When I travelled in the Transylvania region of Romania in 1993, relations between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians were still tense. There had been outright confrontation and violence in 1990, particularly in Targu Mures. By 1993, the conflict had largely migrated to the political realm. In Cluj – the old Hungarian town of Kolosvar – the nationalist politician Gheorghe Funar had taken over as mayor. He banned signs in Hungarian. He put a plaque on the statue of King Matyas in the town center that qualified his military successes – a deliberate provocation to ethnic Hungarians who revere Matyas.
At that time I met with some of the young ethnic Hungarian activists in Cluj. One of them, Kinga Kerekes, told me about the Hungarian youth organization and its major demand — the restoration of the Bolyai University in Cluj as a Hungarian-language institution. The students had gone on strike with this demand in 1990 but it had been halted in part because of the violence in Targu Mures.
Twenty years later, I met up again with Kinga Kerekes in Cluj. Today she is a teacher in the economics department of the same university where she’d been a student. The university – Babes Bolyai – had not been divided into Romanian language and Hungarian language institutions as they’d been before 1959 and as the student group had demanded. But Kerekes teaches her students only in Hungarian. For more than a decade, the economics department has maintained a separate Hungarian-language degree program.
It’s a sign of the remarkable transformation of Transylvania. There are still some tensions between the different ethnic communities. But there’s also a vibrant mixing that would have been difficult to imagine 20 years ago.
“There will be a graduation celebration for the Hungarian study line, and everything will be in Hungarian: all the speeches, everything,” Kerekes told me in an interview in her office last May. “It will take place in a big concert hall, so it’s not a hidden thing. When I graduated high school, we had the official event in Romanian, but then we had to hide to have a small event in Hungarian language. Compared to that time, it’s a big difference.”
But the changes extend beyond the classroom. Since 2010, Cluj has sponsored a Hungarian cultural festival in August. “There have been three editions of it without any major problems,” she said. “Nobody demonstrated against it. Each time the organizers got all the allowance from the local authorities.”
At one of the festivals, the organizers even showed a film of the rock opera Istvan, a Kiraly (King Istvan). “It’s a cult thing, something like the Hungarian Hair,” Kerekes explained. “In 1985 or 1986 it was composed and presented in Hungary with famous Hungarian rock musicians. It became very popular. But it was forbidden in Romania even to listen to it! You could be charged if you had a tape of that music. Istvan was the first Hungarian king, and it’s about his story. It’s history, but it has a lot of connotations of freedom, of becoming a nation. It had a lot of meaning in the 1980s, perhaps even more meaning for Hungarians here than in Hungary. But it was forbidden. In 2010 or 2011, at one of the editions of this cultural festival, this film was projected on the main square in Cluj.”
Interethnic tensions have not disappeared entirely. Football games can get nasty. But the changes are palpable. And in a recent note, Kerekes reported that Istvan a Kiraly appeared again at this August’s festival – not as a poorly projected film but this time as a live show in front of a huge audience.
Do you remember the fall of the Berlin Wall: where you were and what you were thinking?
Yes, but I can’t say that I remember exactly. In autumn 1989, I’m not sure we got the news on the right day. We were following Kossuth Radio –Hungarian radio – where most of the news was broadcast. But I don’t know what I was doing on that day. I was probably at school where I was a second-year student in the technical university.
Tell me a little bit about what it was like here in December 1989 when things changed in Romania.
On December 21, I went to the cinema with my sister. We were already on holiday at the university. She was pregnant. Then we went home. I remember my mother calling and saying we shouldn’t go to the city center because there had been shootings. She’s a pharmacist and was working at a pharmacy at the hospital. So, she knew that some injured people had been taken to hospital. She was worried.
I remember when we got out of the cinema, there were some people walking on the street carrying a flag with a hole in the middle of it. It wasn’t so surprising because we’d heard about what happened in Timisoara from Hungarian radio. I also remember that some of our neighbors saying that this was not the Hungarians’ business. It was created by Romanians, and Hungarians shouldn’t sacrifice themselves. It didn’t sound very nice. I also remember my father coming home from Bucharest on the same day. Because of his work he had to travel to Bucharest back and forth by train. He had experienced the events in Bucharest, but he was just a bystander and didn’t get involved in the events. He arrived home and said that there were some tanks on the street there.
When did you first go back to the city center in Cluj?
On the 22nd. It was a holiday, so I was still at home. I went to the shops, and I heard there that Ceausescu had been chased away. This was quite exciting. We didn’t expect him to give up his position so soon. I went to the city center, but I don’t remember how. I don’t remember public transport, so maybe I walked. There had been shootings in Cluj on the 21st and at the Hotel Continental the blood hadn’t been cleaned up from the day before. I remember meeting some of my colleagues from high school, and I found out that one of my classmates had been shot.
He died. We weren’t sure at first that it was him. They saw him fall down but weren’t sure if it was him or not. Another classmate was shot in her leg. I don’t think they were very much involved in the events. They were just in the crowds. It was not exceptionally heroic. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I remember going to the high school where I graduated and we collected and threw away (maybe burned?) the pictures of Ceausescu from the walls of all the classrooms because we hated those photos hanging around. It was a good way of getting rid of him. One friend who had a girlfriend in Austria — he couldn’t see her for a very long time. But now he could ask for a passport and go to Austria to see her. We were already talking about organizing a Hungarian students’ organization. In the evening my friends from high school and I gathered at teacher’s home. It was quite obvious that we should meet because by then it was clear that our colleague had died. Afterwards we went home. On the street there were few cars. People had organized into groups to check the cars for guns and terrorists. Everyone had a role. But the roles were self-given. No one appointed anyone to check for weapons and terrorists. And already on the 22nd, the public TV started to broadcast that Ceausescu had run away.
Did anyone find any terrorists?
I don’t know. Not in Cluj, certainly. In Cluj, there were people who shot and there were people who died, but no one was identified or found guilty.
And no one knows who did the shooting?
Well, there are lots of photos. And there have been some documents and publications. The photos show people standing in front of the soldiers, and one soldier with a gun who presumably used it.
But what it was just soldiers, not terrorists.
Probably. But I didn’t see them.
I was also a soldier in 1989. Girl students had to do army service, one day a week. Every Thursday we had practice in the army, which the boys didn’t have to do because they’d already fulfilled their army service. We had to dress up in uniform, and go out and practice. They showed us not only how to use guns but how to use this army phone that had been used in World War I. It was very funny. I was studying computer science at the time. They said we should have telecommunications training and then we were trained with those very “high tech” phones.
That December, they also gave us some patriotic education. The events in Timisoara had already happened, and this one officer was trying to explain that some enemies had attacked the country. It was an explanation, but it had nothing to do with the truth.
I remember in 1990 that there were suggestions that the Hungarian government was behind the events in Timisoara. Did people talk about that as well?
Yes. I remember that officials were saying that Hungarians were attacking us. I don’t remember if that’s an accurate memory of the time or if I’ve been influenced by all the subsequent rumors. I remember just that the official radio and TV stations were talking about all the enemies that were attacking the country.
Do you remember anyone expressing unhappiness that Ceausescu was leaving?
I was surprised that he was executed on the 25th. It seemed like such a long time. Those four or five days seemed very long. At the time I didn’t think it was cruel. At the time, I was fine with it. He seemed to be the problem. If he was still alive, the problem was still there. That was a common sentiment. I didn’t feel sorry for him.
It’s quite funny that in autumn 1989 we were being recruited at university to join the Communist Party. I remember some colleagues in the university who said, “This is now the time to join the Communist Party.” Their parents had done so. It was very normal for your career if at a certain point in life you joined the Party. You couldn’t get a higher position without being a member. It wasn’t a matter of conviction. It was just the way of things. We had this conversation in the classroom, with some people saying that if we missed the opportunity now it would become more difficult in the future. And I remember thinking, “Why do you want to join the Communist Party when Communism is falling apart everywhere!?” So, it was not so obvious to everyone that Communism was falling apart. And this conversation took place after the fall of the Berlin Wall!
They thought that Communism would just continue in Romania.
I don’t know how aware they were of what was going on. Officially, there was no information. And it was very difficult to leave Romania. You got a passport once in two years. It was very controlled who got a passport. When Hungary opened its borders with Austria, almost no one was allowed to travel to Hungary because it wasn’t safe anymore. They could run away from Hungary.
After holiday, you returned to school in January?
We also returned to school during the holiday. There was an effort to defend all the institutions against terrorists. It wasn’t announced, but we just decided to go to university and put together a kind of service. I don’t know what we were thinking, that certain terrorists would come and someone needed to defend the building. It was a really weird idea – to defend the university against terrorists without any guns. Even during New Years there were people on service. And I considered that maybe I should be there too. But my friend said, “That’s bullshit, we should just go party.” And I think he was right.
But it was in the air. People wanted to do something. Right after the 22nd, humanitarian aid flooded into Romania — even before Ceausescu was shot. In Cluj, the first NGO was registered in December 1989: Asklepyos. It was organized by medical school students who had been helping the wounded people in hospital. Many of the transports went directly to hospitals. Asklepyos was maybe the first one registered in the country. It was not a new law for registration. It was an old law for registering associations. But nobody did for many years.
So, we met with friends and former classmates and decided to help those who were coming with humanitarian aid, to guide them to the right place so that they didn’t get lost. We went to the entrance to Cluj, on the road from Oradea, and made a sign with a red cross. We stayed all day near the road and stopped the cars that seemed to be bringing humanitarian aid to guide them to the Protestant theology building. By that time, there were organizations there that could receive aid. We did that work for two or three days. Of course some transports knew exactly where to go. But some were really lost. They’d just thought to bring some help to Romania – these were mostly from Hungary — but had no idea what to do when they arrived.
Then we went back to school. During these holidays, even while the revolution was going on in Bucharest, I was doing my homework in mathematics, calculating 200 integral equations to prepare for the exam. What changed when we got back — we had to return our army clothes. Nothing else. There was no official announcement of what would happen, just that the army service for girls was abolished and we were asked to bring back the uniforms. Then the Hungarian students’ movement began, which was our chance to express our identity as Hungarians. The Hungarian youth organization already existed in December at the time of the funeral for the people killed in the revolution. Most of the people were buried in the cemetery for soldiers. It was a big event, and we were there as the Hungarian student organization. Then, in January came the exam period. It was quite normal. Political subjects were taken out of the curriculum. Nobody taught about Communism any more. There was a pause, and we turned the record over.
What were the goals or activities of the Hungarian student organization?
The goal, as I recall from reading your notes of our earlier conversation, was to have separate education in Hungarian at the university level. At that time, I was studying at the technical university and there was no Hungarian instruction, just Romanian. At Babes Bolyai University there were only a few places for Hungarians in the late 1980s, and there very few subjects you could learn in Hungarian. It was quite obvious that, with Ceausescu gone, we could have Bolyai University again. It wasn’t my idea, but the idea of those who had lived through the period when Bolyai and Babes were two separate universities. It was unified in part because of Ceausescu, even if he wasn’t president at that time. It was one of the possible scenarios, that everything would go back to the situation before Ceausescu.
Do you mean before Ceausescu or before 1945?
Babes Univeristy and Bolyai University were unified in 1959. They were established as such in 1945 as two separate universities (Romanian and Hungarian teaching respectively) functioning in parallel.
Describe for me the way Hungarian instruction was introduced?
Although in some faculties it was earlier, the first year that the faculty of economics here started in Hungarian was in 2000.
So, it took a while!
Yes, that was the first year that Hungarian students were in separate places following separate instruction in Hungarian. There were only two professors who could speak Hungarian in this faculty of economics. They are retired now, so they were quite old back then. They’d been hired in the 1970s. So, at the beginning, there were practically no Hungarian-speaking teachers. That’s why most of our colleagues are quite young. I’m one of the oldest. Everyone became a teacher after 2000. Before that, there was no career for Hungarian economists to teach in Hungarian.
Do you teach in Hungarian and Romanian?
No, just in Hungarian. Since six months ago, we now have a separate Hungarian language Institute of Economics and Business Administration. It’s multidisciplinary. There’s also an institute in German, which is a bit different since there are not so many native speakers. But there are teachers who teach the German line of study. Babes-Bolyai is a multicultural university. And Transylvania is recognized as a region of three nations — Romanian, Hungarian, and German. However, there aren’t many Germans left, and very few native Germans are studying in German or native Germans teaching in German. It’s mostly ethnic Romanians who can speak German.
We also have an English study line and a French study line, but that’s totally different. That’s for the internationalization of our teaching. Of course there are no native English or native French speakers — only as guest teachers.
In Hungary, I met quite a few ethnic Hungarians from Romania who had left Romania. Was that a big question for you and your friends in the early 1990s: to stay or to leave?
Many left. First to leave were those who were less satisfied with their situation. I told you about this friend who left to see his girlfriend in Austria. Many left because they were not in university. It was pretty difficult at that time to get a place. They were not employed or studying, and they quickly left. Many left after their studies. Some even left during studies. At least in Hungary, it was quite easy to continue from a certain level. They would do three years here and then continue there, even though the curriculum was not exactly the same.
Those who had in mind to leave left. Some people changed their minds because of the revolution. But the optimistic period didn’t last very long. Already in February or March there were lots of events that made people leave, even though they’d thought good times were coming to Romania.
Events here in Cluj or in Bucharest?
The miners who went to Bucharest was a big shock. And the events in Marosvasarhely/Targu Mures in March made many Hungarians want to leave, especially from Targu Mures but even from Cluj. They said that there is no one in Romania who will recognize our rights. By then it had become clear that it was not turning out as we wished. People understood minority rights very differently. It became clear that democratic Romanians didn’t share my perspective. Before, only the Communists wouldn’t allow that. After, it became clear that people in general didn’t want to respect minority rights, not just the Communists.
Did you think of leaving?
No. I was busy. I always had something to do. I was born in Cluj. I always lived here. I cannot say it was a sense of duty. It was just normal to be here. Nothing forced me to move. Nothing attracted me to move either.
Eventually there were quite a few interethnic conflicts here in Cluj — over the statue of Matyas in the main square, over the mayor Gheorghe Funar.
That was a long conflict. Funar was the mayor of Cluj for 12 years. It took for me some time to understand that there are different types of reality, that my reality was different from others. My reality was based on my education, my values, talks in my family, my parents’ memories shared in the family. You can’t expect people to think the same way if they have a different background.
I see that now with my students. For them Cluj is a very different place than for me. I can’t explain to them even how to get from one place to another because they only know the new names of the streets while I use the street names that I learned from my parents. I have memories of former places — shops, institutions — that don’t exist any more. So, you don’t have to be Romanian not to understand me. But this is exciting in a way. It keeps your mind fresh when everyone is not the same.
Were you involved in the debates on interethnic relations in the 1990s?
The big fight in Targu Mures was on March 21 in the evening. I was quite concerned because my sister was still pregnant and she was a student at the medical university in Targu Mures. We couldn’t reach her by phone. We were nervous about what was happening with her. We could see everything transmitted on TV. But at the beginning, there was no commentary. You didn’t know who was beating whom. At that time we Hungarian students in Targu Mures and Cluj were on strike, calling for a reorganization of the Hungarian language Bolyai University. We spent many hours, day after day, in this activity, and so did the students in Targu Mures. But then we stopped the strike because we thought that it might be dangerous to continue that activity after the events in Targu Mures.
The next day we went back to class. It was a mixed group at the technical university, a majority of Romanians but some Hungarians too. There was a bit of tension. One of my colleagues was from Targu Mures, but no one talked about that. During a break, I said, “What’s your opinion about what happened there?” A debate started, but it didn’t lead to anything. I couldn’t convince them of my point of view, and I wasn’t ready to accept their point of view.
At that time, everything, our entire everyday living more or less involved inter-ethnic debate.
Have things improved?
Yes, I guess so. I’m not sure there’s been a change in values or beliefs but at least there’s been a change in behavior. It’s more normal now to be international, and it’s not so fashionable anymore to defend national values. Lots of people have traveled abroad already so they have more understanding of what it means to be different. Economic development has also helped, and so has the Internet. Everything has become more relative, not so black and white. Already almost everyone now understands many points of view are represented in Romanian politics. So, it’s not just one Romanian and one Hungarian point of view, but many Romanian viewpoints. On the issue of minority rights or the indivisibility of Romania, however, Romanian viewpoints get narrower. But regarding all other aspects of life, there are lots of different policies and political parties. So, diversity is in the air.
Do developments in Hungary with Fidesz have any impact here?
Sometimes. But I’m not sure everyone here knows who Fidesz is, or Orban Victor or Jobbik (Hungarians do know, but fewer Romanians).
One of the hot topics these days in Romania is the territorial autonomy of the regions. And the idea of a separate university is still a hot topic. Our idea with Babes-Bolyai was to separate the two and not really have anything to do with each other. That didn’t happen. It’s difficult to say whether that’s good or not, but that was the aim. Some people want to keep to that aim. Other people say that the current status quo makes it possible for Hungarian young people to study in Hungarian. There is a certain amount of autonomy of decision-making – what materials to use, what textbooks. Who follows whom is still a question.
On Saturday, there will be a graduation celebration for the Hungarian study line, and everything will be in Hungarian: all the speeches, everything. It will take place in a big concert hall, so it’s not a hidden thing. When I graduated high school, we had the official event in Romanian, but then we had to hide to have a small event in Hungarian language. Compared to that time, it’s a big difference. Or even compared to the 1990s when everything in Cluj was painted in the colors of the Romanian flag — dustbins, benches, everything. Since 2010, there’s a week of Hungarian cultural days in August. There have been three editions of it without any major problems. Nobody demonstrated against it. Each time the organizers got all the allowance from the local authorities.
Do you know the rock opera Istvan, a Kiraly (King Istvan). It’s a cult thing, something like the Hungarian Hair. In 1985 or 1986 it was composed and presented in Hungary with famous Hungarian rock musicians. It became very popular. But it was forbidden in Romania even to listen to it! You could be charged if you had a tape of that music. Istvan was the first Hungarian king, and it’s about his story. It’s history, but it has a lot of connotations of freedom, of becoming a nation. It had a lot of meaning in the 1980s, perhaps even more meaning for Hungarians here than in Hungary. But it was forbidden.
In 2010 or 2011, at one of the editions of this cultural festival, this film was projected on the main square in Cluj.
For everybody. It wasn’t such a revelation. There were technical problems. It wasn’t loud enough. It wasn’t dark enough outside so you couldn’t really see it properly unless you were close to the screen. But it was still Istvan Kiraly songs on the main square in Cluj. If five years ago you told me that something like that would happen, I would have said you were wrong, that it would never be accepted by Romanians or by the authorities.
That is important.
Symbolically, yes. On the other hand, it didn’t have much effect. I was there on the square, watching, and I didn’t enjoy so much the performance. Of course, I knew all the songs by heart. But I wasn’t so excited by the story.
Did young people have the same kind of feeling? When they grew up, it wasn’t the same kind of environment…
Oh, my students, they don’t have any memories! They don’t even have any memory of the time before the Internet. It was ancient times when our whole youth organization shared the same email address – firstname.lastname@example.org or something like that.
But there are still things that awaken nationalist sentiment. For instance, Cluj has two clubs in the main football league — CFR and U. U is considered the Romanian club, while CFR is called the Hungarian club. I don’t know why. The owner of CFR is Hungarian, but the president is Romanian and all the players are from Portugal, Brazil, wherever. When they go to play in any other Romanian city, the fans say, “Fuck the Hungarians!”
They’re saying that to Portuguese players!
All these nationalist feelings can emerge even if they’re far away from reality. Of course football supporters are behaving strangely everywhere. But here you can get these racist and very nationalist slogans.
Does Vatra Romaneasca still exist?
No. I guess it never really stopped as an association. It never closed down, but it hasn’t had any activity for some years. Even Funar was in the Romania Mare party, not Vatra Romaneasca. Romania Mare didn’t start in Transylvania. It started with Corneliu Vadim Tudor in Bucharest, and then a group here in Transylvania joined it. That’s how it became so big that it could enter parliament.
Nothing. But they are in the European Parliament.
When you think back to 1990, how has your worldview changed? Have you had any second thoughts about how you look at the world?
I think small is beautiful. You can make change in a small community. It becomes very busy and confused when you get to the higher levels. For sure, I don’t have so many expectations about democratic forces from abroad. I’m not so idealistic that everything coming from abroad is for our benefit. Also, everybody has a lot of responsibility for their own life first of all, so they should behave responsibly in society.
If you look into the future and you think about Romania for the next two or three years, how would you evaluate that on a scale of one to 10 with one most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
I don’t expect much change. I don’t know if this is pessimistic or optimistic.
That would probably be a five.
I think it’s rather pessimistic not to expect any change. I think it will be more or less the same. People should change, not only in Romania, but all over the world: to have more modest lifestyles, consume less, behave nicer. We have a responsibility for our own lives. I’d rather have clean air than a Mercedes. I don’t know if everyone shares that view.
People are still buying Mercedes.
Yes. Also, the question is how many? It’s better to have one good car than to have 10 cars and use them all over the place.
Cluj, May 17, 2013