In 1987, I was invited by Colonel Donor (I would tease him about his name—that he was neither), to be a board member of his International Church Relief Fund, based in Santa Rosa, California. He asked me to direct the organization’s relief work in eastern Europe, with special attention upon Hungary and Romania. I made four trips there, beginning in 1990, shortly after the Cold War ended, when all the former iron curtain countries severed their subservience to the former USSR.
My work consisted of overseeing, through local churches and government agencies, the distribution of the food, medical supplies and clothing allocated to those countries. The copious and much appreciated supplies were delivered by 18-wheelers that were loaded in Amsterdam and driven to southeastern Europe. The two-day drive took us through the Netherlands, Germany’s autobahn with no speed limit, Austria, to our first drop off in Budapest, Hungary, followed by our final destination in Timisoara, Romania. I toured the historic cities of Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna and Budapest. I worked with many Orthodox, Reformed and Evangelical church leaders, who facilitated the relief work to their communities. Several invited me to speak, through translators, in their churches.
My most notable trip to Romania was in the spring of 1990, shortly after the December, 1989 revolution, when they deposed the Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu to begin democratic reforms. Ceauşescu, a onetime darling of the West for his anti-Kremlin stance, was a megalomaniac who constructed a hideously gargantuan monument celebrating his rule while destroying Bucharest’s historic neighborhoods, outlawed abortion to increase Romania’s population, and pursued an autarchic economic policy that led to hardships worse than anywhere in Eastern Europe. Obsessed with paying off the country’s debt, Ceauşescu sold much of the country’s raw materials to foreign creditors, leading to extreme shortages of food, heating, and electricity. During Romania’s winters, hundreds froze to death inside their dimly lit apartments, or died of asphyxiation as gas stoves were shut off, then turned back on without warning, filling sleeping apartments with gas.
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For publication I interviewed the Hungarian Reformed pastor, László Tőkés, whose courage in the face of resistance, would foment the revolution from his church in Timisoara and bring an end to the 42 years of Communist rule in Romania. It was the last removal of a Marxist–Leninist government in a Warsaw Pact country during the events of 1989, and the only one that violently overthrew a country’s leadership and executed its leader. Pastor Tőkés told me how the miraculous revolution began with protests by the discriminated Hungarian minority in response to an attempt by the government to evict him. Many Romanians sought the overthrow of Ceaușescu in light of similar events in neighboring nations. This would be the first time that sufficient numbers of Romanians would not shrivel in fear from the omnipresent and dreaded secret police force, the Securitate. That ostensibly all-knowing and all-listening force had psychologically paralyzed the populace by brutally crushing dissent and violently quashing resistance to Ceaușescu.
“What precipitated the revolution,” Tokes explained, “was Ceauşescu exercising a stranglehold on religious expression and interfering in all aspects of church life.” In July 1989, the Hungarian State TV, broadcast an interview with Tőkés, who criticized the Securitate and Ceauşescu. Tőkés’ subversionary remarks led to his state-controlled bishop ordering his expulsion. The Securitate had his electricity cut at home, but parishioners continued to provide for him. Some parishioners and his father were arrested, several were beaten up, and one was found dead. In November, four attackers armed with knives broke into his flat, while Securitate agents looked on as he, and his friends fought off the assailants. In December, the Securitate order his eviction, but parishioners began a vigil outside his flat that mushroomed to a human chain around the block. Demonstrations continued the next two days and on December 17, the army fired into the crowd, killing seventeen. The next day, thousands of industrial workers in Timisoara peacefully took up the protest and news of the protests and the violent government crackdown spread across Romania triggering protests throughout the country. Ceauşescu fled on December 22, was apprehended by defecting soldiers and on Christmas day, he was tried and executed.
The interview I conducted with pastor Tokes, and the subsequent article on Romania, were reprinted by several publications. I made one more trip the following year with filmmaker John Upton, who together with actress Jessica Lange, was instrumental in exposing the decrepit conditions of Romanian orphans that I also wrote about and visited.
The Romanian people were some of the friendliest and most hospitable that I have ever met. They are animated story tellers and politically opinionated, with a good sense of humor. Most of my time was in western Romania which has a concentration of Hungarian and German minorities. There, due to its history under Austrian-Hungarian rule, you see a lot of Gothic architecture. I frequently ate with Romanian families, and the fare consisted of soups with meat, vegetables, and noodles, thick cabbage soup, pork stew with lots of garlic and onions, and stuffed cabbage leaves. My favorite dessert was saraille, an almond-flavored cake covered in syrup.
Lászlo Tökés. 1989 and 2020
I now understand that Timisoara, which was declared the first city free of Communism in Romania, has mutated from its diverse and multicultural Habsburg past to become a solidly Romanian city. I was saddened to hear that Lászlo Tökés, the priest who initiated what led to the toppling of the Ceauşescu dictatorship, has become a member of the political party led by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s autocratic leader and promoter of the ethnically pure “illiberal democracy” movement that is so popular with conservatives everywhere.
Joseph McAuliffe has been a hippie, a preacher, a fundraiser for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcast Network and a campaign worker for both Republicans and Democrats. Joseph’s first ministery began when he started a church right on the campus at Bowling Green State University, and it grew to become one of the largest non-denominational churches in northwest Ohio. After fifteen years there he went on to pastor at Tampa Covenant Church in Carrollwood. Joseph’s keen interest in higher education drew him to USF, where he now serves as Manager of Education Programming for OLLI. Joseph holds a Masters Degree in History, and in addition to his work on staff with OLLI he teaches history courses for the OLLI curriculum.
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