Our old Transylvanian home had a courtyard, a chicken yard and a large garden. Starting with the front gate all three spaces were crossed by neat cube paving stone alleys. As a girl I was so used seeing these alleys that I always felt that gardens lacking a dry place where to step are untidy. But in reality none of our neighbors had such an alley. There were just paths where grass was worn by human walking, repeatedly transformed by each rain into sticky mud.
He was sixty four when I was born so I never asked around why isn’t he still hired somewhere especially as they kept telling me the marvelous story of how, from a poor peasant boy, he got to the dignity of president of the appeal court of Transylvania. His father didn’t want to let him go, but the local priest and his mother succeeded in their persuasion. He supported himself by tutoring other students. Besides he was working from early morning to late in the night every day around the house so why wonder why isn’t he using his time otherwise. I never questioned such things. Grandfathers are by definition old hence normally retired.
At times he was telling me the story of Gheorghiu Dej and Chivu Stoica. Gheorghiu Dej was the communist leader of Romania from 1947 to 1965. The other was prime minister in about the same period of time. My grandfather though knew them in a very different context. When Romania was still a kingdom, a small one and pretty scared about what happened North of us, in Russia. Contrary to what we were learning at school, my grandpa liked to underline that the Communist party all the way from its inception to the end of the war had around 500 members only most of them non ethnic Romanians. For a national state that had just gained its independence some twenty years ago, minority voices were hardly successful in propagating any new ideology whatever its basis.
In the 30s the party was seen as an extremist conspirationist group especially because it’s tight connection with the Soviets, and thus outlawed. At any rate what happened was that my grandfather was a provincial judge when on the corridor leading to his office he heard rumor and metallic clatter. Then the door opened and in his office entered some policemen and these two men with their legs chained. They both looked tired and tortured. The police was transferring them from one prison to another and they needed some paperwork done on the way by a judge.
– But why are they chained like that, the judge asked in awe because he was a civil judge and seldom saw such treatment.
– They are dangerous criminals, your honor, the police answered.
Noticing the judge reaction the two communist politicians showed him their ankles. They were transported by truck the whole night. The chains had dug into their flesh and now they were covered in dry blood. My grandpa shuddered.
– Put around them twenty guards if you so wish but unchain the men immediately. He required. Write that down: that the unchaining was done on the order and responsibility of judge Barbateiu.
– But we didn’t even have the key to their chains, your honor, moaned the policeman. They were chained at the prison and we didn’t carry it with us.
– Ok, then send for a locksmith.
That locksmith – he was chuckling forty years later – went to Gheorghiu Dej after he became president and reminded him this story. He was made agriculture minister. I never wanted to have anything to do with them…
I must have been around 14 when he decided to share the other story with me. After Romania became an ally of the Soviet Union (read occupied by the Russian army) he was a judge in Bucharest. Never that rich or that important to be in immediate danger. His position though was downgraded to lower and lower until he got to be named a simple judge in a small Transylvanian town. The family moved with him all over the country as he was the only provider. Some small revenues my grandmother inherited from her parents all got nationalized completely.
Being a judge though, even in a small provincial town, seems to have not been the most unnoticed profession. So the day came when someone suggested to him that he should convict the two Jewish suspects in the current law suit he was studying. Being Jewish around 1945 in Romania wasn’t a reason to be convicted. We even had a Jewish communist foreign minister at some point. Some other reasons must have made the “Party” to suggest a guilty verdict in their case. I still regret I didn’t ask to know and memorize their names and the name of whoever asked them convicted. In my empathic stupor I was rather focusing on his attitude, on imagining the feelings he and his family might have had, and on the circumstances that brought him where he was.
It was a time when I resented him for being so peacefully wise, he or my mother. I would have had them better in prison for being heroes no matter how foolish this could have seemed. Slowly in my mind a hero type was construed and the hero of my imagination couldn’t be anywhere but in a political jail.
My grandfather said simply there wasn’t any serious evidence to put those people in jail and he didn’t. As soon as he acquitted them “telephone threats started to pour” he added . “You are eating the state’s bread for nothing” one voice told him. He wasn’t a hero, never had that kind of physical courage. His courage was to survive alone in a big city and eat only what his tutoring produced for him as long as he was a student. His courage was to disobey his father and leave his peasant family to work without his two arms next to them. And now his daughter was just starting her life. With a father in political jail she could never hope to be accepted in any university.
So he went to a doctor friend and discussed the problem. In a month time he filed for retirement on medical reasons. The medical commission read his file, watched him and somebody laughed: “he’s one of us”. I can still hear his chuckle while remembering. He took his wife and daughter to the old home they inherited from her parents in a village. For years they lived there peacefully albeit in poverty. When my mother asked for admission to Bucharest Polytechnic Institute she wrote in the file about her parents: “poor peasants”. Nobody ever went across the country to check it.
In a summer evening by the sea side, years later, she told me about those stone alleys. After retirement he dug every little hole in the ground and filled it with a cubic stone. For years they heard him hours a day planting his rocks in silence. Stone after stone, after stone they became our garden alley pattern.