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My First Encounter with Corneliu Coposu

My First Encounter with Corneliu Coposu Memories from 1986 communist Romania

[Excerpt from Dennis Deletant, În căutarea României. O aventură personală din '65 până azi (Romanian edition), Humanitas, 2023.]

There is no reference in my Securitate file to the above episode, nor to that involving my contact with Corneliu Coposu who, after the 1989 revolution, became President of the National Peasant Party, although a report of my visit to him appears in Coposu’s own file. I had come to Bucharest that same August in 1986 with my two young children and deposited them with their grandparents while I pursued research into British contacts with Iuliu Maniu, the head of the National Peasant Party, during the Second World War. My Romanian friends told me that a key person to talk to on this subject was Corneliu Coposu, Maniu’s personal assistant. I was given his telephone number but warned, at the same time, that his house was under surveillance by the Securitate because the poker evenings that Coposu arranged with his septuagenarian friends were regarded as a cover for reviving the NPP. I telephoned Mr Coposu, explained briefly who I was, and we agreed a time when I should go to his house. He then warned me that visits to his home were monitored. Thanking him, I added that if he would be kind enough to receive me, then I was unconcerned as to what others might think.

As I approached his house on Strada Mămulari 19 at the appointed time on Tuesday 12 August, I realised that any attempt at disguising my visit was out of the question. The two-storey building was one of the only remaining structures still standing in an area which had been levelled in preparation for the construction of Ceaușescu’s new civic complex. I rang the doorbell and a tall, imposing figure with close cropped grey hair and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth opened the door. It gave straight onto the demolition zone in which huge bulldozers were scooping earth and bricks and dump trucks were rumbling past, and as I was beckoned in, so too entered an uninvited cloud of dust. The room into which I was ushered was dim, the shutters drawn against the noise and dirt outside, and the only light came from a table lamp with the regulation 40-watt bulb for economy. The presence of a shadowy figure in a corridor from the room leading to a kitchen added to the conspiratorial atmosphere. Mr Coposu introduced the figure as his sister, who smiled and withdrew into the kitchen. She reappeared some two hours later out of the mist produced by Mr Coposu’s chain-smoking with a cup of Turkish coffee which I savoured. Coposu, despite his prison ordeal, betrayed no signs of decrepitude or resignation. If any Romanian was the embodiment of the triumph of conscience over coercion, of dignity over debasement, of sincerity over sycophancy, then it was Corneliu Coposu.

He offered a paradigm for the fate of opponents of Communism. Arrested in July 1947 as a member of the National Peasant Party, he spent seventeen years in various jails, withstanding beatings and solitary confinement. His memory was remarkable and in the three hours I spent with him he related details of Maniu’s clandestine links with the British during the wartime Antonescu dictatorship. He had an appetite for recalling the past and had I not interrupted our meeting, through fear of being considered insensitive by his sister, he would have continued. At my request for a second interview he readily agreed and proposed later that week. When I returned, the first thing he said was that he had been visited by a colonel in the Securitate. This was not unusual, for ever since his release from prison he had been questioned on a regular basis about his movements and the visitors he received. The colonel had, it seemed, been concerned that Coposu had discussed with me the contemporary situation in Romania and that I had been used as a messenger by Coposu to seek help for the revival of the Peasant Party. Coposu warned me that I would be searched on my departure and that the notes which I had taken, albeit innocuous, should be put in a safe place.

He was not the only person to alert me. Dan Ghibernea, an official from the Academy of Social and Political Sciences, under whose auspices I conducted the official part of my programme, invited me to lunch the day before my departure. He told me that he had been informed about my visits to Coposu and that I had put his institution, as a creation of the Communist Party, in an embarrassing position. I told him that the visits were private, that I initiated the contact with Coposu and that since the latter was a pensioner and had no association with the regime, apart from being its victim, I could not see the reason for embarrassment. “The attention of the Securitate has been drawn to you and, by extension, to our institution, since we were expected to inform them of your intentions”, he replied. “To avoid even greater embarrassment, please make sure that when you leave you do not have any compromising documents on your person, because we know that they will search you at the airport”. I thanked him for the warning and we dropped the subject.

I was indeed searched on my departure. After I had checked in my baggage and completed customs with my children, we were stopped at passport control and taken to one side. A militia major politely asked me to go to a corner of the ill-lit customs hall where a female customs officer was instructed to search our baggage and take any papers she found. The major told me to show our baggage and I informed him that it had already been checked in. With a sigh of resignation, he told me to hand my remaining hold-all to the customs officer and left. The children asked me in Romanian why we had been singled out for inspection and this obviously made an impression on the customs officer. She expressed admiration that they, being foreigners, had learned the language and was even more sympathetic when I told her my wife was from Bucharest. My bag was full of research notes on various subjects, including some on a nineteenth-century Jewish bookseller from Iași, and as she began to finger her way through the hand-written pages, she advised me to choose which material she should take to the major. I handed the notes over to her and off she went. After about half an hour she returned with them and said that we could go—photocopies of the pages are in my file.

The children waved to her and we went into the departure lounge without, however, our passports and boarding cards, which the major had taken away. The flight was called and the other passengers were taken to the aircraft while we waited. The children began to get agitated but I calmed them by explaining that we would simply return to their grandparents if the plane left without us. I fully expected the plane to take off but it remained on the tarmac, its engines silent. Some twenty minutes elapsed before the major finally appeared clutching our documents in his hand. He apologised for the inconvenience, explained that he was only obeying orders, and said that he hoped that I would not think unkindly of the country. I was too intent on rushing down to the departure gate with the children and out to the bus to give a reply. A bus was waiting to speed us out to the aircraft and we were greeted at the top of the steps by the captain of the British Airways aircraft and a stewardess. He had been alerted to our predicament and reassured me that he would not have left us behind, comforting words that contrasted with the attitude of a few of the passengers whose glares and mutterings about “some people can’t get their act together” accompanied our passage to our seats.



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