Remembering their own revolution

Decatur Romanians reflect on 1989 changes

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Photo courtesy of the Ferents

Laura Ferent stands with her third grade class at the end of the year performance for their parents. Laura stands in the front row with the white dress on, as Aurora in the fairytale “Sleeping Beauty.” At the end of each year, each grade put on a fairytale performance that last from 45 to 90 minutes.

Maddie Hamalian

Claudiu and Laura Ferent grew up in communist Romania until their early teens, when the 1989 Revolution transformed Romania to a democratic country.

In Dec. of 2015, the Ferents moved from Slovakia to Decatur when Laura switched jobs with Habitat for Humanity-Slovakia to Habitat for Humanity-Atlanta as Global Village Manager.

The Ferents grew up as family friends 15 miles away from each other in the 1980s, Claudiu in Bistrita and Laura in Nasaud.

The Ferents remember their community oriented childhoods.The young and the old continually interacted with each other on Laura’s block.

“Our entrance door was never locked,” Laura said. “People would come and go. My mom always had medicine for everyone, and I remember the exchange of eggs, milk and other types of food was happening all the time.”

Claudiu and Laura felt a strong sense of security. Parents would let their children roam their block without supervision. Claudiu misses this security.

“If I knew nothing would happen to [my] kids, I think I would trade parts of the freedom to keep them safe,” Claudiu said.

As elementary students, Claudiu and Laura woke up at 5 a.m. to ready themselves for the 6 o’clock school start time.

“My parents put a [house] key around my neck, like a necklace, and sent me to school,” Claudiu said.

Most parents did the same, sending their kids to school in groups.

Laura, second from left, stands with her classmates at their preschool years-end party, wearing a Romanian national dress her grandmother sewed.

Photo courtesy of the Ferents
Laura, second from left, stands with her classmates at their preschool years-end party, wearing a Romanian national dress her grandmother sewed.

At school, Claudiu and Laura were expected to meet high academic standards.

“The [teachers] will not praise you,” Claudiu said. “They make sure to show [your mistakes] to you and even humiliate you, and they thought that maybe [by] doing that, you would learn your lesson, and you would do better. I wasn’t in that position, luckily, but I think it was pretty difficult for those kids.”

At home, Claudiu experience a different kind of academic pressure.

When he tried to do his homework quickly, his mother would say “No, no, no. You have to do it again.” His mom always told Claudiu that he needed to do better than his classmate next door, who happened to be one of the worst in his class.

“Looking back now, I think it was funny for my mom to give him as an example, but it really motivated me,” Claudiu said.

Laura Ferent stands with fellow classmates who were first prize winners in their class. At the end of each school year, students with the best grades would be acknowledged in a class ceremony and given presents, either books or other school supplies.

Photo courtesy of the Ferents
Laura Ferent stands with fellow classmates who were first prize winners in their class. At the end of each school year, students with the best grades would be acknowledged in a class ceremony and given presents, either books or other school supplies.

In school, teachers were expected to teach about the ruling communist leaders, Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, or the party, in a positive light.

“Some of the teachers were really obedient and tried to follow the party line, but, still, with other teachers I can spot some that were dissident,” Claudiu said.

During the first month and a half of school starting in fifth grade, the kids were expected to work in the fields harvesting produce, including picking apples and digging up onions, sugar beets, peppers, tomatoes and corn.

“I remember the teacher forcing us, in a way, with how many buckets of fruit you picked up,” Claudiu said. “It was impossible to meet your quota, so we would just shake the tree.”

Laura, on the other hand, enjoyed her time in the field while living in Nasaud because she didn’t have school, and she was able to hang out with her friends.

“Our parents were quite concerned as we were up in trees without supervision and cutting beetroots with bog knives, but we, as kids, did not have those worries,” Laura said.

The military and factory workers were also required to work in the fields. Despite all the efforts, some fields were left to decay, and this made many people angry because food was scarce at times.

When someone obtained food items such as chocolate, oranges, or Pepsi, they became “important.”

To secure food, people would hold their places in lines outside of shops with bags, and when the food arrived, they would take their place in line, where their bags were placed. This was the only time people were allowed to congregate.

Laura Ferent stands in her “hawk of the country” uniform. Students are considered “hawks” from the time they are in the nursery to first grade. In second grade, they transition into being “pioneers.”

Photo courtesy of the Ferents
Laura Ferent stands in her “hawk of the country” uniform. Students are considered “hawks” from the time they are in the nursery to first grade. In second grade, they transition into being “pioneers.”

Claudiu enjoyed the socialization that occurred in these lines. Those in line would sometimes make political talk about Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, whom the Romanians often referred to as “father” and “mother.”

“I asked my mom, ‘who is my real father?’” Claudiu said. “She said, ‘We are your parents, but you have a different father who takes care of all of us.’”

While the masses looked to Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu to take care of them, Claudiu’s mother didn’t like the limited access to information.

“My mom went through all this effort to have a Russian radio because you cannot receive this radio [wave] from [a] normal Romanian radio,” Claudiu said. “We managed to get this Russian selena.”

A Russian selena was a shortwave radio that received other frequencies with uncensored information.

Tensions grew until late 1989, when young adults rose against the communist government. Claudiu first noticed something was amiss while watching TV. In the middle of one of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s speeches, the crowd began booing him, and the TV promptly cut off. A week later, the same thing happened, but this time civilians tried to barge into Ceaușescus mansion. Ceaușescu fled via helicopter.

“When people saw this mighty leader leave in a helicopter from the top of this building, they thought anything was possible, and I think it encouraged them,” Claudiu said.

On Dec. 25, 1989, the revolution party publicly assassinated Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu to show the country that communism was overthrown.

Life for Claudiu and Laura changed soon after the revolution with their new democratic government.

“It was a bit alarming in the beginning because it was a sudden move,” Claudiu said.

A joke began about money; during communism, people had money but couldn’t buy anything, and after the revolution, people could buy things but didn’t have the money.

“The currency devalued rapidly,” Laura said. “The money my parents had in the bank for buying a car was enough for a stereo, an automatic washing machine and a handmade carpet.”

Because everyone wanted to buy daily items after the revolution, the prices went up.

Despite the changes, Laura believes her generation quickly adapted to the new system since they were young when the changes occurred.

“The new way was the only one we knew,” Laura said.

In the United States, Claudiu wasn’t shocked to find out in 2013 that the U.S. intelligence community was monitoring American citizens. He grew up with government surveillance under communist Romanian rule.

“You are instilled [with] an acceptance of the state being involved in your life, so it was a common thing to record phone calls, [and for people to] open your mail,” Claudiu said.

 Laura wears her 4th grade uniform. Laura’s bandana signifies her school years as a “pioneer,” 2nd grade through 8th grade, and the pins and ribbons stand for school achievements she made.

Photo courtesy of the Ferents
Laura wears her 4th grade uniform. Laura’s bandana signifies her school years as a “pioneer,” 2nd grade through 8th grade, and the pins and ribbons stand for school achievements she made.

For that reason, Romanians always stayed aware of who they were talking to. Even religion didn’t have a guarantee of privacy. Sometimes priests were forced to be government informants. Often times, people didn’t go to the churches because they knew they might get arrested for confessing an action or word against the government.

“There was a fear of people coming to you at night, but it was not openly talked about,” Claudiu said. “I only found out how bad it was after the revolution.”

In their childhood and early teens,  Laura and Claudiu weren’t really worried about talking badly about the communist party, but they noticed adults secretiveness surrounding the subject.

“Whenever someone started political talks in our home, my parents were asking the [guests] to lower their voices,” Laura said.

Despite the caution people exercised, Claudiu feels his generation benefited from the system because they were able to receive support from the government in regards to paying for their college educations.

Claudiu and Laura remember their childhoods with fondness. Their lives felt normal to them.

“Life was easy and quite pleasant,” Claudiu said. “It was life as we knew it.”