Learning Romanian language provides insights into family history

Dana, my HORA Romanian language teacher, has asked me to tell you about why I am taking Romanian classes with her. First, I should tell you about my background.I come from a family ofRomanians. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were all Romanian.My grandmother’s grandmother fled Odessa during the time of the Russian Pale troubles and settled in Stefanesti, Jud. Botosani, in what is now the Ukraine.My grandmother had three sisters and one brother.Her father owned a candy store in Stefanesti, but her brother did not want to go into the family business, so he left Romania to seek his fortune in “America” in 1906.He settled in Canada and started a men’s clothing business, which is still in existence today. My grandparents left Romania and settled in Canadain 1938, just before the beginning ofWW2, due to the increasing restrictions imposed by the Romanian government on Jewish life. My grandmother left behind her sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles but corresponded with them and sent care packages to them regularly throughout her life.

When my sister and I were preparing my mother’s house for sale in1997, we discovered a “treasure trove” of letters, postcards pictures and other documents that my mother and grandmother had saved, dating from 1907 through 1983. The problem was that most of the letters, postcards and documents were in Romanian. Although my parents spoke Romanian between themselves, I do not speak Romanian myself, so what was in those letters, postcards and documents remained a mystery to my sister and me. My sister had more room in her house, so the papers remained with her until my husband and I visited her over Christmas three years ago and we decided to have fun and start looking through the boxes.

Coincidentally, that fall I saw an ad for the Romanian fall festival at St. Mary’s Church in St. Paul. I grew up with Romanian food, so I thought it would be fun to be at the festival. My husband’s grandfather was from Transilvania and we had long wanted to take a trip to Romania to explore the places where our ancestors lived. I learned that HORA gave lessons in Romanian, so I signed up to take classes, with the idea that, if we went to Romania, I would be able to understand what the people were saying and maybe to communicate with the as well.

I enjoyed taking Romanian language classed. Last year, Dana took over teaching. I like her style of teaching and have always felt very comfortable with her. My “stash” of Romanian documents etc. remained untranslated. One day I asked Dana if she knew of anyone who might be able to translate them for me. She replied “I can do it”…Little did she know what she was getting into! I am forever grateful for how much she has helped me learn about my family. She has translated letters from my great-uncle to my grandmother, dating from the early 1900’s when he first arrived in Canada. She translated a diary that my grandmother wrote as a young girl living through the deaths of her father and her oldest sister and through WW1. All this while she was betrothed to a widower with three children and yet in love with my future grandfather. Dana also translated a “memory book” filled with quotes and poems from my grandmother’s childhood friends and an exercise book that has “rough copies” of letters she wrote to important people in her life.

Not only has she helped me to understand my grandmother better, she has also translated letters that my parents wrote to each other during their courtship and in the early years of their marriage, while my father was finishing his medical studies in Paris and my mother was in Canada, waiting for me to be born. What a window on their lives at that time!

I cannot overstate how much I appreciate Dana’s help as I discover my parents and grandparents and the lives they led before me.

As for our trip to Romania, my husband and I did finally travel there for two weeks last September. We had a wonderful time, toured the towns where both our families lived, learned about the culture, art, history and politics and had our fill of Romanian cuisine. I was able to understand most of what people around me were saying and to speak a little to some of the artisans we met along the way.

I have come to realize how much my Romanian heritage surrounded me and shaped my childhood. My mother left Romania when she was 17 and I believe that she missed that part of her life. She was an artist who created paintings and sculptures of Romanian peasants. She also wrote a book of short stories based on her memories of growing up in a small village in Romania and published a textbook titled: Stefanesti, Portrait of a Romanian Village where she describes the life and customs of the small Jewish town in Romanian. My parents had a circle of Romanian friends with whom they socialized regularly. Of course, I grew up with traditional Romanian foods, including sarmale, brinza, mamaliga etc.etc.

I am glad that I discovered HORA when I did. I hope that HORA continues the efforts to bring awareness about Romania and its culture to those who know little or nothing about this beautiful country.

Aline Sternberg Petzold

HORA Romanian Language Student, 2019