Saturday, 21 October 2017

Miss Walton and the Romanians

So I’ve finally made it to Romania, a country that was seared into my mind at a young age.

There is every possibility it was a story that she told every year to her group of impressionable 9 and 10 year olds, to warn them of the perils of communist states.

After all this was 1987/88 and there was every indication that the Warsaw pact nations would remain just that – there might be a little bit of thawing thanks to Comrade Gorbachev, but Communism was here to stay.

Miss Walton was my primary school teacher for what was then class 10, but these days would be year 5.  She was a very strict, and very catholic, teacher – determined to get the best from her charges in the penultimate year of their primary education.

Starting sometime before the Christmas she started to tell us of the letters she received from some friends she had made in Romania – a young married couple.  She told us a bit about how life in Romania was hard – especially for Catholics – under the Ceaușescu regime.

As the weeks past, we were told of more letters, that they were smuggling out of Romania, and telling us more about their lives.

Then the letters stopped.  Miss Walton said she thought they were trying to escape the country and had stopped writing to protect themselves.

After the Easter she told us that she had been contacted by Amnesty who had found out that her friends had tried to escape the country but had been betrayed at the border by their friend and they were now in prison.

There were never any more letters.

At the time I don’t think our class really comprehended what was happening – other than Romania sounded like a scary place and that Communism was bad – especially for the church.

In hindsight along with the question as to whether this was a yearly event there’s the query about how this very straight-laced, disciplinarian, South London teacher was in contact with the Romanian underground, and getting letters from people who wanted to leave the country – Was it via the church?  She was certainly religious so that is a possibility.

Miss Walton retired a couple of years after I left primary school, and would by now be a very elderly woman, if she is even still alive.  However, before she even retired so much changed.

I left primary school in July 1989 – shortly after Solidarity had taken power in Poland.  Over the summer a humanitarian crisis played out in Hungary and then Austria as thousands of East Germans refused to go home at the end of their holidays and were eventually waived into Austria to camp in the West German Embassy before being granted asylum.

My first term at secondary school therefore coincided with one of the most important periods of late 20th century history as communist regimes in first Hungary, then East Germany, then Czechoslovakia collapse peacefully.

Then over the Christmas holidays the scenes across the news were of a very different change as the regime attempted to cling to power in Romania by killing its own people.

The end came, sort of, on Christmas day with the execution of Ceaușescu and his wife.

Europe had changed completely – and would continue to do so over the following years.

If the letters Miss Walton had read to us had been genuine then it leaves some troubling questions.

Having been betrayed at the border you would have to assume the couple would have been taken away for questioning by the secret police before being sent to prison.  Would they have survived?  It was barely 18 months from their betrayal to the end of Ceaușescu, but in a brutal police state that might have been too long.

If they had managed to survive, and regain their freedom, did they stay in Romania or, once free to move, did they set up life somewhere else.  Is that couple sitting in a little apartment just yards from my hotel room?

Whether the letters were real or not they certainly opened my eyes to the world of the Eastern Block, so I was probably more aware of the events of 1989 than other 11 year olds may have been.

And it’s also why I feel of all the former Easter Block European countries I’ve visited this one feels just that little bit more personal.