Jaap Scholten, a Dutch writer and journalist, moved to Hungary in 2003. His book Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy is his first work of non-fiction and traces the lives of members of the Transylvanian aristocracy before and after March 1949, when the collectivisation of agriculture under the new communist regime included the expropriation and deportation of all large landowners.
Comrade Baron was released in the Netherlands in 2010, where it won the Libris History Prize 2011 and was shortlisted for the Bob den Uyl Prize for best travel book 2011. The Budapest Times spoke to Scholten on the occasion of the book’s publication in English by Corvina Kiadó this month.
Comrade Baron has a strong historical basis, using the expulsions of 3 March 1949 for many of the chapters that relate the lives of Transylvanian aristocrats before and after that date. But it is also the account of a personal journey you took through that world, from your first visit to Romania in 1991 right up to the launch of your book this month. How did you come to the topic in the first place?
I first came to Transylvania in 1991 and have since been back some 15 times. I fell in love with it, its nature, its beauty but also its ethnic history mixing Hungarians, Romanians, Germans and other smaller minorities. The Romanian central government is not too fond of the Hungarian minority so there isn’t much money flowing from Bucharest to Transylvania for infrastructure and so on, but for a foreigner that has the upside that it’s like an unchanged landscape. There are valleys that are completely medieval, even in agricultural terms. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Europe that I know.
The other reason, which I also encountered in 1991, comes from visits to Ilonka’s [Scholten’s wife] grandmother in Leányfalu. I heard all these stories from her grandmother, friends and family about the nobility, what happened to them in Hungary, how they survived communism and about the complete change from the semi-feudal country existing before the communists came to power, and thought someone should collect those stories.
As a writer, I use a fair amount of autobiographical material and I’ve had a lot of trouble with my family over that, so I felt at the time that I should stay away from that material from my family in law. Five years ago I realised that, as people were dying out, that whole archive of knowledge about a world that is gone was disappearing. That was the moment I felt I should start collecting these stories to write a book.
As the situation changed and fewer people remained who could tell the story, you decided to enrol at the Central European University’s Department of Social Anthropology to research the topic.
I had to hurry because all that generation that had memories of times before communism was dying out even as I did my research. I interviewed some fifty people, nine of which were deported during that night.
I knew I wanted to do a thesis, then a book for a general audience – that’s now Comrade Baron – and also a documentary. That turned into a six-part series for Dutch television on hidden worlds in Central Europe.
My thesis at Central European University concentrated on how people kept, mostly in a secretive way, an identity that was not allowed to exist. After that night in March aristocrats did hard labour, working in mines for instance, and had nothing left because all their property had been destroyed, expropriated or robbed, but still they kept their language, their elegance, their humour and behaviour. For me it was a beautiful poetic and literary idea that these people were trying to keep a world alive that no longer existed.
The book doesn’t focus so much on how that identity was maintained as on memories of that night itself, on aristocrats’ relations with the world around them and on their attempts to hide their identity from the outside world.
It is a completely different task to write a book for a general audience, so there isn’t much overlap between the thesis and the book. Still, my material was very much the same: the 25 hours of recorded interviews I did for my thesis made up the core but I picked out different aspects. I decided to make it into a sort of travel story with three parts on times before, during and after communism. The interviews are organised according to the part where they fit and it feels as if they were the result of one visit but in reality there was much more travelling.
How much of these testimonies by Transylvanian aristocrats did you have to leave out?
A lot. I tried to interview a lot of people, not just aristocrats but also nobility, a few Romanians – people who research the Securitate and archives – and professors from Central European University who have a completely different outlook on the issue.
The biggest problem was that I had an awful amount of material, some of it repetitive, and there are people I left completely out of the book. Using the material without getting too repetitive was a lot of work but at the same time I had to make people feel that this is what happened.
Because everybody was deported on the same night it’s a very important date in family identity and even people in their thirties, who were only ten or so when the revolution threw Ceausescu out, can tell exactly what happened to their family on that night. I think the communists realised very well they had to do this, to make clear that there was never going to be a way back. Destroying everything was a very symbolic deed and yet that’s what happened. There was a complete, clean cut with the past.
Did you see your role as one of getting people to know certain aspects of their history and to change how they see their past, or did you simply write the book because, as a writer, you thought the subject was interesting?
The book was started, like all my books, from a personal obsession but I hope that the people who read it will, even if on a very small scale, know the history and what happened. People still have a much too positive idea of communism, especially in Western Europe and in the Netherlands. They don’t know what a horrendous system it was, how people were tortured and how the whole society was, in my view, destroyed. In the Netherlands, when you say someone is a fascist or a Nazi it is a very bad thing but communism is seen as some kind of idealism. To me that is not correct.
Ana Blandiana [a dissident Romanian poet of the communist period] says that “Memory must be a road not only to the past but also to the future”, and I think that to know the true history of your country and your people is extremely important, both in the West and here. It is very important for this country, for Romania and for the whole region that books are written not just about aristocrats but also about the peasants and the communists, because only when you realise who you are and where you are coming from, only if you are willing to face the past, can there be a healthy society. A lot of unhealthy things in former communist countries have to do with people not knowing the history well enough.
In its Hungarian (but English-language) edition your book targets a fairly specific audience, since these will be people who already read English, who might already be open to having an idea of their past that is different from what they might have been taught under communism.
I promised to several, mostly of the older people I interviewed, that the book wouldn’t be in Hungarian or Romanian but I think in a few years it will also come out in Hungarian. As a writer I don’t think I will change the world but in a very small way it’s possible to bring some nuance into how things are seen. That’s very much what happened in the Netherlands. I sold over 20,000 copies, which is already a large amount. People who read books are often the ones who make the opinion. There it has already influenced how people look at Transylvania and Hungary.
You mention in the preface that several of the people you interviewed requested that their name and what they said be mentioned neither in Hungarian nor in Romanian as they feared retaliation. What were they afraid of?
The older people are still afraid of the secret service, which still has an important influence on the economy because they had all the information and all the assets. People are afraid that property that they got back under the restitution process will again be expropriated, or that the procedure will be cancelled because of something they said that is in the book. That’s why a few of the people are only named under pseudonyms. Their fear is not completely unrealistic: the former royal family of Romania got some property back but then it was expropriated again.
Also there’s a lot of continuity from the old regime because jobs in the police, in the security services, in the legal system get kept in the family. In the same way that loyalty to the family is really strong among aristocrats, children and grandchildren of Securitate personnel will also protect their parents and grandparents. I think it will help a lot when the generation who have blood on their hands and those who were tortured dies out.
But also it was very important under communism to stay under the radar because it was easy to send someone to the camps if they already had a file against them. I can very well understand the desire not to be known: there’s no real upside and only the risk of a downside. Returning property is really, in the end, the decision of the local governments. Throughout the former communist world many of these local governors act like little pashas, and together with the fact that these Transylvanian aristocrats are Hungarians it can be a long struggle to get back property.
The three major parts of the book are named after the three volumes of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian trilogy. Bánffy was himself a Transylvanian aristocrat and an ancestor of many of the people you interviewed for your book. The trilogy was published between 1934 and 1940 and traces through semi-fictitious characters the decline of the aristocracy before the First World War, hence the sequel of titles: “They were counted”, “They were found wanting”, “They were divided”. You actually reverse the latter two: what does that mean in terms of your assessment of Transylvanian aristocracy and its prospects today?
Bánffy realised very well both that many things had to change and that the end of his world was getting close. That was reflected in his increasingly ominous titles. I only changed the sequence. The first part, “They were counted”, is about life before the change. “They were divided” is what was physically done with them and with the whole society. One of the basic techniques under communism is division, separation. One of my interviewees told me that one of the most horrible things about the whole situation was to be walking on the street and see old schoolfriends turn away rather than be in contact with you, because that would be bad for their own lives. Every dictatorship always starts with separation.
I gave the title “They were found wanting” to the last part because, to me, the younger generation was needed to come back to try and do something. There’s a lost generation, a middle generation that doesn’t have the memories of the good old days before communism but is also too old to adjust to the kind of democracy that exists now in Hungary and Romania. Often the grandparents tell the young generations about the old life, and it’s that generation that has the energy, the openness to try to build up something and to be true to the family tradition.
It is a hard struggle and only a few separate individuals choose that romantic but also tough and often quite lonely life. To me it is very positive that they do that. A large majority of the Transylvanian aristocrats live in diaspora and it’s a pity that not more return, because those who do bring back a lot of culture, a healthy sense of morality and a proactive attitude that is lacking after communism.
Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy
by Jaap Scholten. Corvina Kiadó, 2013
404 pages, HUF 3990
The book is available at Bestsellers (District V, Október 6 u. 11) and at Massolit (District VII, Nagy Diófa u. 30).