The author returns to Romania, whence his grandparents fled pogroms and poverty.
IN MY TEENS, I asked my Great Aunt Rose where in Romania our family had come from. She claimed that she didn’t remember. I said, “Aunt Rose, you lived there until you were nineteen. What do you mean, you don’t remember?” She said, “It was a horrible place and we were lucky to get out of there. There’s no reason for anyone to go back.” I begged her to tell me at least the name of the place. She gave me an uncharacteristically steely glare and said again, “I don’t remember.” That was the end of the conversation.
My paternal grandfather — Aunt Rose’s brother, a farm laborer — preceded her to the United States when he was sixteen, fleeing pogroms and generational poverty. He was processed at Ellis Island and then settled in New York City, where he made neckties out of dress remnants. He insured that my father got a good education, and my family has lived in prosperity ever since. I’ve often wondered about the life my grandfather left behind. Presumably my forebears had inquiring and capacious minds much like mine and my father’s, and I have often pondered what it would be like to be us and to live like that.
Fifteen years ago, my friend Leslie Hawke moved to Romania and founded an N.G.O., OvidiuRo, to teach Gypsy children. I joined her board in part because I saw a parallel between the oppression of my Jewish ancestors and the oppression of the Roma. We had bettered our lives through education outside Romania; they might better theirs with access to schooling in Romania.
When a Romanian publisher bought the rights to my book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, last year, it reignited my curiosity about this ancestral place, and I signed on for a promotional tour. I saw an elegant circularity in the contrast between my grandfather’s departure in destitution and my return as a published author. A second cousin I had dredged up on Facebook said that she thought we hailed from Dorohoi, a small city about two hundred and fifty miles north of Bucharest, near the Ukrainian border. An amateur genealogist friend offered to do further research, and she unearthed papers confirming that the family had indeed come from Dorohoi; my grandfather and two brothers had sailed steerage from Hamburg in 1900, sending for their parents and siblings four years later.
My publisher worried that Romanians might not be ready to talk openly about depression, but the zeitgeist had shifted more than they had guessed. Romania’s greatest living writer, Mircea Cărtărescu, agreed to write an introduction and to participate in the book launch. Even before I arrived in Bucharest, the book was a best-seller, and in my first two days there I was interviewed on all three major television networks, on Romanian National Radio, and in many leading newspapers. A large crowd squeezed into a bookstore for the inaugural event, and The Noonday Demon went into a second printing the next day.
But all was not to go as smoothly as planned. Before I arrived, Leslie had been in touch with Florin Buhuceanu, who leads ACCEPT, a Romanian gay-rights organization. Leslie’s friend Genevieve had a connection to the Central University Library, a spectacular building in central Bucharest with an impressive lecture theatre that was opened, in 1914, by King Carol I. They agreed that this would be an ideal place for me to speak to Bucharest’s L.G.B.T. community. Genevieve arranged a meeting with the library director, who, after what Leslie and Florin said was a very cordial hour-long discussion, confirmed that the hall was available and that she would be delighted for the lecture to be held there. Florin thanked her for her courage in supporting an L.G.B.T. organization, signed and returned the contract, and posted details about the event on Facebook.
Putin’s homophobic shadow falls long in Eastern Europe, and in early June the Romanian Chamber of Deputies defeated a bill that would have granted legal recognition to gay couples, with two hundred and ninety-eight votes against, three abstentions, and only four in favor. The same week, Genevieve said, the library director phoned her, angrily accused her of lying about the nature of the lecture, and said that the library would never host an event in which gay identity was to be discussed. Thereafter, she did not return either Florin’s or Leslie’s multiple messages.
ACCEPT scrambled and found a smaller, less central place for the lecture. After I spoke, the Q&A lasted nearly an hour. Many of the questions pertained to my family life — what it was like to have a husband and children, how it felt to find acceptance from my father and in a wider social context — which was as unimaginable to them as my life of relative affluence would have been to my great-grandparents. Several attendees said that they dreamed of immigrating to a place where they could find such acceptance. Too many described severe depression as a result of social oppression, and several alluded to the change of venue for my lecture as an example of that problem. While it was hardly comparable to a pogrom, the incident helped me to imagine what it might have been like for my family to belong to a group that most Romanians found repugnant.
The next day, Leslie and I drove seven hours to a horse farm in the north Moldavian highlands, where we stayed overnight, eating rustic food and drinking homemade blackberry brandy. In the morning, we picked up one of the last Jews in the county, who runs a sideline in genealogy, and proceeded to Dorohoi. It was haunting to look at the gently rolling landscape on our approach and think of my grandfather and his grandfather seeing those same hills. Life seemed to have changed little in the elapsed century; farmers in oxcarts were going about their labor, women in head scarves were hoeing the fields by hand, faces had the cracked skin that comes from brutal summers and brutal winters too close in succession. We went to Dorohoi’s Jewish cemetery, up a long dirt road; it was locked behind a tall metal fence, but a man who lived nearby had the key and for about five dollars each he let us in, explaining enthusiastically, “I am not Jewish, but I like Jews.”
The cemetery was in a state of profound neglect — but so is everything else near Dorohoi. A lowing cow wandered among the tombstones, many of which were swathed in nettles. Leslie spotted the first Solomon grave. Soon we found more, many from people born after my grandfather had emigrated. It’s impossible to know for sure whether these are my relatives, but the Jewish community was never enormous (there are about forty-five hundred Jewish graves in the county), and it seems likely that my namesakes are my relatives. I placed stones on some of the graves (Jewish tradition is to place a stone rather than to bring flowers), and thought about these people who could have left and didn’t. We went into the funeral chapel, which was just a barn with a Star of David on it, and saw the old horse-drawn hearse.
One of the graves had an inscription memorializing the Solomons who had died “at the hands of Hitler”; many of those dead had names that occur elsewhere in our family. A memorial at the center of the burial ground commemorates the five thousand Jews who were taken from the area, never to return. I heard Aunt Rose’s voice saying, “We were lucky to get out of there.” I had hoped she might not be entirely right, that this European source of the family would be at least picturesque, that I’d have a surprising sense of identification with the place. I didn’t know how despondent it would make me to imagine being trapped in that life. I’ve reported from war zones and deprived societies for decades, but they have always been profoundly other, and this felt shockingly accessible — I could have been born here, and lived and died like this.
As we left, we stumbled on five black-cherry trees, tall at the edge of the cemetery, and we rushed over to pick the ripe fruit. As the red juice stained my hands, I wondered who in my family might have stood underneath these trees and relished the same taste, so sharp and so sweet. I thought how my own children would have scarfed down those cherries if they had been with me. And I suddenly had the revelation that my forebears had been children, too, in their day — that this place had been visited not only by old men with beards but by boys and girls who would have climbed the fruit trees to reap the plenty of their upper branches.
On the way out of town, I looked at the local peasants and thought that, if their forefathers had not burned down the houses of mine, mine wouldn’t have left. And I looked at what had happened to us in two generations, and looked at what hadn’t happened to them in two or three, and instead of feeling outraged by their history of aggression I felt privileged by it. Oppression sometimes benefits its victims more than its perpetrators. While those who are ravaging their neighbors’ lives exhaust their energy on that destruction, those whose lives are being shattered must expend their vigor on solutions — some of which can be exquisite. Hatred drove my family to the United States and its previously unimaginable freedoms.
The conditions in the Roma settlements to which Leslie took me next made Dorohoi look like East Hampton. Where the peasants of northern Romania ate badly, the Gypsies of Colonia were going hungry; while the peasants lived short lives, the Gypsies showed obvious signs of illness. The peasants may not have had good plumbing, but the Gypsies had none at all; they defecated in the surrounding pasture, and the place stank to high heaven. At this writing, as a result of OvidiuRo’s work, fifteen hundred Roma children are getting the early education that might help them break out of their poverty. I met those children, bright-eyed and full of fun, and hoped they could escape becoming like the morose teen-agers and glassy-eyed adults who sat around Colonia in the squalor.
As we headed back to Bucharest, I received a call from Duane Butcher, the chargé d’affaires in the U.S. Embassy (the de-facto ambassador, as we do not have an ambassador to Romania at the moment). He wanted to know what had happened at the library, and I gave him a synopsis. He told me that a Facebook post I’d written about the incident had been picked up by the country’s wire service, Mediafax, and was being widely reported in the national media. He said that he would be writing an official letter about the matter to the Romanian government.
ACCEPT soon issued a press release. Florin Buhuceanu was quoted in it, saying, “A human-rights organization militating for L.G.B.T. rights in Romania cannot access a lecture hall in the most important library in Bucharest? An illustrious American writer and journalist should not speak about sexuality and identity in a cultural institution? Books written by gay authors, foreign or Romanian, will be disregarded in an academic and literary setting because of the sexual orientation of their authors?” Remus Cernea, a member of parliament, told the press that he had asked the education ministry to punish the people responsible within the Central University Library. (After being called out on the floor of the parliament and in the press, the library officials have made a ludicrous claim that it was a “bad approach.”)
That night, I was scheduled to have a forty-minute conversation with Mircea Cărtărescu at the New Europe College, a gathering place for the urban intelligentsia. Fifty or sixty people had been expected, but we found perhaps three hundred filling the seats, crowding the aisles, and spilling over into the hallway. The beginning of our conversation was predictably affable, but twenty minutes in Mircea said, “And now I want to apologize personally for what happened to you at the library. I hope you know that these backward views do not represent the mind-set of all Romanians.” The audience burst into rambunctious applause. “We can only hope your other experiences in Romania have shown you the true hearts of our people,” Mircea said, to further applause from a beaming audience. Our conversation ended up running for almost three hours; I signed another two hundred books afterward, for people all of whom expressed their contrition. The last in line was Remus Cearnea, who said, “The legislation for recognizing civil unions failed, as you know, but there were three days of debate about a topic no one would have thought to discuss a year ago. Please give us a little bit of time. Our politicians are more conservative than our society.”
Societies in transition are always studies in contradictions. How did Romania relate to Jews, to the mentally ill, to gay people, to Gypsies? Everything I represented seemed to attract prejudice there. I had not intended to set off a scandal, nor had I anticipated how sad the six-day trip would make me. But I had likewise not imagined the surges of joy beneath those cherry trees and at New Europe College. The supporters of social liberalization in a poor, conservative, religious country are not the mainstream. Those women with hoes near Dorohoi were not going to get behind gay marriage or mental health, and they probably don’t like Jews or Gypsies. But Romanian is a Latin language, and Romanians blend the warmth of Italians with the combative spark of Slavs. Various Romanians pointed out that, because my grandfather was born there, I could get a Romanian passport, and some asked me to do so. I’m contemplating it seriously. It’s a horrible place and we were lucky to get out of there, but it’s also a wonderful place and I’m lucky to have returned.