In the era of globalization, of the democratic leveling of all differences in the name of non-discrimination, identity is at stake. The current trend of political correctness, with the new perspective on gender, age, race, nationality or social category, the blurring of distinctions during the passage from the end of one history to the beginning of a another one are all reasons why the very idea of identity must be looked into from a new angle. The “Third Europe Foundation” in Timișoara, Romania has been trying to do this for two years. It is an interdisciplinary research centre focused on the study of Central and East Europe. Made up of four study groups (the Cultural Studies Group, the Socio-Political Studies Group, the Anthropology – Oral History Group and the History Studies Group), the “Third Europe” attempts to focus on the evolution and interaction of Central and East European territories, multiethnic and multicultural by definition.
Of the four groups, the one centred on anthropological studies has been one of the most active. It studies the Banat as a specific locus of permanent exchange, a region of contact between the Balkans and the centre of Europe, a space of cultural transfers. The ideal illustration of the type of relationships established along history between the centre (the Austrian Empire since the 18th century and the Romanian state since 1918) and the periphery (the area being, at times, the easternmost and the westernmost province of two political territories), the Banat is a place where the observation of identity formation, negotiation and reconstruction can be rewarding. Identity is regarded from a multidisciplinary perspective due to the very composition of the group, made up of undergraduates, graduates and researchers in the fields of anthropology, history, philology, philosophy and psychology. Since 1998, the main project of the group concentrates on “Family memory and culture – multiple identities in the Banat” – a theme which has so far proved very fruitful. Coordinated by the Smaranda Vultur, researcher and professor at the West University of Timișoara, the anthropology department of the “Third Europe” chooses the family as a minimal area of cultural interaction and the current practices of today’s Banat in which the family is involved as instances of cultural and ethnic adaptation. Special attention is paid to the process of identity modeling and (re)construction as revealed in interviews with subjects belonging to various ethnic and social groups who are telling their life’s story.
The process of identity evaluation is secured by the retrospective discourse, the preservation of individual memory in the name of a collective history being an important aim. The researchers take into consideration other memory practices besides the oral one (the life story). The visual support offered by photo albums, official documents belonging to family members, written texts such as letters or diaries is also judged to be essential in order to complete the huge puzzle. By this approach, the group wishes to prove that identity is shifting both from a synchronic and from a diachronic perspective. Synchronically, it is a permanent redefinition of frontiers, of relationships with the same or a different Other, a redefinition of the Self as such by analogy or contrast. Diachronically, it is changing with each personality that looks into it. The life story does not belong to the big, objective history, but to a subjective one, with the individual reconsidering it at each stage of the narration, of the memory recovery.
A very important dimension of the identity discourse around which the Anthropology-Oral History Group is centred is the imagological one, inherent in a space in which such notions as citizenship, nationality and ethnicity have changed many times, causing the upset of “Selfness” and “Otherness”, a reversed discourse on identity and difference. The researchers study the mentalities and practices of various ethnic groups in the region of Banat (about twenty ethno-cultural communities settled here for many centuries) and the interesting way in which population migrations and political events have turned majorities into minorities and the other way round, thus altering the angle from which one group is looking at another and their discourse about one another. Another important aspect the researchers take into account in analyzing the life stories is the phenomenon of inter-ethnic marriage that changes once more the already-not-so-clear distinction between the Self and the Other. Identity can no longer be unilateral, it is an interaction, a negotiation according to new coordinates.
The initial project of the researchers was also to refresh the discourse from a political perspective. The fifty long years of communism have caused a severe alteration in the individual’s view on the benefic nature of difference and on its importance for a healthy definition of cultural, social and national identity. At the same time, the period of censorship has spread the dark veil of amnesia over events such as deportations and political imprisonment. The interviews with subjects who experienced these moments directly or as family members are meant to be a form of compensation for the persecution and imposed silence. The retrospective discourse shared with the interviewers helps the subjects come to terms with the collective past, with the great time of history by reconsidering his/her own smaller past. It also gives them the chance of a long prohibited and delayed reply to the totalitarian regime, of rethinking their own status of victims.
The group has organized an archive of recorded interviews and written documents, the result of a very intense field activity, carried by the members in Timișoara (a very typical Central European city, with a long tradition of multiculturalism) and a series of Banat villages inhabited by various ethnic groups (Romanians, Germans, Serbs, Hungarians, Roma, Bulgarians, Slovaks, Czechs, etc.). The archive is a rich evidence of the sometimes quite different ways in which these communities of various languages and confessions, think and speak of family life, work, education, culture, cooperation, daily practices and holidays and a proof of how they have come to shape one another’s views. As the coordinator explains in an article devoted to the presentation of the archive through the agency of an exhibition called Field, organized in June 1998:
“Lived in turns as intimate or social, private or public, fortunate or unfortunate time and space, under the sign of both normality and crisis, challenging through the multitude of suggestions, this revived universe speaks of the history of an area that witnessed the rise and fall of an empire (the Habsburgia), the national recovery, the wealth of the inter-war period, but also the horror of two world wars and, moreover, the one now analyzable communist totalitarian regime. It also evokes the immediate past, the joy and sacrifice of a revolution, the ephemeral and traumatizing period of transition [to democracy], the nationalistic anger, as well as the inter-ethnic communication and cooperation. It does so indirectly, from the perspective of lived and retold lives, gathering events and explaining meanings relevant to the destiny of an individual, a family, a community.” (Vultur, 1998:206-7, my transl.)
The Anthropology – Oral History Group of the Foundation decided to include a larger public among the witnesses of the history recreated by its archive, offering a selection of materials in book form. Continuing the tradition initiated by a volume published before the group developed and joined “The Third Europe”, Istorie trăită, istorie povestită. Deportarea în Bărăgan 1951-1956 (Experienced History, Retold History. The Deportation to Bărăgan 1951-1956) (1997), the books coordinated and edited by Smaranda Vultur – Lumi în destine (Worlds in Destinies) (2000) and Germanii din Banat (The Germans of Banat) (2000) – take over the role of preserving memory not as a static exhibit of museums, but as a living organism. In order to be saved, memory is not supposed to be only stored; it has to be communicated, transposed, transmitted. The saved time is not only a sheer past, but the time of contemporary history, relevant through the individual destinies and the values displayed.
The life story is a way of escaping the tyranny of the Time because speaking, as Mircea Eliade argued, is a way of surviving. It is the audacious project of the group’s books, dually directed towards the story-teller/interviewed character and the external reader trying to retrieve the other’s past for himself. The texts and the images reconstructing identities offer retrospectively a topographical and chronological frame somewhat obscure and yet familiar to the Romanian readership of the year 2000, a possible way of rebelling against obsolescence and oblivion. The big, objective time and space is subordinated, in the pieces of oral history proposed by the Anthropology Group, to the small, subjective ones of the individual reliving his/her own existence or that of his/her parents and grandparents. The characters and, at the same time, authors of the texts share one culture and one tradition and are solidary in the attempt to preserve their memories. The direct contact with the subjects, the dialogue that flows freely, unaltered as a result of its transcription, turn the books into loci of concrete, actual living, not only of remembering. The coordinator of the series chose not to interfere with the subjects’ discourses in order to preserve the note of authenticity and be as faithful as possible to the type of oral history the group announced to practice from the very beginning.
Both Worlds in Destinies and The Germans of Banat are dealing with the retrieval of the memory of the same specific geographical and cultural area. The former has the wider aim of observing a variant of the Banat region idealized through the retrospective attempt. The most varied ethnic, working or age groups are brought together in order to remake, with the help of direct or mediated memories, the atmosphere of the beginning of the 20th century or of the period in between the two world wars. As the leader of the group confessed, this volume was meant as a compensatory gesture, a counterbalance to the book on the deportations at the beginning the communist regime (Vultur, 1997). The idyllic component of the world of individual destinies is enhanced by the nostalgic tone caught by the interviewers in the subjects’ discourse. The topics around which the dialogues are organized include habits, religious and lay holidays, social and cultural events, costumes, cuisine, relatives and friends, mentalities and perspectives. The book emphasizes the highly expressive, sometimes na?ve manner in which subjects are attempting to retrieve a micro-paradise of the past and to suspend temporal barriers. The space thus reconstructed is one of everyday joys, of ethnic and religious tolerance, of a tradition of hard work and discipline. There are, however, episodes retelling the collective pain of the people of Banat who had to endure deportation, imprisonment, social and political anathema.
What the book also reveals and stresses is the fact that the life story has an important
fictional, even virtual dimension. The essential facet of the type of oral history practiced by the Anthropology group is subjectivity. Subjects do not only relive past moments, but also rearrange the past, modifying it. Therefore, the identity revived by a récit de vie is kaleidoscopic, multidimensional. This is even more obvious in the stories of the subjects who are shaping through discourse a sort of second-degree identity, not their own, but that of their parents. Most of the interviewed persons belong to generations born in the period between approximately 1900 and 1930, with few exceptions. Those who do not talk about themselves build their story and remake a vital space starting from old pictures and letters, being, in fact, intermediates, filters of memory between two generations, between two historical moments. This makes the interviews included in Worlds in Destinies relevant from an interdisciplinary point of view. Besides their documentary, historical and sociological value, they can be claimed by such domains as anthropology and psychology. The role of the visual support – part of the same archive of the group – is that of augmenting the effect produced by the text itself, clarifying and adding nuances to primary meanings. It alternates with the written text, drawing attention to recurrent themes, to events relevant for more than one subject.
The next volume, The Germans of Banat (2000), is an imagological study about the German community in the region of Banat. The researchers are observing the ways in which identity is created through the permanent negotiation of the meanings of sameness and otherness. The Banat is the multiethnic region par excellence in Romania. The German community can be considered the one that gave the region its specificity, the tradition of intercultural communication. Compared to the previous book, The Germans of Banat is a book focusing exclusively on one ethnic group. New in this approach is the fact that the preoccupation for retrieving the community identity does not come from inside, from members of the same community, but from a micro-community of researchers that does not include Germans. Even more striking is that the interviewed subjects reconstruct an identity which is not their own. Very few of the people telling their story in this book are part of the German community. Most of them have an outer perception on the German group identity, the stereotypes they invoke actually helping the researchers remake a “standard” portrait, the image developed in centuries of ethnic and cultural interaction.
The introductory studies set a theoretical frame in which the task of proving the shifting, unstable character of such notions as the same and the other is undertaken. The identity discourse is prismatic and interchangeable, a puzzle filled in by all the people who had an active role in the creation of the volume, from subjects and interviewers to theoreticians and even readers. The memory and the past of one individual or of a whole group is recovered gradually and polyphonically. The introductory studies offer a series of variants of interpretation to the interviews to follow, from a historical, postcolonial and imagological point of view. They aim at explaining the role and the influence of the German colonizers in the more limited space of the Banat as part of the former Austrian, then Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or in Romania in general. They also look at the circumstances facilitating cultural transfers, and at the type of integration without assimilation the Germans practiced. The leading community ever since the reign of Maria Theresa in the 18th century, the Germans are an almost extinct species in present-day Romania, due especially to the massive migrations that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the East European revolutions. Nowadays, the role of the German community on the Romanian cultural scene has dramatically diminished. It is one more good reason for this book to preserve a collective memory of a rich social and historical past.
The book focuses on the discourse that constructs a group identity mainly by contrast. It is, in many cases, the “others” who describe the typical Banat Germans and their customs, the newly arrived Romanians, Serbs, Hungarians, etc. who take over the traditions of the ethnic group that migrated back to their fatherland. The historical, anthropological and social bases of the native’s discourse on the Suabians are revealed, the researchers insisting on the premise of cultural stereotype formation. In most of the interviews, the German is the prototype of order, efficient work and wealth. The conclusion is that, in a space lacking serious ethnic or religious conflicts – due to the type of colonizing policy led by the Habsburgs – the Other’s image is positive. Group identity in the Banat has suffered a series of very interesting metamorphoses in the course of history. The volume catches all the essential aspects by presenting, safe for the contemporary life stories, excerpts from old documents. In the first stage of the colonizing process, the Romanian majority is stronger, accustomed with hardships and more enduring than the rather disconcerted Germans. For centuries, then, the German is the master of the thriving household, the skilled farmer, the faithful preserver of old traditions, the Romanian Banat native using this image as a stimulating example. Nowadays, after most Germans returned to Germany, the Romanians have taken over the role of the former colonizers.
There are many places in Banat now where the remaining population – non-German mostly – organizes typical German holidays, cooks typical German food and wears typical German folk costumes. The discourse about the Other has turned into the discourse about the Self. The members of the remaining language groups start to characterize themselves with the help of the features previously attributed to Germans, as if preserving a legacy. The German has become part of the Romanian’s identity, the native being almost unable to define himself without incorporating the former Other’s image in his own discourse. Which proves, the researchers argue, that identity in the Banat is a multi-faceted concept, a plural instance. Both the German and the non-German subjects bear witness to a constant process of identity negotiation, the best examples being – as argued above – the interethnic marriages. The frame in which most interviews are fitted is one of a game of mirrors where one individual identity, almost always standing for a group one faces another. A good example of this constant reformulation of the self-image through contrast is the text that opens the series of interviews, an excerpt from a native Banat Romanian’s essay – imagological avant la lettre:
“In the whole world, except for Banat, animals have a race, but no nationality. In Banat, however, animals are also endowed with this exclusively human feature, a clear distinction being made between the German’s and the Romanian’s cat. The German’s cat is the pride of the household. Big, fat, with shiny hair, it strolls along in front of its master. The German wife feeds it on the table as if it were a real family member. […] The Romanian’s cat is absent. Its place is under beds and chairs and it never faces its masters. Its hair is always disheveled, and you can count its ribs from a distance. The Romanian keeps the cat to catch mice, not to lie down in the middle of the house. […] Judging by so many “national” features noticed in those cats, how many of you, my dear readers, could not tell which is the German’s and which is the Romanian’s cat?” (Nemoianu quoted by Vultur, 2000:65-6, my transl.)
Just like in the two previous volumes, an important aspect of the book is the political component, made evident in the interviews dealing with deportations and the persecutions imposed by the Romanian communist regime. The message the researchers wanted to make clear by selecting these bits of life stories was one of the need for tolerance, adaptation and integration, but also one about the importance of social know-how and communication. The archive of the Anthropology-Oral History Group in “The Third Europe” Foundation (out of which other selections will be soon made to prepare a volume about the Jewish community in the Banat) is more than a research database. It wishes to become an invitation to a universe that can be only gradually discovered, a universe of important lessons to be learnt by both professionals and general readers about patience and survival, about the preservation of individual memory in the name of the collective, historical one.
Nemoianu, P., “Scrisori și schiţe bănăţene”, in S. Vultur (ed.), 2000, Germanii din
Banat, București: Paideia
Vultur, S., “Teren – proiecte și proiecţii identitare”, in A. Babeţi, C. Ungureanu (eds.), 1998, A Treia Europă 2/