Artwatch UK

Romanian Heritage: the Struggle to Protect the “Protected”

21st December 2010

In ArtWatch UK Journal 12, Jessica Douglas-Home reported on the struggle being waged by the British-based Mihai Eminescu Trust to save the centuries-old Transylvanian Saxon architectural and crafts heritage that had survived the Ceausescu communist dictatorship. In 2008 Jessica Douglas-Home, chairman of the Mihail Eminescu Trust, was awarded the Romanian National Order for her “…activity before the fall of communism and her activity in promoting and developing the Romanian cultural patrimony.” An account of Jessica Douglas-Home’s smuggling of texts to dissidents in Eastern Europe before the fall of communism is given in her book “Once Upon Another Time”

Jessica Douglas-Home writes:

In June this year, the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square held a conference entitled Democracy and Memory: Romania confronts its communist past. The failure of Romania to attempt any reckoning with the Great Terrors of Georghiu Dej and Ceaucescu is indeed an issue of the first importance, not only to European policy makers but to commentators everywhere on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. But to the ordinary Romanian far more important are their concerns about the lingering relationship between communism and corruption in local administrations.

Twenty years after the fall of Ceausescu many of the old guard are still in place – in particular in the countryside. In the Transylvanian village of Apold this summer, a posse of cars surrounded the mayor’s office. The mayor had been discovered with fraudulent accounts, had refused to leave and local councilors had come to confront him. Two weeks earlier, in the nearby village of Biertan, another mayor was caught siphoning off huge sums of commune money. When the news was splashed over the newspapers and national television, he was arrested and ejected from his political party, a grouping rooted in the communist past now renamed the Liberal Democrat Party. As in Apold, the “crackdown” was an illusion. The mayor proceeded to feign madness and arranged to be placed in the local sanitorium.

Four miles from Biertan lies an equally lovely village within the mayor’s jurisdiction called Richis. The centre of the village is officially a conservation zone. Yet shortly before the mayor’s arrest, he was implicated in the illegal sale of an historic property. This important house was bought by a cronie, a young man from Richis, now living in Germany. He has since gutted the building for use as a supermarket, demolishing supporting walls and pouring metres of cement onto the roof of the medieval cellar. As it is metres from the fine Gothic church he has been made to restore the façade. In Richis another supermarket is not needed. It appears more a war of attrition by the mayor and his party against the successful store run by two remarkable Dutch people. Ignorance and corruption have ruled the day.

This beautiful little building, (see photographs, right) now internally destroyed, belonged to the lawyer, poet and hymn writer, Georg Meyndt (1852-1903), whose simple melodies eternalise the seams of village life. Like many other houses in the Siebenburgen, the ancient Saxon region of Romania, the house has medieval foundations and is set in the context of the traditional vernacular architecture. Its façade is a fusion of Baroque and Neo-classicism, with a sophistication and charm rare even in this valley. To the south, 100 yards away and opposite the house, is one of the most spectacular Saxon churches of Transylvania, an extraordinary 14th century Gothic fortified church, famous for its medieval stone carvings of green men. In Romanian law all Saxon village centres are protected areas. If Romania is to put behind it the philistine vandalism of its recent past, now is the moment for the Ministry of Culture to place a summary preservation order on the building, call a halt to the demolition work and demand details of the deeds of sale.

The marvels of Transylvanian Saxon culture are no longer a secret. Herta Mueller has won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature; the 18th century organs and clavichords of Samuel Maetz have become internationally recognized; Meyndt’s lyrical songs are reaching a cosmopolitan audience; ten Saxon churches have become World Heritage sites; the EU has given its highest cultural prize to a British Foundation’s project to regenerate the Saxon villages. Over the last 6 years tens of thousands of enchanted visitors have discovered the magic of those villages. In an expanse of land the size of Wales lies an image of Europe as it once was everywhere, a landscape intimately shared between wildlife and people, the outcome of successful settlement, a visible record of routines maintained over centuries of happiness and sorrow, in which men and women have shaped themselves to the earth and the earth to themselves in mutual harmony. No ordinary farmers, but a people who had kept their culture alive for 900 years, building exquisitely decorated stucco houses, lime-washed with the colours of wild flowers in pale yellow, pink, green and blue, with  hipped roofs of terracotta tiles, melding into the landscape as though they had grown from it. If these Saxons were artists, their masterpieces were their churches: massive fortifications, able to withstand every form of brigandage over the centuries but whose interiors were adorned by reverend, delicate workmanship, altarpieces matching those of Renaissance Italy, painted pews and angels and  intricate carved doors and stone archways.

Democracy is fledgling in Romania. These gentle villagers, now, after the tragic exodus of the Saxons, predominantly Romanians and gypsies, and still suffering from Ceausescu’s legacy, are nervous of personal retribution. Some of the more outspoken of them are still systematically spied upon. But petitions concerning the destruction of the Georg Meyndt house were sent courageously to the Ministry of Culture.  A protest website was set up. The Evangelical Church and the Prefectura of the county headquarters in Sibiu were formally requested to intervene. Is it too soon for the new urban bureaucrats to comprehend the value of the jewels of which they are the guardians? The disgraced mayor was seen back in the basement of the commune building. Unsubstantiated rumours have it that he is being taken to court. If conferences such as that in London’s Romanian Cultural Institute mean anything, it should be to send a powerful message to the Romanian government to enforce the law which alone stands between an incomparable treasure and its casual destruction: and to put a stop to the obliteration of the nation’s historic built heritage, a hallmark of Ceausescu’s catastrophic last years.

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Above, the former home of the poet and writer Georg Meyndt, in the village of Richis, near Medias, Romania. Below, the house during the destruction and removal of internal supporting walls.
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