By Laura Parker
My mother, father and I emigrated to Australia from Romania when I was eight years old. I frequently travel back to see my grandparents, who live in the capital, Bucharest. On a recent trip, I asked them about life under communism. Romania’s communist regime was a 42-year slog marked by food shortages and mass genocide. The country’s dictator of 24 years, Nicolae Ceaușescu, encouraged citizens to inform on their friends and neighbors. Writers and journalists had it particularly bad; my mother says many writers simply disappeared, never to be heard of again. Some tried to flee across the border to neighboring Hungary. If they were caught, they’d be shot. “People were jailed, beaten and killed in cold blood for simply whispering their unhappiness,” she told me.
It all came to a head in the winter of 1989. The revolution was swift and bloody. I was too young to know what was happening, but my parents sent me to live with my grandparents while they took up arms and joined the fight against Ceaușescu’s secret police. They were shot at, and escaped. Many of their friends and colleagues were killed. It was over in a few days. Ceaușescu was publicly executed by firing squad in an hour-long trial televised across the country.
Before hearing this, I'd never really thought of Romania as my home. It's where I was born, but I left so young that all of this had slipped past me. As a teenager, I'm ashamed to say I never really asked my parents about their life before Australia. I knew the story of how they'd met, and picked up bits and pieces from the conversations between my mother and my grandmother, but I'd never sat them down and demanded they tell me everything. One day, it dawned on me: who were my parents before they were my parents? How hard had life been for them when they were my age?
Hearing their stories, Romania became much more than simply the country of my birth. My family's history made it feel suddenly real, and intimate. It wasn't just part of their history; it was also part of mine. Now, every time I visit, my grandfather likes to take me to the centre of town so I can see the buildings that still bear the scars of that winter. The main university, the library and the opera house have never been refurbished—the bullet holes are still visible on the facades.