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In Memoriam: Doina Cornea

In the summer of 1988, my mother took me along on a trip to Cluj.  My recollections are vague; the giant 'Mathias Rex' statue in today's Unirii Square (back then known as 'Libertatii -freedom - Square'), excitement at taking the tram and the bus, an oppressive summer sun beating down on the city.

But I also remember a small leafy street, mom holding my hand tight as she pushed past a small gate into a little yard, and the affectionate welcome we received from her former French Literature professor, Doina Cornea.

I knew there was an element of danger to the situation though what I understood about it is uncertain. What is certain is that they left me outside to play, while they went to speak inside a walk-in pantry. I later understood they had gone into the pantry because there were no microphones there.

At the time, I did not associate microphones with singing and live music. I understood microphones to be small, hidden devices, planted inside people's homes by state security (Securitate) when they wanted to eavesdrop on the conversations of grown-ups who didn't like Ceausescu. My parents didn't like Ceausescu. Doina Cornea didn't like Ceausescu either.

She disliked him to the point that she had, since the early 80s, written numerous letters denouncing the various ill-conceived, megalomaniacal, and socially destructive projects he had inflicted on the country. These letters, smuggled outside of Romania and then read on air on Radio Free Europe, had eventually cost her job at the university and severely curtailed her freedom of movement.

That summer, not long before our visit, she had written an open letter to Ceausescu, her most scathing letter to date, sown it up inside a doll, and waited for the opportunity to have it smuggled out by a foreigner. She found him -- miraculously, given the circumstances -- after coming out of church one day; Josy Dubié, a Belgian journalist. Their encounter led to his documentary, Le Desastre Rouge (The Red Disaster), essentially an expose on the Romanian art of survival under the Ceausescu regime.

While Dubié was on his way back to Belgium, mom and Doina Cornea were discussing the letter and its implications in a dark storage room surrounded by preserves. My mother wanted herself and my father to appear as co-signatories, but Doina Cornea was concerned. They were parents to four small children, and she'd already seen the lengths the state went to intimidate its detractors. But my parents had as well.

The year before, my younger brother, only three at the time, was thrown off a nine meter (30 foot) bridge into the river below, 'randomly' by 'an unstable individual'. Miraculously, he landed onto a small, solitary sandbank and, again miraculously, only broke his elbow. Witnesses spoke about two unknown men loitering by a car in the vicinity and then driving away once it was done. There was no police investigation in the matter.

So my mother relayed the story to my father in the middle of the aptly named Campia Libertatii (The Field of Liberty) in Blaj, and he then returned to Cluj to confirm their names as co-signatories.

Doina Cornea was a small, unassuming woman. She was strong in her faith and steadfast in her convictions. She did not call for radical social change or for the forceful removal of a tyrant. She did not incite anyone to rebel against the parasitic class devouring Romania from within.  She did nothing more revolutionary than speak the truth.

In the August letter she wrote:

"You are responsible for the spiritual desiccation of individuals, for the void of intelligence, the suppression of individual responsibility, of creativity and the inventiveness our people have been endowed with. People - treated as objects, drained of their dignity, forced into existential structures that do not fit them, paralyzed by fear in front of your crushing repressive apparatus - end up behaving as objects. That's why everything stagnates.

But you are also responsible for the physical debilitation of millions of people, due to the deprivations they are forced to endure: food, heat, medicine. The degradation of the human factor (loss of values, selfishness, corruption), in addition to political and economic causes, has led to the collapse of the institutions, the failure of industry, trade, and the ruin of agriculture. 

You are also responsible for breaking down churches, prestigious historical monuments, falsifying and destroying our past, and recently, destroying our rural villages and traditions. Earlier, our rulers built churches after their battles, perhaps even after defeats, and yet you destroy them."

These were not the research-heavy observations of an economist, or a social scientist, these were simple facts of life observable by anyone who lived -or visited -  Ceausescu's Romania.

Doina Cornea's strength lay in her convictions. Her courage was grounded in unassailable truths. But her fears and doubts were no less real, and based entirely on the harsh daily realities of life. Who else but a hero could rise so far above themselves and still deal a blow to such a brutal regime?

An authentic hero does something else too. S/he makes the rest of us feel ashamed.

Doina Cornea looked the antithesis of a hero. Not loud, not brash, not big nor imposing. Quite the opposite in fact; Kind, gentle, deeply thoughtful, faithful. She didn't have access to the technology we had. She wrote letters, by hand, on paper the size of a cigarette wrapper and in a font that is maybe even smaller than what Word can produce. She did not have vocal supporters and she did not have any guarantees her work would make it out of the country. She was armed with her faith and the truth, and that was good enough.

And here we are, complaining: "Oh well, this is Romania". "What are you going to do?" "Such is life." "Why should I care about this country if it doesn't care about me?" And so on and so on. How can we look at Doina Cornea's dedication to her cause without feeling ashamed at our lack of dedication towards ours - whatever it may be?

Real heroes make us feel ashamed not because we're so much beneath them, but because they show us how simple (not easy) it is to do what they do.

With her sad passing on Friday, the 4th of May, 2018, Doina Cornea has joined the pantheon of Great Romanians. But her life's example will continue to inspire future generations to be firm in their convictions, stand up against injustice, and speak the truth.

As Vassily Grossman wrote in Life and Fate, "Everything in the world is insignificant compared to the truth and purity of one small man."

May God grant her soul eternal rest.


  1. Superb and foarte touching

  2. AnonymousMay 09, 2018

    Matt, your moving lines make me slightly less apprehensive that Doina Cornea's legacy will go the way of the dodo; it is a mighty mystery why her straightforward creed (for instance, as expressed in a 2001 encounter with a La Croix journalist) has (had) such a hard time getting through to her connationals: " Aujourd'hui, si on demande à Doina Cornea pourquoi elle a fait tout cela, elle explique simplement : « Ce n'était pas grand-chose, juste une attitude normale. Je crois en la vérité, en la justice. J'ai voulu faire une petite chose pour signifier mon attachement à ces valeurs morales. »" ( "It wasn't a big deal, just a normal attitude.I believe in truth, in justice. I wanted to do the least of things in order to show my attachment to these moral values"). Thanks Matt.

  3. Exquisite use of language for portraying a gentle warrior.


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