by Nathaniel Askanase
My mother grew up in Romania and is still a citizen there, but she will never be the one to let someone know that. She certainly didn’t want people to think my sister and I were Romanian, starting early on with her choice to refrain from teaching us Romanian, isolating us linguistically from an entire branch of our family. She elected instead to raise us speaking French as a second language because it was cultured. She avoids interaction with Romania outside of family matters, and you would be hard pressed to find any sort of nationalistic Romanian trinkets around our home.
Being Romanian certainly doesn’t do her any favors outside of EU citizenship. A country known primarily for its vampires and for being a post-communist eastern European wasteland isn’t something of which one would necessarily be proud. Mostly she, not wholly incorrectly, identifies herself as higher class or otherwise “above” other Romanian-Americans and Eastern European-Americans, a group not generally looked upon favorably in the American pop culture canon. She’s a Columbia alumna and doctor; the only other Romanian we know in the city is our friend’s doorman.
While I don’t view Romanian heritage as she does, never having had to experience its brutal communist rule, I am similarly hesitant to embrace it. If someone asked me what my background was, I would tell that person I was Jewish. My mother’s side of the family is entirely Orthodox Christian Romanians (she converted to Judaism). So it is with great disdain I identify with a country and visit relatives that denied their involvement in the Holocaust until the 1990s and whose greatest modern hero is a monarch who allied himself closely with Nazi Germany and organized Romanian troops to deport and kill Jews.
My Romanian and Jewish backgrounds are what made me see Holocaust survivor and historian Elie Wiesel as a personal hero. He, a Romanian, went to the country in the 1990s to remind its people of the atrocities their ancestors committed during the Holocaust and, moreover, to allow them to reconcile and dedicate monuments and museums to Holocaust awareness and remembrance.
It is with this in mind that I disembark the plane when I visit Romania, and it is with this in mind I embrace my relatives, some of whom deny the Holocaust and all of whom have parents or grandparents that were complicit in it. Like Wiesel returning on his tour of remembrance and reconciliation, I remember that despite Romania and my ancestors’ role in the Holocaust, that Romania is my country and the people I visit there are my family. And I know that my mother keeps in mind Wiesel’s lesson of acceptance when we visit Romania or meet Romanian-Americans.