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Awake Romania - 1989

Copyright © by Alan Grant
Roman Catholic cathedral

In recent years Timisoara (Temesvar in Hungarian) has begun to experience an economic boom. An historic city, Timisoara likes to boast that it was the first city in Europe to be lit by electric street lamps in 1867. Historically it has always been a very mixed town with large proportions of its population consisting of Hungarians, Germans, Serbs and Jews. Thanks to history and emigration it is far less mixed now. In 1930, Romanians constituted about one quarter of the city's population and Germans and Hungarians about one third each. Today the Germans make up only 2% and Hungarians about 7.5%.

And yet, it was an incident involving a troublesome Hungarian priest in Timisoara, which was to change the history of Romania. When the communist authorities attempted to evict Laszlo Tokes and his family from his flat just before Christmas in 1989, first his own Hungarian congregation and then Romanians too started to gather to prevent this from happening. It was the spark that lit the fire of the Romanian revolution. In this extract Tokes recalls how the exasperated mayor of Timisoara, sensing that the situation was running out of control, told Tokes and the crowd on December 16 that he would not be evicted, a promise the crowd demanded in writing. "In one hour," the mayor promised, "I will have the document in an hour."

It was a crucial mistake. An hour later the excuses began to arrive. It was Saturday; the offices in Bucharest were closed; nobody was available in the legal department. He might as well have poured petrol on fire. The crowd began booing and I was not able to calm them.

At about two o'clock the deputy mayor arrived. He was a tall man in his forties with a courteous expression that very quickly altered when he saw the mood of the crowd. "This situation is intolerable," he said decisively, "and extremely dangerous. For everybody." He paused. "You have one hour to get rid of these people. If you do not, we will not allow the situation to continue." He stared at me coldly. "The matter is well understood, Mr Tokes," His voice began to rise in volume. "You do not want to get rid of them. You organised them. You organised this demonstration. You were warned what would happen. You are responsible for everything that is happening here." His voice returned to normal. "So you will send the people away. Do you understand me?"

He sat down and waited, arrogant in his expensive suit.

The crowd continued to grow all day and then, at half past seven some in the crowd began to sing a long prohibited song: "Awake Romania!"

I looked out of the window and was moved by the sight and sound of Romanians singing. It was a striking token that this was a demonstration not just by our minority church, but by the whole population of Timisoara.

In fact it was the beginning of the Romanian revolution. Nine days later, on Christmas Day, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were summarily executed after their flight from Bucharest. Seventeen years and one week later, on January 1, 2007 Romania joined the European Union.

With God, For the People. Laszlo Tokes, as told to David Porter. Laszlo Tokes. 1990.
[pp. 155-56 / Hodder & Stoughton]

January 2007
Tim Judah

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