From: Washington Post Magazine

by: Irina Eremia Bragin


The school’s headmaster made an eloquent speech linking the growing incidence of drug abuse, suicide and violence among teen-agers to the absence of heroes in contemporary life.

I couldn’t have agreed with him more. But I wondered whether he had ever known a real hero or considered the price that might be paid for a genuine act of courage.

As the daughter of a prisoner of conscience, I have thought often about the man whose act of courage resulted in my growing up fatherless.

MY FATHER, Ion Eremia, was a career officer in the Romanian army who had joined the communist under-ground—one of the few organized oppositions to the government’s collaboration with the Nazis—during World War II.

When he fell in love with my mother, Regina Boian, a beautiful young actress, he was a general and a rising star in the new regime. But Ion Eremia was an idealist and quickly awakened to the corruption of his dreams. After he was dismissed from his post for criticizing the system, he wrote a satirical political allegory, Gulliver in the Land of Lies, which exposed the hypocrisy of communism in practice. He entrusted the manuscript to a childhood friend, a sailor, who was to smuggle it out of the country to a French publisher . The friend turned out to be an informer.

Tried in secret in 1958, my father was condemned to 25 years in prison. My mother might have gone to prison, too, had my parents not divorced only weeks before his arrest in anticipation of that possibility . Instead, she lost her home and her job, and was never allowed to appear on stage again.

I was five when my father was arrested. We had lived a charmed life. Our old, stately house with its large, beautiful garden remains the Paradise Lost of my memories. I remember running to the gate to meet a tall man wearing a white

jacket with epaulets, medals and shiny gold buttons, who would lift me up, up, up and kiss my cheeks. Then one morning he was not there to walk me to kindergarten.

My mother said that Neclo, as we called our father, had gone abroad on business and that he would be back soon, very soon. I believed her even when we had to leave everything and hastily move in with my grandmother, and even later when children pelted me with snowballs and called me “convict’s daughter,” and still later when my best friend told me that her parents wouldn’t allow her to play with me anymore because my father was a criminal. “You’re a liar!” I shouted at the closing door.

For the next six years my father’s whereabouts were unknown. And then, in 1964, all political prisoners were given amnesty as part of an overture to the West.

An emaciated stranger knocked at my door . “Don’t you know who I am?” he asked. “It’s me, Neclo!”

I noticed that his deep-set blue eyes were watering. He reached out to hug me with two long, bony arms. I turned away.

During the next eight months, we almost overcame the barriers erected by the lost years. But just as we were becoming a family again, the Romanian leader, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who had been liberalizing the country’s policies, died.

Nicolae Ceausescu, whom my father considered a political and personal enemy, was named Gheorghiu-Dej ‘s successor. My parents foresaw disaster.

“Me, they’!! never let out, but perhaps you and the children can go, my father told my mother . She was Jewish, he was not. We could take advantage of Jewish emigration quotas, and my mother, brother and I joined her family in California.

For the next 25 years, while Ceausescu was in power, we could keep in touch with my father only by letter.

MOST OF MY FATHER’S acquaintances and relatives considered him not a hero, but a failure who had destroyed his brilliant career, ruined his marriage and broken up his family . What had he gained, they asked , by stubbornly adhering to his abstract notions of truth and justice?

I have struggled with this question most of my life. For if I am the only daughter of a man who would not abandon his principles, I am also the daughter of a woman who had to suffer the consequences of her husband’s acts of conscience and had to bravely pick up the pieces of her family ‘s shattered life, stubbornly teach her children how to survive, put bread on the table and then start a new life from scratch in a foreign country.

My mother had done nothing to contribute to the circumstances that led to my father’s arrest. On the contrary, she had vehemently opposed what she perceived to be his self-destructive course. Her passionate devotion had been to her children, her husband, the theater—not to the future of mankind.

“Your father was naïve. He trusted his friends, and his friends betrayed him. He put others ahead of himself and his family. No one else was willing to do the same for him!” she explained to us as we got older, hoping to teach us how to make a success of our lives.

A successful businesswoman in San Rafael, Calif., my mother continues to be more concerned about me, her head-in-the-clouds daughter, than about my brother, her no-nonsense son, an accomplished doctor who seems to have inherited her practical approach to life.

My father and mother held diametrically opposed views of life that are as ancient as Greek philosophy. “There have always been those who have emphasized absolute standards and have talked about truth, while others find the only certain reality in the process of life and the present moment,” explained George Kennedy, a former classics professor at the University of North Carolina.

Now that I am a parent, I have often found myself torn between my mother’s practical voice and my father’s romantic one . My nature has always impelled me in my father’s direction, but not without doubts and misgivings.

What do I tell my children? Should I advise them to follow the “right”

way or the “smart” way at those complicated times in life when the two do not coincide?

FOLLOWING THE DECEMBER 1989 OVERTHROW of the despot Ceausescu, my father was finally free to visit his family in the United States. ‘A beautiful dream!” my father exclaimed again and again throughout our vacation at the shore . This determined 76-year-old man didn’t want to miss anything. His face lit up in childish merriment as he learned to throw a Frisbee and ate lots of hamburgers and french fries. So many things we take for granted delighted and amazed him.

But as he helped my son build a tower out of sand, I lay on a chaise longue and read selections from a memoir, which he preserved in his mind while in prison and wrote shortly before his visit . After a 25-year separation, this was my first chance to hear his side of the story:

                    I had every reason to be happy with my life—a lovely

                    wife, two beautiful children, a successful career . But

                    every day I drove in my limousine past long lines of

                    desperate, starving people, endlessly waiting at stores

                    whose shelves were bare. My wife begged me to keep

                    my mouth shut and think about my family.

                   Did I want my children to grow up orphans? So many

                   were arrested, so many disappeared. Why flirt with

                   self-destruction? What could I possibly hope to accomplish?

                   I could have chosen to look away, to bury my nose. But

                   how could I?

Whether committed as a result of faith or foolishness, my father’s acts of conscience cost him dearly. Reading on, I see him alone in a cold, dark cell.

                    It was the third day of Christmas, St. Stefan’s Day

                  . Lost in memories, I didn’t at first notice the loud

                    coughs in the cell on my right. It was my dear

                   neighbor, the priest, the only prisoner among us

                   granted the right to cough out loud—he suffered from


                    I realized that his coughs followed the Morse code

                    signals we used to communicate with each other through

                    knocks on the wall. The priest was using his special

                     privilege to convey a prayer to St. Stefan on behalf of

                    the condemned . “Saint Stefan, you, the first martyr

                     of Christianity, listen to our fervent prayer, destroy

                    our chains and deliver us from our torturers . Amen.”

                    When I was brought out for my solitary walk in the

                     courtyard, I noticed that the new snow was stained

                    with a circle of blood. For the next few nights I

                    desperately tapped message after message to the priest

                     No one answered. He had paid for his prayer with his life.

A small wet hand touched my cheek. “Why are you crying, Mommy?” asked my three-year-old girl.

“The sun’s in my eye, darling.” I wrapped her in a towel, held her shivering body next to mine and wondered: was it worth losing his children for the sake of his ideals?

From the age of 13, I had sent my father my essays, poems, short stories. He taught himself English to understand my literary efforts. “What an important realization you have made, my child,” he wrote me, while I was still in college, responding to a letter in which I told him that I really wanted to become a writer, not a lawyer as my mother wished. “My darling, I was in my mid-40s and in very, very difficult circumstances when I came to the same conclusion . You must not silence that voice within you that is crying to be heard, or, as you yourself sense, there will always be a part of you that will remain unfulfilled.”

My father decided to go back to Romania. He felt useless here and wanted to search the archives of the secret police for the manuscript of Gulliver in the Land of Lies , the book that landed him in prison.

He left me the chapters from his prison memoir, and cautiously, reluctandy, I once again entered the world of his past.

Ion Eremia is 45, his life ruined. He has risked everything and lost. But he sets up a daily routine and follows it religiously. Mornings he works on his book, a chronicle of his life in solitary confinement . Afternoons he listens to his favorite symphonies and arias played in his thoughts. Alone in his bare cell, he creates meaning out of nothingness, imposes shape on the shapeless hours, days, years that stretch out before him.

I don’t care about the wind and the snowstorm, or the cold that penetrates deep into the bone. Never in my life have I felt more free.

My spirit is intact! I learned to sing without sound and to write without paper. Despite everything, man remains the most marvelous, the most accomplished creature wrought by nature! For this reason we must never lose faith in his greatness, in his right to be valued and, yes, to be loved.

As I work on translating the prison chronicle, I realize it was my father’s rich imagination that in his youth drew him to the promise of a socialist paradise, that enabled him later, in conditions of extremity, to transform physical suffering into spiritual triumph. Like my mother, my father is a survivor, but of a different kind. The practical wisdom of people like my mother enables us to live; the romantic vision of people like my father gives us something to live for.

I FINISHED the application essay!” my son, Andy, announces, bursting into my room. He has been working hard on it for many hours. I read it, tears now streaming down my cheeks:

                    “I got to know a real hero . My mom’s father

                    , Neclo, was put in prison for speaking out against

                     the government . After six years of being shut up

                     alone in a dungeon, he was released. Then my mother,

                     uncle and grandmother left the country. Neclo was not

                     allowed to leave with them.

                    “Learning about Neclo has made standing up for my

                    beliefs very important to me . In fifth grade I wrote my

                     teacher a letter of protest when I felt she had made an

                    unfair decision regarding one of my friends.

                    I am now the student council representative for my class

                     and am fighting hard to make things better at our school.

                     I’m proud of my Romanian grandfather . I hope I get to

                     see him again!”

“I’ll send a copy to Neclo,” I tell Andy, hoping that my son’s gift will make up for all the gifts he and his grandfather have never shared.



October 1997. Vol. 151. No. 906. (Pgs. 119-124)

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