Bukareszt, Miasto pamięci. Przewodnik (Bucharest, Site of Memory. A Guide), Warsaw, 2017, Published by The Circle of Students in History of Warsaw University (The Institute of History of Warsaw University), 265 p., includes: bibliography and references, map, graphs, photo, lexicon of local personalities, and modern Romaniaʼs calendar of major political events

This travel guide dedicated to Bucharest, the city-capital of Romania, is a daring attempt from the side of its authors, young historians of Warsaw University. The enterprise is twofold. Firstly, in the age of smart phone technology when applications strive to provide to users the easiest-accessible information in terms of both form and content, Bukareszt, Miasto pamięci proposes a concept of a travel guide located at the border of scientific and popular knowledge. Indeed, the guide we are reviewing manages to blend harmoniously the description of targeted monuments, buildings, and public spaces with the symbols associated to them by inserting them in a narrative in which the reader travels back and forth through modern Romanian history. The richness and depth of content are doubled by attractive graphic elements.

Secondly, the very choice of the guideʼs main character, the city of Bucharest, deserves a closer look provided that, in terms of tourism, this city is not traditionally considered among the hot spots of the continent, and even of Central and Eastern Europe. The authorsʼ preference is then partly justified by their overall interest, namely identification of traces of totalitarianism in urban areas, and partly by the intention to provide to the Polish traveler material on a less known to him/her place. Once more, the novelty of the approach should be underlined if we take into consideration that the Polish language materials on travelling to Romania, as scarce as they might be, focus predominantly on Transylvania. All in all, it cannot be denied that, in Poland, for years, the public image of Romania has been far from positive[1].

Bukareszt, Miasto pamięci is the third guide (ex. following Berlin and Budapest) in a series dedicated to the “Memory of Totalitarianisms in the urban space”, project that started in 2013 under the guidance of graduate and doctoral students-collaborators of the Institute of History of Warsaw University. After a complex stage of acquainting themselves with the sources on Romanian history and contemporary culture, for which the comprehensive bibliographical references at the end of the book attest, the group of historians visited the site in the autumn of 2016. Thus, the guide is the result of this complementary research, as well as of the group discussions of the authors while in the process of writing the material. Their primary ambition was to answer the question: “How do Romanian social memory and political history look like?”, whereas their main point of interest was the construction of memory in relation to the two totalitarianisms of the twentieth century, having as references the alliance of Romania with The Third Reich during World War II, as well as the Communist period (e.g. the years 1947-1989).

To the authors, Bucharest has the appearance of a mosaic made of nineteenth century eclectic architecture and Balkan bazaars punctuated by Socialist Realism and periodical earthquakes, in short, a place located between West and East, and getting equally inspired from both sources (p. 7). This stylistic hybrid that carries contrasting messages is the perfect reflection of the intricate history of the city (p. 7) and, by extension, of the country. And this, in turn, is expressed by a fragmentary and, at times, even twisted memory of the major traumas of the twentieth century.

These realities are tackled in fourteen short essays that advance chronologically through the last sixty years or so of Romanian history, from one totalitarianism to the other, or sometimes emphasizing the latterʼs interchangeable nature. Consequently, the reader will get information presented in a user-friendly way about the symbolic places of interment of both Nationalist and Communist regimes, streets and boulevards connected to political upheavals, influential twentieth century Romanian intellectuals, ex-Jewish neighborhoods, ex-Communist prisons, the institutionalized expressions of totalitarianisms (e.g. of disciplinary as well as of cultural nature), and the enumeration can continue.

As previously mentioned, the information in the guide hints to a prior thorough knowledge of the existing literature on the subject: works of methodology go along with travelogues, popular histories, or even newspaper articles and blog entries. As one would expect from a book that draws heavily on the construction of individual and collective memory, Pierre Noraʼs theory of the lieux de mémoire is amply referred to; in addition, the related contributions of scholars like Aleida Assmann or Maurice Halbwachs are employed, as well. Interestingly enough, one of the chapters suggests an adaptation of Kevin A. Lynchʼs concept of mental mapping in that that passers-by were invited to draw their personal representations of Calea Victoriei, one of the oldest and most popular avenues of Bucharest (p. 52); the results confirmed the authorsʼ assumptions about the cityʼs identity, namely its contrasting nature.

In which the rest of the sources are concerned, the guide includes a section dedicated to the most known Romanian historical and journalistic pieces translated in Polish (e.g. Lucian Boia, Vladimir Tismăneanuʼs books), as well as works of Polish historians who deal with Romanian realities (e.g. Błażej Brzostek, Małgorzata Willaume, Adam Burakowski). Each of the guideʼs presented sites of memory has its own section in which the related secondary literature is provided, as well as internet resources; the latter vary from official sites of institutions to blogs dedicated to free-time activities like escape rooms and the like.

Let us take now a closer look to the content of the guide. Apart from the general presentation of the guideʼs main chapters (pp. 11-13), the preface will give the reader further instructions on how to use the material (p. 13): each chapter opens up with a sort of visit card on which photo details about the appearance of the object of interest, and other essentials like the address, travel indications, opening hours, or cost of entrance are provided. The introductory chapter gives an overview of Romanian modern history since the establishment of the state (e.g. 1859) and up to the present; of all the traumas and turning points, the authors put under the magnifying glass a specific year, 1977, seen as peculiarly dramatic for both Bucharest (e.g. a devastating earthquake followed by the Communist regimeʼs decision to destroy a significant part of the historical city) and the Romanian citizens (e.g. massive protests against the regime) (pp. 25-26).

The tour of memory of the two totalitarianisms starts with ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Soldierʼ and the once ‘Mausoleum of the Heroes for the Socialist Causeʼ. The two are seen as symbols of the way the present-day Romanian society negotiate the ambiguous legacies of the, on the one hand, interwar Greater Romania, the state that purported Holocaust on its Jews, and on the other hand of Communism, more precisely of the lack of an organized opposition to one of the harshest regimes of the Eastern bloc; the overall impression is that of a society which attempts to shape its own vision of national heroes, and, implicitly, of its identity (p. 42).

The following three chapters are dealing with sites that in the public memory are mostly related to the interwar heritage. Calea Victoriei (Victoria Avenue), traditionally connected to the elites of the state (p. 48), claims both the institutional and sentimental memory of Bucharestʼs inhabitants; once the place where the army of the spectacularly enlarged Romanian state marched victoriously, and later the address of a modernist building, The Palace of the Telephones, where the citizens of Communist Romania were monitored via their phone conversations, it is now associated to the interwar chic, to the time when the fashionable society of the city liked to stroll here. The next essay shows the traces in todayʼs Bucharest of arguably the most famous Romanian intellectual abroad, Mircea Eliade; although his controversial biography is widely known, namely the sympathy and support given to the Romanian Fascist Movement in his youth, facts that were never retracted by their author (p. 64), Bucharest mostly remembers Eliade as a writer whose stories were centered on the city (p. 66). The last essay in the series investigates the remnants of the once thriving Jewish community of Bucharest. The always difficult relation between the ethnic majority and the Jews, dramatically severed during WWII and periodically fueled by anti-Semitic waves (e.g. Ceaușescuʼs jingoistic nationalism) is expressed by the current status of the monuments and museums dedicated to the presence of the Jewish community in the city. Unfashionable museums located in obscure places and simply nonexistent on the internet, a Memorial dedicated to the victims of Holocaust, lacking unity and seemingly not included in the cityʼs structure, all show a reluctance of society to deal with this legacy (pp. 84, 85) as if trying to push uncomfortable facts to the periphery of the public debate.

The next series of essays deal with the first years of the establishment of Communism, seen at the level of physical repression, and cultural indoctrination. Afterwards, the ‘golden ageʼ of Romanian Communism as expressed in the dictatorship of Ceauşescu is evoked, more precisely some of his creations like ‘The National Museum of Historyʼ or the pharaonic ‘House of the Peopleʼ. Consequently, one of the fiercest prison is presented: the cells of Fort No 13 in Jilava-the place where the accused (e.g. some of whom did not even develop active opposition to the system) endured physical and psychological tortures, unheard of    even by Communist standards. The guideʼs authors notice that, currently, inside the prison there are no memory signs that would evoke the daily life, the suffering of the prisoners (p. 96), as if Romanian society indulges herself in an amnesia of that age or, at best, in a half-accepted memory of that time (p. 98). The House of the Press (e.g. the ex-House of ‘The Sparkʼ), once dedicated to the all-printing enterprises, is the imposing building existing on the Moscow model in several of the ex-Communist capitals, which in Romanian realm echoed the specificity of Communism here, namely the blend of Nationalism and Socialism (p. 104) (e.g. the buildingʼs façade displays marked local architectural peculiarities).

In which concerns ‘The National Museum of Historyʼ, it was opened in 1972 and reflected Ceausescu’s official view of Romanian history. Paradoxically enough, today, the museum hosts no permanent exhibition, while the scarce items on display that belong to the museum make reference to the old age, to the Roman heritage. To the authors, this seems to be the blend of amnesia (e.g. in relation to not very comfortable epochs like Communism), as well as a claim to a glorious ancestry, seen as a passport to the Western world (p. 123); the statue in front of the Museum seems to justify this view. What is known to everybody as ‘The House of the Peopleʼ represents Ceauşescuʼs totalitarian urban project; in order to construct it in the early ʼ80s, around 20% of the old town was destroyed, including 16th century architectural monuments. Today, the building, and the controversies around its usages show how lasting the influence of Ceauşescuʼs epoch on Romanian public mind is (pp. 134, 135).

The last series of essays describe the sites connected to the fall of Communism as well as some of the ways the memory of that age is preserved or manipulated today. The symbol of Piața Universității (The Market Square) is in fact more intricate, as the place is equally claimed by the late 19th century and the memory of the monarchy (e.g. the square hosts the ex-royal Bucharest residence), and by the memory of the last days of Communism (e.g. the very place where the dictator Ceaușescu made his final public appearance); in other words this is a contested place where the symbol of the good administrator/modernizer fights with the symbol of political opportunism and failure (p. 149). The next stop, Piața Revoluției (The Revolution Square) fulfills the opposite role of Calea Victoriei at the level of urban texture; inasmuch the latter is connected to the state elites, the former represents vox populi, the birth-place of the post-1989 feeble Romanian democracy, and, today, the site where all the political and cultural causes are fought (pp. 158, 162).

The initiatives of dealing with the memory of Communism, mostly from the part of the official institutions, consist of opening to the public Ceauşescuʼs villa, refurbishing the ex-headquarter of the Securitate (e.g. the ex- Political Police), and constructing a monument dedicated to the victims of Communist repression. The guideʼs authors elaborate comments on the paradoxical nature of these enterprises. For one thing, the museum, most probably the result of the municipalityʼs intention to transform Nicolae Ceauşescu in a touristic attraction, taps on the mixed approach of the Romanian population towards that epoch (e.g. ranging from hate to nostalgia and even respect) (pp. 171, 173). The second site, the ex-headquarter of Securitate, cannot substitute via its appearance (e.g. the refurbishment plans left the original façade, including the traces of bullets caused by the shots in the area in the last days of December 1989) the paradox that this disciplinary institution which once was so present in the life of the citizens is so absent today in the public space (p. 186). The statue called ,,Aripi” (Wings) on what once was the site of Leninʼs statue  (e.g. in front of the House of the Press) represents a shy beginning of what should be a coherent politics of memory in relation to Communism, as possibly expressed in a museum, and especially in a public debate that would ideally trigger condemnation of Communism from wider parts of society (e.g. if compared to the present) (pp. 196, 197).

The final essay deals with arguably the most popular tourist destinations of the city, ‘The Museum of the Romanian Peasantʼ and ‘The Village Museumʼ and it hints marginally to the connection with Communism when discussing the former usages of one of these institutions (p. 207). The choice seems surprising to a certain extent provided that there are traces of memory in Bucharest that look to the Cold War story of ‘the scientific mastery of the Eastʼ in the attempt to justify present aspirations of Romanians when it comes to science. One of these is the building and the symbol of the ex-Institute of Physics of Măgurele Platform, which now is called ‘The National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering ,,Horia Hulubei” ʼ[2]. Therefore, the last essay of the guide looks in a way indebted to the standard view of Central Europe on Eastern Europe, namely the emphasis on the peasant roots of the latterʼs modern societies, in contrast to the gentry ethos of the formerʼs societies (e.g. to be read more modernizing). Yet, today we know that the cultivation of the spenglerian view with the resulting social traumas was, sadly to say so, a successful experiment in both archaic and modern societies.

Finally, the discussed essay appears to be the passage to the concluding remarks of the guide, which sketch the main features of contemporary Romanian identity. For the authors, this stays under the sign of ambiguity and of a complicated blend of nineteenth century nostalgia, amnesia in relation to controversial periods like the World War II or the years of Communist regime, or, at best, a hesitant condemnation of those times.

As an overall critical remark, it should be mentioned that, sometimes, it is difficult to understand to whom the guide is addressed. Some very specific references like the hints to some poets or to the local folklore might target the specialist in Romanian history, but not the wider public. In addition, although we accept the fact that the guide could not possibly exhaust the issue of memory in Romanian realm, a closer look should have been paid to what makes a Bucharest inhabitant, after all. Who is the dweller of this city? Bucharest, like many cities of the region, experienced significant movements of populations throughout its modern history; in a way, it is a transit place, for people who come from remoter places and stop here before going abroad, for instance. Then, how the new comers perceive the sites of memory if compared to the natives of the city? The same way of thinking could be applied to the Jewish community of Bucharest. Who were the Jews of Bucharest? Important answer to provide to such a question if we take into consideration the local mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities.

The graphic appearance of the guide deserves particular appreciation. The sites of interest are represented by stylized icons, which makes them attractive and easy to remember. The icons are complemented by a user-friendly map that gives the traveler a clear idea about the otherwise chaotic topography of Bucharest. On a joking side, we encourage this guideʼs responsible with the graphics to participate in the municipal contests dedicated to the identity of Bucharest, provided that the outcomes of the last years were rather disappointing. In the end, the photos, which are very original and of good quality, could have been more numerous and on a wider scale, but, obviously, the limits of the format would not allow this.

Bukareszt, Miasto pamięci is a reading of Romanian history by a new generation of Polish historians. It is a very informed, impressively accurate enterprise, abounding in both anecdotic and scientific information, and showing comparative insights. In short, this is a reading that Bucharestʼs inhabitants should do in relation to themselves and to the other regions and cities of Romania; it is meant to provide an honest reflection on the role and place of Bucharest in modern Romanian history. Therefore, we hope that Bukareszt, Miasto pamięci will soon be available to Romanian audience via its translation into Romanian. The format of the book will be a complete novelty among the existing guides on Bucharest, irrespective of the language-Romanian, French or English.

[1] The map of sympathies of Polish population towards other nationalities or other ethnic groups: http://biqdata.wyborcza.pl/mapa-sympatii-polakow-wszystkich-lubimy-coraz-mniej [last accessed 31st May 2017].

As a side note, it is interesting to notice that, according to the bar chart  presented at the end of the article, the public perception of Jews still inclines to significant negative percentages, a puzzling situation if we take into account the now numerous sites of memory dedicated to the Jewish community in the Polish realm (e.g. museums, monuments, cafés, etc.). True, the survey does not indicate whether the respondents were of rural or urban areas.

[2]  Măgurele as a future scientific community: http://economie.hotnews.ro/stiri-media_publicitate-21789461-laserul-magurele-cel-mai-puternic-din-lume-fost-asamblat-intrat-faza-testelor.htm; https://www.laservalleycompetition.ro/ [last accessed 3rd June 2017].

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