Thirty years ago, on Saturday, Dec. 16, 1989, a crowd gathered in Timişoara, in the Banat region of western Romania, in front of the house of László Tökés, a popular and charismatic young priest who led a small Protestant church. The crowd formed because Tökés had long spoken truth to the absolute power wielded by Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu who, with his ruthless secret police and abetted by his small coterie of family and cronies, became one of Europe’s most unforgiving dictators during his reign over Romania starting in 1965. Titling himself “Conducător,” the leader, Ceauşescu exhibited all the megalomaniacal traits associated with dictators: from love of glitter, as in the building of a gilded bathroom for himself; to his penchant for glorifying his leadership by constructing a hideously gargantuan monument celebrating his rule at the cost of destroying some of Bucharest’s most beautiful historic neighborhoods; and from outlawing abortion in pursuit of a massive increase of Romania’s population, since only countries with large populations could be powerful; to pursuing an autarchic economic policy that was to minimize, even eliminate imports, in order to alleviate any dependency on others, which in turn led to economic hardships that were worse than anywhere else in Eastern Europe.
Ceauşescu’s foreign policy also had him cross the Soviet Union at every instance he could—thus, Romania was the first Soviet bloc country to recognize West Germany diplomatically; Romania was also the only Soviet bloc country to remain on very friendly terms with Israel, maintaining full diplomatic relations with it while all other Warsaw Pact countries severed ties after the Six-Day War. Romania denounced the Warsaw Pact’s crushing of the Prague Spring, and hosted Richard Nixon in a rare state visit of an American president. Romania was also the only Soviet bloc country to attend the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. All of which helps explain why Ceauşescu’s image in the West never came close to reflecting what a brutal dictator he was, and how badly he abused the Romanian people.
By Sunday, Dec. 17, the police, aided by commandos of Ceauşescu’s secret police, the dreaded Securitate, began to assault the demonstrators, by shooting into the crowd indiscriminately. But the regime could not curtail the demonstrations which, like flames, skipped from Timişoara all over the country, arriving in the capital Bucharest a few days later, toppling the dictator. Ceauşescu was executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day of 1989 after being caught on the run with his wife.
Most experts argue that it was not an accident that the Ceauşescu regime’s end commenced in the multicultural and polyglot city of Timişoara (known as Temesvár in Hungarian and Temeswar as well as Temeschburg in German). While the Jewish population of Timişoara had diminished to under 1,000 by the time of these crucial events in late 1989, and its role in the overthrow of Ceauşescu was minimal, if any, there is no doubt that this population’s longtime presence in the city for all of the 20th century helped to shape Timişoara’s cosmopolitan and enlightened culture. Even though the first testimony of Jewish presence in Timişoara hails from 1636 under the Ottomans’ rule and Jews have lived there uninterruptedly until today, it was really in the 20th century that Jews became prominent in this city’s public life. It is the story of this Jewish presence in the 1950s that I want to present by telling of my own lived experience in this place.
I was born and grew up as an only child in a Hungarian-speaking bourgeois Jewish family composed of my father, Lajos Markovits, born in Satu Mare (Szatmár in Hungarian, the famed Satmar), and my mother Ida Ritter, born in Tileagd near Oradea (Telegd near Nagyvárad in Hungarian). We lived in a yellow stucco house in Timişoara’s central district on 1 Kutuzov Street named after the prominent Russian military leader Mikhail Kutuzov of Napoleonic War heroics. Clearly the property of an haute bourgeois family before the Communist assumption of power in 1948, the year of my birth, the house was a microcosm of Timişoara’s multiethnic and multilingual composition at the time. Of the city’s 142,257 inhabitants in the mid-1950s, 75,855 were primarily Romanian-speaking; 29,968 primarily Hungarian-speaking; and 24,326 German-speaking with the rest an assortment of Serb and Bulgarian speakers, among other languages.
In the basement lived the Hajdu family, a Hungarian-speaking, Protestant couple with adult children who came for occasional visits on Sundays. Mr. Hajdu was some kind of handyman, with Mrs. Hajdu being a homemaker. On the second floor were the Țicalas, mother, father, son, and daughter, who were Romanian Orthodox. Their daughter Doina had a beautiful voice and always sang Verdi and Puccini arias, while their son Țucu, who was four or five years my senior, was a tough kid whom I admired and envied and my mother detested and feared.
On the first floor—in the smaller apartment—were the Țuneas with their lovely daughter Livia whose huge black eyes I will never forget. Mr. Țunea, just like Mr. Hajdu, was a manual worker employed by a factory in town. Unlike the Țicalas, who did not speak Hungarian because they hailed from the “real,” the “original” Romania of the “Regat”; the Țuneas, Roman Catholics, spoke excellent Hungarian as well as passable German because they came from a village in the Banat region surrounding Timişoara in which many people spoke all three languages though not with equal proficiency.
My family, the Markovitses, lived in the larger apartment on the first floor. The only Jews in the building, we spoke Hungarian at home, as a majority of Timişoara’s circa 7,000 Jews did at the time. My father, the bread-winning man of the household, also spoke superb Romanian which he used in his work as an economic planner in the Timişoara branch of the Romanian state’s central bank, a job he attained by dint of his having received a doctorate in business administration from the Commerce University of Budapest in June 1937. (Title of the thesis in English translation of the Hungarian original: “Palestine’s Economic Development and Its Commercial Relations with Hungary.”) My stay-at-home mother spoke virtually no Romanian but perfect German and passable French instead, both of which she learned from the private tutors who educated her in lieu of a public secondary education, in part because she was a sickly child but also and mainly because, as an only child of her secular bourgeois parents living in a small town near the larger city of Oradea, private tutors were the best guarantors of bestowing the cultural capital that my mother’s parents coveted and admired.
Lastly, there was Josif, a major or colonel in the Red Army who, with his wife, was placed in our apartment during the duration of his service in Timişoara. While the Red Army maintained a presence in Romania until 1958, Josif and his wife lived with us sometime in the early 1950s. My lifelong affection for the Red Army surely hails in part from my wonderful relationship with Josif. Occasionally, he would take me on a ride on his lap in the front seat of his “VEELEES,” the Willys Jeep that the Red Army received as aid from the United States during the war and which it used well into the postwar period. Josif would often bring me a chocolate bar wrapped in paper with the image of a bear appropriately called “medved,” which means bear in Russian, a word that was close enough to the Hungarian “medve” for me to understand it. I admired the fancy stars on his epaulets, which I saw up close when he lifted me in the air and ran around the room with me letting me sit astride his neck. I also remember loving the smell of the sweet perfume or aftershave that was the distinct scent of the Red Army officers and soldiers around town. Josif also taught me chess, which he always played with the various men of the building and the neighborhood whom he beat with regularity even while handicapping himself by playing without his rooks or bishops.
I remember how one morning Josif and his wife packed their stuff in a hurry and were driven off with the VEELEES that always picked him up for work. We never saw them again. Josif’s successor—whose name I thankfully forgot—was an unfriendly brutish man, exactly the opposite of Josif’s warmth and friendliness. He often beat his little girl with his belt. I remember my parents’ total helplessness and dread when this happened with my mother holding me tight and kissing my head. All they could do was turn up the volume of our record player full blast to have the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schumann, or Schubert drown out the little girl’s screams.
I do not recall any other forms of hostility among the building’s tenants. If anything, quite the opposite. I remember many warm encounters with the Tuneas next door, with the Hajdus below us, and fewer perhaps, but still very pleasant ones with the Țicalas above us. Romanian and Hungarian were used interchangeably on a daily basis with zero animosity. I certainly never experienced any form of anti-Semitism, nor did I ever hear my parents mention such. They clearly felt comfortable with their neighbors, and liked them.
This was decidedly not the case with the Soviets. My parents’ antipathy toward them reached way beyond the obvious resentment of having to share a four-room apartment with total strangers serving in an army that my parents regarded as an occupying force. I heard nothing but contempt and derision and even hatred for the Soviets during my entire childhood: that they raped every woman in sight; that they were thieves parading with 20 or 30 wristwatches on their arms; that they stole from locals at the point of a gun; that they were illiterate country bumpkins, utterly uncouth and uncultured; that they smelled and were unwashed; and that they eschewed the protection of shelters during the war’s air raids because life was so cheap for them that they did not mind dying.
Making things worse was the fact that they represented Communism, which, to my father as a former small business owner expropriated by the Communists in 1948, and as a man with social democratic leanings, represented a double whammy. Throughout my childhood in Timişoara, I never heard anything positive about the Soviets and the Red Army, which, after all, was the only reason that my parents and the Jews of Timişoara survived in September of 1944, when the Wehrmacht reached the outskirts of the city. Had the latter prevailed it is quite certain that the 13,000 Jews then living in Timişoara would have been deported and gassed to death.
In contrast, I never heard anything bad about the Germans. Were a skilled ethnographer to have entered the Markovits family’s living and dining room between 1948 and 1958, this person would never have realized from all the accouterments adorning the room, that this was a Holocaust-ravaged family whose male member had both of his parents and two of his six siblings murdered in Auschwitz, with two others surviving this camp and the death marches; and whose female member had both of her parents killed in Auschwitz as well. A huge bookshelf proudly displayed many works in their original German by Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Büchner, Grillparzer, Raimund, Nestroy, Mann, Zweig, Feuchtwanger, to mention just some authors, with a few Hungarian works by the likes of Madács, Molnár, Arany, and Petöfi strewn in for good measure. Of course, the classics of Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante were all present—in German translations. Next to this bookshelf was a massive record collection featuring the works of Bach, Händel, Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms with some Dvorak and Tchaikovsky present as well and the operas of Verdi and Puccini—though no Wagner, not on account of his vicious anti-Semitism but rather because his music was simply too demanding for the standard tastes of a typical family belonging to the central European Bildungsbürgertum.
Nothing was more important for my mother than that I learn perfect German. Toward that end, she hired Frau Kommer, a distinguished-looking, white-haired, immensely cultured German-speaking woman of the local German population, the so called Banat or Danube Swabians (erroneously so labeled since they came to Romania in the 18th century from various German Catholic lands such as Bavaria, the Palatinate, and Austria with very few from actual Swabia) who was to spend afternoons with me either in our living room or walking me through one of Timişoara’s lovely parks all the while perfecting first only my spoken German later to be complemented by teaching me how to read and write German. Much later, in my adult life, I heard rumors that Frau Kommer hailed from a family that allegedly exhibited Nazi leanings, which would not have been unusual in this milieu at the time. When I once asked my father about this in New York, his answer highlighted my parents’ outlook on this matter: “This would have been totally unimportant for your mother, for whom the only thing that counted was the person’s erudition in the German language and culture—not their political leanings.”
Throughout my mother’s life, which sadly ended all too soon when I had not yet reached the age of 10 and she the age of 40, she only read in German to me, including works in translation. I never quite understood why Homer and Shakespeare were nobler and worthier in German than in Hungarian, but to my mother they certainly were. Nothing was more important for the central European Jewish middle class to which my mother prided herself on belonging than the mastery of the German language and its literature and music.
By listening almost exclusively to German composers and reading the writings of German literary giants, my mother (and to a lesser extent my father) made it amply clear that she regarded the German language and German culture as the epitome that her native Hungarian—and by extension any other—could not attain. I am sure that the Holocaust was so painful to my parents that they simply never mentioned it to me—quite possibly to each other.
The only time I saw my father really upset enough to invoke the Holocaust in rage and trembling was in New York in 1975, when we got into a heated debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I presented the Palestinian side without advocating it. But my father simply could not hear the difference between description and advocacy. In rage and fear that I had rarely seen with him, he just screamed something to the effect that he just never wanted to have Jews “bake in ovens once again the way my parents and my two oldest siblings did.” But with the exception of my father’s sister, who returned from Auschwitz and who invoked it almost daily, the Holocaust was a nonevent in the nuclear Markovits family.
For my aunt, who did not have the cultural ambitions and pretensions that my mother and father had and whose German was really poor, the Holocaust was much more present than to my parents. But she also never listened to Bach and Beethoven and did not read Goethe’s Faust for pleasure in the evenings.
Our lived Judaism was on some level quite shallow, on another quite intense. Thus, we did not keep kosher, only celebrated among the many Jewish holidays both days of Rosh Hashanah; Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur, of course, with my parents fasting all 26 hours; as well as two Seders during each of which my father always invoked pogroms that would befall Jews when they opened their doors for the prophet Elijah. So we only opened a window! My parents kept their yahrzeits most strictly, never forgetting any of them. Since my father would not only say Kaddish for his two murdered parents—as did my mother for hers—but also his two siblings killed in Auschwitz plus various cousins, I recall seeing a yahrzeit candle with considerable regularity throughout the year. Once I recall my mother being particularly grateful to Josif for supplying her with candles that apparently had become unavailable in Timişoara’s state-owned and state-run stores, but were somehow to be had by an officer of the Red Army.
My parents were also very diligent about observing the four Yizkors (or Maskers as they were called) of the year: Pesach, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Indeed, these were the only times that my mother would venture to synagogue other than for Kol Nidre, when I enjoyed looking up to the balcony and seeing her dressed elegantly and seated in the first row of the women’s section amid her girlfriends. My father and I would also attend Shabbat services on Friday evenings with some frequency though never on Saturday mornings. For some reason, Erev Shabbat seemed to have been more important for my parents—and perhaps the community as a whole—than Shabbat itself.
Our temple—never called a shul—was built by Austrian architect Carl Schumann whose mentor was Ludwig Förster, the architect of the Dohany Street synagogue in Budapest, Europe’s largest and most beautiful. My father’s pride in this building which he demonstrated literally every time we went there had one particular reason: Even though the building was inaugurated in 1865, it was then reinaugurated in 1872 by none other than Emperor Franz Joseph I himself, who traveled all the way from distant Vienna to the edge of his empire to dedicate, among others of his imperial duties, this edifice to the Jewish community of Timişoara. The inculcation of such admiration of and love for the great emperor would come in my good stead in 1958 when we moved to Vienna, where I encountered Franz Joseph’s presence in some form or another pretty much every day of the nine years that I spent in this city. My father would never tire of mentioning that among all the Habsburg emperors only Franz Josef I (1830–1916; emperor from 1848 to 1916) and Joseph II (1741–1790; Holy Roman Emperor after 1765 and sole ruler of the Habsburg lands after his mother Maria Theresa’s death in 1780) were kind to the Jews.
The “Inner City synagogue” as it was called, followed the “neolog” interpretation of Judaism that had become so prominent among the Jewish bourgeoisie of Habsburg Europe. All prayers were conducted in Ashkenazi-accented Hebrew; women sat strictly separate from men, with the former upstairs in the balcony, the latter downstairs in the main sanctuary. The cantor’s praying was accompanied by a chorus and an organ both of which were upstairs. I am completely certain that my life-long love for harmonies in general and choral music in particular hail from this glorious experience in my childhood in Timişoara where Kol Nidre for me became a quasi-operatic rather than a religious event.
The other four synagogues in town are also worthy of mention. In the city’s “factory town” district, there was the other neolog synagogue, an architectural gem built by the renowned Jewish architect Lipot Baumhorn and inaugurated in 1899. Two Orthodox synagogues built around this time, one by the German architect Karl Hart and the other a Sephardic synagogue, round out the topography of Timişoara’s public spaces of Jewish worship when I lived in Timişoara in the 1950s. Only one of these edifices still functions as a synagogue.
My father taught me to read Hebrew so that I could follow the prayers. Using the Ashkenazi pronunciation he would sit with me over our dining room table going over prayer after prayer, sometimes accompanying his reading with a warm melody. It was only years later in Vienna, where I had an Israeli tutor for my bar mitzvah, that I learned the modern Hebrew pronunciation of these prayers, though to this day I often find myself regressing to the cadence and accent that I learned from my father in my Timişoaran childhood. Telling of my mother’s gender and social standing, she was way too secular to read Hebrew. Instead, she used with some frequency a pocket-size, 611-page book called Mirjam: Imádságok Zsidó Nök Számára, which translates into, “Miriam: Prayers for Jewish Women,” compiled and edited by Dr. Arnold Kiss, the chief rabbi of Buda, the section of Budapest located west of the Danube. It literally did not contain even one Hebrew word in the all-Hungarian text. My mother’s copy was the book’s 63rd edition, published in April 1922, Nissan 5682, meaning that the first edition must have been published in 1859 or before, which would coincide precisely with the initial proliferation of the neolog movement among Central Europe’s educated bourgeois Jews.
Odd as it may sound, my Jewish upbringing in Timişoara is unimaginable without sports, Association Football (i.e., soccer) in particular. My frequent visits with my father on weekends to the grounds of my beloved “Știința” (Science) later named “Politehnica” where we often met my father’s Hungarian-speaking male Jewish friends and Romanian-speaking male non-Jewish colleagues from work, provided an experience equivalent to that of a young Jewish American boy’s growing up with his beloved baseball, basketball, and football teams. While there is nothing inherently Jewish in this phenomenon, I notice that for many of my American-born male Jewish friends and colleagues, it has also remained an essential ingredient of their Jewish identity well into their adult lives.
There was one sports-related incident where Jewishness mattered greatly and it happened on the 4th of July, 1954, when my father and I gathered around our radio to listen to the broadcast on Radio Budapest of the World Cup final between Hungary and West Germany played in the Swiss capital of Bern. The former, without a doubt the absolute best national soccer team on the planet at the time, was a heavy favorite to defeat the Germans yet again, after it had done so by a score of 8-3 in the tournament’s group stage. The German upset of the Hungarian “golden team” (arany csapat) in this game—forever celebrated as the “miracle of Bern” in Germany and bemoaned as its curse in Hungary—created a reaction in my father that I will never forget.
Far from being upset by this loss, like I expected him to be, my father turned to me calmly and said that the result between these two teams representing evil nations was totally irrelevant for us, me in particular, and that the only importance of this whole event was that it took place on the 4th of July, the birthday of a country that alone in the world was good to the Jews and where—God willing—I was going to end up some day, free of the burdens that he had to endure all his life. It was the very first time in my life that the United States of America assumed any kind of reality for me.
My pals in Timişoara were about a dozen kids with virtually identical backgrounds to mine: Hungarian-speaking Jewish boys and girls of neolog middle-class parents of various professions. Since communism diminished, though never entirely alleviated, differences in wealth, none of us had more gadgets than the others did. We had our bicycles that we rode in the city’s many parks and we actually lived fairly carefree and happy lives largely unencumbered by our parents’ pain from the nightmare of the Holocaust and their difficulties in negotiating the treacherous waters of a Stalinist dictatorship. I was popular among the boys for a while because my father surprised me once with a soccer ball the origins of which I never knew. Suffice it to say that this advantage disappeared immediately after one of us kicked the ball into a family’s window shattering it completely, and having the man of the house chase us for dear life.
All of these people emigrated from Romania like my father and I did in 1958, shortly after my mother’s death, or soon thereafter. Their destinations varied though most settled eventually in Israel, the United States, Canada, and Vienna, Austria. I stayed in touch with quite a few over the years, though I would not characterize any of these relationships as close, perhaps with one exception: my friendship with Getta Neumann, daughter of Timişoara’s longtime chief rabbi, Dr. Ernest Neumann, who made her home in France just outside of Geneva. Getta has become the leading expert and guardian of all things Jewish in Timişoara, publishing a regular newsletter online in addition to various articles and anthologies on this topic.
Timişoara has changed massively since my 10 years there as a child in the 1950s. The city’s population had almost tripled to 320,000 by 2012 with its linguistic and ethnic composition having shifted as well. With 260,000 Romanian speakers and only 16,000 Hungarian and 4,000 German speakers, Timişoara has mutated from its polyglot and multicultural Habsburg past and become a solidly Romanian city.
Lászlo Tökés, the priest who initiated the developments that led to the toppling of the Ceauşescu dictatorship, became a member of the European Parliament. On a sadder note for me, he is a member of FIDESZ, the political party led by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s autocratic leader and one of Europe’s chief exponents of ethnically pure “illiberal democracy.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.