You know the joke about the difference between patriotism and nationalism: “A patriot is someone who loves his country; a nationalist is someone who hates everybody else’s”. Yesterday I found myself repeating it in my head like an idiot. I had just met a person who was tortured and imprisoned for loving his country and hating the way another country was trying to run it, but who had also belonged to a group of people which had carried out acts of sickening violence against thousands of people because they belonged to another race or creed.
Nicolae Purcarea is related to transhumant shepherds from Romania’s Southern Carpathian Mountains – mocani they call them. During the course of a long life part of which he spent on the run from the Communists, Nicolae (called Nae for short) came across distant members of his family among the mocani of Moldavia, and down on the Danube plains of Oltenia and Muntenia.
Nae himself has never worked with sheep; instead he is a wood carver who learnt his craft in prison. Now in his 80s, he was once a member of what purported to be a deeply moral, Christian organisation that tried to rid Romania of the corruption and chaos that prevailed under the reign of Carol II, the self-seeking king whose colossal ego – and sexual appetite – drove him to assume the role of dictator, and which finally tipped him, although unwillingly, into Hitler’s arms, taking his country with him, because by that time, there was nowhere else to go.
Is it one of bitter twists in Romania’s history, that, from a distance what seems black was often white, and vice versa, that people with good intentions became synonymous with monsters? The prevalent view of Legionarii is that they and their founder, Cornel Codreanu, were a violently fascist, grossly anti-semitic, brutal organisation that was inspired by and modelled on Germany’s National Socialists (what a travesty of Socialism that is).
Nae, short for Nicolae, is a kind, gentle, and serious person. He appears to bear no grudges about the torture and humiliation that Romania’s Communist leaders meted out to him. Inspired by the Legionnaires’ spirited songs, in 1940 he joined Fratia de Cruce, an organisation that was modelled on them, and which unashamedly espoused ‘love of country’. Nae hated Communism, or at least the Soviet Union’s version of it, because it was cold, cruel and alien. Between 1944 and 1964, the darkest period of Romania’s Communist regime, he spent much of the time in a series of notorious jails, working on the Black Sea Canal (called the Death Canal for obvious reasons), or in hiding.
To meet him in the flesh makes you think carefully about knee-jerk accusations of anti-semitism to all the young people who followed the Iron Guard’s example. Nobody in their right mind would argue that the murder of Jews which took place in Romania during 1941, or the thousands who were deported to Transnistria under Antonescu’s leadership (1940-44) and slaughtered, along with thousands of Roma, was anything but appalling, but it seemed inconceivable on meeting him to think that Nae Purcarea could want to hurt anyone. According to him, all he wanted was a just society, a Romania that would fulfill its promise unhindered by short-sighted, greedy politicians whose own behaviour was a throwback to the 18th century Phanariots, leaders chosen by the Ottoman Sultan, who behaved as though trickery and duplicity – smecherie in Romanian – were a mark of superiority and honesty a sign of stupidity.
Blaming a whole community for the sins of a few is wrong. It is often said that the landlords who bled tenant farmers dry during the 1920s and 30s in Romania’s eastern region of Moldavia were Jews. That isn’t true. But the trouble is, thanks to attractive rabble-rousers like Cornel Codreanu, they were seen that way. So was the – then – struggling Romanian Communist Party, which he presented as a predominantly Jewish invention. People who end up in hock to other people for long periods tend to resent it, and if they have any power and energy left at all, they look for scapegoats.
So I found myself confronting a mild, humorous, twinkly human being who seemed to be made of the ‘right stuff’ (appealing to my innate conservatism?). A humble soul who believed in the teachings of Jesus, loved his country, recognised the difference between right and wrong. Who was brutalised physically, and psychologically – which he said was worse – and who lived to write about it: his memoirs, Urla haita… (The wolf pack is howling…) were published in 2012.
….. [here, when I’ve got time, I’ll write more about Nae Purcarea’s personal experiences in Jilava, Aiud, Gherla and on the Canal, using extracts from my recorded interviews.]
Is there a catch? I can’t pontificate about the rights and wrongs of the Legionnaires’ movement, or its crazy off-shoot, the Iron Guard, who flourished for a while under the ghastly Sima. I wasn’t there, I haven’t read enough. The only thing that gives me pause is Nae Purcarea’s distinction between those who love their country and those who are ‘internationalists’. In his book, he quotes Patrascanu, a great patriot who was sent to jail because he stood up in public and said ‘I love my country first and Communism second’. Communism, Stalin-style, Orwell-predicted, promoted robotic internationalists; surely the only hope we have is to be global citizens, loving everyone, not just our own tribe?