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Called to Witness

A minister-turned-novelist tries to come to terms with his own and his country's recent traumas, writing in a language few in his homeland understand. by Anca Paduraru 11 February 2004
BUCHAREST, Romania--“The commotion of summer 1990 inspired me. Then, ethnic Germans left Romania for Germany in droves, and I was left on the railway station platform helpless and perplexed to witness it.”

Eginald Schlattner, 70, is talking about the experience that prompted him to write two novels in his retirement, bringing him success in the German-speaking world and both recognition and notoriety in his native Romania.

The fall of communism produced at least one unhappy result in Romania: After some 800 years of living together with Romanians and other nationalities in this East European country, ethnic Germans began returning to their ancestral homes.

Statistics tell the story. In the last communist-era census, taken in 1977, 350,000 Germans were recorded in Romania. By 1992, their population had dropped by two-thirds. By 2002, it stood at 60,000--just 0.3 percent of the country’s 22 million people.

“It was indeed an exodus lethalis [deadly exodus], this final exit of Germans from Romania, which produced the last twitches we see in Schlattner's books,” says George Gutu, a professor of German literature at the University of Bucharest.

Helping Schlattner's success was the controversy surrounding the subject matter of his novels and his alleged part in sending five of his fellow Romanian-Germans to communist prisons.

Schlattner's authorial debut, five years ago when he was 65, was Der gekoepfte Hahn (The Beheaded Rooster). His second book, Rote Handschuhe (Red Gloves), came out two years later. They have been reprinted several times and reached the best-seller lists of German-language books. The Beheaded Rooster appeared in Romanian translation in 2001, and Red Gloves is being readied for publication in Romania.

Schlattner says his first book “looks at only one day in our history to describe the situation of the Saxons [Germans] here and their pledge to Hitler." That day was 23 August 1944, when Romania switched camps to join the Allies.

The second novel, which Schlattner says is autobiographical, “shows the two years of my imprisonment in Stalin City [Brasov]. In this one, I put all my cards on the table and explained what happened during those never-ending police interrogations. I was very tough on myself.”

THE TRIAL

Those "never-ending police interrogations" marked a dark period not only in the author’s life, but in the lives of five other Romanian-German writers who were found guilty in 1959 of conspiring against the communist state.

The police inquiry into the activities of Wolf von Aichelburg, Georg Scherg, Hans Bergel, Harald Siegmund, and Andreas Birkner began in 1958. The state linked their separate cases the better to provide the public with the terrifying spectacle of a group trial.

A special commission headed by University of Timisoara German literature professor Stefan Binder was charged with sifting through the five men's writings and producing evidence for the trial.

The resulting charge brought against the men was "Systematic undermining of state authority and conspiracy against the institutions of the people's democracy." The indictment listed such crimes as "unauthorized publication of work abroad and connections with the West," and "criticizing from a superior standpoint the official vision of the role art plays in society and vilifying literary works that support this vision."

They were released from prison in 1964 under a general amnesty of political prisoners; in the following years the men left for Germany, where they went on to successful writing careers.

Soon after the 1989-1990 change of regimes in Romania, critics, academics and writers from Germany and Romania gathered for a symposium on the five writers' trial. Gutu says Schlattner was invited to take part in a debate that was meant to start the healing process, but he did not come.

According to Gutu, the five men, including the three who are now deceased (Aichelburg, Scherg and Birkner), maintained that Schlattner never admitted to nor apologized for the wrong he had done them while under police questioning.

Schlattner himself maintains that he was reconciled with Aichelburg immediately after Aichelburg’s release from prison in 1964, and later with Birkner and Siegmund. The matter of Schlattner's personal responsibility for the men's convictions is one that may never be resolved either in the public record or, perhaps, in Schlattner's own heart. The view prevailing at the time of the trials of the five writers and many others, he says, was that any one person's testimony could have no effect on the pre-arranged outcomes.

"Even so," Schlattner says, "I take full responsibility for whatever harm my words might have caused.”

In Cristel Ungar Topescu's documentary film about the trial, Abschiede (Farewells), shown in 2000 on Romanian public television, none of the five writers reproaches Schlattner for his actions.

In the film Schlattner asks, “Why does everybody fall for the same cliches? That 'Schlattner was a witness for the prosecutor's side and thus instrumental in the five writers' conviction for a total of 95 years in prison,' while nobody wants to recall that I was convicted, too, to two years in prison for not reporting on the acts of high treason of my fellow writers, as my indictment read.”

He goes on to say, “It is not as though I woke up one morning and went to the secret police to tell on them, but there were months and months of interrogations in prison that I had to put up with, and plenty of material, including their letters to me that police found in my house and that the judicial system could interpret to its own ends.”

“Many commentators agree that the guilt Schlattner took upon himself was the engine that kept him going and that writing the books was his way to seek redemption,” Gutu says.

A LIFE, INTERRUPTED

Schlattner's life has taken something of a winding path, if not toward redemption, then at least out of the deep pit he was thrown into. An engineering student when he was convicted, Schlattner was forbidden from resuming his studies for 11 years and forced to work as a manual laborer. He eventually finished his education and became an engineer but abandoned that career at 40 to take up the study of theology and become a Protestant minister. Now the retired minister lives in Rosia, close to Sibiu in central Romania, and gives spiritual counsel to prisoners of all denominations and nationalities in the Aiud prison.

Schlattner's experience was not unique. Thousands of people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds had their futures cut short by the communist authorities.

The Hungarian uprising of 1956 sent ripples across the communist world, terrifying the authorities into action. In 1957, 120,000 people were arrested in Romania for alleged crimes against the regime. Anything said or written during the era of "loosening of the screws” after the death of Stalin was liable to be held up as evidence of an anti-communist attitude.

Schlattner moved in academic and literary circles before he, too, was arrested. His situation worsened when police found letters he had exchanged with three of the five accused writers. He was held at Securitate headquarters in Brasov for almost two years and interrogated about his acquaintance with the men. Finally, he was convicted of “failing to denounce an act of high treason” in regards to the writers' activities and sentenced to the two years he had already served.

LITERARY EXODUS

Schlattner's writing, although profoundly personal, is not one-of-a-kind. It will be familiar to anyone who has read German-language writers originally from Romania.

But Schlattner is unique in the sense that “he did not leave Romania and because he is likely to be the last of his generation to share that kind of experience with the world,” Gutu says.

Indeed, it seems almost as if a final curtain came down as “great German literature moved to Germany, together with the writers and the rest of the German population who left Romania after 1990,” in the words of Mariana Duliu, head of the Schiller Culture House in Romania.

Romanian emigre writers introduced new ideas to German literature because they were writing about experiences unfamiliar to most Germans in Germany, Austria and Switzerland: firsthand knowledge of life under a communist dictatorship, the loyalty that many Germans in Romania felt toward Nazi Germany and the resulting complicated feelings of guilt and redemption.

Many of these writers also explored the trauma of alienation they experienced after leaving their country of birth. As Gutu says, “They discovered that leaving one motherland does not necessarily mean finding another one.”

Notable writers who emigrated to Germany include Herta Muller, whose Der Teufel Sitzt im Spiegel (The Devil Sits in the Mirror), from 1991, personalizes the experience of living under a communist regime and leaving one's country, and Dieter Schlesak, whose 1990 Vaterland Tage (Fatherland Days) unveils the guilt felt by Germans living in Romania. Richard Wagner, William Totok, Johann Lipet and Oscar Pastior are other prominent emigre writers.

Schlattner believes his emigre detractors may be motivated by inner needs.

One who leaves the homeland, he says, “has to find inner motivation for that. Any emigrant has to find his or her own justification for leaving, so it is easier for them to turn back in anger and say things were not as I say they were."

LOST LANGUAGE


The author agrees with the critics who remarked that in The Beheaded Rooster he created a Chekhovian atmosphere to mirror the reality of a community and a country perched unknowing on the brink of the dark era of communism.

“We sat down in tranquility and sipped our afternoon tea not seeing how the sour cherry orchard was coming down around us," Schlattner writes in the novel, hinting at Chekhov's Cherry Orchard. “As you know that you will die one day and yet you still cannot see it happening, so were we: We knew the Russians were coming, and yet we behaved as usual. And we kept doing this until we were faced with the harsh reality,” Schlattner writes about the fate of Romania and Germans who had long been abandoned to the communist camp.

Still, Germans in Romania lived in a context that allowed them to preserve their identity, Schlattner says. “As I told [German Interior Minister] Otto Schily, … Romania never forbade us from speaking our language, not even during the last eight months of the war it fought against Germany. So much so that at 12, my only Romanian words were, 'I don't know Romanian.' "

Schlattner's praise of Romania for its ongoing publication of ABC books in 12 languages for the minorities within its borders does little to assuage Gutu, who is also head of the association of professors of German literature in Romania. While Gutu acknowledges that the demise of a form of literature is inevitable in the absence of a population to support it, he argues that Romanian and German cultural leaders do little to preserve German-language teaching in Romania.

Once, German-language literature in Romania was placed alongside works from East and West Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Its reputation was boosted by the less-extreme treatment meted out to Germans in Romania compared with those in Czechoslovakia or Poland, millions of whom who were expelled after the Second World War.

But now the community structure has been disrupted in Romania, and German-language teachers are scarce.

“Germany directs its efforts and funding only to the German-language schools for the Germans still living in Transylvania and completely disregards the demand for learning the language coming from Romanian children and their parents outside the Carpathian arch,” Gutu says.

Marina Neacsu, cultural projects coordinator at the Goethe Institute in Bucharest, which is funded by the German state, agrees. She says the government has no specific plans to support the editing of books in the German language.

In 2003, though, Romanian authorities gave 16.6 billion lei ($520,000) to the German community, says Ovidiu Gant, undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Public Information. As part of an across-the-board increase in funding to minority groups, the community's state support more than doubled over the previous year.

In addition, according to Lucian Pricop, a programs coordinator at the Ministry of Culture, more than 1 billion lei ($31,000) has been spent to edit 14 German-language books, support the cultural supplements to the Carpaten Rundschau (Carpathian Observer) and Banater Zeitung (Banat News) magazines, and help public libraries acquire German literature.

Yet Gutu says Romanian and German authorities are ignoring the demand from Romanian parents who realize that Germany is Europe's economic powerhouse and see knowledge of the German language as indispensable to their children's professional success.

As for the future of German literature in Romania, Gutu sees none. “As much as I would wish to be wrong, a literature needs a population base to thrive, and 60,000 people are too few and bound to be less.”

Schlattner shares that skepticism.

The local Lutheran bishop, Schlattner says, “is just here to perform burials. This is what we have come to: a deserted house, emptier than the holy stable of Bethlehem. But that one was soon to be filled up with living beings and gifts as the news of Christ's birth spread into the world. Our stable is not going to witness that.”
Anca Paduraru is the Romania correspondent for the English service of Deutsche Welle Radio and a contributor to several Romanian print and radio outlets.
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