“The things they do to you (in the camps), the power they have over you. It throws off your sense of right and wrong.” – Olen Steinhauer, The ConfessionOne of the most remarkable exchanges I encountered this summer from my time in the lower Danube was the personal family story from one of the Romanian guides. His father, a doctor, originally supported the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu until his father was conscripted into the army and one of his odious duties was to accompany the feared security police on missions in which they executed individuals.(His father would subsequently turn against Ceaușescu by supporting his wife who, coming from a humble background, had suffered under the regime.) He also revealed how his mother and her fellow workers were bused in to cheer Ceaușescu as he appeared on his balcony for the last time. The guide’s uncle was a member of the Army ordered to shoot anyone in the crowd who did not appear to be cheering. Was he to shoot his sister? This was a pivotal point in alienating the Army. The despised dictator lost his support and as a result he was finished. Our guide pointed out that balcony where Ceausescu delivered a speech that was interrupted by taunts from the crowd. It was a breathtaking moment, but this guide was an almost solitary voice among the local citizens I heard over the last two years.
The most widespread impression acquired from my visits to Romania and Bulgaria, especially the latter, was the ambivalence from a number of local guides about living under Communism. They acknowledge the difficulties of living with food and electrical shortages, the restrictions on speech and travel and the omnipotent power of the security police. These sentiments came close to appearing pro forma that was likely designed to appeal to the mostly American tourists. To me the guides appeared more energized when they spoke about the security of full employment and good pensions; for a number of them it seemed that the benefits outweighed the costs although that view was rarely explicitly stated.