Board Message – An Outsider’s View of Transylvania

Last Sunday after Rev. Lavente Lazar, Unitarian minister from Transylvania, gave the sermon, several of us were eagerly searching the Map of Romania in the coffee room to locate Transylvania. If there is such an interest… let me tell you about my trip there. Last Summer I a chance to tour Transylvania with the chorus (I pinch hit in as a basso, since they had a weak base section) of the First Unitarian in SF. We had the good fortune to be accompanied by ZIZI, a woman who had been intern at the SF UU church but had grown up in Transylvania and Hungary. She had lived thru communism and Ceaucescu era, witnessing the dreadful persecution and eventual tragic death of her father—a Unitarian minister. She was an authority—if anyone could be—and gave freely of her knowledge. The choir performed at several Transylvanian churches, but particularly at the Main Unitarian and central meeting and theology center in Kolozsvar (Cluj)—the capitol city, currently sponsoring a conference of the Unitarian Partnership Association.

We sopped up much of the history of Transylvanian Unitarianism. As a history buff, I was overwhelmed—we saw cities going back to the thirteenth century, once European centers of great importance, often peopled from other parts of Europe such as Saxony. Transylvania flipped back and forth between Catholic, Protestant, and finally Unitarian flavors, depending on what foreign country (Austria, Hungary, or the Ottomans) annexed it, and varied from religious intolerance and persecution to tolerance and then back again. It is a beautiful region, in a high mountain plateau, surrounded by the Carpathians, and in the early 1900’s a very fertile and productive area.

But the other side of the story is that Transylvania suffered the fate of many other lesser European countries at the conclusion of the first world war. Since Transylvania had long been part of the Hungarian Empire, finally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it fought with Germany against the allies (Britain, France, and Russia) and thus was on the losing side of the war. At the Treaty of Trianon the victors deliberately broke up the Austro-Hungarian empire into as many pieces as they could, and Transylvania became no longer part of Hungary, but simply a region of Romania—never mind that linguistically, religiously, and culturally Transylvanians had little in common with the Romanians: Transylvanians being largely Hungarian, Magyar speaking, and Unitarian/ Catholic/ Protestant, while Romanians were of a different ethnic origin, spoke Romanian (a romance language), and were Eastern Orthodox. So the Native Transylvanians, whose forbears dated back to Roman Times, became an enclave of an ethnically different country. The official language, civil jurisdiction, and educational system became Romanian.

What aggravated the situation was the aftermath of the second world war: Romania became part of the communist bloc slavishly dedicated to serving Russian economic and industrial demands. Ceausescu became a willing servant of Russia and aggressively implemented the plan to make all farms into collective farms, and forcibly move the agricultural villagers into new industrial centers. These were the newly made cities with the rapidly built six-story apartment blocks (lacking elevators and other niceties). Ceausescu literally plowed-under whole villages in Transylvania, seeing them and their ethnic differences as something to be exterminated for the good of Romanian unity and productivity. Unfortunately Ceausescu even botched this plan: his industrial plants focused on producing materials so polluting and toxic that they had to be abandoned years later. (Today any drive along Transylvanian roads takes you past literally miles of abandoned skeletons of huge industrial factories and housing blocks—all sporting a ghostly industrial gray.)

A number of American UUA churches saw the plight of the Transylvanian village churches as an opportunity to help, and the Partnership program was born. We visited several village churches that were Partnership adoptees: many people on the trip from other UUA churches had joined the group just to visit such a Partnership church they were sponsoring. For example, a group from the SF UU church had raised enough money to purchase a sizable dairy in a village, with the aim of providing jobs for the villagers; the Oakland UU Church had funded a bakery and the making of ethnic handicrafts to raise money for another village church. Both projects to us seemed troubled: the dairy jobs had failed to attract the village youth, who preferred the 8 AM to 4 PM jobs in the city and were leaving the villages for city life (the age-old story in all countries), the bakery had not worked out, and the handicrafts project was not yet producing the results hoped for. But the people behind the partnership projects continue to be full of hope and energy and are successful fundraisers (the SF group is called “Project Hope”). Meanwhile the picturesque villages become lucrative real estate locations for country homes for the urban Romanians, and the villagers cannot afford not to sell out and move to the cities. So the Transylvanian villages continue to decline.

So getting to see Transylvania was intriguing but alas bittersweet. The future of Transylvania will never be anything like its golden age of the past. The future looked rather bleak to us, but perhaps no better or worse than other countries which were so long part of the Warsaw Pact.

Terry Hunt