Fare well Romania—now your heritage is secure

Reflections on the little-known efforts to save an extraordinary architectural legacy from the wrecking ball of Communism

Features
(©TESSA TRAEGER)

In 1986, I was incensed to read a letter in The Times describing the systematic destruction of monuments and the entire historic quarter of Communist Bucharest. At least six 16th- and 17th-century churches had already been razed to the ground. Surely it was not too late to discover if any dissidents existed there.

I had already been involved with work contacting dissident academics behind the Iron Curtain, a project that had begun in the 1970s, when a group of Oxford philosophers established an educational trust to help their counterparts in Czechoslovakia, a country ruled by Communists and their secret-police henchmen since 1948.

They had done extraordinary work with the Czechs. From the outset, the Oxford philosopher Kathy Wilkes and the Cambridge philosopher Roger Scruton, then a lecturer in London, had provided inspiration and assistance, with Roger using his legal expertise to devise a low-profile charitable foundation to receive funds.

I became a trustee of the Czech trust in 1983, when successful secret seminars in Prague had started branching out to include the humanities. We were asked to provide lecturers in music, art, literature, theatre and architectural theory, and this led to the most extraordinary expansion of our underground university into Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and finally Romania, as recorded by Barbara Day in The Velvet Philosophers and in my book, Once Upon Another Time.

When I heard of the situation revealed by the Times letter, I improvised on the Czech model and founded the Mihai Eminescu Trust (named after Romania’s most treasured poet) but failed to persuade the British philosophers, who were fully committed to their day jobs, to take on yet another East European country.

Romanian exiles in Paris and London endorsed the idea. The head of the BBC’s Romanian Service, Christian Mititelu, offered encouragement and contacts. He warned me that the situation in Romania was far more severe than elsewhere in Eastern Europe and that the Securitate controlled one in 10 of the population, of which one in three was an informer. Besides being followed, people in restaurants would be bugged by devices hidden in pots of flowers on the table. Waiters, too, listened in and informed. There would be no possibility of secret seminars in apartments: the only means of private communication would be carefully planned one-to-one conversations.

Unlike the Czech dissidents who had refused to toe the Party line, and who had been reduced to taking work as road sweepers, night-watchmen or labourers, Romanian dissidents were without jobs altogether, often under 24-hour surveillance, or had been expelled from the cities to far-away villages and confined to house arrest. Those with rich enough relations in Germany could be sold to them, like cattle. Some had been put in prison, where they could be secretly disposed of (not least by poisoning from secreted radioactive sources). Out of the four names that Mititelu gave me, I chose first to visit a revered ascetic 78-year-old philosopher, Professor Constantin Noica, who had been banished from Bucharest and was living in a hillside village in the heart of Saxon Transylvania. I wanted to have his imprimatur as to whether to go ahead or not.

My three-hour conversation with him gave me the greatest insight into life in Romania. In hushed tones, he described Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reign of terror and the havoc that over 40 years of Communism had wreaked on the bankrupt country. Nonetheless, he said, two of his pupils in Bucharest would welcome a visit. A few entrapped intellectuals—committed to “Living in Truth”, as Václav Havel put it—would be brave enough to make contact. He also told me of a new tragedy afoot: the dictator’s “systematisation” plan to destroy ancient villages all over Romania, and replace them with factories and concrete apartment blocks for Homo Sovieticus—the “New Man” who was to spread from the Soviet Union to Eastern Europe, encapsulating the Marxist social experiment in the evolution of humanity. The Saxon villagers, with their 12th-century churches and intact culture, presented a particular target.

Back home our new band of three trustees asked Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Julius Norwich, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Stephen Runciman, the musician Yehudi Menuhin, the Prince of Wales and financiers such as George Soros and Rodney Leach either to visit or to become patrons. Then there were intrepid writers, dons and professors, often fluent in the language, who agreed to visit. Among those putting themselves at greatest risk were Agnieszka Kolakowska, Sir Noel Malcolm and Professor Mark Almond.

The bravest dissidents would slip articles into visitors’ pockets to be taken back for publication in The Times, the Spectator or the Guardian. The architect Maria Celac, far more knowledgeable than us on architecture and the environment, asked for the most interesting and esoteric of books. She was desperate to prevent more of Bucharest from being torn to shreds by bulldozers to create the enormous Boulevard of Socialism—a huge avenue, which eventually would lead up to the largest palace in the world, built to glorify Ceaușescu. It was her idea to ask for a duplicator so that she could secretly print leaflets. We smuggled it in, a gift from Neil MacGregor, who had become the National Gallery’s new director.

Yet the destruction continued. We watched in despair as more and more houses were reduced to rubble. Their owners, who had been given no evacuation notice, wept beside them. Churches had a strange reprieve: their adjacent priests’ houses would be razed, but Ceaușescu’s architects devised a method of shunting medieval churches away on wooden rollers.

It was not until after Ceaușescu’s execution and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that I gained a true perspective of Transylvania. Even if Ceaușescu’s Moscow-trained sidekick, Ion Iliescu, was the new president, the Securitate’s grip had slackened so we could move around without constant attention. In 1993, I travelled around the country with two friends—a journalist and a historian. We drove north of Brașov, covering a fraction of the 250 villages and seven towns, known then as the Siebenburgen, settled in the 12th century by Germans. In each village, we found the same pattern: lines of stuccoed and gabled farmhouses in a cobbled streetscape, leading to magnificent medieval fortified churches unlike anywhere else in the world. Through the heart of each village trickled small rivers with stone troughs from which cows and buffalo would drink before making their daily excursions into hills filled with wildflowers, rare birds and butterflies, returning unerringly to their own courtyard at dusk for milking.

We had discovered a visual record of rural Europe with all its ancient richness and beauty. Laid out before us was not just a panorama of evocative architecture and magnificent churches. This was the visible outcome of successful settlement, the result of routines maintained over centuries, in which men and women had shaped the earth to themselves and themselves to the earth. That was its true secret.

After Ceaușescu’s downfall and execution, and the mass exodus of the Saxon villagers to Germany, the buildings were now falling into ruin. Houses had been either abandoned or occupied by gypsies and others from very different cultures. Harsh winters and hot summers had wreaked their havoc. Everywhere these historic farmhouses, mills, schools, churches, barns and bridges were rotting. For Romania it was a miracle if in each village a dozen or so Saxons had remained.

What, we asked ourselves, would become of this fallen paradise? There must surely be an alternative to decay, oblivion or cheap modernisation?

At first tentatively, and later with growing self-confidence—and always hand-in-hand with the villagers—we began a campaign to save some of the buildings and revive the local economy. Instead of emigrating, a young Saxon called Caroline Fernolend dedicated herself to her country’s cultural history, and was the leading inspiration. Together we brought back to life once-thriving crafts: locksmithery, iron-forging, masonry, joinery and metalworking, brick and tile-making, painting, stuccowork and carving, linen-making, embroidery and basket-making. Without care of their heritage the villages would die. But they would also die if they became nothing more than empty relics, to be gazed at by curious tourists.

The Trust moved swiftly into this new project. Our central aim was to save and restore small and large historic buildings, and the land around them. Our first commitment was to instill the impoverished villagers with a sense of pride in their surroundings. The second was to give them training in traditional techniques and the use of authentic materials. With the means of earning a living, they could start small businesses, which we would help set up. In this way they would become self-sufficient and, most importantly, would not have to rely on charitable grants. We called it the Whole Village Project.

We brought craftsmen from England and Germany to supervise and—a benefit to them as well—to learn from the villages’ traditional expertise, which we combined with our philosophy, based on the seven tenets of William Morris’s Society for the Protection of Ancient buildings.

None of this would have happened but for the financial help of the extraordinary classical scholar, the American David Packard, who had inherited his father’s charitable foundation (and had visited Transylvania on his honeymoon in the 1960s). To spread the message to England, we printed a booklet—The Plight of the Saxons of Transylvania—which was picked up by the Spectator, a magazine valiant at the time in its coverage of Eastern Europe.

More than three decades after I read that newspaper letter, we can look back with some sense of fulfilment. Together we have undertaken 2,000 or so historic restoration projects and have been determined to preserve, too, as much as possible of rural Romania’s natural beauty, inspirationally assisted over these years by local schoolchildren who have planted two million saplings. It is a little-known achievement, and one of which we are particularly proud.