FROM ROMANIA TO ISRAEL: TWO WAVES, TWO PEOPLES
Can you tell us about your roots?
My father was an engineer, my mother was a lawyer. She passed the bar in 1935, and the following year all Jews were disbarred. From that point onward, my mother worked in her father's business producing detergents. She later returned to the law after the war when the Jews were reinstated in 1945. My father had a good heart which got him into trouble with the communists in the 1950’s. One of his employees was an embezzler, and my father offered financial support. Under Communism, embezzlement and fraud were not civil violations but crimes against the state. After a second request for assisstance, my father renounced the guy. The authorities uncovered the embezzlement and my father testified against him in criminal court. You would think that testifying for the prosecution would bring some merit from the authorities but the opposite effect occurred: he was prosecuted. "Why did you help him in the first place?" This trial against my father ate up a good part of our family income.
What was Romania's position during W. W. II?
Romania was not conquered by the Nazis, but joined the Axis as a willing ally. So unlike the conquered territories of Poland and the Ukraine, the Germans were not directly running the country from above. There were some good repercussions: we were not all summarily sent off to death camps. In Bucharest, and in a part of Romania called Valachia, the Jews were persecuted but not killed. Moreover, the Romanians thought it better to keep the Jews "on our side." Then in 1944, when the defeat of the Third Reich became imminent, the Romanians switched sides and joined the Russians against Germany.
And after the war?
In 1947, the Romanian king abdicated and moved to Switzerland. He still abides there today. Israel became a state in 1948. At the time, Russia voted for Israeli independance, so the Romanian government allowed many Jews to leave. My parents sold all their belongings in preparation to leave but were suddenly denied exit visas. They were intellectuals and the government, trying to stave off a brain drain, wanted to keep them.
How was life under communism?
Under communism, everything belonged to the state. There was no such thing as private property. The state assumed ownership of all companies and commercial enterprises. Bulgaria allowed private property but not Romania. I had an uncle who owned ten apartments – they were all ‘nationalized’, or in other words confiscated by the government. Apartments were allocated and you lived where you were told. My aunt’s property was confiscated and she was forced into a large 4 bedroom apartment shared with 4 different families, one of these being the previous owner of the building! They had to share one bathroom and one kitchen. And these were wealthy people.
Were the police a problem?
The Romanian equivalent of the KGB was the Securitate. In this sense, Romania was worse than other communist block countries. A famous defector from the Securiate, General Ion Pacepa, has written a book about the methods of the secret service in Romania. He mentions that every third person in Romania was somehow working for the Securitate, either willingly or by coercion. There were microphones at every table in every restaurant. All telephones were bugged. In country areas the party had a problem: how do you monitor the peasants who did not own telephones. The problem was solved by providing radios with bugs!
But eventually you were allowed to leave?
In general, the Jews were accepted as a national minority. Many were intellectuals and well immersed in the economic and cultural life of the country. At one time, the chief Rabbi, Dr Mozes Rosen was a member of parliament. With the birth of the state of Israel, the first wave of Jews left in 1950. We joined the second wave in 1959. Perhaps our departure was a stroke of luck. We had a neighbor who was a policeman. My father was then in charge of installing an air-conditioning system in a large hospital. Somebody under him sold various components of the system on the black market and the installation could not be completed. A case was being built against my father, quite wrongly, on the charge of theft. Our neighbor the policeman let on that the investigator looking into my father’s case had taken a vacation. We took advantage of the situation and swiftly departed. It was a tough move. My father was already 50, and emigrating to a new country was very, very hard on him.
What later happened in Romania?
Ceausescu came to power in 1965. At the time, the Comintern designated Romania as a warehouse of agricultural produce. Ceausescu desperately wanted to escape this designation and became obsessed with industrialization. He forced field workers into factories, and built the largest steel mill in Europe. After emigrating to Israel, I became involved with importating steel from Romania. The price was very good, but the quality was crap, full of impurities. Whatever could go bad with the stuff did. And in the factories, many people were injured and killed during production. The end result of this stupid policy was that agriculture was neglected, and industry grew poorly because farmers do not make good workers. So Ceausescu managed to destroy two birds with one stone. Romania would later be starving.
Who gave Ceausescu the title, "Genius of the Carpathians?"
Himself, of course! And he bestowed titles on his wife. She was a fraudulent scientist and Ceausescu had the university in Bucharest award her a Ph.D. There are some scholarly publications with her name all ghost written. There was a funny joke about the two of them. Ceausescu is speaking with a Romanian astronaut who returns after a mission on a Russian vessel. Ceausescu inquires "How was your journey in space?" The astronaut: “overall it was good but I had some problems with the laws of gravity.” That night, Ceausescu relates the story to his wife and scratches his head, "The astronaut said he had problems with the laws of gravity, but to tell the truth, I don't remember passing any such laws." His wife responds, "I'm sorry I can't help you. My specialty is science, not law."
But externally, Romania was viewed differently?
Historically, the Romanians were less hateful toward the Jews than either the Russians or Poles. For this reason, over the years, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Jews, including my family, left these countries and settled in Romania. Romania was trying to look different from the communist block and even kept up ties with Israel after 1967 when the other communist countries cut relations. Externally, Ceasescu looked pro-western and was friendly with the US, even to the extent of participating in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984-- flagrantly disobeying the Soviet lead boycott. But internally, the dreadful economy coupled with the overbearing security apparatus made Romania the worst possible place to be in the communist block.
Now there are less than 10,000 Jews in Romania. Most are old people who do not want to move, and some are married to gentiles which makes emigration to Israel a little harder. At the present, there are some Israelis going back to Romania because land is so cheap and because it is considered a place with good prospects for the future (The country will become a EU member in 2007). The economy is bad, but if you have any money, you can live well. The average salary is $100 a month, $200 is very good. And on the other hand, many Romanians are going to work in Israel. They are taking jobs vacated by Palestinians after the second intifada. It truly is amazing, the way peoples flow from one country to another.
Note: Rafael now lives in Columbus, Ohio.