It all started in the city of Timişoara on December 16, many kilometers from the country’s capital, Bucharest. “A revolution!” some cried. “A coup!” others replied. Many still cannot decide which it was. On one thing, though, they all agree. December 1989 was the month during which the Socialist Republic of Romania ceased to exist. Overnight it had become, as much as it could, a democracy. Overnight it had become Romania.
Although the dictates of human development do not permit me to remember, I lived through this changing of the guard. I was born in early April of 1989, in Bucharest. A few months later, shortly after having had their previous house demolished amid the regime’s ferocious attempts at urbanizing the city of Bucharest, an initiative which would eventually spread to the entire country, my family was forced to move to a new apartment building, for which they now had to pay rent.
It was summer when they moved in, but they tell me that the new home was empty and cold. There was no furniture to muffle their echoes. Food was scarce. Ceauşescu, the communist dictator, was trying to pay off all of the country’s debts. So he starved his people. Thus, in a cold, grey home, lacking in everything except, strangely enough, happiness, they passed the time until the month of December came around. It came not with Christmas sales or an abundance of goods as it did in the West, but with the usual rationing of heat, light, and hot water.
By then, rumors were coming in from Timişoara that an uprising had begun. In Bucharest, no one could believe that the rumors would last for long. Surely, this was simply another agitation movement which would eventually be crushed by the regime. Even in mid-December, albeit cautiously and anxiously, my mother and father, like many others, were still involved in their day-to-day routines at work. Back then, as now, my mother sang in a choir and played the cello at the National Philharmonic and my father was an Orthodox priest, a dangerous job to have at the time. Adding to the peril, my mother would also sing in church on Sundays.
So for a while, things still seemed to be functioning on a normal basis—normal for the time, that is—until one day, when my parents each showed up to perform their duties at their respective churches, they were asked: “Haven’t you heard? There’s a revolution going on!” and sent home. It had begun. Still, in the widespread confusion, many people still did not know what to believe. Communication between the parties was deficient and people would often end up shooting at each other, without knowing who was innocent and who was a “terrorist.” No one had dared to think of revolution until then. In truly Orwellian fashion, the concept had seemed forbidden even in thought.
Yet on this cold December day, the air was filled with the cries of people who had had enough. Despair and hunger were cutting into them like knives; they could bear oppression no longer. The specter of communism had ceased to haunt Romania. Now its streets were walked by the children of that specter, those who had grown up in its grey shadow—starved, cold shells of people whose only memories of freedom came secondhand, from parents and grandparents who had lived before communism. This December, the past and future were fighting each other for the chance to become Romania’s present.
The Revolution of 1989 in Romania started out with protests and turmoil around the country. It ended in violence and bloodshed. Some were wounded, arrested or shot in their attempt to bring down the communist leader. Those who were killed that December by communist forces, or by the (still mysterious) “terrorists,” totaled, at least officially, 1,166. Many more were wounded. It was the only such violent overthrow of a communist regime that year.
My parents could hardly believe their ears when, over the radio, they heard, “We’ve got him! We’ve got the wretch!” Disbelief and anguish only grew as they turned on the timeworn black and white TV, one of the few things they had managed to save from the old demolished house, and saw the whole thing unfold.
Only weeks before they had had to stand in line and present their IDs to receive their allotted food rations. Only days before they had had to hide in the bathroom, the room with the thickest walls in the house, in order to shelter themselves and their newborn child—myself—from the bullets that were flying everywhere, probably fired by those everyone was calling “terrorists.”
Now, Ceauşescu, the communist leader of Romania, was hunted being down by the people he had starved and left to freeze in their own homes. He was captured in his attempt to flee the people’s fury. He and his wife were given a speedy show trial and sentenced to death by firing squad. Before he died he is said to have started singing the Internationale.
Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu perished on December 25th, a day whose significance they had tried to erase from people’s minds. Religion, this “opium of the people,” had no place in society, the Party taught. But instead of fading from people’s memories, Christmas day lived on. And in 1989, it became a symbol of both liberation and tragedy. For that was the day in which the Romanian totalitarian regime took its last breath. Yet it was also a day of looking back and realizing that the price of liberation had been paid with human lives.