Under the terrible poverty in communist Romania, a school a kid is asked by the teacher: “What is 300 meters long, 10 meters wide and eats vegetable”? The kid rapidly replies: “The queue in front of the supermarket!” – A legacy Romanian communist joke
Recently I learned something amazing about my family, particularly my great-grandfather. He was just like me. He was an activist, a dissenter, a subversive, openly speaking about his displeasure with injustice. Or maybe it is the other way around? Maybe I am like him?
My great-grandfather was dirt poor, and that is not a figure of speech. He literally had nothing. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Romania was a monarchy, with only the wealthy having access to decent living. The folks I descended from lived in small cob one or two room huts with thatched roofs and dirt floors. Some of these buildings are still around even today. I don’t really know much about my family tree, mostly because people did not live long enough to know anything about them.
But my great-grandfather, I knew quite well. He died when I was younger and there are only a few things I remember about him: he always had a ton of money, and he always worked hard. So yes, while he was poor in his younger years, he became quite wealthy, even in a Communist country, mostly because he worked hard and saved every penny he made.
You see, after World War II, the Soviets changed the political regime in Romania and backed a coup that replaced the monarchy with a Communist regime. The ideology and communist propaganda swept many young people off their feet, including my grandfather Radu who signed up to serve in the military. By the late 40s and early 50s, he was a hardcore commie; working for the government and helping them collectivize all arable land throughout the country.
When his son Radu came back from the army, his father (my great-grandfather) was on a land-buying spree. Radu told him to stop wasting his money on land because it would all be taken away. The word is that the response was a couple of well-placed smacks to the jaw with the response: “I never bought a shirt to put on my back and spend all my money to buy land, and you will take it away from me?”
But it all came true. The Communists eventually collectivized all land, including my great-grandfather’s property; and he had a lot of it. For the first couple of years, he refused to recognize the authority of the Communist regime and continued to cultivate his land as he always did. Then the threats came. They sent groups of thugs at night to try to cut down his corn. When he chased them away, they sent women from the town to come during the day to destroy his harvests, because he wouldn’t assault them and the men were too embarrassed and cowardly to do it.
In response he laid down on the fields in front of theirs scythes to stop them from cutting his plants down. He failed and eventually gave in because he had no choice. But he did not give up. After they took all his land away, he spent most of his life taking back what was taken from him. Virtually every night he would get his horse and wagon and go out into the fields taking corn, wheat, potatoes and whatever else the Communists were cultivating on his land. He made himself whole one way or another, without asking for permission. Some people called his actions theft; he called it surviving.
Even when it was impossible to earn any substantial income in Romania or save money, he became an incredible entrepreneur. I remember seeing him always working, no matter where he was or what time of the year it was. In the summer he would make dirt bricks on the side of a local river and sell them to random people. He would weave baskets out of willow branches and sell them for a nice markup. Or he would go fishing at night and sell all the fish the next day instead of eating it himself.
When he became older, he started making fishing nets at home by the window or doing other things around the house. That’s all he did, working every day and saving all his earnings. His activism moved me when I heard about it. It took so many forms, it was public when needed, subversive when necessary, bold when he had enough from the State. Until the day he died he referred to the land the communist stole from him as “my land” and never gave up his rightful ownership of it.
I will definitely try to be more like him, and just like him, I am hoping my actions and determination will also motivate the generations to come.