By Dan Lazar Trifan
English translation: Dan Lazar Trifan
English editors: Nancy Meshkoff (Vermont, USA) and John D. Powell (Vermont, USA)
Interview published in the book “At the roots, at origins … Talks at Subcetate” by Doina Dobreanu and Vasile Dobreanu, Publisher: Cezara Codruţa Marica, 2014
Romanian title: Dan-Lazăr Trifan –Despre Dor (Dor: Romanian word for longing, yearning)
Doina Dobreanu: Dănuţ Trifan, I’m so glad to see you each time we meet again in Subcetate. Thank you for agreeing to this online talk. So many years have passed since you left home. Your first step was going to High school in Târgu-Mureş in 1966. Let’s look at life in your family home beside Călnaci Stream in Subcetate, when you had a childhood full of freedom and unlimited dreams. Who were your parents? Who sent you out into life with a specific genetic endowment and education?
Dan-Lazăr Trifan: Before answering, I want to thank you for the honour of being placed in the company of the many impressive people in Talks at Subcetate. I never knew how much Subcetate has contributed to the world until I saw the range of personalities in your book. I admire them all, although I know only a few, and I feel privileged to offer my own modest contribution to it. I also want to confess that I cheated a bit because I had other members of my family look at my responses and verify some of the information.
My father was Gheorghe Trifan, called “George Covaciu”, from the Hungarian word kovács, meaning “blacksmith”. My mother was Viorica Trifan, born Dobreanu, a family name that comes from the Slavic root dobre, meaning “good”. Talking about them is something very special, simple and pleasant on the one hand, but extremely difficult on the other hand. Why? Because I have a whole universe of memories. Nothing could be more rewarding than talking about these two wonderful people, but it’s also difficult because, for us, they were the creators of an entire world, our childhood universe.
It was, of course, a universe contained within Subcetate’s universe, but for the Trifans it was something special, something particular. By “the Trifans” I mean the family created by the union of a Dobreanu and a Trifan. The Trifans’ universe was a space they created by nothing else but by what they were, by what they represented for us, by what they did for us, and especially by how they did it. It was a mixture of conformity and nonconformity, respect for tradition and breaking traditions: the simple peasant life and the life of craftsmen, given that my father was a blacksmith and my mother had a passion for weaving. For us kids, it was a mixture of strict discipline and a freedom that other children didn’t have or couldn’t afford.
My father, Gheorghe, was born in 1909 in the village of Dămuc, Bicaz County, to a family of peasants, shepherds, and raftsmen (log driver). He ran away from home at age 16, to learn to be a blacksmith, breaking family tradition to create his own path. He opened his smithy in Subcetate, across the mountains from where he was born.
My father went through the First World War as a child refugee, and through the Second as a Romanian soldier fighting for the Germans. The 1940 Trianon Treaty had made almost half of Transylvania, (including Subcetate), part of Hungary, a German ally, and my father was forcibly recruited into Miklos Horthy’s Hungarian army. (In 1944, Michael of Romania’s coup d’état brought the Romanians to the side of the Allies.)
Since he served with a unit of mechanics behind the frontline, it was difficult for him to get far enough to the front to cross over to the Romanian army. While attempting it, he was taken prisoner by the Russians. But he was lucky to have two things that allowed him, and many of his brothers-in-arms, to avoid the Soviet gulag: his Romanian citizenship and his exceptional mother in-law, Ioana Dobreanu.
My grandmother, Ioana, had been given a letter that had been smuggled out of the prison camp, and she walked—actually walked! —180
kilometers from Subcetate to Brasov. There, stubborn and determined, she alerted the Romanian authorities to the presence of Romanians in the Soviet prison camp. So they were liberated, and avoided the Siberian gulag, where so many others who were less fortunate endured inhuman treatment or died.
So he escaped hardship in the gulag, only to be labeled by the communists as a kulak, (that is, a better-off peasant whom they considered to be an enemy of poor peasants), because of his threshing machine, tractor, and smithy.
And that thresher, which worked up and down the Mureş River’s villages every autumn, bringing in the grain harvest for many farms—where had it come from? He had built it himself, in the winter of 1945, while in a wheelchair, sick with jaundice, after his months in the Soviet prison camp in Brasov.
So that the kulak designation would not affect his children’s future, he decided to leave his family for two years, living alone and isolated in the mountains.
In the late fifties, he abandoned his smithy and got himself hired as a maintenance mechanic at the sawmill in Hodoşa and joined the millworkers’ union. But the kulak taint remained, and his two older children, Ilie and Radu, were stigmatized by this false and abusive designation.
My mother, Viorica, was born in 1920, the oldest of five sisters and a brother. Her parents were Ioan Dobreanu, the village furrier, and Ioana Rus Dobreanu. The other villagers gathered at their home in the evenings, when my grandpa would read them the newspapers and discuss politics. The Dobreanu branch of the family, to which you and I belong, are descendants of the founder of Subcetate. I know you studied the history of our village and published a book on it.
Now, when I talk about my mother, I can’t help getting emotional. I can’t be anything but emotional when talking about her. I have never seen her sad, never seen her nervous, never seen her lose her temper. I’ve seen her concerned, yes, but she usually wore a discreet and enigmatic smile, knowing and understanding everything, even before it happened, crossing over difficulties and hard times as if they didn’t exist. A little handful of a woman, petite and slender, yet able to move mountains or to bend a harsh, proud, stubborn man like my father. Incredible how much power lay in such a fragile woman, married at only 16 years old, while still a child, who brought up six, fine children herself.
There was something mysterious in her being, something supernatural—divine, I’d say. Her inner power could come only from love and faith. Love of family and children, of her vocations as a peasant, a weaver, a florist; and love of life. And faith, a devoted faith, intrinsic, intimate, felt rather than spoken, lived rather than just practiced.
Churchgoing didn’t define her faith, or my father’s. Faith was in their entire way of acting, thinking, and behaving. Their evening prayer was an act of mystery; holy, constant, intimate. My mother’s faith was her way of life, was her life itself. My father’s, too. They raised their children in that faith, but at the same time they gave them the liberty (and the responsibility) to choose; they helped them to build their own beliefs and faith, exercise their own freedom of conscience.
They were people with passions, both of them. My dad loved his work and lived for and by it. He was an inventor, holding patents on innovations and inventions, and he could work materials, especially iron and steel, like an artist. Whatever his hand touched was under his control. He dominated them, the things. They listened to him, whether it was iron, wood, a tractor, a thresher, a plough, saws, nails, or screws. He was a blacksmith and loved iron things. He collected them, gathered them from wherever he found them, even from the road or from the mud.
He didn’t speak much, but he always had “a word”. Now, this- “a word”- needs to be explained. He once told me that “a man has to have a word.” And it took me a long time to understand what he meant. Later, in college, following the mathematical proofs of theorems, I often came across the saying, “necessary and sufficient”, and at some point I made the connection: I understood that a man, (or a woman), has to have a word, an opinion, a position on any matter—but one word, not two, not three- One- To be consistent and true to himself. It’s a life philosophy that makes a person someone you can work with and count on. The world in which I live now calls such a person “reliable”.
My mother’s passions? They were gardening, flowers, and sewing, weaving on a loom my father made for her, harvesting vegetables and other crops from our farmland.
She was a born artist with an extraordinary perception of colors and shapes. In love with them. Carpets adorned her house. She sewed the
traditional shirts we wear on holidays. She left to each one of us a kind of legacy. I carry with me some pieces she made especially for me. I’ve shown them at exhibitions, for the Romanian culture days we organized in Quebec in previous years. When people expressed their admiration and took pictures of them, I thought about what she would have said.
“Well, Dănuţ, those people, do they really like my work? They took a lot of pictures …”
DD: Your brother George said, about your mother: “We six children began our lives crawling around our mother’s loom, and we first stood on our feet by pulling ourselves up on her loom. We mold ourselves after the people, things, and places we grow up around; and we are never able to detach ourselves from them!”
DLT: One night, some school children took flowers from her garden. When she saw what they’d done, she cried because several others had been stepped on and destroyed. She went to the school and complained to the teachers, not because the children had taken the flowers, but because they’d trampled others. “They only had to ask me, and I would gladly have given them the flowers they wanted.” A saying that defined her thinking, her way of looking at life, was: “Why always put the bad up front, when the good fits in anywhere?”
I’ve left for the end one of the greatest passions of both my parents, something very important to us children: their great thirst for knowledge, the avidity with which they read, watched the news, read the newspapers, listened to the radio, and followed our learning. They learned with us. We learned from them, and they learned with us.
I’ll stop here, because otherwise you won’t have enough pages left in your book for anyone else. This is the difficulty I was talking about: nothing I say about them will ever be enough. They are a world, the space in which we lived, a universe beyond time and space, beyond our lives. It’s been a long time since they passed over to the other world, to nonexistence, but the space and the world they created still exists and will exist forever in my heart. If I ever have the time to write, I will dedicate a book to them—one to each of them, and another one to both of them together.
DD: Touching words about your parents!
Thanks to your brother George, I have a photo from your parents’ wedding and got to hear his thoughts about it: “You can read their history in this picture. My mother was 16, my father 27. My mother accused her parents of cutting her girlhood short. My father left his village and the family home after a big disappointment. The two of them lived together for 52 years and had six children. They were like two sharp, solid rocks, bound together very strongly by their children. My mother always kept her purity of mind and spirit. No judgments were needed, no rational analysis or synthesis. She based her behaviour and her attitudes on what she felt. She was a lover of flowers, of pets, and, most of all, of children. Both of them respected and took responsibility for truth, dignity, and honesty. Each provided their children with the ability to earn a living through their work. In describing them, you’d have to talk about old values that are acquired only through hard work and a lot of patience … and so much more!”
What did it mean to you to grow up in a traditional Romanian village, in the Subcetate of the fifties and sixties? What did it meant to live in a beautiful family with loving parents, worthy people, willing to sacrifice, passing on to their kids, by means of their own example, things like kindness, respect for work, an ethical and moral code in the spirit of their tradition, as well as a love for learning?
DLT: Perceived through the eyes of Dănuţ, born on August 1, 1951, the fifties and sixties are one world. But the perception of the one who went through those years and the years beyond, the Dan Lazăr Trifan you are interviewing now, tends to alter Dănuţ’s perception, because he sees a different world. That’s normal, right? Life experience alters our perceptions. The child’s existential and cognitive interior provides one perspective. From where I stand today, with the experiences and accumulations of a lifetime from different places, continents, and cultures, I frame the childhood space in a larger context, contained within the whole, and my perception changes accordingly.
When I first felt this tendency to amend my original perception of my childhood world, I did not like it. I felt that by adding to and completing memories through rational understanding we actually lose something important, something essential to Dănuţ’s perception. He, the kid, still exists, he’s part of me, of my children, of all children in Subcetate then and now. So for the kid back there in time, for the kids of today and tomorrow, the original perceptions must be kept intact, unaltered, unchanged. Above all, they must be passed on. It’s a real challenge, keeping the feeling of this lost world even as memories or emotions, isn’t it? “I do not crush the world’s corolla of wonder and I do not kill mysteries,” wrote Lucian Blaga in 1919 in his Poems of Light. Too much rationality and the ransacking of memories and events for causes and explanations are useless here. The authentic reliving of these memories in all their emotional force is sufficient.
So, what did it mean to grow up in the Subcetate of the fifties and sixties?
It meant having the great luck to be born and grow up in an oasis of stability in emotional, social, moral, cultural, and religious terms. This stability alone can give the future adult self-confidence and form him as a balanced person strongly anchored into a well-defined way of life. Even if things change later on, he starts life with a solid reference point, a benchmark. For example, family life- working with parents, the complexity of life in the countryside, where tasks are extremely diverse- give children raised in the country many more skills and habits than children raised in the city. A child growing up in a big city, hemmed in by buildings, amid the noise of cars and pollution of all kinds, beset by too much information and too many too-rapid changes, does not always perceive the essence of the human being. The soul does not learn contemplation and the mind does not acquire introspective ability, does not have time to acquire depth in feeling and thinking.
I do not pretend to have the absolute truth about this. Factors such as parents, the social microclimate, school, or luck can totally change things. It’s more like a personal statistical observation.
Just to illustrate what life in Subcetate was like for Dănuţ, it gave him the chance to read almost all the books in two libraries, the school’s and the municipality’s, without discrimination or selection. Was that good? Was it bad?
He also had the chance to experience more serious or more playful projects, which some might call crazy, silly experiences. Now, here I should really tell you about a few!
By fifth or sixth grade, I was fascinated by aviation and subscribed to a science and technology review. I designed a glider and, to my surprise, my father, who was usually very thrifty, even stingy, agreed to give me the necessary materials. I worked all fall and all winter, in the house, in the big room at the downstream end of our house by the water, a room that was not entirely finished. By spring, I had finished my glider. Surprisingly, my dad came regularly to ask me how my work was going and to check my technical solutions, and for some reason he always had a slight smile under his moustache. So I finished the fuselage and installed the wings, waiting for the snow to melt so I could try it out by rolling it off the top of the very steep northern edge of the stream and landing in the big field on the other side. When I went to move it out of the house, I realized that the wings were so long that it would not pass through the door. My father—who of course was present—asked me very seriously, “Now, Dănuţ, do you mean to demolish the wall to get it out?” You could see he could hardly keep from laughing uproariously. Of course, he forbade me to try out my glider as well!
When I was five or six years old, my father began to take me with him during the threshing season, to villages from Răstoliţa to Deda or Dumbrava. I still have very vivid memories of life in the countryside during the harvest period, with the fragrant orchards, the barns filled with sacks of freshly-threshed grain from my father’s thresher, with people working from dawn to dusk, without rest but with pleasure and passion. I liked the villages so much—sinewy, hard-working men, the beautiful women, and the children… and the young girls, hmm! One year, when I returned, I told my mother that when I grew up I would take seven wives, one from each of the villages we went to. This story made the rounds of the village for a while; it is part of my history now. It is true that, later on, when I was a teenager, I stopped once in Dumbrava to see if I could track down one of the seven I’d had in mind—a brunette with long hair and bright, black eyes like two coals, sweet as a ripe plum and as full of life as a fountain of fresh, cold water.
Then there were my celluloid rocket experiments. One of the rockets I built, rather than shooting upwards, went off in another direction, entering the smithy through a small hole in a window and shooting right past my father’s ear. Another one I installed on a small boat. When I tried it in the stream behind the house, it exploded, and a policeman came to investigate who was shooting off illegal firearms.
Or maybe I should talk about the opportunity I had when one of our teachers took me and a colleague to spend two months in the high school’s physics and chemistry laboratories, checking and operating all the devices and learning how they worked.
Or how lucky I was to have a math teacher so interested in his students that, after hours, without being paid, he guided us in solving mathematical problems for the nationalMathematical Gazette, and helped us gain the title the magazine gave to its best and most frequent contributors: “Permanent math problem solvers”.
All this shows how fortunate we were to have a school in the village with wonderful teachers. They were able to organize a long trip across half the country, for almost all of the students, turning two passenger cars into dormitories with canteens, where we had everything we needed. At train stations, the cars were left on sidings while the teachers took us to visit factories, museums, schools, and historical places. We learned the country we were living in. I was in third grade, I think.
DD: I remember that trip with pleasure. I was there, too.
DLT: Life in Subcetate also meant living with my sister and brothers: Ilie (Romanian for Elijah), the oldest, the eternal adventurer, a fine intellectual and an exceptional craftsman and mechanic, with golden hands, I would say. He was my mentor in life for a period of time; Radu, a stationmaster and railway transport worker, a conquering, handsome man, always in a good mood, inspiring confidence; Doina, a French and Spanish teacher with a passion for languages, attentive, generous but extremely demanding; Ghiţă, another enthusiast, a mechanical engineer, an engineer by definition, let’s say, but idealistic and bohemian in good measure; and Emil, also an engineer, a geological engineer, but with many other talents—music, painting, photography— “bourré de talents”, as a Frenchman would say. I have enough stories for several volumes for each one of them.