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Personal Recollections of Romania Under Ceausescu's Rule: Background information when reading The Fox Was Ever the Hunter

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The Fox Was Ever the Hunter

by Herta Muller

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Muller X
The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Muller
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2017, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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About this Book

Personal Recollections of Romania Under Ceausescu's Rule

This article relates to The Fox Was Ever the Hunter

Print Review

CeausescuThe whole world watched the Romanian revolution and the fall of the country's leader Ceausescu (pronounced chow-shess-ku) in December 1988. Before that historic time, not many outsiders had any idea of what was really going on in this Eastern European country. Although I did not visit Romania until 1992, I did have an inkling of what was going on because, in late 1987, I took a position with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC), to work with their welfare programs in Romania.

RomaniaRomania is about the size of West Germany, just to the west of the Black Sea. Prior to the fall of communism, it was nestled between the Former USSR to the north (now Ukraine), with Hungary to the north-west and Bulgaria to the south. The so-called Iron Curtain separated Romania from the former Yugoslavia on its western and southwestern side. My job focused on the administrative side of giving aid to the Jewish community there, but my boss, the AJJDC Country Director for Romania, traveled there several times in the lead-up to the revolution and, as the person who wrote and edited his field trip reports, I knew quite a bit about the mood of the country and the conditions there for its citizens under Ceausescu. This is why I wanted to read and review Herta Müller's The Fox Was Ever the Hunter.

Waiting in LineThe atmosphere that Müller creates aligns perfectly with the stories and accounts that we encountered through our work. These included the pitch-black streets at night because the government wanted to save on electricity, the lines at shops despite having nothing to sell, and the constant feeling that someone was watching you at every turn. Moreover, there was a feeling that what little the people had didn't really belong to them. Thus money wasn't the greatest commodity during this time. Bribing and bartering were the only things that could get you what you wanted or needed – anything from a pack of Kent cigarettes to sex with a woman. While the latter may not have come into play for the people our program was assisting (who were all elderly), the monthly food packages we supplied them were virtual gold; they were perfect for bartering. For instance, the person who drank coffee could give the tea from a food package to their neighbor in exchange for the neighbor getting his prescriptions filled, cleaning his house, or getting some fresh milk when it was available. We believe that if any of these neighbors were Securitate, these extras probably kept the Jews from eviction and government seizure of what little they owned.

However, despite these difficult conditions, the Romanians held on to two things, which kept them going. One was their connection to religion. Technically, communism outlawed religion (opiate of the masses, and all that), but Ceaușescu happened to love religious music, particularly religious choral music. By joining choirs, Christians and Jews alike could get together to sing, and thereby hold on to the small rituals and traditions of their religions. Jews, in particular, took advantage of this by starting what they called "Talmud Torah Choirs" across the country in about 130 or more synagogues. Since the basis of Jewish prayers consists of communal singing, Jews literally defied the communists right under their noses, with their Dictator's blessing (so to speak). Along with opera and classical music, it was the only music available to Romanians.

Romanian RevolutionThe other thing that kept the Romanians from total despair was their sense of humor, although much of it was dark. For example, one joke popular in 1988 was, "If you didn't die from hunger last year, or the cold this year, you will live to regret it next year." Clandestine jokes, especially about Ceaușescu and his even more hated wife, would sweep the country almost faster than a viral meme on social media today. In mid-1989, only months before the revolution, one joke was "everyone is talking about Romania having paid off its external debt. People now say the President has even taken away their debt from them."

I could retell endless stories of abject poverty and hardships under Ceaușescu. Instead though, I will end by saying that there was always a spark of light hidden underneath the oppression. Without it, I'm sure, the Romanian uprising and revolution would never have taken place.

Map of Romania
Ceaușescu
Waiting in line for cooking oil in 1986, photograph by Scott Edelman
Romanian Revolution, photograph by Denoel Paris

Article by Davida Chazan

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Fox Was Ever the Hunter. It originally ran in June 2016 and has been updated for the May 2017 paperback edition.

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