than 40 years. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is truly amazing to see how far Europe has come in the past two decades. The Cold War is over, Germany is reunified, and the European Union project has successfully expanded the community of free and democratic nations to include many members of the former Warsaw Pact. At the same time, we have also witnessed the emergence of a genuine European identity, a growing emotional attachment to the common values we hold dear. For sure, during times of crisis and economic turmoil in particular, nation states still do command the ultimate allegiance of most citizens. And, of course, during future Olympic games and international sports events, my young children will certainly cheer for Germany’s competing athletes. However, I will also tell my kids that when it comes to Europe, “We are one continent composed of many different nations that share a common history, common values and, ultimately, a common destiny.” It’s important for all of us to cheer for Europe!

My Europe

Andras Löcke

Adjunct editor-in-chief of the Hungarian newspaper Népszabadság Zrt.

When I was young, there used to be two Europes. There was us, poor Eastern Europe and the other one, the glittering West. Most young people in Hungary, like me, hardly knew the West. We, the inhabitants of “the merriest barracks” in the East, held two passports: with the red passport we could travel to the fellow Eastern countries, any time. With the other one, the blue passport, we could travel to the West, in fact most countries of the world – but we received an exit visa only once in three years. This was the best arrangement in the Eastern bloc. From Honecker’s German Democratic Republic only retirees were able to travel to the West. I remember my first Western holiday in 1979, at the age of 17. I hitchhiked to my cousin, a defector from Communist Hungary to West Germany, a German citizen by then. We traveled together from West Germany to Spain. For the journey I needed a West German, a French and a Spanish visa. In Spain we had lots of quarrels on how to spend our holidays. My cousin’s girlfriend, a German girl in her late twenties, wanted to have sun, fun, nothing to do but the sea. I wanted to hurry from city to city, from museum to museum, because I wanted to see everything in Spain in two weeks, as my next opportunity to go to the West was three more years away. Changes in Hungary from Communism to democracy were slow and gradual, there was no single cathartic moment in it for me. However, tears came out of my eyes in such cathartic moments, when the Berlin Wall came down and when Ceausescu, arguably the worst dictator in Eastern Europe, was put down. On my first journey to the United States, I realized that there really is such a thing as “European-ness”. I realized that Portuguese and Hungarians, Poles and Dutch have more in common than we Europeans have with Americans. We Europeans seem to have more social responsibility, we are more ready to think that this or that the task of the state, than Americans. But I could see also that we Americans and Europeans also have more in common than we transatlantic friends have with the rest of the world. We appreciate scientific thinking and what we like to call “development”. Now young people don’t even remember East and West Germany, they don’t know what the Iron Curtain was and they can travel to Spain not only without a visa, but without a passport. An estimated 400,000 fellow citizens of mine work in the old EU countries, i.e., Western Europe. The biggest chunk of Hungarian banking and industry is in Western hands. Europe is definitely one now, although the old East-West divide lives on in a milder form. We, in the East, are the employees, they, in the West, are the employers. We, albeit poor, are the irresponsible spenders, they are the wiser moneymen raised on Protestant ethics. The economic crisis has shattered Europe as a whole, and the continent will never be the same. However, with our Eastern eyes, the West is still the home of the normality we miss so much.