Lennon and The End of a Childhood

This article originally appeared on 8 December in BalkanInsight, www.BalkanInsight.com

I first heard it on Radio Free Europe. John Lennon had just been shot in New York. New York – an abstract concept to me, a concept of freedom, of all I wanted then. To breathe freely, to move freely, to do whatever I wanted to do. Normal wishes for a fourteen-year-old. Except I was trapped. Locked up in a country and held hostage by a system. I am talking about Romania under the regime of an illiterate former shoemaker apprentice, whose name my father refuses to pronounce until today.

It was a time of global and personal tensions. My family had decided to turn its back to paradise and search for a new beginning in the empire of evil, in the land of oppression of the working class, in West-Germany, the country that was ready to pay Ceausescu in order to let us go – something we found out much later, though.

My parents had taken up the fight with the authorities a few years before, and we had just entered the end-game. What had preceded were a few years of harassment, of humiliations, of being treated like traitors. But they stood firm against all that, invoking their freedom of movement and of thought, both guaranteed by the Romanian constitution. And we the children grew to stand firm with them. And I learned to distinguish. Between home and outside, between private thoughts and politically desired ones, between real friends and possible informers (little did I know about the thin line there), between me and them. And I learned to despise. What else could one feel towards a system and its cronies, which treated people the way they did?

The period leading to December 1980 was one of faint hope. Solidarnosc in Poland had begun to unveil again the ugly face of Communism. I had witnessed the suppression and annihilation of three hopeless attempts at a democratic movement in Romania – the Goma-movement, the Jiu-Valley miners’ strike and the attempt to create an independent trade union. All events ended tragically. So, all hope was in the Poles. But in early December, Soviet tanks were massed in large numbers on the border to Poland. Brezhnev thought he could take advantage of the USA being in a state of transition from Jimmy Carter’s presidency to Ronald Reagan’s. With the previous experience of 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia, nobody expected a positive outcome. We felt we could bury our hopes for another decade, at least. And yes, I am saying “we”, because that is how it was. At fourteen, I was confronted with all this and had to be interested. Besides – urban life had been killed by the total insanity of the regime. There were no public entertainment opportunities for a teenager. What remained was the bleak world of politics and the escapism provided by books and decadent Western music – via Radio Free Europe and Radio Luxemburg on short wave radio. Static included.

Around the beginning of December I started living in a bubble. The end-game I mentioned earlier had started. My parents had lost their jobs. In principle a good thing, because it indicated that the ball had started rolling. The down-side was that it could still take years until they let us go. We simply did not know. Then, shortly after, I was solemnly excluded from the young communists’ organization, which I had been forced to join only a few months earlier. It was a great moment. I had to step in front of the entire collective of my school and hand in my party booklet and uniform. And they sure didn’t appreciate the bright smile on my face… A few weeks later, I was excluded from school. As a traitor, I had no right to enjoy the fruit of socialist education. Then I already knew. It was going to be a short transition until we were allowed to leave.

Still, all this built up month by month, and the tension was hard to bear. Not to talk about existential teenage problems: what about the girlfriend? Would it last across borders and the iron curtain? And then, amidst all that, my older cousin, my initiator into all things good – music, girls and all that –  deflected from the mistreatment by sadistic officers he was faced with in the presidential guard and sought asylum in our house. It was a period of extreme tension, in which networks did what networks do and saved him from being court-marshalled. He survived. But it was during the forty-eight hours that he hid in our house that the news about Lennon broke. We both shared a deep love for music, and Lennon’s music was up there. Double Fantasy had just been released and (Just Like) Starting Over was everywhere on the radios. The news first paralysed me. Then the dam broke and I felt all this grief I had accumulated over years was channelled into this rage. It was an outcry to the world, announcing the new me. The child in me died that day. And with it two abilities: to forget and to forgive.

Today, after thirty years, this day is still very much alive inside me. A few months ago, I had the opportunity of a new beginning. The first state security files about my parents are emerging. I shall read them. And I shall not forget. And certainly not forgive. Because God is a concept, by which we measure our pain. Nothing more.

Vision! Be vigilant…


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