Coloured portrait

Coloured portrait

Monday, January 20, 2020

A Short Date with Mario - Stories behind the Iron Curtain

A Short Date with Mario

Bucharest, early 1980’s

I could have walked to school this sunny afternoon. The twenty minutes city stretch from home to the Academy of Economic Studies - ASE - flows through a dance of golden sun rays and the long shadows cast by the buildings which guard the sides of Calea Dorobanti. I walk with ease and pleasure, even when wearing stiletto heels - I wear them when I dance, and walking is mere balancing practice for the dance floor. 

When Mario offered to drive me, I accepted, too embarrassed to decline in spite of the fears to be seen in a 12B licence plate car. 

I had met Mario in the college disco and was delighted to date him. He was a tall, handsome, poised and confident American Jewish medical school student of Romanian descent, and a nice catch for a single Jewish Romanian girl. This school day afternoon he dropped in for a visit to my parents’ apartment, together with a girlfriend from out of town, Marta, and her cousin who lived a few streets away from me. We shared a chat, some snacks and tea and coffee, and then Mario offered to drop all of us girls wherever we needed, first drop the cousin, then Marta and me at ASE. 

During the communist regime and Ceausescu’s dictatorship there was a law forbidding Romanian citizens from having contact with foreigners. If we did talk with a foreign citizen, even briefly, were were required by law to report it to the Militia - the Romanian police - within 24 hours from the contact. Or else. Nobody knew what exactly would happen, but rumours circulated, whispers about people imprisoned on all sorts of accounts. Any society needs rules to function: rules are the boundaries that glue societies together. Free, democratic societies have clear rules, with clear consequences of breaking those rules. Oppressive societies are vague about their boundaries, and breed paranoid fears, as nobody knows for sure what is permitted and what is forbidden, so everything scares you. 

12B was the license plate series assigned to foreign residents. Car keys dangling in his hand, jingling with each swaying of his long and muscular arm, Mario led us girls to his red BMW parked down the street. Mouth dry with fear I sat in the passenger’s seat, keenly aware of my high visibility, in a street filled with muted colours Dacias, the national car, I was riding a bright red 12B BMW. Marta and her cousin sat on the back bench, and Mario took off on Calea Dorobanti, and made an illegal left-turn on Bulevardul Dacia, to drop the cousin off.  

Right after the turn, two militia men stopped him, and ordered everybody out of the car. The main officer asked for identity papers, then he released everyone but me. 

“You’re coming with us, Comrade” the officer announced me. 

“Wherever she’s going, I’m coming with her, sir” Mario replied, to protect me. 

“No sir, you’re free to go” replied the officer.

“I came with her, I’m staying with her” replied Mario.
“Sir, she will be fine. You can go in peace, and call her tonight, she’ll be at home. Nothing to worry, go now.” The militia man reassured Mario, who left reluctantly. 

I followed the officer to a room at the back of a grocery store - “Alimentara”. An empty room with a bare wooden table and two chairs. I was ordered to sit and empty the content of my purse on the table. Chewing gum, pen, phone book, personal care products, the pill, hair band, lipstick. The pill. He’s going to see my contraceptive pills. I panic. 

“You know why I kept you with me and not the other girls, comrade?” Asks the officer.

“I don’t know, comrade.”

“You were seated in the passenger’s seat. You must be the girlfriend”.

The officer looks at me like I’m a slut, yet another girl who gives her body to a foreigner for a nice restaurant meal or gifts from abroad. 

“Are you going to marry him?”

I’m mute. Don’t know what to answer. This was my first date with Mario. Am I going to marry him?

“ Hai, mie poti sa-mi spui “ - “Come on, you can tell me” says the officer, putting on a voice that’s meant to reassure me, but has the opposite effect.

“No, comrade, I am just dating him” I barely whisper. I don’t know what’s going to happen with me. Nobody knows where I am, this is the time long before mobile phones, I can’t scream for help, will I disappear in a prison cell? I imagine the worst. My mouth is dry and my belly is tight as if in a thousand knots. 

“How did you meet this man?” The militia man asks.

I lie.

I had heard rumours that if militia men stops you for engaging with foreign citizens, and they learn that you’re Jewish, they let you be. Far better than forty-fifty years ago, this is a good time to be Jewish, if there’s one: there are some advantageous unwritten agreements between the regime and the Jewish communities. All the hard currency donations coming in from Western Jewish organizations sent to support a Jewish life in Romania, are pocketed by Ceausescu’s regime. The local laws forbids Romanian citizens from owning foreign currency, so all the dollars are poured into the state’s funds and in return, the Jewish communities receive Romanian money, food, some clothing items and some benefits, the main one being the right and safety of conducting Jewish religious services, unlike other Jews behind the Iron Curtain, like the Soviet Jews, who had to hide and whisper behind shut curtains in order to practice. Also, as documented by Radu Ioanid in his “Ransom of the Jews” book, Ceausescu was exporting his Jews to Israel for a hefty price, according to age, education, and marital status. Jews are of better benefit to the state being sold to Israel than imprisoned. 

So I lie: “I met him at the Jewish community”. I breathe with hope. I don’t want to imagine what I would have said and done if Mario wasn’t Jewish. 

The officer flips through the pages of my phone book, looking at names. He says:

“Is that so? I see you have quite a lot of Romanian friends in your phone book, look, right here, and here”.

The conversation goes on and on for what feels to me like the longest time. I am reassured that I won’t be imprisoned. I am somewhat relieved.

“You know what’s going to happen?” The officer asks.

“I wish” I think to myself. I nod “No”, eyes down, instinctively trying not to provoke him with eye contact. 

“Your faculty dean will receive a letter from us. And your father will receive a letter from us at his workplace.”

All threats complete, he lets me go. 

Too late to make it to my classes, I go home, shaking. I tell my parents the whole story, and they call a family member who used to work for the Securitate, the Romanian secret services years ago, when they still employed Jews. “What can we do about this matter” my parents ask. 

“Nothing. What do you want to do? Complain about abuse of power? To whom? Who’s going to believe your daughter? Who do you think anyone will rather believe, a Jewish university student with relatives in the West, or a militia officer on the job? Just let it rest”.

And I let it rest. No letters were written, and I successfully completed my university studies, then got sold for a hefty fee to the state of Israel, where I migrated to. 

And Mario - yes, Mario called that evening. And afraid to say anything over the phone in case it was bugged, I met with him for one last brief date, in a coffee shop, where I told him what happened, shaking with fear. I told him that I was sorry, I could’t date him anymore, it was too risky for me. Mario smirked in disbelief, unable to relate to this paranoia. Just like you, my friend, who have been born and raised in a free democracy, with clear, easy to follow rules and well-known consequences for breaking them. 

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