The last time I was at Otopeni Airport in Bucharest, I was questioned by the Securitate while they searched my baggage. Ceauşescu had only about a month of absolute power to go, but a pall of fear, almost physical in its thickness, still suffocated the country.
The pall has lifted, but all has not gone swimmingly with Rumania ever since. There is a new prosperity evident in Bucharest’s traffic jams and in restaurants that require reservations days ahead. But you don’t have to look far to see decay and poverty too, and people whose opinion I respect told me that many would welcome the return of Ceauşescu, if only he would bring back the economic conditions that prevailed during his long dictatorship. As in Russia, the standard of living of pensioners on fixed incomes, or those without any marketable skill, or older academics whose disciplines are no longer esteemed, has fallen.
Even allowing for man’s natural tendency to nostalgia, the attitude must startle anyone who had any acquaintance with life under Ceauşescu.
One sign of the recent impoverishment of the Rumanian intelligentsia is found in the Bellu Cemetery. This is the Père Lachaise or Highgate Cemetery of Bucharest—the burial place of the nation’s intellectual and administrative elite. Rumania’s national poet, Mihai Eminescu, is buried there, and every second tomb seems to be that of a general, a professor, or a doctor.
Strikingly, since the 1989 revolution, however, wooden crosses have appeared in the cemetery in place of the expensively engraved tombstones that prevailed even during the worst years of Ceauşescu’s reign, the self-proclaimed Epoca de Aur (Golden Age). Intellectual families can no longer afford this extravagance.
As I walked round, I found the tomb of Professor N. C. Paulescu, who died in 1931. There was a dead flower on it, so he was not altogether forgotten. This sign of remembrance might at first reassure those of us old enough to feel that death is a reality. But such reassurance is possible only for those who know nothing of Professor Paulescu.
I first heard of him when I bought a strange little book in Ceauşescu’s Rumania, entitled The Priority of N. C. Paulescu in the Discovery of Insulin. At first I thought this a typical example of the rodomontade of aggrieved nationalist historiography: everyone—by which, of course, I mean every doctor—knows that Banting, Best, and Macleod discovered insulin, and that (apart from Best) they won the Nobel Prize for it. But the book provided considerable evidence for its contention, as well as for the Nobel laureates in question having misrepresented Paulescu’s scientific publications (written in French), so that they could claim priority for themselves. And the book also quoted Paulescu’s plaintive words, written shortly before his death, “Formerly I believed and maintained that a scientist can work in perfect safety convinced as I was that the date of his publications protected him against any injustice. Unfortunately I am obliged to admit now that I was utterly mistaken in this regard.”
Regrettably, there was more to Paulescu than being a great physiologist. He was also a far-right nationalist and fanatical anti-Semite. In 1922, he founded, with anti-Semitic economics professor A. C. Cuza, the League of National Christian Defense, and his vituperations inspired C. Z. Codreanu, the founder of the infamous Iron Guard. The League of National Christian Defense’s main policy was the elimination of the Jews from Rumanian life, and it adopted the swastika as an emblem before the Nazi Party did so. Paulescu believed that the Talmud was a device for the destruction of other nations and that the Jews used alcohol to weaken the Rumanian people. His outpouring of anti-Semitic books and pamphlets was considerable, and in one he asked, “Can we perhaps exterminate them [the Jews] in the ways bedbugs are killed?” His answer: “That would be the simplest, easiest and fastest way to get rid of them.”
The question I asked myself in Bellu Cemetery was whether the flower was placed on Paulescu’s tomb by a diabetic grateful for his brilliant physiological researches, or by an anti-Semitic nationalist inflamed by his hate-filled rhetoric.