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Heroes and Victims: Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania

Heroes and Victims: Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania

by Maria Bucur-DeckardMaria Bucur-Deckard


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Heroes and Victims explores the cultural power of war memorials in 20th-century Romania through two world wars and a succession of radical political changes—from attempts to create pluralist democratic political institutions after World War I to shifts toward authoritarian rule in the 1930s, to military dictatorships and Nazi occupation, to communist dictatorships, and finally to pluralist democracies with populist tendencies. Examining the interplay of centrally articulated and locally developed commemorations, Maria Bucur's study engages monumental sites of memory, local funerary markers, rituals, and street names as well as autobiographical writings, novels, oral narratives, and film. This book reveals the ways in which a community's religious, ethnic, economic, regional, and gender traditions shaped local efforts at memorializing its war dead.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253221346
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 11/20/2009
Series: Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies Series
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Maria Bucur is John W. Hill Chair in East European History and Associate Professor of History at Indiana University Bloomington. She is author of Eugenics and Modernization in Interwar Romania and editor (with Nancy M. Wingfield) of Gender and War in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe (IUP, 2006).

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Heroes and Victims

Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania

By Maria Bucur

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2010 Maria Bucur
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35378-8



Mourning and Commemorative Practices before 1914

In the elaborate burial rituals observed for many centuries by the mostly Orthodox populations of southeastern Europe, mourning was a central element, and the prescriptions for who could perform the task were precise:

The wailers [would be] women, or girls, because only they are entitled by custom to cry for the dead, usually the closest or more removed relatives of the departed: mothers, wives, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, goddaughters, and the godmothers of one's child, as well as those who had remained in amicable relations with the dead. But the first in line are always the mothers and wives. If the dead doesn't have any close relatives versed in the art of wailing to cry for him, then women from the village who have made a profession out of this, and who deserve the real title of mourners, wailers, or incense burners will be hired.

After the body was interred, for six weeks "a girl would be hired to bring water to different houses, for the soul of the departed." At the six week mark, "when the second almsgiving [pomana] for the dead is to take place, the mother, sister, cousin, or another woman from the family takes an offering of warm bread, a black rooster or hen, then a few hot embers in a small container, together with some incense, a scarf in whose corners she ties a few coins, as well as a wax candle and then goes to the well" to offer them to the girl who had been hired to commemorate the soul of the departed by bringing water to neighbors. An elaborate almsgiving meal and ceremony would follow, and for seven years after the death of a family member, families, especially women, would continue to perform specific rituals to ensure the peaceful passage of the dead into the afterlife. After that, the memory of dead ones would be kept alive by visits to the grave throughout the year and almsgiving in their name during religious ceremonies dedicated to the memory of the dead.

I offer this extended description of burial rituals by way of suggesting two important components of mourning and commemorating the dead among Romanians and other populations in eastern Europe: the cult of the dead was a central component of these cultures and societies, especially among the Orthodox, and included both religious and semi-pagan elements so elaborate as to suggest a life-long learning process in order to master them; and funerary rituals were fundamentally gendered, with women playing specific gender roles at every step of the way not only as followers, but also as central gatekeepers of the passage into afterlife.

This chapter describes the context that framed the cultural practices of burial, mourning, and commemorating that developed after World War I. Though there were unprecedented developments in the realm of mourning and commemorating the dead all over Europe after 1918, I contend that they were fundamentally shaped by the types of traditional practices described here. This is not a startling claim in itself, as Jay Winter, for instance, made the notion of continuity rather than break a central component in his argument in Sites of Memory. The difference rests in the actual traditions discussed here, as well as their relationship with efforts by monarchs and other state representatives to coax such traditions into mobilizing practices on behalf of either the nation or the empire. The localized and centralized actions I focus on are far less interconnected than was the case in Great Britain or France, for instance. Burial, mourning, and death rituals were a site of intense, constant cultural production and reproduction in the mostly rural societies of eastern Europe before the twentieth century, contrasting and competing with newly emerging nationalist and imperial ones, which attempted to construct new bonds of loyalty and legitimacy between rulers and the ruled. The two realms of commemorative practices coexisted, largely unconnected at the local level, with the state pursuing certain symbols and practices, while local communities followed their own traditional practices or offered local inflections on new commemorative symbols.

The Religious Landscape

Death was a central reality and cultural leitmotif in the life of the people inhabiting eastern Europe, and especially, my main focus here, in what became Romania starting in the late nineteenth century. This is not an unusual feature for an overwhelmingly rural and greatly religious population. In cultures with an experience of short life spans and great earthly hardships, religious beliefs and rituals surrounding death have played a prominent role to provide relief in the face of frequent death and the hope for a better afterlife. Some scholars have gone so far as to say that "what we call culture is nothing else than an ensemble of beliefs and rituals created to fight the subversive effects of individual or collective death." Louis-Vincent's statement above, though hyperbolic in its claims, does reflect the intense obsession of rural populations in eastern Europe with the cult of the dead. In the pages below I assert that death rituals and other means communities employed to keep alive the memory of beloved dead ones give us important insights into how people dealt with violent death during the world wars of the twentieth century.

In this broader context the specifics of Romania are worth remembering for their complexity, which renders this case comparable with others in Europe, while underscoring its uniqueness. At the turn of the twentieth century, over 85 percent of the population of Romania and Transylvania lived in villages lacking most modern amenities and services, from running water to schools and healthcare. This picture holds true more for ethnic Romanians, who were more likely to live in such rural settings, than for Hungarians, Germans, and Jews. These populations also had their share of rural living (over 50 percent) but had become more urbanized than ethnic Romanians. Still, the vast majority of people inhabiting the future Greater Romania lived much closer to the cyclical rhythms of agriculture and to the core values of their religious identity than to the more cosmopolitan and secular culture developing in cities. This is also true for most of eastern Europe, broadly speaking, with the exception of the more urbanized Bohemian lands in the Habsburg empire.

The core cultural practices of these populations varied over the territory that became Greater Romania after 1918. They generally reflected local understandings of the religious identification of the inhabitants, spanning Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Greek Catholicism (the Uniates), Protestantism of various kinds (especially Calvinist, Unitarian, and Lutheran), Judaism of various degrees of orthodoxy, and even some remnants of Islam. Almost all ethnic Romanians were Orthodox or Greek-Catholic Christians, and the rural population was overwhelmingly illiterate, including the clergy. This meant that their religious practices were closely connected to local popular interpretations of the religious dogma, which often included many elements of pagan ritual. There were great similarities in this regard between these populations and other Orthodox Christians living in the Russian and Habsburg empires, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. In addition, a sizeable fraction of the ethnic Romanians in Transylvania were Greek Catholic and adhered to some Orthodox Christian dogma, with the changes that had been introduced with the creation of this institution of religious compromise in the seventeenth century—mostly liturgical and theological. In fact, the descriptions of the rituals regarding burial and remembering the dead offered above encompass the practices of the Greek-Catholics in this area as well. Similarities in this regard could be found in the Ukrainian regions that had embraced the Uniate Church during the same period.

The large Hungarian minority that lived in Transylvania was divided between Catholics and Protestants, with an additional small but growing section of acculturated Hungarian-speaking Jews, who in the nineteenth century either were converting religiously, or at least taking up some Hungarian cultural practices, embracing Magyarization more readily than Slovaks and Romanians. Transylvania had been a stronghold of Calvinism in the early modern period and remained so in part until the twentieth century. Hungarians also tended to be better educated and to remain more closely observant of their churches' strict dogma, for various reasons—the clergy were more educated, and the Catholic Church in particular had played a major role in secular education, thus ensuring that successive generations of believers possessed a good theological foundation for their religious beliefs and practices, something that was similar to Catholic Poles. Overall, both the Protestant churches, due to their specific theological underpinnings, and the Catholic Church, especially after the counter-Reformation, were more preoccupied with retaining a greater degree of adherence to their dogma than the Orthodox Church. Yet especially in rural areas, Hungarians developed their own elaborate rituals linked to death. Funerary markers in parts of Transylvania were erected to represent the life story of the buried person, a kind of transposition of that individual into a moral typology of the eternal. Some burial rituals also embodied some of the complexity of practices observed more often among the Orthodox; the burial of young maidens as brides was similar to the practice best described in Kligman's Wedding of the Dead.

A smaller German-speaking minority also comprised a mix of Protestants (especially Lutherans) and Catholics, most of whom lived in self-enclosed communities, alongside rather than in direct communication with their Hungarian coreligionists, and even more isolated (in terms of identity and cultural practices) from their Romanian neighbors. These German populations were located in a few of the larger cities in Transylvania (Hermannstadt/Nagyszeben/Sibiu, Kronstadt/Brasso/Bra^ov, and Temesvar/Temeswar/Timisoara), and also in small rural communities on the edge of the Carpathians. The burial rituals among the German Lutherans remained simple; one cannot speak of a rich ritualistic cult of the dead in these communities.

Catholics, both German and others (Hungarian, Romanian, and Csango), remained more dedicated in their cult of the dead than Protestants, much as in the rest of the world. The Day of the Dead, 1 November, remained dedicated to the annual remembrance of the dead, and Catholics would often celebrate this holiday through cemetery visits, special alms to the poor, and offerings of food with biblical connotations. Women were almost always those who prepared these offerings, but both men and women participated in the ceremonies. Catholic cultural practices were less elaborate and showed less ritualistic preoccupation with remembering the dead than the Orthodox, as observers of Catholic and Orthodox communities have commented.

Finally, there was a large and growing presence of followers of Judaism, who varied in their degree of assimilation in the host communities (much greater in urban Transylvania among Hungarian speakers than anywhere else), as well as in specific observance of orthodox beliefs and practices of their religion. There were strictly Orthodox Jewish shtetls in proximity to reformed communities. In addition, there was also a mix of Sephardic Jews in the south and Ashkenazis in the north, who differed from each other in some of their practices and traditions. The Jewish population of Romania and Transylvania encompassed some of the best-educated and most secularized individuals to grace the urban landscape, along with tiny and isolated rural communities, much as in the Habsburg and Russian empires, in the territories of partitioned Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary.

Jewish commemorations of the dead were framed by the Torah and rabbinical authority, but they also took on local color. The rituals surrounding sitting shivah and saying Kaddish for a dearly departed also involved performative elements strictly delineated, from embalming the corpse and presenting it by the mourners to dress (e.g., cutting of the lapel/tie for men) and actions to be taken by the mourners, and finally to the burial itself. In Jewish communities in both the Habsburg empire and the Romanian state, various chevra kadisha societies were entrusted with taking care of these details. These were tasks to be performed in strict accordance with rabbinical authority, and men were exclusively both the authority figures and the performers of most tasks. Women also played a vocal, albeit secondary role in this ritual, as they were the mourners.

In addition, in Judaism, religious holidays have a core commemorative element. Therefore, though not strictly commemorating one's dead, all holidays from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur were occasions for remembering both events and ancestors from the distant past and also one's own kin. The emphasis of Judaism on remembrance and identification with one's ancestors was unique among the religious practices in the area. The Orthodox cult of the dead was somewhat similar to it, though the emphasis in Orthodoxy was much more on allowing the dead to depart peacefully into the afterlife than on maintaining an active memory of one's remote ancestors.

Taken separately, the features of each of these ethnic and religious communities resemble others across Europe. But it is their close juxtaposition in this Babel's Tower of religious and ethnic identities that makes the context of territories to be controlled by Romania after 1918 in a way illustrative, but also unique. This religious diversity suggests that practices related to mourning and burial varied across this territory, largely dependent on the religious and other traditions of each local community.

An important additional factor for understanding the commemorative/death practices in this area is the privileged official role granted to some religions in the different states that controlled these territories. In the Habsburg empire, which controlled Transylvania, the Banat, and Bukovina, Catholicism remained the most important religion, for the Habsburg emperor had also been the Holy Roman emperor for centuries, a purely symbolic title but one that reflected the desire of the Habsburg emperors to fashion themselves protectors of Catholics everywhere. However, Protestant denominations were also considered accepted religions, and in Transylvania they received full recognition and financial support from Budapest, unlike the Orthodox Church, for instance. In the Russian empire (the relevant area here is Bessarabia) it was Orthodoxy that reigned supreme, at the expense of Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and especially Jews. In the areas under the control of the young Romanian state, though headed by a Catholic king (Charles I), the Orthodox Church had established itself securely as the official religion, pursuing severely prohibitive policies toward other religions, especially Judaism.

Given the antagonistic policies of these states toward some of their religious minorities, as well as tense relations on the ground among these different ethno-religious groups, adhering to one's specific religious practices was a valuable form of preserving one's self-identification with the immediate community. Burial practices were central among these rituals. For most religions, those closest to the dead (kinfolk and close friends) rather than a more widely sanctioned entity had to take care of these needs. These conditions generally ensured that in the countryside, burial and mourning practices remained largely unchanged for the early modern to modern period until World War I, when abrupt and vast changes in the political geography of this area, as well as the mass experience of violent death, forced important changes in the ways rural communities related to the state in terms of the cult of the dead.

Political Background and Royal Commemorative Practices

A brief background of the political and social geography of these territories at the turn of the twentieth century is also in order, before delving into the specifics of the burial and commemorative practices at that time. Over the nineteenth century, official practices attempted to establish state-sponsored rituals that would incorporate religious traditions into a new register of mobilizing citizens in the service of the state (most often in the person of the monarch or emperor). What developed after 1918 in the realm of official commemorative discourses was, in the case of the Romanian state, a continuation of these practices and, in some cases in Habsburg Transylvania and Bukovina, the most important parts of what became Romania in the twentieth century, a rejection. In this section I focus on the young Romanian kingdom itself, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.

Romania became a state after the 1856 Paris peace conference held at the end of the Crimean War. As a sidebar to the scuffle among the Great Powers, two Ottoman empire vassal principalities, Walachia and Moldavia (also known as the Romanian Principalities), came under discussion. The Russian empire had been extending its indirect but powerful influence into the Romanian Principalities since the 1830s, and the Romanians had become anxious to step back from this tight embrace. The Romanian Principalities as a joint venture ruled by Alexandru Ioan Cuza (1820–1870) emerged on 24 January 1859.


Excerpted from Heroes and Victims by Maria Bucur. Copyright © 2010 Maria Bucur. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Memory Traces: On Local Practices of Remembering and Commemorating
1. Death and Ritual: Mourning and Commemorative Practices before 1914
2. Mourning, Burying, and Remembering the War Dead: How Communities Coped with the Memory of Wartime Violence, 1918-1940
3. Remembering the Great War through Autobiographical Narratives
4. The Politics of Commemoration in Interwar Romania, 1919-1940: Dialogues and Conflicts
5. War Commemorations and State Propaganda under Dictatorship: From the Crusade against Bolshevism to Ceausescu's Cult of Personality, 1940-1989
6. Everyone a Victim: Forging the Mythology of Anti-Communism Counter-Memory
7. The Dilemmas of Post-Memory in Post-Communist Romania

Selected Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

Georgetown University - Charles King

An important book by one of the major emerging voices in east European studies.

University of New Mexico - Melissa Bokovoy

Heroes and Victims demonstrates not only how individual, local, and national discourses of remembrance have operated in the complex geopolitical and ethnic world of 20th-century Romania but also how and why post-communist Romanians and others in the 21st century have moved to a post-memory discourse.

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