On the train trip there, it began to rain.
Anya and I were on our way to a town in the west of Romania where we had booked accommodation in a local house for a week and where we planned to do some walking.
But the weather didn’t look promising.
On the horizon, enshrouded in mist, were the silhouettes of mountains.
In the past, on the plains between those mountains, the armies of Austria, Hungary, and Russia had invaded Romania and for centuries it had remained the property of others. In the bad weather, such thoughts loomed large.
As our train approached the station, we passed abandoned factories surrounded by weeds and dilapidated apartment blocks, chipped and cracked. At the station, we were met by dour faced people, resigned to living nowhere.
For 45 years Romania had been a part of the Russian communist empire, like the other nations of Eastern Europe and this town, once thriving and a major source of employment, had been left behind by the relentless march of history, like a discarded wrapper thrown to the wayside.
Long ago, in this end-of-the-world town, people had found hope in a maelstrom of suffering and chaos. And so it was with a woman named Elena (pronounced ‘A-lay-na’). It was 6 years ago that we heard about her and whilst I had filed the memory away in one of my diaries, it was only with recent events in The Ukraine that I was reminded of her………
The house that Elena and her husband and children had once lived in was located at the outskirts of town and finding it was a journey in itself. With our ponchos covering us and our rucksacks, we walked along an unsealed back road, side stepping the pools of water. On either side of the road there were old houses. Horse drawn carts clattered passed in the rain. Eventually we found it: a two story place set back from the road. The lower story was constructed of breeze block and the upper story of weathered, grey wood.
We knocked on the front door as the rain pelted down.
No one came to the door.
There was a path leading around the side, which we tentatively followed, wary of dogs. We were met by the sight of a long backyard neatly apportioned into regular plots, each one sown with some kind of vegetable. On two sides of the backyard were wooden paling fences grey and warped.
Working on one of the plots, filled with potato plants, was an elderly man with a mop of grey hair dressed in blue overalls. He stopped what he was doing when he saw us and came over. He was drenched. He didn’t seem to mind. Only later did we discover that this might have had something to do with the regular consumption of vodka.
He couldn´t speak a word of English – or German or French. Sign language was our only means of communication.
He led us inside to a cavernous kitchen and dining area and flicked a switch whereupon two long fluorescent tubes above an old, very large wooden table in the middle of the room, burst into life. The only windows in the room – and they were small – were high up on the far wall which faced the street. Around the table were wooden chairs, maybe ten of them. In the cupboards above the sink on the wall opposite the windows was a huge number of plates, bowls, cups, cutlery, frying pans and saucepans. At one end of the room was a gas stove and oven and at the other, a fridge and more cupboards.
The kitchen and dining area was meant for a multitude of people but now was inhabited by this lone, elderly man.
He gave us to understand that we could use the kitchen/dining area whenever we wanted. He offered us a glass of vodka which we politely declined and then showed us to our room which was upstairs.
Here we were met by the overwhelming presence of polished pine, the colour of butter. Our room was the first of four bedrooms in a row, the others being unoccupied. Opposite our bedroom was a bathroom. A short way down the passage and opposite the other three rooms was a wide lounge area with some old fashioned chairs, a low coffee table, and beneath a series of windows high up, a row of wooden cupboards with glass doors.
It was a strange situation we found ourselves in: the two of us in that large old house with an elderly man and no means of communication. We saw him in the mornings when we made breakfast and in the evenings, when we cooked dinner.
Over the following days we went on a long walks into the nearby mountains and forests. Sometimes we found ourselves on lonely rural roads walking passed farms, some of which looked almost as run down as the abandoned factories. All the while, the rain continued, sometimes light and sometimes a torrential downpour. In the forests, especially higher up, there a problem with mist.
One afternoon, on a long walk made longer by our talent for getting lost, we came upon a strange sight: in the distance, set back at the end of a narrow unsealed road was an abandoned three story building with rows of dark rectangular holes where once there were windows. It might have been a former hotel except for one detail: in front of it was a statue of Jesus, hands outstretched, as stained by time as the building behind it.
As the days passed and the bad weather continued, my mood sunk and I began mentally counting off the days before we could leave. Then all of that changed miraculously late on the Friday afternoon when wet and bedraggled, we got back – and discovered that a young woman had appeared on the scene who spoke fluent English. She was the granddaughter of the elderly man. Her name was Andrea and she was studying economics in Bucharest and had come home for the weekend. She was tall, slender and casually dressed in loose trousers and T shirt and leather jacket; with her a strong jawline and large black eyes and shock of black hair cut in a punk style and long earrings. She made a striking sight next to the elderly man, who we duly found out was her grandfather and was named ‘Anton’.
Talking to her after days of using sign language was quite a change. It had been Andrea’s idea for Anton to take in guests. Her grandmother had died two years ago and he was left behind like a human shipwreck, alone and disconsolate (so that’s why he was drinking vodka and who could blame him?). With all that room she reasoned, he could easily take in guests, earn some extra money and interact with other people besides the locals in the town. Everything went via the internet which Andrea took care of. It all worked out. The guests were Romanians, so language was never an issue until one day, out of the blue, two foreigners booked.
Which was a good part of the reason why Andrea had made a point of visiting home that weekend.
Did we have any problems, complaints?
The weather, but we didn’t mention that.
Instead we asked her a few questions.
For starters: Why was this house so big given that only one person living here?
Originally she explained a family of six had lived here: her great grandparents and their four children of whom Anton was the first born. The great-grandparents had moved into the house in 1947, before the top story was built. Later, the second story was added. Over the years, as the children had grown up, they had left home and moved to other countries, Italy and France. Anton and his wife and their children had shared the house with her great grandparents; they had died, Anton’s wife had died and their children had gone to Bucharest to study and had stayed there.
Behind the story of the dissolution of the family was more than the march of time and death; there was also the story of the growth of the town, the establishment of factories, child minding services, community sports centres – the panolopy of communist era infrastructure – and then over the decades, the slow and relentless decline and along with it, the loss of hope. The young people had looked elsewhere to find a life and had left.
Elena loomed up in our conversation when we asked Andrea about the abandoned monastery we had seen a few days previous.
We were sitting in the lounge near our room (Andrea was a room further down from ours) and Anton had put a tray on a small table with glasses of vodka. I drank my glass down in one gulp – get it over with – whereupon it was filled again.
‘Monastery?’ she said, ‘It was a convent….my great grandmother Elena lived there before she married my grandfather….’
She retrieved some photo albums from the cupboards under the row of windows and we got lost in the past.
And what a past.
On a few of the pages there were black and white photos of people staring at the camera with grim looks on their faces almost as if they were persons wanted in a police station. Anton came over and pointed to the photo of he and his wife in earlier days when they were much younger.
On one the pages was a photo of Elena. She had an oval face and a strong forehead and long, dark straw coloured hair and her eyes seemed large and full of life. She had died in 2010 at the age of 82 and outlived her husband. Andrea had been close to Elena and she had had long conversations with her before she died. She had a story to tell which she had never told any of the other members of her family. Andea, being third generation, was far enough removed to provide a safe pair of ears, as it were.
The ball started rolling with a seemingly innocuous question:
‘You said that Elena was a nun…then how did she meet her husband then?’
‘After she left the convent at the end of the war.’
‘When did she go into the monastery then?’
‘Why did she leave?’
‘She was raped.’
Whoa. We were entering a different zone here.
‘Her husband raped her?’
‘No! ….the Russians…many women were raped when our country was ‘liberated’, just like in the other Eastern European nations….millions of Russians had died fighting the Nazis and when they arrived in Eastern Europe they went mad….all the nuns in the convent were gang raped. They were easy victims. The nuns who got pregnant gave birth to the children which were then adopted out or sent to an orphanage but Elena…she decided to keep her child, which meant she could no longer be a nun. It was then that she got married. The child she gave birth to …that’s Anton…’
Anton, knocking back the vodka like it was water and oblivious to our conversation.
‘She was raped, she decided to have the child….well did your great grandfather know about this when her married her?’
‘Yes, yes he did, but it didn’t matter to him. He was a communist but he was a good man. He had known Elena from the time he was a boy when they were growing up in Bucharest before the war.’
‘He was in love with her?’
‘No…he was in love with another girl. He met Elena because she was the best friend of this girl.’
Hang on. There were a few loose ends here.
Why would a young man marry a woman who had been raped when he was in love with another woman?
‘The girl who my great grandfather fell in love with and was the best friend of Elena, she was a Jew……’
Elena, like so many other survivors of terrible events, had endured inconceivable cruelties. She and her husband had carried their stories around with them, locked inside, determined never to inflict such horror on their children and grand children. But in her last hours, Elena unburdened herself to Andrea …..