THE workhorse reared up, kicking with a vengeance. His owner, struggling to keep a firm grip on the neck rope, scrambled to avoid the horse’s hooves. The stallion couldn’t be tamed; his ill temper could kill a man.
The owner shouted. “This horse is a demon! He needs to be shot!” The man’s struggle was interrupted by my father’s booming voice.
“I’ll buy the horse!”
~ Summer 2005 ~
Memories like this one race through my mind as I stand at the edge of what used to be my father’s tomato field in Torceşti, Romania.
When the news of my father’s death had come the year before, I was unprepared for the immense feeling of loss. There was nothing I could have done to prolong his life, nor would I have wanted to draw out his suffering. But I had missed attending the funeral with my family and the closure that would have accompanied it.
My father, Ionel Cismigiu, grew up in the small town of Umbrăreşti, Romania. No one remembers exactly why or when he acquired the nickname of “Cuţa” (pronounced “Coot-za”). My mother, Antonia, still lives here on our family farm.
My father was a large figure in my life, even though he only stood five foot, six inches. He carried himself like a gentleman, shoulders square, hair combed to the right or straight back, so he looked stately in an overcoat or blazer. He had a warm and confident personality, but he was also stern and determined. He was not afraid of anything, which his stocky physique personified.
The workhorse stallion, Simi, became a vital member of our family. In this regard, he was very much unlike the Communist Party. My father’s reaction to and relationship with the stallion came to symbolize and emphasize his core character. I wonder if, like the horse, there might have been many Communist officials who came to quietly respect my father’s fearlessness, seeing that he meant no harm.
Many Romanians under communist rule have a life story to tell. But our family’s experience was unique due to choices my father made to protect us from communist oppression and the care our mother took to prepare us for a better life.
My father, scarred by the brutality he had witnessed as a child, vowed to never surrender to the Romanian Communists. He waged a war without bullets to retain our family’s dignity and enraged the Communist-elite by often beating them at their own game. As a result, harassment and intimidation were a bitter concoction our family sometimes had to drink. We did not like the taste, but the alternative was to live in the shadow of oppression that stifled human spirit.
I am proud of my parents—very proud. Their lifelong zeal to keep the spirit of freedom alive came at a cost that many could not pay. Their determination was an inspiration, a beacon of hope to many weary Romanian hearts longing for liberty and darkened by the disillusion of communist ideals. Joy and sorrow were interwoven into the fabric of our family’s life story, but we focused on happiness and contentment.
My grandpa always believed the Americans would come and liberate Romania after WWII. He never lived to see the day, but ironically, his dream did come true. It skipped a generation and impacted me.
It has been decades since I worked in this tomato field at the age of ten in 1981. It feels good to be back. It is time for this visit. I am ready for this reflection. There are stories my son has never known and several that even my wife has never heard. They are timeless stories that people in every generation, in every country, can identify with.
Many people endure hardships and long for liberty, but many have no idea of the perseverance required to prevail.
My father’s wisdom echoes in my ears. “Make your own destiny.
Don’t let anyone rob you of your dreams.”
Stepping forward and bending down, I lift a handful of warm soil, sifting it through my fingers and trying to connect with the past. The smell reminds me of the bountiful harvest and the opposition we encountered to get it. My imagination holds the leathery scent of our workhorse and the earthy fragrance of the freshly plowed field. I brush the dust on my jeans as I straighten, inhaling the crisp morning air. I hold my breath and close my eyes, then release the air through pursed lips, reluctant to let it go. I open my eyes again, slowly scanning every detail. Something deep inside me rises to the surface, and my senses float into the past.
As I walk across the field, I feel the warm wind brush my face, bringing with it childhood memories. I look to see where it is going and drift with the wave of nostalgia.
I have been a child of privilege, though I did not think so before learning this story. While I was enjoying the comforts and pleasures of life in America as a young boy, a lad in Romania, Nicolae Cismigiu, was living under conditions of communism. For me, freedom was a given, but for him it was only a dream.
His was a country rich in beautiful people and places but ravaged by the occupation of foreign authorities and internal dictators. From the time of signing the 1944 armistice with the Soviet Union, communism had corrupted the fabric of Romanian society, unraveling thread by thread the dignity of life and transferring the power of privilege to those too calloused to care about the damage they were doing.
The socialist experiment did not work as advertised. Some of the communist ideals sounded good, but they failed when implemented by self-serving bureaucrats. They robbed the human spirit of any desire or motivation to excel. The Communist Manifesto was “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” The Cismigiu family creed, unwritten but lived, was to work hard, persevere, prosper, and help others.
The terrorizing effects of communism had long been part of Romanian history. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia is credited for also establishing Marxist communism in Romania. Nicolae remembers stories about his grandparents living through the 1920 bomb attacks orchestrated by partisan groups against the government. Aside from cowards who benefited from human suffering and suppression, most Romanians did not want communism any more than the majority of the human race. But human behavior often is driven by survival instincts and fear.
It was mandatory after 1947 to join the Communist Party. Some people resisted by fleeing and hiding, but then were hunted down both outside and within Romania. Many people registered as Communist supporters merely to preserve their livelihood, with no heart for their actions. This was true even within the ranks of Communist authorities. There was some good among the bad. It was a dangerous balancing act where individuals in the government could have been severely punished for showing simple acts of kindness and leniency.
Political power struggles might have economic effect on the masses, but rarely are they designed to benefit the average citizen. Romania was no exception. The political elite led an extensive propaganda campaign to convince citizens that forfeiture of land and liberties would lead to more peace and propriety. But the communist ideals of Dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu (1967-1989) simply led Romania to the brink of starvation.
The Iron Curtain was both a physical and ideological barrier that separated the Soviet bloc from the West. Its veil obscured the view of truth from both sides. Those living behind its shroud, blanketed with communism, had little exposure to the Western life of liberty. Communist control stifled the flow of news in or out of the country.
The Tomato Smuggler brings to life the heart-wrenching reality of enduring harassment and intimidation in 1980s Communist Romania. The story satisfies curiosity about living behind the Iron Curtain and under the influence of communism during pre-internet Romania.
Tensions between Communist-controlled countries and those opposed to their aggression could be strongly felt during the tumultuous years between 1947 and 1991. In the 1980s, most of the world might have lived only with the fear of the Cold War; the Cismigiu family lived right in the shadow of its ugly influence.
The family built a thriving tomato business. Their tomato field was a symbol of their struggle for independence and freedom—their struggle for life. The local Communist authorities despised the father’s
ingenuity and success. There seemed to be hatred bred by jealousy, envy, and stupidity from Communist authorities too calloused to care about the damage they were doing.
The father led his family to both subtle and overt resistance. He was driven by an inner strength that influenced every aspect of the family life. The mother also paid both a monetary and emotional price to ensure her children were well educated and prepared for a better future.
I was introduced to Nicolae when I was forty-seven years old and he was thirty-eight. I sensed there was a depth to him from the moment we met during a job interview. Call it a sixth sense. Call it intuition. He was genuine. I felt a depth of maturity and character no textbook could have taught him. Our mutual respect encouraged Nicolae to share a very personal portion of his life’s experience with me. The realism of the story captivated and inspired me. Everyone has a life story to tell, but the riveting reality of Nicolae’s narrative has portions I wanted to preserve for their historical richness and others to prevent history from being able to repeat itself.
—Mark Lee Myers