/26 Habitare

David Leventi

Romania

I found myself sitting in a wooden hut making an effort to down another swig. The dirty plastic bottle labeled American cola was the only object keeping me in this century. It was filled with tuica, a clear fiery plum brandy. Like the village, the old man, my drinking companion, seemed unchanged since the days of the Ottoman Empire. I had come following the story of my great-grandfather, who had been imprisoned here in Romania for seven years as a dissident.

“Romania Revisited” retraces my great-grandfather’s footsteps into an unexpected past. Based on stories told by my father and grandmother, I traveled to Romania with a 4x5” large format view camera, collecting lost memories on a journey through a country now struggling to put behind it a lifespan of tyranny, while all the best and brightest who dared or were able to left.

I went to Sighet prison first. The building stands as a concrete eyesore in the green tranquil landscape. It was here that in 1948 the victorious communists imprisoned their political opponents. Now, the prison is the museum of the resistance to communism. The walls have been whitewashed. Children on school trips run about aimlessly. I asked the curator if they knew of Asra Berkovitz my great-grandfather. They were shocked that I had come from America - I became an instant celebrity by default. They knew more about him than I did. My great-grandfather had been a senator and publisher of a liberal newspaper. The curator showed me his cell, where Iuliu Maniu, the former prime minister, had died in his arms. She pointed out the black and white portrait of my great-grandfather on the wall - the same one my grandmother has on her night table.

Drink, the old woman gestured to encourage me. After our drink together, the old man appointed himself my guide and guardian…