16 March 2004

The Vanishing Breed of Transylvanian German Writers

On 11 February 2004, the Culture section (premium content by subscription only) of Transitions Online carried a feature by Anca Paduraru of Deutsche Welle Radio's English service about a Transylvanian German writer who has stayed in Romania.
BUCHAREST, Romania--“The commotion of summer 1990 inspired me. Then, ethnic Germans left Romania for Germany in droves, and I was left on the railway station platform helpless and perplexed to witness it.”

Eginald Schlattner, 70, is talking about the experience that prompted him to write two novels in his retirement, bringing him success in the German-speaking world and both recognition and notoriety in his native Romania.

The fall of communism produced at least one unhappy result in Romania: After some 800 years of living together with Romanians and other nationalities in this East European country, ethnic Germans began returning to their ancestral homes.

Statistics tell the story. In the last communist-era census, taken in 1977, 350,000 Germans were recorded in Romania. By 1992, their population had dropped by two-thirds. By 2002, it stood at 60,000--just 0.3 percent of the country’s 22 million people.

“It was indeed an exodus lethalis [deadly exodus], this final exit of Germans from Romania, which produced the last twitches we see in Schlattner's books,” says George Gutu, a professor of German literature at the University of Bucharest.

Helping Schlattner's success was the controversy surrounding the subject matter of his novels and his alleged part in sending five of his fellow Romanian-Germans to communist prisons.

Schlattner's authorial debut, five years ago when he was 65, was Der gekoepfte Hahn (The Beheaded Rooster). His second book, Rote Handschuhe (Red Gloves), came out two years later. They have been reprinted several times and reached the best-seller lists of German-language books. The Beheaded Rooster appeared in Romanian translation in 2001, and Red Gloves is being readied for publication in Romania.

Schlattner says his first book “looks at only one day in our history to describe the situation of the Saxons [Germans] here and their pledge to Hitler." That day was 23 August 1944, when Romania switched camps to join the Allies.

The second novel, which Schlattner says is autobiographical, “shows the two years of my imprisonment in Stalin City [Brasov]. In this one, I put all my cards on the table and explained what happened during those never-ending police interrogations. I was very tough on myself.” ...


... Germans in Romania lived in a context that allowed them to preserve their identity, Schlattner says. “As I told [German Interior Minister] Otto Schily, … Romania never forbade us from speaking our language, not even during the last eight months of the war it fought against Germany. So much so that at 12, my only Romanian words were, 'I don't know Romanian.' "

Schlattner's praise of Romania for its ongoing publication of ABC books in 12 languages for the minorities within its borders does little to assuage Gutu, who is also head of the association of professors of German literature in Romania. While Gutu acknowledges that the demise of a form of literature is inevitable in the absence of a population to support it, he argues that Romanian and German cultural leaders do little to preserve German-language teaching in Romania.

Once, German-language literature in Romania was placed alongside works from East and West Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Its reputation was boosted by the less-extreme treatment meted out to Germans in Romania compared with those in Czechoslovakia or Poland, millions of whom who were expelled after the Second World War.

But now the community structure has been disrupted in Romania, and German-language teachers are scarce.

“Germany directs its efforts and funding only to the German-language schools for the Germans still living in Transylvania and completely disregards the demand for learning the language coming from Romanian children and their parents outside the Carpathian arch,” Gutu says.

Marina Neacsu, cultural projects coordinator at the Goethe Institute in Bucharest, which is funded by the German state, agrees. She says the government has no specific plans to support the editing of books in the German language.

In 2003, though, Romanian authorities gave 16.6 billion lei ($520,000) to the German community, says Ovidiu Gant, undersecretary of state in the Ministry of Public Information. As part of an across-the-board increase in funding to minority groups, the community's state support more than doubled over the previous year.

In addition, according to Lucian Pricop, a programs coordinator at the Ministry of Culture, more than 1 billion lei ($31,000) has been spent to edit 14 German-language books, support the cultural supplements to the Carpaten Rundschau (Carpathian Observer) and Banater Zeitung (Banat News) magazines, and help public libraries acquire German literature.

Yet Gutu says Romanian and German authorities are ignoring the demand from Romanian parents who realize that Germany is Europe's economic powerhouse and see knowledge of the German language as indispensable to their children's professional success.

As for the future of German literature in Romania, Gutu sees none. “As much as I would wish to be wrong, a literature needs a population base to thrive, and 60,000 people are too few and bound to be less.”

Schlattner shares that skepticism.

The local Lutheran bishop, Schlattner says, “is just here to perform burials. This is what we have come to: a deserted house, emptier than the holy stable of Bethlehem. But that one was soon to be filled up with living beings and gifts as the news of Christ's birth spread into the world. Our stable is not going to witness that.”

No comments: