Mrs. Schleser, 1. 9. 1988, USA

Questions to the narrator


Location USA
Date 1. 9. 1988
Length 26:14

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Could you give us some examples of the terrible conditions for ordinary citizens in Romania?

I would start from a basic life, fundamental things that you find very easy in any other part of the world, like food, basic necessities. You would have to spend half your day standing in line, and I think there is a double strategy there. The economical reason why you can’t find food is because everything is exported; on the other hand, they want you to spend so much time queuing so you don’t have time for other things that would bother them. You don’t have time to read, go to the movies, talk to your friends, or discuss what’s going on. And that’s very smart. Then there’s the medical assistance, which is so highly acclaimed back there, but is practically non-existent if you don’t have money. If you are an ordinary person going into hospital, nobody would bother to look at you except for a long wait; or if you are in a very critical condition, they would give you the basic help, nothing beyond that. If you want something extra, a little bit of attention, even if you are critically ill you have to pay money to everybody. There are reasons for that. Doctors are paid probably just a couple of dollars, but also you have to have treatment that they can’t get unless they pay somebody else.

Is there a shortage of basic medical supplies?

Medical supplies are now, I would say, practically non-existent. There isn’t a supply. Whatever is being produced is being used, and there is very little produced, due to raw material shortages and cuts in all kinds of fabrication processes. Even again basic fundamental things like Aspirin and things that people would take for a normal cold are very hard to get; that’s why you have to pay everybody – the pharmacist, the doctor, people who would have some relations at some place and some chance to give you those basic things if you are seriously ill. If you have diabetes, and I can tell you because I do have diabetes, insulin is a problem. You can only get the insulin that they produce there, and insulin is essential for a diabetic. If you want something extra, then you could simply die.

What is the general atmosphere of life like?

Life is, I would say, dark, there is no other way to describe it. We have a very famous novel in Romanian literature, it’s Under the Clouds, where everything is going on under a very dark atmosphere. Romanian people are very funny people, they laugh at a lot; they want to make fun of their own lives. I don’t think they are able to do that anymore. They are acquiring a sort of morbid sense of humour, and that’s a shame that changes the basic side of their culture. Everything is sombre, everything is black, and it’s like under a state of siege, and everybody’s scared, you don’t have time to live your own life. You have to stand in line for your food, you have to stand in line to get on the bus and to get to work. At work, you can’t laugh at all, there is no reason to. You come back and then the only joy in this life would be your family life. Now the tragic part of this is what’s going on within the family, the innermost cell of our lives. People get scared to even to talk to one another, and especially with their children. Very very small children are taught that the government is the best there is, that the leader of the country is the hero of the country, the godfather, well let’s say, Santa Claus. Santa Claus doesn’t exist, Mr. Ceaușescu unfortunately does. Parents are scared to talk about their problems in front of their children. They are somehow controlling themselves, and that’s not self-control, that’s control imposed by the security police, by everybody outside your own family. You can’t educate your own child the way you want. If you want your child to know that you are not satisfied, you know you want him to be able to judge you, but you can’t. You have to wait until he goes to sleep, you have to lower your voice. You’re not only scared of your own neighbours, you’re scared of your own child, and that’s terrifying. And there’s nothing you can do because when the child goes to school, his teacher would say in an indirect way, your parents are wrong. So the child believes that Mr. Ceaușescu is the real father.

What happens to women who want abortions in Romania?

Another part of this family life is the fact that you can’t even schedule the time when you want to have a child. In a way it’s like somebody’s controlling when you have to have love, it’s not only that time of the month when you want to have love or not. It’s that period in the socialist time when you have to have children. Women are told, first on a very sensitive level, that you have to be human, you have to take care of the human race. The most important role in a woman’s life is that she is a mother and you would be so satisfied to have a child, and not only one, you would have to have as many as you can. Because, and this is the other side of the problem, the socialist country needs those people. We need a lot of young constructive people to go out there in the field, to take care of the crop, to build tractors.

Can you talk a little to us about Elena Ceaușescu. You worked for her as an interpreter. Could you just tell us some stories that you came across?

Talking about family life, we can go to the top of the family life, which is Mr. Ceaușescu and his wife. And having lived in that country for about 30 years, I can tell you that Mr. Ceaușescu is not at all loved there. But compared to him, Mrs. Ceaușescu is hated. They would choose him over her any day. She is considered a very vicious person and I wouldn’t blame them for picturing her this way. I couldn’t tell you a lot of details about their personal life because there is no way I can get them. But I can tell you some details of what goes on in their personal relationship in a very usual work day.

As an interpreter I can give you some details of how I was chosen for the job. Honestly, I don’t think my moral qualities or my interpreter qualities were the most important factors. I was chosen because I looked a lot plainer than other women in the same surroundings. She is known to be afraid of having to be in the same room as nice-looking, elegant women, and before any interview I was trained in how I was supposed to be dressed. I was told not to wear any make-up and to be as plain as possible, not poorly dressed because that would probably impress her sensitivity in the wrong way, but to be decent, to wear maybe a lace collar or something like that, and not to laugh, not to smile, and then I was trained to be the actual interpreter. At first it was very funny and unbelievable for me, because I was sure that everybody in the room would realise what was going on. Then everybody was as quiet as I was, so I went ahead and did what I was supposed to do. And that was a sort of a scenario, very well acted and enforced by people that knew Mrs. Ceaușescu quite well. The visitors were asking questions naturally, and I was supposed to translate the questions first. I was told never to repeat what Mrs. Ceaușescu would say off hand; after I translated the question, Mrs. Ceaușescu would repeat the question in Romanian, and then the staff would start preparing the answer and somebody courageous enough would give the final answer. Then Mrs. Ceaușescu would take over like a ball and would repeat the same answer in Romanian. At that point I was supposed to start translating. But I was told that I was not supposed to start to base my translation on what she was saying, God forbid she might forget something that the other person had already said. Then I would do the normal translation. And again, I am stressing the fact that I find it unbelievable that important scientists, highly educated people, would not realise what was going on there. I am sure they did.

What was the purpose of this charade?

I would say that the only thing that anybody would think is that an academician is supposed to know a lot about normal chemical things, things that even I started to know, after three years of working in that environment. She had no idea of what’s going on. I don’t think she even knew the basic formulas in chemistry. It sounds childish, but that’s the truth. So they wanted to complete the halo that surrounded her head as a scientist, as a very very important, renowned and famous scientist, all over the world.

Was she rather vicious, were there examples of her being vindictive?

She wasn’t vicious to me directly; she got very upset if I lowered my voice. As you can probably hear I have a very very soft voice and she was upset about that. But vindictive, I know she was. She would pick on people she didn’t like for reasons I’m not aware of, and I don’t think she was. She would just pick on somebody she didn’t like, and she would lay him off. And she would make a big thing out of that, his whole family. Even if that person was good at his job, she wouldn’t care about that, even if that would mean that we would have to work ten years to get another person to take that person’s place.

What sort of things would offend her, upset her?

You wouldn’t know what kind of things would upset her, anything would be upsetting today, and tomorrow maybe it would be flattering. The basic things would be as I said before, a nice-looking woman, a very –

What sort of things would upset her?

You wouldn’t know what kind of things would upset her, maybe something that upsets her today would be flattering for her tomorrow. But as I said before, she was upset about a nice-looking elegant woman in the same room. She would get upset at somebody not paying enough attention to her charms and to her intelligence and to her spirits. She would be upset if somebody tried to step a little bit ahead of her in any circumstance, as a woman, as a scientist; everybody should keep their own positions.

Could you tell us something about the contemporary history course at the university?

Yes, when I was in the fourth year at university and like everybody else I was ready to prepare for my final exams, we were told that we would have a compulsory course in Romanian history. Well it wasn’t the best idea, but we didn’t object at first because we took quite a lot of courses in Romanian history, we were very familiar with it, we knew the years of the battles and the important figures. But all of a sudden Romanian history was actually the contemporary history of the party and the socialist republic. Not only that, the actual history was the biographical data of Mr. Ceaușescu, the important dates of his speeches and the important messages that his speeches gave to the whole world. The thing is that if he has a message I think there’s only one and it’s being transmitted all over his speeches. It is repeated in different ways by very qualified literary people, but it’s very difficult for students to remember exactly what was said in 1972, except for the fact that he promoted the multilaterally developed socialist country. We didn’t know anything else, so we had to study in the fourth year what was going on in 1972 in an agricultural committee meeting, and that was very very upsetting for a fourth-year student.

Tell us about the contemporary history course at the university.

When I was in the fourth year at university, we were told that we were supposed to take a compulsory class in Romanian history, and as we found out it wasn’t the normal course we had taken several times, it was the history of Romanian society after 1960, which was actually the biography of Mr. Ceaușescu. We were supposed to actually memorise what he was talking about on several occasions, and actually what he was talking about was the same thing, changed by highly sophisticated people to make it look different.

More literary?


How reliable are Romanian statistics? Tell us about how you invented them and why.

Romanian statistics are a very innovative thing. If you were talking about comics and funny stories, it was like a picnic. We were told that on Monday we are supposed to start working on the statistics, so everybody would pull out their registers and the statistics from the previous year. And then we would all start working from there on, with the help of everybody in the Ministry and under the guidance of the security police, of course, because they would bring out the previous files. And we were told the actual figures that the Romanian economy flourished with, for the past year. I am only talking about chemistry right now. In a certain field production was increased by 12%, so we would take the previous year’s figures and increase them by 12%. Or if Mr. Ceaușescu and Mrs. Ceaușescu didn’t like certain people in a certain area, we were supposed to give the negatives towards that, focus them towards that particular area. One very important point is that in a socialist country there are no negative things. If it’s negative it means that it didn’t flourish as it was supposed to, and the fault is not the socialist economy of course. Everything is planned, but the human factor gets involved, so that’s to be blamed.

Can you tell us something about the terrible conditions in all of ordinary life?

I could tell you things not about life at a very high level, but what goes on in ordinary life, about things that you need every day, like food, basic things, and medical help. Food is a real problem back there, not only that it doesn’t exist, but whatever is, you have to wait and struggle to get it. And you’d have to spend your time in a very very long queue, or a very long line, and that is, I think, a very smart thing that the government invented. Not only that for economic reasons you couldn’t find food because it was exported or it was nicely planned, but also spending so much time in a line implies that the short time you have is cut shorter, you don’t have time to read a book, watch TV, get together with your friends, talk about what’s going on in your ordinary life. Your family life is almost non-existent; everybody is out there trying to get oranges and eggs, and talking about eggs, I remember something that now, looking back, seems funny, but it wasn’t funny back then. In the Ministry, which is one of the highest levels of work back there, the people that worked there were ministers and their secretaries and all kinds of directors, that ordinary people in the street would look upon as a very sophisticated strata in our society.

Tell us the egg story!

I used to work in the Ministry of Chemistry, and one day we were told that eggs were being brought into the restaurant downstairs, so everybody dashed out and at the head of the line was of course the Minister of Chemistry himself.

Tell us how you used to invent statistics.

One day the security police would come and tell us that on Monday we were supposed to work on the statistics. So we would have a picnic, we would all go into office and the security police would pull out the register from the previous year, and then we would start working on the statistics, increasing a certain product by 12% or increasing another product that Mr. Ceaușescu didn’t like by less than 12%.

How present are security police, the Securitate in everyday life?

If you want to picture Romanian life, you should always have the raisonneur in the tradition of French novels, there is always an extra person there, which is the security police. He is present even in the wards where women have their abortions, which is the last place you would think to find an extra person whenever she is being examined or she is actually being given the abortion. Outside the medical staff there is the security police, watching over what is going on, taking notes, or even getting involved directly in the process.

Are there lots of security police wherever you work?

The number of security police is, I would say, increasingly and seriously threatening. I don’t know the exact numbers but you suspect even your closest friends of working for the security police. There are the actual security police that you know of, and that you fear in the open, and also the hidden ones that you have no idea of, and they are there, helping the actual ones.

What is the psychological and emotional effect on people of the Ceaușescu regime?

Life in Romania has become something ruled by fear, by a very very deep emotional fear which comes out of the fact that you are surrounded by a shortage of food, you don’t know if tomorrow you can have something to give your children, if you can have milk for them, if tomorrow you can have medicine for yourself or for your old father and mother. It sounds something like Dickens but I can tell you that’s the truth. When I used to live there I would say that Romanian people have a limit on what they would accept when they touch food. They would go ahead and laugh if the newspapers or music were attacked, but if it touched their food, food is an essential part in their life, and if the regime were to touch that then they would revolt. They don’t have the courage to do that. And that increases fear.

Do the people feel that they might actually be arrested if they spoke about the Ceaușescus in a critical way, for example? How afraid are they of actually coming up against the security police themselves, on a daily basis?

Even in your family life you start to feel frightened to even mention names that might be powerful, you have to soften, lower your voice if you mention the name. You can’t discuss things freely with your wife, especially with your kids. The famous Falcons would go to school and they would repeat what they heard from their parents. That would jeopardise you, and your children, too.

What do people feel about the Ceaușescus and their cult of personality around them?

I don’t know how that would be taken in a different part of the world, but over there, I would say, it was farcical because people didn’t take him seriously at the beginning for various reasons. My father’s generation would always hope that the Americans would come and save us. Basically, everybody in the country would say, this is not true because it’s so funny, it’s so ridiculous. Nobody would take him seriously because it’s so open, and actually he took himself seriously.

Tell us about what happened to some of the scientific translations you made.

I was supposed to help the people in the Ministry to translate and publicise their original works. And what I was actually doing, I was taking some reviews published somewhere in England or in America and translating them, or even in Spain, I remember I was supposed to take a course to translate something in Spanish. Things that were published and recorded some place else were taken as original works.

Can you tell us about how the statistics in your Ministry were invented?

One day the security police would come and let us know that, let’s say, next Monday we were supposed to work on the Romanian statistics for chemistry, to be presented to Mr. Ceaușescu on a specific date. All of us would go into one office, the security police were watching over, bringing over the statistics from the previous year. We would take those and start working on the current year’s statistics, increasing certain figures by let’s say 12% if things were going brilliant, and if they weren’t going so brilliant we would increase them by 11% or 6%.

And would they sometimes use these forged statistics to punish people who weren’t in favour?

Statistics were both illustrative and punishing. They were supposed to illustrate the fact that the socialist economy never fails and also to punish people. That implied that the human factor would have a negative effect on the brilliant socialist ideas.

So what kind of people were being punished?

People that the Ceaușescu family wouldn’t agree with were laid off with the help of these statistics. If the production was increased not by 12% but by 6%, that was a bad sign and everybody knew that next day a certain person won’t have the same job in the Ministry, even if he was qualified and good for that position.

How much propaganda is there, glorifying the Ceaușescus in Romania?

There isn’t any newspaper, any TV news that wouldn’t speak about Mr. Ceaușescu for as much time as possible. Any news magazine that you would open in Romania would talk primarily about Mr. Ceaușescu. Any book that you would open that has been written in recent years would have to mention Mr. Ceaușescu.

And what about cinemas and films?

It’s the same with films being produced. They would have to directly or indirectly glorify the role of the President in actual life.

And what about propaganda for Elena? Is there propaganda for her now?

In the most recent years, unfortunately for him, Mr. Ceaușescu has had to share his glory with his wife. Now there isn’t only a father, there is also a mother for the country, so if there are two pictures of him, there must be two pictures of her in the same newspaper. If his name is mentioned with his title, of course she has to be mentioned with the list of titles that she has accumulated over the years.

And in schools, are children told about them, too?

Children are being told the good things that Mr. and Mrs. Ceaușescu have done for them and for all of us during the past years. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they would start initiating a sort of a prayer to start the day with for the glory of our leaders.

Mrs. Schleser (?)

Mrs. Schleser