Nationality, ethnicity, and belonging


Timișoara written in all the languages of the Banat (Romanian, German, Hungarian, and Serbian)

“But if the Romanians hated the Hungarians that much, why did you even get there?”

A US reader asked me that question after reading Happy New Year Captain, the sequel to Dear Comrade Novák. At first, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe an American who introduced herself as “half Swedish, one quarter British, one quarter German etc etc” would ask me such a thing. I lectured her on the First World War, on the restructuring of Europe their President Wilson had initiated. I wrote her an essay on how Transylvania and other regions always belonged to Austria-Hungary, and only went to Romania after 1920. Told her about the great Southern-German exodus in the 17th century when the k. & k. monarchy decided on a program to populate Eastern Europe.

We didn’t move to Romania in my lifetime. My ancestors have lived there for 300 years already, although we were never considered Romanians in Romania.

After all, weren’t we just one big communist family? Everyone equal to the other? Animal Farm anyone?

A difficult, sensitive, and conflicted topic indeed.

In my home village, about fifty kilometers from Timișoara, there are four sections in the cemetery. And while one might think, every section is dedicated to a religion, it isn’t. There’s not a Catholic, a Protestant, an Orthodox and a Jewish section, no! We call it the “Hungarian graves” or the “Romanians,” the “German part” and “the other one.” Of course, the buried Hungarians are Catholic, the Germans Protestant and the Romanians Orthodox, but that’s not the distinction.

People define themselves to this day by their ethnicity. They all have a Romanian passport since 1989, but no one would ever refer to a Catholic speaking Hungarian like that.

I’m from German-Hungarian heritage. In my childhood, I was the mixed breed, second-class to Romanians, as the family of Novák Attila is described in Dear Comrade Novák. When we fled the country and settled in Germany – the region our ancestors left 300 years ago – we were considered strange Romanians. Nowhere at home really.

Plus, back in Romania, there were even two different kinds of Germans: the Swabians to which I belonged in Western Romania, and the Transylvanian Saxons, of which my husband is a member. And of course, these different kind of Germans hated each other and thought to be superior to the others. Our marriage could be considered a Romanian version of Romeo & Juliet. Perhaps, I’ll write a novel about that one day…

As I started my writing journey, drafting the first scenes of Dear Comrade Novák in March 2018, I strongly identified as a German. I always had lectured people, who misunderstood the concept of ethnicity, that I never was Romanian although being born there. But over the months writing on this novel, I re-discovered the history and the beauty of this country.

And now, as I’m drafting the third part of this Novák trilogy and wrapping up all loose ends of the story, the main theme has evolved into “What does it mean to be Romanian?”

Not a big spoiler alert, but at the very end, one of my Hungarian characters says: “I’m Romanian. I was born here. And I stayed. Romanian.”

“I didn’t want to offend you. See, that complicated ethnicity thing is what makes your novel so intriguing and unique to interpret,” this reader continued in her mail. And then it hit me. The identity crisis I’ve struggled with for so long, actually is the one thing that makes my writing and my stories special. European history is more important than ever and as a Historical Fiction writer, I am obliged to tell these stories to the world. Because if you don’t know your history, you can’t build a future.

PS.

And last but not least, I want to bust a myth related to this topic: Vlad Țepeș III, Dracula, never was a Transylvanian prince or a Romanian knight. Transylvania had always belonged to Austria-Hungary until the 1920s, and he had been voivode of Wallachia, the region around Bucharest.

But don’t worry, even many Romanians don’t know that…

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