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Interview: Herta Mueller On Growing Up In Ceausescu's Romania

Herta Mueller

Herta Mueller

Romanian-born author Herta Mueller on October 8 won the 2009 Nobel prize for literature. In 1999, Mueller, whose parents were members of the German-speaking minority in Romania, spoke to Mircea Iorgulescu from RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service about growing up under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, her encounters with the secret police, and how her background has shaped her work.

RFE/RL: Your novels all have something in common. They're all set in Romania. This is a paradox or a detail that has been noticed also by the German press. Do you have an explanation for this split between two worlds?

Herta Mueller:
No, this looks very natural to me. I was born in Romania, I grew up there, and I lived there until I was 32. I left Romania in a rather complicated state of mind. I wrote my first books in Romania. My first book was "Niederungen" ["Lowlands"], which is about a child's view of the German Banat [a region in Western Romania]. In that book and in others the central topic is the dictatorship. I knew nothing else. I'd seen nothing else. And I continued with that topic. And I believe there is a kind of literature across the world, the literature of certain biographies, that runs in parallel with extreme events, in parallel with the times of the authors' lives. For example in the 1950s, the gulag was present in Eastern Europe in certain forms. [Or] for instance, the labor camps. And then we have the national-socialist era, Hitler's time, the destruction of the Jews, a topic which many authors have described in parallel with their own biographies.... I believe this type of literature exists everywhere, from Cuba to China."

RFE/RL: So it's not the geographical matter that's the most important to the reader?

No. I don't think the geographic landscape is important. That landscape or environment is necessary -- and I have no other landscape other than the one I know, the one I came from. [My] literary characters reflect what happens to the human being in a totalitarian society or system. And I believe this is not a topic that I chose, but rather one that my life has chosen for me. I don't have that freedom of choice. I cannot say: 'I want to write about that thing, or about that other thing.' I am bound to write about what concerns me and about the things that won't leave me in peace.

RFE/RL: You were born in the early 1950s in the region of Banat in southwestern Romania.

In 1953, the year Stalin died.... Or rather when his body died and was put to rest, because his ideas lived a little bit longer, didn't they?

RFE/RL: Are they still alive today?

Well, yes, I think they're still alive. In many people. Or at least remains of those ideas. Maybe not his whole theory in such a visible form as it was back then, but parts of it.... A lot of stones from that mosaic are still around, I'm sure.

RFE/RL: You have published recently, even this week, I think, in "Der Spiegel," an article about Slobodan Milosevic and Serbia.

It wasn't an article, really, I was questioned among many others.... I was asked what I thought about this war [in Kosovo]. I had spoken about that before, about the previous wars in Bosnia or Croatia, and even back then I was in favor of [Western] military intervention, believing back then that Milosevic would not step back, that he had to be forced to step down by some external power. And this is what I think now too [about Kosovo]. I am outraged by the fact that this person has the chance to wage a third war -- or maybe a fourth, if we count Slovenia -- a person that leaves new cemeteries behind wherever he goes and who has made his country go in a different direction after 1989 [when compared to] the rest of Eastern Europe. I think he has reached a point of no return. He's lost three wars, now he wants to win the fourth, in Kosovo. He probably has Montenegro on his list after that, that must be his next action unless someone stops him. I believe this person, who I believe to be a Stalinist.

Ethnic Mosaic

RFE/RL: Through my question I was trying to take you back to the Banat region, where you were born. It used to be a very diverse place in terms of ethnicity. It used to have German communities, Serbian communities, Romanian communities, Hungarians. It used to be a mosaic which was free of ethnic conflict, if I remember correctly.

I think there was conflict in Banat, but at a "normal" level, so to speak. But then there is conflict between all kinds of people in every society. We all need conflict, deep down. With our neighbors, with our colleagues, with our spouses, which I believe is normal. I think the national minorities you mentioned didn't live together with the Romanians. They lived in the same space with them. This takes me back to the theory of multiculturalism, which was very popular in Germany a decade ago, maybe it still is.... It claims we should all melt into one, become one, but this doesn't work.

RFE/RL: And you were coming to Germany from Ceausescu's Romania, where the password was "homogeneity."

Exactly. I knew what that could mean. So my idea was that the natural way to go is for every community to live peacefully next to the other communities. There is no way you can melt all old cultures into a new one. It simply doesn't work. In Timisoara [the main city in Banat] one can hear on the street all kinds of languages: Romanian, German, Hungarian, Serbian, Romany -- that's how it used to be and that's how it should be. Nobody should hide their culture. When I spoke Romanian on a train, let's say, anyone would know that I was German or Hungarian, because I had an accent. I didn't used to make grammar mistakes in Romanian back then, now they're more frequent, because I lack the practice.

RFE/RL: When you were a child, what did the German community in Banat look like, after the deportations, the purges, and everything?

I was born in 1952. What I remember from my family is that my grandfather was considered a "boier" [landlord]. This is what I had to put down in my papers when I applied for university. He also traded in cereals. So he was pretty wealthy. He had no less than 10 siblings and he remembered his parents worrying about more. "What shall we do if we have more children? How will we feed them?" So my grandfather wasn't born into wealth. He simply worked hard. He was born a peasant and remained a peasant. My grandparents never changed their style, they never took holidays or traveled. If there was money spare, it was used to buy more land.

Labor Camp

RFE/RL: Peasants don't often go on holiday, do they?

Exactly. My grandmother would work from dawn till dusk until she couldn't stand up anymore.... And then there would be maybe more money and more land. They did what they had to do. And then, after 1945, everything was gone. The land was taken by the collective farm. My mother was deported to the USSR. She spent five years in a labor camp, paying for the "collective guilt" of Hitler's deeds. They called that internment "Aufbauarbeit," "reconstruction work". My grandfather never got used to those changes. He was a poor man now. He couldn't go to the barber's three times a week to get shaved, like he used to. And that was no small thing, mind you. That was his social life. He used to go there to meet the community, his peers. It was a ritual which he was forced to give up. What happened to him was socially degrading. And my grandfather, and that whole generation of grandfathers turned outcasts by the new regime, have never ever accepted socialism. Then my mother returned from the USSR in 1950, after five years in the labor camp, after she'd witnessed death and famine..

RFE/RL: Do you know to what region they sent her?

I think it was the Yekaterinburg region. She was on a construction site, there were coal mines nearby. It was a military-style camp, they were under total control, they were harassed. And they were hungry. Chronically hungry. Most of the prisoners died of hunger.

RFE/RL: How old was your mother back then?

She was 17 when they took her away. First she went into hiding. But in a village like hers everyone knew everyone, so the officials, too, knew there was someone hiding, someone they wanted to take away. So they threatened my grandparents that if they didn't turn my mother in, they would take the grandparents instead. My mother found out and she decided to come out and turned herself in.

RFE/RL: So between the ages of 17 and 22 she was in that labor camp?

Yes. And all those events penetrated my childhood. And not only mine, those kinds of things happened to many families, in the whole village, and in the whole German community in Romania. When you're a child you do not think politically. You don't have the notions, and you don't have the words for what happens around you. But there are ways of recording other than words. Our behavior is more complex, it goes beyond words. So I absorbed a lot and I felt that pressure. I felt that something -- although I didn't know what -- was terribly wrong and hostile.

RFE/RL: Where did you go to school?

In Timisoara. In the Iosefin quarter.

RFE/RL: Was the city a big shock, after your village?

Yes, it was a different world. Also because when I came to the city I couldn't speak Romanian properly. I had learnt Romanian at school since the age of seven, but because we had a German school, the Romanian language was a foreign language, or a foreign subject, like geography, or physical science. We had classes of Romanian three times a week: grammar, literature, spelling, and God knows what, but my village was purely German, so I never had an opportunity to use Romanian on a daily basis. Only in school, never outside the school.
The literary circle in 1985. Mueller is second from the left. (From the archive of William Totok.)

So at 15, when I moved to Timisoara, I couldn't really speak the language. But I learned it really fast, in the city, because I had to, I had moved to another language, so to speak. On the other hand, as I said before, every national minority, including the Germans, lived in a kind of "ethno-centricity," which I found natural. Back in the village a German thought he knew exactly what was wrong or negative in a Romanian, a Hungarian, a Serbian, or Gypsy, and the other way around. Then in the city I made friends among the Romanians and I realized that what I knew about Romanians from my family wasn't accurate.

RFE/RL: It didn't match the mythology.

Exactly. And somehow I discovered that all of my previous education, which had been so insulating, didn't serve me anymore, it didn't help me live my life. I found out that if you travel 30 kilometers, what went without saying in your village simply doesn't stand anymore. So I had to start educating myself in a completely new direction.

RFE/RL: But wasn't there a German "island" in Timisoara too?

Yes, but it was not rural. I think city people, all over the world, are different from the people in the village. In Timisoara I had friends from a literary group called "Aktionsgruppe Banat," which I met at university. I met them by accident, reading books and going to literary events. Thank God, at that point I wasn't interested in who's a German, who's a Romanian or a Hungarian. I think all the members of the group were like that. We were interested in opinions, not nationalities. A community of views, or moral and political values, that's what I was seeking out. I hated opportunists. I had a neighbor who was an actress and every year she would recite poems in honor of comrade Ceausescu. She was a German. But that didn't excuse her a bit in my eyes, that was not fundamental. That wasn't essential to me; the mindset was essential.

Writers' Group

RFE/RL: But still, "Aktionsgruppe Banat" was made exclusively of German writers.

Yes, but that's easy to explain. It was a group dealing with literature, and the language of that literature was German. By the way, I wasn't a member of the group, I hadn't started writing when it was established, but I was a friend of many of its members. Later on, when the group published its manifesto, which said literature should not yield to politics, that it should be "critical," based on personal experiences and opinions, not ideology -- then the communist secret police stepped in and presented their own opinion.

RFE/RL: Which was?

That we were enemies, enemies of the state. That's when the trouble started for us. William Totok was sent to jail and kicked out of school, Richard Wagner too. Then there were a number of people who spent some days in custody.... They fired me from the company where I had worked after graduating. Then they started house searches and so on. They saw us as a group. And every one of us was held responsible for the deeds of the others, because that's how they saw us. But going back to the all-German thing, I want to say that many times, when we were planning something, we did contact Romanian writers. For instance when we were collecting signatures for a petition. But there weren't many Romanians who were ready to sign. And sometimes they withdrew their signatures. And that's bad for the organizer of a petition. It's better to have less signatures than have a lot and then be forced to delete them. That weakens your position. It's not always in the numbers, you know, but in staying the course. That happened quite a few times. There was an explanation for that. The Romanian writer would say: "you people are Germans, if anything happens you'll end up in West Germany, but what about us?" That was true to a certain extent, but it wasn't always a good excuse. Anyway, Paul Goma, the Romanian dissident writer, wasn't a German, and he ended up in the West too, after the communists couldn't shut him up. But it's also true that there were others who didn't go abroad. And some of them died in prison.

RFE/RL: There were two German literary groups in Romania, yours in Timisoara, and another one in Cluj. They were less political, right?

Yes, they were. That was the difference. And back then such a difference meant a lot. For us in Timisoara what they were doing in Cluj wasn't enough. We felt we had to be directly political, and they didn't. They were careful to phrase their language so the Securitate, the secret police, couldn't find obvious faults. But we were also in a different situation. We in Timisoara were unemployed, they had kicked us out of our jobs. They had fired me from "Tehnometal," a company making tools and machines. I had worked as a translator of technical terms, about tractors and wires. They would import tractors from East Germany or Austria, sometimes even from West Germany, and I was supposed to translate the user's manual. I never truly understood those matters. I had a huge dictionary, which always gave me some 20 options for the same word. But I used to ask the workers in the factory, they spoke German and Romanian and more importantly they were familiar with the machines. I spent three years in the factory. The first two years in the translation department, then in a different one, a PR department, if you wish.

Secret Police

RFE/RL: Which was probably "designed" by the secret police.

Yes, I realized that later. The Securitate people came in and told me that if we had guests, from Germany for example, after meeting the guests I would have to write down for the Securitate "my impressions." Also, they wanted me to write down what my Romanian colleagues, the specialists, had told the Germans. And they didn't mind if I went out with the foreign guests -- at which I had to tell them I was not a prostitute. Also, I told them that I was bad observer of people, that I had been wrong a thousand times about people. But the Securitate guy said he wasn't interested in that -- he wanted my opinion as it was, an honest, personal opinion. Then he wanted me to write down that I would collaborate and I told him I would not do it.

RFE/RL: And?

He slammed the door and said, "I'll get you into trouble" or "I'll throw you into the water," in Romanian slang. He didn't literally throw me into the water, but there was no peace for me after that. For several weeks I was called every day at 7.30 to the office of my boss to discuss the matter with him and with the Communist Party secretary and the Communist Youth secretary. Every time they told me to resign and look for another job, but I told them I loved working in the factory so much that I couldn't even think of looking for another place. I told them they had to fire me if they wanted to get rid of me, and asked them to also specify in writing the reason why they were firing me. That is, my refusal to collaborate with the secret police, the Securitate. Then I went to talk to the labor union people, to complain, but the union leader didn't even want to listen to me.

What happened was a whole circus of disaster. I can laugh at it now. But then I was close to a nervous breakdown, until they fired me. First they offered me a low-skilled worker's job, but I refused. Then they fired me. I was left without a source of income. My then-husband Richard Wagner had also been fired from his newspaper. And on top of that I was summoned almost daily to the Securitate. And there they didn't even accuse me of the things I was aware of, such as my incident at the factory or my literary activity. They told me I was a prostitute, that I slept for money with Arab students. I had never met an Arab student, but they warned me that they could set up a nice trial, with witnesses and all. They also said I was a dealer in goods that could not be found on the Romanian market.... They said I used to sell things on the Popa Sapca street in Timisoara, which is where the prison was. Maybe they were trying to tell me where I would end up.

RFE/RL: One of your books, "I Don't Want a Meeting Today," is about those kinds of experiences.

Yes, it is about someone who's been summoned to be interrogated but never gets there.

RFE/RL: What is the impact of such books and experiences in West Germany, which didn't experience communism?

Well, I think people are curious in different ways. Some are interested in Romania, others in dictatorship as such. In the mechanics of dictatorship. In the individual who is destroyed by the totalitarian system, by dictatorship. In the former East Germany, I guess the perception is slightly different, they're more informed, so to speak. Today's Germany is still made of two different nations, with different lives. In eastern Germany they are used to a social behavior which is closer to Eastern Europe than to western Germany. There are people in eastern Germany who do not invite me to read from my books because they don't want to talk about communism in a critical way. That's a strong feature of eastern Germany, where they have the postcommunist party, which has a lot of supporters, including people in places of cultural influence.

But then there are also a lot of people in eastern Germany who do invite me. On the whole, I would say eastern Germans have a different kind of reaction to my literature. In western Germany most people have a purely theoretical or documentary interest in my books, so to speak, whereas the easterners are facing in my stories their own past and their own lives. And some people are uncomfortable with that. A lot of times, after reading from my books in eastern Germany, the first thing I hear from an audience is: "But things in Romania were of course much worse than here." And then I tell them: "It depends on how you look at things." The Stasi type, the East German secret police officer, with his Prussian attitude and toughness, scares me just as much as his Balkans colleague, the Romanian Securitate officer. And I also tell them that on the whole the difference between Romanian and German communism isn't as big as some Germans want to believe. I need to say that, and some in the audience don't like that.

RFE/RL: The young writers in your Timisoara group were anticommunist, but also leftist. Is that correct? What's left of that orientation now?

Yes, we were leftists and that enraged the communists even more. Had we proclaimed a rightist platform, it would have been easy for them to call us fascists. But our view was that the kind of socialism we had in Romania was not leftist at all, it was something totally different. We sympathized with the Prague Spring, the Czechoslovak reforms in the late 1960s. And it should not be forgotten that as young Germans we had parents fighting for Hitler. My own father had been with the SS, so we were naturally attracted to the leftist views of the type promoted by the West German social-democrats. We too were preoccupied by the Schuldfrage [the question of guilt], about individual responsibility during the war. To me such questions were important and personal, because they stood between myself and my father, who never talked about his SS experience.

And then I knew that Romania too, as a state, had started the war on Hitler's side, that it had had its own fascism. And it was irritating to me that Romania in the 1950s and 1960s pointed the finger at its minorities for helping Hitler [the Hungarians too], when I knew the whole Romanian state had helped Hitler. The official line became: Germans-fascists, Hungarians-fascists, Romanians-liberators alongside the Red Army, on the side of the good. So things were really messed up.

But to go back to our leftist beliefs under communism, I want to say that unlike some leftists in the West we never believed in China's Cultural Revolution, we didn't take to the streets chanting "Ho Chi Min." Because we had plenty of that in our own lives, at home. Such slogans couldn't fool us. But I do admit that back then I believed in a reformed type of socialism, with a human face. Now I can look back and say: "God I was stupid." Now I know that one cannot reform socialism, that is must be removed. You can see that even now in Cuba or in China, or in Serbia, not to mention North Korea. Socialism cannot be reformed. If you reform it to make it democratic, it's not socialism anymore. And minor changes and adjustments, that's all stupid.

RFE/RL: Many of the young German-Romanian writers from the days of your youth are now well-known in Germany.

Yes, there's quite a few of us.... And it is generally admitted now in Germany that there is a part of German literature that comes from Romania and from the East. Nothing more, nothing less. Our books are neither worse nor better than those of the writers who've lived all their lives in Germany. We are what we are, and that's how it should be.

Translated from Romanian by Mircea Ticudean

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