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Birth and Death in Romania

Unfortunately, however, the rapid expansion of the Romanian steel industry occurred at a time when established Western iron and steel industries were sharply cutting their production and the international steel market was collapsing. As a result, today Romania is suffering from an imbalance between its capacity to produce steel and its ability to make use of it. A newcomer has a hard time finding out a place for itself on the market when even old-timers are over-producing. To do so successfully, there is not much choice: one either relies on technology to improve the quality of the product or one relies on economic measures to bring about a substantial reduction in price. Thus it was hardly surprising to see Romanian producers being accused of dumping steel on the market, and the American market at that. The Romanian iron and steel industry went right on producing mountains of steel that its domestic industries were unable to digest and that the international market did not seem keen to acquire.

4.

When one speaks of civil rights in the West, one is usually thinking of freedom of speech or freedom of assembly, and not the right to keep oneself warm. Nevertheless, particularly during the winter, the right to keep warm becomes the obsession of most Romanians—the point where all the other rights invoked during the rest of the year tend to become forgotten. Thousands of people deprived of the right of free expression seem utterly indifferent to the fact. Very few remain indifferent about losing their right to keep warm.

Romania has a longstanding tradition of urban landscaping and Romanians have always taken pride in their public spaces. On winter nights, however, under the cover of darkness, people have taken to attacking the large trees that line the cities’ streets, cutting off huge branches, and dragging them back to their icy homes on their children’s sleds. Such behavior suggests they actually have some means for burning the wood—a store or furnace—which is more than most people have.

The story I was told about Grigore Hagiu, a prominent poet, and his wife Gabriela Cressin, a well-known statistician, is illuminating here. Both were in their forties. They were at home on one of the unbearable January days in the winter of 1985 when the temperature sank to minus thirty degrees centigrade by the window thermometers and minus twenty degrees by the radio. After midnight a thin stream of gas appeared in the kitchen. The couple sat down by the stove and tried to get warm. They fell asleep. Some time in the night as they slept the gas went off and came back on again. The couple went on sleeping. They never woke up.

The director of the Museum of Romanian literature, Alexandru Oprea, also died in this way—and so, I am told, did many others. “No Gulag, no death squads, no torture or arrests,” one of my friends said. “They died in a state of liberty and in peace, dreaming of a summer they would never see. The human rights organizations remain frozen on the issue of warmth: it isn’t the right itself but its suppression that turns death into a political act.”

The story of Gheorghe Emil Ursu was quite different. The descendant of one of the leaders of the peasant revolts in the eighteenth century in Transylvania, a friend of many poets, he was also an engineer, and he was nearing sixty when, during the heatless winter of 1985, he was called in by the police for questioning about his writings. It was a strange interrogation. The first phase lasted from January to August. Every evening he would show up for questioning; the rest of the time he was at liberty, making his living by day. Then, at the beginning of August, the authorities let him go; whereupon he resumed his former habit of returning home at night and going to bed. On September 21 this idyll came to an end when Ursu disappeared mysteriously. The telephone call informing his family that Ursu was ill and in prison arrived in November. A second, announcing his death, came that same day.

To be thrown in prison for what one has put on paper and die there mysteriously has become a banal fate in many parts of the world today. Ursu’s story had an unexpected twist. When the police, on January 3, 1985, confiscated something he had written, it was not a manifesto inciting the people to revolt, or an iconoclastic roman à clef, but a private journal. Can one, in this case, still say that Ursu died for expressing his opinions? Ursu’s crime apparently consisted not of having expressed his opinions but simply of having had them.

5.

More than anything else my friends wanted me to write about birth and death. In 1966 the new regime in Romania adopted somewhat Draconian methods for bringing about a sharp and sudden increase in a birthrate that, by European standards, was already reasonably high. Before long virtually all measures for birth control were banned. At their workplace many women have to submit to a monthly examination to see if they are pregnant or not. If they are, they know they must have a baby within nine months or risk prosecution. Such measures were the first sign that the scope of Romania’s new policies for preserving its independence and standing up to the USSR had widened so as to include the most intimate experiences of private life. The clear and persuasive rhetoric of the new program did its job; equally effective was the minute description of the heavy penalties reserved for those who refused to take part in it. According to the statistics, the number of infants rose from 273,687 in 1966 to 527,764 in 1967. (Under Romanian law, incidentally, no abortion can be performed unless an official from the ministry of justice is present to certify that the abortion was spontaneous and not induced. The word of the doctor is not enough. But the official, not trusting his own competence, may not show up. Even if the woman is having a hemorrhage the doctor may not act alone and in some cases the woman may die. This even happened, I was told, to the assistant of the man responsible for the law, the minister of health.)

That such policies were not a response to any demographic crisis in Romania is suggested by the available statistics. In 1965, the natural rate of increase in population per one thousand people was 6 in Romania, as opposed to 2.4 in Hungary, for example, and 3 in East Germany. It took nine months to double the number of newborn babies: but more than six years to double the number of gynecologists, obstetricians, pediatricians, and wet-nurses to care for them (leaving aside the availability of maternity wards, day-care centers, and pediatric hospitals, housing, and schools; or the production of powdered milk, baby clothes, and medical supplies.) In the ten years before the program was started the number of babies born each year rarely rose above 250,000. Some people I talked to believed—and of course there is no way of confirming their view—that of the 500,000 women who became mothers in 1967, over half did so against their will. But beyond such statistical questions, it seems that a kind of underground battle between the regime and the female population has been going on.

The government recently opened a new offensive in this battle. In order to prevent statistics on the subject from being used to stir up trouble, such data are no longer being released. It is understandable that Romania should designate as state secrets the number of women who have died, been made invalids for life, or been thrown into prison because they have had abortions, usually performed by quacks. The following poem, however, which may be puzzling to Westerners, has been widely circulated:

THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE

An entire people not yet on earth
Condemned to march along from birth
Foetuses from left to right
Devoid of hearing and of sight,
Foetuses on every hand
Who cannot even understand.
All march towards the tomb
Torn from some suffering mother’s womb
Condemned to bear, condemned to die,
And not allowed to question why.

Published in the student magazine Amfiteatru in December 1984, along with two other poems in a similar vein, this depressing verse was signed by Ana Blandiana, a highly admired female poet. Within a very short time, thousands of copies of the poems, either Xeroxed or copied out by hand, were available everywhere—the work of a curious and widespread popular samizdat, according to the official press—and were in the hands of a good many families.

They could have been expected to understand what was being said. The offices that issue birth certificates, for example, ask parents of newborn children to return in a month. One might say that the infants find themselves face to face with a state that, after having forced them to be born, now refuses to accept them. Notwithstanding the fact that the child cries or behaves well, clamors for food or rejects it, gains weight rapidly or too slowly—despite, that is, the fact that it becomes the center of its family’s life—for the state, it continues to be nonexistent for a month. Why does the state consign the infant population to oblivion, creating a clandestine army of perhaps 400,000 newborn babies every year?

The answer, so I was told, is to be found in the officially published statistics for 1966 and 1967, which show unequivocally that the explosive rise in the number of births (up 92.8 percent) was surpassed by the infant mortality rate (145.6 percent). One can force women to bring unwanted children into the world; one cannot force those children to stay there. Too many of the new arrivals depart: hence the secrecy. Without a birth certificate, no birth has officially taken place. And where no birth has officially taken place, technically there can be no death. Thus, by not issuing the certificate for the period of a month, the state avoids recognizing any deaths that have occurred in that month. The infant who has never been born in the sight of the law cannot die.

Still, while the official infant mortality rate continues to increase, the mortality rate among old people continues to become lower, as it does throughout the rest of Europe. The authorities see this as putting a heavy burden on the economy, since most old people receive pensions from the state. To relieve this burden (without modifying the law) certain adjustments have been made: the value of the average pension, for instance, was substantially reduced. That helped a bit, since it reduced the overall amount of money paid out, in pensions each month. It did not, however, lessen the number of months those reduced pensions had to be paid out, and from a budgetary standpoint, the average number of monthly checks cashed by pensioners was far too high. The only solution was to try to curtail the average period of a person’s retirement—by either delaying its start or hastening its end.

The amount allocated as pensions to each district was greatly reduced. But there was no suggestion of changing or breaking the law. Someone who had attained the specified age was legally eligible to retire, and this remained true: at sixty he could apply for permission to retire. Within five years’ time he might well have obtained it. That shortened the length of time a pension had to be paid for those beginning retirement; but there was still something to be done about those who were coming to the end of it. Medical assistance, for instance. Let’s say some member of the family suffers a heart attack. At once a call is put through to the local health center or to a hospital. Either way, one of the questions on the other end of the phone will invariably concern the patient’s age. For someone over seventy, an ambulance or a doctor will seldom be available. Physicians, I was told, have strict instructions to cut down on prescription drugs in general but especially among the aged. In each health center, doctors are watched closely to see that in prescribing a treatment they take due account of a patient’s age.

Another suggestion for how to deal with the problem of older people recently came from the president himself. In his 1985 speech to the Congress of Popular Counsels he showed himself willing to offer whatever assistance might be necessary to enable older members of the urban population to move to the country with a view to taking up “some form of work conducive to physical and spiritual health.” To my friends, this seemed a project designed to tear families apart and they feared it would amount to deportation and forced labor.

Before we parted, the tougher-minded of my two companions (who has a tendency to dramatize) said to me by way of farewell: “The bitter fact is that you have no need of us while we have need of you. When you are back in your own country, you might keep us in mind. Don’t just screen out the hideous reality of the women and children we have been talking about, and the old and infirm who every day are peaceably being done away with. Repression isn’t what you think it is. It’s not the Gulag now, and it’s not people being thrown in prison: it is the condition of ordinary life. So much for the lesson of present-day Romania.”

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