My Transylvanian Family

In 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of a 40-year Cold War to the jubilation of millions around the world. But how many of us have a personal story of the struggle, heartbreak, despondency, and alienation endured by individuals caught between two opposing political ideologies during that period? Little did I know what I would learn about this subject when I first moved to Europe in 1982 to begin my performing career at a German opera house.

Early on I met a tall, impressive bass, an ethnic Hungarian from Transylvania (formerly a part of Hungary ceded to Romania after WWII) with an unusual last name and charismatic demeanor. Gabor’s excellent English language skills immediately drew him into my burgeoning circle of expat friends. As time went on, I heard his personal story. I learned he had been forced to leave his home in Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár), abandoning his family, (yet hoping they would eventually find a way to rejoin him in the west) because the state police of Romania, the Securitate, regarded him as an excellent recruitment target for espionage efforts beyond the Iron Curtain. For months he had been granted permission to work as an opera singer in Switzerland, but on one visit home the hammer fell, and he faced a choice: spy or leave. He fled on an overnight train, stopping only briefly in the border town of Oradea to bid farewell to his brother, a physician with an adult autistic son. Even though his wife’s Swabian (Schwaben) heritage would have afforded her immediate refugee status and eventual German citizenship, Edi refused to leave her elderly, blind mother and chose not to follow him, remaining in Romania to care for her and raise their two young children.

Our professional environment provided steady opportunities to work together in a dizzying array of fascinating opera productions. Over the years our friendship and personal connection grew stronger, giving me a front-row seat to the emotional roller coaster of his life. I was there to pick up the pieces after rare, bugged, truncated phone conversations with his two teenaged children and now-estranged ex-wife, or on days when he received a hidden letter integrated into a Hungarian newspaper that managed to get through security dragnets. Over time the distance from his family grew into alienation, resentment, shame and hopelessness. Nevertheless, our careers flourished and life in the west moved on. We married at the end of 1988.

Left: Theresa in Unverhoffte Begegnung by Haydn
Right: Gabor as Hagen in the Wagner Ring Cycle

Then came 1989. Poland was the first country to break away from the East Bloc. Hungary was next to fall out of line; after that further rumbling occurred in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Sadly, Romania was firmly under the thumb of the authoritarian despot Ceaușescu and his wife Elena. And East Germany seemed like an insurmountable monolithic barrier. But then a miracle occurred. Shocked, not daring to really hope, we watched brave Eastern Germans chip away at the Berlin Wall until one day, it came tumbling down. And with that the Iron Curtain collapsed. A few weeks later, just before Christmas, emboldened Romanians encircled Ceaușescu and his wife, arrested them and executed them at gunpoint. I clearly remember Gabor videotaping the news that day with the images of the deceased dictator lying in a courtyard. He would repeatedly stop the tape, rewind and replay and then focus in on the image of the lifeless man. “I want to be sure he’s dead,” he said.

Left: Execution of Elena and Nicolai Ceaușescu
Right: Preserved chalk outlines in courtyard

With Ceaușescu gone, we decided to drive to Romania to visit the family. Ten years had elapsed. They were now young adults, and in fact his son was married with a baby daughter. We filled our Mazda Miata with electronics, clothing, appliances and so much food: hands of bananas, entire pork loins, vegetables, dry goods, and fruits and sweets of every description. Because Gabor had a refugee passport and was not permitted to cross into Austria, we routed through Czechoslovakia and Hungary. He purchased cartons of cigarettes and one-way lighters that we left on the driver’s seat at each border crossing. After a short inspection we were waved through: the cigarettes facilitated our entry. I was gob smacked!

Eni and Zsolt, Romania 1990

Upon arrival the entire extended family assembled to greet us. They lived in large gray apartment blocks; heat and hot water were only available for two hours each morning and two hours each evening. In the winter dampness, black mold grew on the walls—an apt accompaniment to a pervasive aura of sadness stemming from years of hardship and struggle. But the family shook off the discomfort, obviously buoyed by a sense of hope and long-awaited change. They were unguarded, warm, and welcoming, and everyone shared the bounty we had brought with us. Every scrap of paper, every plastic bag, every empty water bottle was taken and reused by someone. And despite the poverty and lack of supplies, we shared beautiful meals and unforgettable moments. Of course, I couldn’t speak Hungarian, but some of them spoke English and those who didn’t were able to speak either German or French. As a last resort I employed an inelegant mixture of bad Italian and gestures to sub in for its sister language, Romanian. Hilarity ensued.

Eni, Zsuzsa and Theresa, Romania 1990

I fell in love on that trip—with Gabor’s daughter Enikő. Only twenty years old at the time, she was shy and quiet, but I perceived there was something strong and deep about her. We immediately invited Eni to visit us upon our return to Germany. She arrived in Dusseldorf a few weeks later on a cold, gray afternoon in early March. Our bond grew during that four-week visit. How extraordinary it was to observe her reactions to the glut of goods produced by western capitalism: supermarket counters with endless cuts of meats, cases of yogurt, cheese, and butter, a cornucopia of fresh produce, big box stores with aisles of cosmetics and personal care products, and clothes, clothes, clothes. I stayed close by her side the entire time; she gazed, gawked, stood silently with tear-stained cheeks striving to process the sheer volume and variety of products and choices that lay before her.

Several months later her brother Zsolt visited us as well. In both cases the two young people had difficulty connecting with their mercurial father. Ten years of separation formed an emotional chasm that never really healed.

Our reunion was to be short lived. The Iron Curtain’s dissolution resulted in a torrent of East German and Eastern European singers ready to displace the American hordes who had dominated the opera scene in Germany for decades. It was time to go home, but for Gabor that meant embarking on a new life in the U.S. To our great good fortune, he had recently been discovered by American agents and opera theaters. All we had to do was find a place to live. A German friend suggested the west coast of Florida and a year later we relocated to Pasco County.

Four years later Gabor was granted U.S. citizenship, permitting Enikő to emigrate from Romania. Now after nearly three decades, including some years spent in the Northeast, she has made a good life for herself here. And just as I had thought that first day in Cluj, she has warmth, brilliance and an indomitable spirit. Eni has become the daughter I never had. We have a beautiful, loving relationship and speak daily.

Left: Eni becomes a US Citizen, 2012
Right: Krisztina, Julia and Zsuzsa, 2017

Both Gabor and Edi (his ex-wife) passed away while still relatively young in the early 2000’s. Yet my connection to his family is stronger than ever, facilitated by my husband Jerry’s warm relationship with the entire crew and full embrace of Eni’s place in our lives. Now there are three step-grandchildren. One of them, Krisztina, went to school here in Florida for two years, dividing her time between my home and Eni’s. We stay in close touch by phone. Most of the family now lives in Germany with only a few remaining in Transylvania. This past summer Jerry and I traveled with Eni to the Stuttgart area for a reunion with Zsolt, his second wife, Boglarka, and the three daughters (Zsuzsa, Krisztina and Julia) who range in age from 35 to 6. And what a time we had! Joyful and warm, filled with laughter, great food, and genuine closeness.

Sometimes shared experiences and hardships form deep and lasting bonds. Relationships can be born of blood or emerge through choice. The connections may not be the same, but where there is love, there is family.

Left: Zsolt, Boglarka, Krisztina, Eni, Jerry, Julia, Zsuzsa
Right: Eni at Bad Schussenreid, Germany

Eni and Theresa, Mother’s Day 2023

Theresa D’Aiuto Sokol was an opera singer, recitalist and music teacher in a career that lasted over forty years. She sang in Europe, the U.S. and in the far east and is an accomplished stage director. Her production credits include regional opera and theater companies and the University of South Florida where she served as Coordinator of Opera and Professor of Voice. She is co-editor of OLLI Connects and produces marketing and special interest videos for OLLI’s website and promotional uses.

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6 Replies to “My Transylvanian Family”

  1. Thanks for sharing this affectionate and moving reminiscence. I was in Berlin when the wall fell, so the piece had a definite resonance for me.

  2. Theresa…What a wonderful, significant story, interweaving your personal history with global events. Your talented and adventurous spirit shines through!

  3. What a fabulous story! I really admire all the international experiences you have had, and your vivid way of recounting them. Brava!

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