How civic minded spirit grows in the community
Charlottenburg is the only circular village in Romania, made famous by fascinating aerial footage that appeared mainly online. It’s the village, where if you’re in it’s centre, you are simultaneously seen by all inhabitants. The village where it’s so quiet you can hear a cat purring in a tree. The village that religiously holds to its afternoon naps and, last but not least, the village which is seeing its own history slowly fade away.
Founded in 1771 during the reign of Empress Maria Theresia, it was colonized by Germans from Swabia. From the onset, the colony was designed as having a circular shape, having in its middle a mulberry plantation which the inhabitants had to care for. In the 19th century on this plot in the middle of the village the church, school and post-office were erected. The German community started disintegrating after the Second World War, becoming a minority in the 80s, being overtaken by the Romanian population.
In a January day like any other, close to lunch time, we stop the car right in front of the school. We see a group of people. Several women and some children standing next to the post-office. In Charlottenburg the school and the post share the same roof. The villagers have gotten used to journalists asking to hear stories about the Swabians. That’s why a lady from the group tells us right from the get go that Peter (the only living German left in the village) has left for treatment in Timișoara and no one knows when he’ll be back. We thank her for the info but insist we don’t want to talk to him, but to less ”famous” people, that we’re interested in other kinds of stories. Her’s for instance, if she’d agree to tell it. She smiles timidly and accepts, quite amazed.
Reporter: Where are you from?
I come from Maramureș. Betweeen Sighet and the Valley of the Vișeu, a place called Rona to be exact. I came here in 1987. I had an uncle who had come to this village 20 years before me. He settled here, with work. First my brother came, he’s two years older than I am, and then I came.
Reporter: Who was left in ’87 in this village?
In ’87 it was just us, the Ukrainians. In ’88-’89 came a family of Moldavians. But others come with work here were from Maramureș, Oltenia, Moldova. They came as work teams, seasonal work, and then they left. They didn’t keep houses. Only the Germans did. And when I came to the village they had started leaving because there were houses given by the State in which others were living. Moldavians for instance. That’s what we call those come from the region around Iași. Actually we Ukrainians are called Russians here, but I don’t mind it.
Banat vs. Maramureș
When I came here, I was in shock. I was 17 and I came here alone. I ask myself sometimes where that courage came from. I didn’t know the language, I was in a new village, I came by train. I’m laughing about it now, remebering it all. My brother told me which train to get onto, and at which station I should get off. I got off the train and thought the line would be passing through the village. In our village there was a train line passing through. They made the line redundant in ’73. There were big freight cars but also coaches. Our village exported salt. There are salt baths there and the people pull salt water from the wells. In Maramureș. I thought here it would be the same.
In Rona, where I come from, there are 2-3000 houses still left. We had, in Communist times, two general stores – only food-stuffs, no clothing or other things. Two pubs, a barber-shop, a confectionery, a post-office, a book shop, we had it all. And when I came to a village like this one, so dead, and I got off the train one kilometre away from the village, in the woods, I thought I had gotten off at the wrong stop, but a lot of people got off there as well so I said to myself this must be the place. A local from the village was with a tractor that had a small trailer, and everyone hopped onto this trailer. I went along with my baggage:
”Good evening! I want to get to Șarlota.”
I didn’t ask any more questions. In February it was dark at 5:30 PM and then there were no street lights. I got off not far from here. He asked me:
”What family in Șarlota are you going to?”
So I asked someone to show me where the Goteciuc family lived. I thought we still had a way to go, but it was close. Later, I learned the lay of the land. But there were no traditions here. Only children singing Christmas carols, and that was it. It was tough for me.
Although she left her traditions back in Maramureș, she tells us it was very hard. She misses the Christmas traditions from Rona, the masked men playing tricks on people in the village, the Viflaem, the holiday visits in which groups of people would go down to the pub, the confectionery or the village centre to have a chat.
In her youth in Șarlota” (the Romanian localisation of the German name of Charlottenburg) there used to be a pub. It was called The Stag. In the good old days they served food there, then it became a simple bar and people spent New Year’s there. Now it’s the community centre. The dinners hosted after funerals are held there. Next to the community centre is the Baptist Church. There are four Baptist families in the village and the Pastor comes in from the city.
There was a time when she went to Remetea Mică, to the Ukrainian church there. But she doesn’t go there anymore. She feels separated from the Ukrainian community in the area.
Reporter: Do you still speak Ukrainian?
Yes, I talk with my sister, my aunt. My children don’t speak it. I didn’t even try to teach them. A family from the village shocked me. They still talk Ukrainian amongst themselves. I can’t understand living in Romania and not knowing how to speak the language, that I cannot accept. Because it’s difficult. I was in that exact situation. I lived in an Ukrainian village, I learned Ukrainian and it was difficult for me until I learned Romanian. I thought it normal that my children didn’t want to know where I came from, or I think at least that they wouldn’t have wanted to learn the language. I didn’t ask them. It was very hard for me until I could manage to communicate with everyone here. I think you need to know the language of the country you are born in. Claiming I’m Romanian but not being able to speak a word of Romanian is not normal.
She heard about Charlottenburg from a lady who bought a house in the village of Rona and told stories about the good going in Banat. In Rona, each family had their own garden, arable land, an orchard, all privately owned. Only in school did she learn about the collective farms, at agriculture class. And that’s why a lot of people came to Charlottenburg, to work in the collective farms. Out of nine siblings, four are in Charlottenburg, four are in Spain and one is at home, caring for their mother.
Working for the Forestry Service
I worked in the collective farm raising calves and silkworms. My uncle worked for the Forestry Service. In my spare time I climbed up mulberry trees, picked their leaves and fed them to the silkworms and when they formed cocoons I took them to the Forestry Service and got cash and firewood, and so I had two extra salaries in summer time. Then you could get work. Now it’s much tougher. You have land but can’t work it because the wild game destroys the crops.
Reporter: What does the Forestry Service do with the wild game?
They own a part of the forest that is walled off. It’s a hunting park. But a lot of the forest is not walled off and the game is not kept under control. During the day you had to work the land and at night you had to guard it from boars and wild goats. Boars aren’t that dangerous. Now with the hunting going on it’s dangerous as you might meet a wounded boar. If they’re not wounded they’ll run away from you, but if wounded they will attack.
Reporter: Do people still raise animals here?
There are only two cows left in the whole village. There were lots more. We even had a cowhand until 2002-2003. I had two cows and calves, horses, pigs, but if we couldn’t market them we stopped keeping animals. People don’t even own sheep anymore. Maybe two or three per family. There are two shepherds that have their own flocks, not the village’s. One come from Moldova, the other from Banat, from here. There’s another one in Bogda raising cattle. For meat. It’s hard raising animals, you need to care for them day and night and it’s not worth the effort.
She is now a custodian at the village school. She couldn’t go to the city for work as her husband suffered from a long illness and she had to care for him. She also has nephews she needs to look after.
There are 17 children in the Charlottenbug school, from 6 neighbouring villages. Grades from 0 up to 3. Since the 0 grade has been intoduced no more 4th grade classed can be held at the school. The children leave for Mașloc in the 4th grade. There is a school bus provided by the Prefecture. It ferries the chidren to and from school. The teacher, who was born in Tomești, commutes from Timișoara.
Reporter: It must be an important village still, if you have a school and Forestry Service…
Yes. And it’s been two years now since we have a museum owned by the Forestry Service. We also have a road that leads into Buzad, through the forest road that passes by the ”Thieves Hole”. When I was young I went there often. This autumn I went there with the kids and I could barely recognise it. It’s a hole, a gallery that leads to Bogda Rigoș, to the camp there. From there it supposedly leads to Lipova. Very interesting. Other interesting things… a lad started a berry plantation, another one started a walnut plantation. This about the thieves… they weren’t really thieves, they were hajdouks.
In the Bogda camp there were thermal baths. People went there as cripples, or were blind, and after bathing in the waters they were healed. They left their canes there. There was a special place where these canes hung. And digging into the hill, trying to reach the source of these miraculous waters, they found an icon of the Holy Virgin, brought it to our church and from there it came back on its own, into the camp. And then they erected a chapel for it there, and there it stayed. But the Communists walled it in and I’d wish that someone would buy the camp back from the Minsitry and bring it back to its former glory. Now the camp is derelict. That water is really good. A brother-in-law of mine got rid of articulation pains after bathing in that water. When the camp was still open they brought the children there, a lady from around here showed them how to work traditional broadloom there. Now everything’s dead. It would be great if someone would come and do something. I’d like to do it myself but I don’t have the people I need. And I can’t do it all on my own.
When there’s a storm, the clean rain comes from over Bogda even if it brings thunder and lightning. From the other side it comes bringing hail and strong winds. Back in Rona it’s said that if the bells are tolled when the storm comes, then the storm clouds will break. I told Peter to toll the bells once but he didn’t want to.
The only living German in the village, Peter, is the church chimer. He also tends the cemetery. When he’ll be gone no one know who’ll keep the bells tolling. There are some strict rules to be followed. Bells are to be tolled in one way for women, in another for men, for mass in still another way. There’s no one else who can toll the bells. There used to be a church singer but he died last Easter and now the priest brings his own boy to sing. He’s not much of a singer because he’s still a child. At her husband’s funeral an older church singer came and performed, but he only does funerals. Germans still visit in summer. They live in the local’s houses. And they didn’t forget about the village. They helped recondition the church in 2002.
Civic minded spirit
We villagers helped of course. Each day, one family cooked food for the workers. I organized and coordinated them. It worked, nobody refused to cook. The Germans paid for reconditioning the Church, for the materials and men needed, and we helped. This spring I’d like to fix the windows as they’re broken and it’s cold inside. I have to go from house to house to raise money for double-glazed windows. In last autumn’s storm all the windows shattered and I noticed the wooden window frames are too old. I need to find a firm to come here and tell me how much the new windows will cost.
The church is Catholic but the priest allows us to hold Orthodox mass as well. Once, twice a month the father from Buzad comes here and holds mass. There’s only one Catholic left but the priest comes for him. And after the storm had blown off the roof tiles the Catholic priest came with tools and helped repair the roof. Our priest brought some plastic foil to cover the windows but they can’t be left like that. The church is a historical monument. People passing see the plastic in the windows. I wanted to talk to the inhabitants about repairing the windows at my husband’s memorial service but I couldn’t. The priest started chastising them for not going to church. The people got upset so I couldn’t bring my idea for repairs up any more.
I don’t even know how to go about the next memorial service for my husband, who to invite. I don’t want any more quarrels, people seeing the priest and starting an argument. Nobody likes the priest here because he uses very harsh language. I think he has good soul though. I understand you have to go to church but I think first he should have let them eat and drink and then tell them a few words about how nice it would be if people could come together in church in the same way. Maybe what he says is right. Who am I to judge?
He’s from Maramureș like me, but it’s said you shouldn’t judge the priest as he prays equally for all. My children don’t want to go to church. I take the grand-children with me. I don’t know for how long I can still make them do it, but for now they want to eat the communion bread and drink the wine so they can grow up big and strong. The priest didn’t go about it in the correct way, but what was I to do? I’ll hold the memorial serivce in church with the priest, and I’ll call the people at the dinner without the priest. How will that turn out… Can you imagine?
Reporter: Who did we speak to?
Viorica Ardelean but they call me ”Doboș”. That’s our family nickname. Where I come from, people knew you after your nickname. Doboș was my great-grandfather’s nickname. He was a very strong man, so my father told me. There were ox driven carts then and my great-grandfather didn’t use the break. He caught onto the wheel of the cart to stop the oxen, He was very strong. His nickname was probably linked to his strength. Once he was in the pub, so the story goes, and somebody claimed to be stronger than him. He said ”I won’t contest you but let’s go the smithy’s” and then he took the anvil from there and brought it into the pub. The other one couldn’t budge it.
Promising to take us to the ”Thieve’s Hole”, we put an end to our chat. In the meantime the children that were playing all around us have been called to table by their parents, the post-office closed and the other women in the group left without us noticing, going home. And the sun, that had been so good to us, vanished in the clouds. Mrs. Viorica had her chores to finish inside the school house and we had big plans to find out more local stories. But when we looked around eveyrthing was closed and there was no one on the road. Just a playful cat. We checked out watch. Lunch-time. Clearly we had to come back in the evening looking for stories.
This story was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2017-2018 book.
Photo credit: Flavius Neamciuc