Caught in a revolution

Caught in a revolution

December 15, 2009 22:05
4 minute read.


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This was December 21, 1989, the day winter starts officially. In Bucharest, the weather was still unusually mild and children were lamenting that there might not be snow on Christmas. Grown-ups had other worries. The Berlin Wall had fallen and with it the last communist regime in Eastern Europe - bar Romania. The situation had been tense for a number of weeks with unconfirmed reports of flare-ups in the provinces, the most serious having been clashes between police and demonstrators in the city of Timsoara. However this was communist Romania and reliable information on what had actually happened was hard to come by. Political pundits predicted that Nicolae Ceaucescu, who ruled the country with an iron fist, would soon put an end to the unrest. Most foreign diplomats had felt they could safely leave the capital to spend the festive season at home. Even the Israeli embassy was unusually depleted. A senior diplomat was in Paris for a conference, and the head of administration was in Israel for personal reasons. The ambassador, Zvi Mazel, had remained, and as his wife I stayed too. On that fateful day - a Thursday - Ceaucescu, just back from a state visit to Iran, decided to address what was touted as a "spontaneous" rally of supporters from the balcony of the party headquarters. A sizable crowd has assembled and television crews from all over the world were there to demonstrate that the old dictator is still very much in control. And then the unthinkable happened: Angry boos and catcalls followed, while banners calling for an end to the dictatorship were raised. A white-faced and shaken Ceaucescu was seen fleeing into the building by millions of people in Romania and abroad. There was rejoicing in the streets of the capital - but not for long. Tanks and troops moved to strategic positions in an impressive show of strength which confirmed the general belief that the protests were a flash in the pan and that order would be swiftly restored. But the crowds filling the streets were not going home and showed a strange mix of jubilation and fear. Soon, shots were heard. Who was shooting? Nobody seemed to know. Night fell and still people thronged the streets. ZVI DECIDED to visit Rabbi Moses Rosen, the legendary chief rabbi of Romania, and offer him the support and protection of the embassy should the need arise. I went with him through the uneasy city. Rosen and his wife put on a brave front, but one could see they were deeply worried. Back home, we vainly tried to get some news. There was no Internet at the time, no satellite television, no cellphones and not even direct phone communications: Calls had to go through the international exchange and it took literally hours to get connected - even for the ambassador. We tuned in to Kol Yisrael, but on that Thursday evening all we got was the live broadcast of yet another Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game. Morning brought renewed sunshine and blue sky. Gunfire had been heard throughout the night and the city was uneasy but calm, as if holding its breath, waiting to see what would happen; people went to work. At the embassy it was business as usual for what was the last working day before Christmas for local staff, while at the residence a couple of workers were tearing down one of the bathrooms and the kitchen prior to much needed renovation. Our faithful cook was hastily frying the last batch of doughnuts we aimed to take with us to a group of some 100 new immigrants from the Soviet Union waiting in Bucharest for their Sunday flight to Israel. On the night of this Friday, December 22, we were to light with them the first candle of Hanukka. Or so we thought. NEEDLESS TO say it was not to be. Just before midday, the mood turned ugly and there was renewed gunfire. No one knew what was going on, so we were all keeping a wary eye on the television screen - which remained desperately blank until just before noon. Suddenly a speaker appeared and told a shocked nation that a state of emergency had been declared, and that the minister of defense had committed suicide. I was about to call the embassy to talk to Zvi about what was happening and ask him what it meant when there was a new and even more startling announcement: Ceaucescu and his wife have fled. They were picked up by an army helicopter and were on their way to the north of the country. There was rejoicing on the small screen, speakers formerly known as staunch communists were now repudiating the fallen dictator and extolling democracy. Their enthusiasm was slightly premature. Once again, something was happening. The guards posted outside the residence were gone. The head of the security detail protecting the ambassador formally took his leave saying that he hoped to resume his duties "later." It wouldn't happen: He would be killed during the fighting. We did not go to light a candle with the immigrants that night though the doughnuts came in handy. Instead, we found ourselves within the not-so-safe walls of the embassy building, once the town house of a rich Jewish merchant, while what seemed like a full blown war raged all around us. The sound of gunfire was drowned out in the roar of cannon as the Romanian revolution got really under way. Part II of the tale will be published on December 22. The writer is the wife of former ambassador Zvi Mazel. She is the author of Ambassador's Wife published in 2002, a personal account of the eight years she spent in Cairo with her husband.

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