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How to Start a New Life in an Old Transylvanian village

Two young people from Bucharest brought to life the history and culinary traditions of an ethnic German village in Romania. From Decat o Revista. 

by Ana Maria Ciobanu and Mircea Restea 23 August 2017

TOL’s note: German colonists started settling in Transylvania, then part of the Hungarian kingdom, in the 12th century, at the behest of Hungarian kings wanting to defend their southeastern border. They became known as Saxons after the German region Saxony- Sachsen- although many of them came from elsewhere in Germany. After settling in large numbers in Transylvania during the Middle Ages, they founded the cities of Cluj, Brasov, Sibiu, and Sighisoara, which are among Romania’s major tourist attractions. Nowadays, the ethnic German community has almost totally disappeared from Romania, while the centuries-old villages and churches are collapsing due to neglect. 

 

 

At the elementary school in Felmer, a village with 400 inhabitants close to Fagaras, a city in central Romania, a classroom is filled with students coloring black-and- white images showing fragments of altars from Saxon churches: painted benches and church pews, baptismal fonts, carpets, and chests. On one page there is a photograph of the original object, on the other an outline of a detail from the photograph. The activity happens during the children’s free time, and the books were brought in by Alina Patru and Radu Barla, two young people who have gathered, recorded, and researched objects found at nine Evangelical parochial houses in Fagaras county. Their project is called “Remnants and meanings. Forgotten treasures of Saxon communities around Fagaras.” From the fortified church in Felmer they included the photograph of a stag-engraved tin cup, which is probably around 350 years old.

 

After they are done coloring, the children put their coats and winter hats on, and follow historian Radu Barla to the church’s courtyard. Felmer’s first historical attestation dates to 1206, and Radu, passionate since childhood about the culture of Transylvanian Saxons, tells them that the Ottomans set the village on fire in the 16th century, but otherwise times were peaceful. As in all Transylvanian villages, the Saxons took care of the local church and school. Before World War II, Felmer had almost 1,000 inhabitants, and almost half of them were Saxons. But in 2007 only five Saxons were left in. After the exodus of the Saxons to the cities where the communists assigned them jobs, or to Germany, the 13th century church fell into disrepair, and the school collapsed. Around 1985, Romanian film director Sergiu Nicolaescu detonated parts of the old school for the movie “Us, the Front Line.”

 

Radu takes a keyring with different-sized keys out of his pocket, and chooses the largest and shiniest one. All the children want to touch it. So do the tourists stopping around here. One does feel at least a slight curiosity to touch the 300-year-old key, as long as a TV remote and as heavy as a dagger, which fills and cools the hollow of the hand. This key is the entry to the tale. Alina and Radu base their activities involving local children on tales and games. Their parents live off agriculture and raise thin cattle that graze on the edge of the village. The children -- 40 in total at the Felmer school -- read syllable by syllable, and have a hard time learning, but they are not lacking in curiosity or enthusiasm. Radu, 30, originally from Bucharest, and his partner Alina, 35, a professional in the communications field, reached out to the children as soon as they arrived in Felmer to implement the program “Felmer -- an urban initiative for rural development,” a project of their association, Renascendis, which aims to restore the fortified church in the village.

 

The key

 

For Radu everything started in 2007, when he was a student in the history department of the University of Bucharest and did archeological work in the Brasov county. While exploring the villages nearby, he ran across the Felmer church, which had a cracked belfry, and a courtyard full of weeds. There wasn’t any sign talking about this historical monument, no plans of restoration. Unlike the idealized villages of Transylvania, which look like replicas of paintings, here the facades of the Saxon houses are painted in dozens of colors and have insulated windows like those in supermarkets.

 

Precisely because it was not a well-known village and nobody seemed to care about the church, Radu couldn’t take his mind off it. He was sure that, without any initiative, the church would collapse. This is why in 2011 he asked Alina, at that time his co-worker at the National Museum of Art in Bucharest, to find funds for a restoration project.

 

It was a matter of “professional conviction,” he said.

 

As much of a cliché as this might be, if nobody cares about what he or she leaves behind, in a short while centuries of history would collapse, as happened last year with the fortified churches from the villages of Rotbav and Roades, also in Transylvania. Radu contacted the Fagaras parish, which manages Evangelical churches in nine villages located in the area (around Felmer); he founded together with Alina the Renascendis Foundation, and started looking for sources of financing. Some villagers were, back then, in charge of the church, and they also had the keys to it. They would ring its bells twice a day, and were supposed to take care of the building in exchange for 50 RON (around $12) a month, an amount they received from the parish.

 

What they did, however, was to actually throw parties and destroy the furniture, doors, and windows. After a few years of watching everything fall into disrepair, seeing how the city hall’s road repair works were done irresponsibly -- thus affecting the monument’s structure -- and how the locals would shamelessly take bricks from the belfry, it became apparent to Radu that, if they were to do anything, that was the place to do it.

 

Alina and Radu

 

They persuaded the Fagaras Evangelical Church to draw up a bailment contract for them for the parochial house, which allowed them to use it for free, and they prepared to move to the village which hasn’t seen any means of public transportation in the past 25 years; where you need a landline, because the mobile network coverage is patchy; and the only doctor is 15 kilometers (9 miles) away, in Fagaras. A matter of “professional ambition and responsibility,” as Radu said. Someone had to do it. So he and Alina shocked their friends, amazed their families, took their two tomcats and moved there in 2015.

 

Their first trial by fire came in the form of 10 days of complete disconnection from the modern world, until the telephone company came to set up their phone, cable TV, and internet. Then they planted 70 apple and pear trees in the courtyard of the parochial house, installed a septic tank and hydrophore, and bought chickens, which the local foxes gradually ate. After the first session of cleaning up, they found in the church an owl, living among the cobwebs and the rubble.

 

Then they specialized in the “archeology of floors.” They gathered, from underneath the wooden floors, sackfuls of trinkets fallen out of the pockets of churchgoers over the centuries. The church came to life through the fragments of playing cards, which filled the parishioners’ time in the 19th century, pieces of paper from 1840 that spoke about the sale of a horse, or about marriage testimonials, also from 1840, beads, fragments of tobacco pouches, caricatures sketched by students, pillbox labels, and pieces fallen from dried flower crowns and bouquets.

 

The first villagers from Felmer to ask Radu and Alina what brought them there were the children. They climbed over the fence of the parochial house to steal apples, and the couple told them to come through the gate, and take as many as they want. This is how their courtyard and house filled with children who came over to play, to make martisoare (traditional spring tokens consisting of small objects tied with a red-and-white thread), to ring the church bells, to look at the old books and bibles that the couple collected, or to help the two with cleaning up. The children were the happiest when the Renascendis Foundation received a grant from the National Cultural Fund, and the treasure hunt started in the village.

 

Felmer

 

Alina and Radu taught them to look differently at old objects, trying to answer some questions: Who created this, when, and for whom? Who kept it and why? Then they dared the children to look through their own attics for old objects. They reviewed, together, souvenirs from the seaside going back to the 1970s -- which seemed ancient to the young ones -- along with spinning wheels, pots, and an iron.

 

For Alina and Radu, familiarizing children with the history of the place is a long-term plan, based on simple reasoning: if the monuments were destroyed because the communities who took care of them decreased, and the authorities didn’t care, there’s a need for a new community that would legitimize the requests made to the public authorities. It doesn’t matter that there are no more Saxons in the area, and that the last service in the Evangelical Church took place in 1996. In the presence of a community that would understand the importance of monuments and would cherish them, the dialogue with the authorities would happen on a different note, leading to the possibility of funds being allocated for a restoration that would respect the true characteristics and specificities of the area.

 

The locals would like to see tourists coming to the area, as well as a repaired church, but they aren’t really convinced that something leading in that direction is underway. They’re accustomed to promises never kept. For years, the city hall has been talking, for example, about a system of water pumps, or about fixing the local road.

 

Working with children filled the two with joy, partially because it was a way of keeping their minds alert in a wilderness where you wouldn’t chat with neighbors, other than to exchange greetings and thoughts about the weather. But mostly Radu and Alina learned that they could actually work with these little local citizens. There had been tours for children at the museum where they had worked, but in Felmer they saw how, for many of these young people, going to the middle of their village and looking at some buildings was like a sightseeing trip.

 

With the children in mind, they raised funds at the Donors Circle, an annual event organized by the Fagaras County Community Foundation, to set up a multimedia library at the parochial house in Felmer. Due to the absence of public libraries in nearby villages, and to the fact that school libraries are outdated and poorly endowed, Radu and Alina made available to the public their collection of 4,000 books in Romanian, English, French, and German. They were even thinking about signing up for the Teach for Romania program (which trains young Romanians to become teachers) and teaching in elementary schools in the region.

 

But then things changed in their family, and Alina became pregnant in 2016. When they moved here, the two couldn’t imagine that they would raise their child in a village without a doctor, in a parochial house from around 1800.

 

The year 2016 was full of events for the Renascendis Foundation, which organized a number of events: a reunion of 30 Saxons originally from Felmer, workshops for children, the printing of coloring books with church objects, and of maps showing the fortified churches around the Fagaras county, and launching a children’s public library in Felmer. Alina worked at Radu’s side, and enjoyed a relaxing pregnancy, and the birth of a baby boy. 

 

Church bell

 

There is still a lot of work to be done on the fortified church, whose belfry and altar are cracked. Because of the cracks, Radu doesn’t ring the bells anymore, because the vibrations could affect the structure of the building too much. There’s work to do even on building a community in a village which, until recently, wasn’t even aware of the church in its midst. The couple also needs to work on their own integration -- they sometimes miss the flood of unknown people who run into you in the metro, the feeling that nobody knows you, although you’re surrounded by crowds. But they also rejoice at how easy it is to just open the parish’s door and step onto the grass with the baby, right in the midst of nature, without exhaust fumes, or hours wasted stuck in traffic; to make him food with fruits and vegetables you picked from your own garden. They don’t know what they are going to do when his time to go to kindergarten or school comes; for now, they are happy, surrounded by green hills and in a house filled with old books and recovered objects.

 

There are also the small victories, like the reopening of the “lard tower” -- a Saxon tradition enacted by other museums and villages using decorative, non-edible lard, or slanina, as it is known in Romanian. The dark, humid, cold, and hundreds of year-old church towers are ideal for storing lard and pastrami. Thanks to the invitation launched by “the people from Bucharest”, the locals now store their homemade, edible lard for free in the Felmer church tower, writing down their house numbers on the beams from which their meat is hanging.

 

There’s also the feeling that you can accomplish things, given the existence of dozens of initiatives for preserving and promoting the region’s heritage; that leads to a rebirth of the feeling of belonging to a community, a feeling destroyed by communism. The locals gather in circles of donors, cycling and jogging marathons, and raising funds for initiatives for nearby villages, ranging from restoring monuments, to buying sports equipment for children. Patience seems the only requirement. After seeing many rushed restorations that cost enormously and weren’t at all faithful to local history, Radu believes that it is better to work slowly and thoroughly than to boast about saving something in just one year. “If we endure, this is our victory.”

Ana Maria Ciobanu is a reporter and editor for Decat o Revista- DoR Magazine. She focuses on poverty and violence and explores stories that explain their systemic causes. She works now on her first serialised podcast on poverty that comes out in September.

 

Mircea Restea is an experienced photojournalist who has worked extensively with DoR Magazine. He currently lives in Baia Mare where he documents the life of a segregated and discriminated Roma community. 

 

This article, which was published in Romanian by Decat o Revista, is part of a series dedicated to the impact of community foundations in Romania, which was initiated and financed by the Association for Community Relations. TOL has done some editing to fit our style. Reprinted with permission. All images courtesy of DoR Magazine. 

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