Transylvania: Beyond the Myth

AS darkness crept into the vast Transylvanian graveyard, a large bat suddenly skittered toward me. I was not afraid but only amused at the irony of the situation, for here in my ancestral homeland I had a sense of tranquillity, a feeling of oneness with this mysterious land. Emmitante (Aunt Emmi) had insisted on showing me the family graves, and we had lingered too long. I was eager to return to Emmitante's house, where my father was reacquainting himself with friends and relatives he had not seen since he was 16.

The reunion was proceeding well, even though my father no longer spoke his Saxon dialect and almost 60 years in the United States had Americanized his High German. Yet his memory of minute details and his humorous attempts to string together Saxon phrases delighted everyone. The children of these Romanian Germans reverently referred to him as "Willonkel aus Amerika," and even I was "Harryonkel."

Despite their poverty, our relatives exemplified the proverbial Transylvanian hospitality contained in Dracula's greeting to his English visitor, Jonathan Harker: "Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring!" Solicitousness and friendly cooperation were necessary in an inhospitable land, especially in the early days of the Transylvanian Saxons.

In the middle of the 12th century, G 142>za II of Hungary invited Germans to act as a buffer to Turko-Tartarian tribesmen on the border of his kingdom; and, although the motives that brought the settlers to this dangerous frontier are unclear, we know that professional procurers promised them a rosy future in the East. In fact, the legend of the Pied Piper, who in one version lures all the young people away from Hamelin Town and resettles them in Transylvania, is a fascinating vestige of medieval recruiting practices.

Although the immigrants thrived in this hostile environment, they were devastated in 1241-42 by the Mongol army known as the Golden Horde. Yet, the Mongol terror taught the lesson of defensive planning, and soon every community had a Kirchenburg, church citadel, where townspeople took refuge in times of siege. For centuries these turreted places of worship repelled countless marauders including Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula, and today they are the unmistakable landmarks of Saxon towns.

Despite the tradition of hospitality that evolved from these periods of turbulence and deprivation, our present relationship with our hosts became rather tense when we declined their homemade wine. The idea that grown men might avoid alcohol was inconceivable but nonetheless cheerfully tolerated; and when I confessed that I drank milk, the amazement that a healthy man would imbibe baby food was tactfully suppressed. Henceforth, at every meal my place setting included a huge tumbler of milk - raw, tangy buffalo milk.

The harmony of our visit was remarkable considering the bureaucratic panic we experienced upon our arrival in Transylvania - a horror that would have unnerved Jonathan Harker himself. Examining our visas, our hotel clerk muttered, "Oh, no, this is bad. This is very bad!"

In a time of strained diplomacy and cumbersome regulations, we had been issued only entry visas and could not leave the country unless extraordinary measures were taken. I had no choice but to deal with a totally unfamiliar officialdom in Bucharest, provided I even made it that far. At one point, the rickety Soviet-built airliner that was taking me to the Romanian capital threatened to go out of control when the passengers, still clutching their bags and crates, scrambled to starboard to catch sight of the mountains below.

Fortunately, Walter, a distant relative, accompanied me, and he had the typical Transylvanian resourcefulness born of an 850-year history of coping and surviving. He steered me deftly through the labyrinth of Eastern protocol, and to everyone's relief we returned with the proper visas. Of course, I never doubted his ability, for he had once proven his ingenuity by disguising himself as a Russian peasant and escaping from a Soviet labor camp.

That was shortly after World War II - a grim chapter indeed. Despite alternating between Hungarian and Romanian citizenship, the Transylvanian Saxons had always considered themselves German.

When the war began, they proclaimed their allegiance to Germany and were accorded full German privileges including the right to serve in the Wehrmacht. Some lived to regret their enthusiasm; others didn't. Those between 17 and 45 were trundled off to Soviet camps. Property owners were evicted to their barns while displaced strangers squeezed into their vacated homes. Although most private property was returned, tight restrictions ensured eventual state ownership.

My visits in 1964 and 1966 revealed bleak scenes in which the simplest accessories of modern life were scarce. Visits in 1977 and 1979 evoked some optimism, although the ultimate failure of the Ceausescu regime was predictable. The dictator's scheme to raze towns and villages and transform the entire country into a farming commune was more than an idle threat, and the future is still unclear.

Romanian Germans are unique in having lived for centuries in uninterrupted proximity with their heritage. They prefer their ancient dialect, but they also speak High German and Romanian. Their customs are German, and their distinctive native dress is worn on special occasions. Under Ceausescu, total Romanianization was a matter of a few generations, but now the German subculture is disappearing like scattered rain on parched soil - ironically because of relaxed emigration policies. My relatives now live in Germany, and sadly, those Saxons who remain in their homeland form an increasingly insignificant minority.

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