Communism took 10 years to collapse in Poland, 10 months in Hungary, 10 days in Czechoslovakia, and 10 hours in Romania. So Eastern Europeans used to say, and it was true enough. Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed with his wife, Elena, by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, four days after addressing a rally of his still largely docile subjects.
Carmen Bugan, author of this tenderly moving memoir, spent her childhood under Ceausescu, his smiling face in every classroom and his armies of informers ready to report any grumblers. Born in 1970, Bugan spends the first third of this book recounting an idyllic girlhood of home-grown feasts, family singalongs with an accordion, and outings to the Black Sea.
Yet just as we’re thinking maybe life under the Ceausescus wasn’t so bad, Bugan’s account turns darker. By the time she’s 10, nightly blackouts, severe food shortages, and neighborhood spy networks so tight that even the village priests inform on them turn a nostalgic account of rural folkways into something much more malignant. She hears of people being jailed with their families for listening to Radio Free Europe. When Ceausescu goes boar hunting, Bugan and her schoolmates are dressed up in peasant garb, bused to a meadow, and made to dance, happy farm folk greeting the “father of all children.”
At 11, Bugan learns an unsettling truth about her father, Ion. He has been typing antigovernment pamphlets and inserting them in mailboxes all over town. Such activity puts the family in grave danger, and she finds out he was twice imprisoned for political activity, once before she was born. One day she discovers him burying the illegal typewriter in the garden. When the precocious Bugan demands he stop, her father dismisses her pleas. She later learns that he continued to unearth the typewriter by night, taking it to the attic to bash out anticommunist tracts.
In 1983, her father finally snaps. His wife in the hospital after giving birth to Bugan’s brother, Ion drives their Dacia car to Bucharest with a placard on the roof reading “Criminal, We Don’t Want You to Lead Us” and another asking “What Do You Defend, the Ceausescu Dynasty or the Rights and Liberty of Man?” He tosses antigovernment leaflets to passersby and is arrested and imprisoned.
Back home, agents from the dreaded Securitate place the family under Orwellian surveillance. They put microphones everywhere and order the family to leave curtains open so they can be watched, day and night. At school, teachers publicly denounce Bugan’s father and encourage classmates to bully her. Her parents are forced into a sham divorce. When her father returns home after five years in jail, they endure death threats, the poisoning of their dog, and the seizure of their house.
By the time the story ends with the family’s flight to exile in the United States in 1989, the oppression had begun seeping into their minds. So accustomed are they to living like “animals in a kennel,” they can no longer recognize “the difference between thoughts or feelings we had spontaneously and those we created to display for our protection,” Bugan writes. She has a sharp eye for psychological nuances, including her own as she turns from reluctant dissident’s daughter to believer in her father’s demands for political freedom.
Her account has one baffling omission. Except for a brief reference, she never mentions Ceausescu’s execution, which takes place only a month after the family’s arrival in Grand Rapids, Mich. Did they cheer his death? Did it tempt them to go back? She never says. As she recounts in an epilogue, she returned to Romania last year to review her father’s now-declassified Securitate dossier. Inside its 18 volumes, she finds pictures of the buried typewriter, statements by informants she thought were friends, and an agent’s report saying “he has two young children for whom he cares very much.”
Anne Frank aside, one doesn’t often read accounts of persecution from the point of view of a young girl, much less one as poignant and unsentimental as this. Bugan reminds us of the crushing sacrifices that Eastern European dissidents endured in those years. For them, Ceausescu’s downfall took a lot longer than 10 hours.
Roger Atwood, a writer living in London, can be reached at www